At first glance, Rihards Bukarts may seem like on odd fit to play alongside Brandon Wheat Kings veterans Chad Robinson and Jens Meilleur.
Meilleur and Robinson are 20-year-old grinders who do their best work inside of their own blue-line; their Latvian linemate is a first-year Western Hockey Leaguer who has been known to make some, shall we say, suspect decisions on his own zone. Still, the mix is working. They’ve combined to form a trio that can defend against other teams’ top forwards, freeing up Brandon’s top-six forwards to take advantage of favourable matchups, and they can put the puck in the net themselves on occasion as well.
"They can play anywhere," Wheat Kings head coach/ general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "They have been matched up against top lines lots of nights; they’ve been able to handle that responsibility. I think the versatility we have with that line gives us some flexibility, what we do with our other matchups on any given night."
The play of the line has helped the Wheat Kings go 10-3-2-0 in their past 15 games, with the team taking a three-game winning streak into tonight’s battle for first place in the East Division against the Broncos in Swift Current, Sask. (6:30, CKLQ).
"It’s nice knowing that Kelly’s comfortable putting us in various situations during the game," said Robinson, a Minnedosa native who has six goals and 16 assists in 46 games this season. "We don’t play in the same situation every night. It’s different every night, but I think we adapt pretty well to whatever we’re thrown."
McCrimmon said Bukarts has played his best hockey since joining the overagers on a unit, and the numbers bear that out. Bukarts has scored 11 goals in his past 18 games, including a pair in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Saskatoon Blades, and he’s moved into fourth place among rookie scorers in the WHL going into Tuesday’s games, with 17 goals and 17 assists in 46 contests.
"We kind of complement each other out there," said Meilleur, who has seven goals and 12 assists in 46 games this season and is third among Brandon forwards with a plus/minus of +10. "I think me and Robo hold the fort down in our own end, and when we get to the O-zone, Bukie really helps us get creative out there and it seems to be working out."
It seems that the traits they each have are rubbing off on each other.
"I’m playing with two really good, hard-working guys," said Bukarts, 18. "I’m not the hardest worker, but I’m trying to be. They help me out and I think I have some skills and we can make the good plays in the D-zone. I think we’re a pretty good line, but I think we should get more points and we think we can do this."
ONE-TIMERS: D Ryan Pulock (sick) missed Tuesday’s practice, which was moved to the Sportsplex due to Ag Days, but could be back in the lineup for tonight’s game … Ex-Wheat Kings C Shayne Wiebe has signed a two-year contract extension with EHC Olten of the Swiss National League B. Wiebe is fifth in league scoring with 21 goals and 28 assists for Olten, which sits in first place and is trying to earn a promotion to League A for next season … Former Wheat Kings head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk told CKLQ’s Monday Sports Talk that he has been scouting for Hockey Canada’s national under-18 women’s program and will head to Hungary with the team for the world championship in March.