Thursday, August 18, 2016

2016-2017 Pre-Season Western Hockey League Report(Teams 9 and 10)

10.Prince George Cougars-Tonight on a junior hockey forum I got into a harmless scuffle about whether or not my ranking was too extreme pertaining to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. I'm not one to backdown from my assertions easily but when I really examined my list, I asked myself who would I possibly move down to elevate the ranking of the Hurricanes? I looked at my list a few times and had trouble pinning but then it donned on me right before I was to begin the Cougars synopsis that I have Prince George at number ten. I'm self doubting this ranking a little bit as there are some noticeable flaws in the structure of this team and could be persuaded to alter my opinion ever so slightly. Ultimately what led me to this number was the expectations that were bestowed upon them last year, albeit that weren't met but with the core in tact again heading into 2016/2017, these same expectations should remain in tow. Mark Hollick took the fall for last year's second half tail spin and the jury is out whether former Dallas Star great Richard Matvichuk can be the voice that will correct the demons hovering around the dressing room but as mentioned, there's an abundance of talent here and the Cougars will need to advance to the second round for this year not to be considered a mitigated disaster.

Before I get started with my thoughts with the forwards, let's address this purported awkward environment that has been created with the Prince George Cougars administration. Don't get wrong, the way things are conducted in Prince George are miles ahead with the way things used to be handled. A different ownership has been brought to the forefront headlined by Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis and all is good from a stability perspective as rumours of relocation persisted under previous guideship. However when Todd Harkins was hired on as the General Manager in Summer 2014, the original semantics of this situation didn't look from this bloggers perspective as it screamed  a recruitment tactic to lure young Jansen, Todd's son to Prince George. I'm not here tonight to opine that Jansen was ever wavering but to seal the deal bringing in Todd put pen to paper. Jansen is a top talent, is he as prominent as some will have you believe, don't think so but he unequivocally is a number one center. The spoken awkwardness that I eluded to earlier deals with the external favouritism that those outside the organization can't help but think exists. He had a very suspect fifty seven points a year ago and was arguably their fourth best forward but when push came to shove who took the all  important face offs late in games? It certainly wasn't the more deserving Brad Morrison. The other coach/son relationship that was prevalent in the Western League although I'm sure I'm missing somebody obvious was Brandon and Brent Sutter. When Brandon was a Rebel, he was clearly an upper echelon talent carrying his defensive exploits to the World Junior Hockey Championship so it wasn't a question of belonging, it's a question of his teammates buying into the team concept knowing full well that Brandon would probably be given preferential treatment and wouldn't be held accountable for mistakes.  The Rebels, expectations aside never flourished during the Brandon/Brent experiment and at least partially I liken the correlation to some jealousy amongst his teammates. The Cougars haven't succeeded under the Harkins leadership regime and what was just explored with my Red Deer example applies to Northern B.C. Toxic environment or not, a winning culture hasn't subsited and one wonders if this is starting to aggravate center Brad Morrison. The 2012 seventh overall Bantam Pick came to the Cougs under great fan fare and that translates into a player with professional aspirations.  The Western Kelowna product ended up hearing his name called in the fourth round by the New York Rangers, while I'm sure he's grateful for being drafted, there's irrefutably some dissension brewing that he had to wait until the fourth. I'm not meaning to rag on Jansen but unless new coach Matvichuk has plans to convert one to the wing, Brad may favour a change of scenery if it means staying on the second line. I just touched on Morrison, speculating onto whether he's content with his role, well the "next" Brad Morrison could very well be Jackson Leppard. Forgive me if my memory has failed but I'm positive one of the two regular season games Jackson was pencilled in for last season happened to be when the Cougars visited Regina but if it wasn't, then a game I saw on WHL Live streams left me amazed. Already at 6'2, he's going to continue to fill out his body. In a very small sample size(one game) the best Western Hockey league comparable I could come up with is Carter Ashton. Ashton wasn't an elite scorer in this league and I don't anticipate Jackson will be one either but it's the intangibles that stand out, At the major junior level, I'd be surprised if he ever exceeded the twenty goal plateau as he's erratic with the puck but skates exceptionally well, the prototypical power forward if you will. The type of skill set Leppard brings to the table is he'll crash and bang to make a play, not a mannerism that usually comes with a sixteen year old entering the league. The comfortability he'll take, and I want to predicate this by saying it's a stretch, from playing alongside Justin Almeida, a player who'll able to bond with Jackson over their shared minor hockey affiliation playing for the North Shore winter club will better acclimatize Jackson to the rigors of the league. I could go on and on about the potential of Jackson but I honestly believe the Ashton comparison does him justice. Without truly knowing the type of style Matvichuk will implement due to knowing very little about his coaching background, I'll be interested to see whether it varies from the up tempo Hollick way of doing things. although if we apply the type of player Richard was in the National Hockey League to the way he may teach the game a rugged,resistive approach could be in store. Is this the right approach, probably not as Prince George is built around brazen speed but if this is indeed the fabric installed then a player like Colby McAuley could prosper. Looking at the roster breakdown, I'd be foolish not to agree with the notion that the Cougars have a weaker crop of 1996's sans the consistent defenceman Sam Ruopp who the assumption is will be back. I would normally advocate that General Manager Harkins look into acquiring a twenty year old forward but with the market so thin already, not sure if this is a realistic possibility. This is where Colby steps in and becomes that trusted presence. As a 1996 born, he has got to scrap the fighting from his repertoire. No team, I don't care the circumstances can afford to have an overager there with the sole responsibility of fighting. I'm not fully implying that's all he can offer an organization as McAuley's forty one points over the past two seasons tell a different story but the 156 PIM is a major red flag for me. It's simple, this projects out as an one dimensional team and if McAuley can stay out of the box he'll be that one individual that'll be sent out late in the games and kill an important penalty. If he resorts back to last year's habit, then Harkins will be left with no choice but to upgrade in a sparse market.

I would imagine, I haven't talked to many that are close to the Cougars organization, that a lot of these fans are satisfied with the forward depth but cringe over the defenceman that are set to patrol the blueline. I don't share this belief in the slightest, and I'll be the first(okay maybe not the first) to admit that aside from Sam Ruopp who is universally revered in the league, some of these other defenceman aren't respected and for that this back end is a perceived weakness. One particularly that I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up is Tate Olson. Ruopp's just like his brother, former Prince Albert Raider Harrison is a stud and somebody you can safely insert as a number one defenceman but it's Tate who I have no doubt is the most talented and has the highest upside. As I specified earlier, I'm not one who has any familiarity with Matvichuk the coach but disregarding the coaching aspect Matvichuk has been through the ups and downs of professional hockey and the tips he would've picked up along the way will be invaluable to this Cougar core. Having played with two of the league's great defenceman in Sergei Zubov and Derian Hatcher the wealth of knowledge he's acquired is unquantifiable. From Zubov's smooth skating and ability to make stellar reads in the offensive zone to Hatcher's punishing style, he's seen all designs at the highest level. Prince George's hockey operations staff will describe Tate as a burgeoning puck mover but where his real strengths lie are to intercept passes at his own blueline. This seems like such an exact observation but if you take the time to watch a complete shift of Olsen's, focus on his active stick as he's really good about interrupting a team's momentum into the zone. This active stick has contributed to his increasing numbers. I don't want to take any credit away from the positive influence Ruopp has had on him but as I mentioned earlier, Ruopp has a lower ceiling where Tate will be in the American Hockey League playing  a key role as early as next year. The small criticism of Olsen that I have and to clarify it's very small is that his back skating needs a minor undertaking.It's more of a concern when he's in a close knit one and one race because he can usually position himself well enough that hardly does he get caught flat footed. I'm a proponent on what he can accomplish and while my award predictions will come after the preview is complete, he's on the short list for the Western Conference Defenceman of the Year nominee. The name Reed Perepeluk will mean very little to people enamored with this organization.......for now as he's someone you'll be hearing lots of in the near future. Originally from Yorkton,Saskatchewan he made the peculiar move as a fifteen year  old to head to the Prince George area and immerse in the British Columbia Minor Midget league. A move like this is very rare but it shows dedication to the franchise. I'm only going to assume a move such as the one Reed partake in was done in unison with the Cougars and there's a high probability Reed will crack the roster full time this campaign. If this move was family related and nothing more then it's a classic case of me reading too much into the situation. The scouting report I have on Reed is that he's not afraid of the physical contact, not the greatest skater but has a Fulton Reed-esque shot.  I've heard the name of Griffen Reinhart thrown around describing Reed's game. What that explains to me is he'll be someone that won't see a lot of five on five minutes for this 16/17 season but will have the  know how to weave his way through penalty killing assignments. He's tough to play against and my suspicion is the water cooler conversation going around the Prince George area come this fall will be how in the heck did Reed fall to the sixth round? It's a question I ask myself but the bottom line your franchise now has a good, possibly great one in Perepeluk.

Training camp is going to decide a lot but none more than the wide open goaltending battle. Consensus is that Nick McBride has the  leading edge on the starter reigns but that is open for ample debate. Twenty year old Ty Edmonds isn't going to sit around and die, he's going to push the impending competition to the max. Additionally the name of Tavin Grant could throw a wrench into the plans. I can't formulate any scenario that would have the Cougars again riding the tandem of McBride and Edmonds with Grant waiting in the wings. Captain
Sam Ruopp is expected back and with the aforementioned McAuley fulfilling a needed role upfront it essentially comes down to either retaining Edmonds or holding on to defenceman Shaun Dosanjh. I can't see anyone convincing me otherwise that there's any real difference skill wise between Ty and Nick and with McBride being a 1997 born he wins the race for that reason. Twenty year olds, specifically goalies are nearly impossible to trade so it's plausible that Edmonds may have to finish his career in Junior A. Exciting times for Nick because even though in the opening I alluded to the possibility that this organization may have been ranked marginally too high, it'll be a competitive club nonetheless and McBride will be quintessential to the plight of the team.

9.Brandon Wheat Kings-Is there a more deserving individual to finally after years of exemplary service  receive a promotion than Kelly McCrimmon? McCrimmon who was hired on by George McPhee's expansion Las Vegas staff in preparation for the 2017/2018 NHL season will thrive in the role as the Assistant General Manager because there aren't many, if any at all that are more in tune with what kind of player has what it takes as his talent assessments are on fleek 90% of the time, The Wheat Kings are your Western Hockey League defending champions but are in the midst of an organizational change that will see, if various reports are true which I amount  to where there's smoke there's fire will name David Anning as it's next Head Coach. A good choice because as the Wheat Kings look to enter a new phase in their program, a younger innovative coach might be admissible to accepting mistakes from the surplus of young players that will be in camp this season as with expectations lowered, though not too much lower. That will be the misconception most will have with the Wheaties this coming season, are they the league favourites, no but the mastery of McCrimmon was that clearly during contending years he would stock the fridge full of brand name products, but it was the no name grub unnoticeable in the back of fridge that turns into award winning cuisine if cooked right. McCrimmon always knew the proper temperature to set the stove at which supplanted his icon status but the onus will now likely be on Anning to assess the frigidness of some of these unheralded sixteen years olds as a previous penchant of McCrimmon was to not rush a rookie into the lineup. With a league championship now in pocket and with McCrimmon out the door I would imagine this philosophy and direction from management will be more lenient to allow not just the younger players, but allowing Anning himself to grow. There's still a lot to like about this coming year being driven by possible(not likely) first overall pick Nolan Patrick.

I could throw out a million superlatives the way of Nolan Patrick but there's nothing I could write about him that hasn't already been said. He will enter the campaign as the pre-season consensus to win the Most Valuable award but there's a couple blemishes on the scorecard that need correcting. I do wonder at times whether Nolan has mentally checked out from knowing that it would take multiple unforeseen circumstances for him not to play in the NHL in 17/18. The press came out heavy even before last season commenced that Patrick would inevitably be the number one overall pick two years in advance and you fear that he let the accolades get to his head. This may have attributed to his slow start last go around as Jayce Hawruyluk and Quenneville took the team on their back early with Nolan in the back seat enjoying the ride. If I was a NHL scout I'd be weary of this as a star player as we've seen out of Connor McDavid and Mitch Marner in recent years relish being the one that has the puck on their stick in high octane moments and rise to the occasion. Conversely wit the Wheat Kings star I've been noticing somebody who is a sound player in all three zones but lacks the flash to singlehandedly take over the game. I don't think any Wheat King fan would argue with the thought that on last year's team that Jayce, Quenneville and even McGauley when healthy played with more passion. I don't know whether lackadaisical is the right adjective but that will to win isn't evident at all times. From my vantage point he's a frustrating player to watch develop because as I just mentioned, he's a monster in all facets when his head's on straight. He's built like a power forward, has one of the games best wrist shots and channels his inner Ramzi Abid when stick handling and dangling through defenders. You're reading this and I absolutely know the thought going through most of your heads, "who does this clown think he is scolding unarguably the league's best player in the last five years, I mean does he not see that he accumulated 102 pts?". Points aside as I can't stress enough he was benefited more by his linemates then his linemates benefited playing with him I just know there's  more in the tank. Special players are never satisifed and it's the external display of being content has me cautious deeming him a special player. He's a good player that has NHL superstar potential. The name Joe Thornton has been used in comparison and while that's flattering, a more apt National Hockey League comparison would be New York Ranger Derek Stepan. Watching the way Stepan has stepped into the Ranger lineup and effectively has earned an all around game mantra is how I see Patrick fitting in with whatever NHL club chooses him. Contrary to popular belief I don't see him going first overall and it will be very interesting if  a McCrimmon employed Las Vegas ends up siding with his former pupil. Could you imagine if the Vegas expansion comes to the  podium next summer and passes on McCrimmon? That finally may be what it takes for the sports media to forget about this bizarre Ryan Lochte robbing scandal. Because a few top end guys are gone, no need to repeat the names for a third time at best I'm calling for Nolan to tally eighty points. As much as folks across the dub over appreciate the value of what Nolan can offer, there's a glaring under appreciation for one Duncan Campbell. First let me acknowledge that the overage conundrum exists and their are four quality players fighting for three spots. In reality it's only three for two as Goaltender Jordan Papirny barring something drastic will be between the pipes again. Tyler Coulter, Duncan Campbell and Reid Duke are the three in question and I'll play ball by agreeing that Campbell is the least talented out of the bunch but possesses fundamentals that make him more valuable then Reid and Tyler.  All four are deserving of remaining in the league and if I were a betting man which I am then Reid will be the one they'll attempt to move and my inkling is Swift Current could be a wise trading partner but that's neither here nor there. Duncan is one of those players that works incredibly hard and can be a ready replacement spelling a struggling player on the top two lines. Versatility resembles Duncan in spades as not only can he if needed play on the top two, he has the speed to act as a shut down for the oppositions top players. Such a smart hockey player, he's the type of property that every team needs and Anning will salivate over the intangibles Duncan will showcase. It will be difficult to lose the scoring out of Reid Duke with most of the snipers leaving town but as a reward for Duncan's patience, I see his inclusion as a formality. I promised I'd forecast my thoughts on the youth movement. Caiden Daley will be assured a spot but the forward I want to analyze is Jeremy Klessens. I respect a player like Jeremy because he knew heading into this sixteen year old season last year he was deserving of a position in this league but with the direction that the Wheaties were headed a spot for a fringe sixteen year old wasn't in the cards. He buckled down, forewent another year in Midget AAA by heading to the Olds Grizzlies of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and physically matured. If there was any question which I don't think there was about him being ready  for the marathon regular season scheduled those were answered in Olds. As far as what went into the decision to forego a season if Midget eligibilty, I'm unsure but from experience with Junior A hockey I can tell you that it takes a toll on your body because it's a league that has an older average age per team due to the number of twenty year olds you can have on your squad so if he withstood the grind he'll do admirably in Major Junior. That's why he slipped in his Bantam Draft year was due to inquests regarding his physical wherewithal. He's not going to be counted upon to produce any consistent offence as he'll see time on the fourth line but not being intimated will serve him well when those nineteen and twenties  look to get under his skin. Brandon isn't going to have a lot of skill in the bottom six which is why he'll not only make the team but be a must to have his name pencilled in the lineup. A greasy player with skill best defines Jeremy.

Who's going to fill the massive shoes of departing Ivan Provorov? Throughout the course of this off-season I've read rumblings that Ivan could possibly return but I'm having none if it. If Provorov does happen to return than I've ranked Brandon far too low. Kale Clague will be asked by Coach Anning to oversee the back end and I'm just not sure if he's up for the task. I'm getting the impression that the just most are getting is I'm dumping on Brandon players but that's not the case. To that I'll say I have reservations with some of the higher end they claim to but admire their overall depth which led me to the ranking of number nine. I'm not for a second insinuating that James Shearer will diminish the role or need of Clague but Shearer is someone, a local product just like Campbell that was caught in a numbers game a year ago and will embark on a more permanent role. He doesn't fall too far off the tree from graduated Macoy Erkamps. Both are intense players who are undersized but it's the work ethic that sets them apart. I realize he's already nineteen and this conceivably could be his final year in Major Junior but what breaks the comparison of Macoy and James is James isn't as all over the place in his own zone. Macoy would drive McCrimmon nuts as he knew his was responsibility was be the safe guard for Provorov's gambling style but would still pinch at an inopportune time and create odd man rushes against Papirny. A Shearer turnover won't be something Papirny will have to worry about as James is much smarter positionally. What the coaching staff will look to instill in his game is to actually be more assertive and take more chances.Sitting back is generally reserved for players trying to find his feet in the league but James is now nineteen so this type of mindset won't be tolerated. I hope but am not quite sure if Shearer will see any power play time but I sincerely hope he does as the last time he recieved any whatsoever was with Steinbach in Junior A and he showed a propensity to thrive. It's a simple mandate for James, either he shows signs of competence and sticks it out with the Wheat Kings or if he caves under the increased role pressure he'll find himself in Steinbach quicker then he wants. The other defenceman I want to profile this evening is Schael Higson. If I were a Blades fan, I would've been furious that they let go of Schael, a trade for I will never understand the logic. From a Saskatoon perspective, already having smaller core forwards such as Ryan Graham and Cam Hebig, Shmyr wasn't exactly a team requirement. For Braylon it's a fantastic opportunity one he likely wouldn't of gotten here in Brandon but nonetheless a tall defenceman with an excellent stride isn't someone I'd be throwing away in the recycling bin. Saskatoon's loss is Brandon's gain. Higson for some reason couldn't adapt to the structure McCrimmon was illustrating but the fact that earlier I spoke about a more innovative coach in Anning now on board could be good for the young players, this rings very true for Higson. He's now officially out of the doghouse now into Anning's penthouse. I spoke of his skating stride earlier, is it ever effortless! It's a hard game to assess because there are just some players, former Tri-City American Logan Stephenson comes to mind that it from the exterior it doesn't look like they're exerting much energy, It seems this lack of clarity revolving around what kind of player Higson goes all the way back to his Bantam draft years where he went undrafted. I have heard he he wasn't committing to the league hense why he went undrafted but it's a classic case of a player not garnering enough respect because of the shortage of intensity. He's coming into his third season and the Wheaties can't afford to  have Schael in and out of the lineup. Consistency, consistency. This core is a whole is a definite weakness by wanting to abstain from any further critique on the individual defenceman, I've come to the realization that adding a veteran defenceman would be  a sensible proposition. Scouring the lists from some of the teams I've previewed earlier in these lists, a name such as Keoni Texeira(POR) would be a great addition. The kind of player that would interest the BWK would be someone on a cheaper price tag as their not going to exhaust any prime resources. Getting back to a conference final isn't out of the realm for this squad but they're not going to sell the farm to do it.

Jordan Papirny is back in the saddle. From a technical point of view, there were some pittfalls that decimated performace in the first couple of years as a member of the Wheat Kings. His glove was a needed area of improvement  You know who doesn't receive enough credit? Goaltending Coach Matt Cockell. Cockell, probably better known for his work with the National women's team is purportedly not coming back to Brandon this winter which is a blow because he helped Jordan become one of the better netminders in the league and a professional prospect. Logan Thompson will occupy the back-up position once again but with Thompson nineteen and Papirny in his last year, I'd imagine the preference would be to find a seventeen or eighteen year old which in turn could cost Logan his job.

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