WHL West Division: At The Half

By Glen Crichton
Here are the standings for the Western Hockey Leagues West Division just past
the half way point on the schedule.


Spokane Chiefs 37 25 10 2 1 139 101 53
Prince George Cougars 39 18 17 4 4 141 132 44
Seattle Thunderbirds 36 16 16 4 2 125 112 38
Kamloops Blazers 37 17 16 4 0 125 119 38
Kelowna Rockets 39 17 21 1 2 109 114 37
Tri-City Americans 39 14 20 5 1 135 156 34
Portland Winterhawks 39 9 25 5 0 94 147 23

The Spokane Chiefs are a surprise to me and many others to be leading the division with a nine point bulge, however, they are starting to make
believers out of many as they’ve maintained their strong start and continue to make progress and pull away from the pack. A solid trade to pick up
twenty year old offensive defenceman Scott Roles from the Kootenay Ice along with the addition of another overager, sparkplug Brent McDonald who
was picked up after he became a casualty of the twenty year old numbers crunch in Prince George, have added offence and experience to a solid young
nucleus of players. Eighteen year old Tim Smith has led the charge offensively for the Chiefs, amassing 48 points in thirty-six games, thirty four of
those points being assists, while the Chiefs two imports Daniel Bohac form the Czech Republic and Roman Tvrdon have both provided scoring and
solid play, adding a point a game. The Chiefs three twenty year olds, Derek Schutz, Scott Roles and Brent MacDonald are next in scoring, with 34, 30
and 28 points respectively, providing both experience and scoring for the Chiefs. However, the often injured Schutz is banged up again and any kind
of prolonged absence by the Chiefs captain could hurt the team in the playoff drive. The defence is led by Roles, WJC participant Kyle Rossiter,
eighteen year old American Kurt Sauer, and David Boychuk. Seventeen year olds Mason Wallin, Kris Calloway and sixteen year old Chris Heid get the
bulk of the remaining ice time after the top four. Roles is a quarterback on the powerplay, providing leadership and skill from the point besides playing
on the PK and his regular shift. Rossiter, David Boychuk and Kurt Sauer provide much of the physical play on the back end, with Rossiter and
Boychuk being the guys who take care of business most of the time when the gloves come off! In goal, the Chiefs have used both Mike Lencucka and
Tyler McKay, with McKay coming over in an early season trade to add some depth and experience to the position. However, if there is a perceived
weakness with the Chiefs, it might be in goal, where both Lencucka and McKay are competent at this level, neither is noted for consistency which may
lead the Chiefs to deal for a goaltender on or before the Jan. 10 trade deadline.

The Prince George Cougars sit in second but the Seattle Thunderbirds have slowly worked there way up in the standings and only sit six points
back with three games in hand. Blair Betts has missed over half of the Cougars games and it is unsure whether or not he’ll return to 100%. Tyler Bouck
has been away for nearly a month with the WJC team along with Josef Mrena and the usual steady flow of Cougars on and off the injured list has
slowed the Cats from keeping up with the Chiefs. Rumours are swirling around the team again that all’s not well in Cougarville and team owner Rick
Brodsky in December questioned whether he was getting the results he needed from the players and coaching staff. Coach Dempsey’s reputation as a
very vocal and volatile personality has followed him from Kamloops and some wonder if the act has worn thin in Prince George. Whether it has to do
with injuries or dissension in the room, the Cougars don’t seem to be the same team that was winning consistently earlier in the season. However, if
Tyler Bouck returns with enthusiasm from the WJC and Blair Betts gets over his knee injury, the Cougars still have the toughest building in the league
to play in and some very talented hockey players, making them a team that could make some noise in the second half. Scott Meyers hasn’t been
dominant like he can be and the roster hasn’t been saturated with the full compliment of veterans for a while, so with a return to form by Meyers and a
few guys back healthy the Cougars still have enough weapons to challenge any team out west. Look for the Cougars to try and make a deal for a
veteran defenceman who plays physical before the trade deadline and the Cougars to make some noise before the season’s over.

Seattle has really picked up the pace after a horrendous start and have climbed into a third place tie with the Kamloops Blazers, having gone 6-3-1 in
their last ten games. Bret DeCecco is back an healthy for the first time this season and he’s picked up thirty five points in twenty seven games, moving
into second in team scoring. DeCecco is a heart and soul player who is the undisputed leader of the T-Bird hockey club. With Bret healthy and the
acquisition of overager Alan Manness (just got wind of the trade as I’m writing this article) the T-Birds appear to be only a solid defenceman away
from being the team to beat this year in the west. Most pre-season polls had the T-Birds running away in this division, but with there slow start and
lethargic play, many were thinking the Birds were done, however the return of DeCecco and a recent infusion of enthusiasm on the Birds has people
once again looking at the Birds as a team that will be tough to handle come playoff time. With talent like Scott Kelman, Oleg Saprykin, Shane Endicott,
Tim Preston, Nathan Forster and Alexandre Fomitchev in goal, it now appears the T-Birds are beginning to click on all cylinders. The addition of high
scoring overage Alan Manness will only make this team harder to shut down offensively and as mentioned earlier, if the Birds can acquire a solid
defenceman before the trade deadline, watch out, Seattle is in your rearview mirror and coming fast!

The Kamloops Blazers went on a twelve game undefeated streak from Nov.13/99-Dec.15/99 and vaulted themselves from five games under five
hundred to four or five games over, however a brief four game skid sees them only one game over the break-even mark currently. The Blazers roster
consists of eight rookies, five of which are sixteen and it’s actually six if you add recent call-up Jeremy Cominotto to the mix. Currently sitting in a third
place tie with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Kamloops should be happy with where there sit currently considering the youth they are going with. Goalie
Grant Mccune, acquired from Prince Albert on Nov.15/99 has been a boost to the young Kamloops team, allowing the young guys to play with
confidence knowing that every mistake they make wasn’t going to find the back of the net. With young teams your going to have your ups and downs,
but if this team continues to work hard every night and compete, the future looks bright as these young kids gain valuable experience with all the ice
time they’re seeing. Micki Dupont continues to lead the young club, logging huge minutes every night and with the recent return of Jared Aulin, the
Blazers aren’t likely to win a division this year, but other teams will know they were in a game. With the trade deadline looming, Kamloops could use
another physical player to assist nineteen year old rookie Jason Bone in keeping the heat off the Kamloops skill guys. The Kamloops skill players have
been taking a beating and Jason, who is all heart, has fought anybody who wants to go, but at only 6’1″ and just over two hundred pounds, Jason is
often fighting guys four and five inches taller and thirty pounds heavier. Kamloops would do well to add another physical presence to help ease the
load on an overworked Bone.

Kelowna Rockets were my preseason choice to finish second in the division, but a potential career ending injury to sparkplug Rory McDade and
some seemingly indifferent play under now fired head coach Garth Malarchuk, dug the rockets a deep hole that recently hired and former Kamloops
Blazer head coach Marc Habschied will attempt to help them dig out of. Canuck draft pick Kevin Swanson for the most part has been a spectacular
between the pipes for the Rockets, however, a lack of scoring and consistent efforts night in and night out put the Rockets behind the eight ball early
on this season. The Rockets have been a better hockey team since Habschied was hired on Nov. 29/99, but it looks like a fifth or sixth place finish
might be the best the Rockets can hope for at this point, however Kelowna only sits one point back of Kamloops and if they can get any kind of win
streak going, may be able to get as high as fourth. The Rockets have been scoring by committee this year as no player has broken the thirty point
plateau as of yet. Quinton Laing, J.J. Hunter, Vern Fiddler, Carsen Germyn, and defenceman Gavin McLeod are the Rockets only twenty+ point guys
and if the Rockets are to go on a run in the second half, someone is going to need to take a leadership role and
start putting up some points on offense. The Rockets have a problem on the blueline as well, with no real quarterback to get the puck to the forwards
with quick, tape to tape passes. A couple of the young guys in David Selthun and Richie Regehr have the potential, but at seventeen and sixteen
respectively, they need a little more seasoning before they will be that player. Euro David Johansson was thought to be that player this year, but in my
opinion he isn’t there yet. Come trade deadline day, the Rocket’s could use a sniper and a mobile defenceman, but good luck, the pickings appear to be
thin this year!

Tri-City Americans came into this year with big expectations, but injuries, a key player staying in the pros and comparatively weak group of twenty
year olds have seen the Ams sag to sixth spot currently, though they are only four points out of third. Highly touted rookie Andrew Downing has
been injured for all but fourteen games, punishing forward Mike Lee has missed eighteen games and sniper Curtis Huppe has been sidelined through
injury for all but sixteen games. An injury to starting goalie Blake Ward saw Don Hay make a move to shore up his goaltending by acquiring Jomar
Cruz from Brandon for Czech Milan Bartovic. Don Hay may well have made the deal anyway, but when Ward got injured it left the Ams with only
unproven rookie Clint Chalmers and probably forced the trade sooner than anticipated. Dealing Bartovic was a surprise to many because he was
touted as a possible scoring sensation, but to get a good player you have to give up a good player Bartovic was the guy. There was also
speculation that Bartovic wasn’t buying into coach Hay’s defence first system which is a sure way to get a ticket out of Tri-City. Nineteen year old
Blake Ward has broken out this season and leads the Ams with forty eight points, with Jaroslav Kristek next in line with thirty four, however Kristek
has only played in twenty seven games due to injury and a stint at the WJC. Defenceman Darrell Hay and Eric Johannson are next with 32 and 31
points respectively, then it drops to tough, physical winger K.C. Timmons with 24 points. This scoring by committee has worked well for the Ams as
their 135 goals will attest, but the 156 goals given up is the second worst in the league. Big things were expected out of behemoth 6’7″ Adam Johnson,
but as of yet, the nineteen year old has failed to live up to expectations. Darrell Hay is a consistent defenceman on most nights in both ends of the rink,
but outside of Jeff Katcher, the defence is young and inexperienced as evidenced by the goals against. Andrew DeSousa and Dustin Barker are both
young but appear to be solid prospects and if Andrew Downing can get his shoulder healthy, the defensive corps looks to be solid in the years to
come. The Ams need a sniper with the trade deadline close and a solid defenceman, maybe look for Hay to trade some of his assets that aren’t likely
to come back next year like K.C. Timmons, possibly the often injured Curtis Huppe and maybe even Kristek if a team can either trade one of their Euro’s
back the other way or still have one of two import spots open.

Portland is having a tough time putting the puck in the net this year as their league low ninety-four goals show and keeping it out hasn’t been much
easier, with 146 goals against. The positive for Portland however is, they may well pick up some solid prospects if they can get a deal done for Jason
Labarbera before the trade deadline passes. Other players teams might be interested in are defenceman Matt Walker who can play a physical game and
forward Michael Kiesman, who also plays a physical brand of hockey but has shown as an overage player he can score a little with his twenty nine
points. Josef Balej has turned some heads with his speed and nose for the net and along with Marcel Hossa, Blake Robson and newly acquired Shawn
Roed should be the future Portland hopes will get them back to the familiar territory at the top of the division. The defence still looks like it needs a
major upgrade with the young players they currently have, although seventeen year old Kevin Young looks to have some offensive upside and if Ken
Hodge can find some talent to bring in, like he did this year with Kent Sauer, maybe things won’t be as bleak for the Hawks as I see them to be. Some
have taken me to task for questioning GM Ken Hodge and his lack of deals last year at deadline day, but I stand by my opinion that Hodge should
have dealt some of his talented older players who weren’t coming back for help this year. Some say he wasn’t offered enough for what he had, but as
we all know, there are always two sides to every story. He didn’t make any deals and his club this year looks far worse than the team that made it into
the playoffs as a fifth place club last year and in my opinion it doesn’t look any better for next year unless Hodge can pull of some deals for Walker,
Labarbera and Kiesman. However, Hodges reputation as a shrewd dealer may have caught up to him and it will be interesting to see if clubs are willing
to pay his price, because if not, it doesn’t look to get a whole lot better next year without an infusion of talent on defence and some overall depth.