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Return of the Ice age
Kootenay Ice training camp officially gets underway Aug. 27 at Western Financial Place and while many familiar faces remain, three key pieces to last year's puzzle won't be around.
Sam Reinhart was named the WHL Player of the Year following an outstanding season in Cranbrook that saw the 18-year-old captain rack up 36 goals and 105 points in 60 games with the Ice.
That success didn't go unnoticed as Reinhart was scooped up by the Buffalo Sabres with the second overall selection at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft this past June.
The native of North Vancouver will be busy preparing for his first ever professional league training camp and won't be with the club when veterans hit the ice
"I don't think you can replace Sam Reinhart," said Ice general manager Jeff Chynoweth. "Lets be perfectly honest, he's one of the premier players in major-junior hockey."
Also expected to make the jump to the professional ranks is forward Tim Bozon.
After a frightening bout with meningitis, the 20-year-old will likely spend the 2014-15 season with the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate in Hamilton.
The other key cog fans will notice absent is goaltender Mackenzie Skapski.
The 20-year-old netminder guarded the net in 53 games for the Ice last season, ringing up 28 wins on the strength of a 2.70 goals-against average and 0.916 save percentage.
The native of Abbotsford was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft (170th overall) by the New York Rangers.
The expectation is Skapski could spend the 2014-15 season further honing his skills with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford though he does remain eligible to suit up for the Ice should the Rangers decide his game isn't where it needs to be in order to stick with the Wolf Pack.
Despite the near certain departure of Reinhart and the undetermined status of Skapski, the Ice will have a core group of players returning for the 2014-15 season including forwards Jaedon Descheneau, Jon Martin, Luke Philp and goaltender Wyatt Hoflin.
"You win the Western Hockey League with 18, 19 and quality 20-year-olds," Chynoweth said. "We think we've got a good, quality group in that age mix and time will tell."
All training camp sessions are open to the public free of charge. While Reinhart and Skapski won't be on the ice, fans will be afforded a first glimpse of the club's next generation of talent.
Alexander Chirva is an intriguing off-season addition who could help fill the void left down the middle with the expected departure of Reinhart.
The 18-year-old Russian was picked up by the Ice in the 2014 CHL Import Draft after spending the 2013-14 season with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
The 6-foot-1, 181-pound pivot posted two goals and six points in 58 games with the Warriors, though those numbers might be deceiving.
"In talking to fellow general managers and NHL scouts, they think there's some potential there [in Chirva]," Chynoweth said. "It's always tough for a 17-year-old who comes over [to North America from overseas] to play major junior hockey. It's a big jump.
"Obviously [Alex] understands the language, he understands the league, he understands the travel [after playing in Moose Jaw]. He's ahead of a lot of guys who are here for the first time. We think there's some potential there and hopefully it comes to fruition."
The Ice drafted 10 players at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, including first-round pickup Griffin Mendel, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound blueliner from Kelowna.
Another intriguing name to join the organization via the 2014 draft is second-round selection Jakob Walter, a goaltender from Kamloops. With Skapski's status up in the air and returning puckstopper Wyatt Hoflin expected to get first crack at taking over between the pipes, there still remains one vacancy in the crease.
While it isn't common to see a goaltender crack the lineup immediately following his draft year, Walter will be a fresh face to keep eyes on as he could be the future in net for this club a year or two down the line.
The Ice have invited a total of 61 players to camp this year with six goaltenders, 19 defencemen and 36 forwards expected to lace up the blades in hopes of securing a place in the lineup.
"Training camp gives our coaches and scouts a great opportunity to evaluate our recent draftees, as well as to gauge the development of our returning and list players," said Ice director of scouting Garnet Kazuik in a team release. "We anticipate our camp to be very competitive, as these players have worked hard all summer to try and earn a spot on our team this season."
Chynoweth is particularly excited about some of the 1997- and 1998-born prospects entering this season, suggesting as many as two or three 16-year-olds could have an opportunity at winning a roster spot.
"We're excited with what we've got," Chynoweth said. "We think there is some potential there.
"Yeah, you can't replace Sam Reinhart. You can't replace Tim Bozon. But we do have some good young players coming up and a good core of veterans that know what it takes to win in the Western Hockey League."
Veterans hit the ice today at 10 a.m. Fitness testing takes place tomorrow. The first official on-ice session sees the veterans get to it at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Following the veterans skate, puck drops on the first prospect game at 11 a.m.