Cougars more fit, expect better results in 2019-20

Season starts Friday night against Giants at CN Centre

When the Prince George Cougars did the math, after they missed the WHL playoffs for the second consecutive year, their third-period collapses stood out like a sore thumb.
In a 68-game schedule they lost 49 times and in 13 of those games after two periods they were either tied (eight games) or led (five games) before they succumbed to their opponents.
Was it conditioning, or lack thereof? Perhaps.
The youth and inexperience of the players probably had more to do with what happened to the Cougars, who set a team record for futility with a 17-game losing streak which ultimately led to the firing of head coach Richard Matvichuk. That slate has been wiped clean and the Cougars are under new barking orders now that Mark Lamb has shed the interim tag and is doing double-duty as head coach and general manager, with newly-hired associate Jason Smith sharing his expertise as a former NHL captain and WHL head coach. 
Despite flagging attendance, the Cougars ownership group has shown there's no interest in pulling the plug and moving the team to greener pastures. They're in it for the longterm, having run the team like a professional franchise since they took it over in 2014. They've succeeded in changing the culture and the message has gotten through to the hockey world that players who wear the Cougar crest get treated like pros, at home and on the road, and despite the challenges of its isolation from the rest of the league Prince George is no longer a WHL address to try to avoid. Everybody connected with the team desperately wants it to succeed on the ice and return to the days of capacity crowds and MasterCard commercials of the late 1990s which showed how much this city loves its Cougars. That love affair still smoulders, it's just waiting for a bandwagon to climb aboard.
The season starts Friday nights (7 p.m.) at CN Centre where the Cougars play the Vancouver Giants and local hockey fans are once again being asked to be patient. They're still young, with eight fresh faces among a cast of 17 returning players who went through those growing pains. Given a fresh start under the new regime, with another year of experience behind them, they should score more goals and win more often than they did last year. Will it be enough to make the playoffs? Maybe. But these Cougars are still a couple years away from being legitimate contenders for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Here's a breakdown for what we can expect over the next six months and hopefully for more, for the Cougars' sake:
First impressions
Don't be fooled by the Cats' lack of production in the preseason. Held to just six goals in five exhibition games, they were missing most of their veterans in all but one of those games and in that one they took an undefeated Edmonton Oil Kings team to overtime. Speed is an asset the Cougars do possess and chances are they won't get outworked. Lamb has seen the fitness testing results and they've returned from a long summer break in better shape than they were last year at this time.
"They put in the time in the summer, so the dedication is there," said Lamb. "It doesn't automatically make you win games either, there's a lot there that goes into winning hockey games, but it gives you a better chance to have success.
"They practice hard, they practice fast and we're going to have more speed in our lineup. Will that translate into wins? We don't know that. We didn't have a lot of offence last year. We need goals right through our lineup, you need your third or fourth lines to chip in once in a while."
Leading scorer Vladislav Mikhachuk has turned pro in the KHL but the Cougars retain 30-goal scorer Josh Maser. He brings a man-among-boys presence to the left side and he'll start the season working in tandem with the ever-tenacious Reid Perepeluk, another bruiser on the right side, combining on a line with centre Ethan Browne, perhaps the team's most skilled playmaker.
Jackson Leppard is capable of much more than the 10 goals and 29 points he put up last year and on his line he's the mate for two Czechs - Matej Toman and rookie Fillip Kofer, who has been a quick study learning the game on North American-sized rinks. 
Lamb says his forwards will have to take care of their own end first before they go looking for those big stretch passes and everybody has to pitch in and create offence from the far end of the ice. 
"We're going to have to play a real structured defensive game, right from our goaltender out, to have success," he said. "We didn't score a lot of goals but we gave up way too many goals. When you play strong D the offence will come and we didn't play strong D last year. Everybody talks about goal scoring, we're going to emphasize our play without the puck "
Another player to watch is Ilijah Colina (currently nursing a shoulder injury), who has overcome personal struggles that forced him to leave the team in January. Rookie Craig Armstrong, the Cougars ninth overall pick in 2018, has a bit of Theo Fleury in him. Despite his lack of size he can take a hit and he never quits. Mitch Kohner, Connor Bowie, Tyson Upper and Brendan Boyle know the fast way around a WHL rink and newcomers Blake Eastman and former Prince Albert Raider Davin Griffin will also compete for icetime. 
"I think last year we didn't get to the ugly areas around the net enough and this year guys are out to prove a point that we should be in playoffs and have a good team this year," said Maser. "Mark and Jason obviously have a lot of knowledge of the game of hockey, where you should be and what to  do and the guys are listening carefully to what they have to say."
The backbone of the Cougars was fed to the wolves last season and they bent at times, giving up an average 3.48 goals per game, but there were six WHL teams that allowed more over the course of the season. Cole Moberg used his quick wheels, smart stick and big shot to emerge as an NHL prospect and the Chicago Blackhawks liked him enough to draft him in the seventh round. Returnees Austin Crossley, Ryan Schoettler, Jack Sander, Cole Beamin and Rhett Rhinehart move the puck quickly and play tough enough in their own end to log big minutes. Rhinehart, as a 17-year-old with a late-November birthday, put up five goals and 24 points. Beamin has intimidating size at six-foot-four, 209 pounds. The 20-year-old Crossley could end up as a winger but will start the season on D. Joe Kennedy, a Washington native who played junior A last season in Ontario, Manitoba midget grad Ethan McColm and Delta Academy product Ethan Samson are new guys on the blueline. 
"Defence is one of our strengths and it has to be strength because we don't have that scoring touch yet," said Moberg. "Hopefully we can find a couple guys this year to break out and get some goals. Obviously, after losing Vlad (Mikhalchuk) from last year it's a big hole to fill, but if we play strong defence we'll get wins.
"With our compete level, we're not going to die out in third periods. We did that a lot last year but we're in much better shape than we were last year at the start of the year and it's just going to get better from here."
Taylor Gauthier's draft-day disappointment is now a distant memory. This is his time to prove to the NHL scouts he's a future pro in the making. Heading into his third full season, Gauthier was a workhorse last season and should reap the benefits of all that playing time. In 55 games with a last-place team his numbers - 3.45 goals-against average .899 save percentage, three shutouts - weren't Vezina-like. But he was a sharp learning curve and will benefit from another season working with goalie coach Taylor Dakers. That should give the Cougars a chance to win on most nights. Tyler Brennan, 16, is a big body at six-foot-three, 190 pounds and still growing. As the goalie of the future, the 21st overall bantam pick in 2018 won't simply be a bench-warmer as he makes the jump up from Rink Academy in Winnipeg. Lamb has promised he'll get his share of the starts.
Lamb had seven years as a GM/head coach with Swift Current. His handiwork at the draft table before he left for the AHL and later on as a behind-the-scenes advisor built the Broncos into WHL champions two seasons ago. He gave up a job offer this summer to return to the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant coach to stick with the Cougar project and aims to see it blossom into another championship team. Smith has a 88-44-10-2 record and back-to-back conference final appearances a couple years ago as a WHL head coach with the Kelowna Rockets and like Lamb he carried a reputation as an NHL player whose work ethic was off the charts. If they can get the players to match that intensity the Cougars' progress to contender status will be fast-tracked.
"Mark has set the tone right from the start that we're going to be a hard team to play against and we're not going to be a team that takes nights off and give teams easy games," said Smith. "Guys have put in the work from the start by paying attention to detail and making sure the compete level is where it needs to be. That's the only way you can take the step as a team and grow is to have internal competition and push each other to be better every day."
Prognosis: The best the Cougars can realistically expect is to make it as a wild-card playoff team. But if they get there, look out. They might have a surprise or two in store for whoever they do meet in the first round.