Defencemen are going down like flies for the Penticton Vees.
Already in crisis mode for the “Wicked Wednesday” matchup against the Vernon Vipers, the Vees learned 19-year-old James Miller will be out 4-6 weeks with an upper-body injury sustained while blocking a shot in Saturday’s win over Powell River.
The Vees knew they were likely going to be without Miller for the next five games, as he and fellow blueliners Jonny Tychonick and Griffin Mendel were at the Team Canada West camp this week in Leduc, Alta.
Miller, of course, will now not be playing at the World Junior A Challenge (Dec. 11-17 in Bonnyville, Alta.) due to the injury.
Tychonick and Mendel appear to be locks to make the team, according to Vees GM and head coach Fred Harbinson.
Gabe Bast remains out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, but fellow 20-year-old blueliner Mitch Meek returns to the lineup Wednesday after missing three games to injury.
Harbinson signed 18-year-old Penticton product Greg Brydon earlier this week. The six-foot-one, 195-pounder started the season with the Powell River Kings, playing 18 games before joining the Campbell River Storm of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League.
The Vees rounded out the defence corps for Wednesday by calling up a pair of affiliated players – 18-year-old Konsta Jaske and 15-year-old Kelowna product Jackson van de Leest.
Like Brydon, Jaske does have a modicum of Junior-A experience. The native of Helsinki, Finland played 24 games with the Wenatchee Wild last season and five more with the Trail Smoke Eaters and one with the Vees this season.
Jaske, a six-foot, 180-pounder, plays in the KIJHL with the Summerland Steam, tallying three goals and eight points in 13 games this season.
A first-round pick, 16th overall by the Calgary Hitmen in the 2016 WHL bantam draft, van de Leest will be making his Vees debut.
The six-foot-five, 190-pound Kelowna product did play six games for the Hitmen earlier this season, registering one assist, and currently plays for the Okanagan Hockey Academy Midget Prep White team.
Harbinson said he planned to decide on the pairings after Tuesday’s practice.
“Obviously we’re going to have to mix and match back there at least until after Christmas,” said Harbinson.
The Vees (24-5-1) are 16 points clear of the second-place Vipers (15-12-3), but the stats usually go out the window when the bitter Valley rivals clash.
Vernon, in fact, won 3-2 in their prior visit to the SOEC on Nov. 11, though the Vees bounced back to win 3-1 at Kal Tire Place the following night.
“We’ve got to play a real smart game,” said Vees GM/head coach Fred Harbinson. “We need each and every player to give it everything they’ve got in these last (five) games before the Christmas break. We’ve just got to battle through it, hopefully go .500 or so in these last games before the break.”
The Vipers, tied with Trail for second place, have won their last three games by a combined score of 16-2. That includes a 6-1 home win over West Kelowna in their only game of the weekend on Friday.
“They’re probably the team to beat in our division right now,” Harbinson said. “They’ve made a ton of moves since the beginning of the year. They’ve totally rebuilt their defence, made some changes in goal and up front as well.
“It’s a much different team than they were in September. It’s a team built to win this year. They beat us here last time and we expect another real tough game (Wednesday).”
Vernon also got some key veterans back recently such as injured forward Jimmy Lambert and suspended forward Riley Brandt.
Steven Jandric leads a balanced attack with 15 goals and 24 points, Brett Stapley has 21 points on a team-leading 16 assists, while Niko Karamanis has 11 goals – including two against the Vees in the win on Nov. 11.
Captain Nic Jones leads the Vees with 35 points, Chris Klack has 28 points and Grant Cruikshank leads in goals with 18.
ICE CHIPS: In the Wicked Wednesday promotion, game tickets for adults and seniors are just $5, draft beer $3.75 and fountain pop $2.50 … Bryden will wear jersey No. 43 for the Vees … The Vees placed Bast on injured reserve … Vees F Jamie Armstrong (mononucleosis) will be out until after the Christmas break … Mat Robson will get the start in goal for the Vees against Vernon … The Vees also welcome the Cowichan Valley Capitals to the SOEC Saturday at 6 p.m.