2010-11 WHL Eastern Conference Preview

By Glen Erickson

Here’s a look at the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference heading into the 2010-2011 season. A number of teams appear ready to employ 20-year-old goaltenders, however, this could all change at the October 14 deadline when teams must name their three 20-year-olds.

East Division

Brandon Wheat Kings (Last Season: 50-18-1-3; 1st in East Division)
Key Grads: Matt Calvert, Travis Hamonic, Brent Raedeke, Colby Robak
Key Returnees: Scott Glennie, Brody Melnychuk, Mark Schneider, Mark Stone, Shayne Wiebe, Jacob DeSerres

One of the challenges facing the Wheat Kings this season is maintaining roster depth after a season where planning for an automatic Memorial Cup berth means bolstering the group with capable veterans.

The return of forward Scott Glennie should help at both ends of the rink, and if the Los Angeles Kings return Brayden Schenn to Brandon, their combined offensive efforts will be tremendously valuable. The Wheaties have David Toews in the mix, a 20-year-old who returns to junior hockey after attending the University of North Dakota. However, this is a season where the production by youngsters will be very important.

There is some experience returning on the backend, starting in goal with 20-year-old DeSerres. With Melnychuk and Schneider back in the fold, there is also room on the blue line for an emerging 17- or 18-year-old.

Saskatoon Blades (Last Season: 46-19-3-4; 2nd in East Division)
Key Grads: Derek Hulak, Walker Wintoneak
Key Returnees: Darian Dzuirzynski, Stefan Elliott, Curt Gogol, Curtis Hamilton, Josh Nicholls, Duncan Siemens, Marek Viedensky, Teigan Zahn

The Blades have been among the best teams in the WHL for the past two regular seasons, only to disappoint in the playoffs. There is depth is Saskatoon this season, which should keep the group among the upper-echelon again.

A healthy Hamilton will be important this year as the offensive production by Hulak and Wintoneak will have to be replaced. There are forwards that have grown into experienced WHLers, players like Nicholls and Dzuirzynski, who will also have to improve their offensive contributions. Curt Gogol, who has signed with the San Jose Sharks, is also ready to increase his offensive output. The departure of gritty forward Charles Inglis to Prince George has also created some room for a youngster to earn a roster spot.

Siemens, a second-year defenseman, is in his draft year and will be looked upon to emerge this season at both ends of the ice. With veterans Elliott and Zahn back this year, there should be plenty of calming influence among the rearguards in Saskatoon. Between the pipes, the Blades are solid with 20-year-old Steven Stanford and 19-year-old Adam Morrison. Look for each to play plenty of hockey early on as it is conceivable the Blades would be willing to showcase and then part with one or the other if the price is right.

Swift Current Broncos (Last Season: 37-30-1-4; 3rd in East Division)
Key Grads: Travis Bobbee, Morgan Clark
Key Returnees: Justin Dowling, Cody Eakin, Kyle Verdino, Stepan Novotny
The Broncos are poised to make a push for the East Division crown this season with a significant number of skaters back in the mix. Swift Current iced one of the WHL’s top penalty-killing units last season and the current group should also fill opposition nets this season with the bulk of its top offensive contributors returning.

Eakin, who is fresh off an American Hockey League championship, headlines the forward group. Eakin is also likely to make the grade this season with Canada’s National Junior Team for the 2011 WJC in Buffalo. The depth also includes Novotny, an import who came over last season from the Kelowna Rockets. Dowling will fill a 20-year-old spot this season.

Another 20-year-old spot will likely be filled by goaltender Mark Friesen. In front of Friesen, Verdino and Graeme Craig, Jordan Evans and Joel Rogers bring extensive WHL experience to the defensive side of the game. If the Broncos can extract some additional offense from the blueline corps, they will certainly push hard for a deep playoff run.

Moose Jaw Warriors (Last Season: 33-27-5-7; 4th in East Division)
Key Grads: Jason Bast, Jeff Bosch
Key Returnees: Dallas Ehrhardt, Tom Frazee, Antonin Honejsek, Quinton Howden, Kendall McFaull, Dylan McIlrath

Moose Jaw made a pair of off-season acquisitions that have immediately elevated the Warriors to contender status in the Eastern Conference. The top goaltender in the WHL last season, Thomas Heemskerk, came over in a deal with the Everett Silvertips, while defenseman Collin Bowman arrived from the Kelowna Rockets. Both should have an impact.

Bowman joins a deep back end with stalwarts McIlrath, Ehrhardt and McFaull. Up front, replacing the point-per-game contribution from the departed Jason Bast will fall primarily on Howden and Honesjek. Contributions from emerging youngsters will play a pivotal role in the Warriors success this season.

Prince Albert Raiders (Last Season: 32-35-3-2; 5th in East Division)
Key Grads: Dustin Cameron, Ryan Harrison, Garrett Zemlack
Key Returnees: Brandon Herrod, Justin Maylan, Mark McNeill, Igor Revenko, Jordan Rowley,

Revenko and Herrod will be the offensive keys in Prince Albert this season as the Raiders chase a playoff spot. The departure of veteran Ryan Harrison to Medicine Hat means someone will have to pick up the slack, Mark McNeil, playing in his draft year, has looked good alongside Revenko and Herrod so far this season. One player who should benefit from an increased role is forward Justin Maylan, who came over from the Prince George Cougars a couple of seasons ago.

With Jordan Rowley and Nathan Deck back on the blue line, there is experience among the pair who know the league well. They will spend plenty of time playing against their opponent’s top forward combinations. Ryan Button is also back in the mix, but the Raiders will have to hope that another reliable rearguard will emerge from the remaining group. In goal, former Vancouver Giants keeper Jamie Tucker will carry the load.

Regina Pats (Last Season: 30-35-3-4; 6th in East Division)
Key Grads: Jordan Eberle, Colten Teubert
Key Returnees: Carter Ashton, Brandon Davidson, Garrett Mitchell, Jordan Weal

Replacing Jordan Eberle will be virtually impossible, but Weal may be poised to continue making an impact in the WHL, although he’ll see more of the Pats opponent’s top checkers than he has in the past. Ashton was very good with Tampa Bay during the pre-season and will also be an important cog as the Pats seek a post-season berth. The Pats will also need an improved contribution from Mitchell.

Davidson was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and should further establish his skill set among the East Division’s upper echelon defensemen. A young group on the blueline this season will mean plenty of minutes for Davidson and also plenty of work for the goaltending tandem of Damien Ketlo and Dawson Guhle.

Central Division

Calgary Hitmen (Last Season: 52-17-1-2; 1st in Central Division)
Key Grads: Joel Broda, Brandon Kozun, Martin Jones, Giffen Nyren, Tyler Shattock
Key Returnees: Cody Beach, Jimmy Bubnick, Kristopher Foucault, Matt McKenzie, Zak Stebner, Cody Sylvester

The good news is the Calgary Hitmen represented the WHL at the 2010 Memorial Cup. The bad news is a core of veteran contributors have graduated. Subsequently, the upside for the current group of returnees is the reality that there are plenty of minutes up for grabs due to the departure of Broda, Kozun and Jones. The returnees have been beneficiaries of deep playoff runs during the past two seasons, gaining experience that will be crucial this season as the team appears to be re-tooling. And for the record, last season the Hitmen iced the WHL’s top power play and were also the top penalty-killing team in the league.

Bubnick is back from the Atlanta Thrashers and will have to add to his offensive numbers from last year. Sylvester and Beach will play bigger roles this season, bringing grit and offensive skills that make them tough to play against. Foucault has great hands. McKenzie and Stebner are returning vets on the blue line and will see plenty of ice time against top forwards across the league. For goaltender Michael Snider, who was terrific in a backup role to Jones last season, the current edition of the Hitmen are his to lead.

Kootenay Ice (Last Season: 43-24-3-2; 2nd in Central Division)
Key Grads: Dustin Sylvester
Key Returnees: Brayden McNabb, Steele Boomer, Max Reinhart, Hayden Rintoul

Perhaps the biggest off-season departure from Cranbrook was that of 2010 WHL Coach of the Year Mark Holick to the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch. In addition, top scorer Dustin Sylvester has graduated from junior hockey.

The Buffalo Sabres have returned defenseman Brayden McNabb to the Ice, while Boomer and Reinhart are among the up and coming forwards. Last season, the Ice saw half-a-dozen skaters register at least 20 goals. With this offensive depth and a core group of veterans on the blue line, the Ice should challenge again for the Central Division crown.

A total of eight players who enjoyed NHL training camp experiences are back in the Kootenays this season. In addition to Boomer, Reinhart and McNabb, Drew Czerwonka, Matt Fraser, Kevin King, Joey Leach and Hayden Rintoul make up a veteran group. Behind them, the goaltending also looks strong with 20-year-old Todd Matthews returning. He appeared in 55 games last season. However, 19-year-old Nathan Lieuwen is also ready for more playing time. The depth in goal may enable the Ice to further strengthen its roster via the trade route.

Medicine Hat Tigers (Last Season: 41-23-3-5; 3rd in Central Division)
Key Grads: Bretton Cameron, Joey Frazer, Mark Isherwood, Thomas Kundratek
Key Returnees: Tyler Bunz, Jace Coyle, Emerson Etem, Wacey Hamilton, Ryan Harrison, Linden Vey

The Tigers have also seen a head coach graduate to professional hockey as Willie Desjardins has joined the Dallas Stars. The 20-year-old Frazer, is also gone as a player but remains with the team as an assistant coach.

Medicine Hat should be able to maintain its high-octane offense from last season with Etem, Vey and Hamilton among the forward group. Etem, from the Los Angeles area, was drafted in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. A new addition is Tyler Pitlick, one of an increasing number of players arriving in the WHL after playing NCAA hockey. Pitlick is expected to add additional offense in Medicine Hat while he develops as an Edmonton Oilers prospect. Another Oilers prospect is goaltender Tyler Bunz, who told Hockey’s Future last month that he is prepared to play over 60 games this season.

With Isherwood gone, the likes of Jace Coyle and Matt Konan will be left to continue Medicine Hat’s long tradition of developing elite rearguards.

Red Deer Rebels (Last Season: 39-28-0-5; 4th in Central Division)
Key Grads: Jordie Deagle
Key Returnees: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Andrej Kudrna, Darcy Kuemper, Alexander Petrovic, Justin Weller

The Rebels turned a corner last season when they qualified for the post-season after a three-year absence. With Petrovic and Nugent-Hopkins establishing themselves as upper-echelon talent in the WHL, the future looks bright in Red Deer. All eyes will be on Nugent-Hopkins, touted as a potential top pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The Vancouver-area native collected nearly a point per game in his rookie campaign last year.

Add in a few veterans like Kudrna, Weller and Kuemper, and the Rebels are equipped to move up in the Eastern Conference standings this season. The acquisition of Byron Froese from Everett last season guarantees veteran presence. Should Coetzee return from the Detroit Red Wings system, the depth up front becomes significantly better. Look for a youngster from the Calgary Edge Mountaineers program, Matt Dumba, to establish himself as a capable rookie on the backend.

Lethbridge Hurricanes (Last Season: 20-44-5-3; 5th in Central Division)

Key Grads: Carter Bancks, Linden Rowat
Key Returnees: Brandon Anderson, Cam Braes, Mitch Maxwell, Brody Sutter, Mike Reddington

The Hurricanes struggled to score last season and appeared to dismantle the group over the course of the season through a few trades. With Braes and Maxwell returning, there is some hope for improved offense. Returnees Austin Fyten and Jacob Berglund will be given opportunities to broaden their roles.

There is strength on the blue line as the ‘Canes return half-a-dozen rearguards. Reddington headlines the group now after Brendan Yadlowski’s departure to Everett this week. Landon Oslanski and Dan Johnston are also back. In goal, the Hurricanes are solid as Brandon Anderson is back after earning a NHL contract with the Washington Capitals.

Lethbridge has begun to stockpile bantam draft picks, a sign they are looking to build from within. However, with some early success, moving a high draft selection could bolster the lineup for the short term as well.

Edmonton Oil Kings (Last Season: 16-43-4-9; 6th in Central Division)
Key Grads: Torrie Jung, Gary Nunn
Key Returnees: Cam Abney, Cam Lanigan, Kristians Pelss, Mark Pysyk, Michael St. Croix

The Oil Kings are young and energetic, but likely not quite ready to elevate to conference contender status. They should be fine between the pipes as Cam Laningan is back after attending the Calgary Flames training camp. He takes over from Jung.

Going into his draft year, St. Croix should improve on his offensive output from last season. Abney should also flourish in Edmonton. He is an Oilers prospect and enjoyed an intense rookie camp in Penticton last month. Another Oilers prospect joins the Kings, import forward Kristians Pelss from Latvia.

The key on the backend in Edmonton is Mark Pysyk, a first round pick of the Buffalo Sabres. Along with 20-year-old Adrian Van de Mosselaer, the pair will log plenty of ice time during some long nights in Edmonton.

Eastern Conference Players who attended 2010 NHL training camps:

Brandon Wheat Kings
Michael Ferland, Calgary Flames
Scott Glennie, Dallas Stars
Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders
Brodie Melnychuk, Anaheim Ducks
Brent Raedeke, Detroit Red Wings
Colby Robak, Florida Panthers
Brayden Schenn, Los Angeles Kings
Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
David Toews, New York Islanders

Calgary Hitmen
Cody Beach, St. Louis Blues
Jimmy Bubnick, Atlanta Thrashers
Tyler Fiddler, Phoenix Coyotes
Kristopher Foucault, Minnesota Wild
Martin Jones, Los Angeles Kings
Brandon Kozun, Los Angeles Kings
Matt MacKenzie, Buffalo Sabres
Ian Schultz, Montreal Canadiens
Tyler Shattock, St. Louis Blues
Michael Stone, Phoenix Coyotes

Edmonton Oil Kings
Cameron Abney, Edmonton Oilers
Cam Lanigan, Calgary Flames
Kristians Pelss, Edmonton Oilers
Mark Pysyk, Buffalo Sabres

Kootenay Ice
Steele Boomer, Chicago Blackhawks
Drew Czerwonka, Edmonton Oilers
Matt Fraser, Vancouver Canucks
Kevin King, Dallas Stars
Joey Leach, Calgary Flames
Brayden McNabb, Buffalo Sabres
Max Reinhart, Calgary Flames
Hayden Rintoul, Florida Panthers

Lethbridge Hurricanes
Brandon Anderson, Washington Capitals
Cam Braes, San Jose Sharks
Brody Sutter, Florida Panthers

Medicine Hat Tigers
Tyler Bunz, Edmonton Oilers
Jace Coyle, Dallas Stars
Emerson Etem, Anaheim Ducks
Cole Grbavac, Dallas Stars
Wacey Hamilton, Colorado Avalanche
Tristan King, Dallas Stars
Sebastian Owuya, Atlanta Thrashers
Tyler Pitlick, Edmonton Oilers
Linden Vey, Los Angeles Kings

Moose Jaw Warriors
Spencer Edwards, San Jose Sharks
Dallas Ehrhardt, Edmonton Oilers
Thomas Frazee, Dallas Stars
Antonin Honejsek, Detroit Red Wings
Quinton Howden, Florida Panthers
Kendall McFaull, Atlanta Thrashers
Dylan McIlrath, New York Rangers

Prince Albert Raiders
Ryan Button, Boston Bruins

Red Deer Rebels
Willie Coetzee, Detroit Red Wings
Byron Froese, Chicago Blackhawks
Andrej Kudrna, Phoenix Coyotes
Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild
Alexander Petrovic, Florida Panthers
Justin Weller, Phoenix Coyotes

Regina Pats
Carter Ashton, Tampa Bay Lightning
Ricard Blidstrand, Philadelphia Flyers
Brandon Davidson, Edmonton Oilers
Jordan Eberle, Edmonton Oilers
Garrett Mitchell, Washington Capitals
Colten Teubert, Los Angeles Kings
Jordan Weal, Los Angeles Kings

Saskatoon Blades

Darian Dziurzynski, Phoenix Coyotes
Stefan Elliott, Colorado Avalanche
Curt Gogol, San Jose Sharks
Curtis Hamilton, Edmonton Oilers,
Randy McNaught, New York Rangers
Adam Morrison, Philadelphia Flyers
Josh Nicholls, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jyri Niemi, New York Rangers
Gaelan Patterson, Calgary Flames
Marek Viedensky, San Jose Sharks
Teigan Zahn, Tampa Bay Lightning

Swift Current Broncos
Justin Dowling, Philadelphia Flyers
Cody Eakin, Washington Capitals