Puck possession could be the name of the game when Ryan Murphy’s Kitchener Rangers welcome Kerby Rychel and the Windsor Spitfires on Friday Night Hockey.
The Rangers are a talented and determined team, but will be playing without Ottawa Senators prospect and Team Canada hopeful, Matt Puempel. The 19-year-old suffered a Grade 1 shoulder sprain in Kitchener’s loss to London on Tuesday and is out indefinitely. Puempel’s absence will give added responsibilities to Edmonton Oilers prospect Tobias Rieder.
"Tobi’s one of our leaders," Rangers head coach Steve Spott said. "He’s a world-class player and obviously one of our players that we’re going to have to lean on especially now with Matt (Puempel) out of the lineup."
The Spitfires will also be without one of their top players as Michael Clarke is out nursing a Grade 1 shoulder sprain, ironically the same injury as Puempel. Clarke practiced with his team on Wednesday but was listed as doubtful by Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner.
"He’s a centreman that kills penalties, takes the crucial draws and usually plays against the other team’s top lines," Boughner said.
The Kitchener Memorial Auditorium is known as one of the toughest places to play. Boughner hopes his young team can weather the storm early and take control of the game instead of letting the Rangers dictate the play.
"We can’t turn pucks over in our own end and spend so much time in our end," he said. "That’s the problem we’ve had with Kitchener is puck possession and they’ve got some high-end guys. The fact of the matter is, we don’t get enough puck possession against them and that’s the key to trying to beat Kitchener."
Rieder’s point production is dipping after putting up 85 points in 60 games last season. The German forward has just nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 26 games, respectable numbers but not on par with last year’s totals and his head coach can pinpoint the difference.
"What we need from Tobias is to create more offence," Spott said. "He misses (former Ranger captain) Michael Catenacci from last year and we’ve had a hard time finding that chemistry with Tobi and another centreman. But ultimately, he’s dangerous five-on-four, he’s dangerous when he’s killing penalties four-on-five and obviously five-on-five."
Montreal Canadiens prospect Brady Vail was one of the earlier surprises from the league this season with 20 points in his first 16 games. Known mostly as a defensive specialist, Vail’s production dropped off in November. Boughner is hopeful the young centre will realize the best offence is a good defence.
"When Brady Vail was playing his best, he was paying attention to the details and playing in that shutdown role — that defensive centre — and he thrived on it," he said. "I told him all along, ‘the better you play against the top lines — they’re an offensive-minded line, so therefore if you play good defence, you’re going to get the turnovers and you’re going to have the puck more than they will.’
"I think the point (totals) sometimes takes over mentally on these kids and I think he’s going to get back to making sure he takes a lot of pride shutting the other team down and his points will come because that’s how they came before."
Spitfires forward Kerby Rychel, son of former NHLer and GM Warren, is largely considered a first-round pick for the upcoming NHL draft. He was ranked third among OHL skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting among draft eligible players. After scoring 41 goals last season, Rychel is regaining his touch after a slow start.
"Kerby’s always been a finisher, but I think now since he’s been scoring he’s been playing more desperate in all parts of his game," Boughner said. "He’s blocking shots, and he’s finishing hits. I know every coach says the same thing: when you play the right way, good things happen and that’s what’s happening with him. He’s been, really, our most complete player probably for the last month and a half."
Kitchener may have another top prospect in their midst with hulking rookie forward Justin Bailey. He’s the son of former Buffalo Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey, who went to three Super Bowls with the Bills in the early 1990s. Bailey was ranked ninth by Central Scouting on the OHL list.
"I think the combination of size, skill and competitiveness," Spott noted as Bailey’s best attributes. "He has all of the physical intangibles of an NHL player. When you look at his bloodlines and you look at the history of his family with regards to world-class athletes, he has lineage, I believe, to be a special athlete. I just think we’re not even near the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Justin’s potential."
The Rangers are deep between the pipes with veterans John Gibson and Franky Palazzese. Gibson, a candidate for the American world junior squad, receives the majority of the starts, but the Rangers are confident with both.
"We have a 1-, 1-A goaltending situation here, which for us has been really, really great because each night both guys give us an opportunity to win," Spott said. "The challenge for me is trying to find enough ice time for both of them to stay happy. It’s a competitive environment and both these guys push each other on a daily basis."
The Spitfires received a pleasant surprise when they traded German forward Tom Kuhnhackl to Niagara last season. In order to balance the European situation for both teams, the Spitfires took back Czech goaltender Jaroslav Pavelka, who’s quietly been one of the OHL’s top goaltenders since then.
"He’s come out of nowhere," Boughner said. "We didn’t know much about him when we got him in that deal. He just earned his ice time and I honestly believe he is one of the premier goaltenders in our league and he proves it every game."
Murphy is under the microscope to crack a very deep Canadian blue line. With Canada’s head coach holding the same title on his club team, the Rangers defenceman knows exactly what he has to do to impress the Hockey Canada brass.
"Ryan’s one of those players that’s got God given ability to create offence," Spott said. "I think the challenge for Ryan, and it always will be, is eliminating risk in his game and making sure that when he’s on the ice, he’s managing the puck the right way. And obviously making sure that, as good as he is offensively, that he doesn’t cause problems defensively."
Puempel, if healthy, could also play for Canada. Meanwhile, Gibson is a good bet for the American squad while Dallas Stars’ first-rounder Radek Faksa (Czech) and Rieder (Germany) should also be at the tournament in Russia.
Windsor defenceman Patrick Sieloff could represent the Americans while Pavelka learned recently by the Czech coaching staff that his country will go with Matej Machovsky (Brampton) and Patrik Bartosak (Red Deer) in goal, which came as a surprise to Boughner.
"I was shocked," he said. "I guess good for us, we’ll have him when the world juniors is on, but I wanted to see him go. He earned it."
The Rangers, who are celebrating the franchises’ 50th season, are gunning for a championship this season. It won’t be easy considering how tough the Western Conference is shaping up, particularly the Midwest Division.
"I believe the Western Conference is the toughest conference in all of Canada," Spott said. "Now when you look at the Midwest Division this year, that takes it to a whole different level. It’s great for the fans, it’s great for the scouts because every night you’ve got a playoff atmosphere, which makes it exciting for everybody."
The Spitfires, meanwhile, are amongst a group of four teams separated by three points for the three final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
"There’s been some disappointing losses lately and then there’s been some losses that we think we’ve outplayed teams, just fell short," Boughner said. "We have to make sure, especially in a Western Conference game, that we grab points."