Boost at centre for Vees

NICOLAS PIEROG was acquired from the Surrey Eagles for Anthony Conti and future considerations. His addition along with Erik Benoit, below, helps the Vees become more versatile at the centre position.  - Emanuel Sequeira/Western News
NICOLAS PIEROG was acquired from the Surrey Eagles for Anthony Conti and future considerations. His addition along with Erik Benoit, below, helps the Vees become more versatile at the centre position.
— image credit: Emanuel Sequeira/Western News

Strong goaltending? Check. Strong defence? Check. Depth at centre? Add a check there.

With the Jan. 10 Canadian Junior Hockey League trade-deadline approaching Friday, Penticton Vees general manager Fred Harbinson addressed an issue he felt he had down the middle. Last Friday the Vees signed WHL free agent Erik Benoit. Then on Saturday, after a 1-1 draw against the Merritt Centennials, Harbinson acquired Nicolas Pierog, who is 24th in league scoring with 26 goals and 38 points in 40 games, but is third in goal scoring.

The Vees had been using wingers as centremen and he said people underestimate the need for centres, who are good at winning face-offs.

“We have people that are real strong on both dots,” said Harbinson. “Look at (Ben) Dalpe and Pierog playing together. Both guys can take face-offs.”

Harbinson also listed off Steen Cooper, Cody DePourcq, Riley Alferd and Max Coatta.

When the Vees announced they signed Benoit, they said they were getting a solid two-way player with the reputation of being a dressing room leader. Pierog made an impression on Harbinson during last year’s Fred Page Cup championship with the Surrey Eagles. Two things stood out to Harbinson about Pierog.

“Nic played a big part in stopping us short of repeating as Fred Page Cup Champions last spring,” he said in a team statement. “The addition of Nic not only adds scoring to our lineup but he also gives us much needed size at the centre position.”

With one card remaining, Harbinson said a general manager isn’t doing his job if he’s not listening or talking to people. The trade to free up space for Benoit sent Brendan Lamont to Coquitlam and brought back the playing rights of Michael Rebry. Rebry was the future considerations that landed John Siemer from the Coquitlam Express at last year’s trade deadline. Harbinson said they are waiting to see what happens with Rebry, who is with the Western Michigan Broncos.

When asked what the trade market is like, Harbinson said there are a few players that have caught the interest of teams. He also said though with the parity in the league and the set up of divisions, there are still teams that don’t feel they are in selling mode.

“There are not a lot of players out there,” he said.

With the moves, Harbinson feels positive because he “didn’t have to mortgage the future to do it.”

“We definitely add experience with Pierog winning a championship and Benoit, who has been at two Memorial Cups winning a Western League championship (2011) as well,” he said. “Our fans have come out this year and supported us. We’re going to do everything possible to try to bring a championship here.”

Harbinson was impressed with both new recruits in Sunday's 6-2 win against the Merritt Centennials at the South Okanagan Events Centre.

“Probably could have had three or four goals and played outstanding,” said Harbinson of Pierog. “Benoit had three assists. Played really well in his two games. I think the guys are excited about what the possibilities are.”

Cody DePourcq opened the scoring just 13 seconds into the game. Jack Ramsey and Cooper added singles, while Brad McClure scored twice and Ben Dalpe wired home the winner from the high slot.

Pierog said it was good to contribute to the Vees’ first win of 2014. Bringing a two-way style, the 6-2, 200-pounder is excited about his new surroundings.

“It’s a great organization. Everything is second-to-none here,” said Pierog, who had conversations with his former Eagles coach Peter Schaefer about the deal. “I thought I played good. Didn’t get on the scoresheet but I played my style of hockey.

Had a good couple chances.”

Pierog also displayed his stick handling skills and a willingness to enter high traffic areas.

Pierog, of Georgetown, Ont., said it was a bit weird initially to join the team he helped beat last year in the BCHL championship.

“The guys are great and they welcomed me with open arms, it’s been good,” said Pierog, who played in five Western Canada Cup and RBC Cup games last year. “My first year of junior was last year. I got on a great run. I’m just going to try to bring what I learned from my year and a half in Surrey, bring it here.”

Benoit is looking to have fun again in his final year of junior hockey. He played 213 games with four WHL teams.

“Probably my first year was the best year of my life. We won a championship,” said Benoit, who added things began to go downhill shortly after. “The passion wasn’t there anymore. It was hard to find I think. Now that I have joined a real tight group of guys, and they have welcomed me, it’s just great to see that. I guess it’s the making of a championship team.”

Benoit, who also played in the Memorial Cup with the host Saskatoon Blades last season, said there has been no real adjustment to playing at the junior A level.

“The same quality of hockey I find. It’s really up-tempo,” said Benoit, who is listed at 5-foot-9, 190-pounds and plays a hard-nosed game with no fear of going to the net. “Lots of hard hits and it’s really similar to the Western League in those kinds of ways.”

Having not played for nearly a month, Benoit, who collected three assists in Sunday’s win, said he’s just getting his legs going. He displayed some frustration too from a missed scoring chance.

“I was just about to shoot and the goalie ended up sticking his pad out. I was kind of upset about that. I couldn’t get the shot off,” he said. “I definitely had my fair share tonight.”

The pressure to produce offensively contributed to his feelings in the WHL.

“I always felt pressure. There is lots of people that do,” he said. “Other than that, I mean, I was afraid to make mistakes sometimes. That can be kind of bad. I found that I had to rediscover something. Rediscover my game. This is where I think it’s going to happen.”

The Vees improved to 25-9-2-3. The Vees dropped one spot in the CJHL rankings to 11th as of Jan. 6. The Victoria Grizzlies are the BCHL’s top ranked team at eighth.

Ice chips: On Monday, the Vernon Vipers acquired forwarrd Brett Mulcahy and future considerations from the Surrey Eagles for forward Chase McMurphy and future considerations. From skating last season with Mason Blacklock and Demico Hannoun on the Eagles, to Major Midget with Colton Sparrow on the Okanagan Rockets, to spring league with Ryan Renz, to minor hockey with T.J. Dumonceaux and Brendan Perlsey, he sees a lot of familiar faces on his new B.C. Hockey League club.

“I pretty much know the whole team,” said Mulcahy to the Vernon Morning Star. “I know a few guys off every team because I’ve been around the league for a while, but I know seven or eight guys here pretty well.”

Mulcahy said last year’s RBC Cup run experience will come in handy when Vernon hosts the national Junior A tournament, May 10-18, at Kal Tire Place.

“It takes a lot for a team to win like we did last year, and there’s a few guys (Renz, Sparrow, Hannoun) in the room that can lean on that experience.
“A team has to be cohesive and work together and play within the systems. If everybody takes care of their role, the wins will come and the team will be successful.”



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