There will be no shortage of storylines for the Kootenay Ice as the dawn of a new WHL season rises in Cranbrook.
The Ice will kick off the new campaign against long-time rivals in the Calgary Hitmen at Western Financial Place on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Set for their 20th season in the East Kootenay since relocating from Edmonton, the club is stacked with exciting, high-impact youth and prospects, while returning veterans will look to help the group take another step in their development.
“I think we’re going to be a hard working team that competes,” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “I think we can check well, we’re definitely different than last year. We did rely on our three 20-year-olds, who scored a lot of goals for us and they were guys who went over the boards for us when we had powerplays and penalty kills. So now, we’re a big younger, I think we’re maybe a little bit more depth; I think we’re a little more balanced.
“…I just think our division is more competitive than ever. For me, I want to see us with a real solid two way game. I know we took a lot of goals out of our lineup and we’re going to have to find ways to manufacture goals, create goals. As a coaching staff, we’re just really going to have to harp on pucks to the net, get bodies there.”
While there is some youth still battling for roster spots, the final lineup is starting to take shape, with 14 forwards, 10 defencemen and two goaltenders.
“It’s a really tough time for us and a tough decision for us and management and its tough on players at this time,” said Patrick. “Obviously, we’re really close, but it is an exciting week. Playing the home opener, for some guys to play their first league game, it’ll be a big event, it’ll be a big crowd with some ceremony, so for some players it can be bright lights and a bit distracting, so hopefully we can prepare them for that.”
Even though the regular season is set to begin, there are still some pending decisions to be made. While some WHL teams like to have their rosters locked down by the final preseason game, Ice head coach James Patrick indicated that the situation was still fluid.
This week, Patrick said he wanted to focus on line combinations and finding pairs who could generate some chemistry.
“This week, we just want to really start getting guys who know who they’re going to play with, start to get a better feel,” said Patrick. “We have tried to do that somewhat.
He cited playing Peyton Krebs with Cameron Hausinger and Jaeger White, or having the Taphorn twins playing with Jakin Smallwood or Cole Muir.
Krebs, in particular, will be the face of the Kootenay offence.
In consideration for WHL Rookie of the Year last season, Krebs was beaten out by Hurricanes phenom Dylan Cozens, however, it’s his first year of NHL Draft eligibility and he is projected to be a top-10 pick.
Krebs, a former first overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft, will be joined by a fellow top prospect in Connor McClennon, who went second overall in 2017.
McClennon was the club’s top scorer in the preseason with three goals and four assists in six games.
Brett Davis, a sixth round pick of the Dallas Stars, was one of Kootenay’s top scorers last year and he’ll be a key cog for offensive production.
Hausinger came to the Ice via trade last year, demolishing his career totals and scoring 20 goals and collecting 43 points.
“I think we’re going to come out and work ethic is going to be a big part of our game, and speed and playing a quick paced game,” said Hausinger.
The blue line is crowded, however, expect returning veterans Dallas Hines, Martin Bodak, Jonathan Smart and Sam Huston to form the backbone. As rookies last year, Zac Patrick and Loeden Schaufler will be looking to take the next step in their WHL careers.
“We look good,” said Hines, when sizing up the defensive corps. “We’ve got some old guys like Bodak and [Jonathan] Smart, but our young guys too, like Schaufler, Patrick and Orzeck — we’ve got a good group back there and I think we’re going to be very successful.”
But newcomer Valtteri Kakkonen, who arrived through the CHL Import Draft, is looking for a full-time spot on the blue line, as is Jordan Chudley and Nolan Orzeck, the latter of which got in some games with the big club last year.
The goaltending duo has been set with the tandem of Duncan McGovern and Jesse Makaj. McGovern took over starter duties last year, finishing the season with a 3.10 Goals Against Average and an .893 Save Percentage in 34 games. Jesse Makaj is looking to break into the league this year and has secured a spot for backup duties. A second-round pick in 2016, Makaj spent last season in the B.C. Major Midget League but out-duelled overager Matt Berlin — acquired last year via trade — for a job in the crease.
On the top of things that are settled, the 20-year-old situation has been set, for now.
WHL teams are allowed three overagers, and the Ice have defencemen Dallas Hines and Martin Bodak, while Jaeger White can be found up in the forward ranks.
Patrick said Bodak is capable of defending against elite players in the WHL, while highlighting Hines’ hockey sense and vision and touting White’s versatility.
“When I’m looking at those three guys, I expect them to be real important players for us to play in the big situations, the special teams and when we’re down goals or up goals, play against the other team’s best players,” said Patrick.
“And I expect them to really lead by example and be a big part of setting the culture and the tone for the rest of the players.”
The import situation is still undecided, as Swiss winger Gilian Kohler is back for another season, while Bodak, who hails from Slovakia, and Finnish defenceman Kakkonen, vie for spots. WHL teams are only allowed two players from the CHL Import Draft.
The home opener will feature pre-game ceremonies that will include player introductions as well as recognizing the inaugural team from 20 years ago and subsequent championships in 2000, 2002 and 2011.
Featured guests will include former franchise owner Jeff Chynoweth, coaches Colin Patterson and Cory Clouston, former players Colin Sinclair and Nathan Lieuwen and Darcy Ewanchuk, the current trainer and equipment manager who won a Memorial Cup with the team in 2002.
Festivities will start at 4 p.m. with a tailgate party consisting of a beer garden, barbecue, silent auction and music.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Hausinger. “We’re going to have a good crowd. We’re really community-based right now. We want everyone to come out and support us, just like we want to support everyone else with whatever we do, we’re doing a lot of community stuff with fans, with schools and we want to show everyone that we’re good kids and we want to be looked at as good kids and we play our heart out every night, so it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be awesome.”
ICE CHIPS: The Ice recently launched a new Family of Four game day packages priced at $54, unveiled after fan feedback, according to a press release. The current season ticket count rests at 1,670, which saw a drop of 247 from last year. The club had set a goal for 2,500 as part of it’s Drive to 25 campaign that kicked off in May 2017…The Ice also launched a new email service that provides exclusive access to content, offers and experiences as part of a ramped up push for fan engagement.