With two games remaining in the Western Hockey League regular season, Zak Zborosky is on a mission.
The 19-year-old native of Regina has been a bright spot in what has otherwise been a trying season for the Kootenay Ice, who will miss the post-season for the first time in 18 years.
Easily lost in the 12-win campaign is the fact the 6-foot, 174-pound winger has posted career numbers, including 28 goals and 35 assists, to lead the club in scoring with 63 points.
“It’s one of the things that gets overlooked the most,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, “the success that he’s had on a team that — let’s call a spade a spade — has been void of talent at times with the injuries we’ve had and things like that. A lot of times, talent is a product of your teammates and he hasn’t had a lot of support a lot of nights. To do what he’s done is pretty remarkable and should be commended.”
Closing the season with a home-and-home series against the Calgary Hitmen, Zborosky’s mission objective is simple: hit the 30-goal plateau.
“I’ve been talking about getting 30 goals since I hit the 27-goal mark,” Zborosky said with a smile Thursday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “It’s on my mind, maybe a little too much. But I think that would be really exciting, it would be a big milestone in my career.”
After being on the radar for NHL Central Scouting ahead of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Zborosky was eventually dropped off the list and went undrafted heading into his third season in the WHL.
That factor helped motivate the speedy winger and tasked with leading the offense of a young group, Zborosky responded.
“It’s a big motivation,” Zborosky said. “Being knocked off the list and not drafted, not invited to a camp, you sort of look at yourself and realize that over the summer you’ve got to work harder and train harder. Then you’ve got to do more in games and be more productive. If you’re a skill guy, you’ve got to make those plays and score those goals.”
Having seen a number of other undrafted WHL veterans sign NHL contracts in their overage year, including former teammate Jon Martin, Zborosky’s hope for a professional opportunity is still very much alive as he pens the final few scenes of the 2015-16 season and begins looking ahead to his overage campaign in 2016-17.
“For Zak, to reach those types of plateaus, he has to be much more consistent within a game,” Pierce said. “I think that starts with practice, doing all the little habits right, hitting the net, stopping in front of the net, finding all those greasy things, too.
“It’s been good for him to see some of these players, and a former teammate in Jon, and other guys throughout the league that people never really expected to have the type of years they’ve had. It makes it realistic. It doesn’t make it easy, but it gives you hope that it can be done.”
Martin, of course, signed an entry-level free agent contract with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks after stacking up career highs with the Swift Current Broncos, including 41 goals and 73 points through 68 games. Prior to that, Martin’s career bests with the Ice were no higher than 10 goals (2013-14) and 24 points (2014-15).
Riding a two-game winning streak into the final weekend of the regular season, Zborosky and the Ice (12-52-6-0) will look to bite to the Calgary Hitmen (40-26-2-2) one final time in 2015-16. The Hitmen visit Cranbrook’s Western Financial Place Friday night (7 p.m.) before hosting the Ice Sunday afternoon (1 p.m.) at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.
“We’re pretty confident coming in and we want to finish the year out strong,” Zborosky said. “We haven’t had the best year, but winning these last two games — it’s fun when you win. I hope we can carry that into Friday night.”
It has been easily seen that Zborosky and the Ice have been enjoying the game significantly more this past week and as far as Pierce is concerned, that’s been one of the biggest factors in sparking the success.
“We’re trying to enjoy the game as much as we can and at the same time, working to get better,” Pierce said. “Third period, you get a lead, you start to change your approach a little bit where now it’s about winning and shutting them down. But we got ourselves into that situation [Tuesday against the Edmonton Oil Kings] by playing the game a little more loose, a little more free and having some fun.
“I think we’ve seen some improvement and growth in the way that we’re playing and generating some offense on our own. We want to continue to enjoy it and continue to try and tweak some little things that can set us up and give us an idea what we having coming into next year.”
The Kootenay Ice will hand out team awards to recognize the best and brightest from the season past, with an ice-level ceremony prior to puck drop Friday night at Western Financial Place.