Cats’ first-rounders continue to impress
Christmas might come early this year for Prince George Cougars rookies Craig Armstrong and Tyler Brennan.
If their wish lists are fulfilled, Brennan and Armstrong will be ditching their Cougar teammates for about 10 days so they can play for one of the three Canadian teams at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Nov. 2-9 in Medicine Hat, Alta., and Swift Current, Sask.
Both attended Hockey Canada’s summer camp in Calgary and while it’s not set in stone they’ll even make the Cougar roster as 16-year-olds, the coaches are pleased with the progress they’ve shown in training camp. They knew the quality they were receiving when they selected them both in the first round of the 2018 WHL bantam draft.
“It’s good to be back, I finally get to make the team this year, that should be good,” said Armstrong. The U-17 camp was good, but it was tough. I got a little bigger, a little stronger over the summer and improved my game. I haven’t proved anything yet, I still have to make the team, my spot isn’t guaranteed. I just have to get used to the pace of the game because there’s a lot of bigger stronger guys and I have to adjust.”
Armstrong, a native of Crossfield, Alta., was the ninth player taken in the 2018 draft.
Last season he collected 12 goals and 28 points in 29 regular season games and had three points in three playoff games with the Edge School midget prep team.
Built like a fire hydrant, he’s quick on his feet and he creates offence. Armstrong stands only five-foot-seven but he’s got some meat on his bones, tipping the scales at 174 pounds. And he showed in camp, he’s not afraid of the rough stuff.
“He can take a hit and he can give a hit, he’s a tough guy for his size and he’s a very tenacious player with a lot of heart,” said Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb.
“He has good balance and good posture and he doesn’t get knocked off the puck. He’s smart,” Lamb said.
“He follows hockey, he’s kind of a hockey nerd, which is very important, to always know what you’re up against. If you ask him a question about a player, he knows. It’s his passion.”
Armstrong scored a goal and had drew an assist for Team Black on a line with Ilijah Colina and Fillip Koffer in the intrasquad game on Tuesday.
“Craig’s a competitor, he’ll do anything to help the team and he’s very coachable, a coach’s dream,” said Cougars scouting director Bob Simmonds.
“He’s a natural leader. He’s a true warrior and one thing that stood out for scouts in his draft year was his constant level of compete, his energy. There was never any backwards step in his game. We’re going to give Craig a long look in the preseason and if he’s here on opening night I’m not going to be surprised.”
The six-foot-three, 187-pound Brennan, picked 21st overall in 2018, is trying to make the jump to the WHL after playing a year of midget last season for Rink Academy in his hometown of Winnipeg in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League.
As one of three goalies still left in the Cougars’ camp, he’s in a battle with 19-year-old incumbent Isaiah DiLaura to determine who will back up starter Taylor Gauthier. So far, Brennan has looked impressive. In training camp scrimmages last weekend he gave up fewer goals than any other goaltender.
“His mechanics are sound and the bottom line is he stops the puck,” said Simmonds. “His physical size is the prototypical model of a goalie, for sure.”
“He had a good training camp and what he’s doing is exactly what he’s got to do, just keep getting noticed,” added Lamb. “He’s a first-round pick who comes with a lot of potential and he’s still young. The big step for all these guys now is to see how they do in exhibition.”
Brennan, who turns 16 on Sept. 27, played 19 games for the Rink Academy midget prep team last season and posted a 2.69 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
He had his first taste of WHL action in February when he played 10 minutes of a game in Kelowna, giving up one goal on five shots. He came ready for his second WHL training camp after facing some talented shooters in August at the national team camp.
“That U-17 camp was grueling, but it was fun,” Brennan said.
“I learned a lot from it and took away a lot. It was good. We were constantly on the go, 12- or 14hour days and you’re grinding the whole time. It would be an honour to play (in the tournament).
“I think I’m ready (for the WHL), I just have to keep working hard for the rest of the camp. I’ve put a lot of work into this. Isaiah is a great goalie, too, and it’s going to be hard-fought to the end. Whoever gets the spot it’s welldeserved.”
The Cougars have 32 players left in camp – 19 forwards, 10 defencemen and three goalies and practices continue at CN Centre.
The preseason starts next weekend in Langley. The Cats face the Kamloops Blazers in their first exhibition game next Friday.
They’ll also play the Vancouver Giants next Saturday in Langley before they head to Kelowna to play the Rockets on Sept. 8.