Brandonites Tyler Coulter (above) and Brett Kitt have become productive members of their hometown Wheat Kings in their rookie seasons in the WHL. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)
Surrounded by a deep, talented group of young forwards on the Brandon Wheat Kings’ protected list, Tyler Coulter and Brett Kitt knew there were no guarantees going into the Western Hockey League season.
Although confident they could make the jump from Midget AAA together, the best friends knew there was a chance they could end up competing with one another for a spot on their hometown WHL team. Instead, the Wheat Kings found room for both of the rookie wingers and at the midway point of the season, the two 17-year-old Brandonites look more than ever like they have bright futures ahead of them in the WHL.
Kitt made the most immediate impression, with the 6-foot-1, 192-pounder showing a willingness to get his nose dirty and add energy to the lineup. Coulter’s contribution has increased lately as he’s showing off his hockey sense and scoring touch, while, at 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds, is getting more physically involved as well.
"From the start of the year, it’s a huge change," said Coulter, who has four goals, four assists and a plus/minus of +7 in 18 games, with seven of his points coming in his last nine contests. "Just the first couple games, I felt so timid and not being able to play at the pace, and now it’s more comfortable. It just feels normal out there."
Coulter’s progress has been such that he’s seen significant time recently in the top six forwards, taking Richard Nejezchleb’s spot in the last couple of games after the team’s leading goal-scorer went home to try out for the Czech national junior team. While Kitt is continuing to see mainly fourth-line duty, he’s been able to impact games from that spot, with a goal and three assists in his last five games, drawing one of the assists on Quintin Lisoway’s key insurance goal as the Wheat Kings beat the Moose Jaw Warriors 4-1 on Saturday night in Brandon’s last game before the Christmas break.
"It was hard at the start as an adjustment into the league," said Kitt, who has two goals, four assists and 26 penalty minutes in 14 games overall. "But now, within the last couple games I’ve just adjusted to the speed more and I’ve been putting up some points and building some confidence, so I’m happy with how my first half went."
With a surplus of forwards on the roster, Kitt and Coulter started the season rotating in and out of what was usually a single lineup spot with fellow rookies Jesse Gabrielle and Braylon Shmyr. As the forward ranks were thinned and injuries opened other opportunities in the lineup, all four have stepped up their game, helping the Wheat Kings go 5-1-2-0 in their last eight games to enter the break a season-high four games above .500 at 18-14-3-0.
"They’ve both, I think, really improved," Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said of Kitt and Coulter. "Brett probably played a little bit more than Tyler early; Tyler’s played a little bit more than Brett of late, but I think they are two good, young guys that are making progress, that we’re getting everything we’d expect from them out of two 17-year-old forwards. I think they’ll both be good players."
Their importance will only increase as Brandon comes out of the break, with Nejezchleb gone for up to seven more games if he makes the Czech team for the world junior championship, while Gabrielle and Shmyr will also miss a handful of games after Christmas when they compete in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Kitt believes the depth the Wheat Kings have up front will help them weather that stretch and excel as the season goes on.
"It’s been everybody, it’s been all four of our lines (contributing)," he said. "We don’t just have two lines that score. Obviously our top two lines are the main producers, but we have third and fourth lines that do contribute, so that’s good. We need a team like that."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 17, 2013