October 19, 2019

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Breaking the Ice

Relocated Western Hockey League franchise opens training camp in Winnipeg Wednesday with loads of talent, high hopes for a fresh start

If there was a franchise in desperate need of a reboot, the Winnipeg Ice is it.

Over the last four seasons, the Ice (formerly based in Cranbrook, B.C.) have missed the playoffs four times, finished dead last in the Western Hockey League twice and compiled a dismal 66-182-28-8 regular-season record during that span.

Since Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell purchased the team in the spring of 2017, there was a minor uptick with a 19th-place finish (in a 22-team league) and 21st overall in 2018-19. The payoff, with the club shipping out a number of veterans for a boatload of draft choices, was an outrage to fans in Cranbrook who wanted a better product on the ice, not picks for a hazy vision of the future.

If there was a franchise in desperate need of a reboot, the Winnipeg Ice is it.

Over the last four seasons, the Ice (formerly based in Cranbrook, B.C.) have missed the playoffs four times, finished dead last in the Western Hockey League twice and compiled a dismal 66-182-28-8 regular-season record during that span.

Since Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell purchased the team in the spring of 2017, there was a minor uptick with a 19th-place finish (in a 22-team league) and 21st overall in 2018-19. The payoff, with the club shipping out a number of veterans for a boatload of draft choices, was an outrage to fans in Cranbrook who wanted a better product on the ice, not picks for a hazy vision of the future.

SCHEDULE

Click to Expand

All games are at the At Rink Training Centre and open to the public.

Thursday

Practices: 10, 11:15 a.m., 12:30, 1:45, 5:15 p.m.

Friday

Intrasquad games: 10, 11:15 a.m., 3:30, 4:45 p.m.

Saturday

Intrasquad games: 10, 11:15 a.m., 3:30, 4:45 p.m.

Sunday

Showcase game: 5 p.m.

Then, with relocation talk swirling around the team from mid-season on, it became among the toughest gigs in major-junior hockey.

Today, with the majority of players and club personnel having relocated more than 1,500 kilometres west to the Manitoba capital, the payoff after years of pain may finally be at hand.

The club, which opens training camp when players report for medicals Wednesday at Winnipeg's Rink Training Centre, could have as many as five No. 1 or No. 2 overall bantam draft picks in the lineup during the 2019-20 season.

Those elite players — namely centre Peyton Krebs, right-winger Connor McClennon, defenceman Carson Lambos and 15-year-old centres Conor Geekie and Matt Savoie — should one day be a formidable presence in the NHL, but it's also the kind of talent that should be capable of propelling the Ice to better things in the short term.

However, there are issues head coach James Patrick must address immediately.

Krebs, a first-round draft pick of the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights, is recovering from surgery to repair a partially torn Achilles tendon and may be a month or more from returning to action.

Assembling a forward group without his first-line centre will be a tricky task but Patrick also has uncertainty in net, where incumbent starter Jesse Makaj has come down with an unspecified illness and will be unavailable for training camp.

Moulding a successful team, using the established veterans he has and combining them with a an uber-talented group of young players, is Patrick's most immediate concern. But even he admits the pressure has lifted with the move to Winnipeg.

TRAINING CAMP ROSTER

GOALTENDERS

Veterans (2): Duncan McGovern, x-Jesse Makaj

Newcomers (7): Nathan Airey, Gage Alexander, Daniel Hauser, Keegan Gordon, Will Gurski, Kaiden Kirkwood, Matthew Merkel

GOALTENDERS

Veterans (2): Duncan McGovern, x-Jesse Makaj

Newcomers (7): Nathan Airey, Gage Alexander, Daniel Hauser, Keegan Gordon, Will Gurski, Kaiden Kirkwood, Matthew Merkel

DEFENCEMEN

Veterans (5): Chase Hartje, Zachary Patrick, Marco Creta, Reece Harsch, Nolan Orzeck

Newcomers (17): Owen Boucher, Deshon Friesen, Benjamin Zloty, Nicholas Finnson, Hughie Hooker, Michael Ladyman, Carson Lambos, Pearce Gare, Joe Kraus, Anson McMaster, Josh Mittimano, Karter Prosofsky, Colby Ball, Luca Cagnoni, Isiah Kinnaventhong, Carson Tiede, Nick Trudel

FORWARDS

Veterans (9): Brad Ginnell, Michael Milne, Austin Schellenberg, Isaac Johnson, Owen Pederson, x-Peyton Krebs, Connor McClennon, Cole Muir, Jakin Smallwood

Newcomers (30): Dean Gorchynski, Keilan Holland, Rylan Ringor, Matt Savoie, Mikol Sartor, Michal Teply, Kevin Anderson, Conor Geekie, Ethan Sundar, Justin Svenson, Ty Paisley, Evan Waldie, Nolan Weihs, Chase Bertholet, Skyler Bruce, Logan Danis, Jake Oleksiuk, Rhys Raeside, Noah Serdachny, Sean Williams, James Form, Brayden Edwards, Evan Friesen, Matt Hill, Nino Kinder, Holden Kodak, Aeden Loschiavo, Davis Murray, Hayden Pakkala, Carter Spirig

x-unable to practise due to injury or illness

Optimism is back but that doesn't mean dragging the franchise back to contender status will be easy.

"The culture obviously starts with me and the coaching staff, but it's really gotta be a total buy-in from your core leaders," Patrick said Tuesday. "Peyton's going to be in camp and then in Vegas getting treatment before he's ready to play.

"The leadership, example, the drive and passion that he brings is second to none that I've been around in my time in the game.... We are going to miss him on and off the ice, but I feel we have a really good group here."

Here's a look at how the position battles shape up for training camp, which concludes with the showcase intrasquad game at 5 p.m. Sunday:

Goaltenders

Makaj, an 18-year-old who compiled an .878 save percentage and 4.41 goals-against average in 39 appearances for the Ice last season, seized control of the No. 1 job after injuries limited Duncan McGovern to 24 games.

Goalie Duncan McGovern runs through drills during a practice at the Rink Training Centre in Oak Bluff Tuesday Morning.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Goalie Duncan McGovern runs through drills during a practice at the Rink Training Centre in Oak Bluff Tuesday Morning.

McGovern said he is fit and ready to bring his best.

"It's eight months since I've been playing regularly so I think I've gotten back to the basics and I'm ready to go now," said McGovern, 19. "I feel really good. In terms of my body, I think I'm as happy with it as I've been. I decided to put some weight on and some strength this summer, because I think I was kinda lacking in power. I think that was really important for me... I feel like I was too fragile in the past."

Coming home has been energizing for the native Winnipegger.

"It was a longer summer than we wanted to have but a lot of excitement just being from here and getting to see the rink every day and seeing the buzz around the team," said McGovern. "It's been been very cool for me."

Newcomers Gage Alexander, Will Gurski and Nathan Airey will have a chance to showcase their skills.

"It's probably the most interesting battle we'll have in camp," said Patrick. "We're going to have competition."

Defencemen

The Ice were the WHL's worst defensive team last season, surrendering a whopping 324 goals in 68 games, and management is hoping the maturation of younger players and the addition of some savvy vets will go a long way to improving those numbers.

"My most important job is to get us in the right frame of mind to play the right way to win," said Patrick. "And we're going to have to be as committed as possible to playing defence. We gave up a lot of goals (last season) and we've gotta take off 70 goals from last year. I'm throwing a number out there but we've gotta take out a big chunk.

Lambos played five games as a 15-year-old and should be a big factor as a 16-year-old, already touted as a top prospect for the 2021 NHL Draft. Other young blue-liners with potential to contribute immediately include Karter Prosofsky, Benjamin Zloty and the towering Anson McMaster.

Winnipeg added a pair of overage blue-liners, acquiring Reece Harsch from the Saskatoon Blades at the bantam draft in the trade that ultimately netted Geekie, and Chase Hartje from the Brandon Wheat Kings for a third-round pick at the trade deadline.

Defensemen Reece Harsch was acquired from the Saskatoon Blades.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Defensemen Reece Harsch was acquired from the Saskatoon Blades.

The 6-3, 191-pound Harsch played for Seattle's WHL championship squad in 2016-17 and his 33 post-season games are only two fewer than the rest of Winnipeg's current roster combined.

"I think I'll be a good piece," said Harsch, who hails from Grand Prairie, Alta. "Just using my experience, I've been through a lot of playoff games. I've been with a championship team. I just want to help that way — talking a lot and making sure we've got the right culture going on here."

Veterans Marco Creta, Nolan Orzeck and Zachary Patrick are also in the mix.

 

Forwards

McClennon, who performed well for Team Canada at the recent under-18 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, will be a fixture in Winnipeg's top-six with import draftees Michal Teply, a fourth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks out of the Czech Republic, and German-born Nino Kinder being counted upon heavily to upgrade the output of this group.

Forward Brad Ginnell says the team is 'pretty optimistic about coming' to Winnipeg.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Forward Brad Ginnell says the team is 'pretty optimistic about coming' to Winnipeg.

Kinder and off-season trade addition Isaac Johnson, a 20-year-old from Andover, Minn., are wingers who have some experience at centre but after Krebs, Cole Muir and Jakin Smallwood, a pair of 18-year-olds, could get some prime-time exposure in the middle.

Brad Ginnell, 19, played most of last season on Kreb's right flank and will be an important man again this season. Jaeger White, the left-winger on the top line a year ago, has used up his junior eligibility.

"Last season, it was emotional at times with the move and with the small community but I think we're all pretty optimistic about coming here with all the hype around us now," said Ginnell. "We're going to have a good team."

Ginnell is preparing to be better.

"Every year you want to come in and prove something and try to take another step," he said. "This year I'm an older guy on the team, a more experienced guy, so I want to be more of a leader for the young guys and help them out as well as prove more on the ice."

Patrick believes the upgrades will result in better offensive production.

"We have way more depth up front, obviously with the Europeans, Isaac Johnson and our young players are a year older," said Patrick. "I feel a lot better offensively, with what we have on paper."

 

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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