Charlie Wilkie came to Nelson set on becoming a Leafs defenceman. He may have just earned his spot in the lineup as a forward instead.
Wilkie, one of many new faces on the ice, put himself on the coaching staff’s radar with a pair of goals as the Leafs opened the KIJHL pre-season with a 10-2 rout against the Castlegar Rebels on Tuesday.
The 18-year-old Calgary native stole the spotlight early in the game with stickhandling that looked as though it would go waste on the blue-line.
“It’s funny, when I first came to main camp I told them I was defence and they said, ‘Okay, can you play forward for us?’ …,” said Wilkie, who played for a midget AAA team last season. “If a guy gets hurt I’ll go D. If they need me to I’ll play forward. It’s just kind of all-around.”
Wilkie’s first goal opened the scoring less than two minutes into the first period. He swiped the puck from a Rebels defender, went in alone and and rang a shot off the crossbar into the net over Castlegar goaltender Cole Gallo’s shoulder.
Wilkie pulled off the same move four minutes later in the middle of several Rebels players, which didn’t end in another goal but was just as impressive.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said Wilkie was one of his early lineup surprises as the team recasts itself for the new season.
“I don’t want to say [Wilkie] is a dark horse but coming into camp he was a dark horse. …,” said DiBella. “Watching him play as a forward you can see that he’s a very good forward and given that he can play defence as well, that’s a luxury we can have on our team.”
The exhibition game was a farce for all three periods, albeit in Nelson’s favour.
Veteran Andy Fitzpatrick and new addition Jack Karran each scored hat tricks, while Sawyer Hunt and Cleary Ambrose chimed in with a goal apiece. Kayden Pickles made eight saves in the Leafs’ goal before giving way in the third period for Jared Martin, who stopped just one shot.
Castlegar, which looked to be very much a work in progress, had goals from Daniel Petten and Brandon Costa. Gallo, meanwhile, was on the hook for all 10 goals while turning aside 36 shots.
Goals hold little value in exhibition games, but Karran’s performance won’t hurt his chances of making Nelson’s final roster. DiBella said he was impressed with the way Karran played away from the puck.
“I don’t think we look at goals as the end all to what’s taking place on the ice,” said DiBella. “We’re more concerned about responsibilities that players take on the ice when they’re asked to do certain things and how they react in different situations, when they’re mixed up with different players, how they react to that.”
Karran, who played for a midget team in Grand Prairie, Alta., last season, took part in a Kelowna camp the Leafs scouted in April. He had offers from two teams. “I checked into both of them and decided to play here,” said Karran. “I think I made the right choice.”
The Rebels appeared as though they came to play in the first period. Petten, Castlegar’s new captain, sniped a shot on a one-timer to tie the game at one.
The Leafs regained the lead less than two minutes later. Fitzpatrick was on Gallo’s doorstep when he banged the puck in and let out an emphatic “Woooooo” as he skated past his bench.
The good vibes lasted about 20 seconds, with Costa tying the game on a short shot similar to Fitzpatrick’s goal. But that was the last of the Rebels’ offence, and the team spent most of the final two periods stuck in their own zone.
“It was rough but we had lots of rookies, lots of young guys in the lineup,” said Petten. “It will just keep going forward from here. We’re learning lots.”
Nelson dominated after the first intermission, taking advantage of Gallo’s inability to close his pads. Fitzpatrick slashed a shot through Gallo at 18:26 and Karran scored the same way 18 seconds later after charging the net.
Hunt, the Leafs’ marquee off-season signing, showed off his pedigree less than three minutes later. He finished a breakaway with a slick deke that beat Gallo yet again between the pads.
The goals kept coming, with Wilkie scoring his second of the game about five minutes later on an ugly but effective shot down low on the Castlegar net. The onslaught abated in the final 10 minutes of the period, but Nelson still entered the third with a 34-10 shot advantage.
Fitzpatrick completed his hat trick nearly six minutes into the third. He ripped a close angle shot against Gallo, and about 10 seconds later Karran had his second of the game at the same spot for an 8-2 lead.
Castlegar opted to keep Gallo in net even as the goals continued. Ambrose, who appeared bulkier on ice than he did last season, chipped in the ninth goal with less than nine minutes left in regulation.
Karran finished off his hat trick four minutes later, putting the Leafs’ scoring total into double digits before the affair came to a merciful end.
Leaflets: Nelson hosts the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in another exhibition game Wednesday. The Leafs open the regular season on the road Sept. 9, and don’t play at home again until Sept. 16 against the Spokane Braves. … Leafs veterans D Kyle Chernenkoff, D Dash Thompson, F Levi Hulston and F Eamonn Miller remain away at Junior A try-out camps.