With Brandon and Moose Jaw locking horns on Thursday night, the WHL season is officially underway. On Tuesday's show we ran through the entire league with the help of play-by-play voices Corey Graham (Edmonton) and Dan Elliott (Vancouver). Based on those discussions and my own preconceived thoughts, I'm ready to throw out my predictions for the 2011-12 campaign.
Remembering that 12 months ago I boldly predicted that the WHL Champion Kootenay Ice wouldn't even make the playoffs last year... maybe I shouldn't even be doing this but what the hell. I should point out that this is only my prediction and doesn't reflect what Dean's predictions might be.
1. Moose Jaw Warriors - Until very recently I thought that the Warriors might have to do without star Quinton Howden but I'm told that he's been banged up at Florida camp so I find it hard to believe he can stick without being able to play in the pre-season. Assuming Howden is back, the Warriors are my top team in the East. I think Moose Jaw's blueline group is very impressive, top 3 in the entire league, and capable of hiding an average goaltender and that might come into play this year. Deven Dubyk is OK but there's a reason that he's never been a starter in the league so I'm not 100% sold just yet. I'd suggest having a brand new coach might work against immediate success but it didn't seem to hurt Kris Knoblauch and the Ice last year. With no crushed can, maybe it's the end of the post season drought as well.
2. Edmonton Oil Kings - Before the "homer" calls start, let me ask you to name a team in the WHL that has a better defensive group, there might be one, perhaps two. With Mark Pysyk, Keegan Lowe, Martin Gernat and Griffin Reinhart in the top 4, the Kings have a pretty imposing bunch. I like Edmonton's depth, especially the top two lines with guys like Dylan Wruck, Michael St. Croix, Kristians Pelss and rookie Curtis Lazar. Scoring shouldn't be an issue, defensively they will be excellent but as usual, goaltending is my biggest question mark. Laurent Brossoit has the potential but hasn't reached it yet. The expected loss of Travis Ewanyk will be significant but probably not season-long with a return in late February that would be excellent timing.
3. Red Deer Rebels - Like Moose Jaw, so much is riding on the potential return of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Personally, I think the Rebels do eventually get him back but it won't be until November and then he'll be gone for the WJC. Without RNH, this team ends up 3 or 4 positions lower than this. I thought last year the Rebels were an average team made much better because of unreal netminding from Darcy Kuemper who is no longer around. Import Patrik Bartosak has been good but it's probably unfair to expect an import to be excellent in his first year in the WHL so I won't be surprised by hot and cold streaks. That said, Alex Petrovic and Matt Dumba will still make it hard on the opposition.
4. Kootenay Ice - They lose a lot from last year including defenceman James Martin who is now headed to the AHL after signing with Calgary. BUT... Nathan Lieuwen is back and I'm willing to bet that the Max and Sam Reinhart duo will be an offensive punch to watch for. I like the hardworking character guys like Jesse Ismond and Joe Antilla plus Oiler pick Drew Czerwonka could be a force if he can stay healthy this year. I can't possibly be underrating Kootenay this year can I?
5. Prince Albert Raiders - This could shape up to be the best season in Northern Saskatchewan since 2004-05 when the club was led by Kyle Chipchura, Jeremy Colliton and Aki Seitsonen with Rejean Beauchemin in net. The Raiders return their top 4 leading scorers including 45-goal man Jonathan Parker and 1st round NHL selection Mark McNeil. I think Brandon Herrod is an underrated player in the league and will be an exceptional 20-year-old. Rookie Mike Winther will be one to watch for as well. Defence may just be better than average without Dech and Button but they do get back several experienced players. NHL clubs passed over Eric Williams but he's a decent junior goalie who could elevate his game this year. P.A. could be a real dark horse club.
6. Medicine Hat Tigers - Without WHL leading scorer Linden Vey, Tyler Pitlick and Wacey Hamilton, the Tigers have to take a step back this year. Emerson Etem isn't a guarantee to return from Anaheim but assuming he does, the offensive workload will fall to him, Kellen Tochkin and 2013 eligible Hunter Shinkaruk. They bring in an 18-year-old import named Adam Rehak who looked good during the preseason tournament in Edmonton and young Jayden Hart also impressed. On the blueline, a defensively strong unit loses Jace Coyle and Thomas Carr but still should be decent. The strength of the club will be in net with Tyler Bunz but I wonder if he lasts the season as a Tiger. He could be a huge trade chip for Medicine Hat at the deadline looking to reload for the future by dealing Bunz who is surely in his final year in the league.
7. Brandon Wheat Kings - No one really knew what to expect from the Wheaties last year after hosting the Memorial Cup the May before. Mark Stone won't catch anyone by surprise this year after scoring 106 points in 2010-11 and getting an invite to Canada's summer U20 camp. Michael Ferland, Brenden Walker and new Swiss import Alessio Bertaggia are his main offensive supports. The blueline is young but Ryan Pulock is worth keeping an eye on for the 2013 NHL Draft. Big question marks in net for me though as both Liam Liston and Corbin Boes were extremely inconsistent last season.
8. Saskatoon Blades - The team that was built to win the Memorial Cup last year failed to do so but will still have the down year that Calgary and Brandon felt a year ago. Brayden Schenn, Curtis Hamilton, Steven Stanford, Teighan Zahn, Marek Viedensky and Stefan Elliot are all gone and really won't be replaced this year. Yes Josh Nicholls is back and so is Duncan Siemens but a drop in the standings is inevitable in my opinion. Darren Dietz looks promising. Still good enough to make the playoffs I think but a lot will depend on import Russian netminder Andrey Makarov because if he falters, Adam Morrison is the alternative and he's no team's plan A.
9. Calgary Hitmen - The outlook for the Hitmen got a lot better on Wednesday when Victor Rask was sent back to them from the Carolina Hurricanes. Calgary can't be worse than dead last and I have a lot of respect for Kelly Kisio as a GM so I think the Hitmen could actually challenge for a playoff spot as long as guys like Jimmy Bubnick and Cody Sylvester bounce back from down years. The addition of Rask and Russian Alex Gogolev will be key to the attack plus rookie Greg Chase has size, competes and can contribute offensively. I have a feeling that Jaynen Rissling will surprise and see his draft stock rise all year long.
10. Regina Pats - If Jordan Eberle and Colten Teubert couldn't get the Pats to the playoffs in their final WHL year I don't know how Jordan Weal and Brandon Davidson can. The bigger question to me is if the Pats will move those guys, and GArret Mitchell, at the deadline or hold fast like they did with both Eberle and Teubert instead of collecting huge return assets to build for the future. I will be interested to see Morgan Klimchuk, Chandler Stephenson and import rookie Dominik Volek in action though. Huge questions in goal as unproven Matt Hewitt assumes the starter's job. I see Regina this year much like Swift Current was last season; average until the deadline then on a slide down the standings once the big names are traded away.
11. Lethbridge Hurricanes - I see the 'Canes this year much like I did Kootenay last year, which might be a good thing if you are a Lethbridge fan, all things considered. The Hurricanes just don't do anything for me. Guys like Cam Braes and Austin Fyten are fine players but I'm not sure if they are more than 2nd liners on a good team. Brandon Anderson is, maybe, a slightly better than average goalie but his best season statistically saw him post a .892 SV% and 3.49 GAA.
12. Swift Current Broncos - Brad Hoban, Taylor Vause, Adam Lowry... and not much else up front. People who know me know that I like Vause, he can play on my team any time and therefore I think he'll have trade value and won't last the year as a Bronco. Adam Lowry looked much better to me this year than at any time I saw him in person last season. I'm hoping for much better for Reece Scarlett than the end result was last year; I think he was exhausted by the time the schedule ran out. The goalie situation is left vulnerable as Norwegian import Steffen Soberg left the team early in the preseason and hasn't returned.
1. Moose Jaw
2. Prince Albert
6. Swift Current
2. Red Deer
4. Medicine Hat