Luke Pierce may only be in his second season as the head coach of the Kootenay Ice, but he is determined to not let past experience shape his team. After a disappointing end to the preseason this past weekend, where the team lost both their exhibition contests in Crowsnest Pass, AB, Pierce has made it clear that no one’s place is safe, no matter how long they’ve been in the league.
“Normally you have everything set [but we’ve still] got 5 lines of guys up front and 9 defencemen, so I can’t tell you who [is on] our opening day lineup yet,” Pierce said. “The competition continues [and] we’ll see how practice goes and put the guys that give us the best chance to win in the lineup on Friday.”
While Pierce found some consolation in the team’s 0-5 preseason, saying he was impressed by the resiliency of some the younger players and that, at the very least, it “prevents you from being over confident”, he’s been disappointed with the preparedness of a few of the older players.
“We need some of our veteran players to be much better and lead the way,” Pierce said. “For the most part, our young guys have done a real good job of staying around and hanging in there. I think [that makes the] focus really shift to your veteran players. We’ll see who can establish themselves.”
Pierce suggested that while veteran players may not have fully transitioned into ‘season mode’ quite yet, time is running out if they want to make sure they’ll spend the rest of the year in the WHL.
“Some of our veteran players need to start finding their groove,” he explained, saying that Jason Wenzel, a defenceman who was released from the team over the weekend after spending 57 games with the Ice last season, “just wasn’t there”.
“Some of our younger guys maybe passed [Wenzel]. We need to see some [more players] start to separate.”
Although the door is clearly open for new names to rise and old ones to fall before the ink dries on the opening night scorecard, there are a couple players Pierce likely wouldn’t mind putting down in permanent marker.
“Payton Lee will start Friday night,” Pierce said confidently on their goaltending situation. “He’s a 20 year old guy [and] we’re going into a tough building and he’s earned that, there’s no question.”
The other 2 [goalies] have played better as of late,” he added, however. “Declan [Hobbs] is the best we’ve seen him since camp started, so that’s encouraging for us. I think again, that competition is going to play into it [and] at the end of the day, the right guy will probably separate a little bit.”
The other name that Pierce hinted will likely be on his opening lineup is Zak Zbrovsky, but his position isn’t guaranteed either. Unlike his teammates however, his conflict is with a higher league. Zbrovsky has been spending the week at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament with the New York Rangers of the NHL and his immediate return to Cranbrook is therefore not guaranteed, although likely.
Pierce said he spoke to Zbrovsky after his first game in Traverse City, and hopes that if he is back with the Ice this season, he’ll continue to be the leader he was for them last season
“He wasn’t real happy with the way he played [in that first game with the Rangers] so I hope he plays better there and can come back feeling good,” Pierce said. “Even if he struggles a little bit [though], that just adds motivation for him wanting to get off to a real good start [with the Ice].”
Although the Ice are in a bit of a lull this week, as far as games go, with preseason over and the regular season not quite here, the stakes have never been higher. The remaining 28 players on this squad still all have a chance to impress during practice to see who will don a Kootenay Ice sweater for the season opener in Calgary, on Friday night.