Friday, September 24, 2010

Eastern Conference prognostications

The problem with doing these things is that some of the information changes as they are being written, witness the Prince George Cougars getting back F Brett Connolly on Friday from the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. No matter. We forge ahead with a look at the East and Central Divisions and the way things may finish (last season’s regular-season record and this season’s exhibition record are in parentheses):
1. MOOSE JAW WARRIORS (33-27-5-7; 5-2-0-0): The Warriors should score some goals this season as they have a solid group of forwards returning, led by Quinton Howden, who had 28 last season, and Brendan Rowinski, who had 30. . . . Howden, who had 65 points in as many games, is a top-flight player. . . . The Warriors open with four good 20-year-olds — F Spencer Edwards, the captain, G Thomas Heemskerk, F Dylan Hood and Rowinski — so something will happen there. . . . Moose Jaw cut its goals-against by 105 goals last season so you have to wonder how much improvement there can be this time. . . . D Dallas Ehrhardt opens on the sideline with a knee injury incurred while with the Edmonton Oilers’ prospects team in Penticton, B.C. . . . Dylan McIlrath, who went 10th overall to the New York Rangers in the NHL’s 2010 draft, and Kendall McFaull provide leadership and everything else on the back end. . . . Moose Jaw did a preseason juggle in goal, moving out Jeff Bosch (to Moose Jaw) and bringing in Heemskerk.
OUTLOOK: In the last season of the Crushed Can, the Warriors should be in the chase for the division pennant.
2. SASKATOON BLADES (46-19-3-4; 4-1-0-1): The Blades have a whack of 20-year-olds and until that situation sorts itself out, who knows what’s here. At the end of the day, though, the Blades will have a lot of experience on their roster. . . . Their top two scorers from last season, Derek Hulak and Walker Wintoneak, graduated, but the likes of F Curtis Hamilton, Josh Nicholls and Darian Dziurzynski will score. . . . These are the Blades of GM/head coach Lorne Molleken so you know toughness won’t be in short supply. . . . Teigan Zahn, the captain, leads the way on the back end. . . . He’s one of a number of 20-year-olds, along with the likes of F Sena Acolatse, F Jeremy Boyer, F Randy McNaught, F Gaelan Patterson, who is still with the NHL’s Calgary Flames, and F Marek Viedensky. The 20-year-old deadline is Oct. 14 so Molleken will be active between now and then. . . . D Stefan Elliott, 19, will run the offence from the back end, if he returns from the Colorado Avalanche, while Duncan Siemens, 17, and Dalton Thrower, 17 in December, are coming into their own. . . . G Steven Stanford is another 20-year-old, while Adam Morrison, 19, also is back. Should Molleken choose to go with Morrison and move Stanford, Adam Iwan, 17, is still in town.
OUTLOOK: Molleken has his work cut out for him between now and mid-October. When it’s all over, the Blades will still be a contender.
3. SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS (37-30-1-4; 2-5-0-0): F Cody Eakin, the Broncos’ best player and one of the league’s top performers, is with the NHL’s Washington Capitals. They are expected to take a good long look at him. A third-round pick by the Capitals, Eakin, 19, is the Broncos’ captain and coming off a 47-goal season. . . . If he’s gone for any length of time, the Broncos have to make sure it doesn’t become a distraction. . . . They did get F Justin Dowling, 20, back and he’ll help Eakin with the offensive load. . . . F Adam Lowry, 17, is getting over mononucleosis. . . . F Dillon Wagner (shoulder) won’t play until perhaps November. . . . The Broncos added depth this week by dealing D Travis Bobbee, 20, to Seattle for D Tanner Muth, 17, and F Brenden Silvester, 19. . . . The Broncos need to score more goals (they had 231) and allow about 30 fewer (232). . . . The veterans on defence — Jordan Evans, Joel Rogers and Kyle Verdino — will have to tighten up, while Reece Scarlett, 17, will continue to improve into a top-end defender. . . . G Mark Friesen, 20, will get a lot of work. He came over from the Chilliwack Bruins last season.
OUTLOOK: The Broncos have an intriguing mix of defensive toughness, with speed and skill up front. With Eakin, they’re in the hunt. If he isn’t there, everyone else is going to have to step it up a level.
4. PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS (32-35-3-2; 2-1-0-1): The Raiders, it’s safe to say, underachieved last season when they didn’t make the playoffs for a third straight season. So GM/head coach Bruno Campese put together roster that has more, uhh, truculence and belligerence than it did last season. . . . That and six veteran defencemen — including Ryan Button, Nathan Deck and Jordan Rowley — will be the key to this team’s success. . . . F Brandon Herrod and F Igor Revenko will show the way on offence and could each score 40. . . . F Mark McNeill, 17, F Todd Fiddler, 17, and F Mike Winther, 16, lead the young guns. . . . G Jamie Tucker, who came over from the Vancouver Giants in January, wasn’t happy on the West Coast and now gets his chance. . . . Campese has players like D Harrison Ruopp, D Emerson Hrynyk, F Austin Bourhis, F Mark Mackenzie and F Brock Balson, all of whom have sandpaper in their games. The goal is to play hard on the road and to bring that back home.
OUTLOOK: Look for the Raiders to boast one of the league's most-improved records.
5. BRANDON WHEAT KINGS (50-18-1-3; 3-1-0-0): The Wheat Kings are carrying five goaltenders and two of them — Jacob De Serres and Andrew Hayes — are 20 years of age. . . . Liam (Sonny) Liston, 17, is the goaltender of the future. Who is the starter now? . . . The Wheat Kings scored 321 goals last season when they were the host team for the Memorial Cup. They won’t come close to scoring that many goals this season unless they get back F Scott Glennie (Dallas) and Brayden Schenn (Los Angeles). . . . Even with all the skill last season, the Wheat Kings’ special teams were below average. . . . The Wheat Kings also have a bunch of 20-year-olds — De Serres, Hayes, F Shayne Wiebe, the captain, F David Toews, D Mark Schneider, D Darren Bestland — and are only able to keep three, so there will be some movement.
OUTLOOK: After loading up as the host team for the 2010 Memorial Cup, the Wheat Kings are into one of those reloading seasons.
6. REGINA PATS (30-35-3-4; 1-4-1-0): Here’s the question everyone is asking: The Pats didn’t make the playoffs last season with the likes of F Jordan Eberle, who was the WHL’s player of the year, D Colton Teubert, F Carter Ashton, F Matt Strueby, F Brett Leffler, D Matt Delahey et al, so how will they qualify without those big names? . . . Good question. . . . The Pats now are underdogs. Will they relish the role and prove the prognosticators, including this one, to be wrong? . . . The biggest move came in the front office where Brent Parker, the GM for 15 years, moved into the president’s office. Former Moose Jaw Warriors GM Chad Lang now is the Pats’ general manager. You can bet he’s watching closely and taking names. He was never afraid of making a deal in Moose Jaw. . . . The Pats scored 246 goals, had Eberle and C Jordan Weal each score more than 100 points, and had the WHL’s No. 4 power play. So what happened? They gave up 278 goals. . . . They have to tighten up on the back end. . . . Weal now is the man up front, but he’ll need help from the likes of F Hampus Gustafsson and gritty Garrett Mitchell. . . . Veteran C Colin Reddin, 20, and a healthy Killian Hutt will only help, as will F Thomas Frazee, who was acquired Friday from Moose Jaw. . . . F Dane Muench, an offensive-type in the SJHL, will be worth watching. . . . Brandon Davidson leads a competent group of defencemen, while D Cody Carlson has an offensive side to his game. . . . Swedish D Ricard Blidstrand, a Philadelphia Flyers’ draft pick, will have to make an impact. . . . D Myles Bell, 17, is one of the conference’s best young players. . . . In goal, it’s Dawson Guhle, 18, and Damien Ketlo, 19, the same tandem as last season, although freshman Matt Hewitt, 18, is pushing for a spot. The goaltenders will have to be better, as will everyone in front of them.
OUTLOOK: A playoff spot isn’t out of the question, but it is unlikely.
1. MEDICINE HAT TIGERS (41-23-3-5; 4-1-0-1): Willie Desjardins, the long-serving GM and head coach, is with the Dallas Stars. That puts Shaun Clouston, the long-time associate coach, in charge of the bench. . . . Don’t look for a whole lot of changes here, and why would things be a whole lot different? . . . Although a tighter defence would help. The Tigers gave up 232 goals last season and that’s too many. . . . This will be a strong offensive team, with Emerson Etem, one of the league’s most exciting players, and Linden Vey leading the way. Wacey Hamilton, the captain, went to camp with the Colorado Avalanche and will be given a chance to play in the AHL. . . . The Tigers also landed F Tyler Pitlick, a refugee from the NCAA’s Minnesota State. He had a strong camp with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, who re-assigned him to Medicine Hat on Friday. . . . And don’t forget F Ryan Harrison, a 54-point man with the Prince Albert Raiders who was added in an offseason trade. . . . On the back end, Jace Coyle, 20, will run the power play, while Swedish newcomer Sebastian Owuya, who went to camp with the Atlanta Thrashers, should help. He has Swedish Elite League experience. . . . Tyler Bunz, 18, is ready for a third season and is one of the WHL’s top goaltenders. He is backed up by Deven Dubyk, 19.
OUTLOOK: This will be an exciting team to watch. If Clouston can convince them of the importance of team defence, a WHL title isn’t out of reach.
2. KOOTENAY ICE (43-24-3-2; 1-4-0-0): The Ice has a history of terrific coaches and Kris Knoblauch, a former WHL player, is next in line. He replaces Mark Holick, who now is head coach of the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. Holick took over from Cory Clouston, now the head coach of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. . . . Knoblauch was an assistant under Holick, so he knows the players. . . . This franchise has had amazing success, having won at least 42 games in five of the last six regular seasons. So why does it struggle to sell tickets? . . . F Dustin Sylvester had 93 points last season but he’s gone, but there’s a good group of forwards ready to pick up the slack, including Steele Boomer (he still has the league’s best name), Matt Fraser, Jesse Ismond, Kevin King and Max Reinhart. Each of those guys had at least 20 goals last season, so 30 won’t be out of reach. . . . But they need to be better on the PP, which was only 17th last season. . . . This team won’t get run out of any buildings, either. Joe Antilla, Drew Czerwonka and Brock Montgomery will make sure of that. . . . F Brendan Hurley, the Ice’s first pick in the 2008 bantam draft, is ready to contribute. . . . Brayden MacNabb is one of the WHL’s top defencemen. He should be good for at least 70 points, while getting support from James Martin and Hayden Rintoul, both 19. . . . As well, Joey Leach, 18, has turned into a solid two-way guy. . . . Todd Mathews, 20, and Nathan Lieuwen, 19, are scrapping over the No. 1 goaltending spot. Both are competent WHL goaltenders.
OUTLOOK: They could push Medicine Hat to the finish line.
3. RED DEER REBELS (39-28-0-5; 5-2-0-0): The Rebels’ roster is home to the WHL’s best young forward in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had 65 points, including 24 goals, as a 16-year-old last season. . . . The power play (17.7) has to be better. . . . F Willie Coetzee, who led them with 81 points, may play in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization. . . . Without him, others will pick up the slack. Nugent-Hopkins, F Andrej Kudrna (30 goals) and F Byron Froese, who came over from Everett for F Landon Ferraro, are the big guns. Red Deer fans will enjoy watching Froese, who has a well-rounded game. . . . The Rebels showed improvement on defence last season and that will continue with the likes of Colin Archer, the 20-year-old captain, Alex Petrovic, Justin Weller and Aaron Borejko back there. . . . And watch for D Matt Dumba, 16, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft, to show signs of becoming an elite player. . . . The Rebels have two 20-year-old goaltenders in Kraymer Barnstable and Darcy Kuemper, so something has to give there.
OUTLOOK: After a few seasons of relative dormancy, the Rebels have awakened.
4. LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES (20-44-5-3; 4-1-0-1): The Hurricanes stumbled and bumbled through last season, one that began with an eight-game road trip due to building renovations. This season, well, the renovations continue and they open with five in a row away from home, including a three-game swing into the U.S. Division. . . . Still, this will be the WHL’s most-improved team. . . . G Brandon Anderson is brimming with confidence after attending the Washington Capitals’ camp as a free agent and coming home with a three-year NHL contract. . . . GM/head coach Rich Preston knows his way around the WHL now, after not being involved in the WHL since the mid-1990s. . . . Still, they need improvement on offence (they scored 178 goals last season) and have to improve a defence that gave up 275 goals. . . . But they’ve got almost a dozen returning forwards, including Mitch Maxwell, who had 27 goals as a 19-year-old rookie, and the hard-working Cam Braes, who scored 25. . . . F Austin Fyten and F Brody Sutter both are 19 and have to step it up a bit. . . . Russian F Alex Kuvaev is 17 but they are hoping for some offensive help from him. . . . D Mike Reddington is the captain and leads from the back end, along with Brennan Yadlowski. . . . D Daniel Johnston, who came over from Portland, will get more playing time.
OUTLOOK: They were pushovers a year ago, but no longer.
5. CALGARY HITMEN (52-17-1-2; 0-4-0-1): What does head coach Mike Williamson do for an encore? He hadn’t coached for two seasons, since and the Portland Winterhawks parted company. Then, in his first season with the Hitmen, he got to the Memorial Cup. . . . If you’re wondering why they won the WHL title, consider that the Hitmen were No. 1 in penalty killing and power play last season. . . . And they gave up only 177 goals. . . . There are 11 new faces on the roster of the defending champions. . . . So who takes over from G Martin Jones, 20, who almost certainly will play in the Los Angeles Kings’ organization? Michael Snider, 19, backed up Jones for two seasons and deserves a chance. The Hitmen also rolled the dice on a goaltender in the 2010 import draft, taking Slovakian Juraj Holly, 19. . . . And from where will the goals come? The Hitmen have lost seven of their top 10 scorers. Forwards Jimmy Bubnick, 19, Tyler Fiddler, 20, and Kris Foucault, 20, are going to have to provide a lot of offence, while Cody Beach, 18, and Cody Sylvester, 18, will have to step up. . . . D Zak Stebner, 20, and D Matt Mackenzie, 19, will have to eat up minutes, with sophomores Peter Kosterman, Jaynen Rissling and Ben Wilson playing a whole lot more than they did last season.
OUTLOOK: They won’t be as bad as you might think.
6. EDMONTON OIL KINGS (16-43-4-9; 2-3-0-0): The Oil Kings cleaned house after last season, which was full of sickness and injuries, and now Derek Laxdal, who played with Brandon and Portland, running the bench. Assistant Steve Hamilton had success with the AJHL’s Spruce Grove Saints. . . . Edmonton has a good, experienced group of 20-year-olds in F Mike Piluso, F Jordan Hickmott and D Adrian Van de Mosselaer. . . . The special teams were horrendous -- the power play was 22nd, at 11.7 per cent, and the penalty kill was 21st, at 74.3 per cent -- and have to be better if this team is even to think about the playoffs. . . . D Mark Pysyk, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2010, is a quality player. . . . F Michael St. Croix led the Oil Kings with 46 points and that’s not enough. . . . But he’s 17 now and will be better, as will F Klarc Wilson, 17, and F T.J. Foster, 18. . . . It’ll be interesting to watch Latvian F Kristians Pelss, whose NHL rights belong to the Edmonton Oilers. . . . D Keegan Lowe, 17, will continue to grow into a major contributor, while Griffin Reinhart, the third overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft, will play a lot. . . . G Cam Lanigan, who went to camp with the Calgary Flames, will be the starter, with highly touted Laurent Brossoit, 17, getting some playing time, too.
OUTLOOK: They’ll be better and they’ll be exciting. But a playoff spot may be too much to ask.
1. Medicine Hat Tigers
2. Moose Jaw Warriors
3. Saskatoon Blades
4. Kootenay Ice
5. Swift Current Broncos
6. Prince Albert Raiders
7. Red Deer Rebels
8. Lethbridge Hurricanes
9. Brandon Wheat Kings
10. Calgary Hitmen
11. Edmonton Oil Kings
12. Regina Pats
I have to admit that this may be the toughest conference I have ever tried to handicap. I really think there is going to be a horse race for the last couple of playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and it will involve six or seven teams. . . . What that means is that this is going to be quite a season. Enjoy!
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