The Brandon Wheat Kings really showed what they were made of this season from December 30 until January 24 when they won 10 straight games. They extended their point streak to 11 games in a 6-5 overtime loss against the Lethbridge Hurricanes on January 25.
During that time, the Wheat Kings downed Regina and Moose Jaw twice each. They also dispatched of Prince Albert, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Prince George, Calgary, and Victoria.
With the season now over, DUBNetwork had an opportunity to chat with General Manager Darren Ritchie to get his thoughts on the season. Brandon won 35 games this season and they ended the campaign by going 6-3-1 in their final 10 games.
“I felt our team got better as the season went on and that’s what we wanted,” said Ritchie. “I’m really happy with how our season played out. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t finish it, but we understand. Our coaching staff did a wonderful job and on most nights, we had a chance to win. That’s all you can really ask for.”
The season started with some front-office changes. That included the promotion of Ritchie to General Manager and Dave Lowry was brought on as the Head Coach.
“Dave is a great teacher, he makes everyone a part of things,” continued Ritchie. “He has a wealth of knowledge and he’s an even better person. Our team really benefited because of him.”
Let’s now take a look at what led Brandon to succeed this season.
The Wheat Kings only allowed 173 goals this season, the seventh-fewest across the Western Hockey League. You can attribute this to a few things, a solid defensive core and all-star goaltending. Leading the back end was Braden Schneider. He led Brandon in scoring from the back end with 42 points (7G) and his +9 was the 10th best on the team. Chad Nychuk also took a step forward in his game as he was a +12 and he notched 39 points, the second-most among defenceman on the team.
These, of course, are just two players that fuelled the Brandon back end, but it truly was a full team effort.
Patera was forced to miss some action due to an injury and that meant Ethan Kruger had to step up and step up he did. He had three shutouts and 11 wins throughout the season. Jiri Patera won 24 games this season with Brandon and he had five shutouts. That’s the fourth most wins of any goaltender in the league and tied for the second-most shutouts. Jiri’s .921 save percentage is also the third-highest among goalies who have played at least 30 games.
They say great defence and top-notch goaltending can lift a team to a championship. We’ll never know if this year’s team could have pulled that off, but if you look at the numbers, they could have been a good pick heading into the playoffs.
Just like their defence was in the top half of the league, Brandon’s offence was as well. The Wheat Kings mustered 227 goals this season, the ninth most across the league. When it came to Eastern Conference teams, Brandon scored the fifth most. Medicine Hat led the way with 265, 16 more than Lethbridge.
For the most part, Brandon’s offence was pretty spread out which means this year’s team could use any line to score a key goal at any time. Leading the way as expected was Luka Burzan. He tickled the twine 35 times this season, the ninth most of any player in the league.
Right behind Burzan is where you would find Ben McCartney and Ridly Greig. The dynamic duo added up 61 and 60 points, respectively. In all, Brandon had eight skaters who put up at least 30 points in the 35 win campaign.
Burzan’s eight game-winning goals were tied for the third-most in the league, a category that was led by Bryce Kindopp’s 11 game-winning tallies.
The Wheat Kings were shorthanded 247 times this season, the seventh-most in the league. They only allowed 35 goals which are the second-fewest in the league behind the Edmonton Oil Kings. That means Brandon’s percentage on the penalty kill is 85.8%, the second-best ironically, behind Edmonton.
Brandon also scored seven shorthanded goals so it’s safe to say that Brandon’s penalty kill was tremendous this season.
The final chapter:
Jiri Patera, Dom Schmiemann, and Connor Gutenberg were primed and ready for their final playoff run. They won’t get that chance and now the chapter on their junior careers has officially closed. All three players aren’t eligible to play junior hockey moving forward being born in 1999.
Patera: Played in 130 regular-season games with Brandon over the past three seasons. He chalked up 70 wins and his save percentage was at least .906 in all three years. The past two seasons he finished with a .921 save percentage each year.
Gutenberg: He was this year’s captain. So with that, Connor’s junior career ended as “Captain Gutenberg”. He played in 312 regular-season games with the Wheat Kings and he had at least 37 points in the past four seasons. He had a career-high 53 points in the 2017-2018 season. Connor also had the chance to lift the trophy when the Wheat Kings won the WHL in the 2015-2016 season, his first in the league.
Schmiemann: Is the shortest-serving Wheat King that’s set to graduate. He joined the team earlier this season after being acquired from the Tri-City Americans. In that time, he had 15 points in 51 games and he became a fan favourite and a favourite in the dressing room as well. In all, he played 272 Western Hockey League games.
“I feel terribly for our entire team and the three guys above that are graduating,” continued Ritchie. “You want to finish your junior days on the ice and they won’t get that chance. They carried themselves so well as Wheat Kings.”
They all loved being a part of this organization and they were great for us,” added Ritchie. “It’s a tough time for them, they’re mature men and they understand what’s happening around the globe. I thank all three of them for being a part of this organization.”