The Cranbrook, B.C.-based Ice stunned favorites Saskatoon and Portland en route to their Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions this month.
The Ice is a team of veterans who got a tremendous boost with the acquisition of Swift Current captain and Washington Capitals prospect Cody Eakin at the trade deadline. The little flame-haired speed demon has been a tremendous two-way presence for the Ice, with rock of Gibraltar defenseman Brayden McNabb (Buffalo Sabres) anchoring an effective, mistake-free defense corps. Max Reinhart, a third-round selection of the Flames a year ago, has been tremendous in the postseason, tallying 15 goals in 19 games (27 points), including one five-goal outing. He led the Ice in scoring during the regular season with 34 goals and 79 points. Another Flames third-rounder, defenseman Joey Leach is a shutdown defender with a nasty edge.
Many of Kootenay's key forwards have never been drafted: Matt Fraser (36 goals), Kevin King (33 goals) Joe Antilla (21 goals), Steele Boomer (14 goals and one of the greatest names ever) and Jesse Ismond (15 goals).
They play an effective system and are ruthlessly efficient, forcing other teams into mistakes and then burying them.
And then of course, there is the resurgence of 6-6 goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, who has finally managed to stay healthy over an entire season for the first time since 2007. He's playing exactly like the potential 1st-round pick NHL teams were envisioning before concussions derailed his progress and flagged him as a major healthy risk.
The clear takeaway from all of this is that Mississauga, Owen Sound and Saint John had best not take the Kootenay Ice lightly. Underestimate this club at your own peril.
2011 draft eligibles
Nathan Lieuwen, G
Born Aug. 8, 1991 in Abbatsford, B.C.
6-6, 195 Catches: Left
Huge specimen; basketball player's build with long, spindly arms and legs for tremendous net coverage. Superb athleticism; tracks the puck and moves fast to take away the net from shooters. Lateral movement good, but with his size, doesn't need to move as far as smaller goalies do. Quick recovery skills when dropping into butterfly on second, third scoring chances. Susceptible to giving up the five-hole goal when his stick is not firmly on the ice. Blockers shots to the corners effectively. Very tough to beat on first shot. Playing with sky-high confidence right now. Concussion history is only obstacle to being a top-three-round pick. If he falls down a bit, it will be because of concerns about his long-term health at the position, because he has high-end puck-stopping skills. As a bonus, at 20, he's eligible for immediate AHL duty for the team that drafts him.
Upside: NHL starter
Check out this nice feature on Lieuwen over at the Buzzing the Net CHL/Jr. Hockey Blog.
Jagger Dirk, D
Born: May 4, 1993 in Penticton, B.C.
6-0, 177 Shoots: Left
Smallish defender may not be finished growing- his father, NHL defenseman Robert Dirk, played at 6-4. Not a dynamic skater, but mobile and agile with good footwork and change of direction. Best asset is his head: sees the ice well, makes the right reads and is positionally sound. Does not take himself out of plays with bad decisions or poor judgment. Has innate feel for his limitations and keeps things simple with the proper angling and an active stick. Outstanding gap control. Can activate and join the play as it moves up ice, but offense will not be a strength in his game. NHL bloodlines and was coached by his father at lower levels; knows what it takes to succeed in pro hockey. Not all that physical, but understands body leverage and does a good job of boxing out opponents. Just a solid all-around guy who isn't flashy, but effective. If he hits a growth spurt as anticipated, he'll be even more effective.
Upside: 4th defenseman/PK specialist
Other Ice draft eligibles: Jesse Ismond, Joe Antilla, James Martin, Hayden Rintoul (1991), John Neibrandt, Elgin Pearce, Brock Montgomery, Luke Paulsen (1992), Brandan Hurley, Jarett Zentner (1993)