WHL 50th SEASON PREVIEW: WESTERN CONFERENCE

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Calgary, AB – The Western Hockey League’s 50th Season began last night in Moose Jaw, but Friday night will see many more Eastern and Western Conference teams start their seasons.

The Kelowna Rockets claimed their fourth Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL Champions in 2015. Can the Kelowna Rockets repeat or will another Club step up? Can the Seattle Thunderbirds and Victoria Royals continue to build on last year’s successful campaigns? Or, do the Portland Winterhawks reclaim the throne as the team to beat in the Western Conference?

The WHL’s Western Conference is loaded with high caliber talent such as Kelowna’s Nick Merkley and Seattle’s potential NHL returnee Mathew Barzal. Top 2016 NHL Draft prospects such as Vancouver’s Tyler Benson will also have fans on the edge of their seats all year long. Here’s a look at the WHL’s Western Conference:

B.C. Division

Kamloops

 

Kamloops Blazers
General Manager
: Craig Bonner
Head Coach: Don Hay
2015 Pre-Season: 5 GP, 2-3-0-0
2014-15 Record: 28-37-4-3, 63pts (4th in B.C. Division) GF: 214  GA: 258
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 18.2% (18th); PK: 78.1% (15th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Did not qualify
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Cole Ully                             69gp-34g-60a-94pts
Matt Needham                 71gp-25g-51a-76pts
Collin Shirley                      72gp-26g-16a-42pts
Deven Sideroff                  64gp-17g-25a-42pts

The Kamloops Blazers look to turn their fortunes around after missing the playoffs for a second straight season last year. 20-year-old Matt Needham will be a focal point of the Blazers’ offense after coming off a campaign that saw him register 25 goals and 76 points. Needham will look to continue to improve his output to help Blazers advance to the next level and compete for a playoff berth. Collin Shirley and Deven Sideroff will also be looked to for increased production, while 18-year-old Jesse Zaharichuk provides further depth. Defensively, Ryan Rehill and Patrik Maier will provide a veteran presence for a young defensive blue line that should regularly include exciting prospect Nolan Kneen. The Blazers allowed the second-most goals against of Western Conference teams last season and the Club is looking to reduce that number significantly. Connor Ingram is poised to be the starting goaltender for the Blazers in his second season after playing in 52 games last year. The native of Imperial, SK collected 21 wins, along with a 2.96 goals against average and a .904 save percentage.

 

Player to Watch: Conner McDonald

The 16-year-old from Delta, B.C., enters his first full season in the WHL and is looking to make an impact on the Blazers’ blue line. Drafted in the second round of the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft by the Blazers, McDonald has offensive talent and can provide value to a power play unit that ranked 15th overall in the 2014-15 season. McDonald will likely see some responsibility as a rookie and will continue to focus on playing a smart defensive game under head coach Don Hay.

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Kelowna

 

Kelowna Rockets
General Manager
: Bruce Hamilton
Head Coach: Brad Ralph
2015 Pre-Season: 5 GP, 3-2-0-0
2014-15 Record: 53-13-5-1, 112pts (1st in B.C. Division) GF: 305  GA: 183
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 26.2% (1st); PK: 79.5% (13th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Won the Ed Chynoweth Cup 
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Nick Merkley                     72gp-20g-70a-90pts
Rourke Chartier                58gp-48g-34a-82pts
Tyson Baillie                      68gp-37g-39a-76pts

With new head coach Brad Ralph behind the bench, the reigning WHL Champions have a strong squad still loaded with talent entering the 2015-16 season. Nick Merkley and Tyson Baillie are just a couple of talented names that can put the puck in the net for the Rockets. The Kelowna Rockets won a total of 53 games last season which was the third straight year in which the Club has posted at least 50 wins. Kelowna also owned the League’s best power play efficiency last season with a conversion rate of 26.2%. Although they lost power forward Tyrell Goulbourne, the Rockets have several players such as Gage Quinney and Dillon Dube that can fill the scoring void. Joe Gatenby and Devante Stephens should lead a young defence core that will likely have to overcome the loss of Madison Bowey, Josh Morrissey, and Colten Martin. Along with Gatenby, Lucas Johansen can add depth to the defensive unit after appearing in 65 games last season for the Rockets as a rookie. The Rockets own a strong goaltending duo with Jackson Whistle and Michael Herringer. Whistle posted 13 wins in the 2015 WHL Playoffs along with a league-high four shutouts, while Herringer contributed with three victories and a .934 save percentage.    

  

Player to Watch: Dillon Dube

A 17-year-old product of Cochrane, AB, Dube produced in his rookie campaign for the Kelowna Rockets, netting 17 goals and 27 points in only 45 games. On a team that possesses plenty of offensive depth, Dube continued to elevate his game in both ends of the ice as the 5-10, 181 lb forward added five goals and 11 points to go along with a plus-6 rating in 18 playoff games. Dube brings a winning attitude to the Kelowna Rockets as he won a gold medal with Team Canada’s U-18 squad at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial. Dube now enters his NHL Draft-eligible season and has been praised by several NHL scouts as he landed a spot on the 2015-16 NHL Central Scouting Future’s List. Expect Dube to elevate his game to the next level and emerge as a major contributor for the Rockets.

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Prince George

 

Prince George Cougars
General Manager
: Todd Harkins
Head Coach: Mark Holick
2015 Pre-Season: 6 GP, 3-2-0-1
2014-15 Record: 31-36-2-3, 67pts (3rd in B.C. Division) GF: 222  GA: 295
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 15.9% (19th); PK: 71.9% (22nd)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in five games to Victoria in Round 1
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Jansen Harkins                  70gp-20g-59a-79pts
Chase Witala                     68gp-38g-31a-69pts
Josh Connolly                    63gp-13g-41a-54pts

After a return to the WHL Playoffs in 2015, the Cougars are striving to make leaps and bounds in the B.C. Division. Up front, the Cougars will look to 18-year-old Jansen Harkins to help elevate an offence that boasts many veteran forwards. The Winnipeg Jets’ prospect recorded 79 points (20g-59a) in 70 games which marked a 45-point improvement from his rookie season. Chase Witala and Jesse Gabrielle will also be counted on to contribute to the Cougars’ attack. Special teams was an area of concern as the Cougars finished 19th in converting power play opportunities and last amongst all Clubs in penalty kill conversions. Veteran forwards Brad Morrison and Tyler Mrkonjic will need to be key contributors for the Cougars in order to improve special teams play. Defensively, Tate Olson and Sam Ruopp are two big bodied defencemen that are seeking stability for a Club that allowed the most goals against in the Western Conference. The two will anchor a blue line that also includes steady returnees. 19-year-old Ty Edmonds looks to keep the starting job in goal, but the acquisition of veteran Mack Shields will provide competition.

Player to Watch: Tate Olson

The native of Saskatoon, SK is coming off a rookie season that saw him produce five goals and 24 points in 68 games for the Cougars in the 2014-15 regular season. Olson is a strong competitive defenceman that plays well in all areas of the ice. Olson will need to continue to develop all aspects of his game in order to help the Cougars improve in various defensive categories. The Vancouver Canucks prospect will likely evolve into one of the team leaders this season and will anchor a blue line that should improve significantly this year.

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Vancouver Giants
General Manager
: Scott Bonner
Head Coach: Lorne Molleken
2015 Pre-Season: 5 GP, 3-2-0-0
2014-15 Record: 27-41-2-2, 58pts (5th in B.C. Division) GF: 189  GA: 251
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 20.8% (12th); PK: 76.8% (18th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Did not qualify 
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Jackson Houck                  65gp-22g-29a-51pts
Carter Popoff                    72gp-24g-26a-50pts
Thomas Foster                  69gp-13g-33a-46pts

Lorne Molleken enters his first season as head coach of the Vancouver Giants and is looking to turn the Club’s recent fortunes. The Giants finished at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and did not qualify for the playoffs last season. Veterans Jackson Houck and Thomas Foster head up the Giants’ offense.  Houck and Popoff will look for big offensive campaigns in their 19-year-old seasons.  Big things are expected from young star Tyler Benson after a promising rookie campaign in which the native of Edmonton, AB, buried 14 goals and collected 45 points in 62 games. Veterans Clayton Kirichenko and Dmitry Osipov return to lead a Giants defence corps that lost Arvin Atwal and Mason Geertsen from last season’s lineup. The Giants enter the season with two goalies likely to split playing time throughout the season. 19-year-old Payton Lee picked up 14 wins in 43 appearances for the Giants last season while 18-year-old Cody Porter posted 13 victories in 40 games.

Player to Watch: Tyler Benson

Tyler Benson begins his second season with the Vancouver Giants and has big expectations laid upon him as he was named team captain for the 2015-16 season. Benson will look to meet those expectations after he returns from off-season surgery. The first overall pick from the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft gathered a lot of attention from NHL scouts as he was featured on the 2015-16 NHL Central Scouting Future’s List. Benson has also achieved on the international stage by winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial and a bronze medal with Team Canada’s U-18 squad at the 2015 IIHF World U18 Championships. The 6-0, 196 lb forward will have every opportunity to take on an important role for Vancouver and help the Club return to the post-season.

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Victoria Royals
General Manager: 
Cameron Hope
Head Coach: Dave Lowry
2015 Pre-Season: 7 GP, 3-4-0-0
2014-15 Record: 39-29-3-1, 82pts (2nd in B.C. Division) GF: 244  GA: 219
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 22.0% (6th); PK: 80.0% (T-10th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in five games to Kelowna in Round 2
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Austin Carroll                     69gp-38g-39a-77pts
Joe Hicketts                       62gp-12g-52a-64pts
Tyler Soy                             69gp-28g-35a-63pts

The Victoria Royals enjoyed a productive 2014-15 season after finishing second in the B.C. Division and making it to the Round 2 of the 2015 WHL Playoffs. The next challenge for Head Coach Dave Lowry and his team is taking the next step as they aim for both the B.C. Division crown and a deeper playoff run. The Royals took some hits with Brandon Magee and Austin Carroll graduating last season, but still have plenty of talent returning. Up front, the Royals see the return of Tyler Soy and Alex Forsberg to the fold. Jack Walker and Logan Fisher will provide depth up front for the Royals, while Dante Hannoun and Matthew Phillips could come into their own. On the backend, Joe Hicketts will look for another big season after finishing the 2014-15 season second in scoring amongst defencemen with 64 points (12g-52a). L.A. Kings’ prospect Chaz Reddekopp will also have a major role for a Royals defensive group that could be better than expected. 20-year-old Coleman Vollrath should once again be the starting goaltender for the Royals after posting a career best 28 wins last season to go along with a .905 save percentage. Vollrath was also tied for second amongst WHL goaltenders in shutouts with six.

Player to Watch: Joe Hicketts 

A 19-year-old native of Kamloops, B.C., Hicketts is ready for another big season with the Royals. Hicketts posted 64 points (12g-52a) in 62 games and chipped in with five assists in 10 post-season contests. The 5-8, 177 lb defenceman also played for Team Canada at the 2014-15 World Junior Championship and won a gold medal. A highly-skilled and intelligent defenceman, Hicketts will be relied on to help offset the loss of Travis Brown’s offensive production. Expect Hicketts to be a consistent contributor for the Royals this season. 

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U.S. Division

 

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Everett Silvertips
General Manager
: Garry Davidson
Head Coach: Kevin Constantine
2015 Pre-Season: 7 GP, 5-2-0-0
2014-15 Record: 43-20-3-6, 95pts (1st in U.S. Division) GF: 242  GA: 199
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 24.3% (3rd); PK: 76.6% (20th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in five games to Portland in Round 2
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Nikita Scherbak                                65gp-27g-55a-82pts
Carson Stadnyk                                71gp-27g-42a-69pts
Ivan Nikolishin                                  72gp-16g-46a-62pts

The Everett Silvertips had a disappointing finish to their 2014-15 season after being eliminated by the Portland Winterhawks in Round 2 of the 2015 WHL Playoffs. The Silvertips finished first in the U.S. Division and look to remain amongst the upper half of the Western Conference standings. The loss of several key veterans means the Silvertips will need others to take their game to the next level. With three of their top four point-getters not returning, Carson Stadnyk and Patrick Bajkov will see major roles throughout the season. Forwards such as Dawson Leedahl and Graham Millar are likely to see an increased level of responsibility as well. A major strength for Everett is their defence group as the Club allowed the second-fewest goals against last season. Cole MacDonald will help anchor a defence corps that has a strong veteran presence.  Montreal Canadiens prospect Noah Juulsen will be key should the Canadiens return him as he posted nine goals and 52 points a year ago. Young goaltender Carter Hart had a breakout rookie season in 2014-15 and will look to steal the starting job.  

Player to Watch: 
Carter Hart

The 17-year-old goaltender from Edmonton, AB, enjoyed a productive rookie campaign for the Silvertips. Hart recorded a 2.29 goals against average and a .915 save percentage while earning 18 victories. The sophomore goaltender won a gold medal for Team Canada at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial and was also named to the 2015-16 NHL Central Scouting Future’s List. If Hart continues to improve, he could soon be one of the elite goaltenders in the WHL.

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Portland Winterhawks
General Manager / Head Coach
: Jamie Kompon
2015 Pre-Season: 7 GP, 4-3-0-0
2014-15 Record: 43-23-2-4 (2nd in U.S. Division) GF: 287  GA: 237
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 22.5% (5th); PK: 80.0% (10th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in six games to Kelowna in Western Conference Championship Series
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Oliver Bjorkstrand                           59gp-63g-55a-118pts
Nicolas Petan                                   54gp-15g-74a-89pts
Chase De Leo                                   67gp-39g-45a-84pts

The Portland Winterhawks enter the 2015-16 WHL season with a chip on their shoulder after not reaching the WHL Championship Series for the first time in five seasons last year. The Portland Winterhawks have likely lost star players such as WHL Player of the Year Oliver Bjorkstrand and Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Nic Petan, but still possess plenty of elite talent. Dominic Turgeon and Paul Bittner will lead what should be a highly potent offence once again for the Winterhawks. Keegan Iverson is another candidate likely to return and will see his role increase for a Club that scored the second-most goals in the Western Conference last season. Defensively, the Hawks will retain key veterans such as Keoni Texeira and Nick Heid.  However, look for 18-year-old Caleb Jones to make an immediate impact on the Winterhawks blue line.  Goaltender Adin Hill should be the starting netminder for the Winterhawks this season after the native of Calgary, AB had a strong rookie season. The 19-year-old netminder notched 31 wins to go along with a .921 save percentage and a pair of shutouts last season.

Player to Watch: Caleb Jones 

Jones, a product of Arlington, TX, enters his first full season with the Winterhawks and is looking to take on a key role among the defensive corps. The 6-1, 192 lb defenceman scored six goals and 24 points for the U.S. National Development Program last year. Jones played for Team USA at the 2015 IIHF World U18 Championships and won a gold medal. A big-bodied, strong defenceman, Jones will be counted on to provide stability to the Winterhawks defence at both ends of the ice and follow in the footsteps of his brother, Nashville Predators rearguard Seth.

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Seattle Thunderbirds
General Manager
: Russ Farwell
Head Coach: Steve Konowalchuk
2015 Pre-Season: 6 GP, 2-3-1-0
2014-15 Record: 38-25-4-5 (3rd in U.S. Division) GF: 218  GA: 201
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing Ranking: PP: 21.2% (10th); PK: 80.0% (10th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in six games to Portland in Round 1
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Ryan Gropp                        67gp-30g-28a-58pts
Mathew Barzal                  44gp-12g-45a-57pts
Shea Theodore                  43gp-13g-35a-48pts

The Seattle Thunderbirds enjoyed a successful campaign which saw them finish third in the U.S. Division, but also saw their season cut short when the Portland Winterhawks eliminated them in Round 1 of the 2015 WHL Playoffs. With a solid group of stars, the Thunderbirds will look to take the next step to be amongst the elite Clubs in the Western Conference. Forward Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp should once again play a big factor into the T-Birds offence, that is if Barzal is returned by the New York Islanders. Veterans Scott Eansor and Keegan Kolesar will likely see their roles elevated for a relatively young offence. With the loss of 2014-15 WHL Defenceman of the Year Shea Theodore, it will be up to veterans such as Ethan Bear and Jared Hauf to solidify the back end. Bear had a productive season last year for the Thunderbirds as he recorded 38 points (13g-25a) in 69 games played. The T-Birds allowed the third fewest goals against in the Western Conference and will look to continue their defensive play this year. It will be a new era in goal in Seattle as Logan Flodell and Taz Burman should both receive playing time for the Thunderbirds. Flodell was the backup netminder last season while Burman was acquired from the Red Deer Rebels earlier this summer. 

Player to Watch: Keegan Kolesar 

A native of Winnipeg, MB, Kolesar enters his third season for the Thunderbirds after enjoying a terrific sophomore season. Kolesar registered 38 points (19g-19a) in 64 games which marked a 30-point increase from his rookie campaign. The 2012 WHL Bantam Draft first rounder will see his role increase and his two-way play should make an impact throughout the course of the season. A gritty player with a strong work ethic, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ prospect is ready to take on a large role and help guide the Thunderbirds to the next level in a competitive U.S. Division.

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Spokane Chiefs
General Manager
: Tim Speltz
Head Coach: Don Nachbaur
2015 Pre-Season: 7 GP, 2-5-0-0
2014-15 Record: 34-34-3-1, 72pts (4th in U.S. Division) GF: 219  GA: 229
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 23.7% (4th); PK: 82.6% (4th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in six games to Everett in Round 1
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Adam Helewka                  69gp-44g-43a-87pts
Jason Fram                         70gp-9g-53a-62pts
Calder Brooks                    52gp-23g-35a-58pts

The Spokane Chiefs are coming off a season that saw them qualify for the playoffs but fail to get through Round 1 after losing to the Everett Silvertips. The Chiefs boast a couple big offensive weapons in Adam Helewka and rookie sensation Kailer Yamamoto, but will need contributions throughout to support the attack. Veteran forwards Dominic Zwerger and Markson Bechtold will look to be amongst several forwards to lead a score-by-committee attack for the Chiefs.  Defensively, the Chiefs are happy to have Jason Fram return as the native of South Delta, BC, had a huge 2014-15 season from an offensive stand point by gathering 62 points (9g-53a) in 70 games. Fram’s 62 points was good enough for third-best amongst all WHL defencemen last season. Fram is likely to see major minutes this season at both ends of the ice and will need support from veteran defencemen such as Evan Fiala and Jordan Henderson in order for the Chiefs to be competitive in the tough Western Conference. 20-year-old Garret Hughson should have the starting job in goal for the Chiefs this season after posting 23 wins in 53 appearances in the 2014-15 campaign. 

Player to Watch: 
Kailer Yamamoto

A native of Spokane, WA, Yamamoto is coming off a terrific rookie campaign with the Chiefs as he tallied 23 goals and 57 points in 68 games, making an immediate impact offensively. Now in his second season with the Chiefs, Yamamoto will likely find himself pushed into a much larger role in the Chiefs’ offense in order to help the Club reach the next level. Yamamoto should receive top-line minutes so his point production has the potential to climb from last season’s numbers. Selected by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Yamamoto was narrowly edged by Nolan Patrick for WHL Rookie of the Year honours one year ago.

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Tri-City Americans
General Manager
: Bob Tory
Head Coach: Mike Williamson
2015 Pre-Season: 8 GP, 4-2-1-1
2014-15 Record: 31-38-0-3, 65pts (5th in U.S. Division) GF: 190  GA: 242
2014-15 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 19.0% (16th); PK: 82.3% (5th)
2015 WHL Playoffs: Lost in four games to Kelowna in Round 1
2014-15 Top Scorers:
Beau McCue                                     72gp-26g-25a-51pts
Richard Nejezchleb                         49gp-20g-31a-51pts
Lucas Nickles                                    72gp-24g-22a-46pts

The Tri-City Americans squeaked into the 2015 WHL Playoffs before being defeated by the Kelowna Rockets in Round 1. The Americans struggled to score goals last season as they finished 21st overall, but the Club does have several veterans up front that can help provide scoring and leadership. Veterans Beau McCue and Tyler Sandhu will lead the way while younger players like Austyn Playfair and Jordan Topping look to contribute more. On the back end, the Americans have a promising duo with the likes of Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon. The ‘Ams hope to see Carlo back, as the blueliner is currently with the Boston Bruins. The two defencemen could anchor a back end that is relatively young and looking to build a solid foundation. The Americans had an effective penalty kill unit last season as they had a conversion rate of 82.3%, good enough for fifth-best in the WHL. Despite losing Eric Comrie, Evan Sarthou appears ready to be the Americans starting goaltender after posting 11 wins last season. Rookie netminders Nicholas Sanders and Beck Warm are competing to be the primary backup.

Player to Watch: Evan Sarthou

A product of Black Diamond, WA, Sarthou enters his third season with the Americans and is looking to make an immediate impact as he is expected to be the starting goaltender. Sarthou has had success on the international level as he suited up for Team USA at the 2015 IIHF World U18 Championships and claimed a gold medal. The 6-1, 183 lb netminder was also listed on the 2015-16 NHL Central Scouting Future’s List and is looking to prove his value to NHL scouts by carrying a big work load for the Americans this season. Sarthou is quickly developing into one of the elite goaltenders in the WHL.

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