Jason Gray entered his first Columbus Cottonmouths season with the goal of being productive as an offensive-minded defenseman.
Gray has exceeded expectations and made a league-wide impact. With 18 regular season games to play, Gray leads all rookie defensemen in scoring.
Fellow defenseman Andy Willigar hasn’t played as large an offensive role, but has put together a solid rookie season.
Gray is paired with captain Kyle Johnson when the team is at full strength and with veteran Tom Maldonado on the power play. Gray enjoys working on the power play and has scored 11 of his 24 points when the Snakes, who host Knoxville on Friday night, have a man advantage.
“Before the season, I had certain expectations,” Gray said. “In juniors I had a point per game and that’s what I wanted to strive for here. Jerome (Bechard) has given me a lot of opportunities. The power play has been clicking. When we’re five-on-five, we need to work on making the right choices. I need to let it come to me.”
Gray and Maldonado are first up on the power play. The pair has developed good lines of communication.
“Tom has a lot of patience with the puck,” Gray said. “We talk about what to do on certain plays. We need to be in sync out there. I like to get feedback from him. We’re always talking in practice.”
Gray has five goals and 19 assists in 38 games plays. Of that number, three goals and eight assists have come on the power play. Gray is ninth overall among all active SPHL rookies in scoring.
Both Gray and Willigar had Snakes connections which facilitated their path to Columbus. Gray played juniors with goaltender Andrew Loewen and Willigar was a teammate of Johnson’s at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Willigar attended camp with Tulsa of the Central Hockey League. He played in one exhibition game before joining the Snakes two days into camp.
“Tulsa was a good experience,” Willigar said. “It was my first taste of pro hockey. They had about 40 people in camp. Kyle was a good gateway to Jerome and Brad (Prefontaine). He spoke so highly of the team and organization. I’d also talked to a couple of teams in the Central League.”
Willigar’s last two seasons with NAIT saw him hover near the point-per-game mark. He’s scored six points with the Snakes, two goals and four assists.
“I’ve adapted,” Willigar said. “Wherever he needs me is fine, wherever I fit. Scoring was more the role I had in juniors. I’d like to score more, but if Jerome is happy, I’m happy.”
Willigar is currently paired with second-year pro Chris Bailer.
“It’s been awesome. We communicate really well,” Willigar said. “I’ve been paired with Chris for a while when we have six healthy defensemen.”
The Snakes return home for two weekend games after suffering through three difficult road games. A controversial loss in Knoxville was followed by two more in Peoria. The Cottonmouths didn’t gain any ground in the crowded SPHL standings.
“It was more frustrating than anything,” Willigar said. “We lost all three games by one goal.”
“We all felt we could have easily won each one,” Gray added.
With 18 games to play, 12 at home and six on the road, the Snakes are tied for seventh place among the SPHL’s 10 teams. The Cottonmouths and Knoxville Ice Bears, who come to town on Friday night, each have 35 points. Saturday night the Snakes square off against Louisiana. The IceGators and Pensacola (53 points) are tied for first place. Game time for both contests is 7:30.