The Penticton Vees passed the pre-season test with flying colours.
Penticton won six straight games (OK, maybe only five, since the first one against West Kelowna was an all-rookie affair), and offered plenty of reason for excitement and optimism as their 58-game BCHL regular season schedule starts with road games in Trail on Friday and Saturday.
It can be difficult to get a read on teams based on exhibition games, but Penticton was impressive in so many facets that it’s hard to imagine they won’t continue to excel once they start playing for keeps at the Cominco Arena on Friday.
The Vees scored in bunches at even strength and on the power play, even in the two games against the powerful defending RBC Cup champion Brooks Bandits. They economized on shots and displayed clinical finishing ability in the two wins over Brooks, unlike in recent seasons when they’d need 50-plus shots to score four or five goals.
They also kept the puck out of the net, allowing more than two goals only once (in the 6-3 triumph over Brooks). They were air-tight at even strength, while the penalty killing will only continue to get better with the strong personnel at hand and repetitions in practice.
The goaltending was terrific when called upon. Rookie Yaniv Perets allowed one tough goal in Friday’s win over Brooks, but Perets and veteran Derek Krall are going to give the Vees a solid tandem, with head coach Fred Harbinson having the luxury of not having to overwork one goalie over the course of the regular season.
One aspect of the Vees play that stood out was their willingness to not only respond when challenged physically, but the appetite to initiate some of the rough stuff. That was very evident in the first game against Brooks.
“We didn’t shy away and we had a lot of guys in the faces of our opponents,” said Harbinson.
The Vees aren’t huge up front but they’re quick on the forecheck and force a lot of mistakes and turnovers.
They’re loaded with scoring ability led by Philadelphia Flyers 2018 No. 1 draft pick Jay O’Brien. Along with captain David Silye, Danny Weight and Colton Kalezic, the Vees should be unmatched up the middle of the ice with those four. Second-year wingers Jackson Niedermayer and Lukas Sillinger look ready to take the next step, and veteran Alex DiPaolo looks like a shrewd off-season acquisition from Coquitlam.
On the back end, the Vees have a blend of size, toughness, speed and skill which will be hard to match in the BCHL this season.
The Vees were quick to lay the body led by 6’ 7” 208-pounder Cade Webber, a draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. The fourth-year BCHL veteran Ethan Martini is also 6’ 7” with a mean streak, Scott Gilowski is the youngest player on the team at age 17 but is 6’ 6” and 212 pounds with a real edge to his game. Steve Holtz is 6’ 3” and also plays a rugged style.
The skill is in equal abundance led by the speedster Conner Hutchison, who is an elite pro prospect coming back from a season-ending injury. Veterans Carson Kosobud and Evan McIntyre are also smooth and mobile and should flourish in their first full seasons in Penticton.
Speaking of “veterans”, this is a team loaded with them, unlike in previous years where Harbinson recruited primarily young, highly-touted prospects to develop their games in Penticton.
The Vees do have some outstanding first-year players such as Weight, Tristan Amonte, Liam Malmquist and Vincent Nardone, but even the young players aren’t that young, if you will. Weight is 18, but the other aforementioned three are 19.
“Our young players have shown they will compete and contribute,” said Harbinson.
Of the 22 players on the roster, six are 20-year-olds, 11 are 19-year-olds, only four are 18-year-olds and Gilowski is their only 17-year-old. For the first time in a long time, the Vees don’t have a single 16-year-old.
This is a team that’s all in to win now.
And they will certainly run a challenging gauntlet to open the season, with their first six games on the road.
Trail is expected to be among the challengers looking to unseat the Vees after eight straight Interior Division pennants.
They go to Merritt (at a rink befitting of a Friday the 13th matchup), followed by a long travel day to play the defending BCHL-champion Prince George Spruce Kings on Sept. 14.
It will be redemption time the following weekend, as the Vees visit the team that shocked them in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Sept. 21.
The two-game Island jaunt finishes Sept. 22 to play a much-improved Nanaimo Clippers team in a building the Vees have rarely enjoyed much success.
“Definitely some real tough environments in those first six games,” said Harbinson. “We’ll really get put to the test right off the hop.”
The Vees finally get home Sept. 27 to launch a home-and-home series with the West Kelowna Warriors.
It’s going to be intriguing to see where the Vees are at after those six road games. Though it’s mostly a veteran lineup, there are still only eight players back from last year’s squad.
There will no doubt be some ups, downs and growing pains, but I suspect the Vees will rise to the challenge and get home with a .500 record or better.
No question, there is a lot to like about the makeup of this team, and the upside to get much better.
David Crompton is a sports reporter at the Penticton Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org