Wheaties have high hopes

KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

The Brandon Wheat Kings don't expect to be flirting with .500 this season.

After finishing fourth in the Western Hockey League's East Division with a 30-32-6-4 record last season, the Wheat Kings put a scare into the Moose Jaw Warriors in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out in six games to the eventual conference champions.

It was a respectable finish to a rebuilding campaign that saw the Wheat Kings rally down the stretch to get into the post-season party.

Thanks to the return of many key veterans and a couple of promising new additions, Brandon is hoping to be a major player in the East Division in 2006-07.

"We've got high expectations, coming off the year we had," said Wheat Kings goalie Tyler Plante. "We finished strong last year, which shows we had a lot of potential on our team. We didn't lose many players and that really helps our confidence. We're a lot more experienced and we expect big things out of ourselves."

40TH ANNIVERSARY

The Wheat Kings 40th anniversary season opens tomorrow night at the Keystone Centre against the Warriors.

"All summer long we've been thinking about playing them our first game back this year," said Wheat Kings captain Teegan Moore. "This is a big weekend for us. We can't wait to get started. We want to hit the ground running."

Plante should play a key role regarding how far the Wheat Kings might go.

The second-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2005, recently returned from his second NHL training camp and is expected to carry the load between the pipes.

Plante was a workhorse last season, appearing in 60 games while posting a record of 25-24-5-4 with two shutouts, a 3.32 GAA and .898 save percentage during a whopping 3,414 minutes of action.

"I'm not sure what (head coach Kelly McCrimmon) is willing to give me this year, but I'll be happy to play every game he tells me to," said Plante. "I'm hoping I get to play a lot again."

Winnipegger Codey Burki was re-assigned to the Wheat Kings on Tuesday after attending his first NHL training camp with the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the second round of the 2006 Entry Draft held in Vancouver.

Burki led the team with 61 points (27 goals, 34 assists) in 70 games last season.

The Wheat Kings also hope to get defenceman Dustin Kohn back from the New York Islanders.

Kohn, Burki and Plante all attended the summer evaluation camp for Canada's world junior hockey team, so they'll each have additional motivation to perform well and help the Wheat Kings get off to a strong start.

"Definitely. Obviously, team success comes first but with team success comes individual success," said Plante. "I'm going to focus on getting wins right now and see what happens from there."

Brandon figures to have some nice depth up front, with the return of Mark Derlago (second in team scoring with 28 goals and 53 points in 72 games), Moore (tied for third in scoring, 20 goals and 43 points in 68 games), Tyler Dittmer (18 goals, 43 points) and bruising forward Ryan Reaves.

A key addition to the forwards is skilled Slovakian Juraj Simek, the Vancouver Canucks fourth-round pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and Wheat Kings top selection in the Canadian Hockey League import draft.


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