Colton Waltz, a third-round draft pick of the Wheat Kings in 2010, joins other prospects at this weekend’s spring camp. (FILE PHOTO)
Kelly McCrimmon has some shuffling to do at forward, but he is holding a stacked deck on defence.
And with all those chips to play with on the blue-line, you can bet the head coach/general manager of the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings will look to ante up and deal for an ace up front for next season.
"We've got to look at it," McCrimmon said as the club prepared to hold its spring prospects camp at Westman Place this weekend.
"I think our defence is going to be the strength of our team and perhaps be at the core of what our identity is. You can make all these trades on paper ... but you have to have another team that sees the trade the same way that you do. And at the same time, you have to manage your abundance and not just your scarcity. So we want to try to do a real good job with those returning defencemen that we have and with those good young prospects in our system."
This weekend, McCrimmon gets a closer look at the young talent waiting in the wings, a group that includes potential blue-chip blue-line prospects Ayrton Nikkel and Dylan Kuczek -- both second-round bantam draft picks -- and third-rounder Colton Waltz. All three got a taste of the WHL last season as call-ups for the Wheat Kings -- Kuczek as a 16-year-old and Nikkel and Waltz as 15-year-olds -- and should push for positions at training camp.
But with all seven veteran defencemen eligible to return for the 2011-12 season -- Brodie Melnychuk as a 20-year-old, Ryley Miller at 19, 18-year-olds Jordan Fransoo, Spencer Galbraith and Rene Hunter, as well as 17-year-olds Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy -- McCrimmon's depth on defence will create quite the blue-line battle this fall.
"It's a very good problem to have and certainly the development and the growth that our defence showed this year positions us well with those players all being eligible to return," McCrimmon said.
"And I think from there, as you mentioned, the obvious candidates with Nikkel, Waltz and Kuczek all having played with us at different times this year, are really going to push for jobs in our league. So that's a process that we will get a bit of a feel for this weekend and certainly will be one of the front and centre challenges working our way through training camp and preseason."
To be sure, McCrimmon has some work to do to come up with a winning hand after losing four of his top five scorers in first-round NHL draft pick Scott Glennie -- under contract to Dallas and projected to play pro as a 20-year-old -- and graduating overagers Shayne Wiebe, Matt MacKay and David Toews. Those four accounted for 41 per cent of Brandon's offence last season, scoring 116 of its 281 goals.
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Returning sniper Mark Stone -- who finished third in WHL scoring with 37 goals and 106 points -- and fellow wingers Brenden Walker (25 goals) and power forward Michael Ferland (23 goals, 110 penalty minutes) give the Wheat Kings a talented trio to start with, but no other forward fired more than 10 goals last season.
McCrimmon needs to acquire another MacKay-type of player like he did last season when he swapped defenceman Darren Bestland for a veteran centre to anchor one of the top two lines.
"I am concerned with the offence we lose off of last year's team," McCrimmon said. "We still have some real good top-end forwards ... It's that next layer to me (that's the question). I think when you look at our seven through 13 or 14 forwards, I think we've got a lot of depth and a lot of real good players in that group. But the four, five, six (forwards) to me are where we're going to have to see who comes out of that group that I just mentioned or how do we fill that group?"
With no overage logjam to worry about, Swede Hampus Gustaffson may return as a 20-year-old and the Wheat Kings may also be lucky enough to land an impact player in the CHL Import Draft. But I would be shocked if McCrimmon doesn't move one of his seven veteran defencemen for a forward before the puck drops on the 2011-12 campaign.
ICINGS: Nesbitt native Aaron Rome, 27, will get a chance to win his second Stanley Cup. Rome, who lives in Brandon in the off-season, and the Vancouver Canucks await tonight's Game 7 winner between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins -- featuring Neepawa's Shane Hnidy, 35. Rome, who was hurt in Game 3 of Vancouver's series with San Jose, played one playoff game with the Anaheim Ducks in their 2007 Stanley Cup run ... The AHL's Calder Cup will also have some Westman flavour with Brandonite Carson McMillan, 22, and Snowflake native Justin Falk, 22, suiting up for the Houston Aeros against the Binghamton Senators. Game 1 is tonight in Houston ... The Central Hockey League final features Brandon's Kip Workman, 26, and former Wheat King Brett Thurston, 29, playing for the Colorado Eagles. Colorado hosts the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs in the seventh and deciding game tonight ... In the ECHL, former Wheat King Daryl Boyle, 24, and the Alaska Aces beat Melita's Kory Karlander, 39, and the Kalamazoo Wings in the final last weekend.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 27, 2011 B1