As the 2017-18 Western Hockey League regular season approaches, each division will be previewed leading up to the first day of the regular season Friday, September 22. Team capsules are presented in order of 2016-17 finish within each division.
General Manager: Todd Harkins
Head Coach: Richard Matvichuk
Pre-season record: 3-3-0-0
2016-17 record: 45-21-3-3, First in B.C. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference quarter-final to Portland Winterhawks (4-2)
Top scorers: C Jansen Harkins (21-51-72), LW Nikita Popugaev (29-40-69), LW Jesse Gabrielle (35-29-64)
20-year-olds: LW Jared Bethune (22-27-49), LW Radovan Bondra (32-31-63), LW Aaron Boyd (9-15-24), C Brogan O’Brien (9-24-33), RD Shane Collins (2-11-13), LD Tate Olson (7-19-26)
Imports: Radovan Bondra (Slovakia), Nikita Popugaev (Russia), Vladislav Mikhalchuk (Belarus)
Forwards: With a logjam of overagers up front, it appears the team’s leading scorer from last season, Jansen Harkins, will find a new home with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose this season. A player of Harkins’ skill will be hard to replace, but the Cougars are hopeful the players coming in can fill the void. Also gone is veteran Brad Morrison, who was traded to the Vancouver Giants in June as the team aimed to cut down their list over overagers.
Nikita Popugaev is set to re-join the Cougars after taking part in training camp with the New Jersey Devils. He’ll get a chance to improve on his 69 points last season between Moose Jaw and Prince George and play a role in replacing that lost offence from Harkins.
2014 third round WHL Bantam draft selection Ethan O’Rourke led the team in pre-season scoring with four goals and five points in four games. After getting his feet wet in the league with 19 games last season, he’ll be counted on in a more expanded role.
Defence: The Cougars were rewarded for their patience this off-season when 2013 WHL Bantam draft selection Dennis Cholowski left his collegiate team in the United States to join the WHL club.
Coming to the Cougars as a first round selection of the Detroit Red Wings in 2016, Cholowski should help offset the loss of a player like Brendan Guhle who seems destined for the AHL’s Rochester Americans this season.
Shane Collins and Tate Olson will be the other solidified veterans on the Cougars’ blue line, but with three extra overagers on their roster, whatever final decision is made by Todd Harkins could affect one or both of them.
Players like Colorado Avalanche selection Josh Anderson, Joel Lakusta, Ryan Schoettler and Jonas Harkins will come into this season expecting larger roles. Where they fit in the parameters of the Cougars depth chart will be interesting to watch.
Goal: While the team has holes to fill up front and on the blue line, perhaps the toughest departures they’ll face comes between the pipes as both Ty Edmonds and Nick McBride were added to the list of off-season departures.
That resulted in a three-way battle for the starting job in the pre-season between Tavin Grant, 2016 WHL Bantam Draft first round selection Taylor Gauthier and Lakeville, Minn.’s Isaiah DiLaura
Grant has 19 games of experience with the team, though he didn’t play with the team during the 2016-17 season. He didn’t register a win in the pre-season but posted positive figures besides that with a .964 save percentage and 1.21 goals against average in 99 minutes of action.
The tandem they end up going with will face stiff competition from the other four clubs trying to dethrone the defending division champions.
Player to watch: Gauthier is the youngest of the three goaltenders battling for a spot in the Cougars, but the 16-year-old already stands a tall 6-foot-1 and has a long resume full of success. In addition to being named the top goaltender in the Alberta Major Bantam AAA Hockey League two years in a row, Gauthier won a gold medal with Team Alberta at Western Canada U16 Challenge Cup. That winning pedigree in a goaltender as young as Gauthier is a trait any team would covet.
Prognosis: Last season’s battle for the division title came down to the wire and with the players the team are projected to lose, things won’t be any easier for the Cougars.
That being said, in the voids created by the departures, there’s tremendous potential for growth in the present and the future so the Cougars should remain a solid division contender for years to come.
General Manager: Bruce Hamilton
Head Coach: Jason Smith
Pre-season record: 3-0-1-0
2016-17 record: 45-22-5-0, Second in B.C. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference Final to Seattle (4-2)
Top scorers: RW Kole Lind (30-57-87), LW Calvin Thurkauf (33-37-70), C Nick Merkley (23-40-63)
20-year-olds: C Tomas Soustal (18-29-47), LW Carsen Twarynski (17-26-43), LD Devante Stephens (13-22-35), LD James Hilsendanger (6-21-27), LD Gordie Ballhorn (2-7-9)
Imports: C Marek Skvrne (Czech Republic), C Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic), RD Liobr Zabransky (Czech Republic)
Forwards: With the Nick Merkley era in Kelowna over, the team will still retain enough offensive firepower to make them a division contender.
Kole Lind was returned to the Rockets from the Vancouver Canucks after a brief audition at camp and is projected to be one of the top offensive players for his team and in the conference.
An injury derailed the start of Dillon Dube’s season last year, but the Calgary Flames prospect made an immediate impact when he returned to the lineup in November 2016, tallying seven points in his first four games back. With him having a productive camp with the Flames this season, but likely to be sent back, Dube will bring an energized presence to the forward core of the Rockets. His 1.38 points-per-game in 40 games last season was the best mark of his WHL career so far.
Defence: The Rockets are in a tough spot for overagers, but that situation is especially true on the blue line with three of them. Stephens could alleviate that situation somewhat if he ends up staying in the professional ranks.
That would make Cal Foote the undisputed leader on the team’s blue line when he returns from camp with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Blue liners like Braydyn Chizen will be asked to take on bigger roles this season and how they adjust will impact how long the Rockets are playing hockey into the spring.
Goal: After Michael Herringer aged out, the starting role appears to have been placed upon the shoulders of last year’s backup Brodan Salmond.
His statistics is 23 games – 12-7-2-0, 2.76, 0.891, 3 SO ‑ were promising, but he’ll be counted on in a bigger role this season. How he adjusts to a full-time workload will be of critical importance to the Rockets.
Backup James Porter played relatively well in his two pre-season contests and could command some significant time in net. Depending how the Rockets plan to share the crease will be an important factor.
Player to watch: Nolan Foote and Kyle Topping both had productive rookie seasons on a deep Rockets team last season. Foote ended up leading all Rockets rookies with 19 goals and 35 points while Topping had 14 goals and 29 points.
The pair largely represent what has become a continuation of successful season for a Rockets franchise team that has won at least 45 games in each of the past five seasons, winning 50-plus games in three of those years.
Prognosis: The Rockets have finished as one of the top two teams in the B.C. Division for the past five seasons and in nine of the past 10 campaigns. That run has featured four division titles, two Ed Chynoweth Cups as champions of the WHL and one of the richest offerings of alumni to the NHL ranks by any CHL franchise.
The team appears set up front and on the blue line give or take for some minor roster trimmings. Goaltending may be the biggest unknown for the team going forward. Don’t expect the Rockets to fall out of those top two spots in the division because of it though.
General Manager: Stu MacGregor
Head Coach: Don Hay
Pre-season record: 2-2-0-1
2016-17 record: 42-24-2-4, Third in B.C. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference quarter-final to Kelowna (4-2)
Top scorers: RW Deven Sideroff (36-42-78), RW Rudolfs Balcers (40-37-77), C Lane Bauer (36-35-71)
20-year-olds: LW Nic Holowko (7-13-20), C Nick Chyzowski (16-26-42), RD Joel Gatenby (7-31-38)
Imports: C Justin Sigrist (Switzerland), LD Ondrej Vala (Czech Republic)
Forwards: The aging out of Lane Bauer and Collin Shirley will be 40 goals the team needs to replace if they want to stay competitive in the division this coming season. Add in the likelihood of losing their top two goal scorers from last season in Deven Sideroff and Rudolfs Balcers and it’s a challenging hill for the Blazers to climb.
The x-factor for the Blazers will come from third-year center Garrett Pilon. The third-round selection of the Washington Capitals is impressing in camp and will return hungry for a huge year with the Blazers after a 65-point sophomore campaign last season. Quinn Benjafield impressed with a 42-point season last year and will be relied upon to be one of the Blazers’ offensive leaders this year.
Defence: Where the team will face a bevy of departures up front, the blue line is relatively stable with Gatenby and Vala expected back in increased roles this season. They should help to stabilize the team’s front end and keep the puck out of their own end.
Luke Zazula impressed in a 54-game rookie season last year and should find himself relied upon more this season, especially after the team bid farewell to overage defenceman Dallas Valentine.
The last time the Blazers selected in the top five of the WHL Bantam Draft, they selected North Vancouver, B.C.’s Nolan Kneen third overall. He’s been a regular in the lineup over the past two seasons and could see significant growth this coming year.
Goal: Connor Ingram was a steady presence between the pipes for the Blazers over the last three seasons, but will likely be making the jump to the professional hockey ranks with the Tampa Bay Lightning, forgoing his final year of junior eligibility.
To accommodate for Ingram’s departure, the team acquired 1998-born net minder Kyle Dumba from the Calgary Hitmen to compliment projected starter Dylan Ferguson. Max Pagala posted fair pre-season numbers, but as the youngest of the three goaltenders, could find himself on the outside looking in come the start of the season.
Player to watch: Though not technically a player, the importance of this season to Blazers head coach Don Hay will be worth taking note of. Hay became just the second coach in WHL history to surpass the 700-win mark for his career last year and will very likely set the record for all-time wins this coming season. He’s 22 wins shy of tying the great Ken Hodge, who has 742 wins for his career.
Jackson Shepard returns as the team’s young face in their forward core. With 12 points in 41 games last season as a rookie, both Shepard and the Blazers will be expecting bigger things from the winger’s development this coming year.
Prognosis: There’s no real way around losing four of your top five scorers and your starting goaltender in one off-season. There will be moments where those losses will be felt, but the Blazers have been trending upward in recent seasons, finishing just six points behind the division-winning Cougars last year.
The Blazers might not be the same team they were last year, but it won’t be a catastrophic downgrade either. With the legendary presence of Don Hay behind the bench, it’s reasonable to expect the Blazers to make it back to the post-season, but there’s questions still left unanswered that will determine the true length of their season.
General Manager: Cameron Hope
Head Coach: Dan Price
Pre-season record: 1-2-1-0
2016-17 record: 37-29-5-1, Fourth in B.C. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference quarter-final to Everett (4-2)
Top scorers: C Matthew Phillips (50-40-90), LW Jack Walker (31-41-72), C Dante Hannoun (25-39-64)
20-year-olds: C Tyler Soy (25-30-55), RW Regan Nagy (18-23-41), LD Chaz Reddekopp (10-33-43)
Imports: LW Igor Martynov (Belarus), RW Yan Khomenko (Russia)
Forwards: For rookie head coach Dan Price, he’ll get a chance to work with a forward core that will bring back four of their top five offensive producers that will be challenging for a better result than their fourth-place finish from last season.
Offensively-dynamic players like Phillips will once again lead the team while they will also expect a player like Tyler Soy to regain his offensive form after a shortened 44-game season last year. Walker, who finished second in team scoring with 72 points will be a big loss to the team, but not one they are incapable of replacing.
Defence: The team will return the likes of Chaz Reddekopp, Scott Walford and Ralph Jarratt to their blue line this season with growth expected from all three. An early-September deal saw the Royals shore up their blue line with the addition of veteran Jared Freadrich from the Red Deer Rebels. His presence will be important to helping the Royals make a push towards the top of the division.
The notable departure on the back end comes from Quesnel, B.C. native Ryan Gagnon, who aged out after spending his entire 320-game WHL career with the Royals franchise and will utilize his WHL Scholarship while continuing his hockey career with the University of Calgary Dinos.
Goal: Griffen Outhouse was a workhorse for the Royals last season, playing 63 games and winning 34 of them. His 2.85 goals against average and 0.915 save percentage were bonuses that should add him into the conversation for the league’s top goaltenders this season. Having answered any questions about him being able to handle a larger workload last season, expect the Royals to utilize their star goaltender as much as possible once again.
Backing up Outhouse will likely be Hunter Arps, who was acquired earlier this month from the Brandon Wheat Kings, though the team still has 2000-born netminder Dean McNabb on their roster as well. Whoever does get to backup Outhouse may not get much game action, but will need to be sharp when they are called upon.
Player to watch: Eric Florchuk had quite the 2016-17 season as the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. product made the jump to the WHL level with the Royals, playing in 51 games. He also had the chance to represent his country, winning a silver medal with Canada Black at the 2016 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Eligible for the 2018 draft, this season could be a breakout year for the young center.
Prognosis: The ending to the 2016-17 season for the Royals was marred by injuries and the team’s record suffered. They went 2-6-1 in March before bowing out of the playoffs in six games against the Everett Silvertips. It’s a case of what might have been for the Royals as those lost points down the stretch separated them from what was a tight divisional race.
An off-season removed from that sour ending, the Royals are back and ready to compete for the division title. They’re one of the teams favoured to win the division due to an abundance of offensive talent up front and a similar defensive core that will return all but one key member.
One bad stretch in the B.C. Division can take you out of the division race easily, with the workload increased exponentially to earn it back. Staying consistent may be well-known in the book of hockey clichés, but that trait will be especially true this year with the strong and capable core they have. A second division title for the Royals in three years is well within the realm of possibility.
General Manager: Glen Hanlon
Head Coach: Jason McKee
Pre-season record: 5-1-0-0
2016-17 record: 20-46-3-3, Fifth in B.C. Division
2017 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: RW Ty Ronning (25-28-53), C James Malm (20-31-51), LW Tyler Benson (11-31-42)
20-year-olds: RW Ty Ronning (25-28-53), C Jack Flaman (15-7-22), C Brad Morrison (21-31-52), RD Darian Skeoch (1-9-10)
Imports: C Milos Roman (Slovakia)
Forwards: There’s a lot to like about what’s going on in Vancouver.
Captain Tyler Benson is averaging nearly a point-per-game in a 132-game WHL career that has been interrupted by untimely injuries. The winger has already impressed enough to earn a contract with the Oilers, signaling that this could be his final season in the Lower Mainland. If he stays healthy, Benson could easily be one of the top offensive stars in the division.
James Malm had a productive sophomore campaign last season with 20 goals and 51 points. He continued to display his offensive flair in the 2017 pre-season with four goals and eight points in five games. Off-season acquisition Brad Morrison should add some dynamic scoring ability to the team as well.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Giants has already been answered in their favour as the New York Rangers returned Ty Ronning, their seventh-round selection in 2016, to the Giants earlier this week. His offensive ability will be relied upon again by the Giants as they push for a spot in the post-season.
Milos Roman, the team’s lone import this season, played at a point-per-game pace in in the Czech U20 league and was effective for his HC Trinec U20 squad in their run to a league championship last season with 12 points in 10 games. How that translates to the North American ice surface remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that Roman brings an incredible offensive upside to the Giants.
Defence: Surrey, B.C. product Matt Barberis led the team’s blue line with 10 goals and 25 points last season in 48 games. A full season in the same role would be beneficial for both sides.
Dylan Plouffe will be eyeing an improvement on his 21-point campaign last season, ranking him second on the team’s blue line.
Overall, team defence will be a key focus for the Giants. An off-season of growth for both their forward and defensive cores should help the team work on turning their defensive game from a liability into an asset.
Goal: After trading away long-time goaltender Ryan Kubic earlier this week, the responsibility in the creases lies with last season’s backup David Tendeck and American goaltender Todd Scott.
Scott’s credentials as well as his stellar pre-season play (3-0, 2.45, .927) may have been enough to convince the Giants he represents the future in the crease.
For all the exciting offensive pieces up front, that core will be broken up after this season, making it imperative that the team remain sharp on defence and in net to effectively utilize those assets up front. It’ll be a big ask of both Tendeck and Scott, but there’s an opportunity for them to rise to the challenge and surprise the rest of the division.
Player to watch: Bowen Byram got an 11-game audition on the blue line last year and the third overall pick from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft has his focus on earning regular ice time with the Giants this season. How head coach Jason McKee utilizes him will be of great importance going forward.
Prognosis: Solid draft selections and savvy moves in the 2017 off-season could very well pay off for the Giants in 2017-18. The team going with two young goaltenders is certainly a question mark, but one that could turn into a big positive for the club throughout the season.
Expect the team’s core of forwards to go toe-to-toe with the best the division has to offer. Competing for a playoff spot is certainly realistic, but with so many moving parts in the division, it’s hard to peg any team to one position before the first puck has been dropped.