Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2014-15 Central Division Preview

My division previews now make their way to the Eastern Conference, starting with the Central Division. I see this division as a real dog fight this year, with Calgary the main contender for top spot.  Edmonton should be good again, buoyed by an elite goalie, Medicine Hat is a darkhorse to contend for top spot, Red Deer should be a lock for postseason play, you can never count out Kootenay and Lethbridge should take a small step forward in their rebuild.  Here's a more detailed breakdown: 

Calgary Hitmen

2013-14 record: 48-17-3-4 = 103 points – 2nd in Central Div. – 3rd in Eastern Conference

The Calgary Hitmen are an interesting topic when looking ahead to the 2014-15 season.  They return many extremely good players from last year’s squad, but have also lost some of the key figures from a club who has finished second in their division for three seasons in a row.  They’ve also got a new boss behind the bench in Mark French, who takes over for Mike Williamson.  They went 4-2 in the pre-season, scoring the second most goals of any Eastern Conference team.  And while there may be many changes to how this squad looks, they’re a fairly safe bet to be a top finisher in not only their division, but in the Eastern Conference.

It appears as if the Hitmen will be losing 5 of their top 9 scorers from last year’s 103-point team, but only two of those are forwards.  They would be Brady Brassart, who was signed by the Minnesota Wild last year and Pavel Padakin, who I hear is the odd man out in their import battle.  Despite those losses (they scored 62 goals combined) the Hitmen have a ton of firepower on the front lines.  Greg Chase is back, with a new contract from the Edmonton Oilers, looking to do better than just repeat his 85 point year.  Vancouver Canucks 6th overall pick Jake Virtanen could score 50 goals this season, while Adam Tambellini has been pegged by some as a possible leading WHL scorer this year.  That doesn’t even mention veterans like Mike Winther, Chase Lang, Radel Fazleev, Elliott Peterson and Connor Rankin, who are all back again. Meanwhile youngsters like Terrell Draude, Landon Welykholowa, Jordan Stallard, Layne Bensmiller and Russian Pavel Karnaukhov all had very good pre-season showings.  This team will score. Probably more times than any other team in the conference.

On the blueline, they did lose some very key pieces.  Gone are Jaynen Rissling and Alex Roach.  I expect rover Kenton Helgesen to also play pro as a signed member of the Anaheim Ducks organization.  All three were big time minute munchers who played well in any and all situations.  Luckily, they do have a pair of young defencemen who are ready to take control of their blueline.  Travis Sanheim was a 1st round pick by the Flyers this past June and should be close to a 45 or 50 point defender this coming year. I think the Tampa Bay Lighting got great value in selecting Ben Thomas in the 4th round of that same draft.  They’ll have no problem excelling as 25 minute guys this year.  I’ve really liked the growth of Colby Harmsworth’s game over the last year and he likely slides in as the team’s 3rd defender.  After him, Michael Zipp and Kirk Johnson provide some decent depth.  The Hitmen also have some real bright young players on defence.  I liked Lochlan Morrison in the one pre-season game I saw the Hitmen play, while Jake Bean and Aaron Hyman have both been getting some nice reviews as 1998’s.  Overall it’s a group that’s not nearly as good as last year’s team, but should still be considered well above average in comparison to the rest of the conference.

The biggest question the Hitmen face is in goal, with Chris Driedger signing on with the Ottawa Senators and making the jump to the AHL this season.  He’s been a horse for them the past 3 seasons, appearing in a combined 148 games with 88 wins in that stretch.  That leaves 1995-born Mack Shields as the go-to guy between the pipes.  Shields has been a serviceable backup in this league the last two years, posting a 30-10 record with a goals against average under 3.00 and a .900 save percentage.  But can he handle a full load of 50 or more starts?  That’s a pretty big ask, regardless of how good the team in front of him is.  Overall I think he should respond to that challenge ok and prove to be a goaltender that won’t win them many games, but won’t lose many for them either.  If he can stay in the middle of the pack in most of the main stat categories, the Hitmen should challenge for the top spot in the conference.

Unique Storyline:  Can They Piece It All Together?

For me, the Hitmen storyline is fairly simple and I’ve alluded to it throughout.  Can they have all of their questions answered by the time the important games start in the second half of the season? They come in with some fairly high outside expectations, as noted by their 7th overall pre-season ranking among all CHL teams. Those expectations are there despite having some less than stellar playoff performances in the last few seasons.  As mentioned, they’ll score a ton of goals regardless of who their imports or 20 year old players are, but those remain questions none the less.  A new coaching staff is in place and that sometimes takes it’s time to sort out.  They seem fairly top-heavy on their blueline, unless the 1998’s that crack their roster show they can really play the game and have little in the way of an adjustment period.  Can Shields handle the goaltending load in a respectable manner?  The questions are there.  While I’m confident they’ll find the answers to those questions (I am picking them to be first in their division), I still have to point out that this team isn’t as much of a slamdunk as some might think.

Standings Prediction:  1st in Central Division – 2nd in Eastern Conference

Edmonton Oil Kings

2013-14 record: 50-19-2-1 = 103 points – 1st in Central Div. – 1st in Eastern Conference

Is this the year we finally see a big drop off from the Oil Kings?  I’ve learned a lot over the last few years while following and working in this league and one of those things is to never bet against Edmonton.  It’s been a magical run for the Oil Kings since they last missed the playoffs in 2009-10.  In the 4 years since then, under Derek Laxdal, the team has averaged over 45 wins per season (including 3-straight 50+ win seasons), have won the WHL title twice and took home the 2014 Memorial Cup this past May to cap it all off.  And while Steve Hamilton is now the guy behind the bench and they have experienced some major player turnover, I just don’t see this team falling that far down the standings.

It’s scary to look at some of the talent this team has lost since last year, especially among their forward ranks.  Six of their 7 top scoring forwards from last year’s team are likely gone, with that group including both Curtis Lazar and Edgars Kulda, who are eligible to play professional.  So, how do they replace those 172 goals from Henrik Samuelsson, Mitch Moroz, Reid Petryk, Riley Kieser, Kulda and Lazar?  To put it in basic terms, it won’t be easy and they won’t likely match their 290 goals from last year, a spot that was tops in the conference.  Brett Pollock is back and looking to improve on his 55-point sophomore season.  Mads Eller should easily double his 23 points from last year. Luke Bertolucci and Brandon Baddock are also both due for big bumps in offensive production.  Lane Bauer is a guy that I could see having a bit of a breakout year now that he’ll have more responsibility, rookie Andrew Koep led them in pre-season scoring, while I expect Tyler Robertson to garner some solid NHL Draft attention as a late 1996.  And while you can talk about personnel until you are blue in the face, the Oil Kings continue to succeed because of their style of play and their top-notch development system.  They draft well, uncover undrafted talent, make smart trades and ultimately put players in good positions to succeed.  They’ve lost many players from their Memorial Cup winning team, but like any good franchise, they’ve got depth to help fill those holes.

Much of the team’s blueline does return for this season, minus record-setting offensive defenceman Cody Corbett, who has graduated and will play pro with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.  Dysin Mayo and Aaron Irving are two freshly drafted players who return to anchor their defensive group, while Ashton Sautner and Blake Orban return as 20 year olds.  That’s a fairly solid set of 4 defencemen.  1995-born Ben Carroll put up some solid pre-season numbers as he looks to expand off of his 11 points in 52 games last season, while big Jesse Mills, Chance Patterson and Marsel Ibragimov all remain on the team’s roster as 1997’s.  I would consider this blueline to be better, personnel-wise, than their rivals to the south in Calgary.

Possibly the biggest reason why I see this team maintaining a high spot in the standings is in goal, where they roll out possibly the best goalie in the CHL in Tristan Jarry.  He won 44 regular season games last season, and while I don’t expect him to repeat that, he will undoubtedly provide a great amount of stability for what is a fairly young team overall.  This will be Jarry’s final year of junior as he should jump to the AHL next season.  With that in mind, look for Edmonton to keep Patrick Dea (1997) as their backup, passing the torch off to him next season.

Unique Storyline:  The Return Of Lazar

What’s going to happen with Ottawa Senators prospect and Oil Kings star Curtis Lazar.  As a 1995-born player, the Senators have the option of either playing him in the NHL or sending him back to the WHL.  This brings up two questions for me.  First, does he make the Senators?  He’s bulked up and is a very versatile player.  The Senators have already experimented with him as a winger at rookie camp, testing the waters to see how he might fit in their lineup as a first-year NHL player.  Second, if he does get sent back to junior, what does Edmonton do with him?  This team is in the second tier of “contenders”, in my opinion, but adding him to the lineup would likely elevate them to that top level with the likes of Kelowna, Portland, Victoria, Calgary, etc.  Would they take another run at a WHL title, or would they opt to trade Lazar and fully restock the cupboards?  It’s a tough decision, but we’ve all seen what happens when teams hang on to their stars too long and fail to fully realize their opportunity to build from the ground up.  In the end, the trading of Lazar is likely a non-issue as I think there’s likely a 90% chance he plays in Ottawa this season.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in Central Division – 3rd in Eastern Conference

Medicine Hat Tigers

2013-14 record: 44-24-3-1 = 92 points – 3rd in Central Div. – 4th in Eastern Conference

The Medicine Hat Tigers seem to do it every year.  They never seem to be a standout team on paper, but always find a way to play well and end up not just making the playoffs, but surprising people along the way.  That was the case again last year as they climbed to 4th in the conference standings during the regular season and then knocked off Kootenay and Swift Current in the playoffs before eventually falling to Edmonton in the Eastern Conference Finals.  They did that all without arguably their best player, Hunter Shinkaruk, who underwent hip surgery and didn’t play a game for them from December 2nd until the end of the year.  And while the 2014-15 version of this team doesn’t seem to have many elite talents, they’re a well-coached group that should have no problem making the playoffs for the 13th straight season.

While the Tigers lose their top scorer from last season in 1993-born Curtis Valk, they still possess a ton of depth.  That depth comes in the shape of 9 of their top 11 scoring forwards from last year all being set to return. Trevor Cox, Cole Sanford and Miles Koules highlight that group as that trio combined for 83 goals and over 200 points in 2013-14.  If the pre-season is any indication, it looks like German import Markus Eisenschmid is due for an uptick in production after posting 23 points as a WHL rookie last year, as well.  And while the Tigers are returning a large number of players from last year’s squad, they also appear to have some game-breaking talent ready to step into the lineup up front.  15 year old Mason Shaw led them in scoring in the pre-season, putting up 8 points in 5 games.  He turns 16 in November and is therefore eligible to play this year as a 1998.  Meanwhile, 1997 Matthew Bradley also had a great exhibition campaign, putting up 6 goals in 5 games, tied with Sam Steel for the most in the WHL.  For the Tigers, the nicest part of that emergence might just be the fact that those young players won’t be counted on night in and night out to provide offence.  Too much depth seems like a good problem to have.

Speaking of depth, the blueline packs a nice punch for Medicine Hat as well.  While the team loses forward-turned-defenceman Dylan Bredo, they still bring back a deep group.  Tommy Vannelli is the key component as the St. Louis Blues prospect is a special talent who should be near a point per game this season as a 1995. Tyler Lewington is as mean as they come, combining a mix of skill and physical force. After those two, they’ve got a bunch of size including Ty Stanton, Matt Staples, Kyle Becker and 6’6 Scott Allan, who had 3 points in 4 pre-season games.  Ultimately I don’t think all 4 of those guys will be in Medicine Hat for good this year and that’s due to the amount of young talent they have pushing for minutes.  The third of the WHL’s Quenneville brothers, David, is an elite puck mover and looks to be a lock after being the 10th overall pick in 2013.  1997-born Connor Hobbs won Gold with Canada this summer at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and he is a sure-fire bet to see some good opportunity to climb into their top 4.  And finally, Ty Schultz appears to be a player they’ll keep around as a former 16th overall selection who had over a point per game in midget last year with the Vancouver North West Giants.  It’s a young, deep and extremely talented group.  They quite possibly have the best blueline in the division.

In goal is where things could be a bit more interesting.  Technically speaking, 1994-born Czech Marek Langhamer is eligible to be back.  But, as a signed member of the Phoenix Coyotes organization, I would say the chances of that are pretty slim. That leaves Jared Rathjen as the starter, who is also a 1994.  He spent last year in Vancouver, appearing in 29 games while posting a record of 13-8-4-1 with a sub-3.00 goals against average and .898 save percentage.  1997-born Nick Schneider will fight with Rathjen for starts as he was 8-2-0-2 split between the Regina Pats and Tigers last year while also having a pretty solid pre-season.  Neither guy is terribly proven (at least Rathjen has over 70 games under his belt) and it’s clear that when it comes to on-ice personnel, goaltending would be their only real question.

Unique Storyline:  Can They Challenge The Big Two?

Coming into writing these previews I felt that the Hitmen and Oil Kings were quite clearly the best teams in the division.  And while I still feel that way, for the most part, it’s obvious to me that the Tigers could potentially challenge for a division title if things go well.  Another thing is also clear, unlike the WHL’s Eastern Division, the Central won’t be a walk in the park.  Calgary and Edmonton are both solid hockey clubs, Red Deer is young, but will work hard, Kootenay is a bit of a wildcard, while there’s no chance that Lethbridge will be as bad as they were last year.  It will be a grind for all the teams involved.  Can the Tigers overall depth help them challenge the other teams in the division, especially the Hitmen and Oil Kings?  If they get some goaltending, it could definitely happen.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in Central Division – 5th in Eastern Conference

Red Deer Rebels

2013-14 record: 35-32-1-4 = 75 points – 5th in Central Div. – 9th in Eastern Conference

The Red Deer Rebels 2013-14 season ended on a sour note as they fell in a tie-breaker game to the Prince Albert Raiders, subsequently finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs.  And while they have lost some of the key pieces from last year’s team, including starting goalie Patrik Bartosak, I feel like they have the ability to take a step forward and get back into the playoffs.

It’s time for several of the Rebels forwards to take that next step in their hockey careers with the likes of Rhyse Dieno, Aspen Sterzer and Lukas Sutter no longer in Red Deer.  I guess we can start with Conner Bleackley, the team’s captain and a 1st round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche.  He was a 68 point guy last year, but should have the ability to elevate that up into the level of 80+, while still maintaining his heart and soul style of play.  Brooks Maxwell is the lone 1994-born forward on their roster and should ride shotgun with Bleackley for much of the season.  I like their group of 1995-born forwards which includes Wyatt Johnson, Scott Feser and Presten Kopeck. Another reason to like their forward group is the young talent they have.  Grayson Pawlenchuk is a fire-cracker who mixes speed, offence and grit.  I see him doubling his 19 points from last year, at least, and being one to watch for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Adam Musil is another 2015 NHL Draft prospect to watch as he led the team in pre-season scoring and provides a good mix of physical play, defensive acumen and scoring ability.  Continuing with this theme, Meyer Nell had a great exhibition stint as a 1997, while former 14th overall pick in 2013 Jeff de Wit appears to be the lone 1998-born forward to crack the squad.  They didn’t score a ton last year and probably won’t again this year.  But, they’ll play with speed, work hard and ultimately be a tough group of forwards to play against.

Defensively, they should be just fine.  Haydn Fleury was the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and while he could be gone for part of the season with Team Canada at the World Juniors, he should elevate his game to new heights when in the lineup.  Brett Cote is a 1994 who was acquired this offseason from Victoria.  He’s a capable top-4 blueliner who should be able to crack the 40 point barrier.  Devan Fafard remains on the club’s roster as a 1994 as well, and he’s a hard nosed guy that will be a leader and help kill penalties.  Nick Charif is a player who they are expecting to see take his game to the next level after a fairly solid rookie season last year.  He’s answered some of those expectations early by putting up 4 assists in 6 pre-season games.  Like Charif, Kayle Doetzel is a 1995 who provides a lot of stability and will likely be tasked with eating some hard minutes given his physical brand of hockey. Along with this capable two-way group, Red Deer also has a pair of new European defencemen. Mario Grman is from Slovakia, Hugo Jansons is from Latvia.  Both are 1997’s.  Unfortunately, both are hurt, with Jansons expected to be out up to 10 weeks and Grman’s injury being less severe.  Despite those injuries, I see this as being a capable blueline that can both score and defend.

In goal is where things get a bit interesting for the Rebels.  Patrik Bartosak was a great CHL netminder but he’s moved on up within the Los Angeles Kings organization.  That leaves Taz Burman (1997) and Rylan Toth (1996) as their two goaltenders.  They have a combined 17 games of WHL regular season experience, all of which belong to Burman.  He was 2-6 last year with a 3.85 GAA and .884 save percentage, while Toth put up solid numbers with the SJHL’s Battlefords North Stars.  While both were decent in the pre-season, the regular season is a different animal.  In order for the Rebels to get back into the playoffs, I think the goaltending questions will need a response.

Unique Storyline:  Can The Young Forwards Elevate?

While I’ve stated that their goaltending questions need an answer in order for the Rebels to make the playoffs, the same can probably be said for their forward group.  I really like the talent they have up front, but they are still young and fairly unproven.  Bleackley showed last year that he could really elevate his game in his second year.  Now players like Pawlenchuk, Musil and Nell need to take a step in that direction this year.  If they can, while getting good defensive play and even average goaltending, I can definitely see this team reaching my predicted spot of 6th in the Eastern Conference.

Standings Prediction:  4th in Central Division – 6th in Eastern Conference

Kootenay Ice

2013-14 record: 39-28-2-3 = 83 points – 4th in Central Div. – 6th in Eastern Conference

Last year was another good one for the ever so consistent Kootenay Ice.  The franchise made the playoffs for the 16th consecutive year since moving to Cranbrook, BC, made it to the second round of the WHL Playoffs and had their star player selected 2nd overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.  So how do Ryan McGill and his group follow that up?  It will be a challenge and quite honestly, I have a hard time seeing their impressive stretch of consecutive playoff appearances staying intact.

Kootenay’s top 5 scorers from last season were all forwards and they are more than likely going to lose 3 of them.  Sam Reinhart, the previously alluded to star, seems to be a lock to make the Buffalo Sabres.  While he’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest player around, he’s extremely smart and should have no problem sliding into the Sabres bottom 6.  Tim Bozon moves on in his career, joining the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. To finish it off, Zach Franko has graduated from the WHL. Despite those losses, the Ice still have two premier talents in Jaedon Deschenau and Luke Philp.  They will be counted on to carry the main offensive load, getting help along the way from the likes of Jon Martin, Levi Cable, Austin Vetterl and Alexander Chirva. Zak Zborosky is a name to watch for the 2015 NHL Draft, while players like Vince Loschiavo (98), Austin Wellsby (97) and Jared Legein (98) are all former high draft picks looking to earn minutes.

Their blueline is anchored by a pair of NHL draftees in Rinat Valiev and Tanner Faith, with Tyler King playing a nice complimentary roll.  Troy Murray should be able to take some big strides after seeing decent minutes as a 16 year old rookie last year, while the same can be said for Jordan Steenbergen. Dylan Overdyk is a former 2nd round pick who led their blueline in pre-season points per game, so he would be a name to also watch out for.  They still have 9 defenders listed on their roster and obviously have some decisions yet to make and no matter what they decide, this group will be a fairly young one.  Leafs fans should be happy in regards to how this Kootenay blueline is shaping up, as signed Toronto draft pick Rinat Valiev should be seeing close to 30 minutes each and every night.

In goal, New York Rangers draft pick MacKenzie Skapski is signed and ready to go pro after appearing in over 150 career WHL games.  That’s a big loss as he had improved both his save percentage and goals against average in each of his past 4 years in the league.  That graduation means Wyatt Hoflin of Spruce Grove, Alberta takes over between the pipes.  Despite the fact that I’ve always liked his game, he’s another one of those guys that is fairly untested in this league.  He’s got 51 regular season and playoff games under his belt, going 15-19-1-1 with a save percentage around .895.  While Hoflin is a 1995-born goalie, a pair of 96’s in Jayden Sittler and Keelan Williams remain on the Ice roster in the battle for backup spot.

Unique Storyline:  Tempted To Wheel And Deal?

As I’ve stated in previous “Unique Storyline” posts, I really hate speculating about trades before the season even starts.  Part of the appeal of the hockey season starting again is everyone starting with an optimistic approach.  New beginnings, so to speak.  With that being said, it’s pretty obvious that the Ice have some nice pieces that other teams might want via trade.  Players like Jaedon Descheneau and Luke Philp are guys that could take a middle-of-the-pack team and quickly help elevate them to a new level.  The same can be said for Valiev, if you can find the right fit with the import factor considered.  Is this something the Ice might entertain if they don’t get off to a start they are hoping for? 

Standings Prediction:  5th in Central Division – 11th in Eastern Conference

Lethbridge Hurricanes

2013-14 record: 12-55-2-3 = 29 points – 6th in Central Div. – 12th in Eastern Conference

What a tough stretch it’s been the last little while for the Hurricanes.  I actually feel bad for how things have gone there, as I really think that they have some good people within their organization.  While they weren’t in amazing shape with their on-ice personnel when stuff started happening there, it’s basically impossible to come out ahead when players start demanding trades.  Last year was tough for the Canes in the standings as they lost their final 14 games of the season to finish with 29 points.  Looking ahead to this year, while I don’t see them as a playoff team, I do see them winning more than 12 of their 72 games.

Six of the Hurricanes top 7 scoring forwards from last season are back in uniform this year.  Riley Sheen and Reid Duke lead the way in that group as I fully expect both players to post at least 60 points this year while potentially playing on the same line.  Tyler Wong has shown steady improvement in his first two seasons in the WHL and should follow that up in his third.  Jamal Watson seems due to dominate a bit more this year as he’s been one of the fastest players in the league since his rookie year.  Meanwhile, a player like Giorgio Estephan seems poised for big things in his draft year, once he gets healthy (if his foot rehab is going well then he should be back a couple of weeks into the season).  Outside of those names, 16 year old rookie Jaeger White was tied for the team lead in pre-season scoring and should stay in the offensive mix, while rugged forward Carter Folk could catch a few people by surprise as a darkhorse breakout player.

The blueline is a bit of a mixed bag for the Hurricanes, with standout and top defensive scorer Macoy Erkamps remaining steady in his holdout after asking to be traded.  Nick Walters and Tyler Bell are back as physical 1995’s that will try and anchor a fairly young core.  Griffin Foulk and Lenny Hackman are also returning ’95’s that have some experience in the league.  After those 4, they appear to have some solid young talent.  I liked Thomas Lenchyshyn in the one Hurricanes pre-season game I caught, the same can be stated for fellow ’97 Kade Jensen.  Bryton Sayers also appears to be a guy that is ready to make a jump in his production after putting up roughly a point every 4 games last year on the lowest scoring team in the WHL.  While the top-end talent doesn’t appear to quite be there right now for the Hurricanes blueline, it does appear they’ve got some decent help on the way.

In goal things are also interesting for Lethbridge as they are putting a lot of eggs in one basket with goaltender Stuart Skinner.  The 6’4 product of Edmonton is the former 17th overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft by the Hurricanes and appears to be their go-to guy right now.  Did I mention he’s still only 15 years old?  Yes.  He doesn’t turn 16 until November.  So, that’s interesting.  A bold move, regardless of how good he might be (and don’t get me wrong, I think he’s going to be very good).  The Hurricanes backup is also unproven as they traded to get Zac Robidoux from Medicine Hat at the end of August.  He’s an 18 year old with 3 career WHL games under his belt, 2 of those being wins.  Last year they surrendered nearly 5 goals against per game, more than a half goal per game worse than any other team in the WHL.  I’ll be interested to see how their goaltending shapes up this year now that they will be rolling out the youngest tandem in the league.

Unique Storyline:  Impact Imports

The Hurricanes hardly got any production from their import slots last year, with Axel Blomqvist getting traded after 19 games and Kris Khenkel not playing a game until the last week of December.  Overall they combined for 9 goals and 17 points in 48 games.  Will that change this year? I think so.  Lethbridge have a pair of new Russians on their squad, both of whom are right-wingers and eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Nikita Milekhin was taken in the first round of the 2014 CHL Import Draft, with Pavel Skumatov going in the second. I had the chance to see them both play already this fall and they both look like players.  Neither is big, but they both have good hands and hockey smarts.  They’ll be nice complimentary pieces inside their top 9 and should help provide some more offence for a team that was far and away the worst in the conference in that regard last year.

Standings Prediction:  6th in Central Division – 12th in Eastern Conference

Monday, September 15, 2014

2014-15 BC Division Preview

Here we go with part two of my WHL Division previews and I stay in the Western Conference, highlighting the BC Division.  I think this is set to be a very competitive division this coming season when compared to their neighbors to the south.  I have the Rockets pegged as early favorites, but the Royals look poised to be an extremely good club again this year.  The other teams are all very capable of being playoff teams, as long as they find ways to overcome some specific holes.  

Here's how I see things shaping up in the BC Division in 2014-15:

Kelowna Rockets

2013-14 record: 57-11-0-4 = 118 points – 1st in BC Division – 1st in Western Conference

Like many teams, the Kelowna Rockets lost some key players over the offseason.  Included in that group were their top three scorers from last year in Myles Bell, Ryan Olsen and Damon Severson.  Not only that, they also lost their starting goalie, the CHL’s Top Goalie in fact, in Jordon Cooke.  Oh yeah, and their head coach Ryan Huska moved on with Dan Lambert replacing him.  So how will the Rockets weather that storm and earn top spot in the BC Division, as I’m predicting them to?  Well, it’s not actually that hard when you draft and develop as well as Bruce Hamilton and his group have.

Despite the above-mentioned forwards, the Rockets bring back some talented kids up front including potential 1st round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Nick Merkley.  He was the WHL’s Top Rookie last year and will be looking to build off his 58 point campaign.  Along with him down the middle, they also have Tyson Baillie, Rourke Chartier, Cole Linaker and new import Tomas Soustal.  Others like Austin Glover, Kris Schmidli and Justin Kirkland are back on the wings, with Kirkland poised for a big year after being a Nashville Predators draft selection in 2014. It’s a great group, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Tyrell Goulbourne, Carter Rigby and Colton Heffley are fighting for roles as 20 year olds.  The Rockets will score, maybe not 310 times like last year (2nd in the WHL), but they will have no trouble creating offence.

As mentioned, Severson is off to the pro game to play with Albany of the AHL.  He was their leading defensive scorer last season, but besides him the Rockets return the rest of their group. And it’s a good one.  They’re led by Washington Capitals prospect Madison Bowey, who scored an impressive 21 goals last year.  Along with him, they feature Riley Stadel, Mitchell Wheaton, Jesse Lees, Dalton Yorke and potential overager Colten Martin.  They’ve also got some stud prospects itching for minutes, but more on them in a second.  When looking at how their roster stacks up, it actually becomes apparent that they don’t have the room to give everyone proper ice time.  They return 7 guys who were at least semi-regulars last season.  You have to imagine someone needs to leave The Defence Factory early in the season.  What a good problem to have. 

Goaltending is really the only question for this club.  Cooke has graduated, leaving two-year backup Jackson Whistle as the starter.  Whistle has 64 career games under his belt and while he’s not overly experienced, he has posted some pretty good results including a 34-13 record with a sub-2.70 GAA.  Has he played behind a great defence in Kelowna while posting those numbers?  Yes, he has.  But that hasn’t changed for this coming year. They’re still a stacked team. He’s 19 years old and has been around a bit, if he can stay healthy and even just be “average” this team should still be good enough to battle Victoria for a division title.  Look for 1997-born Jake Morrissey, Josh Morrissey’s brother, to be the backup and eventual starter in the cage down the road.

Unique Storyline:  Who’s The Next Defensive Stud?

I called Kelowna “The Defence Factory” and it’s no secret that they are.  Let’s see…Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Alex Edler, Josh Gorges, Scott Hannan and Sheldon Souray are some of the NHL names that have spent time roaming the Rockets blueline.  So who’s next?  It seems like every year the team has a shiny new toy.  Last year Joe Gatenby got into only 43 games, but he looks poised to take that next big step forward during his NHL Draft year.  Meanwhile, a couple of new faces look to be ready for minutes.  Lucas Johansen is one of them.  He’s the brother of Columbus Blue Jackets forward Ryan Johansen and is a former 6th round pick.  At the time of that selection he was considered to be a “potential steal” by their director of player personnel Lorne Frey.  He’s coming off a good year in midget and has a skillset that should fit in perfectly.  Devante Stephens is another name to watch.  Like Johansen, he’s a 1997, but was undrafted.  The Surrey product is pushing hard to make a name for himself and earn a roster spot, further cementing the idea that the Rockets might need to trade a body or two to keep the development train rolling along.

Standings Prediction:  1st in BC Division – 2nd in Western Conference

Victoria Royals

2013-14 record: 48-20-1-3 = 100 points – 2nd in BC Division – 3rd in Western Conference

The Victoria Royals have some unfinished business to take care of in 2014-15.  They return much of their 2013-14 club, a team that fell in the second round of the WHL Playoffs at the hands of the Portland Winterhawks.  And while I have Victoria pegged to finish 3rd in the conference, like they did last year, it’s pretty obvious to me that this team could actually end up being better than both the Winterhawks and Rockets. 

The Royals return their top three scorers from the 2013-14 season, all of which are forwards.  While Brandon Magee and Axel Blomqvist are guaranteed to be back as big contributors, 57-point man Austin Carroll’s future is still a bit up in the air.  The Calgary Flames draft pick is a 1994-born player, meaning he’s technically eligible to sign a professional deal and move up from the WHL as early as this fall. Tyler Soy is eligible for the NHL Draft and should greatly improve on his 30 points from 2013-14, while Brandon Fushimi and Logan Fisher will both be looking to elevate their games in bigger roles.  Along with those veterans, they’ve got some younger players looking to make a push to stick with the team for the season.  Jared Dmytriw, one of two 1998-born forwards still on their roster, has had a nice pre-season, being tied for the team lead in pre-season scoring as I write this.  Matthew Campese is looking to earn a full-time job while Nic Petan’s cousin Dante Hanoun should crack the squad.  He’s the other 1998-born forward left on their roster, is the former 11th overall pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft and had 52 points in 32 major midget games last year for the Greater Vancouver Canadians. 

While the forward group is fairly solid for the Royals, the blueline appears to be their biggest strength.  They return 5 defencemen from their 2013-14 club and that doesn't include the fact that Jack Walker is switching back to the blueline from the wing.  Travis Brown headlines the bunch with Joe Hicketts looking like he’ll also be one of the best offensive blueliners in the WHL this coming year after going undrafted but showing strong at Detroit’s rookie camp.  Keegan Kanzig will once again be a tower of power on their backend with Chaz Redekopp already earning some major attention ahead of the 2015 NHL Draft.  I’ve also heard some decent things about the future of 1998-born Ralph Jarratt.  It’s a scary talented group on the blueline and one has to imagine they’ll again be the favourites to post the lowest total of goals against in the conference, as they did last season. 

While this team has a big group of returning players both up front and on defence, their dynamic goaltending duo has been cut in half.  Patrik Polivka has moved on to play in Europe after two solid seasons, including posting 28 wins in 43 appearances last year.  That leaves Coleman Vollrath as the man in charge. And while he didn’t play as much as Polivka last year, he still put up great numbers with 20 wins in 34 games, a 2.29 goals against average and .928 save percentage.  Michael Herringer has played well this pre-season as a 1996, with 1997-born Evan Smith being the other guy competing for the backup job.

Unique Storyline:  Are Their Scoring Concerns Legitimate?

While I do like some individual pieces up front, it’s no secret that Victoria isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. They’re a team that really takes care of their own end first and foremost.  But, while they’re impressive goals against tallies from 2013-14 are exactly that, impressive, they didn’t exactly blow teams away offensively.  Their 238 goals for were tied with two other teams for 4th best in the Western Conference, but ranked 11th overall in the WHL.  Their powerplay clicked 20.5% of the time, not good enough to crack the top 12 in the league.  They’ve followed that up with only scoring 11 times in 6 pre-season games, winning once.  And while it’s the pre-season and they’ve had players gone to NHL camps, it’s still worth noting that they haven’t been able to score as much as some other top-ranked teams.  Returning their top three scoring forwards and defenceman from last year is at least a start.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in BC Division – 3rd in Western Conference

Vancouver Giants

2013-14 record: 32-3-7-4 = 75 points – 3rd in BC Division – 7th in Western Conference

The Vancouver Giants are actively attempting to be more “active” when it comes to their style of play.  Gone is the grinding, dump and chase style of outgoing coach Don Hay.  In comes the more puck-possession friendly style of new head bench boss Troy Ward.  There are several teams that haven’t been afraid to employ that up-tempo pace, including the Portland Winterhawks with Mike Johnston, and now it appears the Giants hope to be next in line.  Their general manager Scott Bonner has made that clear on several occasions, including during a radio interview I caught the other day.  It’s still a fairly fresh concept for this league and it will be fun to see how the Giants players can adapt.

When it comes to this style of play, you need the proper personnel to make it happen.  While the Giants have lost some skill up front in players like Cain Franson and Dominik Volek, they’ve also brought in a few that should help replace them.  That group includes the likes of former Giant Matt Bellerive, new import Vladimir Bobylev and standout rookie Tyler Benson.  Carter Popoff was the team’s leading scorer and has picked up where he left this pre-season, while Jakob Stukel, Alec Baer, Ty Ronning and Thomas Foster look poised to take big leaps forward. Mix in veterans Jackson Houck, Joel Hamilton and Dalton Sward, and you have a group of players that should be at least in the middle of the pack offensively in the conference.

On the blueline, the Giants lose their top two scorers from last year in Brett Kulak and Dalton Thrower, but they still have some nice pieces to work with.  Mason Geertsen is ready for more minutes and to provide more offence as he tries to earn a contract from the Colorado Avalanche.  Arvin Atwal has developed into a very solid hockey player.  Tyler Morrison will be given the chance to handle more opportunity after back to back 21 and 23 point seasons. Dmitry Osipov will surely improve on his 3 goal, 3 point 2013-14 season, too. To me, the big Russian is the wildcard.  If the 6’4 defender can turn himself into a top pairing blueliner this year and justify his 1st overall import pick status, the Giants could possibly slide into the top 5 in the conference. 

In goal, the weight of the team’s potential success falls on Payton Lee. The 1996-born goalie is entering his 3rd full season in the league and needs to prove that he’s more than an .880 goaltender, which he’s been so far in his career.  On the bright side of that equation, he does have a pair of youngsters pushing him so far in Giants camp. Both Cody Porter (97) and Ryan Kubic (98) have posted sparkling numbers up to this point.  For the Giants sake, hopefully one of those two can continue to do that once the regular season begins. If they can even get .900 save percentage goaltending, it should work some wonders.

Unique Storyline:  Just How Good Is Tyler Benson?

Last year Nikita Scherbak led rookie WHL scorers with 78 points.  The year before, Oliver Bjorkstrand did so with 63 points.  So what kind of damage could this former 1st overall pick do?  Is it unfair to expect those totals from Benson, considering both of those import rookie players were older than this 16 year old phenom?  Yeah, it probably is.  With that being said, he’s still being billed as the best young player the WHL has seen in quite some time.  He’s smashed records coming up through minor hockey and has the body to compete with some big boys in the WHL.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just how good this kid is and also intrigued to see if he starts to wear down in the second half of the season or if that’s the time he really starts to get into the swing of things offensively.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in BC Division – 6th in Western Conference

Prince George Cougars

2013-14 record: 27-37-3-5 = 62 points – 4th in BC Division – 9th in Western Conference

I have to give some credit to the Prince George Cougars.  They’re a team that constantly has adversity facing them, but continue to put up a decent fight in the standings year after year.  They’ve only missed the playoffs by a handful of points in each of the past three seasons.  Is this the year they get back into the dance?  It could be, but they once again have some challenges to face and it starts with their forward group.

The Cougars will start the 2014-15 year without their top 5 scorers from last year, all of which are forwards.  Todd Fiddler, Troy Bourke, Zach Pochiro and Klarc Wilson are all moving on in their hockey careers, while Jordan Tkatch is now with the Prince Albert Raiders.  Those players combined for 149 goals and 355 points last year.  That’s a ton of offence no matter who you have coming in to replace them.  And unfortunately, they don’t have a ton of new bodies looking to pick up that slack.  Draft-eligible Jansen Harkins should nearly double his 34 points from last year, same with fellow-eligible Brad Morrison.  But those guys were there last year.  Newcomers Chance Braid and Lance Yaremchuk are both hard-working guys but not likely to contribute a ton in the skill category.  Chase Witala should have a good year, likely a point per game, and rookie Colby McAuley has had a good pre-season, but this team appears to need scoring from all four lines and the blueline to stay in the playoff mix.

Now while I am not terribly sold on their young forward group, I do like the makeup of their backend even if it’s also fairly young.  Marc McNulty had a monster season with 17 goals last year and will look to replicate that again this year while eating hard defensive minutes.  I like the game of big Sam Ruopp and guys like Will Tomchuk, Joseph Carvalho and Raymond Grewal have all proved they can at least be somewhat serviceable in the league.  But it’s the young talent on defence that looks to be the biggest potential bright spot.  Former 3rd overall pick Josh Anderson is looking like a lock to make the team, with the 1998-born putting up 3 helpers in 4 pre-season games.  Shane Collins (97) has put up a point per game in exhibition while fellow 1997 Tate Olson looks poised to have a good year after suiting up in 52 as a rookie last year.  They’ll need this group to not only help defend, but also to help push the pace offensively as much as possible.

In goal, the Cougars look to have the makings of a very good junior hockey goalie, if not more, in Ty Edmonds.  The Winnipeg product was often thrown to the wolves last year, responding as well as anyone could expect by posting 19 wins to match his 19 losses.  The rookie put up the 8th most saves in the league with 1488 while facing roughly a shot every 30 seconds.  That experience as a young player in the league should do wonders for him and the Cougars, who gave up the most goals of any team in the West (tied with Kamloops, actually, with 305).  He’s a good sized goaltender who went undrafted in the NHL despite attending the Top Prospects game in the middle of the season.  Mix that in as some motivation and you should have a goalie that can help contribute nicely to a team whose strength is from the blueline-in. 

Unique Storyline:  Can Their Imports Have A Bigger Impact?

I have yet to mention the Cougars import players at all in this preview, but that’s because I had this in mind.  In following junior hockey the last number of years, it’s become clear to me that the best teams get good performances from either their 20 year old players, their imports or a combination of both.  The Cougars didn’t get a lot from their imports last year.  David Soltes was a high pick in the 2013 Import Draft (4th overall, in fact) but was injured for much of the year, putting up only 5 points in 15 games.  Martin Bobos didn’t score a goal in his 67 games, tallying 7 assists and 57 PIMs. Despite that lack of production from both of the 1995-born imports, the Cougars opted not to use their pick in the 2014 Import Draft, which was perched nicely at 15th overall.  That is a lot of faith from management shown towards these two players.  They’re both 19 this coming season and need to return that good faith by playing hard, producing and doing their best to get the Cougars back into the playoffs.

Standings Prediction:  4th in BC Division – 8th in Western Conference

Kamloops Blazers

2013-14 record: 14-53-2-3 = 33 points – 5th in BC Division – 10th in Western Conference

It’s pretty tough to sugar-coat this one, the Kamloops Blazers were beyond awful last season.  Even if you doubled their point total from 2013-14, they still wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the light, 10-team Western Conference.  Surprisingly enough, they weren’t even the worst team in the WHL last year.  But, I’ll have more on the Lethbridge Hurricanes at a later date. 

I actually like some of the building blocks the Blazers have in place for Don Hay to use at his disposal, especially up front.  I’m a huge fan of Cole Ully and I think he has an 85 point season in him.  Matt Revel has proven himself more than capable as a good junior player and should elevate close to near a point per game this year.  Players like Matt Needham, Chase Souto and Collin Shirley provide good secondary scoring.  Looking further down the lineup, youngsters like Jesse Zaharichuk and Jake Kryski have been point per game players in exhibition action.  As a team the Blazers were second last in scoring in the WHL last season, but they have enough weapons to at least be near the middle of the pack in 2014-15.

On the blueline, Brady Gaudet should be a 40+ point guy as an overager.  Ryan Rehill is as hard to play against as anyone.  Josh Connolly is looking to repeat what was a very solid season for him last year.  Meanwhile, imports Patrik Maier and Michael Fora will look to make an impact.  To be perfectly honest, the first two categories of this team aren’t too bad as they’ve got nice pieces both up front and on the blueline.  Good enough to be a playoff team?  It’s close, but I think most of there chances will depend on this next category.

Bolton Pouliot is currently penciled in as the Blazers starting goaltender for 2014-15.  He’s got a career .895 save percentage and was 8-30 last season with Kamloops.  As a 20 year old, he’s going to have to really take his game up a notch for them to have a chance at making it into the post-season.  He’s had a good pre-season, so that’s a positive sign.  Behind him they have a pair of 1997’s still battling for a spot in Cole Kehler and Connor Ingram. 

Unique Storyline:  Can Hay Work His Magic?

Don Hay is back with the Kamloops Blazers, returning to a spot where he not only played and coached, but a place where he was born.  It’s a great story.  He’s won over 600 games as a coach in the WHL and has only missed the playoffs once in his past 15 years as a Western League bench boss. He might be just what the Blazers need, a fresh voice and a new leader.  But the question remains, can he turn this current roster around, or is he going to embrace the fact that many people see them as a re-tooling franchise.  I’m sure much of their season’s final results will depend on how the first quarter of the year goes, but either way it will be a fun story to watch.  I have them ranked as the 9th team in the conference, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they played their way into the top 6 or 7.

Standings Prediction:  5th in BC Division – 9th in Western Conference

Sunday, September 14, 2014

2014-15 US Division Preview

It’s almost that time of year again as hockey is oh so close to being back.  In fact, it’s already started in some places including Russia’s KHL and the QMJHL.

The WHL season is quickly approaching, getting underway on September 19th when the puck drops for 7 separate games.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to piece together some division previews.  We’ll kick things off with our friends to the south in the US Division.  Here's nearly 4,000 words on how I see these 5 teams shaping up as the season creeps closer.

Portland Winterhawks

2013-14 record: 54-13-2-3 = 113 points – 1st in US Division – 2nd in Western Conference

I feel it necessary to start off the US Division preview with the team who won the entire Western Conference last year, the Portland Winterhawks.  The Winterhawks are in pretty special company heading into the year, having won the division in three of the past four seasons and looking to head to the WHL’s Championship Series for a 5th straight year.  Will they accomplish that goal?  Time will tell, but they certainly have the personnel to get them there. 

Speaking of personnel, they do lose quite a few key guys from their 2013-14 squad, which was the highest scoring bunch in the league.  Gone are the likes of Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier, Matt Dumba, Garrett Haar, Derrick Pouliot and others.  But despite those massive departures, they seem to be as deep offensively as any team in the league.  Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand will be looked upon to dominate in their final year of junior, with Dominic Turgeon, Keegan Iverson and Alex Schoenborn expected to take big leaps forward now that they are drafted into the NHL.  They’ve also got a potential 1st rounder for the 2015 NHL Draft in their top 6, likely on a line with Petan and Bjorkstrand, in big Paul Bittner.  It’s a scary group. 

The back half of their lineup isn’t quite as scary, but it should still be effective.  While losing some of the above-mentioned blueliners will hurt, they’ve still got some experience in guys like Josh Hanson, Anton Cederholm and newcomer Joshua Smith.  Besides those veterans, Keoni Texeira is expected to take a big step forward for them in his draft year while Washington Capitals prospect and former Sioux City Musketeers captain Blake Heinrich should add some pop to the lineup as he netted 3 goals in 3 pre-season games.

In goal, Brendan Burke is back while veteran Corbin Boes has graduated.  Burke will be looking to follow up his 34 win season with another good year, likely having more appearances than his 2013-14 total of 48.  The team still has three goalies on their roster with 6’4 Aidin Hill (’96) and Michael Bullion (’97).  One would assume Hill starts while Burke is with the Phoenix Coyoes when the WHL season starts, with Bullion ending up as the third guy on the depth chart once Burke returns.  But, I guess you never know.  Bullion did post some solid numbers in pre-season hockey.

Unique Storyline:  New Coach, Same Results?

Like many other WHL teams, the Winterhawks begin the 2014-15 season with a new head coach behind the bench in Jamie Kompon.  Kompon takes over for Mike Johnston, who left the organization to become the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins (can you believe it took someone THAT long to give Johnston a head coaching job in the NHL?).  Things look like they’ve been left in pretty good hands with Kompon, a former ECHL defenceman and assistant coach in the NHL.  He brings a wealth of knowledge with him to the Winterhawks, where he will be both the head coach and general manager.  He’s a former Stanley Cup Champion with the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, having also spent time as a coach with the St. Louis Blues.  Having spent time with those teams, it’s safe to assume he knows how to play fast-paced, puck-possession hockey.  That’s what the Winterhawks players and fans are used to, and I would imagine things will still flow in that direction as we kick off 2014-15.

Standings Prediction:  1st in US Division – 1st in Western Conference

Seattle Thunderbirds

2013-14 record: 41-25-2-4 = 88 points – 2nd in US Division – 4th in Western Conference

There is plenty of buzz around the Thunderbirds as the season approaches, and much of it has to do with the NHL Draft.  Seattle’s roster features several highly ranked prospects for the deep 2015 NHL Draft, including potential top 10 selection and former 1st overall bantam pick Matt Barzal.  Along with Barzal, Ryan Gropp is a highly touted forward prospect, with Ethan Bear looking to make a big splash on the blueline.  And while it’s easy to get caught up in the sparkle of the draft, it must be noted that this team will need to get some good performances up front in order to make up for the loss of some solid forwards.  Gone are the likes of Roberts Lipsbergs, Branden Troock, Connor Honey, Jaimen Yakubowski and Alexander Delnov.  Ouch.

Despite those losses up front, they’ve still got a decent cast of characters to insulate Gropp and Barzal.  Justin Hickman leads that pack as the player who spent much of 2013-14 on the wing with the two star sophomores.  Big Keegan Kolesar looks to take his game to the next level as he had 4 points in 6 pre-season games after putting up only 8 in 60 games all last season.  The same can be said for Colorado’s Scott Eansor.  Sam McKechnie is a veteran who will be counted on more this coming season while former 5th round pick and Saskatoon Blazers alumni Lane Pederson had 5 points in 7 pre-season games. If their two new imports Alexander True (48th in 2014) and Florian Baltram (108th in 2014) can have average rookie campaigns as 1997’s it will go a long way in determining how far this team might get in the postseason.  

The real strength of this team appears to be on the blueline, and that’s a big positive.  While Seattle was one of three teams in the Western Conference to score exactly 238 goals in 2013-14 (PG and Victoria did so as well), they surrendered 249.  That tally was the most of any playoff team in the conference and simply not good enough.  Luckily, they return all of their top 7 defencemen from last year.  They’ve got a nice mix of offence and defence on the backend, highlighted by potential 80 point guy Shea Theodore.  Along with him, they’ve got a pair of solid 1994’s in Evan Wardley and Adam Henry.  Henry brings some skill, while Wardley brings the punish.  Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith, Kevin Wolf and Ethan Bear will also provide good minutes, with Sahvan Khaira appearing to crack their final roster as a 1998.  It’s a balanced group which possesses tiers of skill and defensive ability, not to mention arguably the best pure offensive defender in the league.  It’s a group that will need to provide good defensive structure while also having the ability to get the puck up the ice to the forwards, who are a good mix of skill and lunch bucket attitude.

Looking further back into their own end, the Thunderbirds do have an interesting battle going on in the crease.  Taran Kozun was fantastic last year after getting dealt from the Kamloops Blazers to Seattle, posting 14 wins in 24 games with a .928 save percentage and 2.40 GAA.  While he seems to be a lock in the crease, the Thunderbirds do have a bit of a battle in regards to their 20 year olds, which Kozun is, more on that later.  I would assume he’s their starter, but I know they also really like 1997-born Logan Flodell and 2013-14 backup Danny Mumaugh, a 1996, was fairly decent in his second full campaign.  So what do they do?  Keep Kozun and Flodell? Keep Kozun and Mumaugh?  Keep Flodell and Mumaugh?  I won’t speculate, but it seems like it could be hard to keep Flodell off the roster considering how he’s developed and how he performed in a pair of pre-season games, registering a .947 save percentage.

Unique Storyline:  Still Too Many 94’s

I’ve alluded to it throughout, but the Thunderbirds still have too many 20 year olds on their roster and will need to make some tough decisions.  Looking at it right now, they’ve got five on their roster and have done quite well cutting back, considering I believe they had 13 1994-born players at the end of last season.  The five on their roster now are Sam Mckechnie, Justin Hickman, Adam Henry, Evan Wardley and Taran Kozun.  Two have to go, but who do you choose?  If I were a betting man, which I kind of am, I would say that Kozun, Henry and Hickman are the three that stick around.  I think Wardley has some decent value and would improve some team’s blueline nicely.  Mckechnie is a good character kid who wouldn’t look out of place as some team’s third overage player.  Either way there are some tough calls to make and I wish all five of them the best of luck.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in US Division – 4th in Western Conference

Tri-City Americans

2013-14 record: 29-33-4-6 = 68 points – 5th in US Division – 8th in Western Conference

After Portland and Seattle, things start to get pretty interesting in the WHL’s US Division.  I felt Tri-City underachieved a bit last year but were still decent enough to sneak into the playoffs before falling out in the first round at the hands of Kelowna.  And while last year might have been a bit of a disappointment, there are two things I would like to point out.  First, they have a new coach.  Out is Jim Hiller, in is Mike Williamson.  Second, while the coaching staff is new, most of the faces are the same.  That’s one big reason why I think the Americans might have the edge on division opponents in Everett and Spokane, not to mention Prince George, Vancouver and Kamloops in the conference as a whole.

All you need to do is look at the team’s pre-season scorers to feel good about how Tri-City is shaping up offensively.  There are a lot of familiar faces near the top of that list and many guys who were contributors on the team last year. Ty Comrie led the way with 7 assists in 7 games and he will be counted on to do more than 9 points worth of damage, like he did last season.  Along with Comrie, five of their six top scoring forwards from last year are back including Brian Williams, Beau McCue, Parker Bowles, Lucas Nickles and Justin Gutierrez.  Mix in youngsters like Taylor Vickerman (who is nearly healthy again), Braden Purtill and Rodney Southam and you have a group that is balanced and fairly deep, probably deeper than Seattle’s. 

While the forward group is very deep, the same can’t quite be said for the blueline.  They lose both Mitch Topping and Michael Plutnar from last year’s team and those guys munched some decent minutes for them.  On paper, the team’s top 4 appears to be made up of Justin Hamonic, Josh Thrower, Parker Wotherspoon and Brandon Carlo, with the last two on that list being fairly high-profile guys for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Hamonic and Thrower are both meat and potatoes guys that can play some harder minutes and try to defend their net while the two draft-eligible guys should carry the load offensively.  After those four, you have some youngsters including former 3rd rounder Dylan Coghlan, Colorado-born Riley Hillis and big Texan Brendan O’Reilly. They’re a very young group, but they do have some talent. 

Unlike almost every other team in this division, the Americans strength is in goal with Winnipeg Jets prospect Eric Comrie manning the cage.  The product of Edmonton put up 26 wins and 25 losses last year with a .925 save percentage, good for 2nd in the WHL, and a 2.57 goals against average.  He’ll be in the net as much as possible, while also potentially suiting up for Team Canada at the World Juniors in December and January.  It’s no secret that he’s the backbone for this franchise and he’s good enough to help along the clubs young blueline, while also potentially carrying them to a middle-of-the-pack playoff position.  Expect to see Evan Sarthou as the backup, with Nathan Alalouf serving as the 3rd string guy while Comrie is gone camping with the Jets.

Unique Storyline:  Offence From Ufa

Looking at how their roster is shaping up, it’s a bit interesting to note that they selected a pair of Russian forwards at the 2014 CHL Import Draft, opting not to take a blueliner.  As noted, the forward group appears to be fairly strong for Tri-City, while the blueline could have used another horse or two.  Either way, the Americans have two new Russians to show off this coming year in Semyon Krasheninnikov and Vladislav Lukin.  “Krash” was taken 18th overall, with Lukin coming 60 picks later.  They’ve combined for 16 points in their exhibition games, are both born in January of 1997 and play right-wing.  The WHL as a whole has undergone a Russian invasion, especially the Eastern Conference, but it will be interesting to see what kind of game these two bring to the table.  Both are listed as being at least 6’0 and 180 pounds, so they’ve got some decent size for young players.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in US Division – 5th in Western Conference

Everett Silvertips

2013-14 record: 39-23-7-3 = 88 points – 3rd in US Division – 5th in Western Conference

While the story for the Tri-City Americans was the return of much of their 2013-14 team, it’s the exact opposite for the Silvertips.  Three of their top four scoring forwards are gone from last year’s team, with Josh Winquist, Manraj Hayer and Juhjar Khaira taking their 78 goals and moving on in their careers.  That’s a lot of offence.  Not to mention the fact that they are also losing their top scoring blueliner in 50-point man Matt Pufahl.  The focus for this team will be getting good performances from a combination of veterans and youngsters who haven’t been counted on as the go-to guys at this level.

So who exactly is back up front for Everett?  Moscow product Ivan Nikolishin returns and should improve on his 59-point rookie campaign.  Zane Jones is a big body that will be counted on to score, while Dawson Leedahl, Carson Stadnyk, Kohl Bauml, Remi Laurencelle and Logan Aasman need to provide a mix of leadership, scoring and two-way play.  Will Brayden Low crack the final roster? He's in tough, but his team-leading 8 pre-season points are worth making a note of.  Tyler Sandhu, Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne are young guys looking to take big strides, while newcomer Graham Millar was brought in from Saskatoon to provide depth and the ability to chip in some offence.  It’s a decent group with some speed and balance, but they were already the 2nd lowest-scoring playoff team in the conference last year.  Scoring will be a bit of a challenge.

As things stand right now, Ben Betker is the anchor of this defensive core.  The 6’6 Edmonton Oilers prospect is the oldest guy on the blueline and will be counted on to eat up some large minutes in all aspects.  After him, a player like Cole McDonald will be expected to elevate his game.  The Silvertips do have a pair of potential studs on the back-end too, in 1997-born Noah Juulsen and Kevin Davis.  Both have earned some early 2015 NHL Draft buzz and the Silvertips need them to have solid, if not spectacular, second seasons in the WHL.  Aside from those four guys, names to watch are American Tristen Pfeifer and Lucas Skrumeda, both 1996’s.  Skrumeda put up some decent pre-season numbers while Pfeifer has size and is coming off of a good season with the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes last year.

The only team besides Tri-City to have a goaltender as arguably their top player is the Everett Silvertips with Austin Lotz.  And obviously, he’s a big reason why I think they will slide their way into the postseason.  While his save percentage of .905 wasn’t spectacular last year, he remains the core to this team’s playoff chances.  His 2.53 save percentage was 4th best in the league last year, finishing 6th in wins with 31, T-2nd in shutouts with 5 and 5th in minutes played with over 3200.  He’s a workhorse and will continue to be this coming year.  While the Silvertips didn’t score a ton last year, they also didn’t give up many goals.  In fact, their 206 goals against was the 2nd best in the conference, 4th best in the entire WHL.  I’m sure that will need to be the case again this year for Everett to get into the dance.  And for the record, I definitely believe Lotz needs to improve on his .905 save percentage for this to happen.

Unique Storyline:  Will Mirco Mueller Return?

I’ve avoided it all along, but it’s pretty clear that the biggest storyline for this team is the Mirco Mueller situation.  The 1995-born San Jose Sharks 1st round pick was the team’s number one defenceman last year, logging tough minutes and finishing 2nd in blueline scoring.  He’s currently eligible to turn pro with the Sharks, but it’s either the NHL or WHL for him.  Due to his age, he can’t play in the AHL.  So, is he NHL-ready?  I hate to say it for Silvertips fans, but I think he is.  He plays such a smooth and smart game and would make a nice fit in San Jose.  He would be counted on in a minor role and would be allowed to slowly grow and improve his game while on a fairly good club.  But that is only part of the equation.  Do the Sharks have room for him? It would appear that, yes, they do.  They currently have 7 defencemen with one-way contracts on their roster, Mueller included.  Sorry to say Tips fans, but odds are slim he’s back in green, white and grey this season. 

Standings Prediction:  4th in US Division – 7th in Western Conference

Spokane Chiefs

2013-14 record: 40-26-3-3 = 86 points – 4th in US Division – 6th in Western Conference

More often than not, junior hockey runs in cycles due to the amount of player turnover.  And while it keeps things fresh and exciting, it also means some teams are forced to use the dreaded “rebuild” word.  Unfortunately for fans of Spokane, that’s where they appear to be at right now as a franchise.  While it’s been a number of years since they’ve done some real damage in the playoffs (dating back to their 2008 WHL and Memorial Cup titles), they still have a recent history to be proud of.  They’ve made the WHL playoffs in eight straight seasons, finishing no worse than 3rd in the division in each of the past seven years.  But, things on the horizon appear to be a bit more challenging.

The Chiefs were a dynamic group last year, scoring 244 goals, 3rd most in the conference.  They were led by Mitch Holmberg, who finished the year with 62 goals and 118 points, leading the league in both categories.  Mike Aviani chipped in 38 goals and 81 points.  Both those guys are now gone.  While that news is tough, it’s worth noting that several of the Chiefs “next wave” of players remain intact including Adam Helewka (50 points), Connor Chartier (32 points), Riley Whittingham (32 points) and Liam Stewart (28 points).  And while those guys might not have “star power” to their name, they are still more than capable junior hockey players.  You mix in guys like import Dominic Zwerger (96 born, 26 points), Keannu Yamamoto (96 born, 25 points) and rookies Curtis Miske (97 born) and Kailer Yamamoto (98 born) and you have a group that should be able to still find ways to put the biscuit in the basket.

The back half of the roster is where things start to get a bit more interesting, including the fact that they lose leading defensive scorer Reid Gow.  Jason Fram is back after putting up an impressive 57 point season.  Fram is a 1995-born player, and the oldest one on the blueline. In fact, not only do they not have a 20 year old defenceman, they don’t even have another 19 year old to play alongside Fram.  It’s a young group. A group that actually currently has 11 players listed on their depth chart as I type this.  Obviously there are more decisions coming on who sticks around.  The other big, literally big, name to watch is Tamas Laday.  He was taken 42nd overall in the 2014 CHL Import Draft and is from Hungary. The 6’6 blueliner put up 7 goals and 20 points in 34 Under-20 games in Austria last season and will be counted to play a fairly large sized role right off the hop for the Chiefs.  Two other names worth watching on the blueline are Evan Fiala and Jordan Henderson, both of whom are 1997’s.

Behind the young defence is a trio of fairly untested goaltenders.  In trading for Alex Moodie during the offseason, one would imagine that he’s the most likely candidate to start over Garret Hughson.  But Hughson has put up a decent fight this pre-season.  Either way, both guys are 1995-born, so there’s little chance both stay with the team to start the year.  Tyson Verhelst is the third and final guy in the mix as a 1997, and I fully suspect the former 3rd round pick would be the backup to one of Moodie or Hughson.  Regardless of who’s starting, they’re going to face a lot of rubber and neither guy has an overly tremendous track record of stopping that rubber.  As mentioned, the back half of this roster is why I think the Chiefs will fully embrace the early stages of a tear-down project.

Unique Storyline:  How Aggressive Is The Rebuild?

I hate to have such a negative early outlook for teams, but not every team can make the playoffs.  Could Spokane battle all year, get goaltending and make a push for the postseason? Sure.  But, if the Chiefs stumble out of the gate, how quickly could they possibly look to expedite the rebuilding process?  In other words, will they look to start making a few trades before say, mid-November?  I think they’ve got some ok role playing forwards up front and those types of guys should have some ok value when it comes to trading to try and gain assets.  It’s something this team hasn’t had to do in recent years, but if you are going to start building things back up, an aggressive approach might be the fastest way back to becoming a playoff team.

Standings Prediction:  5th in US Division – 10th in Western Conference