WHL Western Conference prospects to watch 2009-10

By Glen Erickson

Just a couple of short weeks ago, a total of 138 players eligible to play in the Western Hockey League this season were attending National Hockey League training camps. The numbers confirm the overall depth in the WHL, as more than 80 of the players have been drafted and the balance earned free agent tryouts. Many will play professional hockey this season, while the majority will return to junior for more seasoning.

B.C. DIVISION

Kelowna Rockets
Last season: (47-21-1-3) 2nd in BC Division; WHL Champions.

The Rockets won the league title on home ice for the first time in team history last season, earning the organization’s fourth trip to the Memorial Cup this decade. During their WHL playoff run, they defeated the top two teams in the Western Conference (Vancouver and Tri City) and then edged the regular season champion Calgary Hitmen in the final series. The Rockets dropped the national final game to the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL.

With high expectations the norm in Kelowna, there is some uncertainty early on this season. A total of 12 players were drafted or invited to NHL training camps. Among those auditioning for NHL teams is the 2009 WHL playoff MVP, defenseman Tyler Myers (BUF). The 6’7, 210-pounder moves as well as any big man in recent history and would be a very welcome returnee in Kelowna.

During his first two seasons, Tyson Barrie has had the pleasure of lining up beside Luke Schenn and Myers. With reliable veterans at his side, Barrie has flourished offensively. An efficient puckhandler with very good vision, Barrie has quarterbacked the power play unit in Kelowna for two seasons. At 5’10 and 175 pounds, he does not dominate physically, but has also proven to be a durable player. How he handles his role as the Rockets’ top gun on the backend this season remains to be seen. Barrie returned from Colorado Avalanche camp in time to play in the Rockets season opener.

Mitchell Callahan was selected in the fifth round by the Detroit Red Wings, an organization that likens his skill set to players like Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. Callahan brought edginess and high energy to the mix last season and will be looked upon to elevate all aspects of his game this year. While he is a willing pugilist, the Rockets will look more for scoring punch from Callahan this season. The California-born forward may also get a look from USA Hockey for the upcoming WJC.

Goaltender Adam Brown is the heir apparent to veteran Mark Guggenberger, a 20-year-old who has missed the entire training camp and pre-season due to injury. Brown was used sparingly last season as the Rockets opened the campaign with 20-year-old Kris Lazaruk as the starter. When he was released near mid-season, Guggenberger was acquired from the Swift Current Broncos and carried the load through the second half. Brown has fast reflexes and challenges shooters. He continues to develop both his puckhandling skills and rebound control. Brown has quick hands. The smart money has Brown earning the No. 1 job between the pipes.


Vancouver Giants

Last Season: (57-10-2-3) 1st in BC Division

For much of last season, the Giants looked to be a lock to win the regular season crown, only to be overtaken by the Calgary Hitmen late in the schedule. Vancouver graduated enough players to raise some early concerns, but this is an organization that finds ways to produce top talent. Should Evander Kane return from the Atlanta Thrashers, he will provide much needed offensive prowess. Last season, Kane and WHL scoring champion Casey Pierro-Zabotel (PIT) were a dangerous forward combination.

David Musil (2011) arrived from the Czech Republic amid curious circumstances during the off-season. Following a year of pro hockey as a 15-year-old, Musil’s family moved to Canada. The 6’4 defenseman, whose father Frank Musil had a successful NHL career, will be given every opportunity to play a regular shift in Vancouver. With the likes of Jon Blum (NAS), Brent Regner (CLB) and Nick Ross (PHO) eligible but unlikely to return, and 20-year-old Craig Schira bound for the Ottawa Senators system, there should be plenty of room for Musil to learn by playing meaningful minutes.

Lance Bouma has already been named the Giants’ captain for the upcoming season. A rugged forward, Bouma is off to a quick start this season after attending the Calgary Flames camp. He will play a huge role in Vancouver this season, especially if Kane sticks in the NHL. 

In some ways, goaltender Jamie Tucker had the best seat in the rink as a rookie with the Giants last year. Playing behind Tyson Sexsmith, who will be in the San Jose Sharks system this season, and an experienced blueline brigade, Tucker saw plenty of action last season. He appeared in 22 games, managing an outstanding total of six shutouts and a healthy .936 save percentage. This season, behind a less established group of rearguards, Tucker will be given the reins as the starter. 

Kamloops Blazers
Last season: (33-33-2-4) 3rd in BC Division

Among western conference teams, the Blazers stand to return the most veteran crew this season. Whether or not the players have learned enough to win remains to be seen. The organization is entering its second full season under the ownership of a group that includes NHLers Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Darryl Sydor and Mark Recchi.

Tyler Shattock provided offensive spark last season and will be leaned on to deliver more this season. Perhaps the top skater on the club, Shattock benefited from a free agent tryout last year at San Jose and a lengthy look at the St. Louis Blues camp this season. He has been named captain in Kamloops and is expected to bring leadership and maturity to the rink. C.J. Stretch, the team’s leading scorer last year, enters his fifth season in Kamloops. A late bloomer, Stretch should earn another NHL tryout if he simply meets expectation this season. Jimmy Bubnick has returned from Atlanta Thrashers camp, giving the club an effective pair of top line centers.

Zac Stebner arrived in Kamloops last season in a trade with the Prince Albert Raiders. The burly rearguard will be charged with the responsibility to keep pucks out of the Blazers net. On the scoring side, the veteran presence on the blueline of 20-year-old Giffen Nyren should help. The coaching staff wants to see more consistency from Nyren, rather than the very evident risk-reward style of play from last season.


Prince George Cougars

Last season: (25-44-0-34) 4th place in BC Division

The most significant addition so far is that of head coach Dean Clark, who signed a five-year deal back in April. He is a proven winner and should be able to help the Cougars develop from within their system.

On the ice, all eyes will be on CHL and WHL Rookie of the Year, Brett Connolly (2010). The gifted forward has been hobbled in the pre-season by a hip injury that was aggravated at the U-18 Tournament in the Czech Republic. The Cats will need others to step up, as Connolly will require time to return to the form that garnered 30 goals and 30 assists in his freshman campaign last year.

Import Marek Viedensky will return and will add a veteran presence. A forward comfortable in heavy traffic, Viedensky is capable of sharing offensive responsibilities. On the back end, youngster Jesse Forsberg (2011) is a first round bantam draft pick the Cougars have high hopes for. Last season, the team gave up 110 more goals than they scored.


Chilliwack Bruins

Last season: (19-46-2-5) 5th in B.C. Division

Entering its fourth season in the WHL, the Bruins have also made a coaching change, bringing in Marc Habscheid to move the group forward. A veteran WHL and NHL player, Habscheid was behind the bench for the Kelowna Rockets 2004 Memorial Cup winner.

Ryan Howse is an original Bruin who shouldered much of the offensive load last season in his draft year. Entering his third season in Chilliwack, Howse will be the default leader on offense. Kevin Sundher will provide important depth and scoring as well. Defenseman Brandon Manning has earned a long look at Maple Leafs camp, but is expected to return and add stability on the backend along with veterans Jesse Craige and Mitch McColm.

US DIVISION

Tri City Americans
Last Season (49-20-0-3) 1st in the US Division

The impact of the departure of long time Amerks head coach Don Nachbaur to the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League has yet to be felt. New bench boss Jim Hiller, released at season’s end by the Chilliwack Bruins, will have some work to do to keep Tri City atop the standings again this season.

Also gone are veteran forwards Tyler Procyshen (CIS), Mitch Fadden (FA) and Jason Reece (FA), big-minute players whose absence will be felt early in the season. Veteran forward Kruise Reddick, along with Justin Feser, Jordan Messier and Brendan Shinnimin will have ample opportunity to step up and prove they can produce consistently.

Defenseman Tyler Schmidt, who has been an outspoken opponent against the new fighting related rules in the WHL, will anchor the back end, although the Amerks could return a pair of 20-year-olds to the blueline in Brett Plouffe and Jarret Toll.

Nachbaur had the luxury of giving the nod to goaltenders Carey Price and Chet Pickard (NAS) in recent years. Pickard was the WHL’s Top Goaltender last season and gave the Americans a chance to win every night out. He is likely bound for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. In his place, Drew Owsley and Brett Martyniuk, who handled backup duties last season, will be the tandem in Tri City this season.


Spokane Chiefs

Last Season: (25-39-5-3) 5th in US Division

Two seasons removed from their Memorial Cup championship, the Spokane Chiefs overcame key injuries last spring to push the Vancouver Giants to seven games before bowing out in the second round of the playoffs. This season, the Chiefs return a solid, experienced core group.

All eyes will be on defenseman Jared Cowen following season-ending surgery last February. Despite the knee injury, Cowen was selected in the first round, 9th overall, by the Ottawa Senators at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The 6’5 rearguard is a very good puckhandler who has been more focused more on a shut-down role. Cowen’s mobility will be watched closely. The Chiefs could also return Jared Spurgeon (NYI) as a 20-year-old, Cowen’s partner on the blueline for the past two seasons. Mike Reddington and Stefan Ulmer add valuable depth on defense.

Up front, Drayson Bowman is destined for the Carolina Hurricanes system, making room for Tyler Johnson to play a broader role. The Spokane-born Johnson played for Team USA at the WJC and is being given a look by the Minnesota Wild. Levko Koper has improved steadily in Spokane and did not look out of place with the Atlanta Thrashers at the rookie tournament in Traverse City. Another American-born player, Mitch Wahl, has also been returned to Spokane by the Calgary Flames.  

Everett Silvertips
Last season: (27-36-7-2) 4th in US Division

The biggest change in Everett heading into this season was the hiring of head coach Craig Hartsburg, who has achieved WJC success and spent a portion of last season as head coach of the Ottawa Senators.

At the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, forward Cameron Abney was selected by the Edmonton Oilers and Byron Froese was chosen by the Chicago Blackhawks. Both have been returned to Everett where they will be taking on leadership roles under Hartsburg. Abney in particular will ensure a measure of toughness exists on the Silvertips roster. Forwards Tyler Maxwell and Kellen Tochkin and import Radko Gudas add further scoring depth. Each attended an NHL camp on free-agent tryouts.

Finnish defenseman Rasmus Rissanen, selected by the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2009 Entry Draft enters his rookie season in the CHL. He suffered an upper-body injury during the preseason.

Seattle Thunderbirds
Last season: (35-32-1-4) 3rd in US Division

Goaltending should be a strength in Seattle this season with Jacob DeSerres back for another season. DeSerres, selected by the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2008 Entry Draft played one season in Seattle behind Riku Helenius of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In fact, the T-Birds tandem between the pipes includes Calvin Pickard, who burst on to the WHL scene last year with a determined rookie campaign. He is the younger brother of Chet (NAS) and eligible for the upcoming draft.

The Thunderbirds have most certainly bid goodbye to stalwart defenseman Thomas Hickey, who is destined for pro hockey with the Los Angeles Kings. Expected to elevate their game this season are a pair of rearguards who enjoyed free agent tryouts this summer: import Stefan Warg of Sweden with the Anaheim Ducks and Brenden Dillon with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Up front, forward Prab Rai, drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, has been returned to the WHL, as has Sena Acolatse, who attended the Phoenix Coyotes camp as a free agent. 

 
Portland Winterhawks

Last Season: (19-48-3-2) 5th in the US Division

The Winterhawks will have veteran goaltender Kurtis Mucha in the mix as a 20-year-old upon his return from the Edmonton Oilers last week. Mucha has been a constant, efficient producer over the past four seasons in Portland and brings stability to the back end. However, the Winterhawks are deep in goal with Ian Curtis and Keith Hamilton on the roster. Look for a trade to happen soon.

Defenseman Brett Ponich was a second round pick, 48th overall, this summer. The 6’7, 225-pound Ponich was very good at St. Louis Blues camp and surprised with his mobility and toughness. He will have to continue to develop his mobility while anchoring the Portland blueline corps and will be used to keep pucks out of the net. Ponich played in all 72 regular-season games last year and is entering his third full season in the WHL.

Forwards Luke Walker and Chris Francis are dynamic forwards who played well together during the second half of last season. Import forward Nino Niederreitter from Switzerland collected a point per game at the 2009 U-18 World Championship and is a lock for their 2010 WJC squad. Forward Ty Rattie, 16, is the Winterhawks 2008 first-round bantam pick and is expected to develop into a consistent offensive producer.