The learning curve is steep in the Western Hockey League, as the youthful Brandon Wheat Kings have discovered this season.
Here’s the Sun’s report card on the club’s first half:
With the loss of several key producers, the Wheat Kings’ offence was expected to take a hit and it has, with the team dropping from among the WHL’s most dangerous squads to 15th in the league at 2.83 goals per game.
Alessio Bertaggia has produced as expected and while players like Nick Buonassisi and Jens Meilleur have chipped in, Brandon hasn’t had a breakout season from any of its veteran forwards.
More encouraging, Jayce Hawryluk has been as good as advertised, while fellow rookies like Tim McGauley and John Quenneville have been key contributors and 18-year-old Czech import Richard Nejezchleb has shown flashes of great offensive upside.
Perhaps the biggest area where the graduation of veteran forwards from last season has been felt is in the defensive side of the game as Mark Stone was not only a huge scorer, but a turnover-creating machine who wreaked havoc in opponents’ passing lanes.
That many of the team’s worst plus/minus marks belong to the rookie forwards is a sign that the defence provided by last year’s veterans is not easily replaced.
Ryan Pulock has continued to develop and is easily the most valuable player on this team, although sometimes he appears to wear down from the heavy workload he bears. Meanwhile, new addition Tyler Yaworski has provided a steady veteran presence and a physical edge.
Rookies Colton Waltz and Riley Van Horne have shown potential, but the Wheat Kings as a whole have been plagued by frequent breakdowns in their own end.
Last in the league in goals against, at 4.03 per game, it’s easy to point fingers at goaltenders who have often been hung out to dry by their teammates. That said, Corbin Boes has struggled to find the form he displayed down the stretch last season when he was one of the best goaltenders in the league. He’s shown signs of his old self in December, though, with a solid .913 save percentage.
For his part, Curtis Honey has held his own in his first full season with a .903 save percentage.
If the Wheat Kings can cut down their average of 36.17 shots against per game — second-worst in the WHL — both netminders would be helped immeasurably.
SPECIAL TEAMS: F
The Wheat Kings’ special teams have been as bad as those of any team in the league. The club is 18th in the WHL in power-play percentage (15.9) and second-last in penalty-killing (70.9) after being at the bottom of the league for much of the first half.
The power-play problems are understandable given the losses up front, but the PK needs to be better and to the team’s credit it has been in the past seven games, working at a respectable efficiency of 81.0 per cent in that span.
Like the youngsters in the Brandon lineup, first-year head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk is learning on the job and growing into his new role. Gylywoychuk and assistants Darren Ritchie and Dave Anning have the makings of a strong staff, but the club has been prone to repeating the same mistakes over and over this season.
While not eliminated, the rough edges appear to have been smoothed out over the past seven games, during which the club has played .500 hockey, suggesting perhaps those lessons are starting to sink in.
The 10th-best record in the 12-team Eastern Conference at 13-19-2-2 suggests a failing grade might be in order, but the reality is, we all knew that this was a very young team up front that would face some growing pains.
To say the Wheat Kings have met expectations, however, is also a stretch given the number of games the club has been virtually out of by the time the puck drops for the third period, having been outscored 100-54 in first and second periods this season.
Of course the first half will be long forgotten if the club goes on another tear down the stretch like it has the past two seasons, but suffice it to say the club needs improvement in order to advance to the final exam in the playoffs.
AROUND THE WHL: Swift Current has acquired D prospect Reid Fritzke, 16, from Seattle for a conditional fifth-round pick in the WHL Bantam Draft … Prince George G Brett Zarowny is the Canadian Hockey League goalie of the week after going 2-1 with a 1.00 GAA and a .968 pct. last week … Saskatoon RW Josh Nicholls had three goals and five assists in four games and was named the WHL player of the week … Kamloops has signed 16-year-old C prospect Mitchell Lipon, whose older brother, RW JC Lipon, is a star with the Blazers and a member of the Canadian junior team.