Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Ryan Pulock hammers a slap shot during practice on Wednesday at Westman Place. Pulock is rated as an ‘A’ list prospect by Central Scouting. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)
Dwayne Gylywoychuk hopes fans will judge the Brandon Wheat Kings based on the way they finish the season, rather than how the Western Hockey League team starts.
The Wheat Kings begin pursuit of their 13th straight playoff appearance tomorrow when they host the Regina Pats in the Brandon Sun Home Opener (7:30 p.m., Westman Place).
Of course playoffs are far in the future and, with a green group of forwards that will require him to dress at least two full lines worth of rookies each night, the head coach — a rookie himself — said the main thing he’ll look for early in the season is improvement.
"I think expectations are always going to be high," said Gylywoychuk, the longtime assistant who was promoted this summer after Cory Clouston was fired, taking over a team that has made the playoffs in 19 of the past 20 seasons. "I think everyone wants to win, wants to do their best. I think we’ve got to break it down into smaller segments, smaller areas that we’ve got to get better at every day. We’ve talked to the guys here a lot lately about getting better every day, every week."
With all-stars Mark Stone (123 points last season) and Mike Ferland (96 points) ticketed for the professional ranks as 20-year-olds, and Brenden Walker traded to the Memorial Cup-host Saskatoon Blades during the off-season, gone are players who accounted for 178 of the team’s 273 goals last season. The six veteran forwards on this year’s roster tallied only 61 goals in 2011-12, with nearly half of those (24) scored by Alessio Bertaggia.
Fortunately, the Wheat Kings should get plenty of offence from the blue-line, where NHL draft prospects Ryan Pulock (19 goals, 60 points) and Eric Roy (11 goals, 50 points) both finished among the WHL’s 10 highest-scoring rearguards last season.
"We definitely have a lot of new, young guys and we’ve got a lot of young guys up front," said Pulock, one of six veteran defencemen on the team. "But I think we still have a very key leadership group on the back end that I think can help us throughout the year."
The pre-season suggested that this year’s team is very much a work in progress, as the Wheat Kings lost three of their four games and were outscored 18-10 in the process. However, most of the veterans suited up in only two of those games, and the club was considerably more competitive when they played. Top goalie Corbin Boes, who sizzled down the stretch last season, also played only once in the pre-season.
As the youngsters mature, the Wheat Kings will have a good talent base, but Gylywoychuk said their success will largely be dependent upon their work ethic.
"We’re trying to become a very good practice team," Gylywoychuk said. "We’re trying to stress the point that if we practise well, we practise hard, our pace and tempo in practice is up high, then it’s going to carry over into games. We’re really trying to stress that we’ve got to be the hardest working team in every aspect."
While last season’s team went a respectable 39-28-1-4 and made it through the first round of the playoffs before being ousted by the eventual champion Edmonton Oil Kings, there was a lingering feeling that the team underachieved, considering it’s talent base. Pulock believes that this year’s squad has all the tools to overachieve.
"A lot of teams aren’t going to expect much from us, I think, this year when you look at our roster, but I think we’ll be all right," he said. "I think we’re going to be a hard-working team and we’re going to surprise a lot of teams down the stretch."
ONE-TIMERS: As of Wednesday afternoon, 3,196 tickets had been sold for Friday’s opener …Pulock has been rated as one of seven ‘A’ prospects in the WHL in Central Scouting’s preliminary rankings for next year’s NHL Entry Draft, while Roy was one level down as a ‘B’ prospect. Brandon D Ayrton Nikkel was given a ‘C’ grade. RW Brendan Harms, a Brandon bantam draft pick who is playing for Fargo of the USHL, was given a ‘B’ ranking … Among the new rules instituted by the WHL this season will be the assessment of game misconducts for players who fight immediately following a faceoff … The reigning WHL champion Oil Kings are second in the initial CHL top-10 rankings, behind the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. Other WHL teams in the top 10 are the Portland Winterhawks (fourth) and the Blades (ninth).
BRANDON WHEAT KINGS:
Last season: 39-28-1-4, third in East Division, sixth in Eastern Conference. Beat Calgary in first round of playoffs, lost to Edmonton in the conference semifinals.
General manager/owner: Kelly McCrimmon (24th season as GM).
Head coach: Dwayne Gylywoychuk (first season).
Assistant coaches: Darren Ritchie (sixth season), Brent Zelenewich (goaltending coach, first season).
Key losses: The top two scorers from last season, RW Mark Stone and LW Mike Ferland, are slated to play professionally as 20-year-olds, along with C Kevin Sundher. C Brenden Walker was traded to Saskatoon, while LW Darian Dziurzynski, C Paul Ciarelli and D Brodie Melnychuk graduated.
The 20-year-olds: C Nick Buonassisi and D Tyler Yaworski were added in off-season trades, and D Ryley Miller beat out LW Dominick Favreau for the final spot.
The imports: Swiss LW Alessio Bertaggia, who led returning forwards with 24 goals and 26 assists last season, is joined by Czech RW Richard Nejezchleb, who combines size (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) and skill.
Key returnees: G Corbin Boes was third in the WHL with a .916 save percentage last season, while Ryan Pulock (19G, 41A) and Eric Roy (11G, 42A) are two of the WHL’s top offensive defencemen. C Tyrel Seaman is a two-way power forward who is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued season.
New faces: Buonassisi and Yaworski provide needed experience, while Nejezchleb could help replace some of the lost offence. D Colton Waltz has been arguably the best rookie so far, while a deep group of young forwards including C Tim McGauley, LW Geordie Maguire, LW Taylor Cooper, C John Quenneville, C Jayce Hawryluk and C/D Kord Pankewicz will try to make an impact.
Watch for: A more balanced attack than the offence that revolved around the line of Stone, Ferland and Walker (combined 300 points) last season, and an increased focus on defence from a club that tied for 15th in goals against in 2011-12.
Just notes: The Wheat Kings have made the playoffs 12 years in a row and 19 times in 20 seasons.
Did you know: Gylywoychuk is a rookie head coach, but was an assistant for nine years. The former defenceman also holds the club record of 323 games played.
The prognosis: The Wheat Kings need veterans like Seaman, C Jason Swyripa, RW Jens Meilleur and C Daniel Asham to develop offensively, plus contributions from their rookies. If they can get that and can tighten their team defence, there is enough talent for a 13th straight playoff appearance.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 20, 2012