Here we go with part two of my WHL Division previews and I stay in the Western Conference, highlighting the BC Division. I think this is set to be a very competitive division this coming season when compared to their neighbors to the south. I have the Rockets pegged as early favorites, but the Royals look poised to be an extremely good club again this year. The other teams are all very capable of being playoff teams, as long as they find ways to overcome some specific holes.
Here's how I see things shaping up in the BC Division in 2014-15:
2013-14 record: 57-11-0-4 = 118 points – 1st in BC Division – 1st in Western Conference
Like many teams, the Kelowna Rockets lost some key players over the offseason. Included in that group were their top three scorers from last year in Myles Bell, Ryan Olsen and Damon Severson. Not only that, they also lost their starting goalie, the CHL’s Top Goalie in fact, in Jordon Cooke. Oh yeah, and their head coach Ryan Huska moved on with Dan Lambert replacing him. So how will the Rockets weather that storm and earn top spot in the BC Division, as I’m predicting them to? Well, it’s not actually that hard when you draft and develop as well as Bruce Hamilton and his group have.
Despite the above-mentioned forwards, the Rockets bring back some talented kids up front including potential 1st round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Nick Merkley. He was the WHL’s Top Rookie last year and will be looking to build off his 58 point campaign. Along with him down the middle, they also have Tyson Baillie, Rourke Chartier, Cole Linaker and new import Tomas Soustal. Others like Austin Glover, Kris Schmidli and Justin Kirkland are back on the wings, with Kirkland poised for a big year after being a Nashville Predators draft selection in 2014. It’s a great group, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Tyrell Goulbourne, Carter Rigby and Colton Heffley are fighting for roles as 20 year olds. The Rockets will score, maybe not 310 times like last year (2nd in the WHL), but they will have no trouble creating offence.
As mentioned, Severson is off to the pro game to play with Albany of the AHL. He was their leading defensive scorer last season, but besides him the Rockets return the rest of their group. And it’s a good one. They’re led by Washington Capitals prospect Madison Bowey, who scored an impressive 21 goals last year. Along with him, they feature Riley Stadel, Mitchell Wheaton, Jesse Lees, Dalton Yorke and potential overager Colten Martin. They’ve also got some stud prospects itching for minutes, but more on them in a second. When looking at how their roster stacks up, it actually becomes apparent that they don’t have the room to give everyone proper ice time. They return 7 guys who were at least semi-regulars last season. You have to imagine someone needs to leave The Defence Factory early in the season. What a good problem to have.
Goaltending is really the only question for this club. Cooke has graduated, leaving two-year backup Jackson Whistle as the starter. Whistle has 64 career games under his belt and while he’s not overly experienced, he has posted some pretty good results including a 34-13 record with a sub-2.70 GAA. Has he played behind a great defence in Kelowna while posting those numbers? Yes, he has. But that hasn’t changed for this coming year. They’re still a stacked team. He’s 19 years old and has been around a bit, if he can stay healthy and even just be “average” this team should still be good enough to battle Victoria for a division title. Look for 1997-born Jake Morrissey, Josh Morrissey’s brother, to be the backup and eventual starter in the cage down the road.
Unique Storyline: Who’s The Next Defensive Stud?
I called Kelowna “The Defence Factory” and it’s no secret that they are. Let’s see…Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Alex Edler, Josh Gorges, Scott Hannan and Sheldon Souray are some of the NHL names that have spent time roaming the Rockets blueline. So who’s next? It seems like every year the team has a shiny new toy. Last year Joe Gatenby got into only 43 games, but he looks poised to take that next big step forward during his NHL Draft year. Meanwhile, a couple of new faces look to be ready for minutes. Lucas Johansen is one of them. He’s the brother of Columbus Blue Jackets forward Ryan Johansen and is a former 6th round pick. At the time of that selection he was considered to be a “potential steal” by their director of player personnel Lorne Frey. He’s coming off a good year in midget and has a skillset that should fit in perfectly. Devante Stephens is another name to watch. Like Johansen, he’s a 1997, but was undrafted. The Surrey product is pushing hard to make a name for himself and earn a roster spot, further cementing the idea that the Rockets might need to trade a body or two to keep the development train rolling along.
Standings Prediction: 1st in BC Division – 2nd in Western Conference
2013-14 record: 48-20-1-3 = 100 points – 2nd in BC Division – 3rd in Western Conference
The Victoria Royals have some unfinished business to take care of in 2014-15. They return much of their 2013-14 club, a team that fell in the second round of the WHL Playoffs at the hands of the Portland Winterhawks. And while I have Victoria pegged to finish 3rd in the conference, like they did last year, it’s pretty obvious to me that this team could actually end up being better than both the Winterhawks and Rockets.
The Royals return their top three scorers from the 2013-14 season, all of which are forwards. While Brandon Magee and Axel Blomqvist are guaranteed to be back as big contributors, 57-point man Austin Carroll’s future is still a bit up in the air. The Calgary Flames draft pick is a 1994-born player, meaning he’s technically eligible to sign a professional deal and move up from the WHL as early as this fall. Tyler Soy is eligible for the NHL Draft and should greatly improve on his 30 points from 2013-14, while Brandon Fushimi and Logan Fisher will both be looking to elevate their games in bigger roles. Along with those veterans, they’ve got some younger players looking to make a push to stick with the team for the season. Jared Dmytriw, one of two 1998-born forwards still on their roster, has had a nice pre-season, being tied for the team lead in pre-season scoring as I write this. Matthew Campese is looking to earn a full-time job while Nic Petan’s cousin Dante Hanoun should crack the squad. He’s the other 1998-born forward left on their roster, is the former 11th overall pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft and had 52 points in 32 major midget games last year for the Greater Vancouver Canadians.
While the forward group is fairly solid for the Royals, the blueline appears to be their biggest strength. They return 5 defencemen from their 2013-14 club and that doesn't include the fact that Jack Walker is switching back to the blueline from the wing. Travis Brown headlines the bunch with Joe Hicketts looking like he’ll also be one of the best offensive blueliners in the WHL this coming year after going undrafted but showing strong at Detroit’s rookie camp. Keegan Kanzig will once again be a tower of power on their backend with Chaz Redekopp already earning some major attention ahead of the 2015 NHL Draft. I’ve also heard some decent things about the future of 1998-born Ralph Jarratt. It’s a scary talented group on the blueline and one has to imagine they’ll again be the favourites to post the lowest total of goals against in the conference, as they did last season.
While this team has a big group of returning players both up front and on defence, their dynamic goaltending duo has been cut in half. Patrik Polivka has moved on to play in Europe after two solid seasons, including posting 28 wins in 43 appearances last year. That leaves Coleman Vollrath as the man in charge. And while he didn’t play as much as Polivka last year, he still put up great numbers with 20 wins in 34 games, a 2.29 goals against average and .928 save percentage. Michael Herringer has played well this pre-season as a 1996, with 1997-born Evan Smith being the other guy competing for the backup job.
Unique Storyline: Are Their Scoring Concerns Legitimate?
While I do like some individual pieces up front, it’s no secret that Victoria isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. They’re a team that really takes care of their own end first and foremost. But, while they’re impressive goals against tallies from 2013-14 are exactly that, impressive, they didn’t exactly blow teams away offensively. Their 238 goals for were tied with two other teams for 4th best in the Western Conference, but ranked 11th overall in the WHL. Their powerplay clicked 20.5% of the time, not good enough to crack the top 12 in the league. They’ve followed that up with only scoring 11 times in 6 pre-season games, winning once. And while it’s the pre-season and they’ve had players gone to NHL camps, it’s still worth noting that they haven’t been able to score as much as some other top-ranked teams. Returning their top three scoring forwards and defenceman from last year is at least a start.
Standings Prediction: 2nd in BC Division – 3rd in Western Conference
2013-14 record: 32-3-7-4 = 75 points – 3rd in BC Division – 7th in Western Conference
The Vancouver Giants are actively attempting to be more “active” when it comes to their style of play. Gone is the grinding, dump and chase style of outgoing coach Don Hay. In comes the more puck-possession friendly style of new head bench boss Troy Ward. There are several teams that haven’t been afraid to employ that up-tempo pace, including the Portland Winterhawks with Mike Johnston, and now it appears the Giants hope to be next in line. Their general manager Scott Bonner has made that clear on several occasions, including during a radio interview I caught the other day. It’s still a fairly fresh concept for this league and it will be fun to see how the Giants players can adapt.
When it comes to this style of play, you need the proper personnel to make it happen. While the Giants have lost some skill up front in players like Cain Franson and Dominik Volek, they’ve also brought in a few that should help replace them. That group includes the likes of former Giant Matt Bellerive, new import Vladimir Bobylev and standout rookie Tyler Benson. Carter Popoff was the team’s leading scorer and has picked up where he left this pre-season, while Jakob Stukel, Alec Baer, Ty Ronning and Thomas Foster look poised to take big leaps forward. Mix in veterans Jackson Houck, Joel Hamilton and Dalton Sward, and you have a group of players that should be at least in the middle of the pack offensively in the conference.
On the blueline, the Giants lose their top two scorers from last year in Brett Kulak and Dalton Thrower, but they still have some nice pieces to work with. Mason Geertsen is ready for more minutes and to provide more offence as he tries to earn a contract from the Colorado Avalanche. Arvin Atwal has developed into a very solid hockey player. Tyler Morrison will be given the chance to handle more opportunity after back to back 21 and 23 point seasons. Dmitry Osipov will surely improve on his 3 goal, 3 point 2013-14 season, too. To me, the big Russian is the wildcard. If the 6’4 defender can turn himself into a top pairing blueliner this year and justify his 1st overall import pick status, the Giants could possibly slide into the top 5 in the conference.
In goal, the weight of the team’s potential success falls on Payton Lee. The 1996-born goalie is entering his 3rd full season in the league and needs to prove that he’s more than an .880 goaltender, which he’s been so far in his career. On the bright side of that equation, he does have a pair of youngsters pushing him so far in Giants camp. Both Cody Porter (97) and Ryan Kubic (98) have posted sparkling numbers up to this point. For the Giants sake, hopefully one of those two can continue to do that once the regular season begins. If they can even get .900 save percentage goaltending, it should work some wonders.
Unique Storyline: Just How Good Is Tyler Benson?
Last year Nikita Scherbak led rookie WHL scorers with 78 points. The year before, Oliver Bjorkstrand did so with 63 points. So what kind of damage could this former 1st overall pick do? Is it unfair to expect those totals from Benson, considering both of those import rookie players were older than this 16 year old phenom? Yeah, it probably is. With that being said, he’s still being billed as the best young player the WHL has seen in quite some time. He’s smashed records coming up through minor hockey and has the body to compete with some big boys in the WHL. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just how good this kid is and also intrigued to see if he starts to wear down in the second half of the season or if that’s the time he really starts to get into the swing of things offensively.
Standings Prediction: 3rd in BC Division – 6th in Western Conference
Prince George Cougars
2013-14 record: 27-37-3-5 = 62 points – 4th in BC Division – 9th in Western Conference
I have to give some credit to the Prince George Cougars. They’re a team that constantly has adversity facing them, but continue to put up a decent fight in the standings year after year. They’ve only missed the playoffs by a handful of points in each of the past three seasons. Is this the year they get back into the dance? It could be, but they once again have some challenges to face and it starts with their forward group.
The Cougars will start the 2014-15 year without their top 5 scorers from last year, all of which are forwards. Todd Fiddler, Troy Bourke, Zach Pochiro and Klarc Wilson are all moving on in their hockey careers, while Jordan Tkatch is now with the Prince Albert Raiders. Those players combined for 149 goals and 355 points last year. That’s a ton of offence no matter who you have coming in to replace them. And unfortunately, they don’t have a ton of new bodies looking to pick up that slack. Draft-eligible Jansen Harkins should nearly double his 34 points from last year, same with fellow-eligible Brad Morrison. But those guys were there last year. Newcomers Chance Braid and Lance Yaremchuk are both hard-working guys but not likely to contribute a ton in the skill category. Chase Witala should have a good year, likely a point per game, and rookie Colby McAuley has had a good pre-season, but this team appears to need scoring from all four lines and the blueline to stay in the playoff mix.
Now while I am not terribly sold on their young forward group, I do like the makeup of their backend even if it’s also fairly young. Marc McNulty had a monster season with 17 goals last year and will look to replicate that again this year while eating hard defensive minutes. I like the game of big Sam Ruopp and guys like Will Tomchuk, Joseph Carvalho and Raymond Grewal have all proved they can at least be somewhat serviceable in the league. But it’s the young talent on defence that looks to be the biggest potential bright spot. Former 3rd overall pick Josh Anderson is looking like a lock to make the team, with the 1998-born putting up 3 helpers in 4 pre-season games. Shane Collins (97) has put up a point per game in exhibition while fellow 1997 Tate Olson looks poised to have a good year after suiting up in 52 as a rookie last year. They’ll need this group to not only help defend, but also to help push the pace offensively as much as possible.
In goal, the Cougars look to have the makings of a very good junior hockey goalie, if not more, in Ty Edmonds. The Winnipeg product was often thrown to the wolves last year, responding as well as anyone could expect by posting 19 wins to match his 19 losses. The rookie put up the 8th most saves in the league with 1488 while facing roughly a shot every 30 seconds. That experience as a young player in the league should do wonders for him and the Cougars, who gave up the most goals of any team in the West (tied with Kamloops, actually, with 305). He’s a good sized goaltender who went undrafted in the NHL despite attending the Top Prospects game in the middle of the season. Mix that in as some motivation and you should have a goalie that can help contribute nicely to a team whose strength is from the blueline-in.
Unique Storyline: Can Their Imports Have A Bigger Impact?
I have yet to mention the Cougars import players at all in this preview, but that’s because I had this in mind. In following junior hockey the last number of years, it’s become clear to me that the best teams get good performances from either their 20 year old players, their imports or a combination of both. The Cougars didn’t get a lot from their imports last year. David Soltes was a high pick in the 2013 Import Draft (4th overall, in fact) but was injured for much of the year, putting up only 5 points in 15 games. Martin Bobos didn’t score a goal in his 67 games, tallying 7 assists and 57 PIMs. Despite that lack of production from both of the 1995-born imports, the Cougars opted not to use their pick in the 2014 Import Draft, which was perched nicely at 15th overall. That is a lot of faith from management shown towards these two players. They’re both 19 this coming season and need to return that good faith by playing hard, producing and doing their best to get the Cougars back into the playoffs.
Standings Prediction: 4th in BC Division – 8th in Western Conference
2013-14 record: 14-53-2-3 = 33 points – 5th in BC Division – 10th in Western Conference
It’s pretty tough to sugar-coat this one, the Kamloops Blazers were beyond awful last season. Even if you doubled their point total from 2013-14, they still wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the light, 10-team Western Conference. Surprisingly enough, they weren’t even the worst team in the WHL last year. But, I’ll have more on the Lethbridge Hurricanes at a later date.
I actually like some of the building blocks the Blazers have in place for Don Hay to use at his disposal, especially up front. I’m a huge fan of Cole Ully and I think he has an 85 point season in him. Matt Revel has proven himself more than capable as a good junior player and should elevate close to near a point per game this year. Players like Matt Needham, Chase Souto and Collin Shirley provide good secondary scoring. Looking further down the lineup, youngsters like Jesse Zaharichuk and Jake Kryski have been point per game players in exhibition action. As a team the Blazers were second last in scoring in the WHL last season, but they have enough weapons to at least be near the middle of the pack in 2014-15.
On the blueline, Brady Gaudet should be a 40+ point guy as an overager. Ryan Rehill is as hard to play against as anyone. Josh Connolly is looking to repeat what was a very solid season for him last year. Meanwhile, imports Patrik Maier and Michael Fora will look to make an impact. To be perfectly honest, the first two categories of this team aren’t too bad as they’ve got nice pieces both up front and on the blueline. Good enough to be a playoff team? It’s close, but I think most of there chances will depend on this next category.
Bolton Pouliot is currently penciled in as the Blazers starting goaltender for 2014-15. He’s got a career .895 save percentage and was 8-30 last season with Kamloops. As a 20 year old, he’s going to have to really take his game up a notch for them to have a chance at making it into the post-season. He’s had a good pre-season, so that’s a positive sign. Behind him they have a pair of 1997’s still battling for a spot in Cole Kehler and Connor Ingram.
Unique Storyline: Can Hay Work His Magic?
Don Hay is back with the Kamloops Blazers, returning to a spot where he not only played and coached, but a place where he was born. It’s a great story. He’s won over 600 games as a coach in the WHL and has only missed the playoffs once in his past 15 years as a Western League bench boss. He might be just what the Blazers need, a fresh voice and a new leader. But the question remains, can he turn this current roster around, or is he going to embrace the fact that many people see them as a re-tooling franchise. I’m sure much of their season’s final results will depend on how the first quarter of the year goes, but either way it will be a fun story to watch. I have them ranked as the 9th team in the conference, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they played their way into the top 6 or 7.
Standings Prediction: 5th in BC Division – 9th in Western Conference