Cougars more fit, ex­pect bet­ter re­sults in 2019-20

Sea­son starts tonight against Gi­ants at CN Cen­tre

The Prince George Citizen - - Sports - Ted CLARKE Cit­i­zen staff [email protected]­i­t­i­zen.ca

When the Prince Ge­orge Cougars did the math, af­ter they missed the WHL play­offs for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year, their third-pe­riod col­lapses stood out like a sore thumb.

In a 68-game sched­ule they lost 49 times and in 13 of those games af­ter two pe­ri­ods they were ei­ther tied (eight games) or led (five games) be­fore they suc­cumbed to their op­po­nents.

Was it con­di­tion­ing, or lack thereof? Per­haps.

The youth and in­ex­pe­ri­ence of the play­ers prob­a­bly had more to do with what hap­pened to the Cougars, who set a team record for fu­til­ity with a 17-game los­ing streak which ul­ti­mately led to the fir­ing of head coach Richard Matvichuk.

That slate has been wiped clean and the Cougars are un­der new barking or­ders now that Mark Lamb has shed the in­terim tag and is do­ing dou­ble-duty as head coach and gen­eral man­ager, with newly-hired as­so­ciate Ja­son Smith shar­ing his ex­per­tise as a for­mer NHL cap­tain and WHL head coach.

De­spite flag­ging at­ten­dance, the Cougars own­er­ship group has shown there’s no in­ter­est in pulling the plug and mov­ing the team to greener pas­tures. They’re in it for the longterm, hav­ing run the team like a pro­fes­sional fran­chise since they took it over in 2014.

They’ve suc­ceeded in chang­ing the cul­ture and the mes­sage has got­ten through to the hockey world that play­ers who wear the Cougar crest get treated like pros, at home and on the road, and de­spite the chal­lenges of its iso­la­tion from the rest of the league Prince Ge­orge is no longer a WHL ad­dress to try to avoid. Every­body con­nected with the team des­per­ately wants it to suc­ceed on the ice and re­turn to the days of ca­pac­ity crowds and Master­Card com­mer­cials of the late 1990s which showed how much this city loves its Cougars. That love af­fair still smoul­ders, it’s just wait­ing for a band­wagon to climb aboard.

The sea­son starts tonight at CN Cen­tre where the Cougars play the Van­cou­ver Gi­ants and lo­cal hockey fans are once again be­ing asked to be pa­tient. They’re still young, with eight fresh faces among a cast of 17 re­turn­ing play­ers who went through those grow­ing pains.

Given a fresh start un­der the new regime, with an­other year of ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind them, they should score more goals and win more of­ten than they did last year. Will it be enough to make the play­offs? Maybe. But these Cougars still a cou­ple years away from be­ing le­git­i­mate con­tenders for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Here’s a break­down for what we can ex­pect over the next six months and hope­fully for more, for the Cougars’ sake:

First im­pres­sions

Don’t be fooled by the Cats’ lack of pro­duc­tion in the pre­sea­son. Held to just six goals in five exhibition games, they were miss­ing most of their vet­er­ans in all but one of those games and in that one they took an un­de­feated Edmonton Oil Kings team to over­time. Speed is an as­set the Cougars do pos­sess and chances are they won’t get out­worked. Lamb has seen the fit­ness test­ing re­sults and they’ve re­turned from a long sum­mer break in bet­ter shape than they were last year at this time.

“They put in the time in the sum­mer, so the ded­i­ca­tion is there,” said Lamb. “It doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally make you win games ei­ther, there’s a lot there that goes into win­ning hockey games, but it gives you a bet­ter chance to have suc­cess.

“They prac­tice hard, they prac­tice fast and we’re go­ing to have more speed in our lineup. Will that trans­late into wins? We don’t know that. We didn’t have a lot of of­fence last year. We need goals right through our lineup, you need your third or fourth lines to chip in once in a while.”

For­wards

Lead­ing scorer Vladislav Mikhachuk has turned pro in the KHL but the Cougars re­tain 30-goal scorer Josh Maser brings a man-among-boys pres­ence to the left side and he’ll start the sea­son work­ing in tan­dem with the ever-tena­cious Reid Pere­peluk, an­other bruiser on the right side, com­bin­ing on a line with cen­tre Ethan Browne, per­haps the team’s most skilled play­maker.

Jack­son Lep­pard is ca­pa­ble of much more than the 10 goals and 29 points he put up last year and on his line he’s the mate for two Czechs – Matej To­man and rookie Fil­lip Kofer, who has been a quick study learn­ing the game on North Amer­i­can-sized rinks.

Lamb says his for­wards will have to take care of their own end first be­fore they go look­ing for those big stretch passes and every­body has to pitch in cre­ate of­fence from the far end of the ice.

“We’re go­ing to have to play a real struc­tured de­fen­sive game, right from our goal­tender out, to have suc­cess,” he said.

“We didn’t score a lot of goals but we gave up way too many goals. When you play strong D the of­fence will come and we didn’t play strong D last year. Every­body talks about goal scor­ing, we’re go­ing to em­pha­size our play with­out the puck “

An­other player to watch is Ili­jah Colina (cur­rently nurs­ing a shoul­der in­jury), who has over­come per­sonal strug­gles that forced him to leave the team in Jan­uary. Rookie Craig Arm­strong, the Cougars ninth over­all pick in 2018, has a bit of Theo Fleury in him.

De­spite his lack of size he can take a hit and he never quits. Mitch Kohner, Con­nor Bowie, Tyson Up­per and Brendan Boyle know the fast way around a WHL rink and new­com­ers Blake East­man and for­mer Prince Al­bert Raider Davin Grif­fin will also com­pete for ice­time.

“I think last year we didn’t get to the ugly ar­eas around the net enough and this year guys are out to prove a point that we should be in play­offs and have a good team this year,” said Maser. “Mark and Ja­son ob­vi­ously have a lot of knowl­edge of the game of hockey, where you should be and what to do and the guys are lis­ten­ing care­fully to what they have to say.”

De­fence

The back­bone of the Cougars was fed to the wolves last sea­son and they bent at times, giv­ing up an av­er­age 3.48 goals per game, but there were six WHL teams that al­lowed more over the course of the sea­son.

Cole Moberg used his quick wheels, smart stick and big shot to emerge as an NHL prospect and the Chicago Black­hawks liked him enough to draft him in the sev­enth round. Re­turnees Ryan Schoet­tler, Jack San­der, Cole Beamin and Rhett Rhine­hart move the puck quickly and play tough enough in their own end to log big min­utes. Rhine­hart, as a 17-year-old with a late-Novem­ber birth­day, put up five goals and 24 points. Beamin has in­tim­i­dat­ing size at six-foot-four, 209 pounds. Austin Cross­ley could end up as a winger but will start the sea­son on D. Joe Kennedy, a Wash­ing­ton na­tive who played ju­nior A last sea­son in On­tario, Man­i­toba midget grad Ethan McColm and Delta Academy prod­uct Ethan Sam­son are new guys on the blue­line.

“De­fence is one of our strengths and it has to be strength be­cause we don’t have that scor­ing touch yet,” said Moberg. “Hope­fully we can find a cou­ple guys this year to break out and get some goals. Ob­vi­ously, af­ter los­ing Vlad (Mikhalchuk) from last year it’s a big hole to fill, but if we play strong de­fence we’ll get wins.

“With our com­pete level, we’re not go­ing to die out in third pe­ri­ods. We did that a lot last year but we’re in much bet­ter shape than we were last year at the start of the year and it’s just go­ing to get bet­ter from here.”

Goal­tend­ing

Tay­lor Gauthier’s draft-day dis­ap­point­ment is now a dis­tant mem­ory. This is his time to prove to the NHL scouts he’s a fu­ture pro in the mak­ing. Heading into his third full sea­son, Gauthier was a work­horse last sea­son and should reap the ben­e­fits of all that play­ing time. In 55 games with a last-place team his num­bers - 3.45 goal­sagainst av­er­age .899 save per­cent­age, three shutouts – weren’t Vez­ina-like. But he was a sharp learn­ing curve and will ben­e­fit from an­other sea­son work­ing with goalie coach Tay­lor Dak­ers. That should give the Cougars a chance to win on most nights. Tyler Bren­nan, 16, is a big body at six-foot-three, 190 pounds and still grow­ing. As the goalie of the fu­ture, the 21st over­all ban­tam pick in 2018 won’t sim­ply be a bench-warmer as he makes the jump up from Rink Academy in Win­nipeg. Lamb has promised he’ll get his share of the starts.

Coach­ing

Lamb had seven years as a GM/head coach with Swift Cur­rent. His hand­i­work at the draft ta­ble be­fore he left for the AHL and later on as a be­hind-the-scenes ad­vi­sor built the Bron­cos into WHL cham­pi­ons two sea­sons ago.

He gave up a job of­fer this sum­mer to re­turn to the Edmonton Oil­ers as an as­sis­tant coach to stick with the Cougar pro­ject and aims to see it blos­som into an­other cham­pi­onship team. Smith has a 88-44-10-2 record and back-to-back con­fer­ence fi­nal ap­pear­ances a cou­ple years ago as a WHL head coach with the Kelowna Rock­ets and like Lamb he car­ried a rep­u­ta­tion as an NHL player whose work ethic was off the charts.

If they can get the play­ers to match that in­ten­sity the Cougars’ progress to con­tender sta­tus will be fast-tracked.

“Mark has set the tone right from the start that we’re go­ing to be a hard team to play against and we’re not go­ing to be a team that takes nights off and give teams easy games,” said Smith.

“Guys have put in the work from the start by pay­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail and mak­ing sure the com­pete level is where it needs to be. That’s the only way you can take the step as a team and grow is to have in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion and push each other to be bet­ter ev­ery day.”

Prog­no­sis

The best the Cougars can real­is­ti­cally ex­pect is to make it as a wild-card play­off team. But if they get there, look out. They might have a sur­prise or two in store for who­ever they do meet in the first round.

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY JAMES DOYLE

Team Hamhuis (black) took on Team Brewer (white) at CN Cen­tre dur­ing the Young Guns game on the open­ing day of Prince Ge­orge Cougars train­ing camp. Team Brewer de­feated Team Hamhuis by a score of 6-5 in over­time.

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