New ‘AAA’ Wheaties coach takes reins with try-out camp

'AAA' Wheat Kings seek to fill six holes on the roster due to graduation as fall camp opens the first week of September.

While it is guaranteed that the Brandon Midget ‘AAA’ Wheat Kings will lose a third of their roster due to age, the team’s new head coach is hesitant to call the 2018-2019 Manitoba Midget ‘AAA’ Hockey League (MAAAHL) season a “rebuilding” year.

After all, the team’s top two forwards, Nolan Ritchie and Dylan Halliday, top defenseman Daemon Hunt and Rylan Thiessen and goaltender Dawson Green are among the two-thirds of players eligible to return to the squad this season. 

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New Head Coach Chris Johnson is optimistic about what he has to work with, but is not making any predictions about the upcoming campaign.

“Generally, we have a good program with lots of good returning players,” Johnson said on Monday evening. “Although we’ve lost a bunch of guys, the core group is returning and they all experienced the success we had last year. There’s a lot of pride with the program and with the players, themselves.” 

The Brandon ‘AAA’ Wheat Kings are coming off a solid run through the MAAAHL playoffs that saw them fall to the Winnipeg Wild in the championship final series last spring. To get there, the team swept both the Southwest Cougars in the quarterfinal series and the Winnipeg Bruins in the semi-final series.

The Wheat Kings finished the 2017-2018 regular season in second place, two points behind the Wild with a dominating record of 40 wins, six losses and two shootout losses for 82 points. 

Johnson replaced Tyson Ramsey at the helm of the team after Ramsey took an assistant coach’s position with the Virden Oil Capitals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) late last spring. Johnson was bumped to the head coaching position after serving as an assistant under Ramsey the last two seasons.

Johnson has 11 years of coaching experience in various divisions and his playing career included development in the Western Hockey League (WHL) followed by professional stints in the American Hockey League, the Central Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League. 

“It’s a big honor to coach in Brandon. I think it’s one of the best programs in the country as far as programs go,” Johnson said. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I’ve learned a lot from Tyson.”

Johnson said the team will maintain its game philosophy of speed with a potent transition from offense to defense and vice-versa, but the team’s scoring power has seen a decline. Veteran forwards Brett Paddock, Lynden McCallum and Carter Sawchuk, who sat third, fourth and fifth respectively in team scoring last season, have aged out of the midget division. 

So has starting goaltender, Keegan Watkins-McIntyre. Johnson is banking on the return of Dawson Green – who had 10 wins and four losses with a .895 save percentage – to carry much of the burden in net this season.

Meanwhile, Johnson is unsure what direction eligible players who are attending MJHL and WHL try-out camps will go. In fact, many of the decisions related to the roster will not be finalized until well after the ‘AAA’ Wheat King’s fall camp, which is scheduled to take place next week. Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff will also be waiting on who will return from the junior ranks through the early portion of next month. 

The four forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender spreads out the losses the team suffered to graduation, Johnson said. He is hoping next week’s camp – which generally attracts 25 to 30 players on an annual basis – will contain some talent to fill the holes left by the outgoing veterans.

“We’re going to put the best product on the ice by filling all the holes (on the roster) we can,” Johnson said. “Our intent is to develop players to get ready for the next level and try to win some games along the way.”

Registration for the 'AAA' Wheat Kings' fall camp is Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Brandon Sportsplex. The camp itself begins on Tuesday, Sept. 4. The team will open their 2018-2019 MAAAHL regular season campaign versus the Norman Northstars at the Brandon Sportsplex on Sept. 28 before heading to Dauphin to face the Parkland Rangers the following day.

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