To say the first half of the 2015-16 Western Hockey League regular season has been a challenging one for the Kootenay Ice might be a bit of an understatement.
Carrying a record of 6-28-2-0 at the mid-point of the campaign, the Ice are last in the WHL and 10 points behind the Swift Current Broncos for 21st in the 22-team league.
While many predicted this season might finally be the one in which 17 consecutive seasons of playoff hockey came to an end in Cranbrook, no one expected the retooling Kootenay Ice to be this far out of the picture come the holiday break.
“Challenging is such a good word, but beyond that, it was just difficult,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice. “A lot of change early, which is probably a bigger challenge than you expect at first with staff [changes].
“The huge setbacks with injuries — the timing of everything was really difficult. But there are nights when you’re pretty proud of the group and the way they compete, battle and put the effort forth.
“With every obstacle, there’s an opportunity there somewhere. The opportunity for us and for a lot of our players is to really learn how difficult it is every day and how much better they need to prepare themselves.”
After coming to the Ice from BCHL’s Merritt Centennials, the 32-year-old Pierce has done an admirable job in his first crack as a WHL bench boss. While a 6-28-2-0 record might suggest otherwise, what the youngest coach in the WHL has been faced with is nothing short of an Everest-sized mountain to scale through 36 games.
In 2014-15, the Ice started the season 3-13-0-0 before storming on a 15-4-0-0 run leading up to Christmas, sparked by the return of centre Sam Reinhart and winger Tim Bozon.
There wasn’t and won’t be any saviours of similar stature to save the Ice this season. If this club is going to claw its way back into the WHL playoff picture, it will have to do it all on its own with the pieces and players in the room.
While stars returned to help the about-face last season, the 2015-16 edition of the Ice has seen its stars slowly knocked from the sky, one after the other relegated to the sidelines, as injuries have piled up to derail the young squad.
First, it was 20-year-old star Jaedon Descheneau shelved after only two games with a shoulder injury that eventually required season-ending surgery.
Then captain and leading scorer Luke Philp (13 goals – 16 assists – 29 points) missed a pair of games with a head injury, before returning only to be knocked out of action two games later with an ankle injury that also required surgery to repair.
Winger Zak Zborosky (13-11-24) missed extended time with a lower-body injury and only recently returned to action.
Steady defenceman Tyler King, 20, never returned from off-season knee surgery and was erased from the roster in mid-December.
Amongst all that, forwards Roman Dymacek (3-4-7), Vince Loschiavo (3-5-8), Max Patterson (3-2-5), River Beattie (2-2-4) and Dylan Stewart (4-3-7) have also missed time due to a host of other ailments.
The jaw-dropping circumstance has left Pierce with nothing short of a revolving door of bodies and line combinations, providing challenges beyond what was expected heading into his first season as a WHL bench boss.
While injuries to Philp and Descheneau have left massive holes in the top six, they’ve also provided opportunities for others take on bigger roles, play more significant minutes and grow as players.
Centre Matt Alfaro (8-8-16) has been, arguably, the most outstanding in that regard.
“Matt Alfaro has been a positive bright spot for our group,” Pierce said.
“Zak Zborosky, after missing the amount of time he did, came back and is playing with confidence and playing well.”
Starting the season without a captaincy letter on his sweater, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound Alfaro quietly went about his business.
After managing only one goal and four assists through 17 games up until the end of October, the native of Calgary provided added offence in November and December with seven goals and four assists in 19 games.
Alfaro now finds himself sporting an alternate captaincy and, outside of finding his scoring touch, has been key in keeping players accountable in the stead of captain Philp’s absence.
Heading into the holiday break, the Ice roster is carrying nine rookies — accounting for nearly 38 per cent of the roster.
“There’s been some huge learning curves for some guys,” Pierce said. “It’s hard to get a proper evaluation of [their development] just because of the challenges you’ve had with the number of bodies.
“It’s so hard to judge it objectively without taking all factors into consideration. Really, when you do get your lineup back and you’re icing a full group every night, you’ll start to see who has truly progressed and who hasn’t.”
Leading the charge is 17-year-old Noah Philp (1-7-8), the younger brother of captain Luke.
While faced with a learning curve after graduating to the Western League from the Canmore Eagles of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the younger Philp has shown strong strides since the puck first dropped in September.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder managed four assists through 26 games to open the season (September through November). In nine games during the month of December, the former Canmore Eagle posted a goal and three assists.
Like many of his fellow rookies, Noah Philp has been pushed into a more significant role earlier on than coach Pierce might have liked, but a big reason for the youngster’s growing production can be attributed to an increase in ice time, which he earned through sticking to the system, buying into the game plan and working for the respect of his coaches.
Between the pipes, rookie goaltender Declan Hobbs has shown encouraging flashes as he works to establish himself as the successor to 20-year-old Wyatt Hoflin.
Hobbs, 17, earned a nomination from the WHL for Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Week honours back on Nov. 23 after going 1-1-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average (GAA) and .957 save percentage (SP) during the week of Nov. 22.
“[That nomination] gets washed away so quickly because of the struggles [of the team],” Pierce said of his rookie goaltender. “You’ve got to remember there’s been some good stuff.”
The native of Saskatoon, like many of his teammates, has seen his fair share of ups and downs to this point in his first WHL season. With Christmas on the horizon, the 6-foot, 178-pound puck-stopper is 1-8-1-0 with a 4.68 GAA and .874 SP.
The 12-game rut
Without question, the most challenging stretch within a tasking opening half to the 2015-16 WHL season for the Kootenay Ice is what has transpired in the weeks leading up to the holiday break.
Beginning Wednesday, Nov. 25 with a 5-2 loss to the Red Deer Rebels at Western Financial Place, Pierce and the Ice are mired in a 12-game losing streak with Christmas right around the corner.
“This last three weeks has been really tough, it’s been hard on everybody,” Pierce said. “It’s hard on you as staff. I know Jeff [Chynoweth, president and general manager] probably takes losing the hardest. It’s hard on your players.
“It’s been a real challenge. Hopefully your break comes at the right time. You just wish you were coming back with a full group again. But we’ll still be facing the same type of challenge when we get back here.
“The frustrating part isn’t just not having the personnel and the bodies. It’s really difficult to practice the things you need to practice because you don’t have all your players. When your guys do get healthy and back on the ice, you almost have to start teaching them the new things we’ve been progressing as a team.”
That span of defeats has featured four games in which the Ice had a fighting chance — either a one-goal game, a two-goal game with an empty-net dagger or a contest in which the Ice found themselves in an even draw through 40 minutes of play (3-2 loss vs. Lethbridge on Nov. 28; 5-2 loss vs. Swift Current on Dec. 12; 4-2 loss vs. Red Deer on Dec. 15; and a 5-4 loss at Red Deer on Dec. 19).
That stretch also featured a couple drubbings — a 9-0 loss at Lethbridge (Nov. 26) and a 7-2 loss at Prince George (Dec. 8).
For each low there’s a high
Though the high points of the campaign may not offset the lows the Kootenay Ice have battled so far in 2015-16, there’s reason for hope the club is building in the right direction.
After suffering a 13-1 road thumping at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings (Oct. 9), the Ice responded with a spirited effort on home ice, fighting the beasts from the east in a 3-2 overtime defeat Oct. 30 in Cranbrook.
“The overtime game with Brandon was so discouraging because we lost,” Pierce said. “But as a group and as a staff — that’s really where we thought we started to see the signs of progress. You go from losing 13-1 against that team and then you play them very, very well. We went on a pretty good run of games where we had good nights.”
Prior to that, October featured a hard-fought 1-0 shutout of the Moose Jaw Warriors at Western Financial Place (Oct.14) and an exciting 5-4 overtime win against the Edmonton Oil Kings at Rexall Place (Oct. 26).
Finally, the Ice strung together a pair of consecutive wins with back-to-back home victories over the the Warriors (Nov. 20) and Swift Current Broncos (Nov. 21).
“The overtime win in Edmonton was a big win for us,” Pierce said. “The back-to-back wins at home — there’s been some encouraging nights, not a lot of them.”
With so many rookies on the squad, there has been a bevy of WHL firsts after 36 games.
Fans have celebrated first-career goals from Dymacek (Oct. 7 at Saskatoon), Patterson (Oct. 7 at Saskatoon), Jason Wenzel (Oct. 10 at Moose Jaw), Dallas Hines (Nov. 6 vs. Medicine Hat), Jared Legien (Nov. 14 at Medicine Hat), Noah Philp (Dec. 8 at Prince George) and Austin Gray (Dec. 18 at Red Deer).
Shane Allan recorded his first WHL point (assist) Oct. 7 at Saskatoon.
While the nine rookies on the squad all made their WHL debuts, a pair of affiliate players also made their first appearances with the Ice, with 15-year-old Eli Lieffers (Nov. 20 vs. Moose Jaw) and 17-year-old Connor Barley (Nov. 25 vs. Red Deer).
In net, Hobbs earned his first-career WHL victory with a 2-1 triumph over the Broncos Nov. 21.
Coach Pierce, in his debut WHL season, earned his first-career victory in a 5-2 home triumph over the Spokane Chiefs (Oct. 2).
The Kootenay Ice return to practice on Boxing Day before hosting the Calgary Hitmen (22-13-1-1) on Sunday, Dec. 27 (4 p.m.) at Western Financial Place.
“When we come back in, that will be a big part of our focus as a group — sitting down and talking about the new year and what our goals are,” Pierce said. “The goals can’t be my goals. The goals have to be our team’s goals. Our players need accountability in that.
“There will be some targets on the number of wins you want to put together, some improvements in areas of your game like your penalty kill, things you can control.
“There are so many targets we want to improve, but it’s important our whole team takes accountability and has input in that.”
Following Sunday’s home contest with the Hitmen, the two squads trek to Calgary for a rematch on Monday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m.
The Ice close out 2015 in a Dec. 31 (4 p.m.) match with the Red Deer Rebels (23-12-0-0) at Western Financial Place before opening 2016 with a quick two-game trip to Saskatchewan featuring games against the Warriors (Jan. 2) and Broncos (Jan. 3).