TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Wheat King winger Jens Meilleur talks with assistant coach Darren Ritchie in Tuesday’s practice at Westman Place.
The dues that he paid in his first two Western Hockey League seasons seem well worth it right now to Jens Meilleur.
Jens Meilleur heads up ice during a drill on Tuesday afternoon’s Wheat Kings practice at Westman Place. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)
The 19-year-old Brandon Wheat Kings forward is off to easily the best start of his WHL career. A depth player in his first two seasons, Meilleur has three goals and three assists so far this season, and his emergence is one of the reasons the club is off to a surprising 5-2-0-0 start.
Campaigns of nine and 14 points hardly made the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Elie product look like a sniper in waiting, but Meilleur said those seasons, spent mainly plugging away on the third and fourth lines, taught him to play the game the right way.
"I thought the last two years really helped me develop into the player I need to be — that’s a two-way player, playing defence, grinding, getting energy for the guys," he said. " And now this year I think it’s gotten me ready to put the puck in the net, make plays and play big minutes."
Just getting off to any kind of a start at all has been a challenge in the past for Meilleur, who had early-season hand injuries in each of the past two years. As a rookie in 2010-11, he was hurt in the pre-season and didn’t make his debut until November. A year ago, he managed to get into just six games before the injury bug bit him again, sidelining him for six weeks.
Partly due to the injuries, it took him until February 25 before he scored his third goal of his rookie season, and it was January 7 when he reached that mark last year. Both seasons, he finished with five goals.
But Meilleur’s new responsibilities have meant more ice in key situations, and he already has two game-winning goals this season, both on the power play. He didn’t have a goal of either type in his first two seasons.
"Jens has been pretty dedicated the last three summers," Wheat Kings head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk said. "… I think Jens has again trained very hard in the summer and it’s given him the confidence to have a good start. I think right from Day 1, we saw a different Jens. He’s an older guy now, he knows what the league is all about and he’s ready to come in and assume a bit of a leadership role. He’s worked hard and he’s been rewarded with some on-ice production."
Meilleur’s work ethic and his willingness to take on whatever role was asked of him were among the reasons the Wheat Kings made him part of their leadership group this season as an alternate captain. It’s a responsibility he relishes and, after being content to quietly go about his business while the stars had the spotlight in years past, Meilleur admits he’s enjoying his moments at centre stage this season.
"We had (Mark) Stone, (Mike) Ferland, (Brenden) Walker and then (Scott) Glennie, (Shayne) Wiebe, all those guys ahead of me in the pecking order as I was coming up," Meilleur said. "But I knew my turn would come eventually and I think I’m taking advantage of it."
ONE-TIMERS: The Wheat Kings have swapped centres on their top two lines, skating C Nick Buonassisi between LW Alessio Bertaggia and RW Jason Swyripa in practice on Tuesday, while C Tyrel Seaman slid into a spot between LW Richard Nejezchleb and Meilleur … The Wheat Kings host the Everett Silvertips on Friday and the Tri-City Americans on Saturday before leaving on their West Coast road trip next week … The Wheat Kings will collect food and cash donations for local foodbanks at Friday’s game through Farm Credit Canada’s Drive Away Hunger Tour.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 10, 2012