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Former Edmonton Oilers coach helping Prince George Cougars

Former NHL bench boss from Fort St. James spent past three seasons as Edmonton Oilers associate coach
Jim Playfair offers some advice to Edmonton Oilers winger Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Playfair, a native of Fort St. James who spent the past three seasons as an Oilers associate coach, has been lending his expertise to the Prince George Cougars this season as a guest coach.

Outside of Prince George Cougars circles, it’s a little-known fact who they’ve had as their guest coach for practice sessions this season at CN Centre.

Jim Playfair needs no introduction. He’s got 25 seasons behind him coaching pro hockey players in the NHL and AHL. As recently as last season he was coaching Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Now that he’s in between jobs after three years as an associate coach with the Oilers, Playfair was asked by Cougars coach and general manager Mark Lamb to come out to practice whenever he can to pass on his hockey knowledge to the Cougars. They got to know each other in 2016-17, when Lamb was head coach of the Tucson Roadrunners in the AHL and Playfair was an associate coach with the parent Arizona Coyotes.

Playfair, who played nine seasons in the pros as a defenceman, lives on Stuart Lake at Fort St. James and until he finds a new coaching gig he’s agreed to help out with the Cougars on a part-time basis.

“This isn’t really anything new, when I first took the job here (in 2019), he was at our training camp watching stuff with me during it and we kept in contact,” said Lamb. “When he got let go (by the Oilers) last year I reached out. There’s so many things a guy can learn from hockey people and especially a coach with that much experience that I have a good relationship with.”

Playfair runs the players through drills, sits in on team meetings and is there to advise Lamb and his assistants, Josh Dixon, Carter Rigby, and goalie coach Taylor Dakers.

“He’s been a head coach in the NHL (with Calgary in 2006-07) and in the American League and won a Calder Cup,” said Lamb. “I just thought it would be really good for our group and he's been at a few practices and a few games, whenever he’s available. It’s part-time but it’s very valuable for us. It’s good for the players because ultimately that’s where they want to go, to the NHL and it keeps Jimmy in the game for his next job also.”

The Cougars (12-9-0-0, fourth in Western Conference) have won three straight to maintain their grip on first place in the B.C. Division and will put that streak on the line tonight (7 p.m.) at CN Centre when they host the Moose Jaw Warriors (13-8-0-0, fourth in Eastern Conference).

Last weekend the Cougars beat up on a Victoria Royals team that was missing nine players due to injuries and outscored them a combined 14-3 in the two games in Victoria.

“There was lots of things to like,” said Lamb. “Our goaltending was good in both games, our special teams were really good in both games. There’s always some lapses in hockey and those lapses didn’t hurt us at all because out goaltending was there. All in all, it was a great effort.”

After a 6-for-19 weekend, the Cougars’ power play is clicking at a rate of 28.7 per cent (29-for-101), second only to Portland’s 32.5 per cent efficiency.

Among the Cougars who feasted offensively in Victoria were defencemen Hudson Thornton and Keaton Dowhaniuk. Thornton produced six points (three goals, three assists) in a 9-1 win Friday and now ranks third in team scoring with 30 points, including seven goals, in 21 games. Dowhaniuk followed Saturday with his first two-goal game in a 5-2 victory. Cats blueliner Viliam Kmec also notched his first goal of the season on Friday.

“A six -point night and a hat trick for a D is special, that doesn’t come around very often, if ever, and he deserves it, he puts a lot of work into his came, he practices hard and works out a lot off the ice,” said Lamb. “You just love to see a guy who works so hard have success and that kind of stuff rubs off on your team. There’s no easy way to be a good hockey player, you just have to work hard all the time.

“(Dowhaniuk) gets a lot of tough matchups, he’s a top penalty-killer and top icetime guy for us and it’s a little gratifying when you get a two-goal game. Kmec has been solid all year long, with little fanfare because it’s not the stats. How he’s played all year has been excellent.”

The Cougars’ three overagers are all producing points and providing leadership. Wheatcroft has 16 goals, second only to Connor Bedard’s 19 snipes for the league lead. Cole Dubinsky has six goals and three assists in his five games as a Cougar since arriving in a trade from Regina, and Noah Boyko has points in six of the last eight games.

Lamb also has high praise for homegrown left winger Fischer O’Brien, who he refers to as his Swiss army knife, able to handle any assignment. O’Brien has two goals and three assists in 17 games, nowhere near the top of Cougar charts, but the 19-year-old veteran is proving his value in other areas and he’s usually one of the first over the boards to kill penalties.

“Those type of players don’t get a lot of recognition from anybody except the players and the coaching staff,” said Lamb. “Every team has a Fischer O’Brien on it and you can’t replace those guys. He does so much for this hockey club. His stats don’t show it but he brings everything. He plays the game the way we want to play, he’s a big leader on this team.”

Cougars sniper Koehn Ziemmer received an upgrade this week to his ranking on NHL Central Scouting’s Players To Watch list and now joins his linemate, centre Riley Heidt, on the ‘A’ list, which tags him as a potential first-round pick in the 2023 NHL draft.

Ziemmer (15-20-35) is tied for second in points in the WHL and Heidt (11-23-34) isn’t far off the pace, ranked sixth in the league scoring race. The Cats have two others in the top-12 pointgetters, including Thornton (7-23-30, 10th) and Wheatcroft (16-12-28, 12th).

The Cougars are 7-3-0-0 in their last 10 games. Moose Jaw (6-4-0-0) has almost matched that pace.

Coached by Mark O’Leary, who took over from Tim Hunter in January 2020, the Warriors will be bringing plenty of NHL pedigree.

Warriors C Brayden Yager, picked third overall in the 2020 draft behind Bedard and Heidt, is also considered an ‘A’ prospect for the NHL draft. Yager (10-15-25) is tied for the team lead in points with Jagger Firkus (12-13-25). Firkus was chosen by the Seattle Kraken in the second round (35th overall in the 2022 NHL draft.

Moose Jaw has four other NHL picks, including D Denton Mateychuk, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 12th-overall pick this year; C Ryder Korczak (New York Rangers, third round, 75th overall, 2022), LW Martin Rysavy (Columbus, seventh round, 197th overall, 2021) and D Maximus Wanner (Edmonton, seventh round, 212th overall, 2021).

Dowhaniuk (upper body, day-to-day) and D Ephram McNutt (lower body, day-to-day) are questionable for Wednesday’s game. For the Warriors, F Riley Niven (upper body, day-to-day) and D Cole Jordan (lower body, week-to-week), won’t likely play.

The Cougars host the Kamloops Blazers in their first visit to P.G. this season Saturday (6 p.m.)

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