Isles lose two key players, then three games

It’s just a week old, but 2014 hasn’t been a good year for the Kerry Park Islanders.

Within the first four days of the New Year, the junior B hockey club lost two of its better players, then lost three consecutive road games, earning just a single point.

"It wasn’t a good start to the year," team owner Mark Osmond admitted. "We had a two-week layoff; maybe we shouldn’t have not done anything for two weeks."

Prior to their first game of 2014, the Isles learned that first-line forward Braedan Cross and toppairing defenceman Taylor Armbruster would be jumping up to the junior A ranks with the B.C. Hockey League’s Trail Smoke Eaters, moves that are bittersweet for Kerry Park.

"It’s awesome for them, and awesome for the program," Osmond said. "But it’s kind of crappy this time of year. We were hoping to put a run together."

With improved play in November and December, the Isles were aiming for second place in the South Division and a better playoff berth. Unless they can replace Cross, their second-leading scorer, and Armbruster, those plans are in jeopardy. And this isn’t a good time of year for junior B teams to be hunting for talent.

"There aren’t many players out there we can go after," Osmond acknowledged. "It’s tough to replace those kinds of players in this league. The trouble with junior B is that we’re a development league for other leagues, but we want to put a quality product on the ice."

The Isles won’t be holding a fire sale, but Osmond has let his local products who are in their final years of junior eligibility – such as Alex Milligan, Tylor Branzsen and Eric Mansueti – know that he will consider trading them to contenders if they want it.

"I’ve told them, ‘We won’t trade you unless you ask,’" he said. "’It’s your decision; we won’t me making it for you."

The team fared no better when it came to actually playing games, beginning with a 7-4 loss to the Nanaimo Buccaneers last Thursday.

"We beat them the last two games, so they really wanted to beat us," Osmond said.

The Isles trailed 2-0 after one period and 6-1 after two. Branzsen had two goals and one assist, while Milligan and Francis Slicer had one of each, and Cody Short had two helpers. Jackson Jane started the game in goal and lasted two periods, making 29 saves on 25 shots before Leighton Williams came in and stopped four of five.

Against the Saanich Braves on Friday, Slicer opened the scoring for Kerry Park, but by the three-minute mark of the middle frame, the Isles were down 4-1. Mansueti made it 4-2 late in the second period, and Branzsen got his team within one early in the third, but the tying goal never materialized.

Mansueti and Branzsen added assists to their goals, and blueliner Tyler Fraser recorded two helpers. Williams went the distance in net, making 26 saves on 30 shots.

Finally, the Isles wrapped up the weekend with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Oceanside Generals, despite a natural hat trick from Cody Short. Short scored twice late in the second period and again in the third to force extra time, but the Generals managed one more late in the second overtime period after the Isles were denied on a penalty shot.

"Cody has played really well for us," Osmond said. "The puck just sticks to his stick. He works hard every night. He’s stepping up this year, for sure; he’s consistent."

Milligan had the Isles’ other marker and set up one of Short’s, while Slicer and Kyle Green had two assists apiece. Jane returned to the crease and had a stellar outing with 43 saves on 48 shots. Skating for the Generals, Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey product Ryan Hogg scored his first junior B goal in his second game, and caught the eye of Osmond, who wished he had signed Hogg as an affiliate.

"He’s a solid little player for 15," Osmond said. "He wasn’t out of place."

The Isles have been using a pair of Cowichan midget APs of their own for the last few games, with Seth Davis and Keegan Bisset getting plenty of work and possible chances at regular roster spots. Both players did double duty over the weekend, playing in a tournament with the midget Tier 1 Capitals as well as for the Isles.

The challenging stretch for the Isles continues this Thursday with a visit to the Cougars in Victoria. On Saturday, they will finally return to their home arena to host the Braves at 7:30 p.m.