2015-16 WHL Preview: Kelowna, Portland may come back to the Western pack

By Glen Erickson

Rourke Chartier - Kelowna Rockets; Jansen Harkins - Prince George Cougars - WHL B.C. Division Preview

Photo: Two WHL players expected to be offensive catalysts for their B.C. Division clubs in 2015-16 are Kelowna Rockets forward San Jose Sharks prospect Rourke Chartier (L), and Prince George Cougars forward and Winnipeg Jets prospect Jansen Harkins (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images and Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

B.C. Division

Kelowna Rockets (Last Season: 53-13-5-1, 1st in B.C. Division)

The big change in Kelowna during the past off-season occurred behind the bench when Dan Lambert accepted a coaching position with the Buffalo Sabres. The Rockets hired Brad Ralph, who comes to the WHL from the ECHL.

On the ice, Madison Bowey (WSH), Josh Morrissey (WPG), Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI) and Leon Draisaitl (EDM) are gone from the powerhouse that ended a spectacular season with an overtime loss in the Memorial Cup Tournament’s final game.

The banners have already been raised this season, as Kelowna has won its first two games of the season. A total of 17 players return to the Rockets, making them again the odds-on-favorites in the B.C. Division and Western Conference.

Nick Merkley (ARZ) is back after camp with the Coyotes, but his debut will have to wait pending recovery from a shoulder injury suffered at Arizona’s rookie camp. Rourke Chartier (SJS), who combined with Merkley for most of last season to produce consistently explosive offense, is back in Kelowna. Second-year forward Dillon Dube will be viewed early and often by NHL scouts. Justin Kirkland (NSH) is another reliable, consistent forward.

On defense, underrated Cole Martin has graduated, which makes room for Devante Stephens (BUF) and Joe Gatenby to slide into more prominent roles. Gordie Ballhorn, a stay-at-home defender, comes over from the AJHL after foregoing an NCAA opportunity.

The 20-year-old group looks strong out of the gate with dependable goaltender Jackson Whistle returning for his fourth season. Tyson Baillie, Gage Quinney and Cole Linaker will battle for the other two overage spots. Baillie, who got a long look from the Calgary Flames during the off-season, is capable of a breakout campaign.

Victoria Royals (Last Season: 39-29-3-1; 2nd in B.C. Division)

It will be an interesting season in Victoria, both on and off the ice, as head coach Dave Lowry will find himself at the helm for Team Canada at the 2016 World Junior Championship.

As far as the roster goes, the Royals are another Western Conference team that has graduated some reliable offense, as Austin Carroll (CGY) and Brandon Magee have departed.

All eyes will be on veteran Tyler Soy to see if he can continue as a consistent scorer. Jack Walker is back, a U.S.-born forward with point-per-game potential, and overage Alex Forsberg, the first overall pick at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, should be ready for an explosive offensive campaign.

There is depth returning on the blueline, in the form of Joe Hicketts (DET) and Chaz Reddekopp (LAK), along with veteran Ryan Gagnon. In goal, Coleman Vollrath is now 20. Evan Smith (NSH), who played four games with the Royals last season before leaving for the NAHL, is now back in Victoria

Prince George Cougars (Last Season: 31-36-2-3; 3rd in B.C. Division)

The Prince George Cougars turned the corner in style to some degree last season, returning to the postseason as new ownership seemed to energize the organization and the entire community. Expectations will be higher this season.

Forward Jansen Harkins (WPG) is the key, an integral contributor on offense who will also be looked upon to provide plenty of specialty teams minutes. Chase Witala was very good last season, collecting 69 points in 68 games. Jesse Gabrielle (BOS) came over from the Regina Pats in an off-season deal and adds important depth up front. Brad Morrison (NYR) will also be looked upon for consistent production. U.S.-born forward Jared Bethune is back after a look from the Minnesota Wild.

On the back end, Sam Ruopp (CBJ) and Tate Olson (VAN) will be looked upon to hold the fort as a crew of youngsters get used to the rigors of the WHL schedule. The goaltending situation looks solid, with veterans Ty Edmonds and Mack Shields serving as one of the WHL’s most experienced tandems.

Vancouver Giants (Last Season: 27-41-2-2; 5th in B.C. Division)

The Vancouver Giants open the season with another new face behind the bench as WHL veteran Lorne Molleken takes the reins. NHL scouts will be consumed with the fortunes of Tyler Benson this season as the Edmonton-area product enters his draft year. Benson will begin the season on the shelf, however, nursing an injury suffered during the off-season.

The extra attention paid to the Giants could benefit the entire roster, including the likes of Carter Popoff , Thomas Foster and Jackson Houck. The trio led the Giants in scoring last season. Houck, drafted in 2013 by the Edmonton Oilers, went unsigned, but is certainly a productive WHL forward. The Giants added some toughness for this season, acquiring Taylor Crunk from the Victoria Royals. Import forward Radovan Bondra (CHI) from the Czech Republic is off to a fast start.

There is some experience on the blueline as Josh Thrower, Clayton Kirichenko and Dmitry Osipov are back. Payton Lee is the only veteran goaltender in Vancouver to date.

Kamloops Blazers (Last Season: 28-37-4-3; 5th in B.C. Division)

The Kamloops Blazers have lost Cole Ully (DAL) to pro hockey. Along with his departure goes a total of 94 points that will have to be replaced. Left behind this season to pick up the slack is veteran Matt Needham, a gifted junior who collected 70 points last season. Devon Sideroff (ANA) and Collin Shirley are also keys offensively. There is solid depth in Kamloops up front with Luke Harrison, Nick Chyzowski, Jake Kryski and Matt Revel back in the mix.

There is some size, experience and toughness in Kamloops among the defensemen as Ryan Rehill (NJD) will be back. Mark McNulty may have a chip on his shoulder, given he was selected by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2013 NHL Draft but went unsigned. Rookie Nolan Kneen appears capable of taking a regular shift.

Goaltender Connor Ingram pretty much took over in Kamloops around midseason last year and has staked his claim to the number one spot between the pipes after appearing in 52 games as a rookie.

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

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51

 

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