Wheaties lack guns, solid in net

ADAM WAZNY -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

Kelly McCrimmon is used to the annual roster makeover that is commonly associated with junior hockey.

So when his Brandon Wheat Kings take to the ice in their WHL season-opener against the Regina Pats tomorrow at the Keystone Centre (7:30 p.m.), he won't cry over player movement.

Heck, he won't even blink.

"We had a turnover not unlike most years in terms of numbers, but certainly in who we lost -- we graduated some real star players," the head coach and general manager said yesterday.

Let's see ... gone is WHL player of the year and the league's leading scorer Eric Fehr (59 goals, 111 points). Last season's second leading scorer, Ryan Stone (99 points), has left, too.

Captain Tim Konsorada (tied for third in WHL scoring with 87 points) has departed. Ditto for Lance Monych and his 66 points.

Rounding out the offensive exodus is defenceman Steven Later. His 63 points from the rear will certainly be missed.

Oh, and those five players, they just happened to make up the Wheaties potent power play last season.

But again, McCrimmon doesn't bat an eye.

"We just have to move on," he said. "We do return 18 players, so we have a good nucleus of veteran players. It is a challenge now for the younger players to step up and assume more responsibility. Opportunities are available."

Among the players the defending Eastern Conference champions will be counting on will be returning forwards Codey Burki, Ryan Reaves, and Derek LeBlanc -- the latter coming off a training camp stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

McCrimmon is also counting on the development of former provincial AAA star Tyler Dittmer and a strong comeback from Mark Derlago to help lead his club.

Serious neck injury

Derlago will play his first game in a year, returning to the ice after suffering a serious neck injury in the final exhibition game last September. He missed the entire 2004-05 season.

"We'll have to score by committee," McCrimmon said. "We need to get as many guys as we can in the 15-20 goal range. That's where our offence will come from."

Defensively, the club should be very solid with seven vets coming back and two imposing young prospects -- former Pembina Valley Hawk Chad Erb (6-foot-3, 185-pounds) and 2005 bantam draft choice Keith Aulie (6-foot-6, 210-pounds).

Last season's question in net was definitively answered by Tyler Plante, who grabbed the starting job early and parlayed it into the WHL rookie of the year. He should get the bulk of the work with fellow Brandonites Mike Nichol and Kurt Jory still battling for the No. 2 role.

That solid back end is the reason McCrimmon isn't too concerned going into this season.

The team will keep the score close with its defensive play. The problem is, they don't have the ammo up front to blow games wide open anymore.

"We'll certainly have a different identity than last year's team," McCrimmon said.


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