Monday, September 10, 2012

WHL Points to Ponder

The 2012-13 regular season begins in 10 days when the Edmonton Oil Kings host the Kootenay Ice at Rexall Place. It's a fitting start to the new season as the banner raising ceremony will be a prelude to the clash between the 2012 champs and the 2011 champs.

While I will have predictions post before the new campaign begins, this is it. Today I'm throwing out some other thoughts as things cross my mind waiting for September 20th. 

1. Has Portland done it again? 

The Winterhawks have been incredibly successful under current ownership and management when it comes to their import recruiting. Nino Niederreiter (NYI) and Sven Bartschi (CGY) were major offensive weapons for the team during their WHL tenure but both Swiss forwards are now gone.

It's obviously very early but the preseason play of Danish forward Oliver Bjorkstrand looks pretty promising. The 5'11, 164 lb winger leads Portland in exhibition scoring with 4 goals and 7 points after four outings. Those 7 points have him tied with two WHL veterans for preseason scoring.

2. Top Goalie in 2012-13

Medicine Hat's Tyler Bunz (EDM) was named the top netminder in the WHL last year but will play professionally this season in the Oilers system. It's the same scenario for Kootenay's Nathan Lieuwen (BUF) and free agent Drew Owsley. Ty Rimmer's relocation to Lethbridge probably won't help his stats this year, he had the top GAA and SV% last season in Tri-City. 

Photo: Murray Mitchell
Laurent Brossoit (CGY) is a top netminder on a top team and so has to be considered the front runner for the honor this year. However, undrafted Cole Cheveldave in Kamloops might have something to say about that. The Blazers were a team to be aware of last year and this season could be even stronger.

Andrey Makarov will be extremely motivated to earn a pro contract and that will be to Saskatoon's benefit. A healthy Patrik Bartosak would have meant a lot to Red Deer last year but it wasn't in the cards - he's back for the Rebels this season. Chris Driedger (OTT) helped the Hitmen to a surprise 3rd place finish in the East last year and is the clear starter now in Calgary. Sophomores Eric Comrie and Brendan Burke will play much more this year and will be key members for Tri-City and Portland who look to reload rather than rebuild power house teams. 

3. Top Goal Scorer in 2012-13

Photo: Aaron Bell
Emerson Etem's (ANH) 61 goals were the most seen in the WHL for more than a decade so it shouldn't be considered a given that anyone comes close to that mark again in 2012-13. However, Portland sniper Ty Rattie (STL) finished with 57 last year so could challenge that mark. But because he's likely going to miss 8 or 9 games because of the World Junior tournament, it might not be reachable. 

The next guy inline to give it a run might be 18-year-old Hunter Shinkaruk in Medicine Hat. Kelly Friesen makes a case for the third year Tiger to do just that but I'm hesitant to suggest he can increasing his goal scoring by 20% without Emerson Etem despite the addition of shifty Miles Koules to the team. 

4. Crowded Blueline in Edmonton

I guess it's a good problem to have but the Oil Kings have a problem with too many WHL caliber defencemen still in camp. Obviously Keegan Lowe (CAR), Griffin Reinhart (NYI), Martin Gernat (EDM), Cody Corbett and Ashton Sautner will be back unless something very unexpected happens like the NHL starts on time and the Islanders hang on to Reinhart.

Photo: Andy Devlin
Beyond those five are five more guys with legitimate claims to a roster spot. Mason Geertsen probably leads the group as a 2010 1st round Bantam pick who dressed half the games last year. Aaron Irving and Dysin Mayo, both '96 born rookies, could play on most teams in the league this year but could be cut. Then there is Ryan Dech, a valuable utility d-man who is captain material but just doesn't play enough (in Edmonton) to get that distinction. Lastly, almost 18-year-old Stephen Shmoorkoff came in to camp and played well enough to get signed. He could go back to the AJHL and play for Sherwood Park again but it would be odd to see the Oil Kings sign a player only to reassign him a week later. 

If the team carries 8 defencemen, two of the above have to either be cut or dealt.

*Edmonton has just reassigned Aaron Irving dropping the number of defencemen still in camp to 9.

5. Who Does Saskatoon Add?

A few weeks back I had Les Lazaruk, the voice of the Saskatoon Blades, on the show and we both agreed that the team as it is today probably isn't good enough to contend for the Memorial Cup. They host the tournament in 2013 but no one wants to lean on that exemption to get there. The Blades right now on paper are probably better than most in the league but you know that GM Lorne Molleken will be trying to add before the deadline on January 10th.

The name that gets mentioned the most is Mark McNeill (CHI) of the P.A. Raiders which would make sense if you went by last season's standings. However, the Raiders should be much better and I doubt they let their marquee player go in a season where they have to make the playoffs.

What about Morgan Rielly? The Warriors might be destined to sell off parts and the Leafs prospect would reap quite the return.

6. NHL CBA Effect

The last time the NHL had a work stoppage the local rink was filled with a stopgap AHL team but they played in front of a crowd that averaged about 5000 strong. This time the defending WHL champions will be the main tenant and I wonder how much bigger the crowds will be than the 6421 the Oil Kings averaged over the course of last season. 

What trickle down effect will the rest of the WHL experience? Will non-NHL locations like Prince George, Kootenay, Prince Albert and Lethbridge benefit at all? 

7. Ryan Murray in Everett

Photo: Jon Howe
He's due to rejoin the Silvertips this week and will reportedly play in Everett this season in the event of a lock out but will Ryan Murray (CLB) be making a mistake by doing so? TSN's Ryan Rishaug raises the question and quotes agent Rick Valette in this story today

It makes me think back to the time last season when we spoke with then GM Doug Soetaert and asked him if he was entertaining thoughts of dealing Murray before the deadline. Soetaert prophetically pointed to the potential of a NHL lockout this year and said Murray would not be dealt because he might be back again in 2012-13. It's almost creepy how dead-on Soetaert's foresight has become this year.    

8. Over/Under for a Samuelsson Suspension

Lastly, and somewhat in jest, a few of us local media types were recently joking about starting a pool based on when Henrik Samuelsson (PHX) will be hit with his first suspension of the season. 

Photo: Andy Devlin
Now I've said it before, I do not think that Samuelsson is a dirty player but he does play hard and physical and that leads to incidents that get the attention of the league. He was slapped three times in the half season he played last year and once more in the playoffs so it's probably not a question of "if" but "when" it will happen this year. 

Put me down for October 27th against Kelowna for the game that leas to Samuelsson's first sit down from the league.  

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