2014-15 WHL Preview: Wheat Kings look to dethrone Oil Kings in the East

By Ian Esplen
Greg Chase - Calgary Hitmen

Photo: Calgary Hitmen forward and Edmonton Oilers prospect Greg Chase registered 85 points in 2013-14, and is expected to be among the WHL scoring leaders in 2014-15 (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

 

Last season was a special year for the teams that call the WHL‘s Eastern Conference home.

 

First, Eastern Conference fans in Prince Albert, SK and Red Deer, AB got to see their teams square off in a thrilling, winner take all match to determine who would play the Edmonton Oil Kings in the first round of the playoffs.

 

Next, the Edmonton Oil Kings battled their way – traveling more then 15,000 kilometers during the playoffs – to a Memorial Cup championship.

 

And last, June saw the East sweep the West as all nine WHL players that were selected on opening night of the NHL Draft resided with Eastern Conference teams.

 

Here’s a look at some of the key players in the Eastern Conference for the 2014-15 season.

 

East Division

 

Regina Pats (Last Season: 39-26-4-3; T-1st in the East Division)

 

After finishing last season tied for top spot in the East Division, the Regina Pats were swept in the first round by the upstart Brandon Wheat Kings. The Pats this season will likely be led again by Morgan Klimchuk (CGY), who is coming off a season that saw him score 30 goals and 74 points.

 

After Klimchuk, look for Kyle Burroughs (NYI) to lead the defense and provide a ton of character and leadership. He’ll also likely draw into a shutdown role again and see a lot of the opponent’s top line.

 

And while this season may serve as a bit of a reloading year for the Pats, the future is bright with 6’4” Russian defender, Sergey Zborovskiy (2015). So far in camp he looks to have the size, skating and skill that NHL GMs covet. Look for him to go early at the 2015 NHL Draft.

 

And along with Zborovskiy, Sam Steel, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, looks like he’ll be one of the league’s top rookies after finishing as the top scorer in the preseason. Look for him to potentially be a top-5 pick in 2016.

 

Swift Current Broncos (Last Season: 38-25-3-6; T-1st in the East Division)

 

After dropping a tough six-game series to the Medicine Hat Tigers last year, the Swift Current Broncos will bring back a number of key contributors from last season. The offense may struggle after losing three of their top five scorers, but Coda Gordon (UFA) and Colby Cave (UFA) should be back.

 

After that duo, the true strength of the Broncos is their defense, which has four NHL-drafted defensemen. Dillon Heatherington (CBJ) and Julius Honka (DAL) both have the skillset to be amongst the WHL’s top defensemen this season. Heatherington has the ability to play a shutdown role while providing some offence. Honka, on the other hand, has the skill to bring fans out of their seats anytime he’s on the ice.

 

After them, Brett Lernout (MTL) is the rock in his own zone, and he has the size and nastiness that no one likes to play against. Brycen Martin (BUF) rounds out the group with his size, skating and offensive upside.

 

Brandon Wheat Kings (Last Season: 34-29-6-3; 3rd in the East Division)

 

The expectations in Brandon are huge this season after the Wheat Kings were named the CHL’s No. 3 team in the preseason rankings. Leading the way for them will be Jayce Hawryluk (FLA), who can be downright dominant when he’s on his game, and John Quenneville (NJD).

 

After Hawryluk and Quenneville, Jesse Gabrielle (2015) and Nolan Patrick (2017) should give them some key secondary scoring and depth. Both are two players that fans will want to keep close tabs on.

 

On defense, Eric Roy (CGY) should play in the Wheat Kings’ top pairing all season long and be counted on to anchor the power-play. Along with Roy, two other names to watch on the blueline are Ryan Pilon (2015) and Kale Clague (2016)

 

Pilon is the total package – size, skating, skill and physical play – and will likely hear his name called early at this year’s draft. Clague, on the other hand, will have to wait until 2016, but he very well could be the first defenseman off the board when his time comes.

 

Prince Albert Raiders (Last Season: 35-32-3-2; 4th in the East Division)

 

After a disappointing fourth place finish last season, no team will be holding their breath and hoping for help from the NHL more then the Prince Albert Raiders. Their top two scorers from a season ago, Leon Draisaitl (EDM) and Josh Morrissey (WPG), will likely both see extended time with their NHL clubs and possibly stick with them all season long.

 

Aside from Morrissey, keep a close eye on tough and rugged defenseman Mackenze Stewart (VAN). Stewart’s game has seen huge growth in recent years, and he’ll likely be relied on heavily to shutdown the other team’s top players.

 

If the team is to contend for a playoff spot, look for 17-year-old netminder Nick McBride (2015) to steal some games. At 6’3”, he has NHL size and is also solid technically.

 

Moose Jaw Warriors (Last Season: 21-42-3-6; 5th in the East Division)

 

After finishing fifth in the division last season, look for the Moose Jaw Warriors to be better this season. Carrying the bulk of the load up front will be Brayden Point (TBL), who was the youngest player to finish in the WHL’s top 30 scorers in 2013-14. The shifty, little center with an edge could challenge for the league’s scoring title this season and should have a decent chance of playing for Canada at the 2015 WJC.

 

After Point, Warrior fans should turn their attention to the net where Zach Sawchenko (2016) is sure to star. Last season, Sawchenko may have been the youngest full-time player in the WHL, but that didn’t stop him from playing like a veteran. Sawchenko also suited up at the U-17’s a year ago and guided Canada to Gold at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament back in August.

 

Saskatoon Blades (Last Season: 16-51-2-3; 6th in the East Division)

 

Last season was a tough one for the Saskatoon Blades as they began a rebuild after hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013. Leading the Blades attack will be Nikita Scherbak (MTL). The big Russian winger was the only player to break the 20-goal mark last season and finished the season with 78 points. He will have to be just as good for the team this year if they want to build on the 16 wins they had a season ago.

 

On defense, Nelson Nogier (WPG) is 100 percent after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. The smooth skating, stay-at-home defenceman should be given more of a role at the offensive end of the rink, but will likely be leaned on heavily to shutdown the opposing team’s top players.

 

Central Division

 

Edmonton Oil Kings (Last Season: 50-19-2-1; T-1st in the Central Division)

 

After bringing the Memorial Cup home to the WHL last season, the Edmonton Oil Kings will have a huge target on their backs this season. But then again, that target isn’t anything new to the Oil Kings after making it to the past three WHL Finals.

 

Look for the Oil Kings to have some holes to fill this season with the team likely saying goodbye to Edgars Kulda (ARZ), Curtis Lazar (OTT), Mitchell Moroz (EDM), Griffin Reinhart (NYI) and Henrik Samuelsson (ARZ).

 

Picking up the slack and carrying the Oil Kings offense this season will be Brett Pollock (DAL). The big center had a breakout season in 2013-14, scoring 25 goals and 55 points. Look for him to build off of that success and lead the team in scoring.

 

On defense, a pair of NHL Draft picks lead the way. Dysin Mayo (ARZ) was outstanding for the Oil Kings in the playoffs and will likely see a bigger offensive role this season. Aaron Irving (NSH) is your typical, jack-of-all-trades type of defenseman that should provide leadership, character and a bit of scoring.

 

And in goal is Tristan Jarry (PIT), who very well could be the best goalie in the CHL. Jarry was spectacular last season, winning 63 games (regular season, playoffs and Memorial Cup). He should be considered one of the frontrunners to start for Canada at the WJC.

 

Calgary Hitmen (Last Season: 48-17-3-4; T-1st in the Central Division)

 

After a disappointing first round exit, the Calgary Hitmen look poised to come back this season with a vengeance. New head coach Mark French brings with him a wealth of knowledge from both the AHL and KHL.

 

Up front, the Hitmen attack will be led by Greg Chase (EDM), Radel Fazleev (PHI), Chase Lang (MIN) and Jake Virtanen (VAN) – once he returns from a shoulder injury. The newly signed Chase is expected to take a healthy run at the league’s scoring title and should see more of a role on the power-play.

 

Virtanen is expected to be back sometime in October playing his usual rough-and-tumble style and should also see more time on a very dangerous Hitmen power-play. Also expect to see him penciled into Canada’s entry at the WJC.

 

Also keep an eye on Beck Malenstyn (2016), Jordy Stallard (2016), Layne Bensmiller (2015) and Pavel Karnaukhov (2015) to provide the Hitmen with some secondary scoring. The big Belarusian center Karnaukhov looks to have the size, skating, skill and 200-foot game to attract the attention of many NHL scouts in the coming months.

 

On defense, a pair of second-year players lead the way. Ben Thomas (TBL) should see more of the shutdown role this season and will be counted on heavily to play a lot of big minutes. His partner, Travis Sanheim (PHI) will also see an increased role this year, and could very well make Canada’s WJC team. Also, be sure to keep a close eye on Michael Zipp (2015) and Lochlan Morrison (2015), who both could hear their names called by NHL teams this June.

 

The Hitmen also have three 20-year-olds that may return in Adam Tambellini (NYR), Mike Winther (UFA) and Kenton Helgesen (ANA).

 

Medicine Hat Tigers (Last Season: 44-24-3-1; 3rd in the Central Division)

 

After losing to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Eastern Conference final last year, the Medicine Hat Tigers come into this season with reasonably high expectations, and with the majority of their key players returning.

 

Moving on to pro hockey are Curtis Valk (UFA) and Hunter Shinkaruk (VAN), but some of the scoring should be picked up by rookie Matthew Bradley (2015), who averaged more then a goal a game in Midget last season.

 

But it’s on defense where the Tigers should shine this season. Tommy Vannelli (STL) and Tyler Lewington (WSH) return to anchor the blueline. Expect Lewington to see a lot of the shutdown role, with Vannelli running the power-play. As well, watch for Connor Hobbs (2015) to see a lot of ice time and provide some offensive punch from the back end after a good tournament for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka.

 

Kootenay Ice (Last Season: 39-28-2-3; 4th in the Central Division)

 

The Kootenay Ice come into this season looking to build upon a season that saw them upset the Calgary Hitmen in the first round of the playoffs. Likely gone will be their captain and offensive leader, Sam Reinhart (BUF). After being selected No. 2 overall at the 2014 NHL Draft, look for Reinhart to potentially see a lot of time in Buffalo’s top-6 this season.

 

Leading the Ice attack will be Jaedon Descheneau (STL) who is coming off a season that saw him score 44 goals. Look for Descheneau to stick on the Ice’s top line and provide a solid 1-2 punch with Luke Philp (UFA).

 

On defense, the Ice will be anchored by Tanner Faith (MIN) and Rinat Valiev (TOR). Both defensemen should see a lot of the opposition’s best players. Look for Valiev specifically to emerge as one of the best two-way defensemen in the WHL this season.

 

Red Deer Rebels (Last Season: 35-32-1-4; 5th in the Central Division)

 

The Red Deer Rebels iced a fairly young team last season and came up just short of making the playoffs, after losing the tiebreaker to the Prince Albert Raiders. Retuning to the fold will be first round picks Conner Bleackley (COL) and Haydn Fleury (CAR). Both players should be key for Canada at the WJC.

 

Also keep an eye on Adam Musil (2015) to provide physical, two-way play and chip in some scoring after helping Canada win a Gold Medal at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament.

 

Lethbridge Hurricanes (Last Season: 12-55-2-3; 6th in the Central Division)

 

Last year marked the fourth season in a row that the Lethbridge Hurricanes have missed the playoffs and things don’t appear to look much better this season. But on the bright side, the Hurricanes do have some good talent in the developmental stages.

 

Jaeger White (2016), Pavel Skumatov (2015) and Nikita Milekhin (2015) should all contribute as rookies this season. As with most Russians, it may take some time for Skumatov and Milekhin to get acquainted with the North American game, but they should settle in by mid-season.

 

Along with the Hurricanes talented trio up front, expect Reid Duke (MIN) and Giorgio Estephan (2015) to be 1-2 in scoring for Lethbridge. Both should see an increased role in the offense and more time on the power-play.

 

In net, keep an eye on rookie Stuart Skinner (2017). While it’s tough to project how much action the 15-year-old (turns 16 on Nov. 1st) will see, Skinner does already have NHL size, and at 6’4” he’s worth a look.