Wheaties work in progress

ADAM WAZNY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

Tyler Plante, the starting goaltender the last few years, has moved on to the pro ranks. The leading goal scorer, Mark Derlago, is no longer with the club. What about Codey Burki, who led the team in points last season?

He's gone, too.

And so it goes for the Brandon Wheat Kings.

"Our team will be a work in progress this season," head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon said the other day. "I think how we improve on a week-to-week basis is something we'll aim for. We do have a number of rookie players on our team, but we think we have the best rookie crop we've had in years. Those guys are going to get a chance to play and contribute right away."

When the Wheaties open up the 2007-08 Western Hockey League season against the Saskatoon Blades at the newly named Westman Place at the Keystone Centre tomorrow night (7:30 p.m.), there could be as many as nine new faces in the line-up. Most of those come up front, where names like Sanfred King, Matt Calvert, and Scott Glennie will be given every chance to earn their positions with some valuable and intense on-the-job training.

Defence is where the defending East Division champs will be strongest this season. Seven of the nine blue-liners have time in the WHL -- with three of those players playing out their 20-year-old season -- and 06-07 back-up Joe Caligiuri returns to assume the goaltending duties from Plante.

The 18-year-old (who didn't even dress for the home opener last season) figures Brandon might surprise a few clubs and critics this winter.

"We're a lot younger this year, but I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing," said the former Winnipeg Wild netminder, one of 14 Manitobans on the roster (second most in team history). "We have a lot of rookies coming in here with a lot of talent. After the pre-season, a lot of them gained some confidence scoring their first goal and we're going to be a real competitive team.

"I wouldn't count us out."

Caligiuri will be backed up by 17-year-old rookie Andrew Hayes. Earlier this week, the team announced the hiring of Matt Cockell as a full-time goaltending coach, to provide a little extra support for the young netminders.

Caligiuri and Cockell have been working together since the puck-stopper was 14-years-old.

"He's a great guy and he knows a lot about the position," said Caligiuri, who also spent time in Vancouver working with celebrated goaltending consultant Ian Clark this summer. "Before I met Matt, I wouldn't have considered myself a top-end goaltender. He's made me into the player I am today."

McCrimmon said the Cockell hire is a sign of the times in the junior game.

"It's just the way things are now," McCrimmon said, noting that Plante often worked with Florida Panthers goaltending coach Phil Myre last year. "Matt and Joe have worked together before, so I'm confident as Joe assumes more responsibility for us, this will make his transition smoother."


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