The 2016 Western Hockey League pre-season wrapped up on Saturday night and while it’s only exhibition, there were some interesting details to take away from it all.
A total of four teams finished with five wins – the Portland Winterhawks, Swift Current Broncos, Victoria Royals and Seattle Thunderbirds, while only the Kootenay ICE went without a victory.
In the statistical department, Finnish import and rookie sensation Aleksi Heponiemi landed atop the scoring charts as his five goals and 15 points over six games certainly helped the Broncos achieve those five triumphs.
The 5-foot-10, 141-pound pivot from Tampere, Finland, was tabbed by the Broncos with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 2016 CHL Import Draft. After running the show during the pre-season, the real test will begin Friday, Sept. 23, when Heponiemi and the Broncos host the Saskatoon Blades to open the regular season. Will the flashy Finn be able to keep up such a torrid pace when the games truly begin to matter?
Heponiemi not only registered the most points, he managed to score five goals – a mark also reached by three other WHLers. Regina Pats rookie Nick Henry, Lethbridge Hurricanes veteran Colton Kroeker and Broncos veteran Glenn Gawdin all hit the five-goal plateau during the pre-season.
Henry notched a total of 11 points, powered by his five tallies, and will be a name to watch with great intrigue once the Pats open the campaign on Friday, Sept. 23, by hosting the Prince Albert Raiders. The 17-year-old product of Portlage la Prairie, Man., was initially committed to the NCAA’s Western Michigan University but spurned the Broncos in favour of better exposure and opportunity with John Paddock’s operation in Regina.
An impressive point on Henry’s goals – four of them came via special teams, including two on the power play and two while shorthanded.
The Pats, featuring Henry, are widely considered favourites as heavy weights in the WHL’s East Division.
While the supercharged Pats could make a run for the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2017, they will need to deal with the Moose Jaw Warriors in the East Division.
Though the 2016-17 edition of the Warriors will be younger than last season, rolling out the likes of 2015 bantam studs Jett Woo and Luka Burzan, they will be backstopped by veteran goaltender Zach Sawchenko, who could compete for the title of WHL Goaltender of the Year.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound product of Calgary will turn 19 in December and has something to prove after being passed over at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. During the pre-season, Sawchenko registered the top save percentage (SP) in the league at .970 and sat second in goals-against average (GAA) with a mark of 1.08. The veteran backstop only appeared in one exhibition contest for the Warriors, but there’s no questioning his moxie between the pipes.
The man Sawchenko finished behind in GAA is none other than Griffen Outhouse.
While the Pats could be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, Outhouse and the Victoria Royals could fit the same bill out west.
Outhouse – the 18-year-old product of Williams Lake, B.C. – went 3-1-0 in pre-season play with one shutout, a sparkling 0.95 GAA and .969 SP.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound puckstopper emerged in 2015-16 as the go-to guy for the Royals, putting up a record of 18-3-3-1 with a 1.82 GAA, .937 SP and four shutouts. Those are lofty numbers to chase, but there’s a very real chance Outhouse could maintain that level of performance come Friday, Sept. 23, when the Royals host the Prince George Cougars to open the season.
Speaking of emerging goaltenders, 16-year-olds Carl Stankowski and Duncan McGovern provide a pair of young names for fans to look out for in 2016-17.
While neither is expected to start for their club to open the season, Stankowski led the WHL in pre-season wins with four and could realistically jump in as the backup to recently-acquired 20-year-old Rylan Toth in Seattle.
Meanwhile, McGovern posted back-to-back shutout wins over the Red Deer Rebels to close the pre-season and is locked in as the backup to Nick Schneider in Medicine Hat. His two goose eggs represent the most shutouts by any goaltender during exhibition play.
Making the jump to the Western Hockey League at the age of 16 is a daunting task, and a feat rarely achieved by goaltenders. McGovern is already locked in and should Stankowski stick, just how the two manage during the WHL regular season will be worth watching closely.
While some youngsters and emerging talent steal the spotlight in pre-season, there’s no doubt that the regular season will bring out the best from WHL veterans, including 2017 NHL Entry Draft eligible stars like Nolan Patrick (Brandon Wheat Kings), Kailer Yamamoto (Spokane Chiefs), Cal Foote (Kelowna Rockets), Henri Jokiharju (Portland Winterhawks), Michael Rasmussen (Tri-City Americans) Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Spokane Chiefs), Cale Fleury (Kootenay ICE), Ian Scott (Prince Albert Raiders) and Stuart Skinner (Lethbridge Hurricanes), just to name a few. We will examine those names and more in our upcoming WHL divisional preview series, set to begin Monday morning with the East Division.
The 2016-17 Western Hockey League regular season opens Friday, Sept. 23, featuring WHL on Shaw TV’s broadcast of the Everett Silvertips at Vancouver Giants (7 p.m. PDT), which will also serve as Gordie Howe Tribute Night at the Langley Events Centre. Opening weekend will conclude with yet another tribute to Mr. Hockey on Sunday, Sept. 25 (2:05 p.m. MDT), as the Saskatoon Blades play host to the Swift Current Broncos on WHL on Shaw TV.
Interesting tidbits from the WHL pre-season:
- Most goals for: Swift Current Broncos with 32 in eight games (4.0 per game)
- Fewest goals for: Kamloops Blazers with 11 in five games (2.2 per game)
- Most goals against: Regina Pats with 37 in eight games (4.6 per game)
- Fewest goals against: Victoria Royals with 13 in six games (2.2 per game)
- Most penalized team: Tri-City Americans with 109 PIMs in eight games
- Least penalized team: Kamloops Blazers with 57 PIMs in five games
2016 WHL Pre-season Standings
1) Victoria Royals – 5-1-0 – 10 points
2) Kelowna Rockets – 3-2-0 – 6 points
3) Prince George Cougars – 3-3-0 – 6 points
4) Vancouver Giants – 1-4-1 – 3 points
5) Kamloops Blazers – 1-4-0 – 2 points
1) Calgary Hitmen – 4-1-1 – 9 points
2) Medicine Hat Tigers – 4-1-1 – 9 points
3) Red Deer Rebels – 3-3-0 – 6 points
4) Edmonton Oil Kings – 2-3-0 – 4 points
5) Lethbridge Hurricanes – 2-4-0 – 4 points
6) Kootenay ICE – 0-2-3 – 3 points
1) Swift Current Broncos – 5-2-1 – 11 points
2) Moose Jaw Warriors – 4-3-0 – 8 points
3) Regina Pats – 3-4-1 – 7 points
4) Brandon Wheat Kings – 3-2-0 – 6 points
5) Prince Albert Raiders – 3-2-0 – 6 points
6) Saskatoon Blades – 3-3-0 – 6 points
1) Portland Winterhawks – 5-0-1 – 11 points
2) Seattle Thunderbirds – 5-2-0 – 10 points
3) Spokane Chiefs – 4-2-1 – 9 points
4) Tri-City Americans – 3-3-2 – 8 points
5) Everett Silvertips – 2-2-3 – 7 points
1) Aleksi Heponiemi – SCB – 5-10-15
2) Nick Henry – REG – 5-6-11
3) Nikita Popugaev – MJW – 4-5-9
4) Artyom Minulin – SCB – 1-8-9
5) Jake Kryski – KEL – 4-4-8
6) Vladislav Yeryomenko – CGY – 4-4-8
7) Ryan Bowen – MJW – 4-4-8
8) Tim Vanstone – PAR – 3-5-8
9) Parker Kelly – PAR – 3-5-8
10) Kole Lind – KEL – 3-5-8
1) Griffen Outhouse – VIC – 3-1-0 – 0.95 GAA – .969 SP
2) Zach Sawchenko – MJW – 1-0-0 – 1.08 GAA – .970 SP
3) Nick McBride – PGC – 0-0-0 – 1.41 GAA – .963 SP
4) Cole Kehler – POR – 3-0-0 – 1.43 GAA – .956 SP
5) Carl Stankowski – SEA – 4-0-0 – 1.66 GAA – .945 SP
6) Cody Porter – CGY – 1-0-0 – 1.68 GAA – .923 SP
7) Michael Herringer – KEL – 1-0-0 – 1.89 GAA – .942 SP
8) Riley Lamb – RDR – 2-1-0 – 2.15 GAA – .940 SP
9) Travis Child – SCB – 3-0-0 – 2.17 GAA – .904 SP
10) Duncan McGovern – MHT – 3-0-0 – 2.17 GAA – .925 SP