It’s been a long time since anyone other than Ryan Pulock was the Brandon Wheat Kings’ No.1 defenceman.
Pulock has won the Brad McCrimmon Memorial Trophy as the Wheat Kings’ top defenceman three straight years, but with his expected graduation to the professional ranks this season, the opportunity — and the expectations — are there for the Western Hockey League club’s returning rearguards to step up and fill the void.
Count Ryan Pilon, Pulock’s partner last season, among those willing to shoulder a bigger load.
"Definitely, with Puly moving on and him teaching me everything from last year … I think (the Wheat Kings coaches are) going to be expecting me to pick up a little bit of what he’s done, and I think I’m ready for that," Pilon said.
A former third overall WHL bantam draft pick from Duck Lake, Sask., Pilon already has a solid track record, even though he doesn’t turn 18 until next month.
Acquired from the Lethbridge Hurricanes in a blockbuster trade last season, Pilon finished the campaign with seven goals, 36 points and 46 penalty minutes in 66 games last season. While his plus/minus was -13, he went +1 in the playoffs as the Wheat Kings advanced to the second round, and the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder stepped up his physical play late in the season as well.
With the benefit of a full training camp with his teammates on top of the experience he gained last season, Pilon believes he’s ready to take another step.
"You’re more familiar with the surroundings, with the coaches, what they expect from you, the players in the dressing room," he said. "You know the mood, you know we all want to win just as bad, but I think we’ll go out there and show it."
Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon also believes Pilon is just beginning to realize his potential.
"I think he gained a lot of experience last year, playoff experience, which he didn’t have, and he’ll be a player that takes on a lot of responsibility for our team and on our blue-line," McCrimmon said.
"I think the other thing that goes with it now is that being a third-year player we’d expect him to assume some leadership as well. He’s going to, I think, be one of the premier defencemen in the league."
National Hockey League scouts will be watching to see what kind of jump Pilon can take this season. He’s projected to be chosen early in next year’s NHL draft, with some sources identifying him as a potential first-round pick. The draft is something Pilon is looking forward too, although he said his priority lies in what happens in Brandon.
"It’s a huge year for me with the draft, but more importantly here," said Pilon, whose team opens its pre-season schedule on Friday night by hosting the Regina Pats (Westman Place, 7:30). "We’ve got a really good team looking forward to it and it just looks really exciting for the year."
ONE-TIMERS: D Kale Clague (hip) and D Taylor Green (leg) both returned to practice on Tuesday, leaving LW Ty Lewis (broken arm) as the only injured Wheat King … With 32 healthy players on the roster, the team split into two groups for a pair of practices …Pulock, who is preparing for training camp with the New York Islanders, joined in for one of the practices, while fellow pro D-men Colby Robak (Florida Panthers) and Aaron Rome (free agent) also skated with the junior club.