Players the size of Skyler Bruce — he’s 5-10, 165 pounds — are not uncommon in the WHL but you’ll need some special skills to thrive in a league filled with big bodied defenceman with a nasty temperament.
Bruce, an 18-year-old right-winger for the Winnipeg Ice, has a gift. His scoring touch.
That capability was on display in the club’s most recent pre-season game Saturday night.
Trailing 5-4 late in the third period against the visiting Regina Pats, a turnover in the neutral zone sent centre Conor Geekie and Bruce away on a 2-on-1.
Geekie zipped the puck to Bruce who coolly potted a beauty behind goaltender Spencer Welke, sending the game to overtime. Geekie would eventually score the shootout winner.
"Geeks made a great play by getting him the puck all alone," said Ice head coach James Patrick, "and he showed tons of patience to fake the goalie one way and eventually walk around him and put it in the empty net with some players bearing down on him."
Patrick expects to see a lot more of those sorts of plays and Bruce, an 18-year-old playing in his hometown, would love to comply. He had three goals and 11 points in 24 games for the Ice in the Regina hub last spring. It was a condensed season in which he started on the club’s fourth line but his influence grew until he was earning third-line minutes and power-play time.
Expectations are even higher this year.
On Tuesday, he was skating in practice with centre Matt Savoie and left-winger Owen Pederson in a spot that will almost certainly be occupied by all-star right-winger Connor McClennon when the Philadelphia Flyers draft pick returns from an NHL training camp.
Where Bruce will eventually land is uncertain but getting ice time with Savoie and Geekie, likely the club’s Nos. 1 and 2 centres, means a level of trust has been established.
"It feels good," said Bruce. "Those are two really high calibre players and I’ve just got to keep my feet moving and keep working hard. They’re really fun to play with and they’ve got a lot to bring to the table."
Pederson, who had 18 goals and 31 points in the hub, has been impressed.
"He’s a high IQ player," said Pederson. "He’s fast and has good offensive upside and make smart plays. He’s a great teammate and guy in the locker room."
Bruce is accustomed to being a big offensive producer. At the U14 level, he scored 50 goals in 37 games. At U16, he had 30 markers in 38 games and followed that up with 40 goals in 30 games during his first season of U18.
"It’s kind of been my calling card all the way growing up," said Bruce. "Defence has been a struggle but the two, three years I’ve been here James Patrick has helped me out a lot."
Once the regular season begins, don’t be surprised to see Bruce on a line with centre Cole Muir and super sophomore Zach Benson on the left side.
"There has been a progression every year since we’ve known him at 15 and we knew he was gifted offensively," said Patrick. "He can make plays, he can make things happen, but for him it meant getting stronger and getting up to speed. And we were pretty excited about where he is right now."
PLAY OF THE DAY: Ice head coach James Patrick admitted he watched nervously as Conor Geekie drove to the net before crashing heavily into a goal-post and dislodging the net at Tuesday’s practice. Geekie got up, flexed his legs and continued with the drill. All was well, apparently. "He’s at that age, that 16-, 17-, 18-(year-old) age where their body still bends," said Patrick with a grin.
BLUE-LINES: Earlier this week, the Ice reassigned forward Ty Fraser (Lethbridge,U18 AAA), blue-liner Ashton Cumby (Lloydminster, U18 AAA) and defenceman Omen Harmacy (Winnipeg Thrashers, U18 AAA)... Defenceman Carson Lambos left the Ice Monday to attend Minnesota Wild rookie camp. The Wild took Lambos in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft... On Monday, the Ice sent the WHL rights to 18-year-old goaltender Will Gurski to the Victoria Royals for a ninth-round pick in the 2021 WHL Draft. Gurski’s Junior A rights were also traded by the MJHL’s Winnipeg Freeze to the BCHL’s Cowichan Capitals for future considerations.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.