Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The player you see is Collin Valcourt, and he currently plays for Mountfield HK in the Czech Republic.  Why would I be writing about a player that is currently playing on a team in the Czech Republic?  Well, Valcourt was one of the players acquired by the Saskatoon Blades in 2013 in their ultimately ill-fated run to the Memorial Cup that year. Valcourt was acquired by the team from Spokane that year in exchange for a first round pick in 2015, and as luck would have it (for Spokane), the Blades would finish dead last this year, thus giving the Chiefs a great chance at winning the first overall pick in this year's bantam draft.  The lottery was held yesterday, and true to form, the Chiefs will be picking first, meaning they will have benefited from yet another brain fart from the previous management of the Blades (Brandon and Vancouver were the beneficiaries in last year's draft).

Speaking of benefiting from other people's mistakes, the Moose Jaw Warriors hold the fourth and sixth overall picks in this year's bantam draft.  The Warriors have their own sixth overall pick plus the fourth overall pick that comes from Kamloops in a 2013 trade for Joel Edmundson in the Blazers' ultimately unsuccessful attempt to topple the Portland Winterhawks' reign at the top of the Western Conference, which is now at four years.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

WHL Western Conference Playoffs Preview

Most of the WHL playoffs action begins Friday, and that includes most of the Western Conference.  Today, here is a look at the Western Conference.

(1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (4) Tri-City Americans

The Rockets are heavily favored to be the Western Conference representative in the WHL Finals this year, but the same thing was said last year.  However, last year's team didn't have either Josh Morrisey or Leon Draisaitl.  The Rockets still have enviable depth, and with both former Prince Albert players on the roster, the Rockets provide a scary proposition for any team to face.  The Americans needed all of the season to secure a playoff spot, and their reward is basically being the sacrificial lamb to the best team in the Western Conference.

Prediction: Rockets in four

(2) Victoria Royals vs. (3) Prince George Cougars

The Royals are a very good team that is well-coached, as evidenced by Dave Lowry being named head coach for next year's WJC and Team Canada.  The Royals won't wow you with spectacular offense, but they play a physical style that wears opponents out.  The Cougars are back in the playoffs after a four year absence, and if an upset has to happen, it could be here, as the Cougars have shown an ability to play a full game (see: last game against the same Royals).  However, the Cougars must cut down the goals given up, as only Lethbridge and Saskatoon gave up more.

Prediction: Royals in six

(1) Everett Silvertips vs. (4) Spokane Chiefs

The Silvertips needed the last weekend to hold off the Portland Winterhawks to win their first U.S. Division title since 2007.  There may be a bit of a goaltending controversy, as Austin Lotz is the usual starter, but Carter Hart has played well lately.  If a team is going to beat Everett, it will have to be five-on-five, as the Silvertips were the second-least penalized team in the league.  The Chiefs are still a young team that isn't likely to challenge for an upset here, but the play of the Yamamoto brothers (Kailer and Keanu) plus a few others put the Chiefs comfortably into a wild card spot.

Prediction: Silvertips in six

(2) Portland Winterhawks vs. (3) Seattle Thunderbirds

These two rivals square off for the first time in the playoffs since 2006, and it's a little more even this year than in recent years.  The Winterhawks have two of the most prolific scorers in Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan, but don't forget about either Paul Bittner or Chase DeLeo.  Adin Hill has seized the starting goaltending job, but this will be his first time playing in a pressure-packed situation.  The Thunderbirds actually won the season series this year, and with Matt Barzal not having hit his full-stride, it's possible the Thunderbirds will have a second gear coming soon.  For Seattle to win, they do need to expose the lack of defensive depth on Portland's side, and that begins with Shea Theodore needing to be the offensive catalyst he's always been.

Prediction: Winterhawks in seven

Monday, March 23, 2015

WHL Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview

The WHL Playoffs field is set and the games begin on Thursday.  There's not much time to breathe, so without further ado, here is the Eastern Conference preview, which begins Thursday with Brandon and Edmonton.

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. (4) Edmonton Oil Kings

The Wheat Kings are the Scotty Munro Trophy winners this season for best regular season record, and despite having been eliminated by the Edmonton Oil Kings in the last two times they've made the playoffs, they've never been favored in either match-up.  The shoe is on the other foot this time around, as the Wheat Kings are heavily favored with an all-around solid team that will look to prove predictions of being the Eastern Conference representative correct.  The Oil Kings are minus some key players from the last few years, and it showed this year, as they needed almost the entire season to secure a playoff berth.  The Oil Kings' hopes for a repeat don't appear likely.

Prediction: Wheat Kings in five

(2) Regina Pats vs. (3) Swift Current Broncos

The Pats ended up a solid second place in the East Division despite trading away players such as Morgan Klimchuk and Kyle Burroughs at the trade deadline.  The Pats will be facing another obstacle this year, as they are going to be without rising star Sam Steel for the duration of the playoffs due to injury.  The Broncos needed all of the season to claim the last spot in the playoffs, and they appear to be in good form with back-to-back victories to close out the season.  An upset could be in the cards, but do the Broncos have enough to do it?

Prediction: Pats in seven

(1) Calgary Hitmen vs. (4) Kootenay Ice

The Hitmen needed the entire season to fend off the Medicine Hat Tigers to win the Central Division.  However, they're also facing the same Kootenay Ice team that eliminated them last season, and there is no reason to think the Ice won't be able to do it again.  If there was a team that is under the most pressure to win, it's the Hitmen.  The Ice are basically the same team as they were last season, only Wyatt Hoflin is in goal instead of Mackenzie Skapski, and the Ice do stand a chance with Sam Reinhart and Jaedon Descheneau on the team.  However, the motivation is there for the Hitmen to avenge last year's defeat.

Prediction: Hitmen in six

(2) Medicine Hat Tigers vs. (3) Red Deer Rebels

This match-up promises to be the best of the Eastern Conference.  Not much separates these two, with the Tigers being a better offensive team while the Rebels are a better defensive team.  You could flip a coin to determine a winner, and you would probably be correct here.  However, the Rebels do want to have some momentum heading into next year, when they will be hosting the Memorial Cup tournament.

Prediction: Rebels in seven

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Fight to the Finish

It's the last weekend in the 2014-15 WHL season, and there are spots left to be filled before the playoffs begin.  The Central and U.S. Division winners will be determined this weekend, as Calgary and Medicine Hat are looking to claim the top spot in the Central while Everett and Portland will be fighting for the U.S. Division crown.  Meanwhile, three spots remain, as the last spot in the East Division and a spot in the B.C. Division and the last wild card in the Western Conference have to be filled.  In the East Division, Swift Current holds a two point lead on Moose Jaw, with Swift Current having a home and home with Lethbridge while Moose Jaw has a home and home with Brandon.  Conventional wisdom favors Swift Current here, but Brandon has everything sewn up as far as home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.  In the Western Conference, the last B.C. Division spot is up for grabs, as Prince George and Kamloops duke it out with each other this weekend, and Prince George is close to claiming that spot, as they only need a point to secure that spot.  Meanwhile, Kamloops could still claim the last wild card spot, but they also have a game less to play than Tri-City, who have games against Portland and Spokane this weekend, with the Portland games being a home and home tonight and Sunday.  Vancouver is all but eliminated, as they would need to win out and have both Tri-City and Kamloops lose in regulation to force a tiebreaker.  Their path to a miracle goes through a home and home with Kelowna, who themselves are assured of home ice advantage in the Western Conference.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Meet the Flintbirds!

Yesterday, the team that will be based in Flint, MI will now be called the Firebirds (not the Flintbirds, as suggested in the title, but I did want to sneak in a Flintstones reference).  All of the team's looks were on display thanks to the team twitter site and later shown by Icethetics.  Before I get to what the team will be wearing starting next season, let's look at the logo itself.

The logo isn't the greatest one will trot out there, but the blue, orange, and grey color scheme makes it at least palatable.  As for the jerseys, well...

The eagle-eyed reader will notice that the template is similar to what the Buffalo Sabres' third jerseys lool like, and that isn't really a compliment.  At the very least, the design for the Firebirds isn't as terrible looking, but only slightly, and there is some semblance of it looking like it actually belongs on a hockey rink.  Number and name templates have yet to be revealed, so full judgment will be held off until then.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The New Ice Age

The theme of this season's Prince George Cougars has been dubbed the "The New Ice Age."  The reason for this is due to new ownership that took over starting this season, as Greg Pocock, along with former Cougars/current NHL players Dan Hamhuis and Eric Brewer, headed up an investing group that would assume ownership and promise a commitment to the team, something that hasn't always been the case the last few years.

That off-ice change is starting to show itself on the ice and in the stands, as more people are attending games at the CN Centre and the Cougars are on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.  They play Kamloops tomorrow, and a win will help them out big time, as not only can they give themselves breathing room in the BC Division, as they would put some distance between themselves and Kamloops and Vancouver, but also give them momentum against Victoria, a potential matchup in the first round.  The Cougars may have lost the last game, but they managed to salvage a point, and getting to that point was an example of there possibly being a new day for Cougars fans, as they erased a 3-0 deficit against Victoria Saturday to force a shootout, where they would fall short in 11 rounds.  Prior to that defeat, the Cougars won six in a row.  Thanks to that streak, the Cougars are four points clear of Kamloops for the last spot in the automatic entry by being top three in the division and should it come down to it, two points ahead of Tri-City for the last wild card if they end up getting eclipsed by either Kamloops or Vancouver.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Overagers Getting Opportunities

It is right around this time in the season where junior players who are in their 20-year old year will get a look from pro teams or head to college.  For some players, it is a chance to continue their pursuit of a dream of playing in the NHL one day, however long it may be, while for others, it will lead them to other opportunities in life.  This year is no different, as three of the 20-year olds in the WHL have signed on with NHL teams.  Tyler Lewington of Medicine Hat signed with Washington, Tyrell Goulbourne (Kelowna) will start his pro career in the Flyers' system after signing with them earlier in the week, and Justin Hickman (Seattle), whose WHL career ended in January due to injury, will find new life in the Boston system, as he signed with them.

For these guys, and possibly more like them, not being drafted to the NHL is not the end of a dream, but it may very well be the beginning of something new.  For proof, one only has to look to Tampa Bay and another undrafted WHL alumnus in Tyler Johnson, who is one of the team's best players outside of Steven Stamkos.  There are other players who weren't drafted, yet have found success, with Mark Giordano, Josh Gorges, and Tyler Bozak among the current group finding various degrees of success in the NHL while former players such as Joe Mullen, Ed Belfour, and Wayne Gretzky are Hall of Famers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A fresh start

When Sven Baertschi was taken in the first round by the Calgary Flames in 2011, it was with the expectation that he would one day be the dynamic goal scorer that he was while playing with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.  Four years later, he finds himself a member of the Vancouver Canucks after a trade that sent him there in exchange for a draft pick.  So, what happened?

For a time, it looked like Baertschi was the real deal in an emergency call-up during the 2011-12 season, scoring three times in five games.  However, a coaching change and in time, a General Manager change would have something to do with why he is now a former Calgary Flame, as they would preach being a tough team to play against that would be hard to outwork, and while there are questions about the latter with Baertschi, it is clear that expectations were set too high for him by both the brass and some Flames fans.  The trade means a new start for Baertschi, and though it starts in Utica of the AHL, there is at least one familiar face for Baertschi, as current head coach Travis Green was an assistant coach during Baertschi's time in Portland.  Given Vancouver's penchant for stockpiling young talent on the wings that can score (Hunter Shinkaruk and Jake Virtanen head the list), it just may be the motivation for Baertschi to up his game.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Journey Continues...

This is Tim Erixon, and he was a first round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2009.  However, he refused to sign with the team, thinking he would not be able to make the team with the depth in front of him, and was dealt to the New York Rangers in 2011.  A year later, he would be a part of the deal that would bring Rick Nash to New York, meaning he would be on his third NHL team in four years.  Somehow, his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the longest he would stay with a team (to date), as he would last more than two years in Columbus (mostly in the AHL affiliate Springfield) before being traded to Chicago earlier this season.  Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs became the fifth team he will be on since he was drafted, as they picked him off waivers.

If you're keeping score, that's five teams, 78 games, a goal and 12 assists in the time he's spent in the NHL since his draft year of 2009.  Pending the offseason, he could be on his sixth team, since he is a restricted free agent, and the number of teams he's been on since 2009 could be enough to scare some teams off, yet, there could also be a team that can unlock the potential that Erixon had coming into the 2009 Draft.  The question is whether Erixon will ever figure it out before it's too late.