Here’s a look at the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference heading into the 2013-14 season.
Kelowna Rockets (Last Season: 52-16-3-1; 1st in B.C. Division)
While it may be difficult to match the 52 victories achieved last season, the Rockets are considered a top contender in the WHL's Western Conference this season.
Up front, the Rockets have Ryan Olsen (WPG) back for his second full season in Kelowna, along with pesky forwards Tyson Baillie and Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI). Myles Bell (NJD) has returned, which makes the 20-year-old situation somewhat murky as Zach Franko also remains with the club. Rourke Chartier (2013) was the team’s rookie of the year last season and should continue to improve.
The Rockets blueline brigade is deep and skilled. Damon Severson (NJD) should return to lead the backend along with Madison Bowey (WAS), Mitchell Wheaton (DET) and Jesse Lees. Hulking MacKenzie Johnston is also back as a 20-year-old.
In goal, over-ager Jordan Cooke is back with Jackson Whistle looking to push hard early for the starting job.
Kamloops Blazers (Last Season: 47-20-2-3; 2nd in B.C. Division)
With import forward Tim Bozon (MTL) returning, he will likely be considered the go-to-guy offensively in Kamloops. The new guard up front will include Cole Ully (DAL), a consistent performer who has played behind top-end talent over the past two seasons. Should Matt Needham stay healthy, he is capable of producing at a higher level this year, his second with the Blazers. Feisty Chase Souto is a veteran who may be on the verge of producing break out-type numbers.
The biggest off-season news aside from graduations surrounds the deal that saw veteran goalie Cole Cheveldave jettisoned to the Prince Albert Raiders. Taran Kozun, who appeared in 20 games last season, takes over as the number one.
On the backend, Jordan Thomson, Ryan Rehill and Josh Connolly return, but steady 20-year-old Sam Grist will anchor the troops. The departure of 19-year-old Tyler Hansen (missionary work) and Joel Edmundson (STL) will leave a couple of large holes to fill.
Victoria Royals (Last Season: 35-30-2-5; 3rd in B.C. Division)
The Royals have veteran forwards returning this season, a group that should provide consistent scoring. Steven Hodges (FLA), Brandon Magee, Ben Walker and Logan Nelson (BUF) are capable of producing collectively to replace the offense provided by Alex Gogolev and Jamie Crooks last season. Austin Carroll supplies grit and finesse, a combination that could help the likes of 16-year-old Tyler Soy to find his way in his rookie season.
On defense, Keegan Kanzig (CGY) returns along with Brett Cote, who led the blueliners in scoring last season. All eyes will be on Joe Hicketts (2014) this season, a diminutive rearguard who has already made his presence felt on the international scene through Hockey Canada programs. The backend appears deep enough at this point that second-year player Jack Walker has been moved up front to bolster the forward group.
The Royals look solid in goal, returning both Patrik Polivka and Coleman Vollrath. Polivka will be the number one to start the season.
Prince George Cougars (Last Season: 21-43-2-6; 4th in B.C. Division)
Troy Bourke (COL) and Zach Pochiro (STL) return as drafted leaders up front in Prince George. Jari Ericcson, who came over from the Everett Silvertips last year, will also play a bigger role this season.
The return of Alex Forsberg will be watched closely. Forsberg, highly–touted last season in his draft year, disappeared at mid-season after a disagreement with the Cougars. The Cats were unable to trade him, so he left the team and toiled in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Come NHL Draft day in June, there were no takers.
The Cats will need all of the scoring by committee they can muster, as new head coach Mark Holick will be working with a very young group on the backend. Mark McNulty (DET) showed promise last season and will get much needed support from newly acquired 20-year-old Peter Kosterman, who comes over from the Calgary Hitmen.
In goal, Brett Zawrony will get the nod out of the gate, although his WHL resume to date consists of only 31 appearances.
Vancouver Giants (Last Season: 21-49-2-0; 5th in B.C. Division)
The Giants will look to improve after what has to be considered a tough rebuilding campaign last season. Cain Franson and Jackson Houck (EDM) are the top offensive threats, while Carter Popoff will get a long look in key roles this season.
The Giants strength looks to be along the blueline should some veterans return from pro camps. Brett Kulak (CGY) is expected to return, guaranteeing some consistency and power play expertise. Dalton Thrower (MTL) was acquired from the Saskatoon Blades during the off-season and Mason Geertsen (COL) should improve in an expanded role this season. The Giants used the first overall pick in the CHL Import Draft to select Russian defenseman Dmitry Osipov. Scouts will also be closely watching draft-eligible rearguard Arvin Atwal this season.
The goaltending carousel has not stopped spinning since reliable Tyson Sexsmith left a few years ago. For now, with Payton Lee (2014) and Jared Rathjen the tandem out of the gate, one of the two will have to establish himself early or look for general manager Scott Bonner to make an early move.
Portland Winterhawks (Last Season: 57-12-1-2; 1st in U.S. Division)
The Winterhawks reached the Memorial Cup tournament final game last season, and look to be a contender again this season.
Linemates Brandon Leipsic (NAS) and Nic Petan (WPG), tied atop the WHL scoring derby last season with 120 points each, are expected to return, although Leipsec is signed by the Predators. Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) will play a larger role this season while Chase De Leo (2014), Keegan Iverson (2014) and Dominic Turgeon (2014) will also see their roles expand this season.
Veteran Shane McColgan, who played for the host Saskatoon Blades in the Memorial Cup and also went unsigned by the New York Rangers, was acquired during the off-season and should supply secondary scoring.
Veterans Ty Wotherspoon (CGY) and Troy Rutkowski (OTT) are gone, while Seth Jones (NAS) is not expected back. Derek Pouliot, who was selected in the first round, eighth overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2012 NHL Draft, is back as the Winterhawks premiere rearguard. Josh Hanson and Layne Viveiros will have to step up this season
Spokane Chiefs (Last Season: 44-26-2-0; 2nd in U.S. Division)
Spokane probably did not meet offensive production goals last season, but still graduated some talented scorers. The veteran presence of top scoring forwards Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani will help this year. Liam Stewart and Connor Chartier return, and will be looked upon to increase their production.
The biggest hole to fill concerns the departure of Brendan Kichton, who went unsigned by the New York Islanders but was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in June. He led the WHL in scoring among defensemen the last three consecutive seasons.
There is no heir apparent in Spokane at this point, and the Chiefs also lost veteran Tanner Mort to retirement. Reid Gow will provide veteran presence, but the remainder of the blueline brigade is still developing.
Goaltending is in the hands of 20-year-old Eric Williams and 18-year-old Garret Hughson. Many possibilities exist here, especially if Hughson can establish himself early. Williams could become a valuable trading commodity.
Tri City Americans (Last Season: 40-27-2-3; 3rd in U.S. Division)
The Amerks will be young up front with Connor Rankin looked upon to lead the way after a 58-point performance last season.
Among those expected to establish themselves early are youngsters Ty Comrie and Parker Bowles. Brian Williams brings experience to the mix, but has not been a consistent offensive producer thus far in his WHL career. Forwards Justin Gutierrez (2014), Tyler Vickerman (2014) and Justin Marreck (2014) will want to make an impact this season.
Veterans Zach Yuen, Mitch Topping, Justin Hamonic and Michal Plutnar bring depth and experience to the backend. Yuen, who went unsigned by the Winnipeg Jets and is getting a look from the Toronto Maple Leafs, collected 45 points last season and will be a player to watch if he returns and performs with a chip on his shoulder.
Behind the group on the blueline, Eric Comrie (WPG) will look to bounce back from a frustrating campaign last year, one that ended with hip surgery near mid-season.
Seattle Thunderbirds (Last Season: 24-38-7-3; 4th in U.S. Division)
The Thunderbirds should be a much-improved hockey team this season, returning the bulk of their top-scoring forwards.
Seattle may have iced the top import forward tandem in the WHL last season in Robert Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov. Both are returning this year. Connor Honey was a consistent offensive threat last season. A healthy and productive Branden Trook (DAL) can be an impact player, while Justin Hickman should continue to improve. Mathew Barzal is only 16, but is highly-regarded as the first overall pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft. Eric Benoit, 20, has been claimed off waivers from Saskatoon. He was a member of the WHL Champion Kootenay Ice two years ago.
Defenseman Shea Theodore (ANA) will be back, providing offense from the backend. Last year, Seattle possessed perhaps the biggest group in the WHL along the blueline, and with a season of collective experience under their belts, the troops may make life miserable for opponents entering the defending zone. Veteran Evan Wardley can score, while Jerad Hauf (2014) and Austin Douglas both check in at about 6’6.
Between the pipes, American Danny Mumaugh appears to have gotten the nod as the number one goalie, while Justin Myles will provide some push as he endeavors to establish himself after eight appearances last season.
Everett Silvertips (Last Season: 25-40-3-4; 5th in U.S. Division)
A couple of significant changes have occurred in Everett where Kevin Constantine has returned as bench boss. And, for the first time in many years, there will be little discussion about the potential impact of defenseman Ryan Murray (CBJ).
The Silvertips struggled to score last season, but their top scoring forward is returning in 20-year-old Josh Winquist. Tyler Sandhu (2014), Reid Petryk and Cole Bauml have offensive skills. The Silvertips also have a pair of imports they hope will develop in Ivan Nikolishin (2014) and Walterri Hopponen (2014).
On the backend, Swiss-born Mirco Mueller (SJS) is expected back, which will muddle the import situation to some degree. Matt Pufhal has come over from the Saskatoon Blades and as a 20-year-old, should log plenty of minutes.
There appears to be depth in goal as the Silvertips return Austin Lotz and Daniel Cotton. Surprisingly, Lotz was overlooked at the NHL Draft, but a heavy workload this season should garner continued attention from pro scouts.