With eight players off at NHL camps, the Kootenay Ice will look to a younger squad during WHL exhibition play this weekend.
The Ice wrap up the 2014 WHL pre-season with the sixth annual Thunder Challenge in the Crowsnest Pass, beginning Friday at 7 p.m. when they meet the Lethbridge Hurricanes in Blairmore, Alta.
After three consecutive losses in Kennewick, Wa. last weekend — including an 8-2 thrashing at the hands of the Everett Silvertips — head coach Ryan McGill said he expected his squad to compete harder in individual battles throughout practice this week and in the final two games of the pre-season.
“Monday and Tuesday, practices were based around the compete and learning what it takes [to play in this league],” said assistant coach Jay Henderson Thursday night. “Obviously they got a good taste of that in exhibition games [in Kennewick] but now they’ve got to learn and make it a consistent thing…They did a good job this week and they worked hard.”
While Tim Bozon, Sam Reinhart and Mackenzie Skapski have all been missing since the start of camp as they prepared for NHL auditions, five more members of the Ice departed this week as they chase big league dreams.
Forwards Jaedon Descheneau, Jon Martin and Luke Philp, along with defencemen Tanner Faith and Rinat Valiev jettisoned from Cranbrook to each of their respective NHL destinations Wednesday evening.
Philp, Descheneau and Martin represent the team’s top three scorers through three pre-season games. Their absence leaves ample opportunity for the youngsters battling to make the club.
“As we move along in exhibition season, obviously for the young kids it’s new and playing in the Western League is different for them,” Henderson said. “They get to feel the process that first weekend.
“Going back to last year, our second weekend is much better — higher tempo of course — and they’ve had a little bit of time to learn our systems and that compete factor.”
Up front, 17-year-old Austin Wellsby has tallied one goal in two games, while 16-year-old Vince Loschiavo registered one assist during one game on the team’s trip to Kennewick. After a strong showing through training camp and intrasquad play, former 2013 first-round bantam selection Jared Legien has been held scoreless in three pre-season contests.
The curious name that has cruised under the radar is 16-year-old River Beattie. The native of Sherwood Park, Alta. has registered an even rating through three exhibition losses. Beattie was drafted by the Ice in the sixth round of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft.
Mark O’Shaughnessy, Cale Fleury and Bryan Allbee continue to slug away in search of employment on the backend. Fleury and Allbee both sit with a minus-four rating, while O’Shaughnessy heads up the trio with a plus-1 mark to go with one assist.
“They’re still learning,” Henderson said of the trio. “It’s about details. All three of them bring something different to our team.
“But at the end of the day, everyone is still battling it out right now. Just because you’re a veteran, doesn’t mean you’re going to make the club.”
The veterans Henderson alludes to consist of Troy Murray, Jordan Steenbergen, Tanner Faith, Tyler King and Rinat Valiev.
The goaltending battle behind Wyatt Hoflin continues as Keelan Williams and Jayden Sittler vie for the backup position.
“They’re both in tough,” Henderson said. “But they’ve shown well, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”
Williams allowed four goals to the Portland Winterhawks in his only appearance in Kennewick, while Sittler was cracked for eight tallies against the Silvertips.
According to Henderson, the expectation is that Sittler and Williams will share the puck-stopping duties Friday against Lethbridge while Wyatt Hoflin will see 60 minutes of crease time Sunday afternoon against the Calgary Hitmen.
After Friday’s dust-up with the Hurricanes, the Ice close out the Thunder Challenge Sunday at 2 p.m. when they meet the Calgary Hitmen in Blairmore.
The Ice have 22 players in camp following the NHL departures of Descheneau, Martin, Philp, Faith and Valiev. Whether those five return will impact when and what roster decisions are made following the conclusion of the pre-season.
“We’re focused on the weekend at this point,” Henderson said. “Hopefully everyone shows well. We want those tough decisions, that’s what training camp is for.”
The Ice open the 2014-15 WHL regular season Friday, Sept. 19 in Red Deer.