WHL Western Conference preview

By Glen Erickson

With NHL teams getting down to business this month at training camps and pre-season games, Hockey’s Future is tracking prospects along the road to professional hockey. Among the many hopefuls, a total of 132 Western Hockey League players found themselves competing for NHL jobs.

With the addition of the expansion Chilliwack Bruins to the BC Division in the Western Conference, the Kootenay Ice have moved over to the Central Division in the Eastern Conference.

B.C. DIVISON

Vancouver Giants
Last Season: (47-19-0-6) 1st in BC Division & WHL Champions

After a trip to Moncton as the WHL representative at the Memorial Cup, Vancouver will play host to the 2007 edition of the tournament next May. The Giants have the potential to challenge for another league title this season despite the loss of a couple key veterans in forward Gilbert Brule (CBJ) and team captain Mark Fistric (DAL).

Players to Watch…

Cody Franson (NAS, 2005) will be looked upon to assume a leadership role in Vancouver this season. He is always an offensive threat, finishing third in WHL scoring among defensemen last year. An increased role physically will make Franson a more feared defender in the WHL. He has signed with Nashville and will benefit from the pro training camp experience.

Brendan Mikkelson (ANA, 2005) is coming off an injury-plagued campaign and is unlikely to stick in Anaheim this season. If he can demonstrate durability in the WHL this season, Mikkelson may be able to convince the Ducks to offer him a pro contract. An offensive player, Mikkelson could earn a late invitation to Team Canada’s WJC camp in December with a good start this season.

Dustin Slade (VAN, F/A), can earn a pro contract with a good camp with the Canucks, who have been able to see firsthand Slade’s capable goaltending through a championship season with the Giants. Behind a stingy defensive corps last season, Slade was a valuable netminder who stole a couple games during the Giants long playoff run. Stability in goal will be important for both Slade and the Giants as the upcoming season is guaranteed to be a long one.

Kelowna Rockets
Last season: (46-22-1-3) 2nd in BC Division

After a three-year run as WHL representatives at the Memorial Cup, including a championship in 2004 as tournament hosts, the Rockets have finally graduated most of the key contributors to those winning teams. Blake Comeau (NYI), Troy Bodie (EDM), Tyler Spurgeon (EDM), Justin Keller (TB), Lauris Darzins (NAS), Alex Edler (VAN), Mike Card (BUF) and Kyle Cumiskey (COL) are gone, although a couple of the grads could return as overage players.

Players to Watch…

Clayton Barthel (Free Agent) was released after the first week of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s main training camp. The 20-year-old defenseman was acquired by the Rockets in an off-season trade with the Seattle Thunderbirds for veteran goaltender Derek Yeomans. The lanky rearguard, entering his fifth season in the WHL, will provide maturity and a physical presence in Kelowna this season as he works toward another shot a pro hockey.

Tysen Dowzak (Free Agent) went undrafted this past summer but received an invitation to the Minnesota Wild training camp. At 6’5, 225 pounds, Dowzak will be looked upon to provide a physical presence and also improve his foot speed and acceleration. Dowzak is certainly motivated after a knee injury forced him out of the Rockets lineup for most of the second half of the regular season.

Kris Westblom (MIN, 2005) has been handed the starting goaltender position, what with the departure of Yeomans to Seattle. Westblom has put up solid numbers in a support role for the past two seasons. This year, he will carry the bulk of the workload behind a team with less firepower up front than he is used to.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Colin Long, F; Cody Almond, F; Lucas Bloodoff, F.

Key 2008 Eligibles: If defenseman Luke Schenn remains healthy and productive, he is certain to be a top five pick in the NHL Entry Draft. A member of Team Canada’s U18 gold medal winning world champions, Schenn played regularly in Kelowna last year as a 16-year-old.

Prince George Cougars
Last season: (35-31-2-4) 4th place in BC Division

The Cougars are a team on the rise and should see their entire corps of drafted players returned to the WHL this season. Many pundits see the Cougars as a definite threat for top spot in the BC Division. Deep in goal, effectively dressing two legitimate number one goalies in free agents Scott Bowles and Real Cyr, the Cougars are very solid on the backend.

Players to Watch:

Eric Hunter (NYR, 2006) is returning to Prince George as a 20-year-old, coming off a 40-goal season least year. The gritty forward has just been named captain of the Cougars. Hunter was drafted by Chicago in 2004 but did not earn a contract. Expectations are high for the veteran forward as the Cougars return a solid nucleus of offensive forwards this season.

Ty Wishart (SJ, 2006) played a ton of hockey last season and the fatigue began to show as the playoffs approached. Rewarded at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the 16th overall pick will look to develop through a couple more seasons in junior. The Cougars have shored up their blueline corps and, should the defense remain healthy, Wishart should continue to excel with a more balanced ice time levels.

Vlad Mihalik (TB, 2005) was a pleasant surprise at Lightning camp, Mihalik was acquired by Prince George in an off-season trade with the Red Deer Rebels. The 6’7, 235-pound defenseman’s presence will rekindle memories of Zdeno Chara, who patrolled the blueline for the Cougars during the 1996-97 season. Mihalik was also represented his native Slovakia in one WJC and may receive the call again this year.

Key 2007 Draft Eligible: Chris VanDuyshoven, D; Prab Rai, F; Dana Tyrell, F.

Kamloops Blazers
Last season: (34-33-2-3) 5th in BC Division

The Blazers organization is not used to missing the WHL playoffs and will look for redemption this season. The club has likely seen the last of stellar goaltender Devan Dubnyk (EDM, 2005), who will likely play pro somewhere in the Oilers system. It would be accurate to suggest the Blazers are currently in a rebuilding mode.

Players to Watch:

Reid Jorgenson missed much of last season with a broken jaw, but returned to lineup to ignite a late season run at the final playoff spot in the BC Division. An important leader, Jorgenson attended the Detroit camp and played in the Traverse City rookie tournament. He is capable of making teammates play bigger, an attribute the Blazers will look to tale full advantage of this season.

Matt Kassian (MIN, 2004) is said to be the toughest player in the WHL. If the burly winger can increase his foot speed and develop some offensive flair, he will create open ice and scoring opportunities for his teammates. The upcoming season is perhaps a make-or-break campaign for Kassian, whether in the WHL or AHL, as he will have to improve his mobility to thrive with the WHL’s new standard of rules enforcement.

Juuso Puustinen (CGY, 2006) fills an important import spot in Kamloops and will bring valuable experience to the Blazers after a good showing at Flames training camp. If he can meet the off-ice challenges associated with playing junior hockey in North America, Puustinen can further improve his stock in the eyes of the Flames brass. On the ice, the flashy Finn will also have to continue to prove he can handle the rigors of a 72-game regular season schedule.

Chilliwack Bruins
Last season: N/A. Expansion team for 2006-07.

One benefit of being an expansion team is the Bruins are allowed to dress five 20-year-olds. A few years ago, the then expansion Everett Silvertips parlayed this roster makeup opportunity into a successful first season, a springboard to their current lofty heights among the WHL elite teams. Time will tell whether Chilliwack will achieve similar success.

Players to Watch:

Tyler Spurgeon (EDM, 2004) was plucked from Kelowna in the WHL expansion draft and would bring crucial leadership qualities to the mix in Chilliwack. If he is returned to junior by the Oilers, the feisty forward has the big game experience required to motivate everyone on the expansion Bruins roster play bigger. In the WHL pre-season, Spurgeon scored the club’ first ever goal, coincidentally in Kelowna against the Rockets.

Myles Stoesz (ATL, 2005) amassed over 500 career penalty minutes in three seasons with the Spokane Chiefs. He will patrol the wing for Chilliwack this season, ensuring the young club is shown respect by more established clubs. The 19-year-old will have to develop his offensive skills as well to ensure a more balanced contribution to the expansion Bruins.

Jim Watt (Free Agent) is currently nursing a pre-season injury, but the veteran goaltender is being looked upon to provide stability and leadership in Chilliwack. If the Bruins are unable to consistently generate offense in front of Watt, he will have to show he can steal a few wins. While he has only won 54 games in a five-year career to date, the 20-year-old free agent can improve his profile with a productive season in Chilliwack.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Matt Meropoulis, F; Scott Maetche, D; Colby Kulhanek, F.

U.S. DIVISION

Everett Silvertips
Last season: (40-27-2-3) 1st in U.S. Division

In many quarters, the Silvertips are considered the top team in the WHL. After a tough loss in the Western Conference final to Vancouver last season, four players were selected in the first three rounds of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, including Peter Mueller (PHX), Leland Irving (CAL), Ondrej Fiala (MIN) and Brady Calla (FLA).

Players to Watch:

Leland Irving (CAL, 2006) earned the ‘Tips starting position in goal last season and put up outstanding numbers as a 17-year-old. A confident player with exceptional balance, Irving will look to rebound from a slight groin injury that kept him out of the first two games of the playoff series against Vancouver. A healthy Irving this season will make the ‘Tips a confident a stingy opponent.

Peter Mueller (PHX, 2006) won the WHL rookie of the year ward last season and is expected to become a more dominant offensive player this season. The lanky centerman will likely play for the USA at the WJC as well. How he handles a full season under the microscope, combined with what will be a vigorous regular season and international travel schedule, will go a long way to determining how deep Everett makes it through the WHL playoffs.

Brady Calla (FLA, 2006) burst on to the WHL scene as a 16-year-old, putting on a dynamic skating display and lofty offensive numbers. Since then, the statistics have dropped off, although the ’Tips have openly admitted they have asked Calla to alter his role and focus on keeping the puck out of their own net. As a drafted junior, Calla will be looked upon to proved leadership this season. If the reigns are loosened, Calla could become an offensive force, providing valuable secondary scoring.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Jesse Burt, F; Zach Hamill, F; Shane Harper, F; Mike Alexander, D; Jason Fransoo, D; Taylor Ellington, D.

Seattle Thunderbirds
Last season: (35-31-1-5) 2nd in US Division

Expectations are very high in Seattle this season as the club returns a solid group of veterans. The Thunderbirds may be the only team to start the current campaign with a full 25-player roster. Drafted players Chris Durand (COL, 2005), Aaron Gagnon (PHX, 2005), Scott Jackson (STL, 2005), Bud Holloway (LA, 2006) and Bretton Stamler (DET, 2006) have all returned from NHL camps.

Players to Watch:

Bud Holloway (LA, 2006) is a gifted offensive centreman, a reliable offensive producer who should increase his activity on the scoresheet the season. Holloway provides versatility for Thunderbirds brass, as he is also able to play on both wings. As he matures in the WHL, Holloway is a cinch to become an even more valuable and productive prospect.

Bretton Stamler (DET, 2005) is a key defenseman in Seattle whose return from Red Wing camp guaranteed the Thunderbirds a full 25-man roster for the club’s season opener in Seattle. A late pick in the 2005 draft, Stamler brings reliable hockey sense to the ice and has developed as a leader in Seattle. Any offensive contributions Stamler can muster this season will be a bonus for the Thunderbirds, as he prides himself on keeping the puck out of his own team’s net first.

Derek Yeomans (Free Agent) has been to the Memorial Cup twice with the Kelowna Rockets, but has yet to play a game in the big tournament. However, the classy veteran goaltender brings stability to Seattle and is capable of winning games on his own. An acrobatic netminder, Yeomans is a low-key individual off the ice and will bring veteran leadership to a young Seattle team.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Jeremy Schappert, D; Joshua Schappert, F; Lindsay Nielsen, F; Colin Scherger, D.

Portland Winter Hawks
Last Season: (32-32-3-5) 3rd in the U.S. Division

The Winter Hawks rode the hot hand of rookie goaltender Kurtis Mucha through the first round of the WHL playoffs as they dispatched the Seattle Thunderbirds in seven games. Overmatched in the next series against Vancouver, Portland nonetheless grew as a team and will return this season with an attitude based on unfinished business. Gone is the club’s top offensive threat, Brandon Dubinsky (NYR, 2004) in favor of a new group who will have to band together to score by committee this season.

Players to Watch:

Cameron Cepek (MON, 2006) brings a nasty disposition to the Winter Hawks blueline, an attribute the Canadiens seem to be fond of. Cepek is a rangy rearguard who works hard in front of his own net. Cepek will be looked upon to contribute more offensively this season and would also benefit by adding some weight to his 6’1 frame.

Michael Sauer (NYR, 2005) is a big, physical defenseman who has had the unfortunate consequence of dealing with injuries for most of his junior career. If the veteran can remain healthy, his presence will bolster the backend in Portland. All eyes will be on Sauer early this season to see if a nagging hip injury has healed sufficiently. Durability will be the key.

Kyle Bailey (MIN, 2005) excelled in the WHL as a defensive-minded forward early in his career. Entering his fifth season in Portland, Bailey’s offensive contributions have increased each season. On a Winter Hawks club begging for more offensive thrust, Bailey will be looked upon to continue his scoring trend this season.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Kurtis Mucha, G; Libor Gadzik, F; Brayden Nargang, F; Colton Sceviour, F.

Tri City Americans
Last Season (30-35-4-3) 4th in the U.S. Division

Some trade activity late in training camp has bolstered the Americans offensive upside, a clear indication the club is moving forward. Amid constant rumors suggesting the franchise is on the move, Tri City has probably under achieved in recent years. The Americans potentially lose five drafted players this season including Logan Stephenson (PHX, 2004), Juraj Gracik (ATL, 2004), Matt Schneider (CAL, 2004) and Clayton Stoner (MIN, 2004) and Riley Emmerson (MIN, 2005).

Players to Watch:

Carey Price (MTL, 2005) is the backstop in Tri City, a veteran goaltender the Americans can rely on to keep them in games throughout the season. Price was a late cut last season from Canada’s entry at the WJC. A first round draft pick, Price has elevated his game each season in the WHL.

Colton Yellow Horn (Free Agent) was acquired from the Lethbridge Hurricanes during training camp. In 194 regular season games over three seasons with Lethbridge, the 5’7, 175-pound Yellow Horn has proven to be a durable forward. He is a sniper who has finished fifth and 12th respectively in WHL scoring during the past two seasons. He brings high-end offensive skills to the Americans lineup and should benefit in a big way from the new standard of rules enforcement this season.

Aaron Boogaard (MIN, 2004) picked up over 200 penalty minutes last season, establishing himself as an imposing physical presence. Whether he is capable of developing a more balanced contribution remains to be seen as speed and mobility will become a necessity this season in the WHL.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Jarret Toll, D.

Spokane Chiefs
Last Season: (25-39-5-3) 5th in US Division

The Chiefs have not been to the WHL playoffs for the past two years. Their veteran players need to elevate their game to get the current edition over the hump. Clearly, the time is now.

Players to Watch:

Michael Grabner (VAN, 2006) was viewed by some as a surprise first rounder at the NHL Entry Draft in July. The speedy winger is an offensive-minded import who will have to increase his production this season. He has successfully met the challenges associated with playing in the WHL as a rookie import, which bodes well for year two in Spokane. If he can add some bulk to his frame and develop some grit. An increased offensive contribution from Grabner will go a long way to making the Chiefs a playoff team this season.

Kevin Armstrong (Free Agent) was not drafted in July, but is considered a top-tier goaltender in the WHL. Acquired by the Chiefs last season from the Saskatoon Blades, Armstrong was tossed into the nets behind a porous defensive team in Spokane during the final weeks of the regular season. The skilled netminder gives the Chief legitimate reason to be optimistic heading into the current campaign. A successful early start for Armstrong and the Chiefs will be required to cultivate the confidence this club has been sorely lacking in recent years.

Adam Hobson (CHI, 2005) has been able to improve his scoring statistics from season to season in Spokane. He is durable, having missed only nine games over the past three seasons and none in the past two. The veteran centre plays with a mean streak and is capable of shouldering significant ice time. He has contributed with proficiency in all situations during his junior career. Hobson is not hesitant to battle through traffic, a quality that makes the diminutive forward a leader by example.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Cody Esposito, F; Drayson Bowman, F; Chris Langkow, F.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.