WHL Eastern Conference preview

By Glen Erickson

The Kootenay Ice now reside in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference while the Swift Current Broncos have moved to the six-team East Division.

EAST DIVISION

Moose Jaw Warriors
Last season: (44-20-5-3) 1st in East Division. Lost in WHL Final Series.
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The Moose Jaw Warriors parlayed a solid regular season into a trip to the WHL championship series last year, only to lose to the Vancouver Giants in four games. Troy Brouwer (CHI, 2004), Dustin Boyd (CAL, 2004) and Blair Jones (TB, 2005) occupied three of the top six spots in league scoring last year, an accomplishment not likely to occur again in Moose Jaw for some time.

Players to Watch:

Kenndal McArdle (FLA, 2005) is back after a trip to Panthers camp. The veteran forward has the potential to provide consistent offensive production, although the anticipated departure of Jones, Boyd and Brouwer will leave a huge void. McArdle has an opportunity to hoist the Warriors onto his shoulders this season. It’s a tall order, but a leadership task the club will need.

Riley Holzapfel (ATL, 2006) established himself last season as a hard-working forward in the Jaw. From training camp on, he made the Warriors coaching staff notice his work ethic and hockey sense. He provided important secondary scoring and will move more to the forefront this season.

Joey Perricone (Free Agent) made the hockey world take notice during the WHL playoffs last season, by giving the overmatched Warriors a chance to win against the Giants. A consistent season from Perricone can bring stability and confidence to the Warriors back end. He recently played his 100th regular season game for the Warriors and will handle the majority of the workload this season.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Travis Ehrhardt, D

Saskatoon Blades
Last season: (41-25-2-4) 2nd in East Division

The Blades will be hard pressed to maintain their standing in the East Division this season as they retool after the departure of some key players. Gone are import forward Zdenek Bahensky (NYR, 2005) and Russian goaltender Anton Khudobin (MIN, 2005). Forwards Devon Setoguchi (SJ, 2005), Joe Barnes (CAR, 2005) and Wacey Rabbit (BOS, 2005) may also not return.

Players to Watch:

Brayden Holtby (‘08 Eligible) looks to the Blades go-to guy between the pipes this season, as temperamental import Khudobin has departed and will play in Russia this season. Holtby will learn and develop under the tutelage of head coach Lorne Molleken, a former NHL goaltender, but he will have to show the organization early that he can handle a heavy workload. Holtby will see plenty of rubber this winter.

Devin Setoguchi (SJ, 2005) is currently nursing a lower body injury, which will ultimately keep him out of the San Jose lineup during most of the pre-season. While the Sharks would have liked to see the talented forward earn a pro job this season, Setoguchi is likely to be back in Saskatoon. A late cut from Canada’s WJC team, Setoguchi may find himself in the mix again this year.

Chris Cloud (’07 Eligible) will be looked upon to pick up some of the scoring slack in Saskatoon this season, as the Blades search for consistent production by committee. Another WHLer whose size will not intimidate, Cloud is certain to benefit from the new standard of enforcement. A shifty forward, Cloud should flourish given the opportunities to use his speed to make bigger opponents miss.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Colton Gillies, F; Ryan Funk, D; Chris Cloud, F; Justin McCrae, F.

Regina Pats
Last season: (40-27-1-4) 3rd in East Division

Many WHL pundits are choosing the Pats to make a serious run for the Eastern Division pennant his season. A major reason is the solid blueline corps, said to be the most mobile in the Eastern Conference.

Players to Watch:

Nikko Snellman (NAS, 2006) was a surprise pick by the Predators at the NHL Entry Draft. He is a physical forward who makes a point of initiating contact. If he can bring durability and a physical presence to the Pats lineup this season, while contributing some secondary scoring, he may become a suitable import replacement for the departed Petr Kalus (BOS, 2005).

Logan Pyett (DET, 2006) was a late pick at the draft in Vancouver. He impressed the Red Wings with his play in Traverse City and will be looked upon to continue his development in the WHL this season. His mobility is a strong suit.

Kyle Deck (Free Agent) enters his fifth WHL season with an eye on a deep playoff run. Having been through he club’s disastrous 12-win season a couple of years ago, the 40-win campaign last year bodes well for Deck in 2006-07. Deck is comfortable in a leadership role, brings better than average speed to the ice and will be looked upon to school the young prospects in Regina.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Jason McDonald, F; Brett Leffler, F; Nick Ross, D; Linden Rowatt, G.

Brandon Wheat Kings
Last season: (30-32-6-4) 4th in East Division

A late season push resulted in a playoff berth for the Wheaties last season, only a year removed from their trip to the WHL final series. Solid in goal with some veteran offensive punch up front, Brandon should improve on their fourth place finish this season.

Players to Watch:

Codey Burki (COL, 2006) was the offensive star for the Wheat Kings last season, a role he has to maintain and improve upon this year. Like many drafted juniors, the pro training camp experience should serve to motivate Burki to improve all aspects of his game this season. Consistency will be the key.

Mark Derlago (Free Agent) will bring veteran savvy to the Wheaties as an overage this season. He is a durable forward who will look to improve offensively on a 28-goal season last year.

Tyler Plante (FLA, 2005) provides the Wheat Kings with an opportunity to win every time he suits up. He rose to WHL prominence during the Wheaties WHL final series against Kelowna in 2005. The upcoming season will be important for Plante, as he will be considered for the Canada’s 2007 WJC team.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Matt Hallick, F; Nathan Green, F; Keith Aulie, D.

Prince Albert Raiders
Last season: (25-36-1-10) 5th in East Division

The Prince Albert Raiders are rebuilding after a poor season last year. With the new divisional alignment, it may be even tougher for the club to qualify for the playoffs this season, however, there is hope with veteran Peter Anholt on board as a proven winner among WHL coaches.

Mike Hellyer (Free Agent) is entering his fourth season with the Raiders and would like to lead the club into the WHL playoffs this season. It will be a tall order, but Hellyer’s numbers have increased every year in the WHL. With some help up front this season, Hellyer should become a point-per-game contributor.

A.J. Thelen (MIN, 2004) played two seasons at Michigan State University before returning to the WHL. A durable defenseman, Thelen played in all 72 regular season games for Prince Albert last year. If he is returned to junior, where he can play as an overage, he will provide stability and leadership along the Raiders blue line.

Jesse Deckert (Free Agent) attended the Nashville Predators rookie training camp, which should bolster the goaltender’s confidence heading into the new season. Deckert, who played in 44 games last season, will face plenty of pucks in Prince Albert as the club continues to rebuild.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Cody Gross, F; Bryce Lamb, F; Andy Smith, F; Sterling Labatte, D; Cody Vann, D.

Swift Current Broncos
Last season: (24-34-6-8) 4th in Central Division

Time will tell whether the divisional realignment gives the Broncos a more realistic opportunity to move up in the standings. How much offense exists in Swift Current? This is the question Swift Current fans are asking.

Players to Watch:

Dane Crowley (TB, 2006) received a pleasant surprise this past summer when the Tampa Bay Lightning extended a late invitation to attend their training camp due to a couple of injuries. Crowley impressed with his conditioning and did not appear out of place among prospects on the blue line. The Broncos will look to Crowley to parlay the pro camp experience into a productive 2006-07 season.

Travis Yonkman (Free Agent) is hoping to play well enough in a supporting role to snare the No. 1 job in goal from veteran junior Kyle Moir, the club’s two-time MVP. Yonkman is likely the future in goal for the Broncos, but will also be pushed by 16-year-old rookie, Ian Curtis.

Levi Nelson (BOS, 2006) is entering his second full season with the Broncos. He will be expected to improve on last year’s 38-point campaign and become a consistent scoring forward.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Ryan Molle, D; Paul Postma, D.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Medicine Hat Tigers
Last season: (46-16-1-8) 1st in Central Division

Players to Watch:

Darren Helm (DET, 2005) impressed last season with a somewhat unexpected offensive display. Helm typifies the mantra ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’, as he is a very reserved young man. However, on the ice, he has become a respected offensive talent across the WHL and will look to further develop his skills in more of a leadership role this season.

Kris Russell (CBJ, 2005) may have played in the shadow of Medicine Hat stalwart Cam Barker (CHI) for the past couple seasons, however, his stock has risen through ongoing development and a solid performance at the 2006 WJC. A good puckhandler, Russell will be looked upon to fill the void left by Barker and also must assume some leadership responsibility this season. Russell will anchor a very competent back end in Medicine Hat.

Tyler Swystun (Free Agent) was acquired by the Tigers in the off-season deal that sent veteran forward Brett Robertson to the Prince George Cougars. After a successful season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Swystun spent last year at the University of Michigan. His return to the WHL has raised some eyebrows, but the 19-year-old forward is hoping to intensify his professional aspirations with a productive season in Medicine Hat.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Brennan Bosch, F; Shayne Brown, D; Ryan Holfeld, G.

Calgary Hitmen
Last season: (47-18-3-4) 2nd in Central Division

The departure of Justin Pogge (TOR, 2005) leaves a huge hole in goal for the Hitmen, although the crew up front is expected to produce more offense this season.

Players to Watch:

Keegan Dansereau (Free Agent) was invited to the Dallas Stars rookie camp after a solid season with the Hitmen. Entering his third full season in junior, Dansereau should provide important secondary scoring behind Ryan White (MON, 2006) and import forward, Freddie Pettersson (EDM, 2005).

Brett Sonne (‘07 Eligible) was a key player on the Team Canada’s U-18 gold-medal winning team this summer and is viewed as a young player on the rise. Like Dansereau, Sonne will be expected to develop this season into a consistent offensive producer. He provides some potentially long-term depth for the Hitmen.

Ryan White (MON, 2006) continues to impress league-wide with his ability to battle night in and night out for the Hitmen. A heightened commitment to conditioning this season is certain to elevate White’s performance and profile. A consistent offensive producer, White will be expected to deliver scoring punch for Calgary this season.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Ryan Letts, F; Alex Plante, D.


Lethbridge Hurricanes
Last season: (27-36-3-6) 3rd in Central Division

Ben Wright (CBJ, 2006) is a stalwart on defense for the Hurricanes. A drafted player, Wright’s work ethic is certain to result in improved skating to complement his solid skill set. It is hoped a taste of the Blue Jackets training camp will result Wright returning to Lethbridge with a heightened desire to thrive as an upper echelon defenseman in the WHL.

Justin Leclerc (Free Agent) burst on to the WHL scene and became a stingy young netminder in rather short order. He is rock solid and confident. The playoff series against Calgary last season may have galvanized the underdog Hurricanes, as they pushed the Hitmen to seven games. Leclerc will only get better as he matures.

Zack Boychuk (‘08 Eligible) is off to a fast start offensively in Lethbridge this season. Boychuk conjures up images of WHL legends Dale Derkatch and Glen Goodall, players who despite their lack of size, made long-term impacts in the league. Boychuk should thrive under the new enforcement standards and is likely to help replace much of the scoring the Hurricanes have gotten used to from the recently departed Colton Yellow Horn.

Mitch Fadden (Free Agent) established himself as a forward on the rise last season. He has returned to the WHL from the New York Rangers camp, where he attended as a free agent. Fadden should bring renewed vigor and offensive skill to the ‘Canes roster this season.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Dwight King, F; Drew Todd, F; Jesse Craige, D; Mitch McColm, D.

Red Deer Rebels
Last season: (26-40-1-5) 5th in Central Division

At the very least, the Rebels will make life difficult for visiting teams this season as the head coach Brent Sutter’s proven work ethic will trickle down to the troops. However, even a tough, hard-working team requires a few individuals to provide offensive consistency. The Rebels and their fans will be eager to see who steps up this season.

Players to Watch:

Brandon Sutter (’07 Eligible) provided a consistent offensive contribution last season and will look to improve his output during his draft year. A rangy forward with good reach, Sutter would like to follow in his older brother Brett’s footsteps.

James Reimer (Free Agent) will face plenty of rubber again this season as the Rebels continue the rebuilding process. He is a competent WHL starter, capable of keeping the Rebs in hockey games.

Jason Lynch (COL, 2005) moves over to Red Deer after three full seasons in Spokane. The rugged defenseman should keep opponents at bay, ensuring open ice for the Rebels young forwards. A big, physical player, he has the ability to clear traffic from in front of his own net, a huge benefit for the likes of Reimer and the Rebels busy goaltending tandem.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Jordan Knackstedt, F; Brandon Sutter, F.

Kootenay Ice
Last Season: (45-23-1-3) 3rd in BC Division

Players to Watch:

Ben Maxwell (MON, 2006) has improved dramatically as a junior, evidenced by his offensive numbers over the past two seasons. He has played with veteran forwards throughout his career in Kootenay, obviously learning and developing along the way. In Cranbrook this season, Maxwell may very well be the club’s offensive leader.

Ryan Russell (NYR, 2005) may be considered an under-sized forward, but he has the potential to super-size his offensive production. The twin brother of Kris Russell (CBJ, 2005) of the Medicine Hat Tigers, Ryan will be a key forward in Kootenay this season. The departure of Adam Cracknell (CGY) has made room for Russell to play more minutes and show the Ice he deserves to play in all situations.

Kris Lazaruk (Free Agent) should see more ice time this season in Cranbrook as the Ice prepare for the post Taylor Dakers (SJ, 2006) era. Lazaruk proved his mettle early last season when he started 19 of the team’s first 20 games while Dakers nursed a hip injury. The Ice have a history of developing high-end goaltenders, which speaks well for Lazaruk.

Key 2007 Eligibles: Dustin Sylvester, F.


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