While they’re considered shoo-ins to play for the Brandon Wheat Kings this season, Nolan Patrick and Kale Clague have no intention of taking training camp lightly.
The Western Hockey League club begins rookie camp ice sessions today, with practices this morning, followed by a scrimmage tonight at 6:30 at Westman Place.
The Wheat Kings could return up to 18 players from a team that went 34-29-6-3 last season and reached the second round of the playoffs, including as many as eight of their top nine scorers. That means spots on the squad will be hard to come by, with competition for ice time even more hotly contested.
Patrick and Clague — chosen fourth and sixth overall, respectively, in the 2013 WHL bantam draft — both spent time in Brandon as 15-year-old call-ups last season and they want to show Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon he can count on them despite their young age.
"Obviously that’s my goal is to make the team this year, but I also want to be a key player on the team, too," said Patrick a centre who already has 12 games of regular-season and playoff experience even though he won’t turn 16 until the day of the Wheat Kings’ season opener against the Regina Pats on Sept. 19. "I don’t want to make the team and not play much; I want to contribute as much as I can."
The Wheat Kings could return up to 12 forwards, leaving space for only a couple more, but more spots would open up if Peter Quenneville (drafted by the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets) and/or Richard Nejezchleb (New York Rangers) don’t return for their 20-year-old seasons.
Patrick and Tanner Kaspick, a 16-year-old Brandonite who also saw WHL action last season, are strong bets to crack the forward ranks. Other 16-year-olds who could be in the mix are Ty Lewis of Brandon and Linden McCorrister, while 17-year-olds Kirklan Lycar and Tristen Elder will also make a push.
Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League scoring champion Duncan Campbell, a Brandonite who played a couple of WHL games last season, will try to prove he’s worth a rare spot as an 18-year-old rookie.
On the blue-line, the 16-year-old Clague leads a class that also includes Russian newcomer Ivan Provorov, Mark Taraschuk, Mark Matsuba and Aaron Kellogg, all 17-year-old prospects. T.J. Brown, who played with Clague at the Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup last season, will try to show he’s ready to play as a 16-year-old. With five defenceman expected back, there should be room for two or three rookies on the Brandon blue-line, and Clague wants to be front and centre.
"Obviously, I want to be the best defenceman I can. It’s the only thing I can control," said the native of Lloydminster, Alta., who started the regular season and finished the playoffs in Brandon last season, playing three games in all. "If I do that I think I could possibly get the opportunity (to play a lot) and I’ve just got to be able to, when the time comes, take advantage of it."
In net, the Wheat Kings are in the market for a backup to 18-year-old starter Jordan Papirny, with 17-year-olds Logan Thompson and Evan Robert the prime candidates.
After two days of rookie camp, the veterans will be added to the mix on Friday, with the camp-ending intrasquad game set for Sunday, and McCrimmon said he’s looking for a steady progression from his charges.
"We always start with a rookie camp which gives players an opportunity to play in their peer group and get some confidence," said McCrimmon. "And then with main camp putting the veterans in definitely improves all aspects of the camp in terms of speed, size, skill level, so it definitely gets more challenging when main camp begins."
ONE-TIMERS: Brandon’s veterans began fitness testing on Tuesday … The Wheat Kings have split the 47-player rookie camp into only two teams instead of the normal three to keep squads from getting too small in case of injuries or other absences … Technically, the Wheat Kings’ top nine scorers could return, but D Ryan Pulock, who signed with the New York Islanders after they chose him 15th in last year’s NHL draft, is expected to play professionally and won’t be in Brandon’s camp … The Wheat Kings host the Pats next Friday to open their pre-season.