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Winnipeg ICE Season Preview Part 1: Forwards

Let’s start with the obvious, the Kootenay ICE sucked last season. They could only muster 13 wins in 68 games. Brutal. However, I was recently surprised to find out that some people think that this season they are bound to suck again. These people could not be more wrong.

One thing I love about junior hockey is the wild changes that can happen from year to year (unless your franchise is the London Knights, then you would have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about). It is not uncommon in junior hockey to see a team struggle and then suddenly become a great team the very next year. For example, the Barrie Colts in the OHL finished dead last in 2016-2017 with only 17 wins and then followed up that abysmal season with a 42 win, fourth place season.

The move of the team from Kootenay to Winnipeg comes at the perfect time, as the newly formed Winnipeg ICE are set to turn the corner into a potential juggernaut due to a young, star-studded forward group that should be able to score throughout all four lines.

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The Winnipeg ICE are led by their captain, 2019 Vegas Golden Knights first-round pick Peyton Krebs. More of a playmaker than a sniper, Krebs tallied 19 goals and 49 assists for 68 points in 65 games last season in Cranbrook. Krebs also managed to play on both the Hlinka Gretzky Cup Team last summer and the World U18 Championship this past April where he was captain of the fourth-place Canada squad. Even though the league play numbers were not outstanding, Krebs, however, was outstanding in his international games scoring five points in five games at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and then topping that by registering six goals and ten points in seven games at the U18s in April. Krebs is a fantastic skater who uses his outstanding vision, hands and hockey IQ to make the players around him better. As evidenced by the letter he wears on the front of his jersey, he’s also a fantastic leader. I expect a significant bump in production for the smooth-skating Krebs this upcoming season as the team gains experience and more overall depth of talent. The problem, however, is an injury Krebs suffered to his Achilles during an on-ice training session in June. We won’t expect to see the captain back until the early part of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery to repair the tendon.

As of now, the Winnipeg ICE only have one NHL first round pick on their roster, but that will undoubtedly change in the next three drafts. First to try their luck is the second overall pick in the 2017 WHL draft, Connor McClennon. Scouts have McClennon as a potential late first round pick to second round pick in the stacked 2020 NHL draft. While McClennon didn’t blow the doors off the WHL in his rookie season, he had a nice season when considering the team around him. McClennon scored 14 goals and 29 points in 46 games. He also shone at the U17 Championships last November when he scored eight goals and 11 points in just five games. The ICE forward is listed at a tiny 5’9 and 155 pounds but plays much bigger than his diminutive stature. He plays a very aggressive game and is not afraid to go hard into the corners for pucks. Overall, McClennon is a small, skilled forward who will likely see a huge jump in production heading into his draft year now that he has better players to play with.

Another top end forward for the ICE is 2019 Chicago Blackhawks fourth rounder Michal Teplý. The ICE took the Czech fourth overall in the 2019 CHL Import Draft. Teplý had a rumored desire to come over to the CHL last season but was not picked in the import draft and played the entirety of last season in the Czech Republic where he split time between the top league and the second league. Teplý recorded 4 goals and 10 points in 23 games in the second league and picked up 2 assists in 15 games in the Czech Extraliga. While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page it is important to note that he was a draft eligible player getting his first taste of pro hockey. Even though his production last season was not what many scouts expected, he did manage to have a few good international tournaments. Last summer, he managed 1 goal and 4 points in 4 games at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Edmonton and then collected 3 assists in 5 games in April at the U18s. Teplý can be a beast of a power forward who possesses a great shot and good vision. I say “can” because the major knock on Teplý is his compete level. Some games he may look like a first-round pick and others he completely disappears. Here’s hoping that head coach James Patrick can get the most out of the talented Czech product. I see Michal as a perfect first line winger for Peyton Krebs and I expect that his production will surprise many people, especially with Krebs feeding him the biscuit on a nightly basis.

On March 20, 2019, the ICE’s future changed dramatically. No, this was not the day they announced their move to Winnipeg. Instead, on that day the Winnipeg ICE won the the 2019 WHL draft lottery. What was so special about the 2019 WHL draft lottery? The best player available was named Matthew Savoie; the cant-miss, near generational talent that was robbed of exceptional status by Hockey Canada. While this was a momentous day for the ICE, it was not a sure thing that Savoie would play for them. After all, he had committed to the University of Denver to play with his brother Carter. Immediately, General Manager Matt Cockell and the Winnipeg ICE began the recruitment process.

They started by acquiring his brother’s WHL rights from Regina on April 3 (who is, at the time of writing, still committed to the University of Denver). Then, they flew Matthew and his entire family to Winnipeg and gave them a tour of their new state-of-the-art training facility. Then they drafted him on May 2. Interestingly, Matthew joined his brother Carter at a summer camp of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints even though Matthew was not old enough to play in that league and hope seemed bleak. Then finally, the breakthrough happened, and the franchise was forever altered on June 13 when Savoie officially signed his WHL player agreement, ending months of speculation.

Matthew is the kind of player who comes along, well, basically never. An electric skater with quick hands and a brain that can keep up with his feet, many scouts have him pegged as the best player to enter the WHL in the last decade or more. He posted an astounding 31 goals and 71 points in 31 games for his Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep team. What makes those numbers more amazing was that he was 14 to start the season. He was playing against players up to four years older than him. To put this into context, the 2018 first overall pick in the WHL, and teammate to Savoie, Dylan Guenther had 58 points in 28 games.

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Savoie’s 71 points were good for fifth in league scoring and second in points per game (behind an 18-year-old). Just a simply incredible season, and a season that should’ve led to Matthew becoming the first player to ever receive exceptional status in the WHL. In my opinion, Hockey Canada let politics get in the way and made a massive mistake. It is also important to remember it is a Hockey Canada decision and not a WHL decision. Instead of being able to play the full season as a 15-year-old, Savoie is limited under the current WHL rules to 5 games. However, it appears that the Winnipeg ICE are going to “bend” the rules per say (even though the WHL has said they will allow them to do it) and carry a short roster which would allow the team to play Savoie on an “emergency basis”. Reports suggest that he will be able to play up to 50 regular season games with the team. He will likely still play in the CSSHL with the Rink Hockey Academy in Winnipeg while he’s not playing for the ICE, but that decision hasn’t been made at the time of writing.

I would also imagine he will be playing on the Under 17 Canadian squad in November, and maybe, if he exceeds expectations (and the ICE are eliminated from the Playoffs), the Under 18 team in April. My expectations for Savoie are that he will have amazing flashes of brilliance, including multiple highlight reel plays, and ultimately finish around 0.6 to 0.7 points per game. By the way, Matthew is not eligible for the NHL draft until 2022. That should amount to at least 3 seasons in Winnipeg.

The ICE also made another big move at this years WHL draft when they made two trades which ended up leaving them in possession of the second overall pick with which they selected Strathclair, Manitoba native Conor Geekie. Geekie is a big 6’3″ center who played last season for the Yellowhead Chiefs in the Winnipeg Bantam AAA league. Geekie led the league in both points and goals with a whopping 49 goals and 86 points in 31 games. He scored 17 more points than second place (which was also his teammate). Interestingly, Conor’s brother Morgan was drafted in the third round of the NHL draft by Carolina and just came off a very strong rookie season in the AHL where he won the Calder Cup. If Conor can improve on what his brother has done so far in hockey, the ICE will be in great shape for years to come. Like Savoie, he is only 15 so we will likely only see Geekie 5 or less times this season before he joins the team full time in 2020-2021.

Not only will the ICE have top end stars, but they will also have solid depth throughout their four lines. 2019 CHL Import Draft second round selection Nino Kinder will hope to make some NHL teams take notice after being passed over in the 2019 NHL draft. Kinder scored 41 points in 33 games in the German U20 league last season before leading the Division 1A Under 18 Championships (one division below the top division where Canada/USA/etc play) in scoring with nine points in five games. I expect Kinder to play for Germany at this years World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic.

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The ICE also have 19-year-old forward Brad Ginnell, who finished third in scoring on the ICE last season with 41 points in 68 games. Earlier in the summer, the ICE acquired 20-year-old overage forward Isaac Johnson. Johnson had 32 points in 31 games last season for the Tri-City Americans and the season prior to that he had 48 points in 68 games. Depending on how closely you follow junior hockey, you may know that a player could potentially have a huge uptick in production in their overage seasons due to experience. The ICE are hoping to see that out of the Minnesota native. Additionally, the ICE have Steve Dangle Podcast legend Jakin Smallwood. Smallwood scored 30 points in 67 games last season and finished fourth in team scoring before the 18-year-old went un-drafted in June at the NHL draft.

Another player the ICE will hope for a big improvement from is Manitoban Cole Muir. The 6’3″ 18-year-old had 27 points in 68 games last season. A few other names to keep an eye on are 19-year-old Austin Schellenberg, 16-year-old Mikey Milne, 17-year-old Owen Pederson and 18-year-old Holden Kodak.

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Some prospects that could surprise and make the team out of camp are 16-year-old Skyler Bruce, 17-year-old Logan Danis and 17-year-old James Form. Finally, even though they own the WHL rights to them, do not expect to see either Carter Savoie or Dylan Holloway in camp due to NCAA commitments.

Overall, I expect this forward group to be among the highest scoring forward groups in the entire league. I think it is extremely possible (and maybe even likely) that we see at least one player from the ICE among the top 10 in scoring in the WHL. I also expect that there will be 4 players (McClennon, Krebs, Teplý and Johnson) over a point per game. I could also see Ginnell or Kinder reaching that too if they exceed expectations. As always, in junior hockey there are players every year who show up to camp and are completely different players. Either due to offseason training, or other factors, some players can experience huge jumps in production from year to year. The ICE, like every other team in the WHL, will no doubt be hoping some of their players make some huge, unexpected strides this upcoming season.

Dylan’s Winnipeg ICE forward depth chart (not projected lines)

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Connor McClennon Peyton Krebs Michal Teplý
Nino Kinder Brad Ginnell Isaac Johnson
Mikey Milne Matthew Savoie Jakin Smallwood
Owen Pederson Cole Muir Holden Kodak
Austin Schellenberg James Form Skyler Bruce
Logan Danis Chase Bertholet

Stay tuned later this week for part 2 of my Winnipeg ICE Season Preview where I will be discussing the defence and goaltending along with some overall predictions for the season ahead!