Thursday, September 20, 2012

WHL Eastern Conference Preview: Flaming

You will have seen Dean Millard's predictions this morning and that means it's my turn now. I'm sure there will be some similarities but I think one thing he and I will both agree on is that the playoff race in the Eastern conference could be one of the longest, closest and involving the most teams that we've seen for a long time. 

My predictions for the regular season standings and for conference award winners after the jump. 

1. Edmonton Oil Kings 

No question that the defending WHL champs are the favourite to finish atop the conference again this year. The team returns four of their top five scorers from last season including 105-point forward Michael St. Croix (NYR). 2013 eligible Curtis Lazar is expected to play a much bigger role in his second year and alongside Henrik Samuelsson (PHX), any offence the team lost due to graduated players will be replaced. The back end is deep again with new captain Griffin Reinhart (NYI) taking over the #1 role. Laurent Brossoit (CGY) is one of the top goalies his age in the entire country so there is no concern in net. Edmonton has 7 drafted players on the roster with another 6 that were named to Central Scouting's prelim list for 2013.

2. Saskatoon Blades 

This year's host of the Memorial Cup tournament has already begun the tinkering needed to make sure the team is competitive next May. Adding Shane McColgan (NYR) in the summer looks good, even better if the Californian finally achieves the status expected of him when his WHL career began. A strong blueline group with Dalton Thrower (MTL), Darren Dietz (MTL) and Duncan Siemens (COL) with goalie Andrey Makarov (BUF) will make it hard for the opposition to score on many nights. Unfortunately, scoring goals could be the challenge for the Blades too. Lukas Sutter (WPG), import Matej Stransky (DAL) and a healthy Josh Nicholls will carry the load but that's probably an area GM Lorne Molleken will try to address before the deadline.         

3. Calgary Hitmen 

Their 91-point campaign in 2011-12 surprised a lot of people. The Hitmen were bottom feeders the season before and no one expected their meteoric rise from 12th to 3rd. That said, Calgary won't take anyone by surprise now but that's OK, this is a team that has the mix of size and skill to successfully take on most clubs. Victor Rask (CAR) and Cody Sylvester lead the attack but secondary scoring will come from Brady Brassart, 2013 eligible Greg Chase and rookie sensation Jake Virtanen, the 1st overall pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam draft. The Hitmen have plenty of size on the blueline with 5 players listed at 6'3 or bigger including Jaynen Rissling (WSH) and Kenton Helgesen (ANH). In goal, Chris Driedger (OTT) is motivated to prove he deserved his 3rd round draft position from this past June's event. Perhaps most importantly, Hitmen GM Kelly Kisio has a proven track record as an executive that can identify mediocre talent in the league that he can turn into star power in Calgary.

4. Swift Current Broncos 

The team I have already cursed by labeling them as "Guy's Dark Horse Pick". I believe the Broncos will be one of the most improved teams in the league this season and their 5-2 preseason record may be an indication of that. Much will depend on the health of 6'5 forward Adam Lowry (WPG) but if he can play an entire season, the Broncos will be way better off than they were in 2011-12. A year under the belts of Graham Black (NJ) and Coda Gordon (CGY), 2013 eligibles Colby Cave and defenceman Dillon Heatherington and there is a lot to like. Then you remember Reece Scarlett (NJ) and newcomers Brycen Martin, Bobby Zinkan and forward Tanner LeSann and Swift starts to look downright good and deep. The only question mark is in goal where the team hopes to have addressed a major need with Finnish import Eetu Laurikainen.

5. Prince Albert Raiders 

On paper, there is no way the Raiders should have had the struggles they did last year. But falter they did and by the deadline they had moved key pieces to contending teams and began looking to this season. But they weren't great in preseason going 1-3 so GM Bruno Campese might start feeling the heat if the team stumbles out of the gate. The offence begins with center Mark McNeill (CHI) who most expect will have a strong bounce back from what he admits was a disappointing year. Mike Winther (DAL) had a good, not great year, last season but could be a guy who flirts with 40 goals this year. Expectations are high for German import Leon Draisaitl but the potential is definitely there. Harrison Ruopp (PGH) and 2013's Josh Morrissey are one of the better tandems in the league - the stay at home veteran with a super offensive youngster. Like with Swift, the big concern is between the pipes where P.A. has added Luke Siemens, now on the fourth team of his WHL career.                  

6. Medicine Hat Tigers 

The loss of Emerson Etem (ANH) will be significant for the Tigers but I would argue that the hole left by Tyler Bunz in net might be harder to fill. Top WHL 2013 prospect Hunter Shinkaruk had 49 goals and 91 points last season, he could challenge the 50-goal and 100-point plateau this year especially if 18-year-old rookie Miles Koules pans out as expected. The shifty and skilled Californian will be the set up man and as you'll note below, is someone I expect to pile up the points. Another 2013 prospect in Jayden Hart and Kale Kessey (PHX) bring the size, Chad Labelle the fire and Curtis Valk the secondary scoring up front. Wildcard here for me is 5'7 forward Trevor Cox who caught my eye in the preseason. The Tigers are very big on the blueline but also very young; 5 of the 8 listed with the team are '94 births or younger. The 3-headed battle in net is between gigantic Dawson MacAuley, Bunz's former backup Kenny Cameron and Czech import Marek Langhamer (PHX).  

7. Red Deer Rebels 

It's hard to know what to expect from Red Deer considering how useless looking at last year is. The Rebels were decimated by injuries for much of the campaign so individual stats and the standings pretty much go out the window now. Alex Petrovic (FLA) is gone, that's a major loss. But the team does still have Mathew Dumba (MIN) who could lead all WHL defencemen in scoring this year. Adam Kambeitz, Turner Elson and Charles Inglis are the veteran leaders with rookie Conner Bleackley stepping into the line up to provide offence with Colten Mayor. 2013's Kayle Doetzel and rookie surprise Riley Boomgaarden will be big components in the defensive zone. A healthy Patrick Bartosak may have been enough to make the playoffs last year but that didn't happen. Now they have a motivated goalie hoping to earn a pro contract and that can only be a positive. Jesse Wallin is demanding but if his whip isn't enough to get this blue collar team into the playoffs, Brent Sutter is back in the picture and when it comes to whips, he's Indiana Jones.

8. Regina Pats 

The Pats are still an evolving team under GM Chad Lang and head coach Pat Conacher but they made the playoffs last year and I think that experience will help them in 2011-12. Morgan Klimchuk, a member of the NHL Draft class of 2013, might be the club's best player unless that falls to Chandler Stephenson (WSH). Both guys could double their scoring from a year ago and might need to for Regina to make the playoffs. Lane Scheidl will be the veteran leader but could also be a valuable trade chip at the deadline. The defensive group won't strike fear into anyone but one thing the Pats have that some others in the conference don't is a goaltender they have no concerns with. Matt Hewitt was their guy last year and put up respectable numbers in his first WHL season. 

9. Brandon Wheat Kings 

Few teams lost as much from last year to this one the way Brandon has. Gone are Mark Stone (OTT), Michael Ferland (CGY) and Brendan Walker - the top three scorers and the only three forwards with more than 50 points. The good news is that Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy are back to lead the attack but as defencemen, it's probably unfair to expect much more production from them than they gave last year with a combined 113 points. Swiss import Alessio Bertaggia returns and the team added 20-year-old Nick Buonassisi, both can contribute points. Corbin Boes can be a quality netminder but he'll have to win a lot of 2-1 games I think this year. 

10. Moose Jaw Warriors 

Because the team you start the year with isn't always the same as the one you have in March, that's why I have the Warriors this far down. Without Quinton Howden (FLA) Cody Beach (STL), Kenton Miller, Cam Braes, James Henry and Dylan McIlrath (NYR), Moose Jaw is a far cry from the contenders they were last season. That said, they do still have the excellent blueline duo of Moran Rielly (TOR) and Joel Edmundson (STL) plus Kendal McFaull but with none of them coming back next season I expect all of them to be dealt before the deadline and the team to drop out of the playoff picture. Brayden Point may have a breakout season but that won't be reason enough not to sell off and build for a serious run. A huge hole in net right now too with a pair of 17-year-olds which makes Moose Jaw a viable trade partner for a team looking to dump a 3rd string vet. 

11. Lethbridge Hurricanes 

'Canes fans can take solace knowing that the Oil Kings once finished with 16 wins and two years later won the WHL crown. I expect Lethbridge will be better than Edmonton was that year but the point is that this is a team with upside, it's just very young right now. Jay Merkley is average sized at best but he's worth watching for the 2013 NHL draft as might 6'5 Swedish import Alex Blomqvist, the latter should be easy to pick out of a crowd at least. Ty Rimmer had a banner year in Tri-City but played behind a much better team so it's reasonable to be taking a wait and see attitude with him in Lethbridge. 

12. Kootenay Ice 

Two years ago I said the Ice would miss the playoffs and they responded by winning the WHL title so... congratulations to GM Jeff Chynoweth because I just punched your ticket the Memorial Cup again! Honestly, and without trying to offend anyone around the team, in my opinion Kootenay has Sam Reinhart and not much else this year. Nathan Lieuwen (BUF) turning pro is a major loss as I thought he was the biggest reason the Ice saw the playoffs last year. A team that has been struggling at the gate is going to have a long one on the ice this year too. 

Conference Award Winners

Player of the Year: Laurent Brossoit (Edmonton Oil Kings)
Top Scorer: Hunter Shinkaruk (Medicine Hat Tigers)

Top Defenceman: Griffin Reinhart (Edmonton Oil Kings)

Top Goalie: Laurent Brossoit (Edmonton Oil Kings)

Rookie of the Year: Miles Koules (Medicine Hat Tigers)

Coach of the Year: Mark Lamb (Swift Current Broncos) 

G.M. of the year: Kelly Kisio (Calgary Hitmen)                             

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