Another year, another training camp in the books for the Kootenay Ice.
After a disappointing 2015-16 campaign, it’s safe to say there is plenty of promise and hope for the future of Cranbrook’s Western Hockey League club following an impressive showing from those competing for jobs this week at Western Financial Place.
“It’s hard not to be excited — not just about this year and a chance to go and redeem ourselves a little bit — but also just the future in general for our hockey club,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Ice, following the organization’s annual intrasquad game Wednesday night. “I was extremely impressed with the improvements that some of our 2000s have made and obviously our draft class, the ’01s, look great. Some of the additions in that ’99 group have been impressive as well.
“Overall, all week, you just get excited about what the future holds for us.”
Pierce’s excitement can be, at the very least, partially credit to the work of Garnet Kazuik, director of scouting, and the rest of his scouting staff.
With 2015-16 marking the first step in what is expected to a long rebuild, there was plenty of fresh competitiveness, scrappy play and overall compete easily visible throughout training camp, all of which are encouraging signs as this club continues to build itself back up.
“We’ve got something started here and built with the young age groups. It’s encouraging to see,” Kazuik said Wednesday night. “The players can see it, the parents can see it. When these guys start to mature a little bit, the future should start to turn back to the way we know it here in Cranbrook.”
Three days of scrimmages, skill sessions and goaltender sessions are in the books and next on the calendar is pre-season action, which begins Thursday, Sept. 8, when the Ice travel to Kennewick, Wash., for a mini tournament hosted by the Tri-City Americans.
There will be a strong contingent of players headed south of the border for the three-game tournament. For some of the 2001-born players, they will get a taste of the WHL game in an effort to develop a better understanding of just how big the jump will be when they become eligible to play on a full-time basis come 2017-18.
For the rest of the crew, there are very real opportunities to earn full-time roles on the roster. After a 12-win season in 2015-16, coaches, management and staff have reiterated the fact that no job is safe.
“We’re looking for some guys to steal some spots,” Kazuik said. “The veterans have been told. We had a 12-win season last year. Nobody is safe. We want some of these younger guys to steal some jobs. They’re pushing every day.
“The message from the head coach [Pierce] was clear. It’s starting to show up now. I think you’re going to see some guys compete fairly hard through exhibition.”
While 61 players, including 17 veterans, arrived in camp on Sunday, Kazuik estimates 32 will advance to the pre-season roster. As of Wednesday evening, the Ice had yet to release its roster for the start of the 2016 exhibition season.
Where exactly are there jobs available? Well, pretty much across the board.
Payton Lee is a virtual lock to hold down the starting goaltender’s job in his 20-year-old campaign and Cale Fleury stands to be the stud defenceman on the blue line. Up front, Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro will lead the group as the other 20-year-olds on the roster. Beyond that, roster slots and minute distribution is available for the taking.
“It’s hard sometimes to truly evaluate [returners] in training camp,” Pierce said. “I gave them a talk beforehand that they needed to start right now. But they’re Western Hockey League players and, sometimes for them, it takes playing a real opponent and real games to bring out what they should be doing.
“Overall, I think they’re in better shape than they were last year at the start of camp. There is some urgency from some guys. Some, there’s no question, need to be better and they’ll be given the opportunity to prove that over the next few weeks. But there’s definitely going to be competition.
“Last year, you were almost forced into some roster decisions just based on numbers alone. This year, we’re going to have options and choices, which is always great as a team. It will increase competition amongst our players, which is always a real positive thing as well.”
Kazuik highlighted forwards Benjamin Sanderson (2000) and Austin Wong (2000) along with defenceman Bobby Russell (2000) as a trio of particularly impressive players out of the 2015 bantam draft class.
That draft class is eligible for full-time WHL duty for the first time this season and those three certainly left a lasting impression with Kazuik.
Standing 6-feet tall and weighing in at 171 pounds, Sanderson (2015 — sixth round, 122nd overall) brings the same sort of speed and skill that made his father — Geoff Sanderson — such an effective NHL player for over 1,100 regular season games.
Wong (2015 — 11th round, 232nd) locks in at 5-foot-9 and 177 pounds. The younger brother of Lethbridge Hurricanes star Tyler Wong brings that same fierce compete factor and despite his relative slight size, he pounded bodies and hit everything that moved all week long, plus drove the net hard to cash in on a number of opportunities.
Russell (2015 — sixth round, 123rd) displayed mobility and calm, collected decision-making from the backend. At 5-foot-11 and 164 pounds, there’s certainly room to grow, but the cool presence at such a young age is something for fans to be excited about.
While Kazuik highlighted some 2000s with a shot at cracking the big club, Pierce was keen on a number of 2001s. While first overall pick Peyton Krebs and second rounder Jesse Makaj were obvious standouts, there were a number of others that had the 33-year-old bench boss eagerly anticipating their arrival in 2017-18.
Amongst those, Pierce highlighted forward Brett Wieschorster (2016 — fifth round, 89th) who brought a great combination of skill and grit, standing 6-foot-1 and tipping the scales at 180 pounds.
He also pointed to defenceman Jordan Chudley (2016 — fourth round, 78th) as another promising youngster from the team’s most recent draft class.
With training camp officially in the books, preparation begins in practice this Friday as Pierce takes to the ice and puts the wheels in motion with the destination being a competitive roster before regular season action opens Sept. 23 in Calgary.
“It’s going to be a steep learning curve for some of them,” Pierce said. “We’re going to ask right away and focus on some habits starting in practice on Friday. We’ll see who can pay attention to details.
“We need to be a very coachable group with where we’re at. So far, I think you see that. But everyone is keen and eager to learn right away. It’s who is going to be able to keep listening when we’re at the end of exhibition and getting into our regular season.”
The Ice open pre-season play Sept. 8 in Kennewick, Wash., with an exhibition outing against the Prince George Cougars, before taking on the Seattle Thunderbirds (Sept. 9) and Portland Winterhawks (Sept. 10).
The Ice return north of the border to close the pre-season with a pair of games in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., against the Lethbridge Hurricanes (Sept. 15) and Calgary Hitmen (Sept. 17).