As the 2018-19 Western Hockey League’s regular season approaches, each division will be previewed leading up to the first day of the regular season Friday Sept. 21. Team capsules are presented in order of 2017-18 finish within their own division. Today, we take a look at the Central Division.
Head coach: Shaun Clouston
Pre-season record: 3-1-1-0
2017-18 record: 36-28-8-0, First in Central Division
2018 Playoffs: 2-4-0-0, Eliminated in Round One of the 2018 WHL Playoffs to Brandon (4-2)
Top scorers: LW Mark Rassell (50-30-80), D David Quenneville (26-54-80), James Hamblin (21-43-64)
20-year-olds: LW Ryan Jevne (20-27-47), D Dylan MacPherson (4-18-22), D Dalton Gally (2-10-12)
Imports: G Mads Sogaard (Denmark)
Forwards: Losing the offensive talents of 50-goal scorer Mark Rassell will be a tough reality for the Medicine Hat Tigers to accept, but a pair of strong 2019 NHL Draft candidates are ready to step into the spotlight and continue where their former captain left off. Ryan Chyzowski and Josh Williams are poised to advance their game as one of the top offensive forward pairings in the league. Chyzowski finished fourth on the team in scoring last season with 52 points (21G-31A) while Williams added 20 points (11G-9A) in an injury-shortened season.
With newly-minted captain James Hamblin looking to improve upon his 64-point (21G-43A) total last season, the Tigers have the offensive stars to contend for a third straight Central Division title.
Occupying other offensive roles for the Tigers this season are the likes of Gary Haden, Tyler Preziuso, Bryan Lockner, Hayden Ostir, and Elijah Brown, who will be looked to for offensive upgrades.
Defence: Just like with their forward group, the Tigers will seek to replace an offensive star in David Quenneville, who led the WHL in defensive scoring last season. His 80 points. With the New York Islanders prospect eligible to return, but seemingly destined for professional hockey, the Tigers will turn to a defence-by committee approach on their blue line.
Overage defenceman Kristians Rubins also departed from the team, making Florida Panthers prospect Linus Nassen and Dylan MacPherson the two highest-scoring defenceman who could find their way back to The Gas City this fall.
Dalton Gally is another overage defenceman who could make a strong impact with the club after being a regular for the past two seasons. Rookie Eric Van Impe, acquired from the Spokane Chiefs last season, could also make an impact in his rookie season with the club.
Goaltending: With Ottawa Senators prospect Jordan Hollett and CHL Import Draft addition Mads Sogaard competing for time between the pipes, the pair could establish themselves as one of the top goaltending duos in the league. Sogaard is unique as well in the sense that he has already played one season in North America already, which could benefit him in the long run.
Third on the depth chart appears to be 2017 first-round selection Garin Bjorklund, one of the top goaltending prospects in the entire league. He spent some time with the club last season, but didn’t see any game action. How the Tiger utilize the 2002-born netminder this season will be intriguing to watch.
Player to watch: A mid-season trade brought Elijah Brown to the Medicine Hat Tigers from the Seattle Thunderbirds. After posting five points (1G-4A) in 13 games with the Thunderbirds, Brown’s offensive skills rose in 30 games with the Tigers as the 18-year-old from Edmonton posted 18 points (7G-11A) in 30 games, nearly doubling his point totals from his previous 79 games.
Still eligible to play three more season in the WHL, Brown is safely projected to be a strong secondary scorer for the Tigers this season, but with the need to replace Rassell’s 50-goal season and an 80-point campaign from David Quenneville, Brown could play his way into a larger offensive role and see more power play time after four of those 18 points came on the man-advantage.
Prognosis: Like all teams, the Medicine Hat Tigers lost some key players, but with the core they have moving forward, it’s not impossible to expect them to challenge for a third-straight division title. As the oldest goaltender, if Hollett can grab the reins and run with it, the Tigers will be a hard team to beat at any point in the season. Expecting the Tigers to secure a playoff spot in the Central Division should be more a given than a goal at this point.
Head coach: Brent Kisio
Pre-season record: 3-2-0-0
2017-18 record: 33-33-6-0, Second in Central Division
2018 Playoffs: 10-6-0-0, Eliminated in Eastern Conference Championship to Swift Current Broncos (4-2)
Top scorers: C Jordy Bellerive (46-45-92), C Brad Morrison (27-48-75), D Calen Addison (11-54-65)
20-year-olds: LW Taylor Ross (21-21-42), RW Jake Elmer 18-19-37), D Igor Merezhko (5-28-33), D Matthew Stanley (2-9-11)
Imports: D Igor Merezhko (Ukraine), D Danila Palivko (Belarus), G Akira Schmid (Switzerland)
Forwards: With a wealth of talent up front, the Lethbridge Hurricanes will be a tough team for Central Division opponents to contend with on a nightly basis.
The duo of captain Jordy Bellerive and Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy winner Dylan Cozens figure to be two of the league’s top offensive stars this season. Bellerive, also a prospect of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has steadily risen up the NHL club’s prospect depth chart following a 92 point (46G-46A) season that also saw him lead his team in goals.
Cozens meanwhile is set to put on a performance ahead of his eligibility for the 2019 NHL Draft. As one of the draft’s top-ranked prospects, all eyes will be on one of North America’s top-ranked skaters.
Logan Barlage, a mid-season acquisition from the Swift Current Broncos, found some early chemistry with Cozens last year. Also eligible for the 2019 NHL, Barlage could see his stock rise throughout the season depending on what role he plays in elongating the season of the Hurricanes.
Another pair of players added mid-season in Kelti Jeri-Leon and Taylor Ross will be looked to for secondary scoring. Rookie Noah Boyko has already seen three games of action and the 16th overall selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft could become an integral part of the team’s success this coming season.
Defence: Like last year, the Hurricanes’ blue line will be anchored by the duo of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Calen Addison and overage import Igor Merezhko. With 65 points (11G-54A) last season, Addison was tied for ninth in scoring among WHL defencemen while also leading the Hurricanes.
Addison is technically eligible to spend three more seasons in the WHL and should be counted on to take a further step in his development this season.
Merezhko was the next biggest contributor for the Hurricanes totalling 33 points (5G-28A) and will again take a leading role on the team’s blue line.
Ty Prefontaine could be one of the Hurricanes’ defenders to take a leading role, which Anholt may explore trade options to push his team over the top in their bid for championship glory.
Goaltending: With the departures of both Stuart Skinner and Logan Flodell last season, the 2018 CHL Import Draft saw the Hurricanes secure their future between the pipes with the addition of Swiss-born New Jersey Devils prospect Akira Schmid. He does have international experience, which will certainly be a plus for Schmid, but how that translates to the WHL is another question.
Backing him up will be 19-year-old Reece Klassen, who performed well in spots last season, but will relied upon to be more consistent in the coming season. Hometown product Carl Tetachuk is waiting in the wings.
Player to Watch: Redwater, Alta. product Noah Boyko was made the 17th overall selection at the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and after making his WHL debut last year, the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers product should be in line for a big role. After tallying 40 points (20G-20A) in 30 games last season with the Fort Saskatchewan AAA Rangers of the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League, it’s clear the recently-turn 16-year-old has serious offensive skill. But how does a rookie of Boyko’s nature fit in with a club deep with talent up front who is expected to contend among the best of the best for the championship?
In a situation such as this, despite Boyko’s offensive tendencies, it’ll be worth it to give the youngster game action and see how he handles logging more minutes at the WHL level. In his case, chipping in any sort of offence while learning from those ahead of him on the depth chart will prove useful in the long run. And if the unthinkable happens and a player ahead of him has to sub out of the lineup with an injury, Boyko could be an apt replacement in an increased role.
Prognosis: No one in Lethbridge will want to count their chickens before they hatch, but the 2018-19 WHL season represents a year where the Hurricanes enter as one of the favourites to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup. With a core that’s been to back-to-back Eastern Conference Championships, expecting the Hurricanes to contend for the Central Division title in the regular season feels like one of the more-attainable goals for the club.
Like it will be for all contenders, the Hurricanes will face their own challenges over the coming 68-game schedule and playoffs, but of those teams well-stocked enough to battle through it all and come out ahead on the other side, the Hurricanes seem like the most prepared to do it all and still have something left to give.
Head coach: Brent Sutter
Pre-season record: 1-2-2-0
2017-18 record: 27-32-10-3, Third in Central Division
2018 Playoffs: 1-4-0-0, Lost in Eastern Conference quarter-final to Lethbridge (4-1)
Top scorers: RW Mason McCarty (38-36-74), LW Kristian Reichel (34-23-57), RW Reese Johnson (23-16-39)
20-year-olds: LW Brandon Hagel (18-41-59), RW Reese Johnson (23-16-39), C Jeff De Wit (11-9-20), D Colin Paradis (2-12-14)
Imports: C Oleg Zaytsev (Russia), RD Alexander Alexeyev (Russia)
Forwards: While the team’s blue line holds the majority of the team’s maturity, Red Deer’s forwards are a young crew hoping that their skills will reflect on the scoreboard. The young players that were apart of last season’s second-half surge will certainly have to step up this year now that they’ve got their feet wet in the WHL.
As three of the four remaining 20-year-olds in Red Deer, Reese Johnson and Brandon Hagel, and Jeff de Wit will be looked upon to generate offensive chances and guide the younger players. Hagel who joined the Montreal Canadiens this summer for training camp will be back in action for the 2018-19 season and look to better his record of 18-41-59 in 56 games to propel the Rebel’s offensive drive.
After scoring 209 goals in the 2017-18 campaign, the fewest goals since the 2011-12 season, depth scoring will once again be key for the Rebels. A pair of 2000-born forwards in Josh Tarzwell and Chris Douglas can help with that cause after modest 10 and nine-goal campaigns last season respectively.
Defence: Of the four highest-scoring returning skaters for the Rebels, a pair come from the blue line in Alexander Alexeyev and Dawson Barteaux.
Both heard their name called at the 2018 NHL Draft in June, with Alexeyev going 31st overall to the Washington Capitals and Barteaux going 168th to the Dallas Stars. Alexeyev continued to produce on the North American ice last season while Barteaux had a breakout 32-point campaign, including the first three goals of his WHL career.
While the Rebels scored the second-fewest goals in the Central Division last season, they gave up the fewest goals as well, something the team will aim to repeat this coming season. The pair will play a huge part in that, as will a pair of 1999-born rear guards in Carson Sass and Ethan Sakowich, who the Rebels will need to have take a step forward in order to last longer into the 2019 WHL Playoffs.
Goaltending: 17-year-old Ethan Anders, scheduled to turn 18 on September 26, enters the season as the presumed starter with 17-year-old Byron Fancy backing him up.
Anders’ record of 10-19-61 is deceiving as the Regina product played some of his strongest hockey during the second half. Looking to continue that play into September will be huge for the Rebels and their fortunes early on.
It’s much too early to project what type of goaltender Fancy will be, but there’s a reason the Rebels selected him 24th overall at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, making him the third-highest goaltender selected. After getting into a pair of games over the past two seasons, how the 2017-18 AMHL Champion handles a bigger role with the WHL club will be key too.
Player to Watch: With the turnover in the team’s forward core, rookies from last year’s squad will face the responsibility of contributing more to the team’s offence in their second season with the club. Alex Morozoff, led the team in rookie scoring with eight points (6G-2A) in 30 games. The Rebels will require contributions from all parts of their lineup and this group of rookies will be no exception.
Now, Morozoff wasn’t exactly a prolific scorer at the Midget AAA level, nor should the Rebels be looking for any of these players to be among the league leaders in points. However, the ability to chip in 10-20 goals during the regular season and play strong minutes certainly won’t be underestimated this coming season.
Prognosis: Losing so many key members up front, it’s tough to predict where the Rebels will finish. Following last season’s rough first half, the returning players will be eager to change the script at the start of the season this time around and not have to put pressure on themselves like they did during the second-half charge back into the playoff picture. With Sutter at the helm, expect the Rebels to continue their annual tradition of being a tough opponent in the Central Division.
Head coach: James Patrick
Pre-season record: 2-4-1-0
2017-18 record: 27-38-5-2, 61 points – Fourth in Central Division
2018 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: RW Alec Baer (30-31–61), C Colton Kroeker (15-46–61), RW Brett Davis (25-33–58)
20-year-olds: RW Jaeger White (10-24–34), D Dalles Hines (4-15–19), D Martin Bodak (7-24–31)
Imports: LW Gilian Kohler (Switzerland), Bodak (Slovakia), D Valtteri Kakkonen (Finland)
Forwards: After finishing as runner-up in WHL Rookie of the Year consideration, sophomore forward Peyton Krebs will look to lead the Kootenay ICE back to a post-season appearance for the first time since 2014-15. Headed into the season as one of the top prospects for the 2019 NHL Draft, Krebs is coming off a strong showing at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup where he won a gold medal with Team Canada. His 54 points (17G-37A) in 67 games last season served as remarkable numbers for a 16-year-old forward and there is no reason the dynamic playmaker can’t improve upon those in 2018-19.
The addition of 16-year-old speedster Connor McClennon will be exciting for fans in Cranbrook, while Dallas Stars prospect Brett Davis takes over the veteran reins from now-graduated captain Colton Kroeker.
Defence: Dallas Hines serves as the elder statesmen on the blueline, entering the campaign with 185 games of WHL Regular Season experience. The 20-year-old product of Marwayne, Alta. has been steady over his three seasons in the East Kootenay, logging 52 points (12G-40A) along the way. Without a post-season appearance under his belt, the wily vet hopes 2018-19 ends the drought.
Joining the ICE following a mid-season trade from the Regina Pats, Jonathan Smart turned a corner. Registering 22 points (4G-18A) in 48 contests, the 19-year-old product of Kelowna, B.C. became a reliable presence on the back end for head coach James Patrick.
Sam Huston, Zachary Patrick and Loeden Schaufler all look to return, while Nolan Orzeck and Finnish import Valtteri Kakkonen will aim to make a splash as newcomers.
Goal: Duncan McGovern settled into the starters role in 2017-18, going 13-13-3-0 with a 3.11 goals-against average, .892 save percent and two shutouts to his credit. This year in training camp, he beat out 20-year-old veteran Matt Berlin. The 18-year-old McGovern – a product of Winnipeg – while passed over at the 2018 NHL Draft, did enough to earn himself an invite to Winnipeg Jets camp. He has shown flashes over his two seasons in the WHL and now it appears he will have the ball to carry without competition to start 2018-19.
Joining McGovern in the blue paint will be rookie Jesse Makaj. A 17-year-old product of East Vancouver, the ICE have high hopes for Makaj after selecting him 23rd overall at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.
Player to watch: The youth movement continues under the guidance of general manager Matt Cockell. Selected second overall at the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, rookie forward Connor McClennon has the potential to be one of the most exciting players to enter the Western Hockey League this season. The 5-foot-9 phenom torched the Canadian Sports School Hockey League, registering 67 points (26G-41A) in 31 games. He was also lethal at the 2017 WHL Cup, notching 10 points (6G-4A) in helping Team Alberta to a silver medal.
Prognosis: After only collecting 14 wins during the 2016-17 season, the ICE climbed back into the post-season conversation in 2017-18, collecting 27 wins while running out of gas towards the finish line. With Krebs having earned a year of WHL experience and skating into his NHL Draft campaign, one has to expect a monstrous year from the product of Okotoks, Alta. Assuming continued growth from their star forward, combined with steady goaltending from McGovern and some electricity courtesy McClennon and friends up front, the WHL Playoffs a very much in sight for the ICE.
Head coach: Steve Hamilton
Pre-season record: 6-0-0-0
2017-18 record: 24-37-9-2, Fifth in Central Division
2018 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: LW Jakob Stukel (37-27-64), C Jake Kryski (16-40-56), C Mark Kastelic (23-22-45)
20-year-olds: C Jake Kryski (16-40-56), LW Luke Coleman (15-24-39),
Imports: LD Egor Zamula (Russia), RD Vladislav Yeryomenko (Belarus)
Forwards: The Hitmen hope the continued development of their younger forwards will provide a boost alongside the strength of an existing mature core. With Jake Kryski returning and aiming to top the scoring charts once again, the Hitmen will lean on him for more in his final year of junior eligibility.
However, with the support of a strong 2000 class gaining more WHL experience, players such as Carson Focht, Tristen Nielsen, Riley Stotts, Zach Huber and Orca Wiesblatt should also be able to drive a lucrative offensive game this season. With Focht being eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft and Riley Stotts a third-round pick (83rd) by the Toronto Maple Leafs, both have the ability to help Kryski lead the Hitmen’s forwards this year. To aid in that drive will be 2001-born players Hunter Campbell and Cael Zimmerman who should look to add another element of depth to the Hitmen’s line up front.
Defence: There is a lot of potential for the Hitmen’s defence as they continue to contribute to Calgary’s well-balanced roster.
As Vladislav Yeryomenko enters his third season with the Calgary Hitmen after being a fifth-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators, the expectation is for him to take on a leadership role with other veterans including Dakota Krebs and Dom Schmiemann, once again serving to guide the younger defencemen on the blueline.
With the defensive leadership core identified, the Hitmen will turn to sophomore defenceman Jackson van de Leest, who was the club’s 16th overall pick in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. While the 6-foot-6, 222-pound defenceman didn’t get much of an opportunity to show his talent due to an injury last season, his stature and ability to defend the blueline will be a major bonus for the Hitmen in the 2018-19 season.
Up-and-coming defenceman Luke Prokop also joins the blueline brigade as the only anticipated rookie defenceman in Calgary. He will be asked to step up his game this year as he joins the Hitmen roster full-time.
Goal: With their former number one goalie, Nick Schneider, graduated to the professional ranks within the Calgary Flames organization, Hitmen goalies Matthew Armitage and Carl Stankowski will step up to the plate to compete for the top spot. With both netminders having a save percentage over .900, a tight competition in the pre-season took place to determine who would earn the right to be between the pipes on opening night.
Both goaltenders also come into the season having faced different experiences in 2017-18. As the returning backup for the Hitmen, Armitage developed his game last season and should look forward to more action this year.
Although Stankowski was injured in the 2017-18 season, his experience in Seattle leading to a Rogers WHL Championship is highly valuable and could show well for the Hitmen this season.
Player to watch: As the seventh overall pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, defenceman Luke Prokop did not disappoint when playing a handful of games in 2017-18. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenceman also looks to bring his winning experience to the Hitmen dressing room as a member of the winning Canadian Sports School Hockey League (CSSHL) Bantam and Midget leagues in 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively. Prokop could be a big contributor to the Hitmen’s push towards the playoffs and if they do make it, he could be a major asset. During last season’s playoffs in the CSSHL, Prokop earned eight points (1G-7A) in five games, proving his value in a crucial time.
Prognosis: As the new head coach of the Hitmen, Steve Hamilton brings a strong skill set to the position. Although the 10th head coach in franchise history crossed to the other side of the rivalry from the Edmonton Oil Kings, Hamilton helped guide the Oil Kings as an associate coach to three straight Rogers WHL Championships Series and two league championships in 2012 and 2014, resulting in a Mastercard Memorial Cup win in 2014. With the Hitmen’s roster continuing to develop and grow, a new set of ideas from the coaching staff and a strong showing in the Central Division’s preseason, the Hitmen’s well-balanced roster could result in the playoffs becoming a strong reality.
Head coach: Brad Lauer
Pre-season record: 2-2-1-0
2017-18 record: 22-42-6-2, Sixth in Central Division
2018 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Top scorers: RW Trey Fix-Wolansky (32-57-89), C Tomas Soustal (22-40-62), Colton Kehler (32-19-51)
20-year-olds: RW Quinn Benjafield (19-28-47), C Vince Loschiavo (19-17-36)
Imports: Andrei Pavlenko (Belarus), Vladimir Alistrov (Belarus)
Forwards: Despite scoring a league-low 204 goals last season, the future up front for the Edmonton Oil Kings is bright.
Returning their leading scorer from last season in Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Trey Fix-Wolansky will be a boost to the team’s offence. The offseason additions of overage forwards Quinn Benjafield and Vince Loschiavo will be counted on to be key performers as well, replacing the offensive contributions of Tomas Soustal and captain Colton Kehler.
With Dylan Guenther, the first-overall selection from the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, waiting in the wings for another season, the future is now for Jake Neighbours, the fourth overall selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft. The Airdrie, Alta. product led the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League last season in goals (26) and points (57). Another top forward pick for the team in Liam Keeler will look to build upon a 13-point rookie campaign.
The addition of Vladimir Alistrov with the second overall selection in the 2018 CHL Import Draft will also play into the team’s increased strength up front. Brendan Semchuk, a mid-season acquisition from the Giants, will be eager to get in a full season with his new club and be one of the team’s dependable forwards.
Brett Kemp’s 14 even-strength goals ranked him fourth on the team last season. Ranked on NHL Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft, Kemp wasn’t selected, but further development from the Yorkton, Sask. product could lead to him drawing interest from NHL clubs.
Defence: 2019 NHL Draft prospect Matthew Robertson enters the season with one accomplishment under his belt already, helping Canada win gold at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup in his home rink. The team will count on the 17-year-old to improve on his 24-point rookie campaign while maturing with more defensive responsibilities.
Also leading the team’s blue line is Conner McDonald. The 19-year-old finished his first full season with the Oil Kings as the team’s top-scoring defenceman, tallying 42 points (10G-32A) in 71 games.
Jacson Alexander was another of the team’s top gets during the offseason. The WHL Champion will mix in well with the team’s other veterans, including Will Warm, Ethan and Ethan Cap. Logan Dowhaniuk, the team’s second-round selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft is also expected to make his full-time debut after a four-game audition last season.
Goaltending: While the situation for the Oil Kings is clear up front and on the blue line, between the pipes is where the biggest challenge exists as three young netminders eye a share of the time in net.
The battle exists between Todd Scott, Boston Bilous, and Sebastian Cossa. Acquired in January trade with the Vancouver Giants, Scott posted the best numbers of the three for their time in Edmonton. In saying that, all three have played a combined 29 regular season game in an Oil Kings uniform with Bilous playing 16, Scott 13 and Cossa none.
The team may be best off going with a tandem they can rotate throughout the season to see if one elevates his play. As the youngest of the three, the logical thinking is that the deck would be stacked against Cossa. However, the team’s second-round selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft has posted solid numbers in Bantam and Midget and has been viewed as the team’s goaltender of the future. The question now becomes, does that future begin this year or next?
Player to watch: The focus in Edmonton is rightly on the youth movement as Hill eyes returning the team to their championship glory from earlier in the decade. To add to that the pre-season roster for the Edmonton Oil Kings featured nine players selected in the first round of the WHL Bantam Draft.
Of those, Quinn Benjafield is the eldest, going 19th overall to the Kamloops Blazers in the 2013 edition of the draft. Now entering his final season of junior hockey, Benjafield has 127 points (51G-76A) in 261 WHL regular season games and will be one of the players looked to help the team further their youth movement. Whether it’s providing steady offence when other inevitably hit scoring slumps or showing players how to properly acclimatize to the league, Benjafield should be a guiding presence for the team this coming season and arguably one of their bigger contributors who could fly under the radar with the wealth of young talent in the spotlight.
Prognosis: Just a few months into his first season as a General Manager in the WHL, Hill has taken steps to improve his club. Mixed in with the team’s high draft selections in recent years, the Oil Kings look like a team ready to turn the corner. The Central Division and Eastern Conference won’t be a cake walk though, something the team’s longer-tenured players know all too well. If the team’s goaltending situation is cleared up and a player emerges among the trio, the Oil Kings could easily be a contender for one of the top three spots in the division come March.