If the Prince George Cougars had to depend on their win-loss record in recent years for sustenance, they'd be starving right now.
Ever since they advanced to the Western Conference final in 2007, the Cats have had six lean seasons of sub-par results and only two playoff berths. By January of last season, they pretty much knew they'd missed the postseason dance, doomed to a 21-43-2-6 record, second-worst in the WHL. Head coach Dean Clark was served his walking papers.
That history of perpetual losing was not lost on the fans, who deserted the Cougs in record numbers, turning what was once a ea-of-white madhouse into a near-empty ocean-of-green mausoleum.
But that was then.
After years of high draft picks, a couple of smart trades, and some shrewd scouting, this year's edition has a real shot at bringing joy back to Cougarville. This team appears ready to find out how the better half lives in the Western Hockey League.
Twenty-year-old right winger Klarc Wilson, a former Edmonton Oil King, had the rug pulled out from under him at midseason when he was traded to the Cougars, falling from first to near-worst.
"The fans have a reason to be excited this year, we're all sick of being the laughingstock of the league and we're going to do everything we can t turn this ship around and finally give this city a winning team," said Wilson. "I think we all feel we have a good group of guys and we can accomplish something this year. We owe it ourselves to be in the playoffs and have a good year and myself and the other leaders on the team are not going to take any slack."
Head coach Mark Holick is a hard-nosed stickler for conditioning and made sure the players understood that when they broke for the summer. They seem to have gotten the message, going 5-0 in the preseason. The Cougars start the 20th season of the franchise's Prince George history tonight in Portland.
"Mark set the standard and has had some success with them here early and certainly signs are pointing that the team has taken a step forward," said Cougars GM Dallas Thompson. "We were very young two years in a row and now that group is to the age where they need to carry the team here. There's a different air about our team down there and that's what we needed to get to."
The big story on the forward lines is the return of a revitalized and inspired Alex Forsberg. The number one overall bantam pick in 2010 quit the Cougars at Christmas and returned to Saskatchewan asking for a trade. He's back and out to show NHL scouts he deserves to be on the pro radar after seeing so many of his 18-year-old peers picked in the entry draft. The Cougars appear to have found a top-line centre to replace pro-bound Colin Jacobs in David Soltes, the fourth-overall import draft pick in 2013. Soltes showed in the preseason why he was good enough to play for the Slovakian under-18 national team. Throw in 19-year-old Colorado Avalanche draft pick Troy Bourke or perhaps Zach Pochiro, still working out with the St. Louis Blues, and the Cougars could have the makings of one of the top scoring lines in the league.
They also have a legitimate rookie-of-the-year candidate in Jansen Harkins, the second-overall bantam pick in 2012, who finished tied for second in the WHL preseason scoring race with nine points in five games. Harkins shows hockey smarts that go well beyond his 16 years, as does Brad Morrison, the seventh-overall pick in 2012, obtained in the Martin Marincin deal with Regina.
Throw in Chase Witala and his soft hands around the net, Brett Roulston's propensity for shot-blocking and penalty-killing, and the playmaking abilities of Jari Erricson, Jordan Tkatch, Jake Mykitiuk, Carson Bolduc, Tyler Mrkonjic and newcomer Austin Ferguson and the Cougars will certainly find more ways to score than they did last year.
The defence corps is young, but they're a lot bigger than last year's crew. Former Calgary Hitman Peter Kosterman is the one greybeard at 20. There are four 18-year-olds in Marc McNulty, Joseph Carvalho, Raymond Grewal and Martin Bobos, and youngsters Zach Gonek , Sam Ruopp and Tate Olson. Kosterman and Bobos (part of the Slovakian under-18 national team) are adept puck-movers and they should blend in well with the flashier offensive-minded McNulty and Carvalho, both of whom, along with Grewal, played a ton of minutes for the Cougars last year.
"The mood on the team is 100 times better than last year, we have a whole new attitude and we won't accept losing," said McNulty. "We have all the pieces we need, now we just have to go and complete the task."
In goal, 18-year-old Brett Zarowny displaced Mac Engel as the starter. Zarowny played 31 games and faced a lot of rubber on a weak team and should reap the benefits of that barrage this season. If he falters, Ty Edmonds is capable of getting the job done, having endured a similar high-shot scenario as a 16-year-old last year in the Manitoba junior league.
"I like where we're headed but I'm not going to say, let's plan a parade route here,"said Holick. " I think if you take care of your habits and your work ethic is where it should be, you'll win more than you lose. We still have a long way to go, but if we can be the hardest-working team on the ice you'll give yourself a chance."