By Scott Billeck
As the Western Hockey League season opens on Thursday, Sepetember 19th, a new season usually brings changes and the Brandon Wheat Kings are no exception to the rule. General manager, Kelly McCrimmon, has taken over the bench duties as the head coach, Jayce Hawryluk is entering his sophomore year after having a breakout campaign in 2012-13 including a Gold Medal at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and Ryan Pulock was drafted by the New York Islanders. A season full of hope for the Wheat Kings then, here is the preview:
Up Front: The Wheat Kings aim to get themselves back into the post-season after missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-00 season. Coming back are many of their young forwards who should be able to improve their output, including 17-year old Jayce Hawryluk and 18-year old Tim McGauley. Both made big impacts for the team last season, and both will be counted on to take their game up a notch. 19-year old Richard Nejezchleb is also back after putting up 11 goals and 24 points in 35 games in his injury-shortened rookie campaign in 2012-13. The Czech winger could be a major contributor to the Wheat Kings’ attack. Latvian rookie Rihards Bukarts has produced during pre-season play while 17-year olds John Quenneville and Ryley Lindgren will also be given the opportunity to add to the team’s offense. 16-year old Braylon Schmyr, the Wheat Kings’ first round pick in 2012, has the talent to develop into a top offensive player for the team as well, having scored in his WHL debut as a 15-year old last season.
On The Blue Line: Top blue liners Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy are both expected back to lead the Wheat Kings’ defence corps. Pulock, a New York Islanders first rounder in June, arguably boasts the hardest shot in the WHL and is a dominant force at both ends of the ice. Roy, a Calgary Flames prospect, provides the team with another excellent offensive weapon. As good as Pulock and Roy are offensively, both will need to be key in helping the Wheaties improve their 22nd-ranked penalty killing unit from last year. Veteran rearguard Nick Walters is back, bringing his physical, shutdown abilities to the Wheat Kings, while 20-year old Rene Hunter will also add a solid defensive presence and leadership. Towering 18-year-old Taylor Green was brought in from Seattle during the off-season. The 6-foot-7, 224-pound defender adds another big frame to the back end.
“I think I just want to prove to myself that I can play at the top level,” said Hunter on his goals for his last season as a junior. “Its been really great, it’s really good being here in Brandon.”
Goaltending: 19-year old Curtis Honey and 17-year old Jordan Papirny, both Edmonton, AB, products, form the goaltending tandem for Brandon this year. Honey got into 33 games last season, posting a 10-16-3 record with an .895 save percentage. He should be able to improve on those numbers with a more experienced, improved defence in front of him. Papirny, a first-round pick in 2011, got a taste of WHL action last season with three appearances, and is future-starter material for the Wheat Kings.
Player to Watch: Jayce Hawryluk. A second-round pick, 32nd overall, in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Hawryluk played a major role for the Wheat Kings as a 16-year old rookie last year, notching a team-leading 18 goals while finishing 10th among all WHL rookies with 43 points. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound product of Roblin, MB, a hard-working forward with good hockey sense and skill, Hawryluk enjoys playing a physical, gritty game while also being a go-to guy for creating offense and scoring big goals. His play certainly caught the attention of many as he earned a spot on Canada’s U-18 team, winning Gold at the Memorial for Ivan Hlinka tournament in August, and also found himself on NHL Central Scouting’s futures list for the 2014 NHL Draft.
“I just want to build off last year,” said Hawryluk. “This year I want to have a stronger season. Obviously being a second-year player I want to bring more to the team this year. I want to be a leader on-and-off the ice and a guy that the guys look up to an improve my game in all areas.
(with files from the WHL)