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Expectations running high Cougars will be vastly improved in 2022-23

Tri-City Americans in town Friday to start WHL season at CN Centre
Cougars Riley Heidt Nov. 2021
Fresh from helping Canada win the Hlinka Gretzky Cup international tournament in August, Prince George Cougars centre Riley Heidt is set for the start of the WHL season. The Cougars will get that going Friday night when they host the Tri-City Americans in their first game Friday night at CN Centre.

Chase Wheatcroft didn’t take long to get comfortable on the ice playing for the Prince George Cougars.

The 20-year-old winger, acquired by the Cats in an offseason deal from the Winnipeg ICE, showed his capabilities as an offensive catalyst in the Cougars’ final preseason game Saturday against the Kamloops Blazers when he scored a pair of goals in a 4-1 victory.

It didn’t hurt that he was playing the left side on a line with Riley Heidt and Koehn Ziemmer, both touted as potential picks in the 2023 NHL draft in Nashville. Wheatcroft was silky-smooth finishing off those two scoring plays and that bodes well for a young Cougar team that struggled to score last season.

Having reached the third round of playoffs last spring with the Winnipeg ICE, Wheatcroft has been around the WHL long enough to recognize the Cougars are good enough this season to take a serious shot at the B.C. Division title, and he’s looking forward to ending his junior career with another lengthy playoff run.

The new season starts Friday night at CN Centre against the Tri-City Americans.

“All these guys are incredibly talented, obviously some top-end guys in Heidt and Ziemmer, they’re young and I’m just trying to bring my veteran presence to them and all my experience to the lineup here,” said Wheatcroft. “It’s pretty easy when you hop on a line with those two, they’re pretty insane players, and Ill just try to do my part and maybe bring a little bit more of a skill role to that line.

“This team has many strengths but I think maybe the biggest one is our speed and our skill. We’re a very fast team that will thrive in skillful games against teams that challenge us with speed. The speed is obviously more than moving your feet quick. It’s how fast you think, how fast you move it into position and how fast you shoot the puck and we have great speed on this team. I think we’ve got everything going for us this year. We’ve got a lot to prove here, we’re a young team, but I think we’re going to have lots of wins this year. We’ve got the right group to do it.”

The six-foot-two, 185-pound Wheatcroft brings 15 games of playoff experience from his time with the ICE, whose playoff ambitions were stopped short i by the eventual-champion Edmonton Oil Kings. He piled up 16 goals and 22 assists in 55 games spit between Winnipeg and Lethbridge, where he started his WHL career.

The other 20-year-old Cougar is centre Noah Boyko, a four-year WHL veteran who played with Wheatcroft in Lethbridge before Boyko was shipped to Saskatoon in late December. Known for his hard shot and ability to play the point on the power play, Boyko put up 30 points, including 16 goals, in 47 games in 2021-22 and had 43 goals and 84 points in a WHL career that spans 175 games. Wheatcroft and Boyko were teammates for 2 ½ seasons in Lethbridge.

‘We knew they were really good hockey players but you never know how they really fit and what kind of people they are until they get in front of you, and they’ve been very impressive,” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb. “They’ve come in and it’s like they’ve been here for the last couple years.”

While there are still a few unproven entities with forwards like Carter MacAdams, Ryker Singer, Caden Brown and Czechian import Ondrej Becher just beginning to show their game-breaking potential, the Cougars will start the season knowing their defence and goaltending are positions of strength.

The Cougars became the first team in 20 years to have two goalies picked in the same NHL draft year when 19-year-old Tyler Brennan (New Jersey, fourth round) and 18-year-old Ty Young (Vancouver, fifth round) both has their names called at the draft in June. If the Cougars do decide to trade one of them to another team to fill their need for more playing time, 16-year-old Madden Mulawka, who allowed just one goal in two exhibition games against the Blazers, might be ready for prime time as the backup.

The defence starts with retuning veterans Ethan Samson (Philadelphia, sixth round, 2021), Keaton Dowhaniuk (an Arizona Coyotes rookie camp participant) Hudson Thornton and Viliam Kmec, all of whom were listed last season by NHL Central Scouting. Having that kind of experience allows second-year Bauer Dumanski and rookies Tyson Buczkowski (the 15th overall WHL draft pick in 2021), Ephram McNutt and Leith Hunter time to develop into capable WHL blueliners.

“Just our depth this year is going to be really good,” said  Thornton, who led Cougar defencemen with 45 points in 65 games.  “We have four lines, seven D and two goalies, and everybody can play in every situation so that’s going to help us in the long run.

“Everybody’s a year older with another year of experience in the league and especially with us going into the playoffs last year, that helped a ton. Everybody knows what to expect and how to win in this league.”

In their four-game opening-round playoff series against Portland, the Cougars sorely missed the bruising and bashing habits of winger Blake Eastman, who was out with a leg injury. He’s healthy again. While Fischer O’Brien, the lone Prince George minor hockey product on the team, Cayden Glover and Carlin Dezainde have also returned to their forward positions.

“It’s an exciting year for all of us, there’s going  to a lot of scouts in the stands, so you always have to be playing your best hockey and that will push us to our limits this year,” said Ziemmer, a native of Mayerthorpe, Alta., who fired a team-high 30 goals last season and finished with 57 points, one shy of Heidt for the team lead.

“We’re going to be a younger team again but we’re going to be a fast, skilled team. We have a lot of young guys coming up who can really skate and stickhandle, so it’ll be a really good year for all of us. The end goal is to win hockey games, obviously, every night we want to put in all our effort to win games.”

Among the rookie forwards, Lethbridge native Terik Parascak was the biggest surprise in training camp and scored two goals in three preseason games. The Cougars’ fourth-round pick in 2021 has earned his roster spot. Gavin Schmidt, who signed with the Cougars last November, and rookie Zachary Shantz will also get a chance to prove themselves worthy of regular shifts.

“There’s a lot of excitement around our team,” said Lamb. “People are like, “You haven’t  won a championship for so long,’ and things like that. There are certain steps you’ve got to take and we’ve taken those steps. We got into the playoffs and got that feel; let’s see how may steps we can take this year. Everybody’s hungry for wins and we’re more hungry than anybody. We can be aggressive now, we’ve got the age group and our cupboards are full, so we can make some deals and fill some holes if we think we need it.”

The Cougars have a four-game homestand to start their 29th year in Prince George, with the Kelowna Rockets coming to town next weekend. Friday’s game starts at 7 p.m., while the rematch with the Americans is set to begin Saturday at 6 p.m.

Ziemmer is hoping to see a lot fewer empty seats this season at CN Centre on Cougar nights

“When we get fans here its fun to play and we  want them coming in every night here,” said ZIemmer. “It gives us jump to play the game and play for them.”