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Cougars showing signs they will be legitimate contenders in 2021-22

Successive years of high WHL draft picks put team on track for success
13  Cougars Koehn Ziemmer scores second goal against Giants May 5 2021
Coiugars forward Koehn Ziemmer puts the finishing touches on a backhand deke he used to score his second goal of the game last season in Kamloops against the Vancouver Giants. Ziemmer finishd the season as the top rookie in the WHL's BC Division and will be one of the key players to watch at CN Centre as the Cats begin a new season with the start of training camp on Thursday.

Fewer players are on the invitation list and training camp is starting about two weeks later than normal but that’s OK for the Prince George Cougars.

Just the fact they’re once again able to set up shop in their home den and resume somewhat normal operations is a thrill for anybody connected to the Western Hockey League team.

That was not possible last year due to health restrictions in Canada and the U.S. that scrapped all contingency plans the league had worked out for its 22 teams to use their home rinks during the season. Instead, only a few cities were selected to serve as team hubs and an abbreviated season that started in late February for Central Division teams didn’t get underway until March 27 for the Cougars. Less than two months later, after just 22 games in bubble-like isolation the season ended, without playoffs, and for the second consecutive year, no team was given the chance to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions.

This year marks a return to more usual conventions for the WHL and the Cougars have every reason to feel good about their chances of success. In a young league, they had one of the youngest teams last season and still managed to finish close to the .500 mark, posting a 9-10-2-1 record as the top wild-card team in the Western Conference. Had there been a postseason, the Cats would have qualified for the first time in four seasons.

With no playoffs and games restricted to divisional play only, there was less at stake and the teams used that time to do the type of lineup experimentation they would not attempt in a conventional 68-game season. For the Cougars, a team loaded with young players picked in the early rounds of several WHL drafts, it was a perfect opportunity to throw the rookies into the pool to find out if they sink or swim and they overwhelmingly passed that test. It’s no mystery now, among pro scouts and opposing team coaches, that the Cougars’ kitty is well-stocked with players capable of becoming stars in the league over the next few seasons, if they aren’t already there.    

Until last season, when we finally got to see them play on streaming webcasts from Kamloops and Kelowna, we only had scouting reports to judge whether defenceman Keaton Dowhaniuk and winger Koehn Ziemmer were worthy of being chosen third- and fourth-overall respectively in the 2019 draft, or why centre Riley Heidt was next in the overall draft order behind budding superstar Connor Bedard. Now we know.

Ziemmer was a standout as the BC Division’s rookie of the year, with five goals and 11 points in 17 games. He’s got a big shot and is already earning a reputation as a finisher.

“He’s just a motivated hockey player, that’s what he wants to do, and he’s highly-skilled,” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. “We knew he had the skill, but you never know how it will translate once you get int games and he’s not afraid to get into traffic. That’s another skill he’s got, that we got to see in the bubble.”

Dowhaniuk drew tons of icetime and was also a major contributor playing in any situation on defence and he potted three goals and eight points in his WHL season debut. The grit and playmaking ability of 2019 second-rounder Kyren Gronick also did not go unnoticed after he put up five goals and 11 points in his rookie year. Along with Ziemmer, they were selected for Hockey Canada’s under-17 development camp in Calgary this summer.

Heidt was only 15 when he suited up against 20- or 21-year-old veterans and the kid from Saskatoon did not disappoint, contributing two goals and eight points to the Cougar cause, showing he’s no slouch in the face-off circle. Cougar fans are also about to get their first looks at the team’s other two first-rounders in the 2020 draft - hard-nosed forwards Caden Brown of Fort St. John (17th overall) and Ryker Singer of Lloydminster, Alta. (22nd overall).

After a less-than-satisfying rookie year in 2019-20 , winger Craig Armstrong showed why the Cougars picked him ninth overall in 2018. The speedy winger plays an aggressive style and led the team in scoring with seven goals and 13 points.

“We expected that,” said Lamb. “Even though he didn’t have the stats before, that means nothing. He’s always showed flashes of what he can do. Everybody matures on a different timeline and it’s better you get better every game and every year than going backwards and he’s totally going in the right direction.”

The Cougars picked up local product Fischer O’Brien in a trade from Lethbridge and he emerged as one of the team’s top penalty-killers in his 17-year-old season. He’s a strong skater and gifted playmaker.

“Of everybody, he was probably the biggest surprise,” said Lamb. “He came and find a role and that’s what kids have to do. If you don’t know where you fit whatever spot the coach puts you in, you’ve got to make that work and that’s exactly what he did. A lot of the scouts were asking questions about him, he played great.”

Blake Eastman, Davin Griffin, Michael Svenson, Carter MacAdams  and Mitch Kohner are also returning to fight for forward positions.

The Cougars’ goaltending situation appears in capable hands, assuming the Toronto Maple Leafs return 20-year-old undrafted netminder Taylor Gauthier from their rookie camp. Gauthier was the third goalie on Canada’s world junior team. He came back to the Cougars and posted a career-best 2.74 goals-against average and near-best .915 save percentage through 15 games. Former first-rounder Tyler Brennan, 18, is back for his third WHL season and assuming he stays healthy he should get a lot of work between the pipes. He left the Cougars after playing in just four games to play for Canada in the IIHF U-18 world championship and with Brennan away in Texas that gave rookie Ty Young three games to audition for the Cougars stopping real WHL bullets.

The defence is on the young side but there’s plenty to work with for Lamb and his new associate coach, Josh Dixon. Ethan Samson played well enough as an 18-year-old to get drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia and according to former Cougars associate coach Jason Smith, now with Flyers AHL affiliate at Lehigh Valley, Samson played well in the Flyers’ rookie camp last week in New Jersey. Samson is the offensive-minded leader of the back end and could be among six returning defencemen in Cougarville. Dowhaniuk, Jaren Brinson, homebrew Aidan Reeves, Hudson Thornton and Majid Kaddoura are also returning.

Thornton, a second-round pick of the Cougars in 2018, started last season in the USHL and got caught in the red tape of his transfer papers which limited him to just five games. He committed to the University of Minnesota Duluth and played as a 16-year-old in the BCHL with Chilliwack but had a change of heart when he saw the Cougars loading up and he could emerge a fan favourite at CN Centre this season.

Kaddoura is heading into his final junior season, coming off two-goal, nine-point season in which he played all 22 games. His experience in the league and versatility as a physical defenceman with offensive abilities will make it tough for the Cougars not to keep him around as one of their three overagers. Goalie Gauthier and forwards Connor Bowie, Jonny Hooker and Tyson Upper also factor in Lamb’s 20-year-old decision.

“That why there is a training camp, we’ve got to figure it out,” said Lamb. “They know we can only have three of them and any one of those guys, I’d be happy to have them on the team.”

The five-day training camp starts Thursday at CN Centre for the 55 players, with fitness testing, off-ice workouts and practices that will lead to scrimmages. The Cougars Prospects Showcase Game is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. and will feature the top 15-- 17-year-old listed players and free agent recruits. All scrimmages and ice times are open to the public, but masks are mandatory and must be worn at all times.

Those who plan to attend the intrasquad game on Sept. 13 must provide proof of vaccination status. The same rules will apply for the Cougars’ only home preseason game, Saturday, Sept. 18 against the Kamloops Blazers. The Cougars open the season Oct. 2 at home against Kamloops.