Ziemmer Paige Bednorz

Prince George Cougars: Trending in the right direction

The last time the Cougars had a winning record was the 2016-17 WHL season. That year the team hung the BC Division banner with a 45-21-3-3 record, just one point ahead of the Kelowna Rockets.

Prince George made several trades that season including sending their 1st round pick in 2018 to the Prince Albert Raiders (among other pieces) for then 19-year-old defenseman Brendan Guhle. Guhle played just 32 regular season and six playoff games for the team. They also send their 2nd round 2018 pick (and other pieces) to Moose Jaw for Nikita Popugayev. Through 31 games Popugayev had seven goals and 11 assists. In six playoff games, he had one goal and two assists.

Nikita Popugaev was a key forward for the Cougars-photo: Brett Cullen

That 2016-17 team was somewhat of a disappointment though, as the Cougars lost in six games to the Portland Winterhawks, who were 12 points back of the Cougars at the end of the season.

Since that time, the Cougars have struggled. The 2017-18 season saw the team finish with the second-worst record in the WHL at 24-38-5-5. Despite finishing 18th overall in 2018-19, the team record actually plummeted to 19-41-5-3.

The COVID shortened 2019-20 season did see the Cougars improve slightly to a 20-34-4-4 record.

That means in the last three seasons the team has gone 63-113-14-12 or a .376 points percentage.

The much delayed 2020-21 season finally saw the Cougars pull themselves out of the league basement and deliver an exciting on-ice product. The team is currently 9-7-2-1 and have the third-best points percentage in the division at .553.

Prince George has been able to earn a win from each of the four other BC Division teams this season and had a winning record against Vancouver and Victoria. One of Kamloops’ four losses this season came at the hands of the Cougars.

Taylor Gauthier has been as advertised this season, tied for seventh overall in save percentage at .917%. and 13th in goals-against average with a 2.70GAA. 17-year-old Tyler Brennan has emerged as a capable backup and heir to the number one goaltender spot. He has yet to lose in regulation this season (2-0-1-1) and has a 2.16 GAA to go with a .933 save percentage.

Gauthier stones Bader in close – Photo: Allan Douglas

17-year-old Craig Armstrong leads the team in scoring with 13 points. He is not among the top-100 scorers in the WHL but seven Cougars have at least 10 points apiece including 2019 1st round draft pick Koehn Ziemmer. His nine goals and three assists are good for second on the team in scoring and 11th among all WHL rookies this season. The team’s second-round pick at the 2019 WHL draft is also among the top-20 rookie scorers. Kyren Gronick has five goals and five assists through 14 games this season.

The second overall pick at the 2020 WHL Draft was Riley Heidt. He has played in all 19 Cougars games this season and has two goals and six assists. The recently turned 16-year-old has the fourth-most points this season of all players drafted at the 2020 WHL Draft.

Riley Heidt – photo: Allan Douglas

Prince George’s young defence has developed quietly this season. The back end has produced just seven of the team’s 55 goals so far but overall the team is a +1 in goals for and goals against.

Penalty killing has been solid for the Cougars in 2020-21, allowing just 12 goals on 69 shorthanded situations. Smartly, the team is among the bottom of the pack in penalty minutes per game, falling just under 10 minutes (9.9). The team has scored five times when down a player. The team could use some work with the man-advantage, currently 20th among the 22 WHL teams. The team has just 11 goals on the power play in 76 opportunities. They have allowed four shorthanded goals against.

Prince George will only graduate one player at the conclusion of the season. Jack Sander is the only player born in 2000 and none of the players on the team has been selected by an NHL team. There is a chance that Taylor Gauthier will be signed by an NHL club and placed on their AHL team for his 20-year-old season. The team will need to choose between five forwards (Tyson Upper, Brendan Boyle, Jonny Hooker, Ethan Browne and Connor Bowie) one defenseman (Majid Kaddura), and goaltender Gauthier should he return.

The team is currently riding a six-game point streak and will finish out the season with games against the Victoria Royals, Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers.

2021-22 is shaping up to be a great season for the Cougars and their fan base.

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