We had our massive WHL Preview show a couple of weeks ago with both Dean Millard and I joined in studio by a couple league broadcasters and on the phone by a third plus a media man in Seattle. Corey Graham or the Oil Kings and Red Deer Rebels voice Cam Moon were kind enough to sit in with us. Then we also spoke with Kamloops Blazers broadcaster Jon Keen and ESPN 710 Seattle's Andy Eide.
I'll refer you to that show, the archive is RIGHT HERE, as I will not be going as in-depth here in the blog but using this as more of a summary to what we discussed that night.
After the jump, my predictions for the West conference and the two teams I'm looking at for the conference finals.
1. Portland Winterhawks - Still arguably the most talented team in the league despite the graduation of Ty Rattie. I think Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan will again lead the league in scoring and Chase De Leo gets into the 80-point range. Youngsters Keegan Iverson and Paul Bittner are keys to the future. Lots of changes on the blueline but I think the Hawks will be fine there. My biggest question mark is in goal with Brendan Burke but you just know that even if he falters, Portland will find a way to shore up the position via trade or NCAA poaching.
2. Kelowna Rockets - It's impossible to imagine the Rockets taking a step back considering they return their entire defence (assuming Damon Severson is sent back) and goaltending tandem from last season. Getting Myles Bell for his overage season is huge and I'm expecting a big year from draft eligible Tyson Baillie as well as Ryan Olson. One of the top coaches in the league, the Rockets are poised for a very big year in my opinion.
3. Tri-City Americans - I'm betting that Connor Rankin builds on his 32-goal season a year ago and that with a healthy Eric Comrie in net, the Americans will get it done once again. This is a team that seems to have success without a lot of star power and this year would be no different, save for Comrie. I think guys like Parker Bowles and Beau McCue can also produce more let alone what a healthy Phil Tot can bring to the team. Brian Williams in his third season could have a breakout year offensively.
4. Victoria Royals - This was my dark horse team last year and I have to admit they kind of underachieved in my opinion. I'll chalk that up to injuries though. This year the Royals could actually push Kelowna for top spot in the BC Division thanks to Brandon Magee, Ben Walker, Steven Hodges and Logan Nelson all with another year under their belt. The blueline tandem of Joe Hicketts and Keegan Kanzig will be key but could be one of the top pairings in the league. Both goalies from last season are back and I think Coleman Vollrath might even push Patrik Polivka for some more playing time.
5. Seattle Thunderbirds - My dark horse team for the 2013-14 season and it all depends on goaltending for the T-Birds. It's an inexperienced 3-headed monster right now which has the potential to be disastrous but could open to the door for a guy to establish himself. The backend is huge and dependable with Shea Theodore and Jesse Forsberg leading Jared Hauf and the rest of the group. Up front, point per game man Connor Honey and talented imports Roberts Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov are joined by phenom Matt Barzal and fellow rookie Keegan Kolesar. Definitely the most improved team from last year and a potential giant slayer in the U.S. Division. (IF they get the goaltending!)
6. Everett Silvertips - If the pre-season means anything, I might be vastly underestimating the Silvertips. Everett went 7-0 in exhibition but I don't know if that will translate to the regular season or not. I like the goaltending in Austin Lotz and Mirco Mueller could be a stud this year on the blueline but they're not as deep as the teams listed above. Tyler Sandu in year two should be pretty good and if Jujhar Khaira ends up in Everett and Manraj Hayer can keep his preseason scoring going too then the 'Tips will have some offensive bite. IF defence-first coach Kevin Constantine lets the reins off more than he did with the team his first time around. The 3 import situation bears watching closely too - they're all keepers but one has to go.
7. Kamloops Blazers - I know. The Blazers lost a ton of their team from last year and it's true. I still think they have some talent on the team, guys who may have been a bit stuck on the depth chart who will now have a chance to shine. I'm looking to Matt Needham and Cole Ully to take a big step froward in their production this year and the club still has Tim Bozon too. Tristan Sieben will get his best opportunity and overaged Tyson Ness can chip in too. The defence doesn't do much for me and if the team needed to bring in Bolton Pouliot via trade then it means they weren't sold on Taran Kozun. I initially had Kamloops higher than this but Jon Keen brought me down to reality when he was on the show.
8. Prince George Cougars - Another club hoping that their pre-season success wasn't just teasing. The 5-0 Cougars scored 25 goals and only allowed 8 against over the last few weeks of play. Rookie Jansen Harkins has impressed as one of the league's top producers, again - in exhibition. Alex Forsberg has ended his self exile but struggled in camp until his 4-point outing against Kamloops in the final tune up game. Troy Bourke should be one to watch this year and undrafted goalie Brett Zarowny is highly motivated. There are lots of reasons to think the Cougars can get back into the playoffs, thus my ranking them here, but the team could also move parts at the deadline and look to the future and fall out.
9. Spokane Chiefs - It feels odd predicting the Chiefs to miss the playoffs but I can't see enough offence in this group to get it done, especially without Brendan Kichton. I fully expect Mitch Holmberg to be the top 20-year-old on the market this year and I'm already on record suggesting Edmonton will be the team to go hard after the Sherwood Park product. Mike Aviani and Liam Stewart are key guys and rookie Keanu Yamamoto has some buzz about him after the preseason. Eric Williams is a veteran in the league but an average netminder.
10. Vancouver Giants - It won't be long before the Giants are back contending for league titles but it's not this year. This is a team with good parts but for the most part, the best players are very young. Jackson Houck is a good player and he's joined this year by 16-year-old Alec Baer and Ty Ronning. Mason Geertsen and Brett Kulak headline an evolving defensive corps and young, 2014 eligible Payton Lee is the starter in net. Not this season but a team to fear inside three years.
Western Final: The Kelowna Rockets end Portland's 3-year reign and get to the WHL championship series to play for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.