For the Prince George Cougars, the future begins tonight at CN Centre against the Kelowna Rockets.
The retooled, rebuilt and restructured Cougars play their first regular season game in the post-trade deadline portion of the Western Hockey League 2007-08 campaign.
For spectators who think younger players were seeing a lot of icetime at the beginning of the season, they haven’t seen anything yet.
Youth will be on full display this evening and patience is a virtue fans have to hang on to if they plan to continue taking their seats at CN Centre this season. While the focus is clearly on making this squad more competitive for the 2008-09 season, the Cougars coaching staff isn’t ruling out playoffs this season even though it appears only a miracle will get them there.
With a record of 13 wins, 27 losses, an overtime loss and zero shootout losses (13-27-1-0) the Cougars are 13 points behind the Kamloops Blazers (19-22-1-1), holders of the WHL Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
“Our focus is to get better,” Cougars coach Drew Schoneck said. “It’s to mold this group into a group that plays hard every night, that plays together and plays for each other. We’re setting ourselves up here for the future hockey seasons, two (and) three years down the line, and the groundwork’s going to be laid for what we do with them here this next two and a half months.
“I don’t necessarily think we’re out of the playoff race. You look at Kamloops, they made some moves to go younger as well. It’s going to go down to the head and head matches with them.”
Schoneck emphasized that they have five remaining games with the Blazers and three with the only WHL team with less points than the Cougars, the Portland Winter Hawks (8-31-0-1). Two of the games versus Portland will be played within the confines of CN Centre, on Tuesday and Wednesday as tonight’s game is the start of a four-game homestand for the new-look Cats.
“Anything can happen here,” Schoneck said. “We’re just going to take it one day at a time here and look to get better with every practice.”
The challenge for Schoneck comes in forming the best line combinations and defensive pairings. He’ll be looking for suitable linemates for recently acquired forwards Justin Maylan and Brad Riege, while looking for defencemen to step up and cover the lengthy ice time logged by departed 19-year-old blue liner Ty Wishart, traded to Moose Jaw on Monday with Evan Fuller and a 2008 third round Bantam choice for Maylan, Riege and a first round selection in this year’s Bantam draft.
Schoneck, who’s pointing towards defencemen like Kalvin Sagert and Patrik Magnusson to take on bigger roles in their own end, expects less adversity with the trade deadline passed, which in turn should help his youthful squad.
“Now that some things are done here hopefully the guys can settle down and just get themselves back to just concentrating on hockey.”
Schoneck doesn’t expect to see defenceman Luke Schenn, who recently returned from the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic, in Kelowna’s lineup tonight.
“I think they’re probably going to give him some time off,” he said.
Schoneck compares the Cougars situation to where Kelowna was sitting at the beginning of the 2006-07 season with lots of youth and inexperience in the lineup. He said his team is about one and a half years behind where the Rockets are now in developing a contender.
“(The Rockets) went really young last year and took their lumps here and there… we’re going to have to play hard and play smart, and stay out of the penalty box.”
The Cougars will be looking to rebound from a 3-1 loss at Portland on Sunday, the tail end of a three-game trip in which they finished 0-3.
“I don’t think it was one of our worst (games) of the season,” Schoneck said of the defeat to Portland. “Everybody says it’s one of your worst because you lose to Portland, but we probably outchanced them – scoring chance wise – very, very badly and their goaltender played very well and we had chances to win. We missed two breakaways (and) hit a goal post.”
The Cougars and Rockets meet again tomorrow at 7 p.m.