Thursday, August 27, 2015

2015-16 WHL Season: US Division Preview

Perhaps one of the most hotly contested division races year in and year out, the US Division figures to once again be anyone's for the taking.

The Everett Silvertips held off the Portland Winterhawks to claim the US Division title last year, but found themselves once again eliminated from the playoffs thanks to the same Winterhawks.  The good news is that defense will once again be a strength, as Carter Hart established himself as the goaltender of the present and the future.  Noah Juulsen is also likely to return, helping a strong blue line unit that will be searching for goals thanks to Nikita Scherbak's likely departure for the pros.  Seeing Auston Matthews sign with a team in Switzerland also hurts, as he could have swung the scales in the Silvertips' favor.

Portland saw their run of four straight Finals appearances end last season, and a weak blue line was the culprit.  This year, the blue line figures to be the strong point, with newcomers Caleb Jones and Jack Dougherty joining the team while Adin Hill will have a full year as a starter in goal.  The biggest question mark is how the Winterhawks will replace both Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan, which means Paul Bittner will have to step up his game.  Chase DeLeo could return as an overager, which will help out.

If any team could be considered a front runner in the US Division this year, it's the Seattle Thunderbirds.  Of course, they will have to find someone to fill Shea Theodore's shoes, as he made things go from the blue line.  They also lose Taran Kozun, who graduated, but were able to pick up Taz Burman from Red Deer.  Matt Barzal will return, which gives the Thunderbirds their best player up front, while Jamal Watson provides some leadership from his time in Lethbridge.

The Spokane Chiefs set themselves up nicely at the Bantam Draft.  The question is whether first overall pick Ty Smith will step in this season or if he waits until next season.  Even with that question, the Chiefs are in good position, as Kailer Yamamoto returns as the team's best offensive option.  Garrett Hughson is likely to return as one of three overagers, which will get the team set in goal for next season until Tyson Verhelst is ready to assume the starter's role.  The blue line will be one year wiser, as they were one of the younger units in the WHL, but will they be better?

The Tri-City Americans will once again be strong in their own end, as Evan Sarthou will step in as the starter in net and have Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon leading the blue line unit.  Sarthou held his own when Eric Comrie was away on WJC duty, something the Ams should feel comfortable about.  The major problem is that he will have to keep the team in it most nights, as they still haven't adequately addressed the problem of scoring goals, and haven't since the days of Brendan Shinnimin and Patrick Holland.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2015-16 WHL Season BC Division Preview

With training camp coming soon, today is a look at the BC Division.

The Kamloops Blazers missed out on the playoffs for the second straight season, and worse, they say their first round in this year's Bantam Draft go to Moose Jaw in a trade two seasons ago.  They have decisions to make as far as who to keep as their three overagers, which include Cole Ully, Matt Needham, and Ryan Rehill.  The good news is that besides a year of being drama-free, thanks to Don Hay's return behind the bench, they will also have both Deven Sideroff and Connor Ingram returning.  If the Blazers wish to make the playoffs once again, Jake Kryski will have to take the next step forward.

The Kelowna Rockets came within a goal of being the Memorial Cup Champions, and now, they have to break in another new head coach, as Dan Lambert was lured away to Buffalo as an assistant coach.  Brad Ralph steps in, and unlike the previous season, it is not known what he will bring to the team.  The Rockets will also have holes to fill on the blue line, as both Madison Bowey and Josh Morrisey are turning pro, as will Leon Draisaitl.  Jackson Whistle could return as an overager, which would solidify things in goal.  Besides the losses, the Rockets do maintain a good roster, at least up front, as Nick Merkley, Rourke Chartier, and Justin Kirkland all return, with Tyson Baille potentially being one of three overagers.

Prince George experienced a revival of sorts thanks to ownership that is committed to the team and the city.  The results showed, as the Cougars made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.  Defensively, the Cougars are still outright bad, which places a huge onus on the offense to produce.  Jansen Harkins and possibly Chase Witala will spearhead the offense from the front.  The Cougars will need all the offense they can get until things get better from the blue line, as Ty Edmonds is good, but he's nowhere near elite.

The Vancouver Giants had a wild season, as they canned Troy G. Ward just months into his first season as Giants coach and didn't retain Claude Noel after he finished the season as interim coach.  Lorne Molleken will step behind the bench, and while he inherits a top talent in Tyler Benson, there's little else that inspires confidence in the Giants.  Their biggest question mark is in goal, as Payton Lee took a big step back and he isn't even assured of a roster spot this season.

The Victoria Royals are as steady as it gets, and it is a near certainty that Coleman Vollrath will be one of the team's overagers this season.  The Royals aren't spectacular in any fashion, but they get the job done, a reflection of the coaching job that Dave Lowry has done since taking over as head coach in 2012.  Joe Hicketts leads the way on the blue line, and scoring is almost by committee every season, something that doesn't figure to change.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Changing Blazers

Over the weekend, the Kamloops Blazers decided to make some changes, with their primary logo undergoing a rather minor change while they will also be gaining a new secondary logo.  To give you an idea what their previous primary logo looked like, here it is:

Compare it to the newer logo, and the only change you see is the "Kamloops" being removed from the logo.  As for the secondary logo, it looks like they took the template from the Calgary Flames' secondary logo on their alternate jersey.  Again, for comparison purposes, here is the Flames' alternate logo:

Where the Blazers make it their own is the fact that the emphasis on the main parts of the logo are on the landscapes that are characteristic of the region that Kamloops is in.  Overall, the logo changes won't have a major effect on the Blazers' uniforms, as only the secondary logo will be featured more on the shoulders of both the home and road uniforms.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

WHL Central Division Preview

Today, the 2015-16 WHL season preview takes us to Alberta, and eastern British Columbia, and before I get started, the WHL unveiled their 50th anniversary logo earlier this Summer.

The Calgary Hitmen held off both Medicine Hat and Red Deer en route to winning the Central Division.  They made it to the Conference finals, but were overmatched against Brandon.  Now, there are questions abound, such as who will their starting goaltender be?  Mack Shields struggled last year in his first year as starter, which was why they traded for Brendan Burke at the deadline.  One figures that one of the two will likely return as one of three overage players.  On the blue line, they're in pretty good shape despite likely losing Keegan Kanzig to the pros, as Travis Sanheim will lead the way for the Hitmen.  Offensively, the Hitmen could be in real trouble if Jake Virtanen does stick with Vancouver this season, as there are no proven options that can score.

Year one of the Edmonton Oil Kings post-Derek Laxdal era did not quite get off to the start they wanted, as they had to hold on to the last wild card spot until the end of the regular season.  From there, they were thoroughly outclassed by Brandon in the opening round despite stealing a win in the opening game.  They never did find suitable replacements on offense to replace the likes of Curtis Lazar, Mitch Moroz, and Henrik Samuelsson.  Now, they have to find a replacement for Tristan Jarry, who is going pro, and Patrick Dea figures to be in line to start.

The Kootenay Ice also needed to hold on to a wild card spot to qualify, and though they gave Calgary a run for their money in the opening round, they could not quite duplicate the previous year's feat of knocking Calgary out of the opening round, and were thus eliminated in six games.  Both leading scorers Sam Reinhart and Jaedon Descheneau are likely turning pro, and many more questions remain as to who the three overage players will be.  Wyatt Hoflin proved capable in net, but will he be back, as he is one of many players vying for the overage spots.

The nightmare that was the Brad Robson/Drake Berehowsky era was mercifully put to an end in the middle of last season, and now, it is Peter Anholt who will be handling both the General Manager and head coaching duties, something that he started immediately after the previous regime was let go.  Though the Hurricanes will have both Tyler Wong and Giorgio Estephan returning, many other question marks remain.  Who starts in goal?  Currently, there are five players that ended the year on the roster, yet no one established themselves.  Also, where will the veteran leadeship come from?  Early indications appear that newcomers Cory Millette and Arwin Atwal will provide that, but of the players that ended the season on the Hurricanes, that question looms.

The Medicine Hat TIgers put together a respectable run, but were beaten by Calgary in the conference semi-finals.  Questions from the blue line on back loom large, as Marek Langhammer moves on due to graduation, as does Tyler Lewington.  Tommy Vannelli and Kyle Burroughs are also both likely gone, as they could seek the test in the pros.  If any success on the blue line is to be had, it now has to start with David Quennville.  Up front, the questions are just as large, though it is possible that the Tigers could keep either or both Cole Sanford and Trevor Cox, who were the team's leading scorers.

The Red Deer Rebels will be hosting the Memorial Cup this season, and though they just traded away Taz Burman, it likely opens the door to Rylan Toth to become the starter in goal.  Defensively, they will likely be led by Haydn Fleury and Nelson Nogier while Connor Bleackley and Adam Musil are likely leading the team up front.

Monday, August 10, 2015

WHL East Division Preview

Hockey season begins next month, but training camps for the junior leagues begin soon, if not now.  So, with that in mind, the 2015-16 WHL season preview begins this week with the East Division.

The Brandon Wheat Kings are the reigning Eastern Conference champions, yet are wanting to take that next step after getting trounced in the WHL Finals by Kelowna.  The Wheat Kings lose Peter Quennville and Eric Roy to graduation and are most likely going to be without Morgan Klimchuk and Rihards Bukarts.  Ivan Provorov could be gone if he sticks with the Philadelphia Flyers this season, but the Wheat Kings do return a fair amount of players, as well, as Nolan Patrick and Kale Clague will have larger roles with the team while the likes of Ryan Pilon, Jayce Hawryluk, and Jordan Papirny will be the leaders on the team.  Also, Stelio Mattheos will be in his first full season with the team.

The Moose Jaw Warriors missed the playoffs by four points, and though the team does return some good talent, they do have to replace their leading scorer in Jack Rodewald, as he graduated.  The wild card here is whether Brayden Point will be remaining with the team for the full season or if he gets traded at some point in the season.  Brett Howden figures to have a bigger role, but Zach Sawchenko needs to be better when it counts the most.

The Prince Albert Raiders are looking to this season, particularly after a rather disastrous time where the Raiders had to trade both Josh Morrisey and Leon Draisaitl and ended the Cory Clouston experiment after a season and a half.  Having Marc Habscheid for a full season should benefit the team, as will a season of relative peace within the team.  However, there isn't a heck of a lot to work from, as the Raiders will have a hard time scoring, but having someone like Brendan Guhle on the blue line will at least give the team some peace of mind on the blue line.  Nick McBride returns in goal, which is a good thing.

Despite finishing second in the East Division, the Regina Pats' rebuilding phase began in earnest last year.  Getting rid of Morgan Klimchuk, Connor Gay, and Kyle Burroughs mid-season, set the team up to build around Sam Steel, who will look to rebound after having his season cut short due to injury.  The Pats' fortunes could rest on whether Daniel Wapple returns for his overage year, as he proved to be very good in goal when given the chance to start.

To expect anything other than more growing pains for the Saskatoon Blades would be something of a folly.  Coach/GM Bob Woods is still trying to reestablish the team's sources after a rather handling by the previous regime, and certainly, that began last season, as Niktita Scherbak and Nelson Nogier were both sent out during the season.  However, all not bare, as Mitchell Wheaton and Connor Gay will join Brycen Martin as possible leaders on the team that will eventually be welcoming their first round picks in this year's Bantam Draft, something the Blades couldn't have done the previous five seasons.

If there's a team that is destined for a fall, it is the Swift Current Broncos.  Despite the best efforts of Landon Bow in goal, the Broncos too often didn't have enough scoring to help him out.  Now, the question of whether or not Bow will be one of the overage players to be on the team lurks, as he is one of nine 1995 birthdays on the roster from last season.  The team is also likely to lose both Dillon Heatherington and Brett Lernout, both of whom could turn pro.  The only sure things to be on the roster this season that are proven players will be Jake DeBrusk and Glenn Gawdin.