The 2012-13 Western Hockey League season is exactly one week away today, with the schedule kicking off next Thursday as the Edmonton Oil Kings will raise their 2011-2012 WHL Championship banner before hosting the Kootenay Ice. It's an exciting time of year for hockey fans, especially with the reality of an upcoming NHL lockout. There's still hockey to watch, it just might not be the NHL, for now.
As someone who follows the CHL very closely, I'm definitely ready to get the puck dropped. Along with that, there are going to be a ton of things I am expecting out of the upcoming WHL season. Here's my list of 10 storylines I expect from the 2012-13 WHL season.
1. The Edmonton Oil Kings will dominate, again - Last year was a special season for the Edmonton Oil Kings. They finished atop the WHL regular season standings with 107 points after going 50-15-3-4 and led the Eastern Conference in goal scoring. They then went on to win the WHL title after steamrolling through the first three rounds and then beating Portland at home in game 7 of the finals. Overall they went 16-4 in the playoffs and I expect a similar year out of them this year. Yes, they lost some great talent after last year but still have a very veteran club with players such as Curtis Lazar, Mitch Moroz, Dylan Wruck, Travis Ewanyk and Henrik Samuelsson poised to play more important roles this year. They've also still got a fantastic D core led by Griffin Reinhart, Martin Gernat and Keegan Lowe...not to mention the top goalie in the WHL in Laurent Brossoit (more on him later). Overall, Edmonton has what it takes to dominate the WHL again. I could see them start a bit slow out of the gate due to the long year last year, but in the end I expect them to be standing atop the WHL's Eastern Conference and likely the WHL as a whole.
2. Ty Rattie will lead the league in scoring - This obviously isn't the most bold of predictions, considering the guy finished 3rd in league scoring last year with 121 points. But, I still think it's worth putting out there. Rattie will likely lose some valuable teammates and linemates in 2012-13, including Sven Bartschi, but he's bigger, stronger and improved all over the ice. Portland is bound to have another strong club this year after some savvy additions and Rattie will lead the offensive charge for them. I'm expecting him to hit around 120 points again this year, even with him likely missing a month in the middle of the season to play for Canada at the World Juniors. Watch for guys like Michael St. Croix, Patrick Holland, Brad Ross (if not in the AHL), Colin Smith, Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Ranford and Brenden Walker to also be in the hunt for this title. Those guys all have the advantage of likely not missing time to play in the World Juniors, unlike Rattie.
3. Seth Jones will be the highest drafted WHL player and win rookie of the year - The WHL boasts a fantastic class for the 2013 NHL Draft and the head of the class is Seth Jones. He's a 6'4 D from the Portland Winterhawks and is set to make his WHL debut next week after transferring to the league from the US National Program over the summer. He's a smooth skater, can pass the puck, play defence and play physical. He's a physical specimen and the son of a former NBA player. He has all the tools to be a top end prospect and in my mind will be the 2nd player drafted into the NHL next June, behind Nathan MacKinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads. Other players to contend for top WHL draft slot include Hunter Shinkaruk (Medicine Hat) and Curtis Lazar (Edmonton). I also thing a solid first year by Jones makes him the favorite to be named WHL rookie of the year. I would pencil him in for atleast 40 points this year. There should be some solid competition for this title with guys like Jake Virtanen (Calgary), Brayden Point (Moose Jaw) and Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert) all expected to have above-average debut seasons in 2012-13.
4. The NHL lockout will create WHL buzz and strong crowd support - An NHL lockout is basically a certainty at this point. It's definitely not a good thing, but some teams across the Canadian Hockey League will more than likely benefit from not having to contend with the top league in the world stealing their crowds. That definitely rings true for several WHL cities who have NHL teams that won't be playing. People will need to get their hockey fix and instead of watching a live NHL game or watching it on TV, they can head to the rink and watch junior hockey. This seems like a no-brainer to me, but that's coming from someone who would almost rather watch a WHL game than an NHL game, so we'll see how it plays out in the end. I don't expect an NHL lockout to last too long, maybe into late November, so that will be a good measuring stick to see if WHL crowds drop once the NHL returns.
5. MJ will take a step back; Brandon won't be as bad as some think - The WHL's Eastern Division is going to be fun to watch closely this year. The Blades host the Memorial Cup, while teams like Prince Albert and Swift Current are looking to bounce back from tough 2011-12 campaigns. One team that I expect to drop off this year is Moose Jaw. They won the division last year but are arguably the team hit the hardest by turnover for this coming season. Gone are Cam Braes, James Henry, Kenton Miller, Dylan McIlrath and Quinton Howden. That's a ton of talent. Sure, they'll have a full healthy season with Morgan Rielly and Joel Edmundson, but they just don't appear to have the talent or depth to be a top 8 team in the conference. Not only that, but they're also going to be counting on 17 year old goalie Justin Paulic to lead them between the pipes. On the flip side, I don't think Brandon will be as bad as some are predicting. They've got arguably one of the top D in the WHL with players like Ryan Pulock, Ryley Miller, Eric Roy, Rene Hunter and Tyler Yaworski set to be anchors for them. In goal, Corbin Boes is a veteran and poised to have a great year. Up front they're very young and will be counting on guys like Nick Buonassisi, Tyrel Seaman and Alessio Bertaggia to score. If they can get some other guys to step up and score, I could see them being a 5th or 6th seed in the West, which is much better than some of the predictions I've read about Brandon.
6. Kamloops and Portland are atop of the food chain out West - They were two of the top 3 teams in the Western Conference last year and I expect them to battle all season for that top ranking. Kamloops has a very talented and deep club, from their forwards, to their defence, to their goaltending. They don't have a ton of big names, but they work hard and play their systems well. I've already touched on Portland's skill and abilities and these two teams could easily end up as the two top teams in the entire league, especially if Edmonton suffers a bit of an early championship hangover. Kamloops will also be out for a measure of revenge this season, as they fell to Portland in an epic 7-game series in the 2011-2012 playoffs. They meet in back-to-back games starting on November 11th and those meetings are poised to be considered must-watch. Regardless of which team ends up higher in the standings, I expect the other one to be second out West.
7. Calgary will be good, but not top 2 - All signs point to Saskatoon and Edmonton leading the way in the Eastern Conference this season, but if any team is going to threaten one of those teams it will be the Calgary Hitmen. They finished 3rd in the conference last year and I expect them to slot in that spot again this year. They're a deep club, led by players like Swede Victor Rask, Alex Gogolev, Brooks Macek, Brady Brassart, Greg Chase and goaltender Chris Driedger. They've also got some solid youngsters that should help augment their core group, with players like Jake Virtanen and Josh Thrower possessing both skill and grit. They've also got a very underrated blueline. There's a lot to like and no team should take the Hitmen lightly. I wouldn't be shocked if they actually ended up in the WHL's Eastern Conference final come next spring if one of Edmonton or Saskatoon stumble in the playoffs.
8. Laurent Brossoit will win top goalie honours - For my money, he's the top goalie in the WHL. He was 1st in wins last year, 6th in save percentage and 2nd in goals against average in 2011-2012. He's the backbone of a great team. He does have some competition in players like Ty Rimmer, Cole Cheveldave and Andrey Makarov, but this Flames prospect is a step ahead of those guys, in my opinion. I also expect him to be one of Canada's goalies at the World Juniors. Yes, he's riding a wave after a big season in 2011-12, but he also still has a lot to prove. He wasn't great in the Memorial Cup last spring, posting an .871 save percentage and 4.04 GAA in the tournament. He also wasn't great for Canada in the Canada-Russia Challenge earlier this summer. But, I expect him to be on point this season. Laurent Brossoit has another big season ahead of him and it will end with more hardware.
9. Expect big things from the WHL at the 2013 NHL Draft - I will call it right now. I expect atleast 8 WHL players to be taken in the 1st round of the 2013 NHL Draft. That might not seem like a huge number, but it is when looking at the history of the last few drafts. Six WHLers were taken in the first round of 2012, five went in 2011, with seven going in 2010. That 7 is the highest total in the last several years and I expect it to be passed in 2013. The league possesses a great crop of players for 2013 and it's very balanced at each position. Top end forwards, defenceman and even an elite goalie prospect highlight the bunch for 2013. Names to watch include Seth Jones, Curtis Lazar, Hunter Shinkaruk, Josh Morrissey, Ryan Pulock, Eric Comrie, Madison Bowey, Alex Forsberg, Shea Theodore, Morgan Klimchuk, Connor Rankin, Matt Needham and others. It's a very good group, arguably the best the WHL has had to offer in the last number of years.
10. Alberta Showdown - Lazar vs. Shinkaruk - This final storyline relates to point 9. The WHL's top two forward prospects for the 2013 are Curtis Lazar (Edmonton Oil Kings) and Hunter Shinkaruk (Medicine Hat Tigers). Both are hard-working kids who happen to be fantastic offensive players. Shinkaruk is better offensively, while Lazar is definitely more well-rounded and physical. So who will go first in the NHL draft? I expect it to be a battle all season long. As it stands right now, I rate Shinkaruk just ahead of Lazar, but it's close. There is a lot to like about Lazar and in my mind he projects to be similar to a player like Shane Doan at the pro level. So, it wouldn't be shocking at all to see him drafted ahead of Shinkaruk. Both will face challenges this year with Lazar needing to up his offensive responsibilities and Shinkaruk needing to prove he can lead a team without Emerson Etem by his side. Both are up for the challenge and I can't wait to keep track of this battle all season long.
There you have it. Some storylines that I can't wait to watch in 2012-13. Let me hear yours. Either leave them as a comment on this blog or hit me up on Twitter by following @WHLFromAbove.
Thanks for reading.