A sure sign of how weird the hockey world has become for Mark Lamb, the head coach and general manager of the Prince George Cougars was the lead-up to Thursday’s 1 p.m. WHL trade deadline.
It came and went without the any of the league’s 22 teams swapping a single soul and for the first time since he became a WHL GM, Lamb’s ear was not sore from having a phone placed over it for days on end.
Already extended from its usual Jan. 10 date, the WHL wanted to get its trade deadline out of the way before the season started to avoid the complications of forced quarantines and delays caused by player transfers from different branches.
Although league play started Friday in the WHL’s Central Division, with the Eastern Division expected to follow suit in mid-March and the U.S. Division with its first scheduled game on March 18, the B.C. Division in which the Cougars belong has no confirmed start date.
Lamb has yet to see all his players for the 2021 season gathered together on the same sheet of ice and that won’t happen until the league receives the green light from the provincial health office to go ahead with the new season which will have each team playing a 24-game schedule.
“We don’t have a (conventional three-week) training camp, we haven’t seen these players all year, so that’s the unknown, and what I’m looking forward to is seeing these guys,” said Lamb.
“We’re allowed to bring five 16-year-olds and one 15-year-old (who can play during the season as an affiliated player), and that’s exciting. What’s not exciting is we don’t have a training camp. I don’t like just giving away jobs, you’ve got to work for it, and it’s going to be internal once we get playing and that will be ongoing. You’ve got a team and obviously you know your veteran players coming back but it’s all new with these young guys.”
The Cougars will be part of the B.C bubble and will be based in Kamloops, along with the Blazers and Victoria Royals, while the Kelowna Rockets and Vancouver Giants will set up shop in Kelowna. All 24 Cougar games will be played either in Kamloops or Kelowna, most likely with no spectators and Cats fans will have to tune in webcasts on WHL Live to watch their team play in a season that lasts just two months.
Eastern Division games will all be played in Regina. But there will be travel involved for the Central and U.S. Divisions with each city except Portland hosting games. Lamb said the earlier start time for the other divisions will provide learning experiences for the league and how it will operate this season.
This year’s edition of the Cougars is heavily weighted with players born in 2002. Seven returning players on the roster – goalie Taylor Gauthier, defenceman Majid Kaddoura, and forwards Connor Bowie, Tyson Upper, Jonny Hooker, Ethan Browne and Brendan Boyle - are all considered as 19-year-olds with two years of junior eligibility remaining. That doesn’t necessary mean all will make the team, but it does give Lamb the luxury of an experienced core to work with along with overage forward Ilijah Colina and defenceman Jack Sander, both entering the twilight of their WHL careers.
Aside from Gauthier, who made Canada’s world junior team in December, only a few Cougars have played games this season. Gauthier, who turned 20 on Feb. 15, is back as the anchor in goal, with capable backup from Tyler 17-year-old Brennan. Gauthier is a leader and he’s coming off his best WHL season, recording a 2.93 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 50 games played.
“We think that’s the strength of our team,” said Lamb. “Goats has improved and we expect big things from him.”
One other 20-year-old – defenceman Cole Moberg, a seventh-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019, has been playing pro in the AHL for the Rockford IceHogs and might not be returning to the Cougars. From last year’s team, graduated forwards Josh Maser (Iowa Wild, AHL), Vladislav Mikhalchuk (Wheeling Nailers, ECHL) are now playing pro while defenceman Ryan Schoettler (University of Calgary) has moved on to U Sports university hockey, which has canceled the season.
The Cougars also know their two imports – 2001-born Czech forward Filip Koffer and 2003-born Finnish forward Jonni Kärkkäinen – will not be available to them this season due to the pandemic-related border restrictions. Koffer finished seventh in team scoring last season with 24 points in 59 games and played for his country in the world junior tournament in Edmonton. The Cougars picked Kärkkäinen 12th overall in the 2020 CHL import draft.
Forwards Craig Armstrong, Mitch Kohner (the Cougars’ only American-born player) and Davin Griffin, as well as defenceman Aiden Reeves and goalie Herman are the Cougars’ 18-year-olds, while the 17-year-old returnees are Brennan, forward Blake Eastman, and defenceman Ethan Samson. Hudson Thornton, a 17-year-old who played in the BCHL last season for the Chilliwack Chiefs, turned down a scholarship at the University of Minnesota-Duluth to sign with the Cougars.
Reeves didn’t play a lot for the Cougars last year but Sander, Kaddoura and Samson had roles as regulars in 2019-20 and they will form the core of the blueline.
“It’s a pretty good mix, and it would have been a really good mix if Moberg came back,” said Lamb.
The Cougars are putting much of their faith in players they picked in the 2019 and 2020 bantam drafts. Sixteen-year-olds D Keaton Dowhaniuk and F Koehn Ziemmer went third and fourth overall respectively in the 2019 draft and they appear ready to make the jump to the WHL. Also in the 2004-born category are D Jaren Brinson, forwards Kyren Gronick and Carter McAdams, and goalie Ty Young, who will join Herman as the affiliated goalies this season.
WHL teams are allowed to carry one 15-year-old this season and for the Cougars F Riley Heidt, their second-overall draft choice in 2020, will be that player. Heidt had 20 goals and 17 assists last season as a 14-year-old playing midget hockey with the Saskatoon Contacts.
“We have a lot of good prospects and they’re going to get an opportunity in the shortened season to play,” said Lamb.
LOOSE PUCKS: As another example of how far Canada has fallen behind the United States in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Lamb says some of the players on the U.S.-based teams in the WHL have already received their vaccinations… Former Cougar F Brad Morrison was called up last week to the Chicago Blackhawks taxi squad. In four games with the AHL IceHogs he had three goals and an assist. The 24-year-old Prince George native played three seasons for the Cougars from 2014-17 before he was traded to Vancouver and later swapped to Lethbridge. He scored 16 goals and had 21 assists in 16 playoff games for the Hurricanes in 2018 before they lost in Game 7 of the WHL final to Swift Current. The ‘Hawks acquired Morrison in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings, Oct. 4, 2020…The WHL season got underway with two games Friday, the first league games since the pandemic hit last year on March 11. The Edmonton Oil Kings were at home to beat Lethbridge 7-1, while the Medicine Hat Tigers topped the Red Deer Rebels5-4 in overtime in Red Deer. Corso Hopwo completed the hat trick 1:59 into OT, after Lukas Svejkovsky had tied it for the Tigers with 41 seconds left in regulation time.