Christmas break is officially over.
The Kootenay Ice were back in action at Western Financial Place on Thursday, suiting up for their first practice to kick off the second half of the WHL season, starting with a home and home series against the Spokane Chiefs this weekend.
Their record of 10-23-1-0 isn’t enviable, nor their second-lowest spot in league standings, but they’ve also had to battle with a lot of adversity as well.
The biggest challenge facing the team this year, without a doubt, is their youth.
The team has two 16-year-olds and seven 17-year-olds, which is the youngest roster in the league, when all the others are added in.
Head coach Ryan McGill said there are a few things to take into consideration when reviewing the first half of the season.
“I think expectations-wise, from certain individual players, I think haven’t met expectations,” McGill said, “but at the same time, maybe some of those expectations were too high.”
“But I don’t like to say that, because if you don’t have high expectations, you’re not a motivated person,” McGill added.
“…As far as the record goes, I think you have to look at this team on an individual basis and make sure that each individual is getting better on a daily basis and I think for the most part they are, it’s just its been real small steps.”
A part of the young makeup of the team includes the goalie tandem of Mackenzie Skapski and Wyatt Hoflin; the former struggling to establish himself as a starting goaltender in the league after his rookie season last year.
Skapski, 18, has had a roller coaster ride, earning three consecutive wins in the beginning of November and capturing the CHL goaltender of the week award, but struggled in an ensuing road trip to the U.S.
“I think both our goaltenders will tell you that they’re very disappointed in the first half, but I think we’ve seen signs from Mackenzie that the second half is probably going to be a real good year for him,” said McGill. “That’s a good thing.
“For Wyatt, he knows he has to develop some consistency, he’s starting to develop that in practice and he needs to translate that from practice into games and he understands that.”
However, it’s not fair to lay the team’s struggles at the feet of goaltending—their overall youth shows in their defence and forward corps as well.
A part of that inexperience also stems from the departure of team captain Drew Czerwonka and sophomore defenceman Spencer Wand.
Czerwonka, who would have played his fifth season in the WHL with the Ice, retired after the team had traded away their remaining overage players in Dylen McKinlay (Kelowna) and Elgin Pearce (Medicine Hat).
Czerwonka and Wand left at different times in the season, citing they’d lost the desire to play.
Czerwonka’s departure, as a 20-year-old and team captain, left a big leadership hole inside the dressing room, while Wand’s exit deprived the back end of an experienced defenceman who was on the radar of the NHL’s Central Scouting rankings.
Those absences, along with a few injuries to key players over the first half of the season, have given the coaching staff an insight into who has the maturity and capability of stepping up into expanded roles.
“We’ve had some injuries to some real key players and that in itself is a good thing—I know it’s frustrating at times, but it’s a good thing because now we have to see whether some players can sink or swim,” said McGill. “Some of them have done a pretty good job, and some others will get better at the ice time that they’ve been given.”