As much as the players are the show in junior hockey, the big stories across the WHL’s Western Conference heading into the 2014-15 season have occurred behind the bench. Half of the teams in the West, five of ten, will have a new bench boss at the helm when the regular season begins on September 19.
Portland and Kelowna were dominant during the regular season last year, with Victoria and Seattle emerging as solid contenders. Of the eight playoff qualifiers last season, all five of the U.S. Division teams earned a trip to the post-season.
League-wide, a total of 129 players have spent some time at NHL rookie camps or main camps. The exodus from NHL teams back to junior is well underway right now, but some teams in the WHL are likely to begin the regular season with a significant number of key players still vying for jobs in pro hockey. This reality begs the question, why does the junior hockey season begin so early?
On the other hand, for those who simply cannot get enough hockey to scratch their itch, the pucks drop in earnest this weekend!
Here’s a look at some of the key players in the Western Conference.
Portland Winterhawks (Last Season: 54-13-2-3; 1st in U.S. Division)
The Winterhawks reached the WHL Championship Series again last season, only to bow out to the eventual Memorial Cup winners, the Edmonton Oil Kings. Long-time head coach Mike Johnston has moved on, taking over behind the bench for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
New head coach Jamie Kompon arrives amid the departure of some core veterans who have graduated, but the youngsters left behind appear poised to mature amid the always lofty expectations in Portland.
A pair of imports may be key contributors this season, as both Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) and Anton Cederholm (VAN) should be back. Bjorkstrand, from Denmark, could very well finish among the league leaders offensively this season if he delivers a consistent push night in and night out. Nic Petan (WPG) has resided among the WHL’s scoring leaders for the past two seasons and should provide more of the same elite puck-possession skills. Each of these players has been signed to NHL contracts.
Chase De Leo (WPG), Keegan Iverson (NYR), Alex Schoenborn (SJS) and Dominic Turgeon (DET) are also core players in Portland this season. De Leo is a speedster and is solid at both ends of the ice, Iverson provides a power forward presence, Shoenborn provides energy and grit, while Turgeon is said to already possess pro smarts.
Cederholm, from Sweden, will anchor the back end, as savvy Derek Pouliot (PIT) appears destined for a pro gig. Josh Hanson, Layne Viveiros and Keoni Texeira will be given every opportunity to step up this season. Brendan Burke (ARZ), the son of former NHL goaltender Sean Burke, looks to be the mainstay between the pipes in Portland this season.
Seattle Thunderbirds (Last Season: 41-25-2-4; 2nd in U.S. Division)
The Thunderbirds added 17 more regular season victories last year over the previous campaign, a statement that could have ramifications throughout the Western Conference this season.
Key returnees this season are Shea Theodore (ANA) and Evan Wardley on the backend, while Justin Hickman led the Thunderbirds in scoring last season. Wardley (MTL) and Hickman (WPG) were slated for free agent looks, although Hickman was injured in practice before the Jets arrived in Penticton for the Young Stars pre-season tournament. Theodore has been signed by the Ducks.
Seattle could potentially ice seven returnees on defense this season, which could bode well for veteran goaltender Taran Kozun. Kozun was outstanding for the Thunderbirds after coming over from the Kamloops Blazers midway through last season. At 20, he should get the nod in goal, but a push from Danny Mumaugh or Logan Flodell will be important with the future in mind.
Forward Mathew Barzal (2015) has one WHL season under his belt and is already being touted as the top WHL prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft next June. Barzal led the team in playoff scoring last season. Ryan Gropp, who led the Thunderbirds in rookie scoring last season, will be closely watched as well.
Everett Silvertips (Last Season: 39-23-7-3-; 3rd in U.S. Division)
Last season was a huge success in Everett where the Silvertips finished 16 games over .500 after some challenging years. The stability and expertise provided by veteran coach Kevin Constantine has the team moving forward with confidence.
Perhaps the most key development early on will be the status of defenseman Mirco Mueller (SJS), who is signed. His return to Everett would be important on the back end, which includes at least a half-dozen returnees. Noah Juulsen (2015) will continue to mature and would certainly benefit if veteran 6’6” rearguard Ben Betker (EDM) returns.
There is a notable trio up front in Everett in Dawson Leedahl, Carson Stadnyk and Kohl Bauml. They all played minor hockey in and around Saskatoon, SK, and have combined to play over 500 WHL games in Everett. The current campaign is certainly their time to shine as core contributors. Import-forward Ivan Nikolishin is also back.
Spokane Chiefs (Last Season: 40-26-3-3; 4th in U.S. Division)
League scoring leader Mitch Holmberg has graduated, leaving hockey fans in Spokane to wonder who will pick up the slack this season. Beyond Holmberg, much of the Chiefs success last year did come “by committee”, which may be the case again this season.
Adam Helewka is getting a look from the St. Louis Blues this pre-season, but expect the 19-year-old to return to the WHL where he will be looked upon to provide consistent offensive push. Veterans Connor Chartier and Liam Stewart, both now 20, are capable in the attacking zone.
Jason Fram anchors the defensive corps, fresh off a look by the Calgary Flames. Spokane will audition plenty of defensemen early on as it looks to build a formidable top four and important depth.
A pair of 19-year-old goaltenders should provide confidence between the pipes this season. Garrett Hughson appeared in 21 games last season for Spokane and the Chiefs acquired Alex Moodie from the Saskatoon Blades during the off season. Neither is a proven “number one”, but the inner competition should enable each to continue to improve.
Tri-City Americans (Last Season: 29-33-4-6; 5th in U.S. Division)
New head coach Mike Williamson takes over from Jim Hiller and inherits perhaps the top goaltender in the WHL. Workhorse Eric Comrie (WPG) will be a season-long focal point in Kennewick this season. Look for the veteran keeper to hit the 60-game mark this season, although there are signs he could suit up for Team Canada at the 2015 WJC. Regardless, the Amerks will need Comrie to be at his best every time out.
The acquisition of Steven Hodges (FLA) from the Victoria Royals brings important veteran presence and versatility. Brian Williams led the team In scoring last season and Parker Bowles, with 40 points in 39 games last season, look to be blue-chip offensive producers. American-born Justin Gutierrez and Beau McCue are key returnees up front.
Among defensemen, youngsters Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon are both entering their NHL Draft year, ready for enhanced roles and plenty more meaningful minutes. Justin Hamonic, 20, anchors the backend, while Josh Thrower delivers toughness and experience.
Kelowna Rockets (Last Season: 57-11-0-4; 1st in B.C. Division)
New head coach Dan Lambert moves up from his assistant coach position and takes over a team that loses the likes of Damon Severson (NJD), Myles Bell (NJD) and Ryan Olsen (WPG), key veterans destined for pro hockey this season. CHL Goaltender of the Year Jordan Cooke has also moved on to CIS hockey.
Last season’s Western Conference Rookie of the Year, Nick Merkley (2015), who led the team in playoff scoring, will look to make his mark during his draft year. Tenacious forward Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI) is back, with an eye on becoming a more consistent performer. Rourke Chartier (SJS) has provided steady production for the Rockets. Justin Kirkland (NSH), a lanky, versatile forward, was the first Western Conference player selected at the NHL Draft in June. Tyson Baillie, who was not drafted, has proven offensive skills and a penchant for scoring timely goals.
The backend will be led by Madison Bowey (WSH), who could be a breakout offensive defenseman. Hulking Mitchell Wheaton (DET) will be a steady force in the defending zone. Young Dalton Yorke appears ready to step up and play plenty of meaningful minutes. Goaltending questions abound in Kelowna, however, as Jackson Whistle takes over to start the season. It marks the first time in recent memory that the Rockets’ number one goalkeeper checks in at over 6’ tall.
Victoria Royals (Last Season: 48-20-1-3; 2nd in B.C. Division)
Coming off the organization’s best regular season performance ever, high expectations will be the order of the day in Victoria. The Royals will not surprise anyone this season with their gritty, in-your-face style of play.
Big Axel Blomqvist (WPG) checks in at 6’6” and will be a welcome returnee up front as he can bring some heightened tenacity to the lineup. Tyler Soy (2015) will be closely watched by scouts. Gone is Steven Hodges, traded to the Tri-City Americans. Brandon Magee and Austin Carroll (CGY) are returning veterans
The long and short of it on defense consists of 5’8” Joe Hicketts and 6’6” Keegan Kanzig (CGY). Hicketts is intent on rebounding after an injury-plagued season. Undrafted, the likeable offensive catalyst attended both the rookie camp and main camp with the Detroit Red Wings. Kanzig brings toughness and stability to the defending zone, along with very good speed for a big man. The backend is also deep with Ryan Gagnon, Chaz Reddekopp and Jake Kolhauser back in the mix. Versatile Jack Walker can also play up front.
Coleman Vollrath looks to be the number one in goal as Czech-born Patrik Polivka has graduated.
Vancouver Giants (Last Season: 32-29-7-4; 3rd in B.C. Division)
The Giants seem to have made a statement this past off-season, suggesting a fast-paced, offensive focus will become the new normal. New head coach Troy Ward has been charged with implementing the new approach as he takes the reigns behind the bench in Vancouver.
The arrival of Tyler Benson and his prolific skills will create intrigue around the WHL this season. While Benson, the first overall pick at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, is highly-touted, he will benefit from the veteran presence of Jackson Houck (EDM), Carter Popoff and Dalton Sward. Matt Bellerive returns to the Giants’ organization and should help stabilize the corps up front.
The top four defensemen in Vancouver likely consists of Mason Geertsen (COL), Russian defenseman Dmitry Osipov, Arvin Atwal and Tyler Morrison. Payton Lee is the number one between the pipes.
Prince George Cougars (Last Season: 27-37-3-5; 4th in B.C. Division)
When the curtain drops at the CN Centre in Prince George this season, all eyes will be on how many seats are actually being filled by hockey fans who can now be supportive of a local ownership group.
If there is any chance that either Troy Bourke (COL) or Zach Pochiro (STL) might return, they would most certainly flourish offensively. Each has been signed to a pro contract. Add dynamic first round bantam pick Jansen Harkins (2016), who is certain to create excitement for Cougars fans, as he led the team in pre-season scoring. Local product Jari Ericcson appears healthy after a tough, injury-plagued 2013-14 season.
Marc McNulty (DET) showed promise last season, scoring 17 times. Urgency is the key for McNulty, who hopes to impress Red Wings’ brass this season. There is experience on the Cougars blueline, with Josh Anderson, Ray Grewal, Wil Tomchuk, Martin Bobos and Sam Ruopp returning.
In goal, Ty Edmonds is back after shouldering a very heavy workload last season. A capable backup will be very important in Prince George.
Kamloops Blazers (Last Season: 14-53-2-3; 5th in B.C. Division)
Coming off a tough year, the Blazers may be in for more of the same this season as the youngsters continue to cut their teeth in the WHL. The most prominent move during the off-season was the return of Don Hay to Kamloops as head coach.
Gifted veteran forward Cole Ully (DAL) will stir the drink offensively as he continues to vie for an NHL contract. Matt Revel, who came over from the Saskatoon Blades last season, provides offensive skills. Veteran Matt Needham is due to breakout after battling injuries throughout his tenure in Kamloops. Collin Shirley came over from the Kootenay Ice last year and produced 48 points in 59 games. Scoring by committee will be the order of the day, however, as the Blazers tallied only 175 times last season while giving up 305 goals.
On the back end, gritty Ryan Rehill (NJD) returns, while Josh Connolly is also back. Brady Gaudet is now 20 and will provide an important veteran presence. In goal, Bolton Pouliot is the consensus number one with returnee Cole Kehler and 2014 Telus Cup champion Connor Ingram battling for the backup role.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51