First off this week, it’s time to give a little credit where credit is due.
Dwayne Gylywoychuk has had a dynamite debut as Brandon Wheat Kings head coach, guiding what was projected to be a rebuilding team to an impressive 4-1-0-0 start — including winning two of three road games — for a share of second place overall in the Western Hockey League. The Wheat Kings even earned a little recognition nationally, receiving an honourable mention in this week’s CHL rankings.
For Gylywoychuk and assistant coach Darren Ritchie, it’s the kind of start that can take a little bit of the pressure off and give a young team a big boost of confidence to start the season. But as proud of the start as he is, Gylywoychuk is the first to admit there is plenty to work on.
"Having more wins than losses to start off your head coaching career, for sure you are excited about it, but I think there’s a lot of things that we can still get better at as a team," Gylywoychuk said. "The eight points that we’ve got in our bank right now, no one can take that from us. But we’ve got to make sure we appreciate how valuable those points are and continue to get better."
First, the good news:
A team that was expected to struggle to score has been just fine offensively so far this season. The Wheat Kings lead the WHL in goals (25), averaging five per game. Brandon’s veteran players — including newcomers like Nick Buonassisi — have stepped into scoring roles and delivered, with the Wheat Kings also getting a little production from some of their rookies and even unexpected contributions from the likes of defensive-minded defenceman Tyler Yaworski (two goals).
The power play, anchored by the dynamic defensive duo of NHL prospects Ryan Pulock (two goals, nine points) and Eric Roy (two goals, two assists), has clicked early on at a solid 24.2 per cent clip. Veteran forwards like Jens Meilleur and Jason Swyripa, who received limited power-play time last season, have delivered in their new roles with two goals apiece.
"If you look at the scoresheet, we have scored a lot of goals and at the end of the day I think the guys who have scored we knew could score and have stepped up, and I think our young guys who have come in and put some goals up for us have been a bonus as well," Gylywoychuk said. "So that’s something we know we can do, but in order to score goals you’ve got to play good defence … and that’s what we are trying to work on this week."
It’s that team defence that is a huge cause for concern. While the Wheat Kings have scored 25 times, they have also given up 22 goals — 4.4 per game — with only the last-place Vancouver Giants having given up more goals per game (4.6 average).
"We have played some run-and-gun style of play, which is not what we want to play," Gylywoychuk said. "And when I said we’ve got to learn by our wins as well as our losses, we’re not going to win a lot of hockey games giving up six goals against in the Western Hockey League. We’ve got to play better defence and that’s where our game has got to start."
The Wheat Kings’ penalty killing has also been abysmal at 65.4 per cent, the second-worst in the league, again ahead of only the Giants (61.1 per cent). In total, Brandon has given up more power-play goals against (nine) than it has scored (eight) and needs to play with more discipline, having been short-handed the seventh most out of all teams in the league.
"I think that our penalty kill has to get better, 100 per cent," Gylywoychuk admitted. "And I think that’s something we’ve got to improve on system-wise and we have been working on it and we will look at more video and continue to get better at it. There has also been some games where (due to) the style of play we have been playing, turning over pucks has led to more time in our defensive zone, which has led to us taking penalties. We’ve taken a lot of minors which have hurt us … so we’ve got to continue to get better."
The Wheat Kings will get a chance to see if that hard work this week starts to pay off when they host the powerful Portland Winterhawks tonight at Westman Place.
"For sure they are very well-coached, they have some dynamic players and it will be a good test for us again and it will be a good challenge," Gylywoychuk said. "Any time you have a team like that come in, that I’m sure all of our players know about, it’s a real test. We’ve got to make sure we limit our turnovers and play the type of game that gives us a chance to win."