Courtesy Branden Crowe, Q Country 91.5
Junior hockey has always been about walking the fine line between development and winning.
The successful teams are able to both, and many argue that if you’re good at developing, the winning will follow.
The 2020-2021 abbreviated season takes those two ideas and throws them out the window. A 24-game schedule with little hope for an Ed Chynoweth Cup Playoff means the emphasis over the next eight weeks is leaning heavily towards development of young players.
For the Brandon Wheat Kings, the goal is to play to win, while allowing the young prospects to grow into a role and set them up for success in the future.
“As the summer went on, our staff had to ask the question… What is the best for our team this year and as well next year,” said General Manager Darren Ritchie. “How is this development going to work for these players? Our staff is very happy with where we are at and the team we are going into the hub with.”
That team Ritchie is referring to was announced earlier this week. 24 players arrived in Regina last Saturday and underwent Covid-19 testing. The group isolated inside their rooms at the University of Regina and will undergo a second round of testing this afternoon. If the club gets the green light, on ice sessions can begin as early as tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon.
Sixteen players return from last season with all but six players on the roster having worn the black and gold in at least one career WHL game.
Newly appointed Captain Braden Schneider and sharp shooter Ridly Greig have been sent from their AHL teams to Regina, while Luka Burzan and Cole Reinhardt are expected to remain with Colorado and Belville respectively and finish the season in the AHL.
Newcomers Brett Hyland, Jaxon Dube will be joined up front by a trio of first round picks from the 2019 Bantam Draft in Tyson Zimmer, Nate Danielson and Rylen Roersma. A pair of Saskatchewan born defensemen in Logen Hammett and Jacob Hoffrogge round out the youth movement.
“It’s going to be a different year,” said Ritchie. “We have to be really patient. I don’t think we push panic buttons or worry about guys at least for the first few weeks. Seven days of camp should help knock some rust off and get us in a groove. But we have to be patient and do what you can to help the team improve.”
The Wheat Kings will move forward with Lynden McCallum, Reid Perepeluk and Marcus Sekundiak as their overage group. Winnipeg native Duncan Pierce was placed on waivers last week to finalize the trio.
Marcus Kallionkieli and 2019 Import Pick Yaroslav Busygin will remain in Europe with their club teams in Finland and Russia respectively. Travel restrictions made it nearly impossible for the Wheat Kings and several other clubs in Canada to bring their imports back into the fold.
“It’s a real tough decision when it comes to Duncan,” added Ritch. “We thought we would have a long training camp and the boys would compete for their spot. Things changed with the circumstances and we had to make a hard decision on a real good person.”
In the blue paint, the torch has been passed from Jiri Patera to his three year counterpart in Ethan Kruger. The Sherwood Park, AB native will assume the starters role after an impressive season in 2019 posting 2.76 GAA and a .913 SVP in 24 starts.
Connor Ungar, who spent last season in the AJHL with the Whitecourt Wolverines will come in and push for the starters role of the future.
“We’re really comfortable with both guys,” added Ritchie. “But it’s Ethan’s time to lead our team. With Connor, he’s an athletic guy who will come and work hard to earn his time.”
A normal WHL season is a long 68-game marathon, while this year’s Hub City season resembles that of a full on sprint for your life. There may not be a trophy at the end of this, but Ritchie says he’s not remotely worried about his club’s compete level.
“Everyone who plays and coaches in our league is a competitive person. Once that puck drops, we will be playing and coaching to win. It won’t matter if we have an old lineup, or a young lineup, but that competitive drive will only help our players get better.”
As mentioned, the Wheat Kings will tentatively open up the on ice portion of training camp tomorrow or Friday at the Brandt Centre.