2010-11 WHL Western Conference Preview

By Glen Erickson

Here’s a look at the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference heading into the 2010-2011 season. Of course, things could change on the rosters as the deadline for WHL teams to announce their three 20-year-olds comes along on October 14. And, near the end of October, we will also find out which NHL teams are prepared to keep their recently drafted prospects beyond the first ten regular season games.

B.C. Division

Vancouver Giants (Last Season: 41-25-3-3; 1st in B.C. Division)
Key Grads: Lance Bouma, Kevin Connauton, Milan Kyntar, Tomas Vincour, James Wright
Key Returnees: Craig Cunningham, Brendan Gallagher, James Henry, Neil Manning, David Musil

The Giants have found ways in recent years to avoid the pitfalls of annually graduating elite players. They continue to ice competitive teams and this season should be no different. Because of the likelihood that Connauton will graduate to the Vancouver Canucks system, along with his 72 points of production, the blue line will be anchored by Neil Manning and David Musil. A big season from goaltenders Mark Segal and Derek Tendler will go along way to helping the Giants contend for another divisional crown.

Up front, the Giants will depend on a trio of intense, diminutive and productive forwards. Brendan Gallagher tallied 41 times last season. Craig Cunningham, who chipped in with 97 points last year, enjoyed an extended stay at the Boston Bruins camp before being sent back to the WHL. James Henry will also have to improve on a 60-point campaign last season. Among other veterans expected to lead in Vancouver are 20-year-old Matt McKay, a forward who comes over from the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Kelowna Rockets (Last Season: 35-31-2-4; 2nd in B.C. Division)
Key Grads: Dallas Jackson, Brandon McMillan
Key Returnees:  Tyson Barrie, Adam Brown, Brett Bulmer, Mitch Callahan, Shane McColgan, Geordie Wudrick;

Barrie and McColgan are keys offensively this season in Kelowna. However, Barrie (hamstring) and McColgan (tonsilitis) have been slowed during the pre-season. In fact, Barrie was forced to miss his first NHL training camp with the Colorado Avalanche. With increased ice time, McColgan should be able to improve on his 69-point rookie season. McMillan’s departure will hurt as his skating ability, leadership and versatility will be tough to replace. The 20-year-old Wudrick will have to produce consistently this season and increased offensive output by Callahan will be a must. Bulmer, a second round pick of the Minnesota Wild, is another forward who must produce consistently.

On the backend, the Rockets will ice a veritable no-name group for now, although their cumulative effectiveness may become the backbone in Kelowna this season. Colton Jobke earned a contract with Minnesota after a free agent look in September. Another pair of 18-year-olds, Mitchell Chapman and Antoine Corbin are one year smarter, while a pair of off-season acquisitions in 19-year-old Kevin Smith and 20-year-old Brendon Wall bring additional experience to the mix. Between the pipes, this is Adam Brown’s team to lead. Although he posted more than 30 wins last season, he may have to be even better this time around.

Kamloops Blazers (Last Season: 32-33-2-5; 3rd in B.C. Division)
Key Grads: C.J. Stretch
Key Returnees: Josh Caron, Jon Groenheyde, Tyler Hansen, Austin Madaisky, Brendan Ranford, Chase Schaber

Stretch left Kamloops after five successful seasons, leaving behind a capable scoring-by-committee group led by Ranford. Schaber has been named the team’s captain and is entering his first full season in Blazerville after coming over from the Calgary Hitmen at the trade deadline last year. Colin Smith is entering his third season and will be looked upon to provide consistent offensive production. The acquisition of J.T. Barnett from the Vancouver Giants adds veteran presence and a potential 30-goal forward. Jordan Depape, who arrived from Brandon last season, should also excel in Kamloops this season.

The entire group in Kamloops simply did not do enough together to keep the puck out of its own net last season. The blue line corps this season is a more experienced crew, including Hansen, Maidaisky, and Caron. Caron earned a contract with the Minnesota Wild after a free agent tryout, but suffered a broken collarbone in the team’s home opener and will be out of the lineup until about mid-November. Bronson Maschmeyer and Linden Saip are back and the Blazers have also added 20-year-old WHL rookie Cory Fienhage from the University of North Dakota. A Buffalo Sabres’ draft pick, Fienhage is a beast who should make life difficult in the defending zone. For the third year in a row, Kamloops will have a 20-year-old goaltender on the roster, with Jeff Bosch coming over from Moose Jaw to step in behind the incumbent, Groenheyde.

Chilliwack Bruins (Last Season: 32-33-2-5; 4th in B.C. Division)
Key Grads: Jesse Craige
Key Returnees: Lucas Gore, Roman Horak, Ryan Howse, Brandon Manning, Dylan McKinlay, Kevin Sundher

The 2010-2011 season marks the first real opportunity in the Bruins brief WHL existence for the club to assume very high performance expectations. Only one of the Bruins top nine scorers will not return, a reality that should take some pressure off the likes of Calgary Flames draft pick Howse. Howse tallied 47 times last year and is full y capable of posting like numbers this season. Jamie Crooks, Sundher, Horak and McKinlay should all score upwards of 20 goals again this season. The offensive depth also bodes well for the Chilliwack power play.

A pair of 20-year-olds provide blue line depth this season as Brandon Manning and Jeff Einhorn return. Manning collected 54 points last season. In goal, Lucas Gore is 20 now and 19-year-old Braden Gamble returns.

Prince George Cougars (Last Season: 12-56-1-3; 5th in B.C. Division)
Key Grads: Alex Rogers
Key Returnees: Art Bidlevski, Nick Buonassisi, Brett Connolly, James Dobrowolski, Jesse Forsberg, Brock Hirsche, Taylor Makin, Parker Stanfield

After a dismal 2009-01 season, the Prince George Cougars can really only move in one direction. A healthy and consistently productive Brett Connolly could make the difference between a playoff spot or that of an also ran once again. Connolly was returned to PG by the Tampa Bay Lightning after a successful training camp, primarily because he was able to remain healthy.

There are a number of WHL veterans in Prince George that have to find a way to elevate their game to ensure the team qualifies for post-season play. Bidlevski, Buonassisi, Dobrowolski and Stanfield have all been part of sub-par teams for too long in PG and they must be consistently more productive as their junior careers wind down. With Hirsche, Makin and Forsberg entering their second full season, they look to be the nucleus of this team for the next few seasons.

During the off-season, the Cats also added gritty forward Charles Inglis from the Saskatoon Blades and 20-year-old goalie Morgan Clark from the Swift Current Broncos.

U.S. Division

Tri-City Americans (Last Season: 47-22-1-2; 1st in U.S. Division)
Key Grads: Jarett Toll, Brett Plouffe
Key Returnees: Justin Feser, Patrick Holland, Brooks Macek, Drew Owsley, Brendan Shinnimin, Kruise Reddick, Tyler Schmidt

The Americans reached the WHL Championship Final last season where they lost to the Calgary Hitmen. This is a hockey club that could return to those lofty heights this year. The Amerks had the WHL’s second-best power play last year and were the league’s third highest scoring team. These accomplishments came without a marquee-type player on the roster. Indeed, Tri City will be a team to be reckoned with again.

The depth up front enables Tri City to strike with three forward lines. Shinnimin, Macek, Feser and Reddick could all pass the 20-goal plateau again this season. Patrick Holland, now 18, was drafted by the Calgary Flames and returns for a second season where he should provide a consistent threat.

If there is a challenge for head coach Jim Hiller this season, it will be to develop a young defenseman or two after the departure of Plouffe and Toll. With Tyler Schmidt back in the fold as a 20-year-old, his experience can be valuable in the development of young rearguard. Brock Sutherland, Zach Yuen and Drydn Dow also return, providing some WHL experience as well. Veteran Drew Owsley, now 19, was solid last season and provides capable, consistent goaltending.

Everett Silvertips (Last Season: 46-21-3-2; 2nd in U.S. Division)
Key Grads: Shane Harper, Radko Gudas
Key Returnees: Kellan Tochkin; Tyler Maxwell, Ryan Murray, Kent Simpson

The big news in Everett during the off-season was the acquisition of forward Landon Ferraro from the Red Deer Rebels. Since his arrival, the Silvertips have named him team captain. Ferraro brings speed and scoring to the ‘Tips. Along with Tochkin, Maxwell and former NCAA forward Josh Birkholz, Everett should improve on its middle-of-the-pack power play numbers from last season.

What the ‘Tips did effectively last season was keep puck out of their own net. The Silvertips had the top goaltending tandem in the WHL last season with Thomas Heemskerk and Kent Simpson holding the fort. Heemskerk was traded to the Moose Jaw Warriors during the pre-season, making Simpson to go-to-guy. Simpson was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks.

On the backend, look for Ryan Murray to further emerge this season even though he is not eligible yet for the 2011 NHL Draft. He will be aided this season by the addition of 20-year-old Chad Suer, who came over from Moose Jaw in the Heemskerk deal. Import Rasmus Rissanen and Paul Sohor also return.

Spokane Chiefs (Last Season: 45-22-3-2; 3rd in U.S. Division)
Key Grads: Kyle Beach, Tyler Spurgeon, Stefan Ulmer, Mitch Wahl
Key Returnees: Jared Cowan, Tyler Johnson, Levi Koper, James Reid

The Chiefs should be able to produce offensively this season with the likes of Koper and Johnson back in the fold. Johnson, who chipped in with 71 points last season, is a hometown boy who will be seriously tested this season to carry much of the offensive load. The Chiefs, however, be challenged to replace the offense provided last season by Wahl and Beach, who together combined for 182 points. Contributions from veteran returnees like Blake Gal and Steve Kuhn will be ultra-important for Spokane if they want to be competitive all season long with Tri City, Everett and Portland.

The biggest question at this point of the season is the status of defenseman Jared Cowan. The 2009 first round pick by the Ottawa Senators is pushing the Sens hard to at least give him a long look. If Cowan earns an extended stay in Ottawa, the Chiefs problems on the backend will increase as they have already graduated Ulmer and Spurgeon. Spokane added rearguard Bruin MacDonald, 18, from the Prince George Cougars, but there could be some long night in the defending zone for the Chiefs.

Portland Winterhawks (Last Season: 44-25-2-1; 4th in U.S. Division)
Key Grads: Chris Francis, Luke Walker, Nino Neiderreiter
Key Returnees: Taylor Aronson, Ryan Johansen, Brett Ponich, Brad Ross, Troy Rutkowski

Many prognosticators pointed at the 2010-2011 season as a potential coming out party for the Winterhawks, given the enormously talented roster of youngsters that emerged last year. However, a number of the youngsters that were drafted might actually secure jobs in professional hockey, thus impacting the depth in Portland.

At the outset, Neiderreiter appears to be a lock to stay on Long Island with the New York Islanders, who selected him fifth overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Walker has just signed with the Colorado Avalanche. Johnasen, who was drafted fourth overall and has been signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, will be back in Portland where he should be the go-to-guy on offense. Up front, Riley Boychuk, Brad Ross and Oliver Gabriel add important depth.

Thankfully for the Winterhawks, who saw eight players selected at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, last season’s captain Brett Ponich has been returned by the St. Louis Blues. Already deep on the blueline, the 6’7 Ponich brings size and veteran savvy to the ‘Hawks. Aronson, Troy Rutkowski and Joe Morrow are also back for another season in Portland. Mac Carruth and Keith Hamilton will handle duties between the pipes.

Seattle Thunderbirds (Last season: 19-41-7-5; 5th in U.S. Division)
Key Grads: Prab Rai, Jeremy Schappert
Key Returnees: Eric Bonsor, Brendan Dillon, Calvin Pickard

The T-Birds will be very strong in goal again this season with Pickard back in the mix. The true test will be the group’s ability to pull together and earn a playoff berth. With a valuable year of WHL experience, the key forwards in Seattle will be put to the test to deliver consistency at both ends of the rink.

It will be important for Burke Gallimore, who came over from the Saskatoon Blades last season, to have a big season in Seattle. Another ex-Blade, Travis Toomey was acquired a couple of weeks ago and will fill a 20-year-old spot. Forward Charles Wells tallied 55 points last year and should increase these numbers this season.

In front of Pickard, The Thunderbirds do return some experience on the blueline with Bonsor and Dillon and Anaheim Ducks prospect Scott Ramsay. Dillon is another 20-year-old.

Western Conference Players who attended 2010 NHL training camps:

Chilliwack Bruins
Chris Collins, Carolina Hurricanes
Roman Horak, New York Rangers
Ryan Howse, Calgary Flames
Brandon Manning, New York Rangers
Dylen McKinlay, Minnesota Wild
Tyler Stahl, Carolina Hurricanes
Kevin Sundher, Buffalo Sabres

Everett Silvertips
Josh Birkholz, Florida Panthers
Landon Ferraro, Detroit Red Wings
Radko Gudas, Tampa Bay Lightning
Rasmus Rissanen, Carolina Hurricanes
Kent Simpson, Chicago Blackhawks
Alex Theriau, Dallas Stars
Kellan Tochkin, Vancouver Canucks

Kamloops Blazers
JT Barnett, Minnesota Wild
Josh Caron, Minnesota Wild
Corey Fienhage, Buffalo Sabres
Austin Madaisky, Columbus Blue Jackets
Brendan Ranford, Philadelphia Flyers
Chase Schaber, Edmonton Oilers

Kelowna Rockets
Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche
Evan Bloodoff, Phoenix Coyotes
Brett Bulmer, Minnesota Wild
Mitchell Callahan, Detroit Red Wings
Antoine Corbin, Dallas Stars
Colton Jobke, Minnesota Wild
Geordie Wudrick, Phoenix Coyotes

Portland Winterhawks
Taylor Aronson, Nashville Predators
Spencer Bennett, Calgary Flames
Riley Boychuk, Buffalo Sabres
Mac Carruth, Chicago Blackhawks
Oliver Gabriel, Columbus Blue Jackets
Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets
Tayler Jordan, Vancouver Canucks
Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders
Taylor Peters, Pittsburgh Penguins
Brett Ponich, St. Louis Blues
Brad Ross, Toronto Maple Leafs
Troy Rutkowski, Colorado Avalanche
Luke Walker, Colorado Avalanche

Prince George Cougars
Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay Lightning
Charles Inglis, Phoenix Coyotes
Martin Marincin, Edmonton Oilers

Seattle Thunderbirds
Calvin Pickard, Colorado Avalanche
Scott Ramsay, Anaheim Ducks

Spokane Chiefs
Kyle Beach, Chicago Blackhawks
Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators
Blake Gal, Philadelphia Flyers
Tyler Johnson, Minnesota Wild
Brendan Kichton, Detroit Red Wings
Levko Koper, Atlanta Thrashers
Mitch Wahl, Calgary Flames

Tri-City Americans
Justin Feser, Columbus Blue Jackets
Patrick Holland, Calgary Flames
Spencer Humphries, San Jose Sharks
Brooks Macek, Detroit Red Wings
Jordan Messier, Columbus Blue Jackets
Alexander Pechurskiy, Pittsburgh Penguins
Brendan Shinnimin, New York Rangers

Vancouver Giants
Lance Bouma, Calgary Flames
Kevin Connauton, Vancouver Canucks
Craig Cunningham, Boston Bruins
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens
James Henry, Vancouver Canucks
Neil Manning, Philadelphia Flyers
Tomas Vincour, Dallas Stars
James Wright, Tampa Bay Lightning