It was a rare sight to see the Brandon Wheat Kings sit outside of the Eastern Conference’s top eight this past year. It was the first time they missed the playoffs in the last decade and second occasion since 1992.
Brandon has dominated the Western Hockey League’s East Division for quite some time. Since 1995, they have won a championship, fell in the Memorial Cup final as the host, and made three other WHL final appearances while none of the other five East Division clubs has captured a title and only the Moose Jaw Warriors have made it to the big dance.
“We don’t like to lose here,” says Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon who has been with the team since 1988. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of smart hockey people who have helped develop and bring in some really good players. Our scouts definitely deserve a lot of the credit. We have some intelligent scouts working for us who have a keen eye for talent.”
This ‘keen eye for talent’ is evident in the Wheat Kings’ bantam draft archives. In 2006, they selected Philadelphia Flyers winger Brayden Schenn ninth overall and Dallas Stars first-rounder Scott Glennie 29th overall. Three years later, they snagged a pair of star defenders, picking New York Islanders first-rounder Ryan Pulock 136th overall and Calgary Flames prospect Eric Roy 18th overall. Not to mention, in between those two drafts Brandon’s scouting staff drafted Ottawa Senators prospect Mark Stone 92nd overall and 80-point scorer Brendan Walker 240th overall in 2007.
It goes without saying that potential doesn’t always translate into results, but at first glance, the Wheat Kings’ 2013 draft seems to be a bumper crop in the making. They landed 6-foot-2, 170-pound centre Nolan Patrick, who scored 75 points in 19 games with the bantam ‘AAA’ Winnipeg Hawks last year, fourth overall and puck-moving defenceman Kale Clague, who broke Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf’s scoring record in the AMBHL last year, with the sixth pick.
“We are very happy with how the bantam draft went,” says McCrimmon. “We haven’t had draft picks that high for quite some time. To get players as talented as Patrick and Clague, we were very happy with that. We also feel we got some players later on in the draft that will make an impact down the road.”
Smart scouting is only half of the story of the Wheat Kings’ solid 2013 first-round selections, though. McCrimmon made a deal with the Lethbridge Hurricanes to move up in the draft. He traded 20-year-old goaltender Corbin Boes and the 17th pick in the draft, which Brandon acquired from the Saskatoon Blades for Walker at the trade deadline, to Lethbridge for the sixth pick.
The Boes deal is just another example of smart long-term thinking from McCrimmon. At the 2011 trade deadline, he sent Schenn and a third-round pick to the Blades for two first-round bantam picks, a second-round bantam pick, a first-round import pick, Ayrton Nikkel and Tim McGauley. In junior hockey, the deal was far from a no-brainer with the Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference’s top eight. Keeping Schenn could have led to Brandon pulling off a possible first-round upset, but McCrimmon looked at the big picture and cashed in the then 19-year-old forward for valuable draft picks and prospects.
Despite these rebuild-like trades, McCrimmon doesn’t feel his team needs t go through overhauls to take a run at a championship. He believes strong drafting and smart deals can keep his club competitive year after year.
“I don’t think of it as a rebuild,” says McCrimmon. “We always want to improve and make deals that make sense. I don’t think we have to rip our team apart. We just have to be successful at the draft and make deals when they make sense.”
This past year was a learning experience for the Wheat Kings, who finished the season dead last in the East Division with a 24-40-4 record. Dwayne Gylywoychuk was in his first year as bench boss after being the team’s long-time assistant coach. In addition, their forward core entailed six rookies who played at least 25 games apiece.
"We were a young team," says Brandon's GM. "We don't like to go through seasons like that, but they happen sometimes."
It appears the Wheat Kings should be back in the playoffs next year with Gylywoychuk having a better feel for his job, Pulock and Roy anchoring their back end, and young forwards such as McGauley and Jace Hawryluk poised to take a step forward.
“We don’t want to miss the playoffs two years in a row,” says McCrimmon. “Brandon hasn’t done that since the early ‘90s. I’m confident in Dwayne. He earned that opportunity after being our assistant for a long time. And our team will only get better.”
Past next year, it seems it is only a matter a time before Brandon gets back on top of the East Division once the likes of Patrick, Clague, Tanner Kaspick, the 25th pick of the 2013 draft, and Braylon Schmyr, the 12th pick of the 2012 draft, hit their strides.
“I think we have a bright future,” says McCrimmon. “I’ve been happy with the young players we’ve been bringing into our organization and I think many of them will be successful players in Brandon.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen