Thursday, 18 September 2014

WHL Western Conference Preview

Calgary, AB – The Western Hockey League’s 49th season begins on Friday, September 19th, as fans gear up for another exciting winter of WHL hockey.

The Portland Winterhawks have been the class of the WHL’s Western Conference for four years running, having represented the Western Conference in the WHL Championship series in each of the last four campaigns. Do the Winterhawks have what it takes to make it five in a row? Will the Kelowna Rockets be able to repeat their franchise record-setting campaign from a year ago? Can the Victoria Royals and Seattle Thunderbirds continue to build on last year’s success? Or, will another team rise up to claim the title of Best in the West?

The WHL’s Western Conference is loaded with high-caliber talent. From veteran stars like Tri-City Americans goaltender Eric Comrie and Portland Winterhawks’ dynamic duo of Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nicolas Petan to top NHL Draft prospects like Seattle’s Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp, Prince George’s Jansen Harkins and Kelowna’s Nick Merkley, the talent runs deep in the West.

Here’s a look at the WHL Western Conference:

B.C. Division

Kamloops Blazers
General Manager: Craig Bonner
Head Coach: Don Hay
2014 pre-season: 5gp, 4-1-0-0
2013-14 Record: 14-53-2-3, 33pts (5th in B.C. Div., 10th in Western Conf.) GF: 175  GA: 305
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 15.9% (22nd); PK: 72.1% (21st)
2014 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Cole Ully                      69gp-30g-42a-72pts
Matt Revel                    73gp-15g-30a-45pts
Josh Connolly               72gp-11g-34a-45pts
With Don Hay back behind their bench for the first time since the 1994-95 season, the Kamloops Blazers look to turn their fortunes around after a tough 2013-14 campaign.  19-year-old Dallas Stars prospect Cole Ully will once again be the focal point of the Blazers’ offense.  Coming off a 30-goal, 72-point season last year, Ully will need to be equally good or better if the Blazers want to climb the standings.  Veterans Matt Needham, Matt Revel and Collin Shirley will also need to contribute offense for Kamloops, while 17-year-old Nick Chyzowski should take a step forward in his development.  Defensively, 20-year-old Brady Gaudet returns to the team that drafted him and will lead the Blazers’ blue line.  Veteran Josh Connolly can provide plenty of offense from the point while physical and strong Ryan Rehill will have to keep things organized in the defensive zone.  20-year-old goaltender Bolton Pouliot looks to be the Blazers’ No. 1 netminder.  With 85 games of WHL experience under his belt, Pouliot will provide a stable presence in net.
Player to Watch: Nick Chyzowski
The 17-year-old from Kamloops, B.C., enters his second season in the WHL looking to make a much bigger impact for his hometown team.  Drafted in the second round, 44th overall, by the Blazers in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Chyzowski has always had strong offensive talent and the ability to score goals.  Though he managed just three goals as a rookie last year, expect him to increase that number with more responsibility as a sophomore.  Playing under Don Hay, Chyzowski also expects to continue to focus on playing a strong defensive game and being responsible in his own end.


Kelowna Rockets
General Manager: Bruce Hamilton
Head Coach: Dan Lambert
2014 pre-season: 6gp, 2-4-0-0
2013-14 Record: 57-11-0-4, 118pts (1st in B.C. Div., 1st in Western Conf.) GF: 310  GA: 182
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 22.1% (9th); PK: 86.2% (1st)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in five games to Portland in Western Conference Championship series
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Myles Bell                    69gp-42g-35a-77pts
Ryan Olsen                  71gp-30g-34a-64pts
Damon Severson          64gp-15g-46a-61pts

With new head coach Dan Lambert behind the bench, the reigning regular-season WHL Champions return most of their top players that helped them to a franchise-record 57 wins last season.  Though they lose their top two scoring forwards, Ryan Olsen and Myles Bell, the Rockets return several forwards who should be able to keep them among the WHL’s offensive powers.  2013-14 Rookie of the Year Nick Merkley looks to build on the 25 goals and 58 points he put up as a 16-year-old while Tyson Baillie, Justin Kirkland and Rourke Chartier should be able to contribute to the offense.  Captain Madison Bowey will lead a strong defence corps that gave up the second-fewest number of goals in the WHL last year.  Bowey and Riley Stadel are both strong in the offensive zone while players like Mitchell Wheaton, Dalton Yorke and Cole Martin add depth in the defensive zone.  19-year-old Jackson Whistle will take over the starting netminder job with the graduation of Jordon Cooke.  Whistle has posted 33 wins in 43 games over the past two seasons with the Rockets.    

Player to Watch: Nick Merkley
A 17-year-old product of Calgary, AB, Merkley enjoyed a tremendous rookie campaign in 2013-14, netting 25 goals, 58 points and claiming WHL Rookie of the Year honors.  On a team that boasted strong offensive depth, Merkley played his way into a key offensive role at a young age.  The 5’10”, 187-lb forward possesses excellent offensive skills, vision and skating ability, and is equally a threat as a playmaker and a goal scorer.  Having helped Canada’s Under-18 team to a Gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in August, Merkley now enters his NHL draft-eligible season with plenty of eyes directed his way.  Expect Merkley to build on his solid rookie season and emerge as one of the WHL’s top offensive stars.


Prince George Cougars
General Manager: Todd Harkins
Head Coach: Mark Holick
2014 pre-season: 5gp, 3-0-2-0
2013-14 Record: 27-37-3-5, 62pts (4th in B.C. Div., 9th in Western Conf.) GF: 238  GA: 305
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 17.7% (21st); PK: 75.5% (17th)
2014 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Todd Fiddler                 66gp-50g-48a-98pts
Troy Bourke                 69gp-29g-56a-85pts
Zach Pochiro                63gp-27g-39a-66pts
After an off-season that brought many organizational changes, the Cougars welcome a new Ice Age to begin the 2014-15 season.  Up front, the Cougars will look to 17-year-old Jansen Harkins to take on a big role in the offense.  The talented pivot put up 34 points as a rookie in 2013-14, and will be counted on to up that total this season.  Sophomore Adam Morrison and veteran Chase Witala will also be key players in the Cougars’ attack while 20-year-old Chance Braid will need to provide good leadership to a young group.  Towering Detroit Red Wings prospect Marc McNulty heads up a group of seven potential returnees on the Cougars’ blue line.  McNulty led the defence corps with 17 goals and 42 points last year.  6’6”, 240-lb Martin Bobos also returns as do veterans Joseph Carvalho, Raymond Grewal and Wil Tomchuk.  Rookie Josh Anderson has the makings of a strong shutdown defender.  18-year-old Ty Edmonds returns as the Cougars’ No. 1 netminder.  He’ll be looking to make a strong impression on NHL scouts after being passed over in the 2014 NHL Draft.

Player to Watch: Jansen Harkins
The son of Cougars’ general manager Todd Harkins, Jansen Harkins is coming off a successful rookie season last year that saw him net 10 goals and 34 points in 61 games.  The second overall pick of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft also suited up for Team Pacific in the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and helped Canada’s Under-18 team win Gold at the 2014 Memorial for Ivan Hlinka tournament in August.  An intelligent and skilled player, Harkins has all the tools to become a dominant player in the WHL.  Eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, expect Harkins to receive a lot of attention as the 2014-15 season goes along.


Vancouver Giants
General Manager: Scott Bonner
Head Coach: Troy Ward
2014 pre-season: 6gp, 3-2-0-1
2013-14 Record: 32-29-7-4, 75pts (3rd in B.C. Div., 7th in Western Conf.) GF: 234  GA: 248
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 24.2% (5th); PK: 80.4% (9th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Portland in first round
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Carter Popoff                72gp-13g-51a-64pts
Cain Franson                66gp-30g-33a-63pts
Jackson Houck             69gp-34g-27a-61pts

Under the guidance of new head coach Troy Ward, the Giants look to build off the momentum they gained after making it back to the WHL playoffs last year.  Veterans Jackson Houck, Carter Popoff and Dalton Sward head up the Giants’ offense.  Houck and Popoff will look for big offensive campaigns in their 19-year-old seasons.  Additionally, the Giants re-acquired Matt Bellerive, who should contribute scoring as well.  Young star Tyler Benson will make his full-time debut, and could step into a big offensive role immediately.  Veterans Mason Geertsen, Arvin Atwal and Tyler Morrison return to head up a Giants’ defence corps that lost key veterans Brett Kulak and Dalton Thrower from last year’s lineup.  Russian sophomore Dmitry Osipov expects to contribute much more as he heads into his NHL Draft-eligible season.  18-year-old Payton Lee returns as the Giants’ starting netminder.  Lee posted 19 wins in 47 games last season.
Player to Watch: Tyler Benson
The first overall pick from the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Benson comes into his first full season in the WHL with big expectations.  The 6’0”, 190-lb left wing piled up 37 goals and 95 points in 49 games for the Kelowna Pursuit of Excellence Midget Prep team last year and also helped Team Alberta win a Gold medal at the 2013 Western Canada Under-16 Challenge Cup.  In addition, Benson suited up for seven games for the Giants as a 15-year-old.  With great speed, strength and skill at his disposal, Benson will have every opportunity to take on a key role in Vancouver’s offense in his first season in the WHL.


Victoria Royals
General Manager: Cameron Hope
Head Coach: Dave Lowry
2014 pre-season: 7gp, 2-3-2-0
2013-14 Record: 48-20-1-3, 100pts (2nd in B.C. Div., 3rd in Western Conf.) GF: 238  GA: 181
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 20.5% (13th); PK: 81.3% (T-6th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in five games to Portland in second round
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Brandon Magee            65gp-25g-42a-67pts
Austin Carroll                70gp-34g-23a-57pts
Alex Blomqvist             65gp-24g-32a-56pts

The Victoria Royals enter the 2014-15 season having enjoyed their best WHL campaign in franchise history last year, setting Club records for wins and points, and making it to the second round of the WHL playoffs.  With plenty of talent returning, the Royals aim to remain at the top of the B.C. Division.  Up front, the Royals could return four of their top six scorers from last season, including feisty Brandon Magee, and big power forwards Austin Carroll and Axel Blomqvist.  All three will be counted on for consistent offense and leadership.  17-year-old Tyler Soy impressed in his rookie season last year, and is a good bet for a much bigger role in the attack.  Travis Brown will head up a defence corps that allowed the second-fewest number of goals in the WHL last year.  Brown gives the Royals a potent weapon in the offensive zone.  Joe Hicketts will look to put last year’s injury woes behind him while Keegan Kanzig and Ryan Gagnon add toughness and defensive strength to the blue line.  19-year-old Coleman Vollrath takes over the top job in the Royals’ goal after posting 20 wins and a WHL-best .928 save percentage in 34 games last year.

Player to Watch: Tyler Soy
A 17-year-old native of Cloverdale, B.C., Soy is coming off a strong rookie campaign last year where he scored 15 goals and 30 points in 65 games.  The 5’11”, 172-lb centre also played for Team West in the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and helped Canada’s Under-18 squad take home a Gold medal in the 2014 Memorial for Ivan Hlinka tournament in August.  A highly skilled, speedy and hard-working forward, Soy will step into a larger role in Victoria this season and should help offset the loss of veterans like Logan Nelson and Ben Walker.  Expect the 2015 NHL Draft-eligible Soy to be a solid offensive contributor for the Royals this season.

U.S. Division

Everett Silvertips
General Manager: Garry Davidson
Head Coach: Kevin Constantine
2014 pre-season: 7gp, 5-2-0-0
2013-14 Record: 39-23-7-3, 88pts (3rd in U.S. Div., 5th in Western Conf.) GF: 218  GA: 206
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 21.1% (10th); PK: 79.2% (12th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in five games to Seattle in first round
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Josh Winquist               67gp-47g-46a-93pts
Ivan Nikolishin              72gp-18g-41a-59pts
Matt Pufahl                   62gp-15g-35a-50pts

The Everett Silvertips enter the 2014-15 season looking to remain in the top half of the WHL Western Conference standings.  However, the loss of some key veterans means they will have to rely on others to step up.  The ‘Tips return just one of their top five point getters from last season, with 18-year-old Ivan Nikolishin looking to build on his 59-point rookie campaign.  Forwards like Tyler Sandhu, Carson Stadnyk and Dawson Leedahl will need to fill key roles up front this season while sophomores such as Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne look for more responsibility as well.  Ben Betker will anchor a defence corps that will be relatively young.  The 6’6”, 220-lb Betker plays a strong, tough defensive game, and should help keep things stable in the defensive zone.  Top 2015 NHL Draft prospect Noah Juulsen can expect an expanded role this season while fellow 17-year-olds Kevin Davies and Jordan Wharrie can also contribute more.  If San Jose Sharks prospect Mirco Mueller returns, he will greatly boost the ‘Tips’ defence corps.  Veteran netminder Austin Lotz returns, providing a steady presence in the ‘Tips’ goal.

Player to Watch: Noah Juulsen
The 17-year-old rearguard from Abbotsford, B.C., enjoyed a good season last year for the Silvertips, posting two goals and 10 points with a solid +12 in 59 games as a rookie.  The 6’1”, 180-lb defender also played for Team Pacific in the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge as well as attending the selection camp for Canada’s Under-18 team in the summer.  A smooth-skating defenceman with good skill, passing ability and solid defensive acumen, Juulsen has the makings of a strong two-way defenceman.  One of 19 WHL players on NHL Central Scouting’s Futures list for the 2015 NHL Draft, expect Juulsen to play important minutes for the ‘Tips over the course of this season.


Portland Winterhawks
General Manager / Head Coach: Jamie Kompon
2014 pre-season: 5gp, 4-1-0-0
2013-14 Record: 54-13-2-3, 113pts (1st in U.S. Div., 2nd in Western Conf.) GF: 338  GA: 207
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 27.5% (1st); PK: 81.9% (4th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in seven games to Edmonton in WHL Championship series
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Nicolas Petan               63gp-35g-78a-113pts
Oliver Bjorkstrand         69gp-50g-59a-109pts
Brendan Leipsic                        60gp-39g-52a-91pts
The Portland Winterhawks enter the 2014-15 WHL season as four-time defending Western Conference champions.  Despite losing significant contributors from last year’s U.S. Division-winning side, the Hawks still return plenty of elite talent.  Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan highlight what should be a dangerous Hawks offense.  Bjorkstrand and Petan will again likely be in the running for the WHL scoring title.  Also back are Chase De Leo, Paul Bittner and Keegan Iverson, who round out a deep top-six.  Look for Alex Schoenborn and Dominic Turgeon to see increased responsibility as well.  On the back end, the Hawks lose key players like Derrick Pouliot, Garrett Haar and Matt Dumba.  However, look for 19-year-olds Blake Heinrich and Anton Cederholm to log big minutes and help move the puck to the team’s talented forwards.  Sophomore Keoni Texeira will also be expected to step into a bigger role this season.  Brendan Burke returns as the Hawks’ starting netminder.  The 19-year-old enjoyed a strong regular season, but would like to bounce back after struggling in the later rounds of the 2014 WHL playoffs.
Player to Watch: Paul Bittner
Bittner, a product of Crookston, MN, enters his third season in the WHL with the Winterhawks looking to take on a key role up front.  The 6’4”, 202-lb winger scored 22 goals and 49 points last year, but should be able to better those totals while playing alongside the likes of Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand this season.  A big-bodied, strong power forward, Bittner doesn’t shy away from going to the tough areas of the ice to score.  Add in his strong skating and skill, and it’s no wonder Bittner is considered a top prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Expect Bittner to play a key role for the Winterhawks in their quest for yet another dominating season in the U.S. Division.


Seattle Thunderbirds
General Manager: Russ Farwell
Head Coach: Steve Konowalchuk
2014 pre-season: 7gp, 3-4-0-0
2013-14 Record: 41-25-2-4, 88pts (2nd in U.S. Div., 4th in Western Conf.) GF: 238  GA: 249
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 20.5% (T-13th); PK: 79.0% (13th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Kelowna in second round
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Shea Theodore             70gp-22g-57a-79pts
Alexander Delnov          71gp-29g-34a-63pts
Branden Troock                        58gp-24g-34a-58pts

The Seattle Thunderbirds enjoyed one of their most successful regular-season campaigns in several years last year, finishing among the top four in the WHL Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.  With a handful of budding stars, the T-Birds will look to build on their success.  Look for sophomores Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp to factor heavily into the T-Birds’ offense.  Both are considered top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Veteran Justin Hickman brings leadership and secondary offense to what is a young group up front, while second-year forward Keegan Kolesar looks to take on a bigger role.  Anaheim Ducks’ prospect Shea Theodore is back after putting up a 79-point season on the blue line last year.  He should again be among the top-scoring defencemen in the WHL.  Sophomore Ethan Bear, also a top prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, can expect to shoulder a heavier workload.  Veterans Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith and Kevin Wolf add depth and experience to a very strong T-Birds’ defence corps.  20-year-old goaltender Taran Kozun impressed last season when he was acquired from Kamloops at the trade deadline.  If he can replicate that success this season, the T-Birds will be strong in the crease.
Player to Watch: Ryan Gropp
The Thunderbirds’ first-round pick, sixth overall, in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Gropp joined the Club in late October 2013 and quickly slid into a key offensive role.  The 6’3”, 200-lb winger netted 18 goals and 42 points in 59 games to finish second among the team’s rookies in scoring.  A skilled and smart player with outstanding skating ability and speed, Gropp also boasts a big frame, making him a handful for opposing defenders.  Heading into his NHL Draft-eligible campaign, expect Gropp to take on a large role alongside fellow top draft prospect Mathew Barzal in the T-Birds’ offense.


Spokane Chiefs
General Manager: Tim Speltz
Head Coach: Don Nachbaur
2014 pre-season: 7gp, 2-2-3-0
2013-14 Record: 40-26-3-3, 86pts (4th in U.S. Div., 6th in Western Conf.) GF: 244  GA: 213
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 22.3% (8th); PK: 77.9% (14th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Victoria in first round
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Mitch Holmberg            72gp-62g-56a-118pts
Mike Aviani                   69gp-38g-43a-81pts
Reid Gow                     65gp-6g-56a-62pts

The Spokane Chiefs are coming off a 2013-14 season that saw them hit the 40-win mark for a sixth time in seven years, largely due to the dominating offensive contributions of veterans Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani.  With those two gone, along with the departures of other key veterans, the Chiefs will look to their younger players to take over the leadership of the team.  Up front, the Chiefs need to replace the 100 goals scored by Holmberg and Aviani.  Look for the likes of Adam Helewka, Connor Chartier, Liam Stewart and Riley Whittingham to lead a score-by-committee attack.  Defensively, the Chiefs also lose their veteran leader Reid Gow, who piled up 62 points in 65 games.  19-year-old Jason Fram becomes the elder statesman.  Fram netted 57 points last year, and will need to eat up big minutes at both ends of the ice.  Jeff Rayman, Colton Bobyk and Matt Sozanski all return, but have limited WHL experience.  Evan Fiala, a first-round pick in 2012, is one of a few rookies looking to earn a regular spot on the Chiefs’ blue line.  With veteran starter Eric Williams moving on, the Chiefs look to 19-year-olds Garret Hughson and Alex Moodie to battle for the starting job in goal.  Hughson backed up Williams in each of the last two seasons while Moodie has 56 games of WHL experience from his time with the Saskatoon Blades.

Player to Watch: Adam Helewka
The 19-year-old product of Burnaby, B.C., is coming off a 2013-14 campaign that saw him net 23 goals and 50 points to finish fifth on the team in scoring.  Now in his third season in the WHL, Helewka finds himself thrust into a much bigger role in the Chiefs’ offense with the loss of top scorers Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani.  The 6’1”, 202-lb left wing is the only returning player who topped the 20-goal mark last year, and will be tasked with upping his goal and point totals for a Chiefs’ team that is seeking its next offensive leader.  With top-line minutes at his disposal, expect Helewka to become a focal point in the Chiefs’ attack.


Tri-City Americans
General Manager: Bob Tory
Head Coach: Mike Williamson
2014 pre-season: 8gp, 5-3-0-0
2013-14 Record: 29-33-4-6, 68pts (5th in U.S. Div., 8th in Western Conf.) GF: 178  GA: 224
2013-14 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 18.2% (20th); PK: 81.1% (8th)
2014 Playoffs: Lost in five games to Kelowna in first round
2013-14 Top Scorers:
Brian Williams              72gp-36g-20a-56pts
Beau McCue                 72gp-20g-20a-40pts
Parker Bowles              39gp-15g-25a-40pts

The Americans are coming off a 2013-14 season that saw them fail to hit the 40-win mark for the first time since the 2005-06 campaign.  With many of their veterans returning, and with the expected emergence of some younger talents, the Ams will push for a higher spot in the Western Conference.  Up front, veterans Brian Williams, Parker Bowles, Lucas Nickles and Beau McCue will lead the way.  Williams paced the team with 36 goals last season while Bowles expects to do much more after missing much of last season due to injury.  Expect younger players like Ty Comrie and Braden Purtill to contribute more as well.  Led by 20-year-old captain Justin Hamonic, the Ams could return five regular defenders from last season.  Sophomores Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon are in line for much bigger roles this season as both are considered top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Josh Thrower brings a physical edge to the back end.  In Eric Comrie and Evan Sarthou, the Americans boast a very strong goaltending tandem.  Comrie has proven himself to be one of the WHL’s top goaltenders while Sarthou is a promising young netminder with plenty of potential.
Player to Watch: Brandon Carlo
A product of Colorado Springs, CO, Carlo broke into the WHL last season with three goals and 13 points in 71 games for the Americans.  Standing 6’5” and 185lbs, Carlo strikes an imposing figure on the blue line.  Yet, Carlo isn’t just a big body.  He has the skating ability, puck-moving skills and hockey sense to make an impact in all areas of the ice.  One of three WHL players who will suit up in the 2014 All-American Prospects Game, Carlo is ready to play a large role on the Americans’ blue line this season.

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