Here’s a look at the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference heading into the 2012-13 season. Of course, the National Hockey League labor strife will impact rosters during the early going. And, the deadline for WHL teams to announce their three 20-year-old's comes along in mid-October.
Kamloops Blazers (Last Season: 47-20-2-3; 1st in B.C. Division)
Last season, the Blazers entered the regular season as a veteran crew with high expectations and then answered the call by advancing to the Western Conference Final Series. If they remain healthy and motivated, the Blazers could very well take the next step.
Graduations will not impact the Blazers in a huge way this season. Forward Chase Schaber is likely to be missed mostly in a leadership role, while defenseman Bronson Maschmeyer has departed, taking some power play quarterbacking skills from the mix. The Blazers would benefit enormously if Austin Madaisky (CLB) were to return and spend the entire season in Kamloops. Versatile import Marek Hrbas will have to be an impact player.
Brendan Ranford has every reason to play with a chip on his shoulder this season, as he went unsigned by the Philadelphia Flyers. Ranford led the team with 92 points in 69 games last year. Colin Smith (COL) is also back, looking to improve on his 85-point campaign, while Swiss-born Tim Bozon (MTL) returns after posting 71 points during his rookie season. Among youngsters, forwards Matt Needham and Aspen Sterzer bring important speed, skill and depth.
While Kamloops is likely to fill opposing nets this season, it will be up to second-year keeper Cole Cheveldave to respond with another solid year. He appeared in 55 games, earning the Western Conference nomination as Rookie of the Year, to go along with his 2.62 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. Cheveldave will play behind a competent blueline brigade that should be effective by committee.
Vancouver Giants (Last Season: 40-26-2-4; 2nd in B.C. Division)
With the graduation of outstanding forward Brendan Gallagher (MTL) to pro hockey, the Giants will be hard-pressed to find a player capable of stepping into this gaping hole. Gallagher did it all for Vancouver, leaving as the organization’s career scoring leader. Forward Jordan Martinook (PHX) is also gone after a terrific run through the second half of the regular season and playoffs. Cain Franson and Marek Tvrdon will have to be consistently productive this season, while Taylor Makin and Dalton Sward will get plenty of opportunity this season.
The Giants are strong along the blueline, with the likes of Brett Kulak (CGY) and David Musil (EDM) anchoring the unit. Kulak is a good puck-mover, capable of adding offense, a contribution of great importance this season. Musil’s strength is contributing to the effort that keeps the puck out of the Giants' net. Between the pipes, Liam Liston checks in as the number one goalie, coming over from the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Kelowna Rockets (Last Season: 31-31-4-6; 3rd in B.C. Division)
It is immediately apparent that the Kelowna Rockets have made a commitment to becoming a bigger hockey team this season. Gone are Brett Bulmer (MIN) and Shane McColgan (MYR), the latter in an off-season trade with the Saskatoon Blades that brings Ryan Olsen (WPG) to Kelowna. Colton Sissons (NAS) will be looked upon to provide leadership and offense this season.
The Rockets also appear to be in better shape among their 20-year-old group this year with the addition of forwards J.T. Barnett and Dylan McKinlay.
Damon Severson (NJ) can provide offense from the backend among a group that will be much more physical this year. Myles Bell, Mitchell Chapman and MacKenzie Johnston are back, with youngster Madison Bowey ready to emerge. Bowey played in 57 games as a 16-year-old. In goal, Jordan Cooke will carry the reigns after the graduation of Adam Brown.
Victoria Royals (Last Season: 24-41-3-4; 4th in B.C. Division)
The Royals should be fine in the scoring department this season, with Steven Hodges (FLA) and Logan Nelson (BUF) returning as offensive keys. There is established veteran depth up front as well with 20-year-old's Jamie Crooks and Alex Gogolev. If Ben Walker and Brandon Magee can continue to improve, Victoria will ice a potent top-six group of forwards.
Keeping the puck out of their own net was the big problem last year as the Royals surrendered a league-high 325 goals. A healthy Tyler Stahl (CAR) will be invaluable, as he missed most of last season. Jordan Fransoo, 20, came over from Brandon last year and will eat up important minutes. Keegan Kanzig is also back, but most eyes will be on rookie Joe Hicketts as he steps into a regular role with the Royals.
The Royals have taken a chance through the import draft, installing Patrik Poliva from the Czech Republic in goal. Jared Rathjen, the number two goalie last season, will also get a serious look.
Prince George Cougars (Last Season: 24-46-0-2; 5th in B.C. Division)
The Cougars will have to find a way to increase their offensive output after producing a paltry 166 goals last year, worst in the WHL.
Alex Forsberg and Troy Bourke (COL) lead the way. Forsberg enters his third season with the Cats and brings dynamic skills to the rink. Bourke was consistently the Cougars top performer last season, leading the team in scoring. The off-season acquisition of Colin Jacobs (BUF) from Seattle has provided some immediate production. A healthy Brock Hirsche will also be an important cog this season after shoulder problems hampered his availability most of last year.
Dallas Ehrhardt, 20, anchors a huge backend after coming over from the Moose Jaw Warriors during the off-season. Local product Daniel Gibb, one of the top shot blockers in the league is also back. Import Rinalds Rosinskis from Latvia checks in at 6’5”, but is at this point rather an unknown entity.
With veteran goaltender Drew Owsley’s departure, the biggest question mark concerns what will evolve between the pipes. Out of the gate, the tandem of Devon Fordyce and Brett Zawroney sport less than 20 WHL games worth of experience between them.
Tri City Americans (Last Season: 50-18-2-2; 1st in U.S. Division)
Exactly how does a team replace 369 scoring points? That will definitively be the biggest concern the Amerks will contend with this season.
Brendan Shinnimin (PHX), Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland (MTL) are gone, taking their offensive prowess with them. Veteran Justin Feser, who collected 83 points last season, returns as team captain as a 20-year-old. Connor Rankin is expected to play an important role offensively.
In addition to the high-octane offense last year, the Amerks were among the WHL’s stingiest teams defensively. Zach Yuen (WPG) is the key blueliner, returning this season after leading the backend in scoring. Mitch Topping and Dryden Dow are key veterans. Justin Hamonic will be given every opportunity to develop after a good rookie campaign. In goal, whether highly-touted Eric Comrie is ready to step in for departed Ty Rimmer remains to be seen, but he will be required to steal games on occasion.
Portland Winterhawks (Last Season: 49-19-3-1; 2nd in U.S. Division)
The Winterhawks advanced to the WHL Championship Series for the second year in a row last season, only to taste defeat again, this time at the hands of the Edmonton Oil Kings. A third consecutive deep playoff run seems unlikely, but counting Portland out at this point would seem premature.
Sven Bartschi (CGY), Brad Ross (TOR) and Joe Morrow (PIT) are destined for pro hockey this season, leaving voids that will have to be filled to keep the Winterhawks among the league’s elite. Up front, Ty Rattie (STL) is coming off a playoff scoring title and should provide consistent offensive output during a season where it is expected he will play at the 2013 WJC. Taylor Leier (PHI) and speedster Brandon Leipsic (NAS) are also key returnees up front.
Derek Pouliot, who was selected in the first round, eighth overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2012 NHL Draft, returns as the Winterhawks premiere rearguard, the heir apparent to Morrow. Pouliot has benefited from skating among a veteran group of defensemen during his first two seasons in the WHL. This season, it is time for the Weyburn, Saskatchewan native to emerge as the go-to-guy. There is depth in Portland, as Ty Wotherspoon (CGY) and Troy Rutkowski are back. Joining Portland this season is highly-touted Seth Jones, an American who is already said to be the WHL’s top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft.
In goal, Mac Carruth (CHI) may not return, leaving the duties to returnee Brendan Burke, the son of former NHL goaltender Sean Burke, and to overage Cam Lanigan.
Spokane Chiefs (Last Season: 38-25-5-4; 3rd in U.S. Division)
Spokane should be able to score in bunches this season. Mitch Holmberg returns after a 55-point campaign last season. Veterans Mitch Gal and Dylan Walchuk bring important depth, while Mike Aviani and Marek Kalus can be counted on to produce offensively.
But perhaps most importantly is the status of Brendan Kichton (NYI). If he returns to the Chiefs lineup for the full campaign, he would bring huge offensive production to the mix. Over the past two seasons, Kichton has collected 155 points in 135 regular season games, tops among WHL rearguards over that period. Beyond Kichton, who missed the post-season last year with a broken jaw, the blueline is not deep, although Tanner Mort and Davis Vandane are reliable veterans.
Goaltending is plentiful in Spokane, in that both Mac Engel and Eric Williams are capable starters. Conceivably, one will outplay the other for the number one spot, thus providing the Chiefs with a potentially valuable trading commodity at some point this season.
Everett Silvertips (Last Season: 22-40-2-8; 4th in U.S. Division)
So much depends on the availability of Ryan Murray (CLB) this season, the first WHL player selected at the 2012 NHL Draft. The longer Murray stays in Everett, the better the team’s chances will be of getting off to a favorable start.
The Silvertips struggled to score last season, and will likely face the same challenge this year. The team has been building through the WHL Bantam Draft and will get their first real good look at Ty Mappin this season. Although only 16, Mappin arrives with national championship credentials, courtesy of the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs’ 2012 Telus Cup title. However, a host of veterans will still have to lead the way, including Ryan Harrison and Reid Petryk. Kohl Bauml enters his second season and will look to build on his 40-point output from last year.
Along with Murray, Nick Walters (STL) returns along the blueline. Landon Olanski is 20, but beyond these three rearguards, the Silvertips are breaking in some new blood on the backend this season. In goal, Kent Simpson (CHI) is gone, paving the way for Cole Holowenko to lead. Austin Lotz will also figure among the goaltending tandem.
Seattle Thunderbirds (Last Season: 25-45-1-1; 5th in U.S. Division)
Branden Trook (DAL) and Luke Lockhart are offensive keys in Seattle this season, while Justin Hickman and Connor Honey will have to produce consistently if the Thunderbirds hope to earn a post-season berth. Import Roberts Lipbergs from Latvia will also get a good look.
The acquisition of defensemen Jesse Forsberg adds strength and determination to the blueline brigade, but the group is quite young. Shea Theodore has offensive skills and Jared Hauf will get plenty of ice time.
With Calvin Pickard (COL) graduating, Seattle has handed the reigns to 20-year-old Brandon Glover as the organization waits for youngster Daniel Cotton to emerge.