The WHL’s Eastern Conference was the – slightly – more competitive conference last season, and that should ring true again in 2015-16.
Last season in the East it took 73 points to make the playoffs, while in the West three teams qualified with less than 73 points. The East also featured the league-leading Brandon Wheat Kings, who finished the season with 114 points, two more than the Kelowna Rockets. The Wheat Kings may have lost a couple of pivotal 20-year-olds from last year’s team, as well as Ryan Pilon (NYI), who has taken an indefinite leave from hockey, but the team still boasts depth better than any organization, with a wealth of young, up-and-coming stars. The Wheat Kings, in fact, have landed atop the CHL 2015-16 preseason rankings.
Of course, Brandon should be challenged this year by the Memorial Cup hosts, the Red Deer Rebels. The team sent eight players to NHL camps this September, led by first round picks Haydn Fleury (CAR) and Connor Bleackley (COL).
The Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings should still be competitive, but Calgary’s success shall hinge largely on what the Vancouver Canucks decide to do with 2014 first round pick Jake Virtanen. He is not eligible to play in the AHL, so he will have to make the Canucks out of training camp. Meanwhile, it will likely be another year of rebuilding for teams like Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
Brandon Wheat Kings (Last season: 53-11-4-4, 1st in East Division)
Despite being swept by Kelowna in the league final last season, there’s hardly reason for the Wheat Kings to feel as those they missed an opportunity. The team will return most of its core this season, including Jayce Hawryluk (FLA), leading scorer Tim McGauley, John Quenneville (NJD) and potential 2017 NHL Draft first overall pick Nolan Patrick, who has already scored 30 goals in the WHL.
One of the team’s anchors on defense, Ryan Pilon (NYI), has taken a leave of absence from the game, but Brandon returns overager Colton Waltz, likely 2016 NHL Draft first round pick Kale Clague and Ivan Provorov should he fail to make the Philadelphia Flyers. Between the pipes, the team is entrusting Edmonton native Jordan Papirny once again. The 19 year old has gone undrafted in back-to-back years but his numbers with the Wheat Kings have been above average. Last season he posted a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
Wheat Kings general manager, Kelly McCrimmon has put a lot into the building of his team and surely believes it is capable of winning a league championship and participating in the Memorial Cup this season. He had an opportunity to join the Toronto Maple Leafs organization in the summer, but instead decided to see what this team could do.
Regina Pats (Last season: 37-24-5-6, 2nd in East Division)
Though the Pats don’t have the star power that the Wheat Kings own, the team has its own bevy of NHL-drafted players as well as one potential breakout star in Sam Steel, a 98-born forward who finished fourth on the team in scoring last season and is eligible for this year’s NHL Draft.
The Pats return without two of their top three scorers from last season, but there’s more than a few players capable of picking up the production. Regina had five players from its team selected in the 2015 NHL Draft – Jesse Gabrielle (BOS), Connor Hobbs and Colby Williams (WSH), Sergey Zborovskiy (NYR) and Austin Wagner (LAK). Gabrielle and Hobbs were acquired in mid-season trades to help bolster this year’s team and challenge a loaded Wheat Kings squad as the team did its best to get returns on assets like Morgan Klimchuk (CGY) and Kyle Burroughs (NYI). The Pats also acquired 2014 sixth overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft, Jake Leschyshyn, from the Red Deer Rebels last season. The 99-born forward has had an exceptional training camp.
Defense should be a strength of the Pats this season. Williams is eligible to turn pro, but will likely return as one of the team’s overage leaders. In addition to Hobbs and Zborovskiy, the team also has 97-born James Hilsendager, who had a solid if unspectacular rookie season in 2014-15. In goal, overager Daniel Wapple is expected to once again carry the load, but could be challenged by 18 year old Tyler Brown as the season progresses.
Swift Current Broncos (Last year: 34-33-1-4, 3rd in East Division)
Jake DeBrusk (BOS) and Glenn Gawdin (STL) will have increased pressure to carry the offense this season in Swift Current with the departure of two of the top four scorers – Coda Gordon and Colby Cave – from last season. DeBrusk was somewhat of a surprise early first round pick in the NHL Draft by the Boston Bruins, but the Edmonton native was one of the top goal scorers in the league last season, tallying 42 goals in the regular season. Gawdin, meanwhile, will be required to fill in as the top center on the team following Cave’s departure. The potential is there for the duo to form two-thirds of what could be one of the best first lines in the league.
Defense will probably be the biggest area of concern for the Broncos. The team dealt Brycen Martin (BUF) to Saskatoon prior to last year’s trade deadline, and third round pick Brett Lernout (MTL) will turn pro this season, likely joining the St. John’s IceCaps. Late-97 birthday Max Lajoie is expected by many to be a first or second round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and the onus will be on him to lead the Broncos defensive core this season. Last season, the Calgary native had 41 points in a stellar rookie season, and he will have every opportunity to improve upon those numbers this season.
The Broncos top two picks from the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft – Tyler Steenbergen and Cole Johnson – were expected to be top-six forwards at this point in their development, but that hasn’t happened. Steenbergen should improve upon his 11-point rookie season, but Johnson, who played just one game last season, is out with the same shoulder injury that kept him sidelined last season.
Moose Jaw Warriors (Last season: 32-35-4-1, 4th in East Division)
The Warriors will be led by Brayden Point (TBL) and 2016 NHL Draft-eligible Brett Howden this season, but will struggle to find secondary scoring. Overagers from last season Tanner Eberle and Jack Rodewald combined for 141 points last season; Rodewald has signed with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, while Eberle is attending the Minnesota Wild training camp. Point, however, is completely capable of leading the league in scoring, though he will miss a slew of games as he is expected to play a prominent role for the Canadian World Junior team. Last year the Calgary native recorded 87 points in 60 games.
Point could be a player that gets dealt at the trade deadline as the Warriors continue to restock for the short-term future. In addition to Howden, the team has a number of players that should get NHL Draft consideration throughout this season including Noah Gregor and goaltender Zach Sawchenko, who posted a 3.22 goals-against average and .896 save percentage last season.
Nikita Popugaev, a talented Russian who is likely a first round pick in 2017, has also recently joined the Warriors. The team selected Popugaev 22nd overall in the CHL Import Draft in June.
Prince Albert Raiders (Last season: 31-37-2-2, 5th in East Division)
Marc Habscheid will begin his first full season as the Raiders head coach with rather low expectations and a lack of NHL-drafted players. Defenseman Brendan Guhle (BUF) and center Matteo Gennaro (WPG) were recently selected in the 2015 NHL Draft. The top scorer from last season, 96-born Reid Gardiner, attended the Vancouver Canucks prospect camp and will likely be monitored by teams throughout the season.
Still, the Raiders have some decent veterans in Craig Leverton and Jordan Tkatch, so they should be at least competitive. Czech winger Simon Stransky recorded 42 points in 70 games last season, his first in North America, and has been named to Central Scouting’s Watch List for the upcoming season. He’ll be joined by fellow Czech Vojtech Budik, a smooth-skating defenseman who played for his country at the U18 World Championship. Both players could hear their name called at the 2016 NHL Draft.
Goaltender Nick McBride, who attended the Los Angeles Kings’ prospect tournament, and Ryan Parenteau will split time between the pipes once again this season, giving the team quite a formidable duo.
Saskatoon Blades (Last season: 19-49-2-2, 6th in East Division)
The Saskatoon Blades are improving, but still have a considerable ways to go before being competitive in the ever-tough East Division. The team dealt picks and young players in its attempt to win the Memorial Cup it hosted in 2013, which severely hampered the organization. The Blades have just two players drafted to an NHL team; defenseman Brycen Martin (BUF), who was acquired from Swift Current last season, was a third round pick in 2014, and the team has brought in overage defenseman Mitch Wheaton in the off-season. Wheaton was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 NHL Draft but went unsigned. He last played for the Kelowna Rockets.
Cameron Hebig finished third on the team in scoring last season with 40 points in 72 games, but the 97-born forward went undrafted in the NHL Draft. Winger Ryan Graham went undrafted for the second straight year, but attended the Minnesota Wild’s prospect camp. The Blades have also brought in local 20-year old Connor Gay to help the team compete this season; Gay recorded 61 points between the Red Deer Rebels and Regina Pats last season.