With twenty four days to go before the puck drops on the 1999/2000 Western Hockey League Season all teams in the West Division are well into training camp. Seattle seems like a sure fire pick to lead the division with all their offensive fire power but you can never count out a Don Hay coached team like the Tri-City Americans or perrenial powerhouse Kamloops Blazers. Kelowna returns a solid nucleus and finally have a solid netminder in Kevin Swanson and they could make some noise before all is said and done. Portland and Spokane appear to be two teams searching for a new identity after big runs for the Memorial Cup two years ago and appear headed for very long seasons near the basementof the division. Following are my pre-season picks from top to bottom and a brief synopsis of each team.
1) Seattle Thunderbirds: Led by Scott Kelman and Bret Dececco the Thunderbirds should score goals by the bucketful and also make a ton of money selling suntan lotion to opposing goalies who will get the lamp turned on often. A strong suppporting cast of power forwards and speed will spell trouble for other teams. Oleg Saprykin put up big numbers last year while missing several games through suspension and injury and should be filling the net on a regular basis again this year. Power forward David Morisset is recovered from last years shoulder surgery and should be a huge boost along the walls and providing a physical presence up front for the Birds, taking some of the load off an overworked David Kazcowka from last year. The biggest problem up front for the T-Birds will be keeping all the talented forwards happy with their ice time. Zdenek Blatny, David Ullman, Shane Endicott, Paul Hurd, Keegan McAvoy, Ryan Trsek and Tim Preston will all want their shot on a young, explosive looking team. Defence and goaltending are seen as the Birds achilles heel and will surely need to be shored up for any kind of League Championship run. Inexperienced netminders Thomas Vicars and Ray Fraser will be under pressure early as this run and gun team will often leave them high and dry when play visits their end, needing to come up with big saves or forcing management to make a deal, trading away some of their talented forwards. Jeff Beatch, Nathan Forster, Jason Beckett, young Craig Olynick and a healthy Chris Manchakowski will have to be better than last year and be a more physical, robust lot, saving the young goaltenders from the near fifty shots a game Cody Rudkowsky was getting last year. If Seattle can shore up the defence and maybe pick up a veteran goalie, they look like a mortal lock for a division title and maybe a very legitimate shot at the league hardware.
2) Kelowna Rockets: This pick will surprise people but I believe the six game series against the Kamloops Blazers in round one of the playoffs last year showed this young team what it will take to win this year and in the future, not to mention the kids will be playing in thier new 6,000+ seat arena as added incentive. The young cast will be lead by Vern Fiddler, Kevin Korol and Rory McDade, all small, feisty forwards who played well in last years playoffs. Young Kiel McLeod, with his rare combination of size, speed and aggressiveness should be a key member of this squad and if he steps up this year will be a key member of this hockey team for years to come. Other young guns to watch are Casey Germyn, Ryan Cuthbert, David Selthun and Joe Suderman. The back end will be solidified by nineteen year old goaltender Kevin Swanson who played huge for the Rockets last year and should be solid and more confident as a result. Helping out Swanson on defence will a be a solid group of defencemen led by Gavin McLeod and Nolan Yonkman along with second year guys B.J. Fehr, Joe Suderman and David Selthun. Only Yonkman is really a household name but the others appear ready to pick it up this year. If this team gets the leadership it needs from veterans Quintin Laing and Bruce Harrison, they’re this writers pick as the upset team of the division and second place seems a realistic goal for this gritty, fast hockey team. The only concerns are a lack of depth if injuries occur and the questionable trades and rumored meddling that sometimes comes from Owner/GM Bruce Hamilton.
3) Prince George Cougars: The always hard to predict Cougars should have a healthy group of forwards back, led by World Junior Team players Tyler Bouck and Blair Betts with a supporting cast of Justin Cox, Justin Hansen, Trent Hunter, Josef Mrena and whichever overagers the Cougars decide to hold onto. Rumors are underachieving former first round pick Jarrett Smith is out, leaving the choice of Brent McDonald, Gary Toor, Jeff Zorn (recovered from a serious injury to his back), Tyler Brough and goalie Scott Myers as overagers. Myers in goal is a lock, but rumours persist he is already being midly pursued by teams thinking they need a goaltender and Prince George may deal if the package is good enough. Defence is a big question mark especially considering two of the overage prospects are defenceman who are both rather small, leaving the Coug’s with a big decision that will affect whether third is too high a prediction for this team. If they release one of the overage defenceman, they are led by a rather young inexperienced defence who will struggle to keep the puck out of their net, even with star goaltender Scott Myers. My guess is that Myers, Toor and Zorn will start as the overagers and that the Cougars will try and make a deal to strengthen the front end by dealing Myers for a goaltender who can play and some veteran leadership, while they try and get something in return for unhappy Jarrett Smith. On the upside, Dan Hamhuis looked to be coming around as a solid two way defenceman last year and Justin Hansen, if he can stay healthy, should be able to score on a regular basis. Two big concerns with placing the Cougars third, what they end up doing for the overage spots and will the players all buy into volatile coach, Ed Dempsey’s game plan. If these two concerns work out the Cougar’s should find their way toward the top of the division. Also, the Cougar’s will lose Bett’s and Bouck to the World Junior Team and will need to avoid a slump during their absence from mid December to early January.
4) Kamloops Blazers: The Blazers should get Robin Regehr back to rehab his injuries obtained in a serious car accident this summer and his addition will bolster an already solid defence for Kamloops. Some reports have Regehr back by early November and his added toughness and leadership should give Kamloops the best defensive team in the division and this defence should be bolstered by the return of last years surprise story Kenric Exner in goal. Exner is currently at the Blues training camp and due to their depth in goal it looks like Exner will be sent back to junior. There are some rumours circulating that Exner may be moved to another team, but the young Blazers will be much better with Exner in the net. The Blazer’s have a solid group of returnee’s up front in Steve Shrum, Konstantin Panov, Anton Borodkin, Jared Aulin, Brett Draney, Gable Gross, Jonathan Hobson and Paul Deniset who will be bolstered by young, talented 16 year olds Kyle Ladobruk and Mark Rooneem. Both Rooneem and Ladobruk have shown flashes of brilliance in camp and should improve as they gain experience during the season. Both kids can skate very well and handle the puck like veterans. A handful of other prospects look capable of making the cut including 18 year old rugged winger Brandon Minnibariet, seventeen year old Curtis Austring, along with sixteen year olds Chad Schockenmaier, Clayton Tidball, Mike Merner and Derek Krestonavich. These young guy’s have looked willing to grind and play physical which should bode well for solid third and fourth lines. The defence of Micki Dupont, Chad Starling, Kevin Mackie, Aaron Gionet and Jordan Flodell (currently on the bubble as a fourth overage) looks solid and should be bolstered by the addition of seventeen year olds Blaine Depper and Shaonne Morrison. If both Regehr and Exner return look for Kamloops to challenge for as high as second but at this point with who is in camp, fourth or maybe challenging the Prince George Cougars for third seems realistic.
5) Tri-City Americans: I hate to put a Don Hay coached team in fifth spot but with the loss of playmaker Scott Gomez and sniper Ken McKay, along with the likely departure of Dylan Gyori to pro hockey, the Ams are left with huge holes up front and scoring could be tough for the Americans. Some of this load will be picked up by talented import Milan Bartovic but others like sophomores Eric Johansson and Ryley Layden will need to play much bigger roles if the Ams are to have a successful season. Overager Curtis Huppe who did little in last years playoffs, will need to find the net often,but without a certified sniper may find the going tough, as well,he may not return from Florida’s camp anyway. The Ams also have a decision to make in goal, where sophomore Blake Ward will be battling overage Jason McLean for the starters job and if by chance Gyori and Huppe both come back it will leave the Ams with six overages in Jody Lapeyre, Jordan Landry, Dylan Gyori, Curtis Huppe, Jeff Katcher and McLean, with the likely scenario seeing McLean dealt and youngster Ward getting the pressure cooker number one job. Can he handle the job with good, but very limited numbers as a sixteen year old. The Ams defence is full of question marks as well with only Darrell Hay aproven commodity on the back end. Stephen Peat is a very tough hombre, but isn’t a top defenceman and Jeff Katcher may find himself part of the numbers game and be dealt, leaving the Ams with three unproven defenceman that will need to step in and make an impact immediately if the team is to have success. Sixteen year old prospect Andrew DeSoussa is highly touted but rarely do rookie defenceman make a big impact in the WHL, as he and fellow rookie Chad Fischer will likely fill out. The third addition to this rookie group is nineteen year old Adam Johnson, who at 6’7″ and around 235 pounds is a monster, but his lack of PIM’s last year in U.S. high school hockey make him a question mark as does the fact his mobility will be severely tested by the quick wingers around the division. The Ams present more questions than answers and even Don Hay will be tested to get this group to achieve to the levels he’s accustomed to. The Ams will be big and tough, giving other teams many physical games, but it doesn’t look like they’ll threaten many teams on the scoreboard where it counts most!
6) Spokane Chiefs: This will be a young team that could have a lot of trouble putting pucks in the net. Oft injured Derek Schutz will be back to lead up front but his wonky shoulders leave many question marks on his durability. A big loss in the toughness department as well when Curtis Suter decided to accept an offer from the Westen Pro Hockey League, though apparently his absence is going to filled by eighteen year old Curt Sauer, who at 6’4″ and about 225 is big enough to fill the role. A good young defence, led by David Boychuk, Kyle Rossiter, Mark Forth, Cole Fischer and sophomore Chris Callaway should help sophomore goaltender Lenchucka keep pucks out of the net, but pressure will be on young guy’s Lynn Lyons, Ryan Thorpe, Tim Krymusa and Brandin Cote to find ways to put the puck in the opposition’s net. It appears veteran coach Mike Babcock and GM Tim Speltz can thank a weak looking group in Portland for the final playoff spot, but they will still have many long nights with
this young group.
7) Portland Winterhawks: The Portland Winterhawks are still in recovery mode from their Memorial Cup win two years ago and it doesn’t look like this is the year they turn it around. Jason Labarbera is coming off a less than stellar year and key looses in Todd Robinson, Andrew Ferrence and Brenden Morrow will hurt the Hawks in a big way. The defence will be young and inexperienced, with the forwards lines much the same. Marcel Hossa and Blake Robson will need to live up to their “stars in the making” billing and Ken Davis will need to keep up the tough, physical play he showed at the end of last year to even help the young Hawks compete for the final playoff spot. As so often happens in the WHL when you make a run for the Memorial Cup, it can be a 2-3 year turn around to again become competitive and this looks to be the case in Portland again this year. Look for Davis and Labarbera to be dealt at some point this year to get some talented youth and maybe an eighteen year old with league experience who can step in and be a leader. Shaun Lee looked at times like he is capable of taking over the number one job in goal, allowing the Hawks to try and get some help by dealing Labarbera. Harold Snepts looks to have another long year ahead of him and hopefully GM Ken Hodge will go out and get him some help before Portland gets buried too deep early!