Thursday, September 18, 2014

WHL Western Conference preview . . .

The WHL’s 49th regular-season gets started tonight (Friday).
Here is a look at the Western Conference’s 10 teams, courtesy of reporters who cover the WHL (teams appear in order of last season‘s finish):

Last season: 57-11-4; first in B.C. Division, first in Western Conference; lost in third round of playoffs.
Head coach: Dan Lambert (first season, sixth with Kelowna).
Assistant coaches: Kris Mallette (first season), Travis Crickard
(goaltending coach, first season).
Key losses: Leading scorer F Myles Bell (42G, 77P), F Ryan Olsen
(30-34-64), No. 1 D Damon Severson and G Jordon Cooke (Kelowna’s MVP).
The 20-year-olds: D Cole Martin of Texas, who’s a lock as an over-ager, F Tyrell Goulbourne, F Carter Rigby and F Colton Heffley.
The imports: Swiss F Kris Schmidli, 18, returns for a second season. Kelowna’s second import is 6-foot-3 Czech rookie F Tomas Soustal, 17.
Key returnees: D Madison Bowey, the captain; Martin, one of seven returnees on defence; Goulbourne, with his physical presence; F Rourke Chartier, 18, and F Nick Merkley, 17. Chartier was sixth in team scoring (24-34-58) while Merkley, as a rookie, was fifth (25-33-58).
New faces: D Lucas Johansen, 16, the younger brother of NHLer Ryan Johansen; F Dillon Dube, 16, who joined Kelowna in the playoffs and appeared in one game; and F Tanner Wishnowski, who played last season with the Okanagan Rockets of the B.C. Major Midget League.
Watch for: Kelowna’s depth to wear down the opposition, much like last season. The Rockets don’t have any true game-breakers, but they should have plenty of 20- to 30-goal scorers.
Noteworthy: No fewer than 18 players are projected to return from last season’s roster. That team set franchise records for most victories and points in a season. . . . Kelowna had 10 players invited to NHL camps this fall.
Did you know: This will be the Rockets’ 20th season in Kelowna since
relocating from Tacoma, Wash., in the summer of 1995.
The prognosis: With a large cast of returning players, especially on the blue line, take Kelowna to win a third consecutive B.C. Division
— DOYLE POTENTEAU/Kelowna The Daily Courier
Last season: 54-13-5; first in U.S. Division, seeded second in Western Conference, lost in WHL final.
Head coach: Jamie Kompon (first season as coach; also is GM).
Assistant coaches: Kyle Gustafson (11th season), Keith McKittrick (first season)
Key losses: F Brendan Leipsic and F Taylor Leier to the AHL; D
Derrick Pouliot and D Mathew Dumba could play in the NHL; D Garrett Haar, F Adam Rossignol and G Corbin Boes graduated; F Adam de Champlain, 20, opted for the AJHL.
The 20-year-olds: Former Prince George D Josha Smith joins
holdover D Josh Hanson, who suffered a broken knuckle in the exhibition season. There is room, then, for one more.
The imports: Danish F Oliver Bjorkstrand returns after scoring 50
goals last season, along with Swedish D Anton Cederholm.
Key returnees: F Nicolas Petan has 233 points over the last two
seasons, and should play on a line with 2015 draft prospect Paul
Bittner and Bjorkstrand. 2014 NHL draftees F Chase De Leo, F Alex Schoenborn, F Keegan Iverson and F Dominic Turgeon also are back, along with D Keoni Texeira and D Layne Viveiros. G Brendan Burke will get another chance to be the clear No. 1 goaltender.
New faces: Minnesota-born D-men Nick Heid and Blake Heinrich have left the NCAA track to come to the WHL. Heinrich starts the season on the shelf (concussion). Forwards Alex Overhardt, Skyler McKenzie and Colton Veloso also could make an impact, along with backup G Adin Hill.
Watch for: Can the Winterhawks make another deep playoff run without an elite defenceman, or will they pull another rabbit out of the hat and land a first-round talent via trade?
Noteworthy: The Winterhawks are aiming to be the first team in WHL
history to play in five consecutive league finals.
Did you know: Portland could have as many as 13 U.S.-born players play for it this season.
The prognosis: Mike Johnston is gone, but the Winterhawks should be dominant offensively yet again. The key is whether or not a defensive group lacking in star power and goalie Burke can keep the puck out of their own net.
— SCOTT SEPICH/Portland-based freelancer
Last season: 48-20-4; third in Western Conference, lost in second round of playoffs.
Head coach: Dave Lowry (third season).
Assistant coach: Enio Sacilotto (fifth season).
Key losses: G Patrik Polivka, 20, has turned pro in his native Czech Republic. D Brett Cote, 20, was traded to Red Deer. F Steven Hodges, 20, was dealt to Tri City. F Ben Walker, F Logan Nelson and D Jordan Fransoo graduated.
The 20-year-olds: F Austin Carroll, F Brandon Magee and D Travis Brown.
The imports: Swedish F Axel Blomqvist is signed by the Winnipeg Jets. Slovakian F Kristian Ferletak was selected in this year's import draft.
Key returnees: Magee led the team in scoring last season but will miss the first 12 games this season due to suspension. F Austin Carroll, hard to budge in front of the net, led the Royals in goals with 34. D Keegan Kanzig, who stands 6-foot-7, has signed with the Calgary Flames. D Joe Hicketts is undersized but highly mobile and hugely under-rated. Brown is another puck-mover. F Tyler Soy, 17, is an emerging scorer. G Coleman Vollrath is the incumbent starter.
Key Rookies: F Dante Hannoun, 16, and F Matthew Campese, 17, could bear watching. Matthew is the son of Prince Albert Raiders GM Bruno Campese.
Watch For: This isn't a squad with much glitter, but it has some true grit. The unsung bunch comprises F Logan Fisher, F Brandon Fushimi, F Taylor Crunk and D Ryan Gagnon.
Noteworthy: The real strength of this team is off the ice with head coach Dave Lowry and GM Cam Hope, the respective 2013-14 WHL coach and executive of the year. Their tight structure managed to squeeze the most out of this blue-collar group last season in setting franchise records for victories (48) and points (100).
Did you know: This is the ninth season in franchise history, the fourth as the Royals after the five as the Chilliwack Bruins.
The prognosis: After the greatest regular season in franchise history, followed by a franchise-first playoff series victory, the Royals will be looking for more this season. While not yet an elite team, the Royals at least look to have the kind of moxie it takes to be a top-four team in the Western Conference.
— CLEVE DHEENSAW/Victoria Times Colonist
Last season: 41-25-6; fourth in Western Conference, lost in second round of playoffs.
Head coach: Steve Konowalchuk (fourth season).
Assistant coaches: Matt O’Dette (second season), Tyler Alos (second season),Ian Gordon (goaltending, second season).
Key losses: F Branden Troock signed with Dallas; F Alex Delnov
signed in KHL; F Roberts Lipsbergs signed in Europe; F Jaimen
Yakubowski traded to Moose Jaw; F Connor Honey to injury.
The 20-year-olds: Seattle has five on its roster – F Justin Hickman, G Taran Kozun, F Sam McKechnie, D Evan Wardley and D Adam Henry – so something has to give.
The imports: F Alexander True (Denmark) and F Florian Baltram
(Austria) were picked in the CHL’s 2014 import draft.
Key returnees: D Shea Theodore (22G, 57A) led the team and WHL
defencemen in scoring; he had been selected by Anaheim in the first round (26th) of the 2013 NHL draft. F Mathew Barzal (14G, 40A) is eligible for the 2015 NHL draft and ranked in the top 10 by most observers. F Ryan Gropp (18G, 24A) also is in his draft year and highly rated; he should play on Barzal’s wing. D Ethan Bear (6G, 13A), another highly rated draft prospect, should improve his offensive numbers.
New faces: The Thunderbirds are high on G Logan Flodell, 17. D Sahvan Khaira is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound 16-year-old; he is the younger brother of former Everett Silvertips F Jujhar Khaira. Speedy F Kaden Elder was taken in the first round of the 2013 bantam draft, while F Nolan Volcan, a second-round pick in 2013, also should make the team.
Watch for: Can Seattle get secondary scoring outside of the Barzal-Gropp line?
Noteworthy: The Thunderbirds have improved each season under Konowalchuk, going from out of playoffs to seventh seed in 2012-13 to fourth seed last season.
Did you know: Barzal has a chance to be the highest drafted
Thunderbirds player since D Thomas Hickey was selected fourth overall in 2007.
The prognosis: Seattle will have an experienced defence, but will be
young, albeit talented, up front. Still should compete for a top-four
seed in the Western Conference.
— ANDREW EIDE/710 ESPN Seattle
Last season: 39-23-10; fifth in Western Conference, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Kevin Constantine (second season).
Assistants: Mitch Love (fourth season); Brennan Sonne (first season); Shane Clifford (goaltending coach, second season).
Key losses: F Joshua Winquist, D Matt Pufahl and F Manraj Hayer graduated. F Jujhar Khaira is off to the professional ranks. That's four of the team's top five scorers.
The 20-year-olds: D Ben Betker is a lock, while F Kohl Bauml also appears safe. F Zane Jones and F Brayden Low likely will battle it out for the third spot.
The imports: Returning Swiss D Mirco Mueller is a question mark as he could make the NHL's San Jose Sharks as a 19-year-old. Russian F Ivan Nikolishin is the team's leading returning scorer.
Key returnees: G Austin Lotz begins his third season as the team's starter. D Kevin Davis and D Noah Juulsen are coming off impressive 16-year-old seasons, and along with Mueller and Betker give Everett a strong group on the blue line. The Tips will be looking for increased offensive production from Nikolishin, F Carson Stadnyk and whichever overage forwards stick.
New faces: D Carter Cochrane joins the team full-time following an impressive season in the BCHL. F Graham Millar arrived in an offseason trade with Saskatoon.
Watch for: Everett to be challenged to score goals now that Winquist, who was at the centre of everything the Tips did offensively, is gone.
Just notes: Lotz shed 23 pounds during the offseason to prepare himself for a heavy workload this season.
Did you know? For the second straight season Everett has a guarantee out to season-ticket holders. If the Tips don't finish at least fourth in the Western Conference, season-ticket holders get a $100 credit toward 2015-16.
The prognosis: Everett took a big leap forward last season, getting out of a rut of finishing eighth in the conference for three straight years. The foundation is there as the Tips are strong and experienced on defence and in goal. But will Everett be able to score goals? Without some offensive breakthroughs the Tips will be hard-pressed to finish higher than they did last season.
— NICK PATTERSON/Everett Herald
Last season: 40-26-; sixth in Western Conference, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Don Nachbaur (fifth season)
Assistant coach: Scott Burt (second season).
Key losses: F Mitch Holmberg (WHL scoring champion with 62 goals, 118 points), F Mike Aviani (38 goals, 81 points) and G Eric Williams (33-19-4) graduated. Captain D Reid Gow (56 assists) and D Jeremy McIntosh chose not to return. F Carter Proft signed in Germany. D Cole Wedman was traded to Moose Jaw. F Adam Hascic returned to Slovakia.
The 20-year-olds: F Connor Chartier (14 goals, 32 points); F Liam Stewart (seven goals, 21 assists in injury-plagued season); F Marcus Messier (31 total points), a late-season acquisition from Tri-City.
The imports: Austrian F Dominic Zwerger (16 goals, 10 assists); D Tamas Laday (6-foot-7, 212 pounds) of Hungary was selected in the CHL import draft.
Key returnees: D Jason Fram (51 assists); F Adam Helewka (23 goals, 50 points); F Riley Whittingham (13 goals, 32 points); D Colton Bobyk.
New faces: G Alex Moodie was acquired from Saskatoon. F Kailer Yamamoto was signed and joins his sophomore brother Keanu (11 goals, 25 points).
Watch for: The goalie battle between Moodie and Garret Hughson, last year's backup; the emergence of young defencemen; a favourable early schedule with nine of the first 14 games at home.
Just notes: Spokane dashed out to a 10-2 record last year and finished 14-4 against the B.C. Division and 10-4-2 against the Eastern Conference.
Did you know? The Chiefs have lost 16 consecutive games to U.S. Division rival Portland.
The prognosis: This could be a long season for the Chiefs, who lost a big chunk of their offensive power, veteran leadership on defence and their top goaltender. New blood will have to rise to the challenge.
— CHRIS DERRICK/Spokane Spokesman-Review
Last season: 32-29-11; third in B.C. Division, seventh in Western Conference, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Troy Ward (first season.)
Assistant coaches: Matt Erhart (second season), Yogi Svejkovsky (eighth season), Eli Wilson (goalie coach, second season).
Key losses: F Cain Franson, F Tim Traber and D Dalton Thrower graduated. D Brett Kulak is expected to play pro in Calgary's system.
The 20-year-olds: F Dalton Sward, F Joel Hamilton and F Matt Bellerive.
The imports: D Dmitry Osipov, a Russian who was the first overall pick in the 2013 CHL import draft, returns for second season. F Vladimir Bobylev, a Russian, is a 17-year-old freshman.
Key returnees: F Carter Popoff was Vancouver's leader in points last season, with 64. F Jackson Houck was tops in goals, with 34. D Mason Geertsen played significant minutes.
New faces: F Tyler Benson was the first overall pick in the 2013 bantam draft. He's been superb through the preseason, showing a savvy two-way game. D Clayton Kirichenko came over from Saskatoon for a pair of draft picks.
Watch for: F Alec Baer and D Arvin Atwal to have breakthrough seasons, considering how well they performed in the preseason.
Noteworthy: F Ty Ronning suffered a broken collarbone in preseason and is expected to miss at least the first four weeks, if not more, of the regular season. . . . Ward, the former head coach of the AHL's Abbotsford Heat, is promising a more offensive, puck-possession approach than the Giants had under Don Hay, who guided them for 10 seasons but was let out of the last year of his contract to take a gig with the Kamloops Blazers.
Did you know: The Giants are bidding to play host to the 2016 Memorial Cup, as are the Red Deer Rebels.
The prognosis: There's much to figure out. How will Ward handle juniors? Will his scheme work? How will Benson do? Vancouver, led by young talent, should make the playoffs, though.
— STEVE EWEN/Vancouver Province
Last season: 29-33-10; eighth in Western Conference, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Mike Williamson (first season).
Assistant coaches: Brian Pellerin (first season), Lyle Mast (goaltending coach, third season).
Key losses: D Mitch Topping, last year’s captain; F Phil Tot (15 goals in 51 games); F Jessey Astles, who kept everyone in line.
The 20-year-olds: D Justin Hamonic, who was named team captain. Speedy F Lucas Nickles, who had four shorthanded goals last season. F Jackson Playfair, acquired from Spokane at trade deadline. F Steven Hodges, acquired in an offseason trade with Victoria, is at Florida Panthers camp and not likely to return.
The imports: Russian forwards Vladislav Lukin and Semyon Krasheninnikov, both 17 and acquired in the 2014 CHL import draft.
Key returnees: G Eric Comrie, who finished second in the WHL last season with a .925 save percentage. F Brian Williams, who led the team with 36 goals and 56 points. Hamonic, one of the top stay-at-home back-enders in the Western Conference.
New faces: F Maxwell James, who can score and punish opponents. F Zach Andrusiak, who had 36 goals with 52 assists last year at PoE.
Watch for: Comrie and the defence to keep the team in games until the scoring comes around. Hamonic, Parker Wotherspoon, Brandon Carlo, Riley Hillis and Josh Thrower all return on the blue line.
Noteworthy: The Americans look to have one of the top goaltending tandems in the league in Comrie and Evan Sarthou, who played for the United States U-18 team that finished third at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in August.
Did you know: Comrie broke Aaron Baker’s single-season franchise save record with 1,849. Baker had 1,825 saves in 1997-98.
The prognosis: New coach, new game plan, renewed energy throughout the team. Look for the Americans to improve on last season’s eighth-place finish in the Western Conference and get past the first round in the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
— ANNIE FOWLER/Tri-City Herald
Last season: 27-37-8; ninth in Western Conference, missed playoffs.
Head coach: Mark Holick (third season).
Assistants: Michael Hengen (first season), Roman Vopat (first season), Brent Arsenault (educational assistant, 10th season), Justin Cardinal (goaltending consultant, second season).
Key losses: F Todd Fiddler (50G, 98P), graduated; F Troy Bourke (29G, 85P, going pro with Colorado); F Zach Pochiro (27G, 66P, in St. Louis’ system); F Klarc Wilson (27G, 60P, graduated); G Brett Zarowny (chose not to return); F Alex Forsberg (traded to Saskatoon); F Jordan Tkatch (traded to Prince Albert).
The 20-year-olds: F Jari Erricson (missed all but four games with a concussion); F Chance Braid (seven goals, 24 points with Prince Albert); D Wil Tomchuk (six assists in 51 games split between Tri-City and Prince George).
The imports: F David Soltes of Slovakia (four goals, five points in 15 games before knee injury); D Martin Bobos of Slovakia (seven assists, 67 games).
Key returnees: F Jansen Harkins (10G, 34P as 16-year-old); F Chase Witala (18G, 32P in 43 games); D Marc McNulty (17G, 42P, drafted by Detroit in sixth round, 2013); G Ty Edmonds (3.85 GAA, 19-19-6).
New faces: Braid (acquired from Prince Albert); F Haydn Hopkins (acquired from Saskatoon); F Lance Yaremchuk (acquired from Prince Albert); F Cody McAuley (Sherwood Park midget AAA); D Josh Anderson (South Island major midget).
Watch for: Harkins to emerge as an NHL prospect (the son of new Cougars GM Todd Harkins helped Canada win gold at Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament); Erricson to stay healthy and become a dominant winger; Edmonds to show the benefits of playing 55 games with the Cats last season as a freshman.
Just notes: The Cougars have not had a winning season since 2006-07 and have missed the postseason in five of the past seven years. Since the franchise moved to P.G. from Victoria in 1994, the team has advanced just twice to the third playoff round (1997 and 2007).
Did you know: The Cougars averaged just 1,693 fans in 2013-14 (lowest in WHL). New ownership group, which includes NHL defencemen Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis, dubs its marketing strategy the New Ice Age and has the city excited about the team again after years of indifference.
Prognosis: Young defence is a big question mark but should have adequate scoring, toughness and goaltending. Bigger crowds at CN Centre would bring fun back into the building and should be worth at least an extra goal per game for the Cats. They will make the playoffs.
— TED CLARKE/Prince George Citizen
Last season: 14-53-2-3, last in 10-team Western Conference.
Head coach: Don Hay (first season).
Associate coach: Mark Ferner (second season).
Assistant coaches: Dan De Palma (goaltending, sixth season), Mike Needham (skills, fourth season).
Key losses: D Sam Grist graduated. Swiss D Edson Harlacher stayed home.
The 20-year-olds: D Brady Gaudet, who was traded to the Red Deer Rebels on Oct. 21, 2012, and reacquired over the summer; G Bolton Pouliot, another acquisition from Red Deer; F Chase Souto, a Californian entering his fifth season, went home early in camp with concussion issues left over from last season. His career is in doubt.
The imports: Swiss D Michael Fora, who turns 19 on Oct. 30, and Slovakian D Patrik Maier, who will be 18 on Nov. 6, were selected in the 2014 CHL import draft.
Key returnees: Pouliot, the No. 1 goaltender. Ryan Rehill, a big horse and a minute-eater, and Josh Connolly, a gambler, on the back end. F Matt Revel, F Matt Needham and F Cole Ully, who have to score. Injuries limited Needham to 42 games and 35 points last season. F Collin Shirley, acquired from the Kootenay Ice last season, has to be better than 27 points.
New faces: F Jake Kryski, the 13th overall pick in the 2013 bantam draft, and F Quinn Benjafield, the 19th pick in that draft. Kryski, from Vancouver, was acquired from the Prince Albert Raiders during the summer of 2013. Benjafield is from North Vancouver.
Watch for: Ully to continue to show that he is one of the WHL’s best forwards. . . . Rehill to bang his way into the psyches of opposing forwards.
Noteworthy: Hay last coached the Blazers in 1994-95 when they won their third Memorial Cup in four seasons. He spent the past 10 seasons as head coach of the Vancouver Giants.
Did you know: The forwards on this season’s roster accounted for 86 WHL goals last season, with Ully scoring 30 of those.
The prognosis: The Blazers are coming off the worst season in franchise history. They’ll be better, but it’ll be an uphill struggle to make the playoffs.
— GREGG DRINNAN/Taking Note (

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