2015-16 WHL Preview: Brandon, Red Deer could be the cream of the Eastern crop

By Chris Roberts

Jake Bean - Calgary Hitmen; Stuart Skinner - Lethbridge Hurricanes - WHL Central Division

Photo: Youngsters may carry the day in the WHL’s Central Division in 2015-16, with two more prominent ones being Calgary Hitmen defenseman and 2016 prospect Jake Bean, and Lethbridge Hurricanes goaltender and 2017 prospect Stuart Skinner (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images and Derek Leung/Getty Images)


Central Division

Calgary Hitmen (Last season: 45-22-1-4, 1st in Central Division)

Calgary has the potential to again lead the Central, but the team will need players to step up this season. Adam Tambellini (NYR) and Connor Rankin finished 1-2 on the team in scoring last season as overagers and are ineligible to return.

The Hitmen will still have anywhere from 5-8 NHL draft picks on its roster this season. Of course, the most notable player would be Jake Virtanen (VAN), the Canucks first round pick in 2014 who recorded 52 points in 50 games last season. Virtanen has an outside shot of making the Canucks this season, but his return to Calgary would make the team the easy choice for one of the top teams in the league. Also up front is Chase Lang (MIN), Radel Fazleev (PHI), who was recently signed to an entry-level deal, and Pavel Karnaukhov (CGY). Both Karnaukhov and Fazleev have a chance to represent Russia at the U20 World Junior Championship.

On the blue line the team is led by Philadelphia Flyers first round pick Travis Sanheim, who recorded 65 points in 67 games last season. Ben Thomas (TBL) has also posted back-to-back 31-point seasons and, entering his final season of eligibility before overage, should log significant minutes this season. One player that will benefit largely from playing with both Sanheim and Thomas is 98-born Jake Bean, who represented Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament this summer. He is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

The team’s goaltender, Brendan Burke, is entering his overage season. Burke, an Arizona native, was selected by the Coyotes in the 2013 NHL Draft but went unsigned. He is attending the Anaheim Ducks training camp.

Medicine Hat Tigers (Last season: 45-23-2-2, 2nd in Central Division)

Despite having just one NHL-drafted player on its roster this season the Medicine Hat Tigers still boast quite the impressive junior squad. The team will return all of its top four scorers – Trevor Cox, Cole Sanford, Steven Owre, Chad Butcher – and Matthew Bradley (MTL) should certainly improve upon an impressive rookie season in which he recorded 40 points in 71 games.

The team also has several good young players capable of stepping up this season, including a few likely to be high draft picks in the 2016 NHL Draft. David Quenneville, a defenseman from Edmonton, has been a prolific scorer since bantam and recorded 20 points in his rookie campaign; with the Tigers losing captain Tyler Lewington, Quenneville will play significant minutes in all situations this season. Mason Shaw isn’t draft-eligible until 2017, but the diminutive forward is expected to play a larger role offensively for the team this season. Last season, the Wainwright, Alta. native missed significant time due to injury but recorded nine points in 23 games.

Medicine Hat will also welcome former University of North Dakota commit Max Gerlach this season. Goaltender Marek Langhamer has moved on and signed with the Arizona Coyotes after three years with the team, while Nick Schneider, who attended the Calgary Flames prospect camp, will play the bulk of games between the pipes for the Tigers this season.

Red Deer Rebels (Last season: 38-23-5-6, 3rd in Central Division)

As of right now, despite having five NHL-drafted players on its team, the Red Deer Rebels will be in tough as they battle for the top spot in the Central Division. Fortunately, the team is hosting the Memorial Cup so a lengthy WHL playoff isn’t necessary, though it is certainly in the cards.

Defense will be a position of strength for the Rebels as Haydn Fleury (CAR) and Nelson Nogier (WPG) give the Rebels a top-line pairing that can log 20-plus minutes on any given night. Fleury had an off year, one season after being drafted in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft, but there’s no reason to expect that the smooth-skating defenseman won’t bounce back. Nogier, meanwhile, joined the team from the Saskatoon Blades midway through last season. Beginning his 19-year-old season with the Rebels should allow him to feel more comfortable in his surroundings.

The team is led offensively by 2014 first round pick Connor Bleackley (COL), who has consistently been a nearly point-per-game player for the past two seasons. Expectations will be high for recent CHL Import Draft selection Michael Spacek (WPG); the 5’11”, 187-pound Czech winger played on the national U20 team during last year’s World Junior Championship as a 17-year-old. Adam Musil (STL), brother of Edmonton Oilers prospect David Musil, was selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft and is coming off of a 39-point, 66-game campaign in 2014-15. The 6’3”, 203-pound center should see an increase in ice time and responsibility – and hopefully, production – this season.
Outside of the more recognizable names in the Rebels forward core, recently acquired center Lane Pederson is attending the Anaheim Ducks camp along with second-leading scorer from last season, Wyatt Johnson. Evan Polei will attend the Red Wings camp. Last year’s Rebels had eight players score 15-plus goals and this year could feature much the same.

Kootenay Ice (Last season: 37-31-1-3, 4th in Central Division)

The Kootenay Ice have just two NHL-drafted players on its roster and one may or may not be with the team this year. Jaedon Descheneau (STL) was drafted by the Blues in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft but has yet to be signed; over the past two seasons, the diminutive forward has recorded 179 regular season points and 30 playoff points in just 20 games. He attended the Blues’ prospect tournament, but without a contract he will play out his overage season in Kootenay. Defenseman Tanner Faith (MIN), meanwhile, was selected by the Wild in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He has played just 29 games in the past two seasons, and while he is attending the Wild’s training camp, it is likely that the team sends him back to Kootenay in hopes that he can stay healthy throughout the course of a season.

A number of returning players will fill out the Ice’s roster, none of whom have any NHL ties. Luke Philp led the team in scoring last year with 82 points in 71 games; he is attending the Philadelphia Flyers training camp this season but in all likelihood will be returned.

The team’s new head coach, Luke Pierce, will have a tough time moving his team up in the conference standings, particularly without its top forward and defenseman from last season. Sam Reinhart (BUF) will make the leap to pro hockey this season, as will Rinat Valiev (TOR), who will likely play for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Edmonton Oil Kings (Last season: 34-31-4-3, 5th in Central Division)

Five NHL-drafted players will skate for the Edmonton Oil Kings this season, led by Brett Pollock (DAL). The 6’3” Sherwood Park native has recorded back-to-back 55-plus point seasons and led the team in scoring last season with 62 points, including a team-high 32 goals. Pollock also became more involved physically last season as his penalty minute total increased from 36 to 88. A former second round pick, he is attending the Dallas Stars‘ training camp this season, but will likely be back to lead the Oil Kings once again.

Brandon Baddock (NJD) will enter his overage season without a contract. The Devils selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 NHL Draft after he recorded a 17-point, 128-penalty minute campaign. Last season he scored a career-high 19 goals and 21 assists and still managed to post a career-high 136 penalty minutes. Draft-eligible for 2016, Davis Koch will look to be more involved offensively after a 25-point rookie campaign.

Dysin Mayo (ARZ) and Aaron Irving (NSH) will anchor the team’s blueline in what should be both of their final seasons of junior, providing they don’t play as 20-year-olds. Mayo finished third on the team in scoring last season and should exceed 50 points once again this year, while Irving will look to rebound from a 13-point season following a breakout 30-point campaign in 2013-14.

And while losing Tristan Jarry (PIT) to pro hockey this season, the Oil Kings have brought in Alec Dillon (LAK), who was originally committed to join RPI of the NCAA this season. Dillon could be the X-factor for the Oil Kings this season; the Victoria, BC native recorded a 2.27 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage last season with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL.

Lethbridge Hurricanes (Last season: 20-44-5-3, 6th in Central Division)

The rebuilding Hurricanes had two players drafted to the NHL in June – Giorgio Estephan (BUF) was selected by the Sabres in the sixth round, while defenseman Andrew Nielsen (TOR) was taken by the Maple Leafs in the third round. Estephan finished third on the team in scoring last season with 51 points in 64 games, a 27-point increase on his rookie campaign. Along with Tyler Wong and Jamal Watson, Estephen will provide the bulk of the team’s offense this season. Nielsen, meanwhile, finished second amongst defensemen on the team in scoring with 24 points. His 101 penalty minutes were also second on the team.

Rookie netminder Stuart Skinner was incredible for the team last season. He started the bulk of games and posted a 13-20-5 record, as well as a .909 save percentage. With a better defense and a year of experience under his belt, the 2017-eligible goaltender will have a plenty of time to impress NHL scouts over the next two seasons.

It will be hard for the Hurricanes to be as bad as they were last season, but the team will once again stay in a rebuilding phase with solid young players like 99-born Zane Franklin and 98-born Jaeger White expected to make significant leaps this season.

East | Central | U.S. | B.C.

Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7


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