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Brandon players grew in tough season

The story of the Brandon Wheat Kings and the 2021-22 season will always be the never-ending stream of injuries that saw them have all their players available for just two games.

As a result, youngsters were thrust into roles they normally wouldn’t be, which may pay off in the future.

In an annual Brandon Sun tradition, what follows is a player-by-player breakdown of this Western Hockey League season, divided into age groups to provide a sense of what’s coming next season. This year’s 20-year-olds graduate, with the 2022-23 season’s overagers coming from the 2002-born crop of players.

The Sun describes each player’s season, with Wheat Kings general manager Doug Gasper, who will be done with the team at the end of June, adding his impressions of how each guy performed. The statistics reflect their regular season numbers.

2001-BORN (GRADUATING OVERAGERS)

GOALIE

Ethan Kruger

L, 6’2, 186, Sherwood Park, Alta.

51gp, 3.15 gaa, .901 save%

— SUN: The Albertan with the quick smile apprenticed under Jiri Patera for two seasons before taking over the top job. He weathered a pair of injuries to play the best hockey of his career in the playoff loss to the Red Deer Rebels.

— GASPER: “I thought Ethan had an outstanding year for us. He got off to a bit of a slow start with some injuries but always gave us the feeling that we were going to stay in every game with him. He was a confident guy and battled hard.”

DEFENCE

Chad Nychuk

L, 6’1, 194, Rossburn

64gp, 21g, 50a, 71p, 43pim

— SUN: The Rossburn Rifle improved every season, with the work he put in on his skating finally paying off with his incredible last season. He was on the first pairing with Vincent Iorio and played a massive number of minutes.

— GASPER: “Chad had a terrific year. He was top three in scoring (in the WHL) as defencemen go and was a leader for us, both in the room and on the ice and a top plus-minus guy with us as well. I’m really happy with Chuck’s performance this year.”

FORWARDS

Marcus Kallionkieli

L, 6’2, 195, Helsinki, Finland

36gp, 11g, 16a, 27p, 24pim

— SUN: His tenure in Brandon will always be remembered for the time he missed due to injury, but when he was on the ice, he could be effective when he set his big frame near the blue paint. He showed flashes of elite skill.

— GASPER: “Marcus had a tough stretch. Injuries derailed his season. I think people could see that when he was on the ice for us, he was a difference maker and contributed offensively. It’s unfortunate for us, it was just a tough year for him all around.”

2002-BORN (20-YEAR-OLD SEASONS)

DEFENCE

Vincent Iorio

R, 6’3, 200, Coquitlam, B.C.

60gp, 11g, 33a, 44p, 49pim

— SUN: The affable rearguard made tremendous progress in his four-year career and is set to turn pro in the Washington organization. While he takes some chances with the puck, he compensates for them with his skating. He turned into a strong defender in his own end.

— GASPER: “Vinny was one of the horses for us on the back end. Vinny ate up a lot of minutes, played against tough matchups, really developed his offensive game this year so we wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”

Mason Ward

R, 6’5, 215, Lloydminster, Alta.

41gp, 6g, 8a, 14p, 82pim

— SUN: The big defenceman provided a nasty presence in front of his own net. He overcame a pair of injuries during the season and anchored the second pairing. He is nearly certain to have an overage spot next season.

— GASPER: “Playoff-time was probably Mason’s best time of the year. He struggled a little bit with injuries now and then during the season and consistency, but in playoffs we got to see exactly what we thought we were getting with Mason. We hope to have him back next year as a 20-year-old.”

FORWARDS

Ridly Greig

L, 6’0, 172, Lethbridge, Alta.

39gp, 26g, 37a, 63p, 92pim

— SUN: The captain took some bad penalties but Greig is an elite talent who had the ability to change a game every time he stepped on the ice. His speed and hockey IQ allow him to make plays that others simply don’t even see. He will turn pro after an injury-riddled final season in the WHL in the Ottawa organization.

— GASPER: “He’s a young man again who was in and out of the lineup a little more than he would have liked. Ridly is the ultimate team guy and any coach would be happy to have Ridly on their team. We wish him all the best moving forward in Ottawa.”

Nolan Ritchie

L, 5’9, 178, Brandon

66gp, 33g, 43a, 76p, 58pim

— SUN: Ritchie will never be the biggest player on the ice but is tenacious and fiercely competitive. His recovery from a broken femur to leading the Wheat Kings in scoring two years later is a good indicator of how hard he works. If he doesn’t go pro, he will snap up an overage spot in Brandon.

— GASPER: “Nolan Ritchie was probably our most consistent performer. I think he was one of the guys who was in the lineup the most. You can count on Ritch night in and night out. He brought a nice physical side to go with his offensive touch. He was a real good, complete player for us this year.”

Landon Roberts

L, 6’3, 210, Souris

63gp, 8g, 5a, 13p, 72pim

— SUN: Acquired on Oct. 31, Roberts provided everything expected of him. His work ethic, physical play, penalty killing and dressing room presence were all top shelf. He and Ginnell will likely compete for the third overage spot.

— GASPER: “We traded for Landon in October, bringing him in from Tri-City. I think the thing fans didn’t see with Landon, his biggest skills, are things that don’t show up on the scoresheet, his leadership in the dressing room, his help with the young guys, his positive attitude with everybody. He was a really great addition for us. I’m really happy with Landon’s year.”

Riley Ginnell

L, 6’4, 205, Calgary

62gp, 14g, 20a, 34p, 65pim

— SUN: Ginnell scored the biggest goal of the season for Brandon in Game 2 in overtime, and set career highs across the board. He uses his size well on the forecheck and is willing to fight for goals in front of the net.

— GASPER: “Riley picked up where he left off last year. He’s a hard-working guy, his offensive touch was starting to come around a little bit as things went on. If Riley is back next year as a 20-year-old, we’ll certainly expect a little more production out of him. We really liked his ability to stand up for his teammates and his all-around compete was really high this year.”

2003-BORN (19-YEAR-OLD SEASONS)

DEFENCE

Jacob Hoffrogge

R, 5’11, 155, Saskatoon

62gp, 0g, 9a, 9p, 18pim

— SUN: The smooth-skating defender got better and better as the season went on and he gained confidence. His work in his own end noticeably improved. The slight teenager will have to continue to get bigger to battle against larger players.

— GASPER: “Jacob had a little bit of an inconsistent year. There is lots to like about Jacob, his skating, his puck skills are really high end. We’re just looking for that consistency from him game in and game out and that’s hopefully something he can bring to the table next year.”

Logen Hammett

L, 6’1, 187, Regina

62gp, 1g, 17a, 18p, 36pim

— SUN: After getting a taste of the WHL in the Regina hub last season, Hammett responded when asked for more in his first full season. He has the ability to be very good in either end, but had a few tough nights when he was off his game.

— GASPER: “Again, there was lots to like with Logen but consistency was the biggest question we had. There were times that Logen took control of games and times he was a very competitive player and there were times you weren’t sure with Logen what you were going to get out of him. We’re looking for a little more consistency, but again, he has lots of tools to work with and as a young guy, you have to remember he only played in 12 games last year in the Hub and really missed a whole year of hockey.”

FORWARDS

Brett Hyland

L, 5’11, 174, Edmonton

61gp, 13g, 16a, 29p, 65pim

Defenceman Mason Ward (24), shown getting a shot by Calgary Hitmen forward David Adaszynski, is expected to be a big part of the 2022-23 Brandon Wheat Kings in his overage season after providing a stout physical presence on the back-end in his first campaign with the club.

CHELSEA KEMP/THE BRANDON SUNDefenceman Mason Ward (24), shown getting a shot by Calgary Hitmen forward David Adaszynski, is expected to be a big part of the 2022-23 Brandon Wheat Kings in his overage season after providing a stout physical presence on the back-end in his first campaign with the club.

— SUN: The hard-working forward was a little snake bit around the net this year but established himself as a trustworthy physical presence who is a relentless forechecker with his speed and tenacity. Look for his numbers to rise substantially next season.

— GASPER: “I thought Brett just got better and better as the year went on. Brett’s biggest attribute is his compete level. He works very hard and makes life difficult on the opposition at all times. I really like what Brett brings to the table.”

Jake Chiasson

R, 6’1, 180, Abbotsford, B.C.

20gp, 6g, 12a, 18p, 4pim

— SUN: Chiasson didn’t play his first WHL game until mid-March after being injured in Edmonton Oilers camp and still averaged nearly a point per game. He is a very good skater who plays a strong two-way, cerebral game. He also provides tremendous leadership.

— GASPER: “Jake had a tough year with the injury at Oilers camp. He was very fortunate this year with the scheduling. It doesn’t happen very often that Jake got into 20 games at the end of a year coming in that late. I think fans saw what Jake brings to the table for us and he certainly is a big piece going forward.”

Zakhar Polshakov

L, 5’11, 179, Minsk, Belarus

55gp, 5g, 14a, 19p, 20pim

— SUN: While he was unable to maintain the goal-scoring pace he established with goals in each of his first two games, the Belarusian proved to be a details-oriented player who the coaching staff could trust in every situation, especially because he led the team in faceoff percentage. More offence will be needed.

— GASPER: “He’s a young guy who was just learning the league and learning what it takes coming into a new country, new language. I thought he had a real good year and the future looks bright for him. I think there’s a more offensive side to Zakhar’s game. It’s just a matter of getting him more comfortable with everything and his surroundings.”

2004-BORN (18-YEAR-OLD SEASONS)

DEFENCE

Zach Turner

L, 6’2, 170, Boissevain

41gp, 0g, 0a, 0p, 2pim

— SUN: Turner has taken time to adjust to new levels of hockey before, and that seemed to be the case this year. He showed flashes of high-end talent but was also inconsistent at times in his rookie season. A big step up is expected.

— GASPER: “Zach had a bit of an up-and-down year. It was a learning year for Zach coming in out of very few games in U18. With all of these ’04s and ’05s, they really got cut short last year and it was a detriment to their development but the big guy skates really well and we look forward to having him back next year.”

Owen Harris

L, 6’1, 218, Wawanesa

47gp, 1g, 2a, 3p, 56pim

— SUN: The WHL is a fast game, and it has to be daunting for rookie defencemen. Harris gave his team a physical edge as he concentrated on protecting his own net, and more will be expected next season. He works hard at his game in practice.

— GASPER: “The Sheriff brought us exactly what we thought we were getting. Again, he’s a young man who just needs more time to develop his offensive side and some skills in his game.”

FORWARDS

Nate Danielson

R, 6’1, 181, Red Deer

53gp, 23g, 34a, 57p, 34pim

— SUN: Danielson won’t be drafted by an NHL club until after next season, so he has one more season to showcase his elite blend of speed, skill, playmaking ability and vision. He overcame a pair of injuries to enjoy a terrific season.

— GASPER: “Nate had a real solid year for us. He just got better and better as the year went on. The thing with Nate is that he is so skilled and so polished, you sometimes expect more out of him but you have to keep in mind that he’s just a 17-year-old kid and it’s really an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old league.”

Jesiah Bennett

R, 6’0, 198, Winnipeg

42gp, 0g, 2a, 2p, 21pim

— SUN: Jesiah created more chances for himself as the season went on, and while he was unlucky around the net, he showed flashes of the youngster who impressed Wheat Kings brass in his first prospects camp. He grew into his physical role and should develop into a bigger contributor next season.

— GASPER: “Jett is learning. He lost a lot of time last year. He’s another ’04 who just needs time. He’s a big, strong fella who skates really well and is quick. He’s a guy you like to see put pressure on the forecheck and just compete hard all the time.”

Ben Thornton

L, 6’2, 170, Chilliwack, B.C.

52gp, 5g, 4a, 9p, 12pim

— SUN: The former Spokane Chief was picked up on Sept. 24, and like many young players his size, struggled with consistency at times. Still, he has shown all the makings of being a top six power forward in the league.

— GASPER: “He’s an ’04 who needs to get stronger really to be competitive in this league. It’s a tough older league. There is lots of skill with Ben and he’s a good skater, with good quickness. He can score, it’s just going to be a matter of getting stronger for him.”

Rylen Roersma

L, 5’11, 181, Raymond, Alta.

68gp, 19g, 10a, 29p, 28pim

— SUN: Perhaps the biggest surprise was the goal output for Roersma, who had the fifth most on the team. The only Wheat King to play in all 74 regular season and playoff games, he is a beautiful skater with a wicked shot.

— GASPER: “Rylen had probably the most inconsistent year. There were times where Rylen was really good, there are times when he wasn’t so good, and then back to really, really good again. It’s tough for a young man at his age — another young guy who played very few games (the season before) — but he’s a really skilled offensive forward who I think at 18 is going to really take a big step for the club.”

Tyson Zimmer

R, 6’0, 192, Russell

66gp, 9g, 12a, 21p, 38pim

— SUN: The Russell product with the big shot seemed to be finding his way as the season went on and creating more scoring chances for himself. You get the sense the light could go on at any time and he will blossom into an elite scorer.

— GASPER: “Tyson was very much like Rylen. There were parts of his game during the year you really liked and other times you needed more out of him. Again, it’s a learning thing for those ’04 guys. Tyson brings a lot of skill to the table and I think he’ll take a big step as an 18-year-old as well.”

2005-BORN (17-YEAR-OLD SEASONS)

DEFENCE

Quinn Mantei

L, 6’0, 178, Weyburn, Sask.

59gp, 1g, 7a, 8p, 14pim

— SUN: The Saskatchewan defenceman was leaned on heavily during the season, and by the time Brandon was facing Red Deer in the playoffs, Mantei was regularly jumping into the rush while also doling out some heavy hits. He could develop into a dynamic difference maker.

— GASPER: “It’s a tough league to play in as a 16-year-old and usually you’re lucky to get into the 40-game minimum and play anywhere over five minutes of ice time in a game. Quinn, just through the way our team was built and injuries, had to play a top four role and I just loved his game as the year went on. He just got to be a consistent performer. You’re going to see a lot more offence out of Quinn. You could see flashes of it at the end of the year where he can just take over a game. He’ll be a big contributor.

FORWARDS

Trae Johnson

L, 6’0, 168, Martensville, Sask.

63gp, 3g, 4a, 7p, 43pim

— SUN: The gritty forward is all about hard work, but also managed to score a couple of really nice goals during the regular season and playoffs. As he gets older and the game starts to slow down for him, he should be a top six forward.

— GASPER: “Trae was everything we thought. He has a pretty complete, well-rounded game. He has a nice skill-set to him but the biggest thing I like the most about Trae is his level of compete and willingness to battle. He’s just a dog on a bone when you need him out there. There’s nothing but a bright future for him as well.”

GOALIE

Carson Bjarnason

R, 6’3, 176, Carberry

23gp, 4.00 gaa, .882 save%

— SUN: After an outstanding camp, the 16-year-old goaltender was thrust into the starting role when Ethan Kruger was injured twice early in the season. Big and able to quickly put goals behind him, he has the inside track on the starter’s job next season.

— GASPER: “Carson was probably the only 16-year-old goalie in the league this year. There is always that argument, what’s best, to go (back to U18) for development or stay with us. Just dealing with Carson’s skill level and his ability, practising with us every day and being around the team and learning to be a Western Hockey League goalie, he was just ready for that. Some guys are, some guys aren’t, and Carson was ready to take that next step. He’ll be a big part of our future going forward.”

» pbergson@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @PerryBergson

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