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2016-17 B.C. 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.

We conclude our divisional previews by examining the B.C Division, in order of standing from 2015-16.

In Kelowna, the Rockets roll out a new coach, as do the Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants.

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Royals C Matthew Phillips

Victoria Royals

General Manager: Cameron Hope (fifth season)
Head Coach: Dave Lowry (fifth season)
Pre-season record: 5-1-0
2015-16 record: 50-16-3-3, 106 points (281 GF/ 166 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in second round by Kelowna (seven games)
Top Scorers: LW Alex Forsberg (31-60-91); C Tyler Soy (46-39-85); LW Jack Walker (36-48-84)
20-year-olds: Walker; LW Carter Folk (10-21-31); RD Ryan Gagnon (5-20-25)
Imports: RD Marsel Ibragimov (Russia); Vladimir Bobylev (Russia)

Forwards: Forsberg has graduated from the ranks while Bobylev bolted for the motherland… Soy and Walker return, as does C Matthew Phillips (37-39-76), the WHL Rookie of the Year… C Dante Hannoun (26-32-58) will look to build upon a solid sophomore season while Folk is the newest addition via trade with Lethbridge… 16-year-old rookie C Eric Florchuk, the 13th overall pick in 2015, will look to take the next step… RW Ethan Price (11-15-26), RW Jared Dmytriw (11-7-18) and RW Regan Nagy (8-10-18) also return, giving the Royals a solid veteran core up front…

Defence: The big loss here is heart-and-soul LD Joe Hicketts, who graduates to the pro ranks within the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings organization… LD Chaz Reddekopp (4-26-30) will shoulder a heavy load along with Gagnon… LD Ralph Jarratt (3-8-11), LD Scott Walford (1-10-11), Ibragimov (1-6-7) and RD Brayden Pachal (1-5-6) all bring experience… The lone fresh face is LD Mitchell Prowse, a second round pick (35th) in 2015…

Goal: Griffen Outhouse (18-3-3-1, 1.82, .937, 4 SO) caught fire in the second half of 2015-16. With Coleman Vollrath out of the picture, it’s now the Outhouse show… 17-year-old Dylan Myskiw (1-0-0, 3.60, .889, pre-season) slots in as the backup…

Player to Watch: The pint-sized Phillips, standing 5-foot-6 and weighing in at 141 pounds, was lights out in his rookie season before hearing his name called at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames (6-166). What will he do for an encore? With Forsberg gone, there will certainly need to be some additional offense from other culprits and Phillips could be the key.

Prognosis: Some are referring to the B.C. Division as the division of death in 2016-17. The Royals took the crown in 2015-16 and while there will be plenty of challengers, the depth in Victoria is superior. Barring disaster, playoffs should be a certainty and a second consecutive division title is not out of the question.

KELOWNA, CANADA - JANUARY 08: Cal Foote #25 of Kelowna Rockets skates against the Everett Silvertips on January 2, 2016 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze) *** Local Caption *** Cal Foote;
Rockets D Cal Foote

Kelowna Rockets

General Manager: Bruce Hamilton (26th season)
Head Coach: Jason Smith (first season)
Pre-season record: 3-2-0
2015-16 record: 48-20-4-0, 100 points (269 GF/218 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated by Seattle in Western Championship
Top Scorers: C Tyson Baillie (43-52-95); LW Justin Kirkland (31-36-67); C Dillon Dube (26-40-66)
20-year-olds: LW Riley Stadel (2-6-8); RW Rodney Southam (8-15-23); G Michael Herringer (26-12-2-0, 3.18, .900, 1 SO)
Imports: C Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic); LW Calvin Thurkauf (Switzerland)

Forwards: Baillie and Kirkland have moved on as has C Rourke Chartier, though Dube remains after being selected by the NHL’s Calgary Flames in 2016 (2-56)… C Nick Merkley (17-31-48) has battled injuries and will look to return to the 90-point form that made him a first round pick (ninth) of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes… Soustal (20-26-46) and Thurkauf (18-27-45) pack a pretty good one-two punch in the import department… LW Jake Kryski (12-27-39) is the latest addition via the trade market, coming over from Kamloops in exchange for the Gatenby brothers. He stacked up four goals and eight points in five pre-season games to begin his Kelowna chapter… LW Nolan Foote turns 16 on Nov. 9 and is the younger brother of RD Cal Foote…

Defence: LD Lucas Johansen (10-39-49) is expected back after being drafted in the first round (27th) by the NHL’s Washington Capitals… Cal Foote (8-28-36) returns for his NHL draft year and is already being projected as a first round candidate… LD Devante Stephens (2-9-11) takes no prisoners, while RD Gordie Ballhorn (3-6-9) also returns… RD Jonathan Smart (2-5-7) and RD Braydyn Chizen (1-1-2) played in smaller doses last season but return in hopes of more opportunity… 2000-born rookies LD Konrad Belcourt and RD Kelvin Hair remain on the roster…

Goal: Herringer turned it up a notch in the playoffs, going 8-10 with a 2.44 GAA and .928 SP alongside two shutouts as he backstopped the Rockets to the Western Conference finale, before being grounded by Seattle… Brodan Salmond (3-2-0, 3.44, .883) enters as the full-time backup after appearing in seven games last season…

Player to Watch: Cal Foote enters his NHL draft year with lofty expectations. He has already been a rock-solid presence for Kelowna but will look to elevate his game to another level in hopes of helping his club dethrone the Royals.

Prognosis: The Rockets lost some key pieces but retained many more. While Jason Smith enters the game as a rookie head coach, he takes over a dressing room with an embarrassment of talent, which will make his job easier. Under the right circumstance, this Rockets team could be the B.C. Division champion when the final buzzer sounds to end the regular season.

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Blazers LW Collin Shirley

Kamloops Blazers

General Manager: Stu MacGregor (second season)
Head Coach: Don Hay (third season)
Pre-season record: 1-4-0
2015-16 record: 38-25-5-4, 77 points (237 GF/ 218 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Kelowna (seven games)
Top Scorers: LW Collin Shirley (37-42-79); C Matt Needham (23-39-62); RW Deven Sideroff (19-40-59)
20-year-olds: C Matt Revel (23-30-53); Shirley; RD Dallas Valentine (3-13-16)
Imports: RW Rudolfs Balcers (Latvia); LD Ondrej Vala (Czech Republic)

Forwards: Shirley takes over as captain entering his final campaign of junior and is the Blazers leader on offense as well… Needham and Gage Quinney have graduated while former import Jiri Smejkal has moved along as well… Otherwise, the bulk of the Blazers are back, including Sideroff and C Garrett Pilon (15-32-47)… LW Jermaine Loewen (8-7-15) earned a tryout at the NHL’s San Jose Sharks rookie camp and was invited to main camp, but was recently returned to Kamloops… Balcers also recently returned from San Jose, having been drafted by the club in 2015 (5-142)…

Defence: Ryan Rehill is the big graduate… LD Dawson Davidson (6-33-39) recently returned from a camp experience with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins… Vala (4-17-21) is back along with RD Nolan Knee (1-6-7) and LD Cameron Reagan (0-5-5)… 16-year-old LD Luke Zazula (0-1-1) remains in the building after seeing three games as a 15-year-old affiliate in 2015-16…

Goal: Connor Ingram (34-15-5-4, 2.61, .922, 4 SO) is expected back after his first training camp with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. The 19-year-old was lights out in 2015-16 and could make a case to be Canada’s goaltender at the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship… 18-year-old Dylan Ferguson (4-10-0-0, 4.13, .875, 1 SO) was bright during pre-season, registering a 2.13 GAA and .938 SP… 18-year-old Carter Phair (0-2-0, 7.71, .795, pre-season) was brought in as insurance via trade from Edmonton…

Player to Watch: Loewen has been a curious case ever since appearing on the scene in 2014-15 when he skated in 37 games with the Blazers. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound product of Jamaica didn’t start playing hockey until the age of 10. Slowly but surely, he has blossomed and now finds himself on NHL radars. He posted 15 points and 96 penalty minutes in his sophomore season in Kamloops – how will he follow that up after experiencing a taste of the NHL with the San Jose Sharks?

Prognosis: The Blazers boast plenty of returners, just like the Royals and Rockets before them. There’s no question Kamloops will be a playoff team come 2017, it’s just a matter of where they will fall. This is a club that finished the 2015-16 regular season by winning nine consecutive games to burn their way into the post-season. From there, they nearly upset the powerhouse Rockets in the first round. A total of 15 points separated the B.C. Interior rivals in 2015-16. Chances are pretty good that margin will shrink in 2016-17.

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Cougars C Jansen Harkins

Prince George Cougars

General Manager: Todd Harkins (third season)
Head Coach: Richard Matvichuk (first season)
Pre-season record: 3-3-0
2015-16 record: 36-31-3-2, 77 points (240 GF/ 225 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Seattle (four games)
Top Scorers: LW Chase Witala (40-39-79); LW Jesse Gabrielle (40-35-75); C Brad Morrison (28-34-62)
20-year-olds: C Jordan Ross (1-0-1); LW Colby McAuley (13-17-30); LD Sam Ruopp (4-21-25); LD Shaun Dosanjh (0-1-1); G Ty Edmonds (21-17-2-1, 2.75, .913, 4 SO)
Imports: LW Bison Bartek (Netherlands); RW Yan Khomenko (Russia)

Forwards: Witala has moved on, but Gabrielle, Morrison and C Jansen Harkins (24-33-57) return, as does C Brogan O’Brien (18-38-56) and Jared Bethune (16-21-37)… The 18-year-old Khomenko (5-3-8) comes over from Everett and made an immediate impact in his lone pre-season out with the Cougars, notching two goals… LW Jackson Leppard, the eighth overall pick in 2015, remains in the picture as he tries to crack the club in his first year of eligibility… C Justin Almeida (2-4-6), the fifth overall pick in 2014, will look to build upon his rookie campaign. He’s working in the right direction after notching five points in five pre-season contests… With Ruopp and Edmonds likely locks in the overage category and five 20-year-olds around, there’s a possibility the Cougars could part with Ross…

Defence: LD Tate Olson (9-38-47) was grabbed by the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks in 2016 (7-210) and returns with Ruopp to bring some quality experience to the blueline… RD Shane Collins (2-19-21) and RD Joel Lakusta (2-5-7) are also back… LD Josh Anderson (1-5-6) missed significant time last season, only dressing for 39 games. But he still caught the eye of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the third round (71st) of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. How he bounces back in 2016-17 will be key to the Cougars success… New on the scene is RD Jonas Harkins, the younger brother of Jansen, who doesn’t turn 16 until Boxing Day. He is already a towering presence at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds…

Goal: Edmonds is back for one final go around and he will likely split time with 19-year-old Nick McBride (12-11-1-1, 3.03, .904, 1 SO) once again… 18-year-old Tavin Grant, who played 18 games in 2014-15 (3-6-0, 4.64, .849) remains in the fold as well…

Player to Watch: In his NHL draft year, Jansen Harkins collected 20 goals and 79 points over 70 games. In 2015-16, he managed 24 goals and 57 points in 69 games. The prospect of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets (2-47, 2015) will need to step up his game in 2016-17 if the Cougars are to run with the likes of Victoria, Kelowna and Kamloops. He undoubtedly possesses the greatest raw talent on the club and will need to elevate his play.

Prognosis: Like Kamloops, the Cougars return a significant number of key pieces for 2016-17 and have a reliable duo between the pipes. If Jansen Harkins kicks it up a notch and Anderson bounces back from injury, the Cougars will claw away in the B.C. Division. With a new coach in Richard Matvichuk bringing a fresh approach, perhaps that is the kick-start needed to get this team beyond the first round of the post-season for the first time 2006-07.

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Giants LW Tyler Benson

Vancouver Giants

General Manager: Glen Hanlon (first season)
Head Coach: Jason McKee (first season)
Pre-season record: 1-4-1
2015-16 record: 23-40-5-4, 55 points (199 GF/ 273 GA)
2016 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top Scorers: RW Ty Ronning (31-28-59); RW Chase Lang (27-36-63); LW Trevor Cox (18-43-61)
20-year-olds: C Thomas Foster (8-12-20); RD Dmitry Osipov (2-10-12)
Imports: Osipov (Russia); RW Radovan Bondra (15-15-30)

Forwards: Lang and Cox aged out, but Ronning will return after attending camp with the NHL’s New York Rangers (7-201, 2016)… Bondra is away at NHL camp with the Chicago Blackhawks… Complicating the import situation is the status of 2016 CHL Import selection Filip Zadina, 16, who is projected to go early in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, but remains home playing in the Czech Republic… LW Tyler Benson (9-19-28) has struggled with injuries, but is supremely talented with healthy. Selected in the second round (32nd) of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, he will return and if healthy, can make a notable impact… 16-year-old C Tyler Popowich is already 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds. He has the physical tools to hold his own in the Western Hockey League and will now be challenged with getting up to speed and thinking the game on the next level…

Defence: Workhorse Ben Thomas is gone, leaving Osipov, LD Tyler Brown (0-6-6) and RD Matt Barberis (7-19-26) as the veterans to hold down the fort for time being… Brennan Menell lead the blueline in scoring in 2015-16, but requested a trade for a second time and was dealt to Lethbridge for rugged 19-year-old Darian Skeoch (1-6-7)… LD Dylan Plouffe (2-3-5) is back for a sophomore season… 2000-born RD Kaleb Bulych played five games as an affiliate in 2015-16 and remains in the fold… Other new faces included 1999-born RD Bailey Dhaliwal and RD Marcus Kichton…

Goal: Ryan Kubic (17-24-4-2, 3.31, .898, 4 SO) took over the crease after Payton Lee and Cody Porter were dealt midway through 2015-16. He performed admirably, earning the team’s rookie of the year honours… David Tendeck (0-1-0, 5.80, .822) takes over the full-time backup position and doesn’t turn 17 until Nov. 25…

Player to Watch: Benson can be a difference maker when healthy. Unfortunately, health has always been the issue. In the early stages of his first NHL camp with the Oilers, he is already suffering from a shoulder issue and has been held out of action. The 18-year-old Edmonton product will assuredly be back on the West Coast and will be needed for Vancouver to compete in the terrifying B.C. Division.

Prognosis: The Giants continue to rebuild but have some quality pieces in place, particularly with Benson, Ronning and Kubic, plus Popowich coming up the pipe is something Vancouver should be very excited for. Making the big dance is going to be a tall task for any team in what is expected to be an ultracompetitive B.C. Division this season. If the G-Men can get big seasons from Benson and Ronning, plus some immediate impact from Popowich, there’s nothing to suggest they can’t compete.

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