2010 Subway Series, WHL preview

By Glen Erickson

While the Subway Super Series has been a mainstay on the junior hockey calendar in Canada in recent years, the quality of the Russian touring side has left much to be desired. That appears to have changed for the 2010 edition as the Russians won both games against Team QMJHL.

However, it has been said that statistics do not lie, and history confirms the WHL has lost only one game since this annual exhibition began in 2003. Last season, Team WHL won both games, 2-1 in Victoria and 4-2 in Kelowna.

Basically, the tour is used by Hockey Canada in part to assess the current crop of CHLers auditioning for Team Canada’s entry at the annual WJC. Last year, a total of eight WHL players were on the roster that dropped the WJC gold medal game to the United States, 6-5 in overtime at Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

This time around, the Canadian team will seek redemption when it travels to Buffalo, New York for the 2011 WJC.

For the second year in a row, Team WHL will play both games in British Columbia. The teams will face off in Kamloops on November 17 and then in Prince George the following evening.

Goaltenders

Seven players will appear in both games for Team WHL, including goaltenders Calvin Pickard (COL) of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Kent Simpson (CHI) of the Everett Silvertips. They would appear to be in line for one start apiece.

Pickard, selected in third round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft is favored to suit up at the WJC for Team Canada, along with the odds on favorite, Olivier Roy (EDM) of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Pickard, whose older brother Chet appeared in the 2008 WJC, is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has faced an incredible amount of rubber over then past two seasons in Seattle, but has consistently given his team opportunities to win. He is technically sound, has great balance and a rapier-like glove hand. So far this season he has allowed 37 goals on 564 shots, good for a 2.39 goals against average and .934 save percentage.

Simpson could very well push Pickard this season for a serious look by Hockey Canada. Although he was not invited to the Summer Development Camp, Simpson was a big part of the top goaltending tandem in the WHL last season in Everett, along with Thomas Heemskerk, a 20-year-old signed by the San Jose Sharks who now toils with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Simpson, from Edmonton, covers the net well and is a good puck-handler. He has allowed 38 goals on 420 shots in 14 appearances, good for a 2.67 goals against average and a .910 save percentage.

Defense

Matt MacKenzie of the Calgary Hitmen and Mark Pysyk (both Buffalo Sabres prospects) of the Edmonton Oil Kings are the only two WHL defensemen that will play in both games. MacKenzie has progressed in Calgary behind a multitude of elite defensemen over the past couple of seasons. Pysyk, who appeared in the Subway Super Series last season, is becoming a more complete player in Edmonton as the Oil Kings continue to improve.

The only player suiting up for Team WHL from the 2010 Canadian Junior Team at the WJC is Jared Cowen (OTT) of the Spokane Chiefs. Cowen is a huge, stay-at-home rearguard with some offensive skill, but his mobility and puck movement were not quite up to the speed required during the playoff round at the WJC last season. The Team Canada coaching staff will watch this closely, although the group for the 2011 WJC might benefit from Cowan’s experience.

Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips is a 2011 eligible prospect who collected 27 points in 52 games last season as a 16-year-old. From White City, Saskatchewan, located just outside of Regina, Murray has been on the Hockey Canada radar for some time. He is very close to challenging for a spot at the WJC, albeit as a 17-year-old.

Rounding out the blue line brigade at the Interior Savings Centre in Kamloops will be Stefan Elliott (COL) and Austin Madaisky (CBJ). Elliott, the anchor on the blue line with the Saskatoon Blades, appeared in the Subway Super Series last year. He is a good mover of the puck and is also well-known across the WHL for his scholastic prowess. Madaisky, who came over to the Blazers from the Calgary Hitmen in a trade deadline deal last season has flourished under head coach Guy Charron. As Madaisky adds weight to his 6’2 frame, he will become a pro-ready defenseman with his grit and determination.

In Prince George, four additional WHL defensemen will weigh in against the Russians, including a pair of the top power play QB’s in the league. Neil Manning of the Vancouver Giants and Tyson Barrie (COL) are skilled offensive contributors from the backend. Manning has developed under a number of elite rearguards in Vancouver and has quietly become an efficient leader. Barrie simply does it all for the Kelowna Rockets. If Hockey Canada wants offense from its defense, Barrie should be a shoo-in for a roster spot at the 2011 WJC.

Brayden McNabb (BUF) has become a leader in Cranbrook, B.C. where the Kootenay Ice has become one of the WHL’s current upper-echelon teams. At 6’4, 210 pounds, he is pro-ready physically and continues to improve his ability to move the puck. And Brett Ponich (STL) of the Portland Winterhawks will present the Russians with a 6’7, 225-pound frame to contend with at the CN Centre in Prince George, Ponich has signed with St. Louis and is the team captain in Portland. He has vastly improved his skating and has also become a gritty, more difficult defender to play against this season.

Forwards

Linden Vey (LA), Quinton Howden (FLA) and Brendan Gallagher (MTL) will skate in both games for Team WHL.

Vey is a prairie boy from Wakaw, Saskatchewan who has become an integral part of the offence with the Medicine Hat Tigers, collecting 188 points in his last 182 games. Howden, from Oakbank, Manitoba, is one of the elite skaters in the WHL and is also a proficient faceoff man. The diminutive Gallagher is a tenacious checker who weighs in at 5’8 and 170 pounds. He collected 81 points for the Vancouver Giants last season is on pace to exceed that total this year.

Local flavor in Kamloops will include Brendan Ranford (PHI) of the Blazers. A late addition to Team WHL, Ranford has collected 20 goals in 21 games to lead the Blazers this season.

Also in Kamloops, three undrafted free agents will lace up the blades. Blazers team captain, Chase Schaber, came over last season at the trade deadline from the Calgary Hitmen. An under-appreciated offensive talent, Schaber is a consummate leader in Kamloops and skates alongside Ranford. Brandon Herrod of the Prince Albert Raiders is from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, home of National Junior Team alumni Jeff Friesen and Blake Comeau. Herrod’s offensive production has increased from year-to-year while in the WHL. Brendan Shinnimin of the Tri City Americans is a great skater who had a breakout season last year with 82 points in 70 games.

Three teams will each send a pair of players to Kamloops to round out the forward group. Curtis Hamilton (EDM) and Darian Dziurzynski of the Saskatoon Blades represent the top Eastern Conference team. Hamilton, who broke his collarbone during the Subway Super Series game in Kelowna last season, is off to a great start offensively in Saskatoon. Dziurzynski continues to provide grit and secondary scoring for the Blades.

The Red Deer Rebels duo of Byron Froese (CHI) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins bring different skill sets to the mix. Froese is a veteran WHLer, having played previously in Everett. He is solid on his skates and goes to the net with purpose. Nugent-Hopkins is the consensus top prospect from the WHL for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He scored on a point-per-game basis last season as a 16-year-old, earning the WHL’s Top Rookie award. He hasn’t missed a beat this season, and also led Team Canada at the U18 World Championships.

Carter Ashton (TB) and Jordan Weal (LA) are two Regina Pats that play different roles on the ice. Ashton is a power forward, checking in at 6’3 and 200 pounds. He is skilled offensively, but also creates open ice for his linemates with his intensity in the corners and in front of the opposition goal. Weal is a 5’9, 165-pound speedster who collected 102 points last season.

For the game in Prince George, a pair of hometown boys will lead the way as Brett Connolly (TB) and Ryan Howse (CGY) will be in the lineup. Howse, who plays for the Chilliwack Bruins is, like Connolly, a product of Prince George Minor Hockey. He has been the brightest light offensively in Chilliwack, recently scoring his 100th career WHL goal. Connolly, who plays for the Prince George Cougars, is scoring at better than a point-per-game this season after any injury-riddled campaign last season.

In addition to Connolly, the Cougars will have Charles Inglis in the lineup as well. A gritty, veteran forward, Inglis was acquired by the Cats from the Saskatoon Blades prior to the current campaign.

In addition to the local talent, a trio of Portland Winterhawks will be in the lineup, potentially playing as a forward unit. Ryan Johansen (CBJ) and 17-year-old Ty Rattie have skated together all season and are a big reason why Portland has gotten off to a 15-2-0-1 start. Brad Ross (TOR), who played much of last season alongside Johansen and Nino Neiderreiter (NYI) in Portland, will also be in Prince George. Johansen and Rattie are gifted offensively and play in all situations for the Winterhawks. Ross, who is also very capable offensively, does not hesitate to antagonize opponents.

Rounding out the forward crew is Scott Glennie (DAL), Jimmy Bubnick (ATL) and Cody Eakin (WAS). To some degree, Glennie might feel a bit like he is on his own with the Brandon Wheat Kings now that former linemates Brayden Schenn (LA) and Matt Calvert (CBJ) have graduated to pro hockey. Bubnick was moved to the Calgary Hitmen by the Kamloops Blazers at the WHL trade deadline last season and earned a trip to the 201 Memorial Cup. Eakin was a member of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears last spring and can boast that he has already won a Calder Cup title, emblematic of AHL supremacy. Eakin joined the Bears after the Swift Current Broncos were eliminated from the WHL playoffs.

Both Glennie and Eakin should be highly motivated at every turn this season as both were late cuts last year at the Canadian Junior Team’s selection camp. Unfortunately for Eakin, he has been nursing a hip injury of late, but has been playing.

Coaching

Team WHL will be led by head coach Ryan Huska of the Kelowna Rockets and assistant coach Mike Williamson of the Calgary Hitmen. The Rockets and Hitmen are the past two WHL champions. In Kamloops, Blazers head coach Guy Charron will join the team as an assistant, while Cougars head coach Dean Clark will join the team for the tilt in Prince George.

Russians

Last season, Misha Fisenko of the Calgary Hitmen joined his comrades for the WHL portion of the Subway Super Series, and should be available again this season if need be.