COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN
Brandon Wheat Kings’ Rihards Bukarts bulls to the front of the Edmonton Oil Kings’ net Wednesday at Westman Place. After opening their five-game homestand with a 4-3 win over the Oil Kings, the Wheat Kings host the Vancouver Giants tonight.
With seven veterans on the blue-line, defensive depth was one of the strengths the Brandon Wheat Kings planned to build around this season.
Only five games in, that depth has already been repeatedly tested. Captain Ryan Pulock just made his season debut on Wednesday after being returned by the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders, while Nick Walters, Rene Hunter and Taylor Green have all missed games due to injuries.
Now, D-man Eric Roy is out day-to-day with an undisclosed injury caused by a first-period hit during Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings.
"We’ve had I guess 13 minutes where we’ve had access to everybody and by partway through the first period (Wednesday) night we lost Eric," said Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon, whose team hosts the Vancouver Giants tonight. "So again, it means adjusting on the fly for those players and I thought they did a good job of it (Wednesday) night as they have all year."
Three Wheat Kings — Roy (one goal, seven assists), Hunter (five assists) and Pulock (two goals, two assists) — are among the WHL’s top 20 in scoring for defencemen, while Colton Waltz (three assists) is not far behind, with Kord Pankewicz and rookie Dominic Thom tied with Roy for the team lead in plus/minus at +3.
"I think it just puts a little bit more load on all of us as defencmen and as a team," Hunter said. "We’ve all got to help each other out when something like that comes up."
Not only are various defencemen stepping up at various times to fill in roles, their contributions have been vital. In all, 16 of the club’s 21 goals this season have either been scored or set up by blue-liners, and it’s helped the Wheat Kings to a 3-2-0-0 record and fifth place in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference, going into to tonight’s home game against the Giants.
"The one thing that’s gone a bit unnoticed that I’m encouraged with is our team has been able to win with players not in our lineup," McCrimmon said. "Whether that was the situation on opening weekend with the defencemen missing but then even Richard Nejezchleb, losing him (to an illness) just before warmup on the Saturday of the home opener. Playing those games that we have without some guys, that’s going to happen over the season so you have to be able to adjust and compensate when those things happen."
The Wheat Kings were up to nine defencemen with Pulock’s return but that was pared to eight on Thursday as 17-year-old Riley Van Horne was released. Van Horne played 23 games with Brandon last season before being sent to Junior A in January, and he had only gotten into one game this season.
"He was a guy that was here last year for half a year (and) was in and out of our lineup," said McCrimmon, whose team now has a roster of 25, including 15 forwards and two goaltenders. "I didn’t think it was going to be a good situation for him to be in a similar position this year and with seven veteran defencemen, it just didn’t add up for him."
ONE-TIMERS: Tonight’s game is the second of the Wheat Kings’ five-game homestand and their only meeting of the season with the Giants … Red Deer D Devan Fafard has been suspended indefinitely for a checking to the head major he took in Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Saskatoon and will serve his second game tonight when the Rebels visit the Moose Jaw, Warriors. The Wheat Kings will host the Rebels Saturday … Prince Albert added D MacKenzie Johnston, 20, from Kelowna late Wednesday for a third-round pick in the 2015 WHL bantam draft.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 4, 2013