When head coach James Patrick plotted how he would transform his Western Hockey League team from cellar-dwellers into playoff contenders, he likely never envisioned starting the 2019-20 season without two key performers: centre Peyton Krebs and goaltender Jesse Makaj.
And then the off-season dealt Patrick and the Winnipeg Ice a devastating double-whammy.
Krebs, who would be chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft by the Vegas Golden Knights, suffered a partially torn Achilles tendon in June. Makaj was struck down by case of mononucleosis just before the start of training camp.
Krebs is rehabbing from surgery in Vegas with an undetermined return date. Makaj, who established himself as the club's No. 1 puckstopper last season, is close to returning. Not surprisingly, he's eager to put his stamp on the new season.
"Three days before training camp I had a sore throat and I got it checked out by the doctor and unfortunately, I found out it was mono," said Makaj, an 18-year-old from East Vancouver. "It was pretty disappointing coming off the best off-season of my life and getting ready for a big year ahead. I've been out for about four weeks now but practising with the team for about 2 1/2 weeks.
"After this weekend I'll be cleared to play, so hopefully next weekend I can get into a game again."
Makaj feels fortunate to be rounding into better health so soon. His condition, which included low energy and a 12-pound weight drop to 199 pounds, was accompanied by an enlarged spleen and liver. His condition was carefully monitored.
Taken in the context of playing behind the league's worst defensive team last season, the 6-3 Makaj earned his keep with a 4.41 goals-against average and .878 save percentage in 39 games.
Rookies Will Gurski and Gage Alexander were Winnipeg's only healthy goalies on the weekend after Dean McNabb, a 19-year-old vet acquired from the Regina Pats in the pre-season, suffered an MCL injury on the road in Saskatoon on Sept. 27.
Makaj appears likely to make his season debut when the Ice (3-3-1-0) travels to Medicine Hat on Friday or Saturday in Swift Current. McNabb could also be cleared to play soon.
"I'm confident in myself and I believe I'm the guy for this team," said Makaj. "I want to take a huge load and be the backbone of this team. I wasn't too worried. We have four goalies right now but when I start playing games I know I'm going to do well right off the start. I'm pretty much back to normal playing-wise...
"This year our team is a lot better, older and more mature."
The Ice is coming off its poorest stretch of the season so far, dropping a 7-0 decision to the Edmonton Oil Kings Friday and losing 4-0 to the Vancouver Giants on Saturday. Both losses were on home ice. Winnipeg went a combined 0-for-12 on the power play.
Could a more veteran presence in net affect the rest of the team?
"To answer that question, if it gives us a boost I'll welcome it but I don't want to use that as an excuse," said Patrick. "... I want our players to go out and compete as hard as they can and play the way they have to play, no matter who's in net. I think that's what you want... I thought Gage was fine (Saturday)."
Rookie blue-liner Carson Lambos didn't waver in his support of the Ice puckstoppers.
"Our goalies have been great," said Lambos. "They've been making the stops they're supposed to. You can't expect your goalies to save everything."
STANDOUT ROOKIE: It's rare for a 16-year-old to dominate in the WHL.
Consider Lambos a rare exception to the rule.
On Saturday, Lambos was the club's creative engine, lugging the puck effectively, firing three shots on net while also squaring off in a first-period fight with 19-year-old Giants defenceman Alex Kannok Leipert.
"He's been outstanding," said Patrick of Lambos. "He's our best player and I don't want that pressure on him but he's just bringing it on. He's our best competitor, he stands up for his teammates... when they dump it in, he skates it out of trouble. He's got a bomb of a shot. He's got a high-end wrist shot, NHL wrist shot, but he's also been working on the slapper."
Lambos was undeterred by his club's two shutout losses on the weekend.
"I thought we played really good today, actually," said Lambos Saturday. "We played the right way and we gave ourselves chances to score. Sometimes the bounces don't go your way and the pucks don't get to the back of the net. I think we've just gotta stick with what we're doing."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.