Here’s a look at the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference heading into the 2013-14 season.
Saskatoon Blades (Last Season: 44-22-2-4; 1st in East Division)
A complete rebuild would seem accurate these days in Saskatoon as the organization enters its 50th year in the WHL. The off-season included significant change, as new ownership is now in place. In recent years, the team has traded high draft picks for veteran relief, none of which has resulted in much post-season success on the ice. Having hosted the most recent Memorial Cup tournament, it will be some time before the team threatens to earn another berth in the national championship event.
Gone are the likes of Josh Nichols (NYR), Michael Ferland (CGY), Matej Stransky (DAL) and Lukas Sutter (WPG), along with 20-year-old Dalton Thrower (MTL). Overage forward Shane McColgan was traded to Portland, while defenseman Matt Pufhal will occupy a 20-year-old spot in Seattle. The retooling in Saskatoon will be centered around forward Brett Stovin, Matt Revel and Nick Zajac. Veterans Nathan Burns and Colin Valcourt will be hard pressed to carry the leadership load this season.
On the backend, Graeme Craig returns, while youngster Nelson Nogier (2014) will see his role expanded. Ayrton Nikkel, originally a Blades bantam draft pick, has returned to Saskatoon after stints in Brandon and Everett. The blueline brigade will set up in front of Alex Moodie, who takes over from outstanding import goalie Andrey Makarov (BUF). All told, the Blades have many holes to fill.
Prince Albert Raiders (Last Season: 37-28-3-4; 2nd in East Division)
The Raiders will again challenge for top spot in the East Division, and perhaps the Eastern Conference as well, even with the departure of veteran forward Mark McNeill (CHI).
Left behind to orchestrate the rise to WHL success are Mike Winter (DAL) and Leon Draisaitl (2014), a pair of forwards who enjoyed breakout campaigns last season. Draisaitl, from Germany, will garner the attention of NHL scouts throughout the current season. Veteran Dakota Conroy is also back to supply offense, along with second-year forward Reid Gardiner.
On defense, Josh Morrissey (WPG) leads the way at both ends of the ice, although the Raiders may find that the Calgary native could miss some regular season hockey due to the likelihood that Hockey Canada may come calling. Prince Albert can rely on Evan Morden and Dylan Busenius this season, a pair of 20-year-olds that know the league well.
In goal, the Raiders acquired 20-year-old Cole Cheveldave from the Kamloops Blazers during the off-season. He’s been a workhorse throughout his WHL career and should stabilize the backend in Prince Albert.
Swift Current Broncos (Last Season: 36-29-3-4; 3rd in East Division)
With the graduation of WHL Player of the Year Adam Lowry (WPG), the offensive workload in Speedy Creek will fall primarily to the capable hands of Coda Gordon (CGY) and Graham Black (NJD). Jay Merkley is back for his first full season with the Broncos and will provide secondary scoring. Colby Cave is also expected to contribute consistently this season.
On defense, Reece Scarlett (NJD) has graduated, leaving the Broncos to sport youth behind veteran Dillon Hetherington (CBJ). Brycen Martin (2014) enjoyed a productive rookie season last year and import rearguard Julius Honka (2014) from Finland has already made an impression, collecting WHL Player of the Week honors with six points in his first two games.
The Finnish impact in Swift Current also comes in the form of Eetu Laurakainen, a 20-year-old goaltender who brings a veteran presence to the Broncos’ backend.
Moose Jaw Warriors (Last Season: 25-36-4-7; 4th in East Division)
The Warriors return plenty of depth up front this season, but the bigger questions surround the blueline corps. Forward Brayden Point (2014) led the WHL in scoring last season among 16-years-olds and is already on the NHL radar. Veterans Sam Fioretti, Tanner Eberle and newly acquired Todd Fiddler from Spokane are all capable WHL scorers.
Should Morgan Rielly (TOR) stick with the Maple Leafs, his absence will be difficult to fill. Veteran Kendall McFaull has graduated, which makes room for the likes of Travis Brown (CHI) to handle even more work than he did last season. Tyler Bell and Kirk Johnson will also see plenty of ice time this season.
In goal, Justin Paulic is the number one, returning to the fold after appearing in 57 games last season. Backup duties appear to be the responsibility of 16-year-old Zach Sawchenko.
Regina Pats (Last Season: 25-38-4-5; 5th in East Division)
A young Regina team will probably stay a few steps ahead of Saskatoon this season, but the group will be in tough as far as nailing down a playoff spot in 2013-14.
Forward Morgan Klimchuk (CGY) has not been entirely healthy of late, missing an opportunity to attend his first pro camp. However, the Calgary Flames 2013 first round pick is expected to continue his offensive production in Regina this season. Additional offensive support will come from Chandler Stephenson (WAS). Long-time team members Trent Oullette and defenseman Luke Fenske, who competed to earn spots on the roster as 20-year-olds, have been released. Dylan Stevenson is back in the fold and will be looked upon to provide leadership.
With Fenske gone, Kyle Burroughs (NYI) looks to be the leader on the backend, while the Pats hope Russian import Dmitry Sinistyn (DAL) can provide immediate relief at both ends of the ice. Hometown boy Colby Williams is back for another season in Regina.
Between the pipes, the Pats tandem of Tegan Sacher and Dawson MacAuley both check in at 19 years of age, but they are very thin on WHL experience.
Brandon Wheat Kings (Last Season: 24-40-4-4; 6th in East Division)
After a challenging season, the Wheat Kings return many of the forward group that struggled to cut their teeth in the WHL last year.
With Tim McGauley and Jayce Hawryluk (2014) returning, the Wheaties will rely on the pair for consistency production. Look for Edmonton-born Taylor Cooper (2014) to flourish this season. He’s a young forward who spent much of his minor hockey career filling the nets throughout northern Alberta. It is also hoped that the pair of imports in Brandon, either Czech-born Richard Nejezchleb or Latvian Rihards Bukarts (2014), might establish some offensive presence.
On the backend, Ryan Pulock (NYI) and Eric Roy (CGY) should shoulder the workload in all situations. With veteran Nick Walters (STL) back in the mix and Rene Hunter filling a 20-year-old spot, there is plenty of veteran leadership in Brandon.
Between the pipes, Curtis Honey appears to be the go-to-guy, while back up Jordan Papirny should give him a pretty good push this season.
Edmonton Oil Kings (Last Season: 51-15-2-4; 1st in Central Division)
The Oil Kings have enjoyed tremendous success over the past two seasons, and the current lineup looks capable of maintaining that very high standard. If there are any concerns, replacing the scoring of Michael St. Croix (NYR) and Dylan Wruck might be a paramount concern.
With Curtis Lazar (OTT) and Henrik Samuelsson (PHX) back this season, there is offensive punch up front, though both players can aptly be described as power forwards. Edmonton has had some success in attracting productive imports and will look to Latvian Edgars Kulda to improve on a 17-point campaign last season. Mads Eller is new to the mix, coming over from Denmark.
Should Griffin Reinhart (NYI) return, he could instantly become the most dominant rearguard in the WHL. Dysin Mayo (2014) will attract the attention of NHL scouts this season, while veterans Cody Corbett and Ashton Sautner ensure experience and leadership will be present. Youngsters will have to emerge this season in an effort to replace the big minutes logged in recent years by Keegan Lowe (CAR), David Musil (EDM) and Martin Gernat (EDM).
All told, the Oil Kings look to be an upper echelon team again this season, although the gap between Edmonton and other Eastern Conference teams appears to be narrowing.
Calgary Hitmen (Last Season: 46-21-1-4; 2nd in Central Division)
A very good Calgary team last season graduated some key players in Victor Rask (CAR) and Brooks Macek, along with productive over-ager Cody Sylvester. Brady Brassart enters his fifth full season in the WHL and is the highest scoring returnee this season. He will shoulder much of the offensive load along with veterans Greg Chase (EDM) and Zane Jones. After a solid rookie season, Jake Virtanen (2014) will be a player to watch during his draft year. It remains to be seen as to how much impact imports Pavel Padakin, in his second season, and new arrival Radel Fazleyev (2014), will have with the Hitmen.
On defense, a trio of veterans is back including Jaynen Rissling (WAS), Jesse Zgraggen and Kenton Helgesen (ANA). Gone via the trade route to the Prince George Cougars is 20-year-old Peter Kosterman, which makes some room for youngsters Colby Harmsworth and Josh Thrower.
With Chris Driedger (OTT) back in goal, the Hitmen possess one of the top netminders in the WHL. Mack Shields will be back as the number two goalie.
Red Deer Rebels (Last Season: 39-26-5-2; 3rd in Central Division)
The Rebels rode a second half run to the playoffs last season, a streak of solid play that should carry over into this season. Sound defensively from the goal forward, Red Deer will also be a team followed throughout the season by NHL scouts.
Up front, Red Deer returns import forward Dominic Volek, along with a pair of key 20-year-olds in Lukas Sutter (WPG) and Rhyse Dieno. Connor Bleackley (2014) is young, but looks ready to fill a power forward role.
On the backend, should Mathew Dumba (MIN) return, the Rebels will ice a savvy veteran capable of dominating in all situations. The group may very well be among the biggest in the WHL, with veterans Brady Gaudet and Kayle Doetzel returning. But all eyes will be on the anticipated development of Haydn Fleury (2014). There is a healthy mix of veterans in Red Deer, with room for youngsters to emerge.
In goal, Patrik Bartosak (LA) returns. All the Czech import did last season was stonewall opponents in shootout situations, while collecting the 2013 CHL Goaltender of the Year award.
Medicine Hat Tigers (Last Season: 36-33-2-1; 4th in Central Division)
The emergence last season of Hunter Shinkaruk (VAN) as a star in the WHL gives some hope to the team’s fortunes this season. With Shinkaruk in the fold, the forward group is quite deep. Add returnee Curtis Valk, the Tigers leading scorer last season, and there are explosive offensive skills for opponents to contend with. Logan McVeigh, now with his third WHL team, and Miles Koules are also back to play larger roles. Boston Leier, 20, adds experience and leadership up front.
Import goaltender Marek Langhamer (PHX) is the number one in Medicine Hat this year. The Tigers traded with the Moose Jaw Warriors for Daniel Wapple, who gives the team a solid backup.
Kootenay Ice (Last Season: 35-35-2-0; 5th in Central Division)
The Ice has made a habit of qualifying for the post-season, which has occasionally confounded prognosticators over the past decade. This season in Cranbrook, fans will be treated to a high-octane top line of forwards, but beyond that, the scoring punch appears to drop off significantly.
Sam Reinhart (2014) enters his third season with the Ice and is destined to be mentioned all season among the top prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft. With Luke Philp and Jaedon Descheneau back, there is potential for some excitement up front. Beyond the top three, the likes of Collin Shirley and Kyle O’Connor will have to add secondary scoring.
Jagger Dirk is the veteran rearguard in Cranbrook, surrounded by a group of youngsters that will have to find their way early to keep Kootenay competitive. Matt Thomas and Tanner Faith (2014) should become key performers this season.
In goal MacKenzie Skapski (NYR) shouldered the workload last season with 65 appearances and looks to be in line for a similar campaign.
Lethbridge Hurricanes (Last Season: 28-34-3-7; 6th in Central Division)
A number of veteran forwards are returning to Lethbridge, perhaps with chips on their shoulders after missing the WHL playoffs last year. The likes of Jaimen Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie, Jamal Watson, Brady Ramsay and Russell Maxwell are back to elevate the Hurricanes performance on a team with most of its experience and leadership up front.
On defense, the Hurricanes will be young and energetic. Ryan Pilon (2015) and Macoy Erkamps will anchor the crew in front of 20-year-old goalie Corbin Boes, who played in Brandon last season. Pilon, along with forward Reid Duke (2014), are high bantam drafts picks the organization acquired due to some challenging seasons of late. The Hurricanes will be looking to this pair for breakout-type performances.
The big news during the past off-season involved the hiring of former NHL defenseman Drake Berehowsky as the new head coach.