A draft pick of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, Braden Billaney will try to make an impact as a 15-year-old rookie in Midget AAA this season with the Southwest Cougars. (FILE PHOTO)
There’s a new face behind the bench for the Southwest Cougars this fall, but he’s hoping for a similar result to last season.
Mike Robertson has moved up from head coach of the Cougars’ Bantam AAA squad to become the bench boss of the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League team, and he’s hoping to keep them in a playoff position, although that won’t be easy.
With four defencemen and goaltender Josh Diaz returning, Robertson, who replaced Chris Johnston, believes they will have to rely on the back end a lot to get wins.
"I think it can definitely give us some confidence (to have an experienced blue-line and goalie) in terms of we know it will give us an opportunity," he said. "Most teams that do well it’s because their back end is strong. … I feel with good goaltending and solid ‘D’, we’ll be all right."
Leading the way on the blue-line for the Cougars is Cole Oliver. The 16-year-old had a solid training camp with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Virden Oil Capitals and they wanted to keep him around for a longer look, but the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Melita native asked to return to the Cougars so he could focus on his schooling.
Oliver, who’s in Grade 11, loaded up with courses this year and didn’t want to deal with the stress of playing Junior A hockey and taking a heavy load. By taking so many classes this year, it should give him a much lighter schedule next year when he’s expected to join the Oil Capitals.
Robertson admitted he would never want to hold a player back, but he’s glad to have Oliver return to the Cougars for this season.
"It’s fantastic because he’s a tremendous player and a great leader and just a good kid too," he said. "… We’re a development program and you want to get the kids moving on, but it’s nice when they make that choice and I think it’s a wise choice. He’ll get all of his Grade 11 and some Grade 12 courses out of the way so that when he moves to the junior program he can focus on the hockey and not worry about attending a ton of classes."
Matthew Millan, Sam Houston and Brandon Masson are the other returning defencemen.
If the Cougars, who finished fourth in the Western Division with a 23-19-2 record last season, are going to reach their target of 25 to 30 wins and a top-eight finish that will secure a playoff spot under the league’s new format, they are going to need to find someone who can score goals.
The team lost eight of its top nine scorers — Cameron Whyte, Jordan McCausland, Daylon Creasy, Sheldon Kowalchuk, Zak Hicks, Meyer Nell and Carter Suski — from last season. They combined for 96 of Southwest’s 127 goals. Tanner Lewis, who had 12 goals and 21 points last season, is the top returning scorer.
To counter that weakness, Robertson hopes to have solid power-play and penalty-killing units and admits the team will need to score by committee.
"There’s lots of things you have to look at in the game, so if you’re not a pure goal scorer, then you have to focus on your power play and make sure it’s good and your penalty kill is good so you don’t get scored on the penalty kill but you have an opportunity when you’re up a guy," he said.
Robertson is also interested to see how Tyler Kirkup, Tristen Cross and Braden Billaney fare this season as they make the jump up to Midget AAA with their head coach. Kirkup heads into the season, which starts Saturday when the Cougars host the Pembina Valley Hawks in Souris at 8 p.m., as Southwest’s second-line centre, while Cross, a defenceman, is on the team’s top power-play unit.
Southwest had a solid pre-season, with a 2-2 record, and Robertson can’t wait to get the regular season going.
"Guys have been chomping," he said. "We had a pre-season tournament that went good. Now they want to get in games. We’ll have had six practices, but it’s the same old thing; it’s nice to practice, but guys want to play."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 4, 2013