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: Garry Davidson
Head coach: Dennis Williams
Pre-season record: 5-2-0-0
2016-17 record: 44-16-9-3, First in U.S. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference semifinal to Seattle (4-0)
Top scorers: Patrick Bajkov (29-49-78), Dominic Zwerger (28-47-75), Kevin Davis (9-50-59)
20-year-olds: RW Patrick Bajkov (29-49-78), LW Matt Fonteyne (20-27-47), Kevin Davis (9-50-59)
Imports: LW Martin Fasko-Rudas (Slovakia), RW Pavel Azhgirei (Belarus)
Forwards: Nanaimo, B.C. native Patrick Bajkov is set to lead the forward core of the Silvertips in his final year of junior hockey. Bajkov’s production took off last year as he recorded 29 goals and 78 points in 71 games. He’ll be expected to have a big year as the team tries to replace the departures of players like Dominic Zwerger.
2018 NHL Draft eligible prospect Riley Sutter finished with a 20-goal campaign and will factor in as a big part of the team’s continued offensive growth.
Left winger Orrin Centazzo tallied six goals and seven points in six pre-season games, perhaps giving a preview for what he’ll have in store this coming season.
Defence: It appears the Noah Juulsen era in Everett has come to an end. While the Silvertips will miss a player of his caliber when he makes the jump to the professional ranks, there are players ready to step in and fill the void.
The list begins with Kevin Davis, who didn’t miss a single game all season, setting career highs in the process. He’ll be looked to as one of the team’s leaders this year. West Vancouver, B.C. native Jake Christiansen did the same thing on a smaller scale, finishing with six goals and 19 points in the regular season. His role will grow this year as well.
Goal: The WHL’s Top Goaltender from the past two seasons returns looking for a three-peat. Cart Hart may miss a brief amount of time in camp with the Philadelphia Flyers, but his return to the Pacific Northwest seems a forgone conclusion.
With Mario Petit out as their backup, it looks as though Dorrin Luding is ready to inherit that role this season. He posted a 3-1 record in four pre-season games, and could be capable to tide the Silvertips over until Hart’s return.
Player to watch: After a strong second season with the Silvertips, the question for Connor Dewar becomes – what does he have in store for the third act? With the standard departures from the team, Dewar could find himself in a bigger role and a greater opportunity to contribute as the Silvertips attempt to win the division title for the third time in the past four seasons.
Prognosis: The Silvertips have been built into a very good regular season team, but have had yet to go on a deep run into the playoffs, losing in the second round the past three seasons.
What they’ve accomplished over the past three seasons (two division titles and averaging just shy of 42 wins per season) is the kind of success most teams in the league would yearn for.
The Silvertips should once again put forth a strong team in a U.S. Division that is shaping up to be as competitive as ever. What will be the impact of the departure of longtime head coach Kevin Constantine? How will the Dennis Williams era in Everett establish itself? The answers to both these questions will likely help set the stage for the Silvertips come the end of the regular season.
General Manager: Russ Farwell
Head coach: Matt O’Dette
Pre-season record: 1-6-0-0
2016-17 record: 46-20-4-2, Second in U.S. Division
2017 Playoffs: Won Ed Chynoweth Cup, 0-3 at 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup
Top scorers: Ryan Gropp (35-49-84), Matthew Barzal (10-69-79), Ethan Bear (2-8-42-70)
20-year-olds: LW Tyler Adams (4-11-15), C Donovan Neuls (14-27-41), RD Austin Strand (9-23-32), LD Turner Ottenbreit (7-25-32)
Imports: RW Sami Moilanen (Finland), LW Nikita Malukhin (Russia)
Forwards: The tough reality in junior hockey is that after winning a championship, a team will likely never be the same in the season that follows.
That reality rings true for the Seattle Thunderbirds as they begin post-championship life without the likes of forwards Ryan Gropp, Matthew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True, whom either aged out, are at NHL camps or signed to AHL deals. The team will face some big decisions as to how they fill those holes.
On the off-chance that either Barzal or Kolesar return, that’ll create complications with an already too-large 20-year-old core, though we aren’t holding our breath on that possibility.
That opens the door to players like Nolan Volcan, import winger Sami Moilanen and Donovan Neuls to factor into the Thunderbirds’ success more this year.
Defence: Ethan Bear is another one of those players that could return, but will likely find a job in the Edmonton Oilers’ professional organization after three impactful years in the league. His departure will also create a big hole for the Thunderbirds to fill.
Austin Strand and Turner Ottenbreit as well as Jarret Tyszka will likely move up the team’s blue line depth chart with Bear’s departure.
Aaron Hyman was a mid-season acquisition from the Calgary Hitmen who played in a lower-pairing role for the Thunderbirds but could find himself with more responsibilities this coming season, particularly after providing a steady presence during the club’s WHL Championship run.
Goal: With Rylan Toth aging out, there is a veteran void to fill between the pipes in the Emerald City.
The entire WHL watched in awe as 16-year-old Carl Stankowski stole the show during the 2017 WHL Playoffs, and while it was expected he would carry forward his cucumber-cool presence in the Seattle crease, a training camp injury has waylaid the sophomore netminder.
That prompted the Thunderbirds to acquire Liam Hughes from the Edmonton Oil Kings. He joins incumbent Matt Berlin, who owns valuable experience from the WHL Championship and Mastercard Memorial Cup journey. That could prove to be very beneficial, both in the short term and in the long run.
Player to watch: With what is known about the departures, not much is known about the arrival of Nikita Malukhin. The Thunderbirds have utilized their import spots well in past years with players like True and Moilanen. Depending on the type of game Malukhin can bring, it could help fill out some of the voids created from last year’s championship roster
Prognosis: In a league as competitive as the WHL, the Thunderbirds came together and peaked at the right time, going on a run unprecedented in club history. Claiming the first Ed Chynoweth Cup in franchise history, the Thunderbirds did so in electrifying fashion, only losing four playoff contests along the way.
The same challengers from last year in the U.S. Division are just as strong, if not stronger, this year and Seattle will fight to compete with all of them. A spot in the playoffs is certainly a realistic outcome for the Thunderbirds, but several variables still exist in determining their final fate.
Hockey is on the map in Seattle and it’s here to stay.
General Manager: Bob Tory
Head coach: Mike Williamson
Pre-season record: 4-3-1-0
2016-17 record: 41-28-3-0, third in U.S. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference quarter-finals to Seattle (4-0)
Top scorers: Morgan Geekie (35-55-90), Tyler Sandhu (23-60-83), Parker Wotherspoon (10-56-66)
20-year-olds: LW Jordan Topping (28-25-53), LW Maxwell James (8-9-17), RD Brendan O’Reilly (1-6-7), G Patrick Dea (19-31-2-1, 3.86, 0.882, 1 SO)
Imports: LD Juuso Valimaki (Finland), LD Sergei Sapgeo (Belarus), LD Roman Kalinichenko (Russia)
Forwards: For the offensive firepower present on the four other teams in the division, the Americans will go toe-to-toe with them and may end up coming out a step ahead.
Morgan Geekie surged offensively last season as the third round selection by the Carolina Hurricanes jumped from 12 goals and 25 points in 2015-16 to 35 goals and 90 points in. What his 2017-18 season holds in store will be critical for the success of the Americans.
Michael Rasmussen was one of three WHL players taken in the top 10 of last year’s draft class, going ninth overall to the Detroit Red Wings. Sixteen of Rasmussen’s goals last year came on the special teams (15 power play and one short-handed). With three more years of eligibility left in the league, the sky is the limit for the Surrey, B.C. product.
The team has likely seen the last of Parker Wotherspoon and Vladislav Lukin as they aim to pursue their professional hockey careers, while the departure of overager Tyler Sandhu will create a void in the team’s offensive attack.
Hoping to fill that void are players like rookie Sasha Mutala. The Americans’ first round selection in 2016, he recorded six goals and 10 points in eight pre-season games and could find his way into a regular role this season.
Defence: Juuso Valimaki, like Rasmussen, was selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft, going 16th overall to the Calgary Flames. The Finnish product who finished fourth in team scoring with 61 points in just his second season, despite missing 12 games, will be back for another campaign and seems ready to dominate once again. The team already has two imports, meaning the Americans are preparing for the reality that Valimaki may spend time with the Flames this season. Valimaki’s gain could be a big loss for the Americans on the blue line.
The anchor for the defence could then become 1998-born blue liner Dylan Coghlan. His role on the blue line should increase dramatically, regardless of Valimaki’s return or not.
Goal: The departure of Rylan Parenteau, who aged out, will be a hole the Americans need to fill. To replace him, the Americans have Beck Warm and Patrick Dea. Whether the Americans decide to go with a rotation in net or have the experienced Dea lead the way, the team has two capable goaltenders.
In the offensive juggernaut that is the U.S. Division, both goalies will need to be at their best throughout the course of the season to keep the Americans near the top of the standings.
Player to watch: The Americans have many first-round picks with tremendous upside in addition to their current production levels. Parker AuCoin, the team’s first rounder in 2013, tallied 21 goals and 43 points last season. What he does for an encore will be worth watching. Carson Focht got a taste of the league last year in 62 regular season games and four more in the playoffs. He’ll be given the opportunity to grow and help the team more than last year and his offensive upside could kick in with that as well.
Prognosis: The Americans had the second-best offence in their division last season, but defence wasn’t the team’s strongpoint as they gave up the seventh-most goals in the conference.
The Americans have the pieces to change that statistic around in their favour, but it’ll take work. Some of those hopes will hinge on getting Valimaki back from the Flames, though his return would also complicate the team’s import situation.
Either way, with the U.S. Division appearing dangerously competitive on paper, you can expect the Americans to be right in the thick of an all-out war for the division crown.
General Manager: Mike Johnston
Head coach: Mike Johnston
Pre-season record: 4-2-0-0
2016-17 record: 40-28-1-3, fourth in U.S. Division
2017 Playoffs: Lost in Western Conference semifinal to Kelowna (4-1)
Top scorers: Cody Glass (32-62-94), Skyler McKenzie (42-42-84), Keegan Iverson (26-44-70)
20-year-olds: RW Evan Weinger (20-18-38), C Alex Overhardt (14-18-32), LD Keoni Texeira (12-33-45), G Cole Kehler (32-17-0-3, 3.10, 0.910, 2 SO)
Imports: LW Joachim Blichfeld (Denmark), RD Henri Jokiharju (Finland)
Forwards: Kieffer Bellows’ decision to join the Winterhawks this off-season was a huge get for the club. Though he may be absent due to his commitments with the New York Islanders, when he does eventually arrive, Bellows could be the catalyst that takes the Winterhawks to the top.
There is a looming decision to be made with their overager core for this season, but when you consider that the Winterhawks could keep the core of Glass, Bellows and McKenzie together for the next two seasons, that’s a dangerous proposition for the other four teams in the division.
Team captain Keegan Iverson departed for the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League, so there is a sizeable leadership void to be filled.
Defence: The toughest departures for the Winterhawks will come on the blueline. Caleb Jones is eligible to play in the AHL and with him quickly climbing the radar of the Edmonton Oilers, he may find himself in the professional hockey world sooner rather than later, especially with the Winterhawks already above the overage limit.
The question now becomes who can replace Jones and his contributions both offensively and defensively. Jokiharju and Texeira will bolster the team’s blue line, while Carolina Hurricanes draft selection Brendan De Jong will find himself in an increased role this season.
Matthew Quigley was a regular contributor throughout the pre-season for the Winterhawks and could find himself growing in a depth role again for Portland this coming season.
Goal: The Winterhawks appear set in net with the tandem of Cole Kehler and Shane Farkas. Kehler’s 32 wins last season were tied with the likes of Carter Hart and Ty Edmonds. The Winterhawks will be expecting big things out of Kehler in his final season of junior hockey while they’ll also look to Farkas to take a step forward after factoring into 10 games last season.
Player to watch: With the Winterhawks producing four NHL Draft selections this past June, it’s inevitable that those players will eventually move onto the next level. This will in turn make the next generation of Winterhawks players responsible for picking up the reins of their predecessors and continuing the winning tradition.
Ty Kolle could be one of those players. A fourth-round selection of the Winterhawks in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, Kolle has already played 13 regular season games with the club, registering three assists. In this year’s pre-season, the 2000-born forward from Quesnel, B.C. finished third on the team with four goals and six points.
Jake Gricius led the team with four goals and eight points through the pre-season, potentially signaling big things from the 1999-born center.
Prognosis: With players like Glass, McKenzie and Iverson at the helm of the Winterhawks offence, the team had the top-ranked offence in a powerful U.S. division last season, scoring 278 goals. The downside was that they gave up 256 goals, the third-highest total of any playoff team last season.
Statistics like that can’t rear their head again if the Winterhawks hope to climb up the divisional and conference rankings.
Glass, the first-ever draft selection in the history of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights franchise, could earn a brief audition with his new NHL club, but would be sorely missed around the Winterhawks dressing room.
The division certainly won’t be a cakewalk and the Winterhawks have the skills to overpower teams offensively, it’s just a matter of how they handle their defensive game that could make or break their season.
General Manager: Scott Carter
Head coach: Dan Lambert
Pre-season record: 4-1-0-2
2016-17 record: 27-33-8-4, fifth in U.S. Division
2017 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: Kailer Yamamoto (42-57-99), Jaret Anderson-Dolan (39-37-76), Hudson Elynuik (29-44-73)
20-year-olds: C Hudson Elynuik (29-44-73), RW Rykr Cole (6-13-19), LD Tyson Helgesen (8-21-29)
Imports: LW Milos Fafrak (Slovakia)
Forwards: Kailer Yamamoto continued to terrorize defences across the league last year, tallying 42 goals and 99 points. He could challenge for the team’s all-time assists record held by Ray Whitney (207) if he has a big enough season.
Anderson-Dolan’s breakout season was enough for the Los Angeles Kings to select him in the second round of last year’s NHL Draft. How he elevates his game this year will impact the Chiefs as well.
This team will need to work to match the high-powered offences and multiple threats of the other clubs in their division though. They scored the most goals of any non-playoff team last season, but were still well off what teams like the Winterhawks and Americans accomplished.
Defence: The 2017-18 season marks the first year of draft eligibility for 2015 Bantam Draft first-overall selection Ty Smith. His 32-point season last year led all blue liners on the Chiefs, but seeing how he rises to the occasion of a big year individually could do wonders for the team at the same time.
Returning players like Tyson Helgesen and Nolan Reid will also be hungry to make it into the playoffs after a long off-season. How they perform early on could be an indicator for the team’s chances this coming season.
Goal: Last season’s goaltending presence was split between Jayden Sittler and Dawson Weatherill. Now that Sittler has aged out, the trio of Weatherill, Declan Hobbs and Donovan Buskey are still on the team’s pre-season roster.
Regardless of which tandem they go with, the Chiefs will be relying on a big improvement between the pipes to carry them back to the post-season.
Player to watch: Riley Woods was a mid-season addition from the Regina Pats and brought some offensive flair to the club with 21 points in 34 games. If he can pick up where he left off last season, he should enjoy a productive year that could substantially benefit the Chiefs.
Prognosis: Spending the post-season on the sideline is a rare occurrence for the Chiefs, one they were forced to deal with last season.
With an off-season to make moves and reposition themselves, the Chiefs have their sights set on the playoffs and more this coming year. Longtime head coach Don Nachbaur moved on to join the NHL’s LA Kings, bringing about the WHL return of Dan Lambert, who coached the Kelowna Rockets to a WHL Championship in 2015.
Having a forward core back that includes Kailer Yamamoto, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Hudson Elynuik and Riley Woods will make the Chiefs a potent threat offensively.
They’ll be in tough against the other four teams in their division, so it may end going down to the wire for playoff seeding among their division and the entire Western Conference.