There has certainly been some excitement in the prospect pool of the Western Hockey League this season. Out East, the Lethbridge Hurricanes are out of the gate and flying thanks to the crafty scoring talents of Nathan Barrett, Tomas Kopecky, and Ryley Layden, amassing 82 points combined through 15 games. The true “Windy City” is craving a long playoff run and the ‘Canes look to have the talent to produce. The Red Deer Rebels haven’t seem to falter a bit since spending their month of May conquering opponents to win the Memorial Cup. GM and Head Coach Brent Sutter watched junior-stars Kyle Wanvig (Minnesota), Martin Erat (Nashville), and Justin Mapletoft (Islanders) all start professional careers, yet packed enough ammo to sit atop the CHL rankings for the fourth consecutive week. Pittsburgh Penguin 1st Round Draft Pick Colby Armstong (10 points in 13 games played) now wears the Red Deer “C” while Columbus prospect Shane Bendera anchors the Rebels in net with a miniscule 1.58 GAA and a .942 SV%. In the West, the Kamloops Blazers are enjoying a hot streak while battling through some injury problems. Scottie Upshall is headlining their assault, demonstrating a balance of scoring touch and physical play with 21 Points and 38 PIM in 14 games played. The Seattle Thunderbirds are stuck in a rut that finds them with only four wins in the US Division, yet one more win than BC Division strugglers the Kelowna Rockets. Both teams have some impressive talent, such as T-Birds’s Matthew Spiller and the Rocket’s Chuck Kobasew, yet seem unable to blend it all together. But the season is long and we fans have so much to look forward to.
Switching focus to the Portland Winter Hawks, I have witnessed some impressive development by some hot NHL prospects. First, Florida Panther property Josh Olson has really developed his all-round game to include a physical side the Florida brass is looking for in their 6’5”, 230lbs power forward. To say Josh was soft last season would not be totally accurate, but he definitely needed a spark up his rear once in a while. Josh has really created quite a niche for himself in front of the net, leaving opposing defenseman unable to move the Portland big boy out of their tender’s line of sight. In addition to creating this crease havoc, Josh has terrific finishing touch on rebound shots and in-tight goal scrambles. He operates effectively on the power-play and is not a liability in his own zone. In fact, his back-checking enables speedy wingers to pounce on loose pucks and transfer to a rush. He sits at 10 goals and 10 assists, with a +10 and 11 PIM through 14 games, including a definitive fighting major victory over Spokane defenseman Chris Barr.
Josef Balej, a Montreal Canadiens Blue-Chip prospect, has been making a mockery of opposing team defenses when he catches them on the break-out. Joe is clearly the fastest skater in the US Division and would challenge for the speediest in the entire WHL. However, without his scoring knack, the speed wouldn’t be effective. Joe has balanced his scoring with 9 goals and 9 assists in 12 games. What Montreal would like to see is more of the same, yet their budget limitations priced Balej out for this season. Come June, they will most certainly be heading to the nearest ATM for a seven-figure withdrawal for this Slovakian speedster.
The Medicine Hat Tigers, already one of the WHL’s most physically intimidating teams, added oft-suspended Prince George Cougar Derek Boogaard to their team. In speaking to Tigers GM Rick Carriere today about the acquisition of the 6’7”, 245lbs Regina native, he stated that “Derek certainly creates some space for himself on the ice and he has the skills to produce offensively as well. He knows his role and he will be given the chance to bump and grind and create chances for our team.” Now I, as everyone certainly knows, love the tough guys. But when you add Boogaard to a team featuring the CHL’s most active pugilist in Ryan Olynyk and St. Louis prospect Brett Schefflemaier, no slouch in fist-a-cuffs either, you have created the absolute “Team of Terror”. Aside from possibly Seattle, there will not be many teams able to match the physical force of the Tigers this season, but they will still need to find a way to put the puck in the net. New York Rangers 2001 Draft Pick Ryan Hollweg has been coined by Carriere as his “hardest working player on any given night”. Medicine Hat is certainly going to depend on his offensive weaponry to get out to the cellar in the Central Division. Fellow Rangers Draft Pick Garth Murray has been given the “C” in Regina. Garth is the epitome of Pats toughness this season as they look beyond to succeed on the ice, despite their ownership’s stalemate with the AgriDome’s management group. It appears the Parker family may be on their way out of junior hockey ownership, only a short year after hosting a tremendously successful Memorial Cup in the heart of Saskatchewan prairie.
Medicine Hat Tiger’s ferocious forward Ryan Olynyk is putting quite a distance between himself and other tough guys in the league in the fighting majors category. Through 17 games, Ryan is pacing the league with 17 fights and 108 PIM, clearly defining himself as the favorite for the “Hanson Brothers Award”. With hands of steel, Ryan is sure to be a fan favorite at every stop. Gratitude goes out to Florida Panthers prospect Grant McNeil of the Prince Albert Raiders. Not only did Grant threaten to dismantle a drunk Portland fan while he sat patiently in the sin bin at a recent game, but he also had the sense of humor to talk to the rest of us bystanders during the duration of his time in the box. Not only was it a stimulating conversation about how no one is willing to fight him anymore, but he also got some good chuckles out of Winter Hawk’s consummate fan, Marilyn Ellis, and her dirty mouth. Every team should be so lucky to have that kind of personality and talent patrolling their blueline. The Winter Hawks sent 18 year old Goaltender Curtis Darling to the Spokane Chiefs last week in exchange for a conditional bantam draft pick. This solved the three-tender roster they had been rolling since Krister Toews was acquired from Brandon on September 1st. Feisty, flexible, and talented Lanny Ramage has always been deemed number one in net, but his backup was often a mystery. This was easier news for fans to swallow than was that the Hawks had parted ways with long-time team member and overage fan favorite Dean Beuker, shipping him to the Regina Pats in exchange for young defensive prospect Nathan Exner, currently playing Midget AAA in Lethbridge. Trust me, Portland GM Ken Hodge made the right decision in keeping fellow overagers Shawn Roed, Jesse Ferguson, and star Josh Olson. Sound defensive forward Dean Beuker will finish is Junior career two hours from his parents home of Watson, SASK., allowing his family to share in his remaining WHL successes in person.
Please feel free to email me comments or questions. Until next time . . . Keep your head up and Drop the Gloves!!!