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:
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
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
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