The Kelowna Rockets and Portland Winterhawks have been the class of the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference for the past few seasons, but there is some strength building in the U.S. Division. The Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds appear poised to challenge the Winterhawks and Rockets.
The Rockets look to be early season favorites, given their success last year and the fact that they will return the bulk of their roster from last year’s WHL championship team.
Of the 35 WHL players selected at the 2015 NHL Draft, 19 toiled in the Western Conference, and all are expected back in the league at some point this season.
Here is a quick look at some of the key players for the upcoming WHL season.
Everett Silvertips (Last Season: 43-20-3-6; 1st in U.S. Division)
The Everett Silvertips continue to improve under veteran bench boss Kevin Constantine, culminating last season with a first place finish in the U.S. Division. However, graduations will create the need for youngsters to elevate their game this season as they will have to embrace increased responsibilities in expanding roles.
At this time a year ago, it was the status of rearguard Mirco Mueller (SJS) that had fans in Everett curious early on. This season, it will be the status of both Nikita Sherback (MTL) and Noah Juulsen (MTL).
Sherback, who led the Silvertips in scoring last year and is signed by the Habs is unlikely to return to the WHL. Replacing those 80+ points will be a challenge for Everett, a team that will look to veterans like Carson Stadnyk and Dawson Leedahl to up their production. Juulsen, the 26th overall pick at the 2015 NHL Draft, is also signed by the Canadiens, but another year of junior in a leadership role on the blueline is likely. Concussion-like symptoms from a pre-season injury are keeping Juulsen in limbo at this point, however.
In goal, youngster Carter Hart basically took over as the number one as a 16-year-old during the second half of the last season and looks to be a solid fixture. With veteran Austin Lotz, who had a free-agent look from the Chicago Blackhawks, also in the mix, the Silvertips are solid between the pipes.
Portland Winterhawks (Last Season: 43-23-2-4; 2nd in U.S. Division)
The Portland Winterhawks have been a fixture among the WHL’s upper echelon teams for the past five seasons. Expectations will continue to be very high, but the lofty achievements may very well be more difficult to repeat this season. Like many WHL teams that see veteran players attending NHL camps, the Winterhawks will have to wait and see early on in the regular season to determine just exactly how its roster will evolve.
Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) and Nic Petan (WPG) are likely to play pro hockey this season, which means Portland will be down about 250 scoring points from last season. Anton Cederholm (VAN) has been a mainstay on the blueline for the past two seasons, but moves on to pro hockey as well.
The returning core is very deep, with Chase De Leo (WPG), Keegan Iverson (NYR), Alex Schoenborn (SJS) and Dominic Turgeon (DET) likely to carry the load this season, Turgeon has been named the team captain. The addition of 19-year-old American defensemen Jack Dougherty (NSH) from the NCAA will be watched closely. The Winterhawks will also introduce rearguard Caleb Jones this season. He is the brother of former Portland defenseman Seth Jones, who now toils for the Nashville Predators. Nick Heid and Keoni Texeira will be given every opportunity to step up this season. Blake Heinrich looks to occupy a 20-year-old spot.
Adin Hill (ARZ) established himself last season as a dependable number one goaltender, and should be the go-to guy between the pipes again this season.
Seattle Thunderbirds (Last Season: 38-25-4-5; 3rd in U.S. Division)
The CHL Top Ten Rankings released on September 10th includes the Seattle Thunderbirds in the seventh spot among the country’s top 10 teams. Seattle will focus on maintaining that lofty expectation this season.
Success in Seattle will come in part through the fortunes of Ryan Gropp (NYR) and Mathew Barzal (NYI). The pair led the Thunderbirds in scoring and are capable of bigger and better things. Keegan Kolesar (CBJ) can be a rambunctious, productive forward.
Shea Theodore (ANA) is ready for pro hockey, leaving a gaping hole on the blueline on a team that allowed only 201 goals during the regular season last year. Ethan Bear (EDM) and Jared Hauf return, inheriting increased responsibilities.
Goaltending was a strong suit as well last season, but Taran Kozun has graduated from junior. Logan Flodell is back this season, but Seattle went out and acquired Taz Burman from the Red Deer Rebels during the off-season. Both are just 17 years of age, so the inner competition should ensure a solid number one is established by midseason.
Spokane Chiefs (Last Season: 34-34-3-1; 4th in U.S. Division)
The Spokane Chiefs managed a playoff berth last season, but a first round exit ensued. Entering the current campaign, the entertainment on the offensive side this season will come from some familiar faces in Spokane, with Adam Helewka (SJS) and Kailer Yamamoto set to return.
Another 80+ point season for Helewka will be vital to a team that has preached the “scoring by committee” edict in recent years. Yamamoto, the diminutive local product, was outstanding last year in his rookie campaign, collecting 57 points. His potential will not surprise opponents this season.
The return of defenseman Jason Fram is also crucial, as he is capable of residing among the top scoring rearguards across the WHL. The importance of the young defenders emerging this season cannot be lost on head coach Don Nachbaur. In goal, Garrett Hughson returns, but occupies a 20-year-old spot ahead of youngsters Matt Berlin and Tyson Verhelst.
Tri City Americans (Last Season: 31-38-0-03; 5th in U.S. Division)
Head coach Mike Williamson will have his work cut out for him this season to lead his team in to the postseason.
The Tri-City Americans were dependent upon consistently solid defense last season, given the lack of explosive offensive output. Goaltender Eric Comrie (WPG) was a workhorse, a stalwart that gave the team a chance to win almost every time out. This season, goaltending duties become the responsibility of Evan Sarthou. Comrie will play pro hockey in the Jets’ system.
Veteran defenseman Justin Hamonic has graduated. Brandon Carlo (BOS) and Parker Wotherspoon (NYI) are formidable on the back end, but Carlo, who is signed by Boston, has yet to return from the Bruins training camp. Veteran defenseman Tyler Morrison has 200 WHL games under his belt.
But where will the scoring come from this season? Forward Beau McCue will be relied upon to be a consistent producer. Brian Williams and Parker Bowles occupy 20-year-old spots for now, and if they can stay healthy and in the lineup, they can take care of some offensive concerns. Max James brings the Amerks some size and toughness up front, but can he help the team to fill the net?