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2016-17 Central Division Preview

With the 2016-17 Western Hockey League season fast approaching, we take a look around the league to preview what could await fans once the puck finally drops on Friday, Sept. 23.

The WHL saw unprecedented turnover of its club management and coaches this offseason, with seven teams employing new general managers and head coaches coming into 2016-17. That alone should make for some interesting storylines as rookie bench bosses look to establish themselves in the place of departed veterans.

In our third divisional preview, we breakdown the Central Division, in order of standing from 2015-16.

Lethbridge Hurricanes

General Manager: Peter Anholt (second season)
Head Coach: Brent Kisio (second season)
Pre-season record: 2-4-0
2015-16 Record: 46-24-1-1, 94 points (304 GF/218 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round be Regina (five games)
Top Scorers: LW Brayden Burke (27-82-109); RW Tyler Wong (43-46-89); C Giorgio Estephan (30-44-74)
20-year-olds: Wong; C Ryley Lindgren (27-23-50); LD Kord Pankewicz (5-43-48)
Imports: LW Egor Babenko (Russia); RD Igor Merezhko (Ukraine)

KELOWNA, CANADA - FEBRUARY 2: Stuart Skinner #74 of Lethbridge Hurricanes defends the net against the Kelowna Rockets on February 2, 2016 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze)  *** Local Caption *** Stuart Skinner;
Hurricanes G Stuart Skinner

Forwards: Burke, Wong and Estephan are set to return, while Babenko (29-40-69) is back with his speed down the wing… Veterans LW Cory Millette (34-30-64) and Justin Gutierrez (22-27-49) both had career years as overagers, but graduated from the WHL following 2015-16, so there will be some offense to replace there… C Jordy Bellerive (11-25-36) emerged during his rookie campaign and should have an opportunity to grow with added ice time… RW Jesse Zaharichuk (12-29-41) provides added offensive depth, coming over in an offseason trade from Kootenay…

Defence: LD Andrew Nielsen (18-52-70) leaves a gaping hole on the backend as he will graduate to the pro ranks within the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs organization… RD Arvin Atwal (11-39-50) also aged out, taking his snarl with him… Pankewicz will be leaned upon heavily to step up in the absence of both Nielsen and Atwal, while Brady Reagan (6-14-20) will also need to chip in… newcomer RD Brennan Menell (7-46-53) brings plenty of offensive acumen after a pre-season trade from Vancouver… Merezhko (0-10-10) returns, as does LD Nick Watson (0-1-1)… Will 16-year-old RD Calen Addison, the second overall pick from 2015, make the jump?

Goal: Stuart Skinner (27-10-1-0, 2.73, .920, 3 SO) will turn 18 in November and enters his NHL draft year as the ‘Canes go-to guy between the pipes… 18-year-old Ryan Gilchrist (1-0-0, 3.51, .875, pre-season) was acquired from Seattle to fill the backup role…

Player to Watch: Skinner has found his way onto plenty of NHL draft radars and will be key if the Hurricanes hope to repeat as Central Division champions. At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, the native of Edmonton doesn’t leave much for shooters to look at and last year he even proved he could put the puck in the net at the other end of the rink, becoming the first goaltender in franchise history to score a goal. Skinner is already being ranked as one of the top North American goaltenders heading into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

Prognosis: The Hurricanes just edged out Red Deer for the 2015-16 Central Division crown before being upset by Regina in the first round of the WHL Playoffs. Will Brent Kisio’s crew have learned some valuable lessons from last season’s first-round heartbreak? Will the high-flying Hurricanes be able to stave off the likes of Calgary and Red Deer in order to highlight their 30th anniversary campaign with a second consecutive division title? The usually tightly-contested Central Division is shaping up to be a race down to the wire once again.

Spacek_Michael
Rebels C Michael Spacek

Red Deer Rebels

General Manager: Brent Sutter (fifth season)
Head Coach: Brent Sutter (fifth season)
Pre-season record: 3-3-0
2015-16 record: 45-24-1-2, 93 points (260 GF/205 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in Eastern Championship by Brandon (five games)
Top Scorers: LW Ivan Nikolishin (31-51-82); LW Adam Helewka (42-32-74); LW Jake DeBrusk (21-44-65)
20-year-olds: LD Colton Bobyk (20-27-47); LW Evan Polei (16-14-30); G Trevor Martin (18-8-11-1, 2.63, .911)
Imports: C Michael Spacek (Czech Republic); RD Alexander Alexeyev (Russia)

Forwards: Nikolishin, Helewka, DeBrusk are all gone, leaving plenty of offense to be replaced… Captain Luke Philp (21-24-45) aged out as well… Spacek (18-36-54) will be relied upon to pick up some of the slack in his second season in North America… LW Brandon Hagel (13-34-47) had a quality rookie season and was drafted by the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres (6-159). He will be looked to for more… C Adam Musil (19-24-43) and C Jeff de Wit (7-16-23) bring their big bodies back for another year and will look to add more responsibility, as will fellow returner LW Grayson Pawlenchuk (22-16-38)…

Defence: Bobyk is the veteran presence, while RD Austin Strand (2-11-13) and LD Austin Shmoorkoff (0-3-3) return… LD Josh Mahura (0-1-1) is also a returner, though he battled injury all year long, only dressing for two regular season games before getting into 17 playoff contests, collecting two goals and four assists. After being selected by the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks (3-85), he will be relied upon to eat up some of the minutes left behind by the likes of Haydn Fleury, Nelson Nogier and Kayle Doetzel, all of whom have graduated…

Goal: Martin takes over as the No. 1 man after Rylan Toth was dealt to Seattle… 18-year-old Riley Lamb (2-1-0, 1.98, .940, pre-season) and 17-year-old Dawson Weatherill (1-1-0, 3.69, .881) remain…

Player to Watch: The Ducks liked Mahura enough to make him a third round pick, even after he only played a total of 19 games this past season. The Rebels blueline was a force to be reckoned with in 2015-16, boasting a group of big, nasty boys that could do damage at both ends of the rink. With Fleury, Nogier and Doetzel all out of the picture, Mahura has a great opportunity to prove he can be a reliable presence in the top four.

Prognosis: The Rebels loaded up as hosts of the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup and gave it a real good run. Now, a trio of offensive guns are gone and a trio of defensive beasts are also out of the picture. That being said, there are still plenty of quality pieces in place throughout the lineup. Will the Rebels be as much of a force as they were in 2015-16? It will all depend on how much the likes of Spacek, Musil, Mahura and company can pick up the slack. Regardless, Red Deer will be a playoff team come 2017.

2_Bean_HIT0013CW
Hitmen D Jake Bean

Calgary Hitmen

General Manager: Mike Moore (fourth season)
Head Coach: Mark French (third season)
Pre-season record: 4-1-1
2015-16 record: 42-26-2-2, 88 points (246 GF/ 219 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Red Deer (five games)
Top Scorers: C Radel Fazleev (19-52-71); LD Travis Sanheim (15-53-68); LD Jake Bean (24-40-64)
20-year-olds: LW Taylor Sanheim (6-15-21); RW Tyler Mrkonjic (13-11-24); LD Micheal Zipp (5-15-20); RD Scott Allan
Imports: LW Andrei Grishakov (Russia); RD Vladislav Yeryomenko (Belarus)

Forwards: Fazleev graduates to the pro ranks within the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers organization… A notable handful of veterans return, including LW Jakob Stukel (36-24-60), C Jordy Stallard (21-28-49), LW Carsen Twarynski (20-25-45), C Matteo Gennaro (18-25-43) and Beck Malenstyn (8-17-25), giving Calgary enviable experience up front… LW Mark Kastelic (5-5-10) represented Team USA at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup this summer and should grow into a bigger role in his sophomore season… Rookie C Tristen Nielsen will look to make an impact in his first year after being drafted 20th overall in 2015…

Defence: Bean heads up the Hitmen blueline, which also welcomes back LD Jakob LaPointe (0-4-4), Zipp, RD Aaron Hyman (1-2-3) and LD Jaydan Gordon (1-5-6), who comes over from Swift Current… Gone to the pro ranks is Travis Sanheim and the menacing Keegan Kanzig… Colby Harmsworth also aged out… Entering the fray are youngsters RD Drea Esposito and LD Ty Prefontaine, as well as import Yeryomenko, who stacked up four goals and eight points in five pre-season games…

Goal: Cody Porter (25-11-1-1, 3.04, .885, 3 SO) carried the load after coming over from Vancouver last season… He was joined midseason by Nik Amundrud (13-12-1-0, 3.17, .887, 1 SO) who arrived from Saskatoon, while Kyle Dumba (2-3-1-1, 4.30, .857) served in relief. All three remain on the roster and should serve Calgary well in any combination…

Player to Watch: The 17-year-old Yeryomenko landed with authority during pre-season action, managing four goals and eight points in only five games. Selected 46th overall at the 2016 CHL Import Draft, he won a gold medal with the Belarussian national team at the 2016 U18 D1A World Junior Championships. Now, he comes in as one of two new imports for Calgary, tasked with taking over from Fazleev and Pavel Karnaukhov. Both made an impact in their own way, setting the bar high.

Prognosis: With depth up front and arguably the best defender in the Central Division in Bean, the Hitmen are poised to take a run at the division title in 2016-17. Mix in some promising youth in the form of Kastelic and Nielsen, plus Yeryomenko on the back end, and the Hitmen will be tough to beat.

RJFIMG_5594
Tigers C Mason Shaw

Medicine Hat Tigers

General Manager: Shaun Clouston (fifth season)
Head Coach: Shaun Clouston (fifth season)
Pre-season record: 4-1-1
2015-16 record: 30-37-3-2, 65 points (223 GF/ 287 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in regular season tiebreak by Edmonton
Top Scorers: RW Chad Butcher (27-47-74); C Mason Shaw (17-43-60); RD David Quenneville (14-41-55)
20-year-olds: C Steven Owre (16-31-47); Butcher; RW Alex Mowbray (11-10-21); RD Clayton Kirichenko (6-23-29); LD Connor Clouston (2-4-6)
Imports: RW John Dahlstrom (Sweden); LD Kristians Rubins (Latvia)

Forwards: When you get your three highest-scoring forwards back from the previous season, you’re off to a good start and that’s exactly what the Tigers have in Butcher, Shaw and C Matt Bradley (23-28-51)… Moving down the list, Medicine Hat retains a quality group of 1998-born forwards, including RW Ryan Jevne (6-4-10), RW Max Gerlach (30-15-45), Shaw and RW Caleb Fantillo (6-6-12)… The 1997s aren’t too shabby, either with Bradley, RW Zach Fischer (8-5-13) and LW Mark Rassell (13-14-27) being joined by new import RW John Dahlstrom, who was selected 76th at the 2016 CHL Import Draft after being picked up by the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (7-211)… C James Hamblin (2-1-3) and RW Tyler Preziuso (3-7-10) will take on more in their sophomore seasons, while rookies C Gary Haden and LW Ryan Chyzowski, the 18th overall selection in 2015, will emerge…

Defence: Quenneville leads the way after being selected by the NHL’s New York Islanders (7-200) at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft… He is joined by 20-year-old Kirichenko… Rugged captain Ty Stanton (5-32-37) has moved on to the pro ranks… RD Ty Schultz (3-10-13) and LD Brad Forrest (1-12-13) return, while Clouston is stuck in an overage logjam… At 6-foot-5 and 219 pounds, Kristian Rubins stands as the biggest body on the Tigers backend after being selected 16th at the 2016 CHL Import Draft…

Goal: Steady Nick Schneider (21-26-1-0, 3.62, .896, 2 SO) is back between the pipes and joined by upstart 16-year-old rookie Duncan McGovern (3-0-0, 2.00, .925, 2 SO, pre-season) who was stellar during exhibition play.

Player to Watch: Shaw scored 60 points as a 17-year-old and is eligible for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Will he be able to build upon last year’s breakout campaign? At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, he isn’t the biggest player on the ice, but his skating ability and vision more than make up for that.

Prognosis: After finishing tied with Edmonton at the conclusion of the 2015-16 regular season, the Tigers lost a thriller in the tiebreaker game to be eliminated from post-season contention. With a deep group of returning players from top to bottom, Medicine Hat should find a way back to the playoffs in 2017.

Bauer_Lane
Oil Kings C Lane Bauer

Edmonton Oil Kings

General Manager: Randy Hansch (fourth season)
Head Coach: Steve Hamilton (third season)
Pre-season record: 2-3-0
2015-16 record: 29-36-6-1, 65 points (197 GF/ 238 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Brandon (six games)
Top Scorers: LW Brett Pollock (30-48-78); C Lane Bauer (29-36-65); D Dysin Mayo (6-37-43)
20-year-olds: LW Tyler Robertson (14-13-27); Bauer; RD Aaron Irving (9-31-40); Alec Dillon (2-2-1, 3.81, .871)
Imports: RW Artyom Baltruk (Belarus); LD Anatolii Elizarov (Russia)

Forwards: Losing Pollock is a blow as he is expected to turn pro within the NHL’s Calgary Flames organization… Captain Brandon Baddock (22-13-35) also turns pro within the NHL’s New Jersey Devils organization, leaving a leadership void… Bauer will need to assume greater leadership responsibilities while RW Davis Koch (9-14-23) and RW Colton Kehler (17-7-24) will need to factor more into the offense… LW Adam Berg (10-25-25) comes over via an offseason deal with Regina… LW Kobe Mohr (5-6-11), the 20th overall pick in 2014, will have an opportunity to grow into a bigger role…

Defence: In graduating Mayo to the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, the Oil Kings lose a rock on the blueline and a strong leader… Ben Carroll has also aged out, leaving another void… Irving, a prospect of the NHL’s Nashville Predators (6-162, 2014) will need to be a steadying presence amongst a relatively young group… Hulking 6-foot-5, 214-pound RD Kyle Yewchuk (0-5-5) returns for his second season as does LD Brayden Gorda (1-11-12), Jordan Dawson (2-2-4) and the 6-foot-2, 207-pound Elizarov (2-6-8)… LD Ethan Cap, the 11th overall pick from 2015, could make the jump…

Goal: Patrick Dea (18-19-3-1, 3.01, .895, 1 SO) took the starters reins and ran after Dillon was injured early in the campaign… Dillon is back but 17-year-old Liam Hughes (1-1-0, 3.37, .889, pre-season) also remains…

Player to Watch: Can Bauer continue to trend upwards in his final year of junior eligibility? The 20-year-old native of Anchorage, Alaska, will need to be the Oil Kings top offensive threat in 2016-17 after posting career highs in all major offensive categories with 29 goals, 36 assists and 65 points.

Prognosis: There are some big holes to fill in Edmonton with a number of younger players in line to take the opportunity. The Oil Kings might not be the highest-scoring or most lethal time on a nightly basis, but they will battle to stay in the playoff picture.

Zborosky_Zak
ICE RW Zak Zborosky

Kootenay ICE

General Manager: Jeff Chynoweth (16th season)
Head Coach: Luke Pierce (second season)
Pre-season record: 0-2-3
2015-16 record: 12-53-6-1, 31 points (155 GF/ 320 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top Scorers: RW Zak Zborosky (32-36-68); C Matt Alfaro (22-26-48); RW Jesse Zaharichuk (12-29-41)
20-year-olds: Zborosky; Alfaro; G Payton Lee (12-30-3-1, 3.36, .886, 1 SO)
Imports: LD Nikita Radzivilyuk (Russia)

Forwards: Zborosky and Alfaro will be the heart and soul of the offense as well as key cogs within the leadership group… C Noah Philp (6-16-22) will be relied up for more in his sophomore season, as will RW Max Patterson (7-3-10)… C Vince Loschiavo (4-6-1) and LW Jared Legien (4-4-8) had disappointing years and will need to step up… LW Dylan Stewart (4-6-10) showed flashes after coming over in a midseason deal from Prince Albert… 6-foot-4, 218-pound LW Barrett Sheen (4-8-12) enters the equation after coming to Cranbrook in the trade that sent Zaharichuk to Lethbridge… There will be plenty of fresh faces in Kootenay this season, including twin brothers RW Keenan Taphorn and LW Kaeden Taphorn…

Defence: Captain Tanner Lishchynsky aged out, leaving a sizeable leadership void… The blueline now belongs to RD Cale Fleury (8-17-25) who has already found himself on the radar for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft… LD Troy Murray (0-11-11), LD Dallas Hines (4-6-10) and RD Ryan Pouliot (0-4-4) also return… Radzivilyuk stands 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds with a smooth stride… Rookies looking to make the leap include LD Bobby Russell, LD Sam Huston, LD Loeden Schaufler and LD Fedor Rudakov…

Goal: Lee enters the crease as the hometown kid, taking over from the admirable Wyatt Hoflin, who faced a whack of rubber in 2015-16… 18-year-old Declan Hobbs (2-14-3-0, 4.66, .873) returns but has been pushed by 17-year-old rookie Jakob Walter through the pre-season…

Player to Watch: Zborosky has made no bones about his disappointment with being passed over at consecutive NHL drafts. Earning a camp invite from the NHL’s New York Rangers is one step in the right direction, but the Regina native will be motivated to earn a contract in his 20-year-old campaign. He’s the purest scorer on the roster and for a team that scored the fewest goals in the WHL, his touch will be vital.

Prognosis: The rebuild continues in Cranbrook and there is certainly plenty to be excited for in terms of young, promising talent coming down the pipe. First overall pick Peyton Krebs will be a star, but remains one year away. In the meantime, fans can be excited about the Taphorn twins and having a hometown product man the blue paint. Coach Pierce is known for having hard-working clubs and it will take a hard-nosed, black-and-blue effort for this ICE club to enter the playoff picture after a 12-win campaign. But with many players carrying an extra year of experience, who is to say Kootenay won’t surprise?

Keep your eyes on WHL.ca for one more divisional previews this week. We wrap things up by looking into the WHL’s B.C. Division on Thursday.

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