We are officially one game into the 2012-13 WHL schedule after last night's Oil Kings 5-3 victory over the Kootenay Ice game. Tonight, 16 more teams get underway including 6 of the 10 teams that make up the league's Western conference. That's the conference we preview today.
After the jump, my regular season prediction for standings and several individual awards as well.
1. Kamloops Blazers
I personally think it's great to see a one time powerhouse like the Blazers back to being relevant after a tough couple of decades. Much like the turnaround of the Portland Winterhawks, Kamloops has climbed out of the cellar and to the top of their division and I think they can get even higher this year. Kamloops will be led by one of the best overage trios in the WHL in Brendan Ranford, Jordan DePape and Dylan Willick. Import Tim Bozon (MTL) was a point per game player last year and youngster Matt Needham had solid stats as a 16-year-old - both should be even more productive now. Winger J.C. Lipon led the WHL in preseason scoring. The defence is young and might be an area that gets bolstered by GM Craig Bonner as the year progresses. Cole Cheveldave was excellent last year and if he can repeat that success again then the Blazers will easily win the division and collect enough points to finish atop the conference.
2. Portland Winterhawks
Maybe third time is the charm? After winning the conference playoffs the last two consecutive seasons the Winterhawks will contend once again despite losing major pieces from last year's roster. Gone are Sven Bartschi (CGY), Joe Morrow (PGH), Mac Carruth (CHI), Oliver Gabriel (CLB), Cam Reid (NSH) and Marcel Noebels (PHI). fortunately, additions like potential 2013 NHL 1st overall pick Seth Jones and Danish/Swede Oliver Bjorkstrand appear ready to help fill several voids. Plus, it's not like having Ty Rattie (STL), Brendan Leipsic (NSH), Derrick Pouliot (PGH) and Troy Rutkowski (COL) is going to hurt. One question will be if Brendan Burke is ready to shoulder the workload of a starting goaltender while under the microscope of his NHL draft season.
3. Kelowna Rockets
This might be a bit of a surprise pick but the combination of excellent coaching and a strong blueline group have me convinced that the Rockets can finish this high. Colton Sissons (NSH) leads as captain but could do it offensively too although going pointless in 4 preseason games isn't a great omen. We could see Tyson Baillie leap up the scoring race as a sophomore and Zach Franko can contribute too. I like Kelowna's defence though; Jesse Lees, Madison Bowey and newly recruited Mitch Wheaton are all 2013 eligible and you add them to Damon Severson and Myles Bell and you've got one strong blueline. Leduc's Jordan Cooke takes on a bigger job in net as the #1 guy now that Adam Brown is gone.
4. Spokane Chiefs
What the Chiefs may lack in star power they make up for in team play and Don Nachbaur is a proven coach in the WHL. Defenceman Brenden Kichton (NYI) has 155 points over his last two seasons so I don't know how much more can realistically be expected from him. Mitch Holmberg is the highest scoring forward back from last year but he'll need goal support from Liam Stewart, Blake Gal and others to get this team into a top 4 spot. Adam Power is a big 6'4, 200 lb rookie defender that the Chiefs are hoping can provide more than just a cool name. Questions in goal as the returning duo of Mac Engel and Eric Williams have been joined by rookie Garret Hughson and continue to battle for the top job.
5. Victoria Royals
After a few seasons of spinning their wheels in Chilliwack followed by a move to the Island, Victoria has a new GM, a new coach and I expect a new level of success awaiting them. I look at the Royals much the same way I do Swift Current and Prince Albert, teams on the upswing with a mix of already drafted guys and others headed that way this year. Logan Nelson (BUF), Steven Hodges (FLA), Jamie Crooks and Brandon Magee are back from last year and could all be 65-point guys. I really like the recent addition of Alex Gogolev because the former Calgary Hitman can score; he had 25 last year as a rookie in the league. On the blue, all eyes will be on 6'5, 240 lb Keegan Kanzig who is up for the 2013 draft. Rookie Joe Hicketts, Victoria's 1st round pick in 2011, had 4 points in 5 preseason games. The Royals still have three goalies around with 18-year-old rookie import Patrik Polivka expected to win the job as a starter. I think the hiring of Dave Lowry deserves mention as well; an excellent coach who guided the Calgary Hitmen to the 2009 WHL finals.
6. Tri-City Americans
If there is a team that I am guilty of underrating I'm guessing its the Americans. Maybe I'm too skeptical that the team can avoid a step back without Brendan Shinnimin and Adam Hughesman around but that is 250 points the team loses from last year. Maybe draft eligible Connor Rankin elevates his game and plays with Patrick Holland (MTL) and Justin Feser and the club doesn't miss a beat. Phil Tot was brought in and he's a good junior player and Brian Williams is small but skilled and should deliver as a second year player. Zach Yuen (WPG) leads the attack from the defence. Much of the success of the team will ride on the shoulders of Eric Comrie, the 17-year-old draft eligible keeper. Is he GM Bob Tory's next goalie success story like Carey Price and Dan Blackburn who dominated at the same age?
7. Vancouver Giants
Honestly, I originally had the Giants missing the playoffs but when I really considered everything, Don Hay changed my mind. I don't think the Giants are going to be anything better than an average team but having Hay on the bench is pretty tough to beat. The addition of Liam Liston is being applauded by many but I'm not so sure; there's a reason he's on his 3rd team in less than 12 months. Marek Tvrdon (DET) is the big weapon up front but are he and Cain Franson enough? The defence is big and solid with David Musil (EDM), Wes Vannieuwenhuizen and Brett Kulak (CGY) but I just see the Giants as an average team with well above average coaching.
8. Seattle Thunderbirds
Better days are ahead for the T-Birds but this is still largely a young team being led by veteran Luke Lockhart and just drafted Branden Troock (DAL). No one on the team scored more than 40 points last season But perhaps a full year from Connor Honey would have changed that. He's back again as is defenceman Shea Theodore who will garner a lot of attention from scouts this year ahead of the 2013 NHL Draft. Jared Hauf, another 2013 eligible defender, returns for a second season while newly acquired Jesse Forsberg adds to the blueline. 6'7 Taylor Green might block out the sun but the defenceman should be fun to watch in his rookie season. 20-year-old Brandon Glover is the goaltender, now playing for his third WHL team.
9. Prince George Cougars
I hope I'm wrong on this one because I would like to see the Cougars back in the playoffs and to see the fortunes of the team turn around on and off the ice. But if the team couldn't get in with a proven WHL netminder like Drew Owsley in net, it will be tough to do it without him and without his replacement. Finn Joonas Korpisalo (CLB) stayed home to play pro leaving the Cougars with a goalie tandem that has 14 WHL games experience between them. But unproven doesn't automatically mean incapable. The team added Colin Jacobs (BUF) plus have Troy Bourke (COL) back again. The biggest key is probably 2010 1st overall Bantam draft pick Alex Forsberg who is up for the 2013 draft and has to be extremely motivated. The Cougars could make the playoffs, especially if the second year guys like Jarrett Fontaine, Chase Witala, Jake Mykitiuk and Jordan Tkatch take off.
10. Everett Silvertips
Thanks to some unreal forecasting by former GM Doug Soetaert, the Silvertips still held the rights to Ryan Murray (CLB) when the lockout hit and now have the 2011 2nd overall pick back again. I will be interested to see if the new management has the same loyalty to Murray now as this is a team still rebuilding for the future and could reap a ton for Murray who could be gone as soon as the NHL returns, assuming it does this year. 2011 1st round pick Ty Mappin joins the team 2010 8th rounder Carson Stadyk led the team in the preseason. Nick Walkers (STL), rookie Griffin Foulk and 6'5 2013 eligible Austin Adam round out the blueline with Murray. Cole Holowenko and Austin Lotz are the two goalies and although both played in the league last year, neither had much success.
Conference Award Winners
Player of the Year: Ty Rattie (Portland Winterhawks)
Top Scorer: Ty Rattie (Portland Winterhawks)
Top Defenceman: Brenden Kichton (Spokane Chiefs)
Top Goalie: Cole Cheveldave (Kamloops Blazers)
Rookie of the Year: Seth Jones (Portland Winterhawks)
Coach of the Year: Dave Lowry (Victoria Royals)
G.M. of the year: Craig Bonner (Kamloops Blazers)