Competition for ice time just got a little stiffer in Cranbrook as the Kootenay Ice trimmed its roster to 35 Thursday night following the conclusion of training camp and the team’s annual Black/White Intrasquad Game.
“Overall, we’re happy with where we’re at right now,” said Garnet Kazuik, director of scouting for the Kootenay Ice. “We know where we are as an organization moving forward. We know that we have lots of work in front of us. It’s going to be very difficult, but at the same time it’s an exciting time to be with the organization. Obviously we had an older hockey team last year, so we know there’s work, but we’ve still got some good pieces there and it’s going to be exciting moving forward.”
A total of 66 players were invited to camp. Only three goaltenders, 15 defencemen and 17 forwards advanced for a longer look in pre-season play.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Thursday night. “I can’t believe it’s over. It was long, but I’m really impressed. I had no expectation coming in. I wanted to come in with a clean slate and I’m very, very impressed.
“The size of our group, the strength — even some of the young guys — they’re big, they’re mature. I think we’ve got a lot of real promising, young talent and obviously some of the veteran guys look outstanding.
“They seem real keen and eager to learn. There’s a lot of variation. We’ve got some small guys with some speed and some skill. We’ve got some big guys with power that can shoot pucks. Our ‘D’ looks well-rounded. I just like the balance that our group shows right now.”
On one end of the spectrum, the pre-season roster holds seven 1995-born players, with only three permanent overage slots available. At the other end, a pair of 2000-born players from the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft class, though ineligible to suit up in regular season action, will be rewarded for their strong efforts in training camp with some exhibition play.
Defenceman Loeden Schaufler (third round, 56th overall) and forward Eli Lieffers (fourth round, 78th) represent the lone 15-year-olds advancing beyond training camp.
“It really looks like there are going to be a couple [players from the 2015 bantam draft class] that are going to be able to play,” Kazuik said.
“It’s always nice when you get a guy later in the draft that you project can play. It looks like we have that right now. But having said that, there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before they make the hockey team. We’ll wait and see.”
Heading into pre-season it appears as though the greatest decision making remains on the blue-line.
With 15 rearguards vying for space, competition is wide open.
“The defencemen — that’s an interesting group,” Kazuik said. “We have depth of defencemen, but we have a lot of players on defence that need to define themselves and that includes some of the returning players. What are you going to be? They’ve all got an opportunity to step up this year and we’ve got some new guys coming in that want to make that hockey team. They need to define themselves as well. It’s going to be an interesting competition on the back end.”
A pair of 1996-born blue-liners represent intriguing characters, as both Nathyn Mortlock and Jordan Steenbergen have prior WHL experience after having spent parts of last season at the Junior A level.
Meanwhile, five returners stand in line for added responsibility, should they stake a claim to it, including four 1997s — Bryan Allbee, import Mario Grman, Troy Murray and Dylan Overdyk — and Cale Fleury (1998).
A handful of overage defencemen remain on the roster, but in tough with goaltender Wyatt Hoflin and forward Luke Philp likely holding down two of the three 20-year-old slots.
Up front, Kazuik expressed the group might be shallow, but that’s to be expected after losing veterans like Tim Bozon, Levi Cable, Sam Reinhart and Austin Vetterl.
Interesting names to watch through pre-season include Shane Allan (1997) and Jared Legien (1998). Both were late cuts last season, with Legien seeing 13 games of WHL action.
A few other forwards will pop off the page due to name recognition, as Harris Pearce (1999), Noah Philp (1998) and Max Patterson (1999) all have family connections to the WHL.
For Pearce, his older brother Elgin spent four seasons in the WHL, including three with the Kootenay Ice. The older Pearce brother wrapped up a successful major junior career in 2013 after skating in 254 WHL games and registering 148 points.
Philp’s connection is an obvious one as brother Luke, a 20-year-old veteran, led the Ice in scoring last season.
Patterson, meanwhile, is the son of Ed Patterson — a veteran of four WHL seasons as a player (1988 to 1992) and former assistant coach with the Kamloops Blazers (2010 to 2013).
With a smaller group remaining in Cranbrook, the focus changes and the pace will pick up as those remaining move from intrasquad games and scrimmages into full-fledged exhibition play against other WHL opponents.
For Pierce and assistant coach Gordon Burnett, the pre-season presents them with the first real opportunity to do some educating and system play as the evaluation process wears on.
“We’re going to start to teach a little bit, nothing elaborate, we’ll start on some basic parts of the systems,” Pierce said. “See how guys can pick that up and adapt and learn. Then we get ready to start playing some meaningful games. A lot changes when you start putting them against opponents wearing a different jersey. That will be interesting. We might see something we haven’t seen yet.”
The first meaningful game of the year comes Tuesday, Sept. 8, when the Lethbridge Hurricanes visit Memorial Arena at 7 p.m.
“The veterans will lead that group, they’ve been through it so they know how to change the pace of the game, pick up the play,” Kazuik said. “They know there’s people vying for spots and they know there are people going to play hard against them that are competing for spots.
“You’re going to see the tempo go up a little bit. For us, we’re really going to see who wants to make an impression.
“We’re really going to see who truly wants to be a Kootenay Ice. It’s an exciting time for us.”
KOOTENAY ICE PRE-SEASON ROSTER
Goaltenders (3)Declan Hobbs (1998)Wyatt Hoflin (1995)Keelan Williams (1996)
Defencemen (15)Bryan Allbee (1997)Tanner Faith (1995)Cale Fleury (1998)Mario Grman (1997)Dallas Hines (1998)Sam Huston (1999)Tyler King (1995)Tanner Lishchynsky (1995)Nathyn Mortlock (1996)Troy Murray (1997)Mark O’Shaughnessy (1997)Dylan Overdyk (1997)Loeden Schaufler(2000)Jordan Steenbergen (1996)Jason Wenzel (1998)
Forwards (17)Matt Alfaro (1996)Shane Allan (1997)Connor Barley (1998)River Beattie (1997)Jaedon Descheneau (1995)Roman Dymacek (1997)Jared Legien (1998)Eli Lieffers (2000)Vince Loschiavo (1998)Jon Martin (1995)Max Patterson (1999)Harris Pearce (1999)Luke Philp (1995)Noah Philp (1998)Drew Warkentine (1998)Austin Wellsby (1997)Zak Zborosky (1996)