With the first half of the WHL season in the books, the Kootenay Ice have compiled a 18-16-2-1 record in 37 games played. Players will head home for a nine-day break before returning to action on Dec. 27th against the Spokane Chiefs, a game that will honour Cranbrook Hockey Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer. Following are some observations on how the team has handled themselves so far.
Best is yet to come
I’m convinced that we have yet to see the best from this team. The Ice have had a better first half than last year, but the second half is where the cream will rise to the top. Last season, the Ice climbed out of the Eastern Conference basement with a 25-12-1-0 record in the second half, and combined with a massive collapse from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, was able to secure its 15th consecutive playoff spot. Over the Christmas break, players will get a chance to see family and friends while recharging and refocusing in order to make that playoff push.
Ice home attendance
Attendance numbers are down this year during home games at Western Financial Place, a trend that has continued over the last few years. Tuesday’s matchup against Lethbridge, which featured Cranbrook native Brad Lukowich on the ‘Canes bench, drew the lowest crowd in franchise history at 1,934. A few other games over the season have drawn less than 2,000 attendees as well. The highest number was School Spirit Night on Nov. 8th that drew 2,909 bodies in a 3-0 loss to the Rebels.
Dealing with injuries
Players and coaches don’t like using injuries as an excuse for anything, however, the team has had to play with a short bench as of late. Kootenay is missing the services of Ryan Chynoweth, Tanner Faith, Rinat Valiev and Jagger Dirk. That’s one forward and three defencemen currently missing from the lineup. Faith has had an especially rough go of it this season, missing 21 outings with an upper body injury before returning for three games and reinjuring himself. Earlier in the year, Kootenay also missed Kyle O’Connor for 12 games and Mackenzie Skapski for eight outings, both with lower body injuries. Nobody ever uses injuries as an excuse for inconsistent play, but missing guys like Dirk, Faith and Valiev does make an impact, especially on the back end.
Kootenay picked up some new bodies earlier in the season with the acquisition of Tim Bozon and Landon Cross from Kamloops in exchange for Collin Shirley, Matt Thomas and draft picks. Cross immediately stepped into a stabilizing role on defence, which was looking a little thin due to Faith’s injury, Valiev’s absence, who had yet to come over from Russia, and the infusion of youth. Bozon, a signed 2012 third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, struggled a bit when he arrived, going pointless in seven games alongside Sam Reinhart and Jaedon Descheneau, however, he has since scored eight goals and collected 15 assists. Along with the departure of Shirley and Thomas, off-season pickup Clint Filbrandt and returning vet Jordyn Boyd were reassigned to Jr. A while Jeff Hubic was recently shipped to Tri-City. The WHL has a trade moratorium in place during the Christmas break, which ends on Dec. 27 in advance of the final trade deadline on Jan. 10th.
Reinforcements en route
With injuries and the absence of Sam Reinhart with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship in Sweden and Troy Murray at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia, Kootenay has recalled two 1997-born prospects from Midget AAA teams. Dylan Overdyk, a second-rounder, and Austin Wellsby, a fourth rounder in the in last year’s WHL bantam draft, will join the team when they return for action on Dec. 27th. Overdyk, a defenceman, is currently with the Edmonton Maple Leafs in the AMHL, while Wellsby, a forward, suits up for the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds of the BCMML.
World Junior Championships
Sam Reinhart is currently in Europe trying out for Team Canada and make no mistake—when the final roster is submitted to the IIHF on Christmas Day, he will be on it. Reinhart, the Ice captain and top scorer, is in his draft year after two seasons of hype from armchair and professional scouts waiting for him become eligible.
He has 16 goals and 34 assists so far this season, and sits in seventh place in the WHL scoring race, tied with Mike Aviani of the Spokane Chiefs at 50 points. Reinhart has been paired up with OHL phenom Connor McDavid during Team Canada practices, as the two have played with each other before at international tournaments. Reinhart is versatile, and can play both centre or on the wing, an asset that head coach Brent Sutter will consider when he digs out the scalpel and cuts only three players from a 25-man selection camp roster.
Eastern Conference parity
It’s a tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference, with 13 points separating first place from ninth place. The Calgary Hitmen, at 49 points, reign at the top, while Red Deer, tied with Prince Albert at 36 points, sits in the final playoff position. Even those on the outside looking in, such as Saskatoon and Lethbridge, have proven to be dangerous teams and beaten the Ice in their home barn. Kootenay has struggled with consistency in the first half, their longest win streak being three games, and their longest losing skid being the same number. In talking with players, seesawing from win to loss has certainly been frustrating, and we’ll see how the team responds in the second half of the year.
Western Conference dominance
As per the last three years, the Portland Winterhawks have continued to dominate the Western Conference standings. Despite graduating players like Sven Baertchi, Ty Rattie, Tyler Wotherspoon and Mac Carruth over those years, the Winterhawks have remained strong with guys like Brendan Leipsic, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase De Leo, Nic Petan and Derrick Pouliot. After winning the WHL championship last year, they also graduated interim head coach Travis Green to the AHL with the Utica Comets. Green ran the show while stepping in the place of bench boss Mike Johnston, who was suspended for the entire season by the WHL for alleged player benefit violations. In addition to the Winterhawks, the Kelowna Rockets are having a very strong season with Cranbrook-born Ryan Huska at the helm, going 28-3-0-2. After multiple seasons of mediocrity, the Everett Silvertips are also chasing the top spot in the conference, while the Spokane Chiefs are doing well with overager Mitch Holmberg tearing up the scoresheets and leading the WHL scoring race.
Rookies baptized by fire
Kootenay has some new blood on the roster with the addition of Jordan Steenbergen, Troy Murray, Matt Alfaro, Hudson Elynuik and Zak Zborosky who stuck around after training camp cuts in September. Steenbergen has been the odd-man out most of the time, but has played more recently due to injuries and has also done stints up front as a winger on the fourth line. Alfaro, Elynuik and Zborosky haven’t missed many games at all, as the latter leads the squad in the rookie scoring race with five goals and nine assists. Troy Murray has been very impressive in his WHL debut, and seems to be getting better each and every game. It’s not fair to compare him to his older brother Ryan, a former standout with the Everett Silvertips who is now full-time in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he is playing well and has sat out only once.