EDMONTON — There’s only one team in the Western Hockey League each year that doesn’t think its season ended too soon.
Count the 2013-14 Brandon Wheat Kings among the 21 other teams that were left wanting more after they were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Edmonton Oil Kings on Friday night. Still, while the Wheat Kings’ season-ending loss in the fifth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, many of the players were proud of the progress made following a 2012-13 season that ended with the club outside of the playoffs with a 24-40-4-4 record.
The Wheat Kings bumped their record up to 34-29-6-3 this season, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference, then sweeping the second-seeded Regina Pats in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the first-place Oil Kings.
“I think we progressed a ton,” second-year forward Tim McGauley said. “We had a lot of young guys from last year obviously, and this year they stepped into some big roles. It’s tough to lose now, but we did make it into the second round of the playoffs … and we really did a good job, I think.”
Although there are likely to be more changes, the Wheat Kings could bring back as many as 20 of the 25 players who appeared on their post-season roster. Chad Robinson, Jens Meilleur and Rene Hunter have graduated, while captain Ryan Pulock is almost certainly stepping into the professional ranks as a signed first-round draft pick of the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders. What’s more important than the raw number of eligible returnees the Wheat Kings have is how young some of their key contributors were this season. Their three highest scoring forwards were all second-year players, with Jayce Hawryluk and John Quenneville entering the past season at only 17, while McGauley was 18. Jordan Papirny took over as the starting goalie at only 17, while the club’s top three picks from the 2013 bantam draft — Nolan Patrick, Kale Clague and Tanner Kaspick — all saw action as call-ups at only 15.
Quenneville said the young players grew by leaps and bounds during the season and particularly during the playoffs.
“Playing against a team like the Oil Kings we learned a lot,” said Quenneville, who jumped from 19 to 58 points this season, then led the team with 13 points in nine playoff games. “You’ve got to learn to lose and learn what it takes to win at some point. … I feel like we’re heading in the right direction for sure.”
Pulock agrees. The 19-year-old will end his WHL career as the Wheat Kings’ all-time leading goal-scorer among defencemen, having scored 64 times, and he’s added 146 assists in 261 career games. The Wheat Kings have twice gone to the second round of the playoffs during his tenure here and, while he hasn’t been able to win a championship here as he hoped, he said he’ll continue to take pride in the team’s accomplishments if they rise to greater heights in the near future.
“That’s what I’m really hoping for obviously,” said Pulock, who credits his time in Brandon for making him the player and the person he is. “I’m proud of these guys and where we came from last year and how much more mature guys got over this past year. And I think obviously we’re not there yet, but I think with the guys coming up and the guys that are playing right now, the future looks really bright.”