Coaches and general managers love having to make tough decisions this time of year. Dean Clark and Dallas Thompson are in that exact position with the Prince George Cougars.
The bench boss (Clark) and the GM (Thompson) appear to have one of their deepest pre-season lineups in years. Twenty-seven players -- including goaltenders Devon Fordyce and Brett Zarowny -- remain with the local Western Hockey League club. That means 25 players are fighting for jobs at defence and forward, and only 18 spots will be available on a nightly basis this season.
Clark and Thompson will be watching closely tonight and Saturday when the Cougars take on the Edmonton Oil Kings in exhibition games at CN Centre. They'll be looking for the little things that separate bona fide major-junior players from top prospects who aren't quite ready for the show.
On defence, 10 players are in the mix for roster spots, including 20-year-olds Dan Gibb and Dallas Ehrhardt and 18-year-old Latvian import Rinalds Rosinskis. Those three will form the backbone of the Cats' defence corps, and that leaves seven others battling for favourable positions on the depth chart. They are 17-year-olds Michael Mylchreest, Marc McNulty, Joseph Carvalho, Raymond Grewal and Tanner Lishchynsky and a pair of 16-year-olds, Jordan Harris and Sam Ruopp.
Regardless of who stays and who goes, the Cats will have great size on the blueline this year.
"Joe Carvalho is the only guy that's left that's under six-foot," Clark said. "Everybody else is six-one and above so our size on the back end has improved greatly. We played all of them [in pre-season games last weekend] and usually they start to separate themselves a little bit but everybody was very, very solid so there are going to be some tough decisions with that last 10 that we have.
"Dan Gibb and Dallas Ehrhardt give us some great stability and those young kids, they've really stepped up and made it hard for us."
Thompson, meanwhile, is pleased with what he has seen from Rosinskis, whom the Cougars selected 65th overall in June's CHL import draft.
"He's got good mobility -- pretty good feet," Thompson said. "He's not afraid, plays very physical and has got a great gap. There's not a lot of space between him and the forwards. He takes that time and space away. He's been fine and has fit in well here."
Rosinskis, an intimidating six-foot-five and 198 pounds, skated for Latvia at last year's Under-18 world championship and had 18 penalty minutes in six games. With his Riga club team last season, he scored one goal and added nine assists in 30 outings. He also spent 34 minutes in the penalty box.
Up front, the Cougars are still carrying 15 players. And, looking at the group as a whole, Clark said it's more talent-laden than any he has coached in his three previous seasons in Prince George.
"We can put four solid lines on the ice right now," he said. "We were kind of filling holes at times last year but with the addition of Zach Pochiro, Colin Jacobs and Jari Erricson, those guys filled some needs for us and we've still got Brett Roulston and Johnny Odgers and some other guys that are there as role players. So with all the kids that we played last year and this group that we have, we're more deep than we've ever been at the forward position."
Pochiro, an 18-year-old from Las Vegas, played last season for the Wichita Falls Wildcats, a team once owned by Cougars owner Rick Brodsky. Jacobs, a 19-year-old draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, came to the Cats in the August trade that sent defenceman Jesse Forsberg to the Seattle Thunderbirds, while the 18-year-old Erricson was acquired from the Everett Silvertips in May.
Erricson, underutilized in Everett, is a local product who played one season of major midget hockey with the P.G.-based Cariboo Cougars. Gibb, Grewal, Roulston and forward Chase Witala also came through the Cariboo Cougars' program.
"There are some good players that are being developed here through the Cariboo Cougars and we're excited that these guys are here and doing as well as they are," Clark said.
The games against the Oil Kings -- the defending WHL champions -- will start at 7 p.m. The Cougars are 2-0 thus far in the pre-season, while the Oil Kings sit at 1-1.
n The Cougars signed Lishchynsky to a WHL contract on Thursday. He spent the past two seasons with the Saskatoon midget Blazers and was the club's defenceman of the year and co-MVP in 2011-12.