Back by popular demand (OK, Laura, this is for you), here’s a look at how one observer thinks this season may unfold in the B.C. and U.S. divisions (last season’s regular-season record and this season’s exhibition record are in parentheses):
1. VANCOUVER GIANTS (41-25-3-3; 2-3-0-0): They’ve finished atop the division for five straight seasons. In other words, they’re No. 1 until someone knocks them off. . . . But head coach Don Hay sounds worried, at least in the early going, as his club faces six games in nine nights. "I think the young guys are still learning how to prepare to practise,” head coach Don Hay told the Vancouver Sun’s Elliott Pap. “With the veteran guys we've had hurt, and others away at pro camps, I think it's hindered our development as a team. I think we're behind where we have been in the past." . . . They got 41-goal man Brendan Gallagher back from the Montreal Canadiens, and then they got C Craig Cunningham, their leader, back from the Boston Bruins. Cunningham is arguably the WHL’s best all-around player. . . . Even with Cunningham, a 97-point man, the Giants still have room for one more 20-year old. . . . They picked up F Matt MacKay, 20, from Medicine Hat over the summer and Vancouver fans will learn to love him. . . . The Giants appear prepared to open with three goaltenders, so you know there’ll be some movement there. Mark Segal, 19, Derek Tendler, 18, and Brendan Jensen, 17, won’t be a trio for too long. . . . D David Musil, in his second season, is an impact player. . . . D Neil Manning, 19, came into his own last season with 56 points.
OUTLOOK: They’re the division champs until someone proves otherwise.
2. KELOWNA ROCKETS (35-31-2-4; 5-1-0-0): They’ve got veteran G Adam Brown, along with Tyson Barrie, the WHL’s top defenceman last season, and super sophomore Shane McColgan up front. . . . Barrie was hampered by a partially torn hamstring in camp so may get off to a bit of a slow start. McColgan left in the middle of camp and returned home to Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he had his tonsils removed. He put up 69 points as a 16-year-old rookie, despite being plagued by faulty tonsils. He’s healthy now, so look out! . . . Look for F Zach Franko to develop into one of the WHL’s most exciting players. This guy can scoot. . . . Veteran forwards Geordie Wudrick and Mitchell (Dirty Harry) Callahan will provide scoring and grit. . . . Veterans Brendon Wall, 20, and Kevin Smith, 19, were added to the back end in offseason deals.
OUTLOOK: They have the team to finish first and Ryan Huska is one of the best young coaches in the game, but need everything to fall into place to catch the Giants.
3. KAMLOOPS BLAZERS (32-33-2-5; 4-2-0-0): Is this the season in which the Blazers advance past the first round of playoffs for the first time since 1999? Or is the team really coached by Phil Connors (aka Bill Murray in Groundhog Day)? . . . Actually, Guy Charron is into his first full season as head coach and he might be the difference-maker. . . . The Blazers will get good goaltending from Jeff Bosch and Jon Groenheyde. And they’ll be solid on the back end, with the likes of Austin Madaisky, Josh Caron, Linden Saip and Bronson Maschmeyer. If they get 6-foot-4, 220-pound Corey Fienhage, 20, back from the Buffalo Sabres, they’ll be rock-solid back there. . . . Caron went to camp as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild and came out of it with a three-year NHL contract. He may have been the WHL’s most-improved player last season; he may be its toughest player this season. . . . Young guns like Colin Smith, Jordan DePape, JT Barnett and Brendan Ranford are going to have to get their games to the next level and score.
OUTLOOK: The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit, but are they up there with the Vancouvers and Kelownas? Will need vastly improved discipline and special teams to get to that level.
4. CHILLIWACK BRUINS (32-33-2-5; 1-5-0-0): The Bruins will continue to show improvement under GM/head coach Marc Habscheid, but they aren‘t there yet. . . . They do have two of the division’s top forwards in Ryan Howse, who will score 50 goals if he stays healthy, and Kevin Sundher. . . . If you get a chance to watch the Bruins, pay particular attention to Sundher, who is vastly under-rated. . . . F Steven Hodges, the ninth overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft, should be fun to watch. . . . G Lucas Gore had a .902 save percentage and won 20 games last season. . . . They need to get D Brandon Manning, 20, back from the N.Y. Rangers’ camp. He was plus-20 with 54 points. ’Nuff said.
OUTLOOK: No one doubted Habscheid‘s ability to get the ship pointed in the right direction; it‘s just a matter of long it will take.
5. PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS (12-56-1-3; 1-4-0-1): Welcome to ‘If’ city. . . . If the Cougars get F Brett Connolly back from the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, if Slovakian D Martin Marincin can adapt to the game and the lifestyle over here, if the goaltending is a whole lot more stable. . . . The Cougars, who used 10 goaltenders last season, are headed in the right direction, but it’s a matter of taking baby steps before giant steps. . . . Connolly, who is a game-breaker, was limited to 16 games last season by hip problems. He seems healthy now, but the 18-year-old is in Tampa Bay’s camp. The Lightning selected him with the sixth pick of the 2010 NHL draft. . . . F Charles Inglis, if he keeps it in the middle of the road, should provide a spark. He was acquired from the Saskatoon Blades after falling out of favour with GM/head coach Lorne Molleken, which takes some doing. . . . F Troy Bourke, 16, will be worth watching. He had three goals in five games last season. . . . G Morgan Clark, acquired from Swift Current, and G James Priestner, back after leaving the team a year ago, need to be solid as this is a fragile team. . . . Sophomore defencemen Jesse Forsberg and Daniel Gibb provide hope for the future. . . . D Art Bidlevskii is out for up to three weeks with a broken thumb, so veteran F James Dobrowolski opens the season on defence.
OUTLOOK: Head coach Dean Clark is into Year 2 of a five-year contract, so you know this is a work in progress.
1. TRI-CITY AMERICANS (47-22-1-2; 6-2-0-0): The Americans have finished atop the division each of the last three seasons. . . . They just might make it four in a row. . . . They are coming off their first appearance in the WHL championship series, where they fell in five games to the Calgary Hitmen. Experience like that can only help a team. . . . Drew Owsley gives them quality goaltending, although he may need more rest than he got last season. Do they dare keep Alex Pechurskiy, a two-spotter as a 20-year-old import, to pair with Owsley? . . . Their top six forwards — Brendan Shinnimin, Justin Feser, Brooks Macek, Kruise Reddick, Jordan Messier and Adam Hughesman — are as good as anyone else’s top six. . . . F Patrick Holland finished strong in his rookie season. . . . They return four defencemen, led by the ultra-reliable Tyler Schmidt, and will be looking to Russian Nikita Kardashev for some positive results.
OUTLOOK: The pieces are there for another first-place finish.
2. EVERETT SILVERTIPS (46-21-3-2; 4-3-0-0): The Silvertips open the season with an eight-game homestand. So, yes, it’s important that they get off to a good start. . . . F Landon Ferraro has spoken about how he needed a change of scenery from Red Deer. Well, he got it, so now it’s show time for the Silvertips’ new captain. . . . F Tyler Maxwell and F Kellan Tochkin will have 80-point seasons. . . . F Scott MacDonald has resurrected his career here and is a major contributor. . . . Everett is home to an NCAA refugee in F Josh Birkholz, 19, who left the U of Minnesota. . . . The Silvertips led the WHL in defence last season, allowing just 175 goals. They’ve got G Kent Simpson back, as well as D Rasmus Rissanen and Paul Sohor, and they picked up D Chad Suer, 20, from Moose Jaw. . . . They also have Ryan Murray back there who played like a 20-year-old last season despite being a 16-year-old freshman. Yes, NHL scouts are licking their lips even though Murray isn‘t eligible for the draft until 2012.
OUTLOOK: This organization, as well as any group in hockey, understands that you win with team defence. The Silvertips will challenge for the division title.
3. PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS (44-25-2-1; 4-0-0-2): This franchise spent a lot of time learning how to lose. That all changed last season. . . . But a lot went right for this team last season. So will there be a cooling-off period? . . . The Winterhawks had eight players selected in the 2010 NHL draft. They had so many players in NHL camps that they barely had enough players for their own camp. . . . Special teams were middle of the pack last season, so there is lots of room for improvement. . . . Likely to lose F Nino Niederreiter to the New York Islanders but can’t allow that to become a distraction. . . . In one season, F Ryan Johansen went from being a raw rookie to scoring 69 points to being the first WHL player selected in the NHL draft. He went fourth overall to Columbus. How much will he improve this season? . . . F Brad Ross, who led the WHL in penalty minutes, is one of the league’s most-despised players — by everyone but his teammates. He still found time to put up 68 points. . . . D Brett Ponich, 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, has gotten better each season. He’s dominant in his zone. . . . D Derrick Pouliot, the first overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft, will play regularly. He’s a good one. . . . Ian Curtis, 20, and Mac Carruth, 18, are back in goal, but Keith Hamilton, 18, is challenging for a spot.
OUTLOOK: No more sneaking up on the opposition. Portland has a target on its back now and it will be interesting to see how it responds as other teams come gunning for it.
4. SPOKANE CHIEFS (45-22-3-2; 3-3-0-1): The Chiefs made one of the offseason’s most-intriguing moves when they signed Don Nachbaur to a five-year deal as head coach. . . . He also has coached Tri-City and Seattle so that only will help some rivalries. . . . And, yes, he can coach. . . . The Chiefs have lost a couple of big guns in Kyle Beach and Mitch Wahl. They won’t replace that offence all at once so will have to tighten up on defence. That won’t be hard for veteran forwards like Tyler Johnson and Levko Koper. . . . But they also lost three key defencemen from a year ago, and may not get D Jared Cowen, 19, back from the Ottawa Senators. . . . D Brenden Kichton came back from the Detroit Red Wings’ camp with an injury so will miss the start of the season. . . . G James Reid, 20, had a fine 2009-10, with 38 victories and an amazing .920 save percentage. He will need to be at least as good this season.
OUTLOOK: If they aren’t rebuilding, the Chiefs are at least reloading.
5. SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS (19-41-7-5; 4-3-1-0): The Thunderbirds, who play out of Kent, Wash., have G Calvin Pickard. He’s one of the best, but he saw so much rubber last season that word is he hibernated through the summer. . . . The Thunderbirds were awfully young up front last season so the maturity of those forwards will be a key to this season. . . . Charles Wells, who had 55 points, including 21 goals, is the top returning forward. . . . The Thunderbirds have gotten bigger with the acquisition of F Travis Toomey, 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, from Saskatoon and they added experience by getting D Travis (Ricky) Bobbee, 20, from the Swift Current Broncos. . . . They also have D Austin Baecker in camp and there are suggestions he goes 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds. . . . Seattle gave up a lot of goals last season and will need improved defensive play from the forwards. . . . They could have a good one in German F Marcel Noebels, who was picked in the CHL’s 2010 import draft. . . . The Thunderbirds have veterans on the back end in Brendon Dillon, Erik Bonsor and Scott Ramsay. They also have Swiss D Dave Sutter, who is not a member of the family.
OUTLOOK: This division is ultra-competitive and the Thunderbirds have a long climb ahead of them.
Here’s how the Western Conference may stack up in March:
10. Prince George
Taking Note on Twitter