Outlook on the 2008-09 WHL season

By Glen Erickson

As is the case every year in late September, Western Hockey League teams are playing regular season games amid the usual roster uncertainty.

Signed, sealed, but yet to deliver

With 115 junior eligible players attending NHL camps, every team in the league will be affected. In some cases, teams could play more than a dozen games before the immediate destiny of their key players is determined. Of the 115 players at pro camps, a total of 35 have signed NHL contracts.

Perhaps hit hardest at this point are the Calgary Hitmen, an organization that stands to lose significant top-end talent. Veteran forward Ryan White and defenseman Karl Alzner are unlikely to return to junior as both have been signed by their NHL clubs. Forward T.J. Galiardi has also been signed. And Alex Plante (EDM), who missed the majority of last season due to injuries, has asked to be traded. Alzner and Plante were first round picks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

The Moose Jaw Warriors might also be holding their breath, especially in terms of the blueline corps. Both Keaton Ellerby and Ty Wishart are 2007 first rounders that have signed pro contracts. Wishart, drafted by San Jose, is now property of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Should they earn jobs in professional hockey, the Warriors lose their top two defensemen. Forward Riley Holzapfel is also moving on to the pro ranks.

The complexion of the Seattle Thunderbirds could change dramatically if four key players do not return. Goaltender Riku Helenius, defenseman Thomas Hickey and forwards Greg Scott and Jim O’Brien have all been signed by their respective NHL teams. Scott, undrafted, signed a three-year deal with Toronto last spring.

The Vancouver Giants lead the WHL with four 2007 NHL draft picks at pro camps with signed contracts. Defenseman Jonathan Blum, forwards Spencer Machacek, Michal Repik, and goaltender Tyson Sexsmith would be integral components in Vancouver if the Giants have championship aspirations. Blum and Sexsmith are expected to return to junior.

The list of signed first rounders at pro camps also includes defensemen Colten Teubert and Nick Ross. Among forwards are Brandon Sutter, Colton Gillies and Zach Hamill. The lone goaltender is Chet Pickard.

Gillies, Hickey, Pickard, Ross and Teubert are likely to get a long look from Hockey Canada in December when the calls come to attend tryouts for Team Canada’s entry at the 2009 WJC.

Pursuing pro contracts

There are a number of players selected last June at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft who have yet to sign pro contracts. The list of WHLers selected in the first round is impressive, though the smart money suggests they are all likely to return to junior this season.

Luke Schenn, selected fifth overall by Toronto and Tyler Myers, selected 12th overall by the Buffalo Sabres are likely to rejoin the Kelowna Rockets, a team expected to challenge for the league title this year. Seven other Rockets are auditioning at NHL camps this month.

Forward Kyle Beach, selected 11th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, is expected back with the Everett Silvertips this season. The Lethbridge Hurricanes are hoping forward Zach Boychuk, selected 14th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, and defenseman Luca Sbisa, selected 19th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, will return for at least one more WHL season.

Forward Jordan Eberle, selected 22nd by the Edmonton Oilers, is expected back with the Regina Pats, while Tyler Ennis, selected 26th by the Buffalo Sabres, is likely to return to the Medicine Hat Tigers.

WHL players signed (37)

Eastern Conference – Central Division

Karl Alzner, Calgary Hitmen (WAS, 2007)
T.J. Galiardi, Calgary Hitmen (COL, 2007)
Ryan White, Calgary Hitmen (MTL, 2006)
Robin Figren, Edmonton Oil Kings (NYI, 2006)
Ben Maxwell, Kootenay Ice (MTL, 2006)
John Negrin, Kootenay Ice (CGY, 2007)
Jordan Bendfeld, Medicine Hat Tigers (EDM, 2008)
Tomas Kundratek, Medicine Hat Tiogers (NYR, 2008)
James Reimer, Red Deer Rebels (TOR, 2006)
Brandon Sutter, Red Deer Rebels (CAR, 2007)

Eastern Conference – East Division

Keaton Ellerby, Moose Jaw Warriors (FLA, 2007)
Riley Holzapfel, Moose Jaw Warriors (ATL, 2006)
Ty Wishart, Moose Jaw Warriors (SJ, 2007; now with TB)
Logan Pyett, Regina Pats (DET, 2006)
Colten Teubert, Regina Pats (LA, 2008)
Colton Gillies, Saskatoon Blades (MIN, 2007)
Garett Klotz, Saskatoon Blades (PHI, 2007)
Levi Nelson, Swift Current Broncos (BOS, 2006)
Zack Smith, Swift Current Broncos (OTT, 2008)

Western Conference – U.S. Division

Thomas Hickey, Seattle Thunderbirds (LA, 2007)
Riku Helenius, Seattle Thunderbirds (TB, 2006)
Jim O’Brien, Seattle Thunderbirds (OTT, 2007)
Greg Scott, Seattle Thunderbirds (TOR, F/A 2008)
Drayson Bowman, Spokane Chiefs (CAR, 2007)
Zach Hamill, Everett Silvertips (BOS, 2007)
Chet Pickard, Tri City Americans (NAS, 2008)

Western Conference – B.C. Division

Jonathan Blum, Vancouver Giants (NAS, 2007)
Spencer Machacek, Vancouver Giants (ATL, 2007)
Michal Repik, Vancouver Giants (FLA, 2007)
Tyson Sexsmith, Vancouver Giants (SJ, 2007)
Oscar Moller, Chilliwack Bruins (LA, 2007)
Mark Santorelli, Chilliwack Bruins (NAS, 2007)
Brady Calla, Kamloops Blazers, (FLA, 2006)
Nick Ross, Kamloops Blazers (PHX, 2007)
Jamie Benn, Kelowna Rockets (DAL, 2007)

Pre-season team rankings

The WHL office in Calgary has also released the results of its pre-season poll, compiled through the Western Major Junior Hockey Writers Association. The return or absence of key players will play a major role along the road to the WHL Championship.

1. Spokane Chiefs
2. Kelowna Rockets
3. Lethbridge Hurricanes
4. Brandon Wheat Kings
5. Tri-City Americans
6. Vancouver Giants
7. Medicine Hat Tigers
8. Seattle Thunderbirds
9. Calgary Hitmen
10. Regina Pats

11. Swift Current Broncos
12. Saskatoon Blades
13. Kamloops Blazers
14. Moose Jaw Warriors
15. Prince George Cougars
16. Kootenay Ice
17. Prince Albert Raiders
18. Everett Silvertips
19. Chilliwack Bruins
20. Edmonton Oil Kings
21. Red Deer Rebels
22. Portland Winter Hawks

In memory of Ed Chynoweth

Ron Robison, Commissioner of the Western Hockey League has announced that the WHL 2008-09 season will be dedicated in the honor of Ed Chynoweth, who passed away in April, 2008.

A special tribute involving members of the Chynoweth family will take place prior to the season opening game between the Spokane Chiefs and the Kootenay Ice on September 18th.

Ed Chynoweth was the principle builder of major junior hockey in Canada as President of the WHL and CHL over the past four decades. Throughout the season all players and officials helmets will display a decal with Ed’s initials, EC.