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Kia CHL Top-10 Spotlight: Wheat Kings returning with veteran savvy lineup

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The Brandon Wheat Kings are ready to plow through the competition.

Earning honourable mention in the preseason edition of the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings, the Wheat Kings will soon retake the ice following a successful season in which the club sat third in the WHL’s East Division with 76 points and poised to return to the playoff picture prior to the pause.

For the coming season in Brandon, where the Wheat Kings are now led by a pair of first-round NHL draft choices, the story begins at the forward ranks where Ottawa Senators prospect Ridly Greig returns for his third full season following an impressive sophomore campaign in which he finished third in team scoring and above a point-per-game pace with 26 goals and 34 assists through 56 contests, highlighted by an eight-game point streak when the season came to a halt.

“I started off pretty slow and just like the team, I got better and better throughout the season,” recalled Greig per Perry Bergson of The Brandon Sun. “I think the biggest thing was that after the Top Prospects Game I came back and I was playing more and everything just kind of connected. My confidence was pretty high.

“Obviously in February and March we were one of the better teams in the league, I think. It’s just too bad we didn’t have playoffs … We were excited to be in the playoffs and play, which probably would have been Winnipeg. Everyone was looking forward to it and then obviously it just kind of sucks that it came to an end so fast.”

A versatile skater, Greig brings an added edge to the Wheat Kings’ forward group that also includes four fellow NHL drafted prospects in Luka Burzan (Colorado Avalanche), Marcus Kallionkieli (Vegas Golden Knights), Ben McCartney (Arizona Coyotes), and Cole Reinhardt (Senators).

“(Greig) brings energy to the ice and he shoots the puck extremely well and he’s used in all situations,” Senators chief amateur scout Trent Mann told Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun. “One of those kids, as time goes on, he’s going to be able to do a lot of things for you.”

Chosen 28th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, Greig’s selection came on the heels of the New York Rangers calling the name of blue-liner teammate Braden Schneider at pick No. 19.

Currently attending Canada’s National Team Selection Camp in hopes of defending gold at the upcoming World Juniors, Schneider’s aim is to make the final lineup after being among the last cuts a year ago.

“Last year was a good experience for me and I learned a lot. I think you learn more from things like that,” Schneider said from camp Wednesday. “This year is a little bit of a different year. There is a lot of high-end talent here. It’s a competitive camp so I don’t think you can expect anything. You have to let your game on the ice show what you can do and show them why you should be here.”

Back in Brandon, while Schneider will be looked toward to provide an invaluable veteran presence, the Wheat Kings aren’t without change at the leadership position following the graduation of captain Connor Gutenberg as well as behind the bench where former assistant Don MacGillivray has been elevated to the top job following previous head coach Dave Lowry’s appointment by the Winnipeg Jets.

Despite spending a lone season in Brandon, Lowry had a profound impact on MacGillivray, a longtime assistant who hopes to mimic much of the veteran coach’s approach this season.

“I’m so grateful that I had that opportunity to work with Dave last year. I think I’m a better coach today than I was a year-and-a-half ago,” MacGillivray said earlier this month. “This past year with Dave was like going to a coaches clinic every day. The best thing about working with Dave Lowry was we were always on the same page. We challenged each other but we were always on the same page. We liked the same type of players, we liked the same way of having our team play, and we’re the same age. We had a lot in common.”

The other big shift in Brandon comes between the pipes where Golden Knights prospect Jiri Patera – who last year established a single-season franchise record with a 2.55 goals-against average – has graduated to the pro ranks, leaving former backup Ethan Kruger as the go-to goaltender.

Kruger, 19, saw the ice 24 times in 2019-20, including a brief stint as the No. 1 with Patera on the shelf, in which he showed plenty of potential in coming up with a winning record and a respectable .912 save percentage by season’s end.

“After seeing what I did last year when I had the ball in my hands, I’ve definitely been waiting for this moment,” Kruger told Bergson. “I’m definitely ready to go when the season starts. I’ve been super motivated throughout the summer. This is a big year for us as the Wheat Kings and for myself as well. I’m super excited.”

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