James Patrick admits that he did not know what to expect from Connor McClennon and Anson McMaster in their first shot at WHL action last week.
While the Kootenay Ice head coach knew that the team’s first round, second overall pick and their second round, 23rd pick, were talented — he was pleasantly surprised by how well they fit into a WHL roster at only 15 years old.
“I thought that they played fantastic,” Patrick said of their performances at the Tri-City Americans’ Red Lion tournament in Kennewick, Washington. “We’d scrimmaged in the three practices before we went and you could see that it was a little tough on them [with] the speed and quickness, so I had no idea what was going to happen.”
McMaster only played a single game, on Friday afternoon against the Portland Winterhawks, but it left Patrick with nothing but praise for him.
“Anson played excellently and he’s a kid that’s still growing and I know that he’ll be pushing for a spot here next year,” he said of the 6’4 blueliner from Siksika, Alberta. “He’s going to be a really good defenceman eventually for the Kootenay Ice.
“He’s a big kid, a right-hander with good feet and can move a puck. I thought it was awesome the way he played and he didn’t look out of place a bit.”
Although McMaster did not manage to get a point in the game, he finished as only a -1 in an 8-3 loss to a very well-structured and talented Portland team.
As for McClennon, his impact was obvious. The 5’9 winger from Wainwright, Alberta played two games — suiting up against Portland on Friday and the next day against Seattle — and put up two assists.
“Connor made some really good plays [including] a great play on a two-on-one [with Barrett Sheen],” Patrick said. “He made a few high end passes [and] you could see his speed [and] his offensive ability.”
According to Patrick, special attention was paid to McClennon during his games as the team wanted to ensure that he returned to Midget hockey this season with particular focuses for his development.
“After pretty much every shift [assistant coach] Gord [Burnett] would give him some feedback,” Patrick explained. “In the first game there was a lot of swinging, a lot of circling [and] a lot of stick in the air. So we talked about structure, stopping, coming back in the defensive zone and [having] your stick on the ice.
“I thought in the last game he was showing signs of improvement. We had him out there late [against Seattle] with a two-goal lead and he was good.”
While McMaster and McClennon both returned home after the exhibition tournament, after three weeks with the team through the training camp process, both will be eligible to play five call-up games in the WHL this season.
McClennon will spend the majority of 2017-18 with the CSSHL’s Nothern Alberta X-Treme Prep program in Devon, Alberta. McMaster is expected to play with the Okotoks Oilers Midget AAA team.
In addition to McClennon and McMaster, the team’s 2017 third round pick, James Form, also played a preseason game with the Ice in Kennewick and fit in well according to Patrick.
The coach has also raved about several 16-year-old prospects, including defencemen Zachary Patrick, Nolan Orzeck and — after the Red Lion tournament — Jordan Chudley.
“Chudley came and played two games [and was] so good and so much better than I expected,” Patrick said of the Ice’s 2016 fourth round pick. “[His] compete was great [and] he was the most physical defenceman in the two games we played.
“He did not look out of place at all.”
Chudley particularly made a name for himself in the game against the Thunderbirds, after he stood up for Orzeck and fought 20-year-old Tyler Adams, a 6’2, 196 pound forward.
The Ice will be back at it tonight, with another preseason game against the Tri-City Americans in Kennewick, Washington. Kootenay lost their last tilt against Tri-City last Thursday 7-0.
Despite the loss, Patrick said that the team’s priority will remain on giving their young players a chance to prove themselves and crack the roster.
“[For] any player or coach it feels better to win a game than to lose a game [but] we’re looking at giving young players an opportunity to play and [be] in some big situations,” Patrick said. “It’s a learning experience for them and they’re going to make some mistakes [but I want to see] how hard we’re going to work around them and compete when we do.”
Following the game, the Ice will only have two exhibition games left before starting the regular season on Friday, September 22 at home against the Calgary Hitmen.