The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs have arrived and the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings will be well represented with eight former players set to take the ice in search of hockey’s Holy Grail.
In one of the most interesting match-ups, Dustin Byfuflien and the Winnipeg Jets take on Brayden Schenn and the red hot St. Louis Blues.
The Jets made the NHL’s final four last season, losing to Vegas in the Western Conference while the Blues, who missed post season play a year ago, found themselves in last place in the league on January 1st this year. No one expected them to come from that far back and make the playoffs but thanks to a franchise record eleven game winning streak, rookie Jordan Binnington’s incredible season and a strong push from Schenn managed to secure third place in the Central Division.
A former Brandon co-captain, Schenn has points in four straight games heading into the playoffs and has teamed up with Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly to form one of the league’s top lines entering post season play.
The Schenn-Tarasenko-O’Reilly line combined for 199 points this season. A Saskatoon product, Schenn finished with seventeen goals and 54 points in 72 games.
Byfuglien meanwhile is back in the Jets lineup after missing half the year with injury. In 42 games, the former Wheat King – Prince George Cougar scored four goals and 31 points and his play is expected to be key as the Jets look to embark on another lengthy playoff run.
The Jets will host the Blues in game one of the best of seven series Wednesday night at Bell MTS in Winnipeg. This will be one of five games scheduled on opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Elsewhere Dallas travels to Nashville to meet the Predators, Ryan Pulock and the New York Islanders will host Pittsburgh, Columbus takes on the league leading Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights, featuring former Wheat Kings Mark Stone and Ryan Reaves will meet the Sharks in San Jose.
George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon’s acquisition of Stone has had the most impact of any player swap from this season’s NHL trade deadline.
Another former Wheat King captain, the Winnipeg native had five goals and 11 points in eighteen games as a Knight, finishing the year with close to a point per game (33-40-73 in 77 games).
While trades require time for a wholesome measurement, Vegas did get an impact player without altering their NHL lineup and the results can’t be argued. Stone has immediately fit into the dressing room and become a leader with his play on the ice and his demeanor among teammates.
With the Knights, Stone has also joined a team with a ton of connections to Brandon.
Not only does the team feature one of, if not the most feared player in the NHL in Reaves, McCrimmon remains owner and Governor of the Wheat Kings and has been joined in the desert with such familiar faces as Mike Kelly, Ryan Craig, Bob Lowes and Vaughn Karpan.
Lowes and Kelly are former Wheat King coaches while Karpan and Craig played in Brandon. Now an assistant coach in Vegas, Craig played five seasons with the Wheat Kings and was one of the most respected captains in franchise history.
Speaking of captains, Pulock also wore the “C” in Brandon. During the 2017-18 campaign, he started as a regular healthy scratch for the Islanders. Today, people on Long Island talk about his consistency. The Grandview, Manitoba product finished the year with nine goals and 37 points, while playing in all 82 regular season games.
More importantly than the improvement on offence, he improved significantly in his end of the rink, thanks to the tutelage of head coach Barry Trotz of Dauphin. While getting over 22 minutes of ice time per game, he has developed into a top pairing defenceman.
Six more teams will begin their playoff run on Thursday night. Toronto will be in Boston to meet the Bruins, Michael Ferland will lead the Carolina Hurricanes against the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals while Calgary will host Colorado in a series that features former members of the Wheat Kings 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup Host team. Matt Calvert, who is in his first season with the Avs after having spent the previous eight with the Blue Jackets in Columbus, is coming off a regular season that saw the feisty winger score eleven goals and 26 points in 82 games. Defenceman Travis Hamonic meanwhile scored seven goals and 19 points in 69 games for the Flames, who finished on top of the Western Conference during the regular season.
A former Flame, Ferland enjoyed a solid season with the Hurricanes this past year, scoring seventeen goals and 40 points in 71 games.
While the ‘Canes will be considered long shots to win the series, Ferland – who finished the year on a 5-game point scoring streak – believes that he can make a difference against the Caps. Carolina head coach Rod Brind’Amour agrees.
“If we don’t have everyone playing at their top, we’re not going to win,” he said Tuesday. “The best players obviously have to be right up there. You talk to all your guys, whether they’re playing good or bad…I don’t think (Ferland) is playing poorly. I just think he hasn’t been scoring.”
The last Wheat King alumni to sip from the Cup was Eric Fehr. The former WHL Player of the Year was a valuable member of the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.