The sting of losing the WHL’s Eastern Conference final in five games was still fresh in Winnipeg Ice head coach James Patrick’s mind Sunday morning.
And a 14-hour bus ride back to Winnipeg from Edmonton, site of Friday’s series-clinching 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Oil Kings, sharpened his resolve about what lies ahead.
“Every team is different but I do know that all of our returning players will have benefited from what they just went through and the type of hockey they experienced playing against Edmonton,” said Patrick. “I respect them as a very good team. They play a fast game and they are hard on the puck; they battle. If you describe them as hard or heavy, they were better in those areas for sure.”
The Ice, with the exception of those graduating from the program, have much to look forward to.
With a young corps of players, led by Minnesota Wild first-round draft pick Carson Lambos, goalie Daniel Hauser, budding superstar Zach Benson and likely first-round NHL draft picks Matt Savoie and Conor Geekie, could be poised to exceed the accomplishments of the 2021-22 squad.
“You see our 53-win season (and) you see not too many losses on the scoresheet and I think that really stands out,” said Strathclair’s Geekie, who left Sunday for Buffalo where he will be one of 104 draft-eligible prospects participating in the NHL Draft Combine.
“I think with all our talent and how young we are… next year is gonna be a big year for us.”
Geekie will be joined by Savoie, who left a day earlier for Buffalo.
The 18-year-old from St. Albert, Alta., did not make the trip with the team to Edmonton after absorbing a punishing hit from Oil Kings centre Justin Sourdif and leaving Game 2 with an upper-body injury. The club said Savoie is expected to make a full recovery.
“He had a great year and he was our leading scorer but I’m not going to use that as an excuse (for losing),” said Patrick. “I just know how good a player Matt is and how much he’s going to continue to improve.”
Friday’s loss in Edmonton marked the end of exemplary junior careers for three overage players: defenceman Nolan Orzeck and forward Jakin Smallwood and Cole Muir.
“I would call today an emotional day because you’re saying bye to the players and it was very emotional saying good-bye to 20-year-olds,” said Patrick. “I mean, the joy of this job is seeing a young player come in and spending time with him, seeing him grow up as a person and develop as a hockey player. That is the best part of this job — seeing the improvement.”
Ten members of the 2021-22 team are eligible to return for their 20-year-old seasons but three or more of those could be playing in the pro ranks, including centre Jack Finley, who has already signed an entry-level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning), right-winger Connor McClennon (Philadelphia Flyers) and goaltender Gage Alexander (Anaheim Ducks).
McClennon and Alexander remain unsigned, leaving open the possibility of one last season in the junior ranks.
“I kind of just got off the bus yesterday and haven’t had a whole bunch of time to think about what the future holds,” said McClennon, a sixth-round pick of the Flyers in 2020. “But it’s gonna be exciting couple of weeks for whatever does end up happening.”
Five undrafted regulars, including forwards Owen Pederson, Chase Wheatcroft and Mikey Milne, and blue-liners Ben Zloty and Tanner Brown would be prime candidates to return one of the club’s three overage players in 2022-23 although Milne has generated plenty of draft buzz.
“I think it is really tough (question) but those answers will a lot of times dictate themselves because I expect some of our… future 20-year-olds to get drafted or sign or get invites to (pro) camps and and who knows who will be coming back,” said Patrick.
Patrick, meanwhile, expects to return for his sixth season as head coach next fall.
The 58-year-old signed a three-year contract extension in February of 2020 and, despite a lengthy resume as an assistant coach in the NHL, appears to have found his niche in the major-junior ranks.
“My thinking throughout the year was I’m coming back — I enjoy what I do,” said Patrick. “I haven’t even thought about moving or anything else. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.”