The Kootenay Ice wrapped up their training camp last week but the competition for roster spots is just heating up.
The team’s roster, which has now been cut down from 55 players to 35, will get their first taste of action against other teams at a three-game preseason tournament in Kennewick, Washington hosted by the Tri City Americans.
On Thursday, the Ice will kick off the week against the Americans, before playing the Portland Winterhawks on Friday, and the Seattle Thunderbirds on Saturday.
“I like the idea [of the tournament], I think it’s good to spend some time on the bus and I like [that all] three games [are] in one area,” said head coach James Patrick on Wednesday morning. “23 of the 35 guys are going to be on the team together, so it’s the start of us bonding on the road and getting to know each other.
“[Having all the games in Kennewick also] gives us a little more time to focus and recover or rest up for the next day’s game.”
While the Ice haven’t released an official preseason roster, there are a few notable players that will be absent from the first trip.
Cale Fleury, Vince Loschiavo and Brett Davis will all be attending NHL training camps and prospect tournaments this week, and will therefore open up room for other players to take the spotlight.
“Those three players are a big part of our team and leaders [but] the experience that they’re going to have is going to be fantastic,” Patrick said. “They’re all going to benefit from that [and] for us it’s maybe a better opportunity to look at other players.
“We’ve still got 12 defenceman here [and] a lot of [forwards]. They’ll all get a chance to show what they can do these next three games.”
The team will also benefit from the return of two players who were injured for the majority of training camp: 17-year-old import forward Gilian Kohler and 15-year-old second overall Bantam draft pick Connor McClennon.
According to returning forward Jake Elmer, the abundance of players still in the mix for spots is a very positive sign for the upcoming season.
“There are a lot of guys here that are fighting for jobs [and] a lot of older guys from last year that are trying to hold their jobs,” Elmer said. “I think [the competition] is good because it pushes our team to be better.”
While he’s been testing out different defensive pairings and forward lines, Patrick said that there is still a long way to go before any decisions of that ilk are made.
“It will hopefully sort itself out,” Patrick said. “We’ve got six lines [and] will basically cut it down to four lines with an extra or two extras depending on how we’re going to go.
“There will be a lot of guys pushing for spots, so it’s going to be interesting to see what competition brings out.”
A couple of players, however, have already really stood out for Patrick including several young defencemen.
“I’ve really like Nolan Orzeck and Zac Patrick,” he said. “Those two guys had great camps [and] they’re pushing [for spots] and they really want to be here.
“Martin Bodak [also] stands out every day. He’s a strong guy who can skate and can play both ways. We’ll learn more about him as a player once we’re playing exhibition games.”
As for the forwards, Patrick is confident that 2016 first overall draft pick Peyton Krebs will be an important player for the team this year.
“[Krebs] is going to have a big role on our team. [We] don’t want to give him too much responsibility early, but [we] know the type of player that he’s going to be.”
Last preseason, as an underage player, Krebs led the Ice in scoring with two goals and an assist in two games. This year, he’ll get a chance to face his older brother Dakota, a Tri City defenceman, in the team’s first game.
“It feels great [to play him], hopefully the tides will turn this year,” Krebs said, referring to the Ice’s regular season loss to the Americans last year. “I know we have the group to do it and I’m looking forward to the game for sure.”
As for their goaltenders, Patrick said that the team is bringing just two on the trip: 20-year-old Mario Petit and 16-year-old Jesse Makaj.
“I’m not sure if we’re going to split [their time] 30-30 [but] I want to take a really good look at [Makaj],” Patrick said. “It’s a step up from the level that he’s played at before. [Petit] has played at this level [before] … I want to look at both of them, but [Makaj] might get a little more [attention].”
In the days leading up to the trip, Kootenay players have been on the ice regularly for practice. According to Patrick, their focuses are still relatively simple.
“[We’re] starting to get into some of our basic systems… [we’ve] worked on [our] defensive-zone, face-off pursuits, set breakouts, power play breakouts and penalty killing,” he said. “[We] just want to make sure we’re all on the same plan now that we’re starting to play some exhibition games.”
The Ice play their first game of the preseason against the Americans on Thursday night at 8:05 p.m. at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. Following the three-day tournament, the Ice return to Kennewick for another preseason game against Tri City on September 12, before wrapping up their exhibition play against the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Calgary Hitmen in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta on September 15 and 16.