As the 2017-18 Western Hockey League’s regular season approaches, each division will be previewed leading up to the first day of the regular season Friday Sept. 22. Team capsules are presented in order of 2016-17 finish within their own division.
General Manager: John Paddock
Head coach: John Paddock
Pre-season record: 3-2-0-1
2016-17 record: 52-12-7-1, First in East Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in WHL Championship to Seattle (4-2)
Top scorers: Sam Steel (50-81-131), Adam Brooks (43-87-130), Dawson Leedahl (35-54-89)
20-year-olds: C Wyatt Sloboshan (11-20-31), C Matt Bradley (34-43-77), Tyler Brown (33-8-5-1, 2.64, 0.911, 5 SO)
Imports: LD Egor Zamula (Russia), RW Emil Oksanen (Finland)
Forwards: If you know a goaltender in the East Division not playing for the Regina Pats, now may be a good time to say a prayer for them. The forward core for the Pats is built to score and will be taking another run at being the top scoring team in the league as they were last year with 353 goals. The loss of Adam Brooks does subtract some of the team’s firepower, but the addition of Medicine Hat Tigers center Matt Bradley in an off-season trade could set the stage for the Surrey, B.C. native to have a career year.
Sam Steel remains a question mark for the Pats as he attends camp with the Anaheim Ducks. It would seem crazy for the WHL Player of the Year to miss out on such a huge season for the Pats franchise and an opportunity to play in the Mastercard Memorial Cup, but stranger things have happened. Nick Henry tallied 35 goals and 80 points last season and will likely be an offensive threat for the team again.
Defence: In addition to scoring the most goals last season, the Pats also gave up the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference. Josh Mahura was a mid-season acquisition who contributed his fair share offensively as well as defensively. Other important pieces like Connor Hobbs and import Sergei Zborovskiy are eligible to play and would certainly be welcomed back with open arms, but the logistics of where they fit in the depth chart of their respective NHL clubs has yet to take shape. Once it does, it may shed more light onto what this team will look like at the blue line.
Goal: There won’t be too much change between the pipes for the Pats. Tyler Brown is back and looking to build on a 33-win campaign. The price to acquire a forward piece like Bradley came at the cost of Jordan Hollett. His void will be filled by Max Paddock, who appeared in five games with the Pats last season, sporting a 4-1 record, 3.01 goals against average and .901 save percentage. He may find himself on the bench often with Brown in front of him, but he’ll gain a valuable year of development with the team in such an important year.
Player to watch: Of all the players whose statuses are unclear with their NHL clubs, one forward that will certainly be back with the Pats this year is Red Deer, Alta. native Jeff de Wit. With seven goals in four pre-season games, the team’s reliance on his offensive contributions could grow exponentially over the coming season. How he measures up to those expectations will play a key role in the team’s chances.
The status of players like Steel, Henry, Hobbs and Austin Wagner remain uncertain, but it seems inevitable that Vegas Golden Knights second round selection Jake Leschyshyn will come back to the Pats at some point soon. His 17 goals and 40 points in 47 games was a solid campaign for the then 17-year-old, but how he elevates his play and of those around him will be interesting and fun to watch at the same time.
Prognosis: Of all the years to win it all, the Regina Pats want it to be this year. In their 100th season, the Pats play host to the 100th edition of the Mastercard Memorial Cup. The stage literally couldn’t be bigger for the club. That’s why every game, streak, slump and play will be under the microscope.
The Pats haven’t made it to the Mastercard Memorial Cup on their own merit since they won it all in 1974. Previous hosting opportunities in 1980 and 2001 have resulted in the Pats coming up just short of their championship.
Do the Pats have the right formula of players to go all the way? Time will tell. They seem to be set in net and could return strong defensive and forward cores if NHL camps and injury rehabs shape up in their favour.
The tough part of this process for John Paddock and his players is not knowing what the right formula is until it may be too late. Their tickets to the big dance are already punched, it’s just a matter of how they use them.
General Manager: Alan Millar
Head coach: Tim Hunter
Pre-season record: 3-2-1-0
2016-17 record: 42-21-8-1, Second in East Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Eastern Conference quarter-final to Swift Current (4-3)
Top scorers: Jayden Halbgewachs (50-51-101), Brayden Burke (19-63-82), Brett Howden (38-43-81)
20-year-olds: C Jayden Halbgewachs (50-51-101), LW Brayden Burke (19-63-82), LW Tanner Jeannot (19-33-52), RW Spencer Bast (9-8-17)
Imports: LD Oleg Sosunov (Russia), LD Dmitri Zaitsev (Russia)
Forwards: The 2016-17 season was a landmark year for the Warriors as they surpassed the 90-point plateau for the first time since they won their last division title in the 2011-12 season.
They’ll return much of the forward core that helped them get there as well, assuming Warriors captain Brett Howden doesn’t stay in camp longer with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Besides Howden, the Warriors have plenty of other good offensive options, with four of their other top five producers from last season eligible to return, including Halbgewachs and Burke.
Defence: Montreal Canadiens second round selection Josh Brook and 2018 draft eligible prospect Jett Woo lead the defensive corps for the Warriors.
The departures of Josh Thrower and Matt Sozanski will create the opportunity for others to step up, also opening the door for the team’s two imports in Sosunov and Zaitsev to take on significant roles.
Goal: Between the pipes is where the Warriors could likely feel the biggest loss of all with the departure of 2017 WHL Eastern Conference Goaltender of the Year Zach Sawchenko to the Canada West Conference as he utilizes his WHL Scholarship. That may be a bit of a blessing to the Warriors, who don’t face that tough of a decision now on their overager group going forward for this season
Brody Willms is an experienced candidate to replace Sawchenko in net, but he has yet to play more than 25 games in a season, though he was playing some of his best hockey last year when faced with that workload.
The backup job will likely belong to Penticton, B.C. native and Okanagan Hockey Academy product Adam Evanoff, so seeing how he handles play at the WHL level will be interesting to watch.
Player to watch: The Warriors’ first round selection in 2015, Luka Burzan came as advertised last season with 27 points in 66 games. What does he have in store for an encore? The 2018 draft eligible prospect will be one to watch in an offensively dominant Warriors squad.
Prognosis: This year is a perfect storm for the Warriors. They have a good combination of impactful overagers, the right mix of 1998-born players already making their impact in the league and a whole host of other contributors throughout the lineup.
The Warriors will be challengers to win the division as they were last year when they finished 10 wins back of the Regina Pats and had the eighth-best record in the league.
Translating that to playoff success will be another story as they will have to fight their way out of a fierce Eastern Conference.
Director of Player Personnel: Manny Viveiros
Head coach: Manny Viveiros
2016-17 record: 39-23-4-6, Third in East Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Eastern Conference semifinal to Regina (4-3)
Top scorers: Tyler Steenbergen (51-39-90), Aleksi Heponiemi (28-58-86), Ryley Lindgren (27-47-74)
20-year-olds: C Glenn Gawdin (26-33-59), Connor Chaulk (10-13-23), Arthur Miller (7-12-19), RW Brandan Arnold (3-4-7), Taz Burman (18-12-4-1, 2.96, .907)
Imports: RD Artyom Minulin (Russia), C Aleksi Heponiemi (Finland)
Forwards: The 2017-18 version of the Swift Current Broncos will once again be deep down the middle with the pair of stars in Steenbergen and Heponiemi. Both selected in last year’s draft, the focus now turns to taking their Broncos club a step forward in a challenging division. Their 39 wins and 88 points were the most since the 2007-08 season and a 30-point improvement over their record from the 2014-15 season.
Mid-season acquisition Ryley Lindgren was the team’s top producer in the post-season as the Broncos went on a surprising run that took them to a seventh and deciding game against the Eastern Conference Champion Regina Pats.
Defence: What will be holding up the Broncos for the time being is the status of Maxime Lajoie with the Ottawa Senators. As a signed 20-year-old, he could very likely stay with the Senators organization for the season, though his offensive upside and style of play would be welcomed back to the Broncos if presented with the opportunity.
His return, while welcomed, would make a tough overager situation even tougher for the Broncos, who are already dealing with four forwards and a goaltender up front playing in their overage year.
Import blueliner Artyom Minulin and Colby Sissons can lead the defensive core in Lajoie’s absence while the 1998-born Sahvan Khaira could see an increased role this season.
Goal: Taz Burman was replaced mid-season with Jordan Papirny. With Papirny now aged out, the starting role in net belongs to Burman, who will likely see the bulk of the time in net. He posted relatively stable numbers last season, and if they’re sustained throughout the entire campaign, it could keep the Broncos in the top half of the division.
Player to watch: A pair of first round selections by the Broncos should factor into this year’s roster. Defenceman Dom Schmiemann finally had the experience of his first full WHL season last year. Watching his development from the off-season to his first year of NHL draft eligibility should provide for some excitement.
Up front, 2015 first round selection Riley Stotts had a promising 16-point rookie campaign and will come back to the team with higher expectations.
It goes without saying that Logan Barlage will be a player to watch as well. His 37 goals and 76 points at the Midget AAA level last year in Saskatchewan was the encore performance after a 60-goal and 125-point season in Bantam AA in his WHL draft year. He comes to the Broncos this season already with 17 games of WHL experience, four in the regular season and 13 in last year’s playoffs. How quickly the 2019 NHL Draft eligible prospect makes his mark on his team, the division and the league will be fun for any fan to follow.
Prognosis: How do you measure success when you’re slotted behind two of the top clubs in the conference? That’s a question the Broncos will have to answer as they continue to move upwards.
It’s completely reasonable to expect the Broncos to make it back to the post-season again this year, though likely still as the third seed in their division or as one of the wild card entries.
General Manager: Grant Armstrong
Head Coach: David Anning
Pre-season record: 3-1-0-0
2016-17 record: 31-31-7-3, Fourth in East Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost to Medicine Hat in Eastern Conference quarter-finals (4-0)
Top scorers: Reid Duke (37-34-71), Ty Lewis (30-38-68), Tyler Coulter (30-33-63)
20-year-olds: LD Kade Jensen (4-10-14), LD James Shearer (8-23-31), G Logan Thompson (14-17-5-2, 3.24, .908, 1 SO)
Imports: RD Daniel Bukac (Czech Republic)
Forwards: Last year’s questions mark was whether the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers would return stud defenceman Ivan Provorov to the Wheat Kings. This year’s question mark centers around Nolan Patrick, the second overall pick from the 2017 NHL Draft. Time will only tell if he will be sent back. Had injuries not shortened his season, Patrick was on pace to record another 100-point campaign, which may have turned the Wheat Kings into a division contender and not a playoff wild card.
The loss of last year’s leading scorer in overager Reid Duke as well as potentially Patrick could be a tough blow to the team, but with the rise of players like Stelio Mattheos, that blow to the team’s chances could be softened.
Defence: With the Provorov era in Brandon over for good, the attention turns to the next generation of defensive stars for the Wheat Kings. Kale Clague is expected to be one of the top defencemen in the league this year and will be relied upon by the Wheat Kings night in and night out in a competitive division. Overagers Jensen and Shearer could provide stability to the team’s backend as well.
Goal: Logan Thompson will more than likely be anointed the starter for the Wheat Kings in his overage year. While he led the team with 14 wins last season, the Wheat Kings will be expecting big things from him and Thompson will have big expectations for himself. Five of those wins came against Moose Jaw and Regina, so he’s shown he can at least hold his own with the division leaders. How he responds to an increased workload as well as the play of expected backup Dylan Myskiw will go a long way in determining the team’s fortunes.
Player to watch: Caiden Daley has already gained a wealth of experience with the Wheat Kings. The team’s first round selection in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft played briefly with the team during their championship run in 2015-16, then missed just 12 games last season.
Prognosis: Two years removed from their run to the Mastercard Memorial Cup, the Brandon Wheat Kings are no longer the heavyweights in their division with two solid teams in the Regina Pats and Moose Jaw Warriors clamoring for the spotlight. That leaves them up against four other teams with their own aspirations of success, making the division that much harder to play in. The return of a player like Patrick could alter the landscape and put Brandon back into contention for the division title.
Thankfully, consecutive years of solid drafting has built the team from within and even features a healthy contingent of hometown players. The division won’t come easy, but the team seems poised to grow from their 72-point season last year as they build towards another lengthy championship run.
General Manager: Colin Priestner
Head coach: Dean Brockman
Pre-season record: 4-2-0-0
2016-17 record: 28-35-7-2, Fifth in East Division
2017 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: Braylon Shmyr (35-31-66), Jesse Shynkaruk (31-25-56), Mason McCarty (21-16-37), Josh Paterson (17-20-37)
20-year-olds: LW Braylon Shmyr (35-31-66), C Cameron Hebig (26-43-69 in 2015-16), RD Evan Fiala (4-15-19), G Logan Flodell (22-20-4-0, 2.81, 0.912, 3 SO)
Imports: LD Libor Hajek (Czech Republic), LD Mark Rubinchik (Russia)
Forwards: Kirby Dach, the second overall pick in the 2016 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft impressed in 19 games with the club last season, tallying six goals and 10 points. The Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. native will be counted on for more of an offensive punch this year. How far he rises could dramatically affect the Blades’ chances of making it into the post-season.
There is a looming decision for the Blades to make on their overagers, which includes forwards Cameron Hebig and Braylon Shmyr.
Defence: Saskatoon’s two imports can be found on the team’s blue line in Libor Hajek and Mark Rubinchik. With the departure of Bryton Sayers, both will return as the top two scorers from the blue line for the Blades last year.
Evan Fiala contributed defensively as well, but the team as a whole left a lot to be desired, giving up the second-most goals of any East Division team. It’ll be tough to contain teams like Regina and Moose Jaw this year, but how they handle themselves against the other three teams in their division will be telling in the team’s hopes for a ticket to the post-season.
Goal: Logan Flodell returns for his senior year of junior hockey as the de facto starter for the Blades. After posting back-to-back 22-win seasons, Flodell will be looking to add to that this season as his club aims to go to the playoffs. If things don’t start out well in Saskatoon, Flodell may be an attractive trading piece for a team looking to improve in the goaltending department or acquire an experienced backup.
Backing him up will likely be Hafford, Sask. native Joel Grzybowski, who was a part of the tandem that helped the Battlefords North Stars to a SJHL title last season. His transition to the WHL could be a big positive for the club.
Player to watch: Cameron Hebig’s story may be the most interesting of the bunch. After missing the 2016-17 season due to an injury, the hometown product appears to be healthy and ready to go after notching five goals and six points in four pre-season games.
How close he gets to his 2015-16 form of 26 goals and 69 points remains a question mark. There’s no doubt that the Blades missed his offensive contributions last season, scoring fewer than 200 goals for the just the second time in the past nine seasons. It being Hebig’s overage year of junior hockey, this is his biggest chance to prove he’s capable of continuing his hockey career past this coming season.
Prognosis: Up-and-coming sophomores like Chase Wouters and Michael Farren will continue to have a direct impact on the club this season. Both had promising rookie campaigns last season and part of this year’s growth for the Blades will involve both of them. They have the offensive duo together for four more seasons, giving the Blades plenty of positive options in the present and future.
They’ll be in tough to nab one of the top three spots in the division, but one of the wild card entries seems realistic for the Blades.
General Manager: Curtis Hunt
Head coach: Marc Habscheid
Pre-season record: 2-3-0-0
2016-17 record: 21-44-5-2, Sixth in East Division
2017 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: Simon Stransky (22-26-48), Parker Kelly (21-22-43), Curtis Miske (20-23-43)
20-year-olds: C Curtis Miske (20-23-43), RW Devon Skoleski (14-20-34), C Jordy Stallard (14-23-37)
Imports: LD Vojtech Budik (Czech Republic), LW Simon Stransky (Czech Republic)
Forwards: If the Raiders want to make a push for a playoff spot, they’ll need more offensive contributions up front. In a division as challenging as the East, the motto seems to carry that the best defence is a good offence.
While there are plenty of players in the pipeline expected to contribute in larger roles in years to come, there are pieces with the Raiders now that will be counted upon come Friday’s opening puck drop.
Parker Kelly finished second on the team in scoring last season as a 17-year-old. Him taking the next step forward with his career is of importance to the Raiders.
Sean Montgomery scored four goals in four pre-season games. His 23-point campaign was a slight improvement over the previous season, so building upon that again this year is critical for the 1998-born forward from Calgary, Alta.
Curtis Miske found his offensive rhythm after a mid-season trade with the Spokane Chiefs, producing close to a point-per-game in 33 contests with the Raiders. Continuing that trend would be beneficial for both sides as he enters he overage year.
Defence: After winning the lottery last year to select first in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, the Raiders went with familiar roots at first overall, selecting Kaiden Guhle, the younger brother of Buffalo Sabres second round pick Brendan Guhle.
His time to join the Raiders may not be for another year, but as a highly-ranked prospect, he may be worth waiting for.
In the meantime, players like Max Martin, Brayden Pachal and Vojtech Budik will work to further their individual careers as well as helping the team improve on last season’s 49-point campaign. The team’s first round selection from 2016, defenceman Rhett Rhinehart will likely get a full season worth of games to grow and help the team as well. Watching his development and rise is another benefit afforded to the Raiders as part of their youth movement.
Goal: The puck stops here when it comes to Ian Scott. Scott finished 14th among WHL goaltenders last season in minutes played, making the eighth-most saves among that same group with 1,391 stops throughout the season. Scott’s promise and potential between the pipes was enough for the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs to select him in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft. Eligible for three more seasons in the league, Scott’s journey is just beginning and as the goaltender matures, he can help provide a steady presence as the team’s core grows in front of him.
Player to watch: Cole Fonstad made the jump to the WHL last year and didn’t look out of place, tallying 11 goals and 26 points in 69 games. How he elevates his game in his second full season will be of great importance to the team’s growth as well.
While it’d be nice to have Scott play all 72 regular season games, he’ll need a break at some point. That responsibility will fall onto either Nicholas Sanders or Curtis Meger. Sanders has the edge based upon his previous experience with the Raiders, but Meger has been successful in his own right, helping the Regina Pat Canadians to a bronze medal at the Telus Cup in 2014-15 and winning a host of other awards.
The importance of the backup role will be to not only give Scott a night off from time to time, but to help the team continue building in those games as well.
Prognosis: The club has plenty of highly-touted prospects coming through the system each year. How those prospects develop and take their next step is now seemingly the one barrier between the Raiders and success.
Players like Spencer Moe and Carson Miller are already contributing to the offensive upside of the team as 2000-born forwards and they aren’t the only ones. Keeping those cores intact and nurturing them can quickly bring the Raiders back into the Eastern Conference spotlight.
With several key defensive pieces, including Kaiden Guhle, and a budding star in Ian Scott between the pipes, the sky is the limit for the Raiders, who should help add to the competitiveness of the division in years to come.