The Kootenay Ice finished the 2014-15 season with 78 points (37-31-4) and clinched their seventeenth consecutive playoff berth. To begin the new campaign, however, the Ice have stumbled out of the gate, and through their first 11 games, they sit dead last in the in the WHL at 2-9-0 (four points).
The opposition has outscored the Ice 48-21 so far this year, and three of Kootenay’s nine losses have been by more
than three goals. A five-game losing streak between October 3 and October 10 dropped the club to 1-7-0 and included a blowout 13-1 defeat by the Brandon Wheat Kings. After edging past the Moose Jaw Warriors 1-0 on October 14, the Ice have lost their last two games and now own a miniscule .182 winning percentage.
Kootenay’s troubles stem from their youthfulness and the loss of many key pieces from last season. In spite of only having six rookies on the roster, the depleted Ice have 11 skaters under the age of 18, tied with the Calgary Hitmen for the most in the Central Division and more than any other team in the WHL aside from Moose Jaw (who have 12).
Forwards Luke Philp and Jaedon Descheneau are back to anchor Kootenay’s offence, but Tim Bozon, Levi Cable, and top prospect Sam Reinhart, who together tallied 179 points in 173 combined games in 2014-15, are no longer with the team (Bozon and Cable are both over age and Reinhart made the Buffalo Sabres’ opening-day roster).
The Ice lost their top goal scorer in Bozon and one of their most electric playmakers in Reinhart. In fact, Reinhart had 46 assists in 47 games last season and led all Ice players with 1.38 points per game. The Ice also lost their two top-scoring defenceman from a year ago. Veterans Rinat Valiev and Tyler King tallied 46 and 37 points respectively, which combined for over half of all scoring by Kootenay blueliners. Valiev further led the team with a plus-22 rating.
Lacking the offensive punch of last year’s team, Kootenay has scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference and the third fewest goals in the WHL. Philp leads the Ice with four goals and eight assists, but his 12 points are only good enough for twenty-ninth most in the league.
Descheneau, who tallied 81 points last season, spent the first part of October with the St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate and has played only two games with the Ice so far in 2015. In Descheneau’s absence, Zak Zborosky has stepped up and tallied six goals and one assist; his seven points are second only to Philp among Kootenay scorers.
Losing Bozon and Reinhart hurt an already mediocre power-play unit. Last season, Kootenay’s power play ranked
fifteenth of the 22 teams in the WHL, and Bozon and Reinhart scored 18 of the team’s 48 power-play goals.
This year, the Ice have capitalized on only three of 46 power-play opportunities, a conversion rate of 6.5 percent that is the worst in the WHL by nearly five points. Philp scored the first and second of Kootenay’s three power-play goals on October 2 against Spokane, while Jon Martin, who the Ice released on October 16, scored the third a day later against Lethbridge.
In addition to its troubles scoring goals, Kootenay has struggled mightily on defence. Their 48 goals against are the most in the WHL, and the Ice have been out-shot in all but one game. Tanner Lishchynsky, who missed the first few games of the season with a lower body injury, has returned to quarterback a blue line that lost, in addition to Valiev and King, the veteran presences of Jordan Steenbergen and Tanner Faith (who was dealt to Moose Jaw during the offseason).
Between the pipes, 20-year-old starter Wyatt Hoflin and rookie backup Declan Hobbs have had a difficult start, but they aren’t to blame for the team’s defensive woes. Hoflin, who played more minutes than any other goaltender in the WHL last year, has the second most saves in the league, but owns a less-than-impressive 3.64 goals against average and .896 save percentage, a far cry from the 3.10 and .902 he posted in 2014-15.
In spite of the rough start, the Ice have reason to be optimistic with the return of Philp, Descheneau, Lishchynsky, and Hoflin combined with the impressive early showing by Zborosky. Ice head coach Luke Pierce described his team as a “Jekyll and Hyde” to emphasize that while its youth could outwork the opposition, its inexperience could also be a detriment against more veteran teams. The Ice went 3-8-0 in their first 11 games last season, so even though this year’s squad may be young, there is plenty of season left for its green core to come together. In the end, the Ice may prove to be more Jekyll than Hyde.