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2017-18 Central Division Preview

 

 

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.

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General Manager: Shaun Clouston

Head coach: Shaun Clouston

Pre-season record: 2-2-0-0

2016-17 record: 51-20-1-0, First in Central Division

2017 Playoffs: Lost in Eastern Conference semifinal to Lethbridge (4-3)

Top scorers: RW Chad Butcher (27-76-103), C Mason Shaw (27-67-94), C Steven Owre (26-62-88)

20-year-olds: LW Mark Rassell (36-25-61), RW Zach Fischer (34-29-63), LD Kristians Rubins (3-21-24), G Michael Bullion (21-10-1-0, 3.17, .897, 3 SO)

Imports: LD Kristians Rubins (Latvia), LW Mick Kohler (Germany)

Forwards: Losing the likes of veteran leaders Chad Butcher and Steven Owre will not only have an impact at the offensive end of the rink, it will factor into the defensive end as both provided reliable two-way ability.

After being selected by the Minnesota Wild (4-97) this past summer, Mason Shaw was set to take on an added share of the leadership left behind with the departure of Butcher and Owre. Unfortunately, the energetic playmaker from Wainwright, Alta., suffered a knee injury while in camp with the Wild and is expected to miss four-to-sixth months.

All that considered, plenty of quality ice is up for grabs. Former first-round bantam selections James Hamblin and Ryan Chyzowski will be relied upon heavily, as will veteran Max Gerlach – the pride of Flower Mound, Texas.

Defence: New York Islanders prospect David Quenneville (7-200, 2016) holds the key on the Tabbies’ blue line. Planted firmly on the Hockey Canada radar for the 2018 World Junior Championship after an appearance at the World Junior Summer Showcase, the 5-foot-9 product of Edmonton, Alta. is set to guide the back end following the departure of captain Clayton Kirichenko. Quenneville boasts outstanding mobility and will serve in the Tigers quick transition game that resulted in a Central Division-best 350 goals-for during the 2016-17 season.

Rubins, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Latvian bruiser, will need to prove his value as a two-spotter in order to secure a roster as a 20-year-old. His shutdown ability is unquestionable, though he is still recovering from shoulder surgery.

Dylan MacPherson and Dalton Gally return to provide additional depth.

Goal: Jordan Hollett was the Tigers’ big off-season acquisition, coming to southern Alberta in a deal that sent veteran goal scorer Matt Bradley to the Mastercard Memorial Cup host Regina Pats. Hollett, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound product of Langley, B.C., saw 19 games of action as the backup to Tyler Brown in the Queen City, but he managed to collect wins in 15 of those outings. The Ottawa Senators prospect (6-183, 2017) will start the season on the shelf as he battles a case of mononucleosis.

In the meantime, that leaves crease duties to Duncan McGovern and Michael Bullion. The 17-year-old McGovern hung around for seven games at the start 2016-17, while 20-year-old Michael Bullion carried the mail for the Tigers, appearing in 25 regular season games and 11 post-season contests following a mid-season trade from the Portland Winterhawks.

Player to watch: While Peyton Krebs and Kirby Dach might have the spotlight from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft class, don’t sleep on Josh Williams. The fifth-overall pick from the same draft, Williams got into four games during the 2016-17 season and has lit up the scoreboard with nine points (7G-2A) in four pre-season appearances in 2017. At the age of 16, he is already 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, bringing a beautiful blend of speed and skill to a Tigers system that thrives on that.

Prognosis: There’s no way around the devastation of losing an impact playmaker like Shaw for four-to-six months. That being said, the Tigers have blossoming depth up front in form of the Hamblin and Gerlach. Veteran Mark Rassell will be leaned upon heavily, as will the likes of Ryan Jevne, Gary Haden and Tyler Preziuso.

If the Tigers can overcome the loss of Shaw and get Hollett back healthy in quick order, they have all the tools in place to defend their Central Division title. A second consecutive playoff appearance should be a fair expectation for 2017-18.

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General Manager: Peter Anholt

Head coach: Brent Kisio

Pre-season record: 1-4-0-0

2016-17 record: 44-21-4-3, Second in Central Division

2017 Playoffs: Lost in Eastern Conference Championship to Regina (4-2)

Top scorers: RW Tyler Wong (51-58-109), C Giorgio Estephan (35-54-89), RW Zak Zborosky (41-33-74)

20-year-olds: C Giorgio Estephan, LD Brennan Riddle (4-14-18), RD Brennan Menell (12-59-71)

Imports: LW Egor Zudilov (Russia), RD Igor Merezhko (Ukraine)

Forwards: The Tyler Wong era in Lethbridge is over and how the Hurricanes handle that will define their immediate success in 2017-18. As much as the club will miss the Cochrane, Alta., product’s 109 points, the greater void exists in the leadership and stability the spark plug provided on the ice and in the dressing room.

A dynamic Estephan returns in 2017-18 after playing some of the best hockey of his WHL career during the 2017 WHL Playoffs, collecting 24 points (11G-13A) in 18 outings.

The next generation heart-and-soul for the Hurricanes comes in the form of Jordy Bellerive, the club’s second overall selection from the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft. Passed over at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the native of North Vancouver signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins following a lights-out performance at the club’s rookie camp. Notching a career-best 56 points (27G-29A) in 2016-17, Bellerive will be leaned up to lead his Lethbridge running mates.

Quality depth and grit exists in the form of Tanner Nagel, Ryan Vandervlis and Zane Franklin, with a new crop of youngsters including Josh Tarzwell and Dylan Cozens provide exciting potential.

Defence: Veteran Minnesotan Brennan Menell took his game to a new level during the Hurricanes 2017 post-season run and there’s no reason he can’t find a place as one of the top defenders in the Central Division in 2017-18.

Calen Addison has blossomed into one of the most enjoyable young defenders to watch in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. Thanks, largely in part, to poise well beyond his years, the 17-year-old product of Brandon, Man. helped Hockey Canada claim a gold medal at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, chipping in with six points (2G-4A) in five games. He is very quickly becoming one of the most highly-touted WHL blue liners eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft.

While Menell and Addison provide excellent mobility, there’s no shortage of size in the Hurricanes defensive zone. A host of big bodies includes 6-foot-3 Ty Prefontaine, 6-foot-4 Kyle Yewchuk, 6-foot-5 Merezhko and 6-foot-3 Brady Pouteau.

Goal: Coming off the excitement of being drafted by his hometown Edmonton Oilers (3-78), Stuart Skinner returns to the Hurricanes in search of a Central Division crown. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound puck-stopper went viral in 2015-16 when he scored into an empty net and followed up by producing career goaltending marks in 2016-17 with 34 wins in 60 appearances.

Player to watch: Dylan Cozens, a 16-year-old product of Whitehorse, Yukon, flashed a glimpse of his abilities during the 2017 WHL Playoffs. With the Hurricanes battling injuries, the six-foot-three, 177-pound pivot posted eight points (3G-5A) in 12 games and earned praise from many corners of the hockey world because of his knack for coming up big in key moments. While full-time duties will present a greater challenge, Cozens is a vital piece of the Hurricanes future.

Prognosis: Though Wong is irreplaceable, this Hurricanes squad might boast more depth up front than it did in 2016-17. With the added experience of a challenging post-season run, this is a club poised to make some noise in 2017-18.

Assuming Estephan and Bellerive build upon career seasons and grab hold of the leadership reins, the sky is the limit for the Hurricanes with Skinner providing the backbone in net.

It isn’t out of the question to expect the Hurricanes to challenge for the club’s second Central Division crown in the past three seasons.

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General Manager: Brent Sutter

Head coach: Brent Sutter

Pre-season record: 4-1-0-0

2016-17 record: 30-29-9-4, Third in Central Division

2017 Playoffs: Lost in Eastern Conference quarter-final to Lethbridge (4-3)

Top scorers: C Michael Spacek (30-55-85), LW Brandon Hagel (31-40-71), LW Evan Polei (33-29-62)

20-year-olds: RW Mason McCarty (21-16-37), LW Grayson Pawlenchuk (4-5-9), G Lasse Petersen (17-16-4-0, 3.19, .896)

Imports: C Kristian Reichel (Czech Republic), RD Alexander Alexeyev (Russia)

Forwards: Gone is the playmaking prowess of Michael Spacek and the hard-nosed presence of Evan Polei and Adam Musil.

McCarty returns to Red Deer for his second tour of duty and should provide a shot of offense. The expected return of Grayson Pawlenchuk can’t be understated. Providing infectious energy, the product of Ardrossan, Alta., only found his way into 19 games in 2016-17 as his season was cut short due to injury.

Lane Zablocki and Brandon Hagel will help shoulder the offense as well. The addition of veteran Jared Dmytriw from the Victoria Royals will be a welcome presence.

An x-factor exists in new import forward Kristian Reichel. With NHL pedigree in his blood as the son of longtime pro and former Calgary Flames forward Robert Reichel, Kristian landed in Red Deer by stacking up five points (4G-1A) in two pre-season contests.

Defence: The hope is for Alexeyev to be healthy after he missed extended time in 2016-17 due to injury. The product of St. Petersburg, Russia, notched 21 points (4G-17A) in only 41 games during his first year in North America.

There will be plenty of opportunity for growth from the likes of Dawson Barteaux, who was a key piece in the trade that sent Josh Mahura to Regina, as well as Ethan Sakowich, Carson Sass and Jacob Herauf. Brandon Schuldhaus returns to provide an additional veteran presence with the puck-blasting Colton Bobyk having aged out.

Goal: Overage goaltender Lasse Petersen remains in the mix as does sophomore 19-year-old Riley Lamb. While the two virtually split time during the 2016-17 regular season, it was Lamb earning the start in all seven games of the Rebels’ first round playoff series against Lethbridge. He logged 14 wins in 41 regular season appearances, while Petersen laid claim to 17 victories in 41 appearances.

Player to watch: Zablocki, who was also a part of the Mahura trade with the Pats, had an immediate impact upon his inclusion in the Red Deer offense. The product of Wetaskiwin, Alta., rattled off 29 points (19G-10A) in 31 games with the Rebels, building upon the 25 points (9G-16A) he registered in 33 games with Regina prior to the deal. That was good enough for the Detroit Red Wings to call his name at the 2017 NHL Draft (3-79) and he will look to build upon last season’s success in his first full campaign with the Rebels.

Prognosis: The Rebels own plenty of grit and some dark-horse weaponry on offense, in the form of Zablocki and Hagel, among others. While a younger blue line could come with its challenges, there is immense potential in the youngsters holding down the back end.

Riley Lamb appeared ready to grow into the starter’s role and will be given the opportunity to do so once again, in all likelihood. His game will weigh heavily into the fate of the Rebels as they look to battle it out with a Central Division that could end up muddy in the middle.

As usual, a Brent Sutter-coached club will fight, scrap and claw for an opportunity at a playoff berth.

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General Manager: Jeff Chynoweth

Head coach: Dallas Ferguson

Pre-season record: 2-3-0-0

2016-17 record: 30-32-8-2, Fourth in Central Division

2017 Playoffs: Lost in Eastern Conference quarter-finals to Regina (4-0)

Top scorers: C Matteo Gennaro (43-37-80), LW Beck Malenstyn (32-24-56), LW Jakob Stukel (23-30-53)

20-year-olds: Gennaro, Stukel, RD Brady Reagan (7-20-27), G Nick Schneider (32-11-1-0, 3.43, .886)

Imports: LW Andrei Grishakov (Russia), RD Vladislav Yeryomenko (Belarus)

Forwards: Gennaro broke out for a career year in 2016-17 and will looked to for his high-end scoring ability once again in 2016-17.

Aged out is veteran leader Tyler Mrkonjic, but beyond that, the Hitmen return a solid core up front for 2017-18. A strong group of 1998-born forwards includes Malenstyn, Jake Kryski, Luke Coleman and the ever-feisty Andrew Fyten.

Beyond that, Mark Kastelic, Lucas Cullen and Tristen Nielsen can all be expected to take on greater roles having added valuable WHL experience to each of their respective resumes.

Defence: Jake Bean will serve as an elite anchor on the Hitmen blue line once again, providing a valuable presence at both ends of the rink.

Yeryomenko, the Belarussian rearguard, improved steadily over the course of 2016-17 – his first season in North America – and will look to continue that trend as he takes on a greater role in 2017-18.

Veteran Brady Reagan could find himself in tough, depending on what management intends to do with an overage group that includes the scoring-machine Gennaro, speedster Stukel and goaltender Schneider.

Additional depth is provided by Jakob LaPointe, Drea Esposito, Jameson Murray and others.

Goal: Schneider comes to the Hitmen following four seasons with division-rival Medicine Hat. A signed prospect of the Calgary Flames, the product of Leduc, Alta., will look to end his WHL career on a high note while playing under the watchful eye of his NHL club. Despite losing his starting role to Michael Bullion in the second half of 2016-17, Schneider still managed to collect a career-high 32 wins. With 76 career WHL victories in 142 career regular season appearances, he should provide a reliable and experienced presence in the blue paint.

Player to watch: The towering Jackson van de Leest serves as the biggest addition to the Calgary Hitmen for 2017-18… literally. The former 16th overall selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, van de Leest rings in at 6-foot-6 and 213 pounds. Why is that notable? The kid only turned 16 years old in June. A product of Kelowna, van de Leest earned seven regular season appearances in 2016-17 and was steady as a tender, young 15-year-old. He then rejoined the Hitmen for three post-season appearances and did not look out of place against the high-flying Regina Pats. Forwards in the Central Division can expect nothing short of a nightmare when trying to work around the long reach of Calgary’s newest rookie.

Prognosis: While much remains the same with the roster for 2017-18, plenty of change happened in Calgary throughout the off-season. New GM Jeff Chynoweth crossed lines, joining the Hitmen from the other side of a heated rivalry with the Kootenay ICE. He put together a long run of quality clubs, managing the ICE to 17 consecutive post-season appearances and now brings his expertise to Calgary. Behind the bench, Mark French shipped off to Europe and was replaced by Dallas Ferguson. A 44-year-old native of Wainwright, Alta., Ferguson comes to the Hitmen following 13 seasons at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, including nine as head coach.

With a fresh outlook from the management group and bench staff, it will be interesting to watch how this Hitmen squad keeps pace in the Central Division. Once again, a wildcard berth isn’t out of the question for 2017-18. It seems quite likely the Rebels and Hitmen will duke it out for a spot within the division’s top three.

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General Manager: Randy Hansch

Head coach: Steve Hamilton

Pre-season record: 0-5-0-0

2016-17 record: 23-43-5-1, Fifth in Central Division

2017 Playoffs: Did not qualify

Top scorers: RW Davis Koch (21-49-70), RW Trey Fix-Wolansky (24-30-54), LW Tyler Robertson (15-21-36)

20-year-olds: RW Colton Kehler (18-15-33), G Travis Child (17-6-1-4, 2.98, .900, 2 SO)

Imports: RW Artyom Baltruk (Belarus), RW Andrei Pavlenko (Belarus)

Forwards: Fix-Wolansky exploded onto the WHL scene in his rookie season, electrifying Edmonton fans with dazzling offensive ability, which he parlayed into an invite to Edmonton Oilers camp. Continued growth and contributions from the locally-developed product will be critical for the Oil Kings in 2017-18.

Veterans Tyler Robertson, Graham Millar and Riley Stadel have graduated from the WHL and their leadership will be sorely missed on a young Oil Kings squad.

Brett Kemp, a former second round (41st) bantam selection who was a key piece in the deal that saw Aaron Irving shipped to Everett, will look to grow into a bigger role in his first full year in the Alberta capital.

Defence: Conner McDonald came to Edmonton as a part of the trade that sent 20-year-old Lane Bauer to the Kamloops Blazers. The 18-year-old product of Delta, B.C., registered 27 points (8G-19A) in 67 games split between Kamloops and Edmonton in 2016-17. He will be relied upon to take on greater responsibility in his first full campaign with the Oil Kings.

Will Warm returns for his sophomore season after showing well enough to earn an invite to training camp with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. A product of Whistler, B.C., Warm notched 24 point (9G-15A) in 67 contests in 2016-17.

Goal: Child, a savvy veteran of 84 career WHL regular season appearances, joins the Oil Kings after splitting 2016-17 between the Swift Current Broncos and Brandon Wheat Kings. A product of Killam, Alta., Child secured 17 wins in 33 appearances last season, kicking out two shutouts in the process.

He appears to work in tandem with 19-year-old Josh Dechaine, who found his way into 17 games during his WHL rookie season in 2016-17.

Player to watch: While Tyler Robertson departs the organization, his younger brother Matthew steps in to carry forward the family name. The seventh-overall selection of the Oil Kings at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, the 6-foot-3 Robertson suited up in seven games during 2016-17 and was nothing short of steady. While it’s safe to expect his workload to be managed closely, Robertson is the next big thing on the Edmonton blue line and he should get every opportunity to take that and run.

Prognosis: With only Child and Kehler currently on the roster as overage players, the Oil Kings enter 2017-18 as one of the younger clubs in the Central Division.

With some great depth in their 1999-born group and further promise in the 2000-born group, Edmonton is certainly trending upward, but will have to eke out some wins in tight games to keep pace in the Central Division.

If Tyson Gruninger, Fix-Wolansky and Koch can elevate their play, the Oil Kings won’t be an easy opponent to deal with.

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General Manager: Matt Cockell

Head coach: James Patrick

Pre-season record: 3-3-0-0

2016-17 record: 14-46-10-2, Sixth in Central Division

2017 Playoffs: Did not qualify

Top scorers: C Colton Kroeker (18-41-59), C Vince Loschiavo (29-28-57), D Cale Fleury (11-27-38)

20-year-olds: C Alec Baer (15-24-39), RW Colton Veloso (18-14-32), C Colton Kroeker (18-41-59)

Imports: LW Gilian Kohler (Switzerland), RD Martin Bodak (Slovakia)

Forwards: Brett Davis could be primed for a big breakout in 2017-18. Coming to Cranbrook from Lethbridge in a late season deal, the product of Oakbank, Man., notched 22 points (11G-11A) in 31 games with Kootenay on top of the 11 points (7G-4A) he etched out during 29 games with the Hurricanes. The Dallas Stars saw enough in the 6-foot-1 winger to call his name at the 2017 NHL Draft (6-163).

Kohler joins the ICE after having his named called as the third-overall selection at the 2017 CHL Import Draft. The 5-foot-11 native of Biel, Switzerland, lit up Swiss Junior A in 2016-17, registering 50 points (8G-42A) in 43 games. Eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft, this is a big year for Kohler as he looks to plant himself on the radar of NHL scouts while also transitioning to life in North America.

Kroeker and Loschiavo will need to produce at greater rates than in previous seasons, but certainly have the potential to achieve that.

Defence: Fleury returns as the ICE captain following a stint at training camp with the Montreal Canadiens, who selected him at the 2017 NHL Draft (3-87). His presence at both ends of the rink remains vital to the fate of the ICE.

Veteran Dallas Hines, Ryan Pouliot and Sam Huston return for another year, while Loeden Schaufler and Bobby Russell look to make the full-time jump in 2017-18.

Goal: The ICE appear set to roll with the tandem of Kurtis Chapman and Bailey Brkin – both training camp acquisitions via the trade market. Chapman brings a grand total of 50 minutes of WHL regular season experience from his time with the Regina Pats, while Brkin owns 60 minutes of WHL experience from one appearance in Swift Current.

Player to watch: Peyton Krebs was the first-overall selection at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft and the first piece in an extensive rebuild for the Kootenay ICE. A product of Okotoks, Alta., he owns incredible vision and anticipates the play unlike most players his age. In 2016-17, he was good for six points (1G-5A) in six appearances with the ICE. To ask for point-per-game production from a 16-year-old rookie might be just a bit much, but Krebs is most definitely capable of having a major impact as arguably the most highly-touted rookie for 2017-18.

Prognosis: Once again one of the younger squads in the WHL’s Central Division, the ICE should be more competitive than what was indicated by their 2016-17 season.

There’s plenty of excitement surrounding the club, which underwent an ownership change in 2017, complete with new management in Matt Cockell and an extensively revamped coaching staff including head coach James Patrick and associate coach Jon Klemm. New uniforms are in order and a new, young face for the franchise in Krebs.

It may take another year or two before we see the extent of this group’s on-ice potential, but the pieces are in place for a brand-new ICE age in Cranbrook.

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