2011-12 WHL Western Conference Preview

By Glen Erickson
Photo: Joe Morrow is one of 15 players from the Portland Winterhawks invited to an NHL training camp this year. Morrow has been impressive in the preseason for Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of Ian Altenbaugh/HF)

Here is a look at the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference heading into the 2011-2012 season. Things could change on the rosters as the deadline for WHL teams to announce their three 20-year-olds comes along in mid-October. Near the end of October, which NHL teams are prepared to keep their recently drafted prospects beyond the first ten regular season games will also be decided.

B.C. Division

Kelowna Rockets (Last Season: 43-28-0-1; 1st in B.C. Division)

The biggest hole the Rockets will have to fill is on the backend where Tyson Barrie is expected to stick somewhere in the Colorado Avalanche system. Picking up the offensive slack, along with quarterbacking the power play, will become major concerns in Kelowna.

The forward group will have to produce “by committee”, with the likes of Shane McColgan (NYR), Brett Bulmer (MIN), Colton Sissons (2012) and Zach Franco (DET) all possessing the ability to exert pressure on opposing goaltenders. Mitch Callahan (DET) is expected to play in the Red Wings system this year, making room for Jesse Astles to assume the responsibilities as the Rockets most fearsome power forward.

On the backend, the Rockets acquired Myles Bell from the Regina Pats just before the regular season began, giving up reliable Colton Jobke (MIN) in the deal. Bell was highly touted prior to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but went unselected after a serious off-season car accident near Calgary threatened his hockey future. The Rockets will also hope for Mitchell Chapman and Antoine Corbin to emerge as consistent performers. Both are physically capable, but their ability to establish an offensive presence has yet to be proven. In goal, however, the Rockets will confidently hitch their fortunes on the very capable Adam Brown, who has returned as one of the team’s 20-year-olds. Brown attended the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton on a free agent tryout with the Edmonton Oilers.

Vancouver Giants (Last Season: 35-32-1-4; 2nd in B.C. Division)

The Giants will depend on continued leadership and production from 19-year-old Brendan Gallagher (MTL), while youngsters Teal Burns and Dalton Sward will have to emerge to return Vancouver to the top of the BC Division. Import forward Marek Tvrdon (DET) returns after being hampered by the injury bug for much of last season

On defense, there is strength in form of David Musil (EDM) who returns this season after a challenging campaign last year due to ankle problems. As far as offensive push from the back-end, veteran Neil Manning has emerged as a reliable producer who can manage the power play effectively.

Any questions in goal will be answered by either American Brendan Jensen, who began last season behind veteran Mark Segal. Jackson Whistle, from the Pursuit of Excellence program near Kelowna, has been impressive during the pre-season, but is only 16 years of age.

Victoria Royals (Last Season: 33-31-4-4; 3rd in B.C. Division as the Chilliwack Bruins)

Having relocated from Chilliwack to Victoria, the Royals will be hard pressed to replace the consistent scoring prowess of Ryan Howse (CGY), who has moved on after three outstanding years with the organization. Kevin Sundher (BUF) and 20-year-old Robin Soudek, along with Brandon Magee and Jamie Crooks have potential to deliver a score-by-committee contribution this season.

The Royals should be somewhat adept at reducing opponents’ scoring chances, returning up to half-a-dozen defensemen. Jesse Pauls, Zach Habscheid, and Tyler Stahl (CAR) provide experience, while the Royals were able to add Hayden Rintoul in an off-season deal with the Kootenay Ice.

Lucas Gore was a standout in goal last season as a 20-year-old, so the reins have been passed on to 19-year-old Keith Hamilton, a Kelowna-native who was acquired by Victoria from the Portland Winterhawks.

Prince George Cougars (Last Season: 33-35-2-2; 4th in B.C. Division)

Last season, the Cougars were an offensive force from the backend with Sena Acolatse (SJ) and Martin Marincin (EDM) spending the entire season among the WHL’s top scoring defensemen. Acolatse played last season as a 20-year-old, which means Marincin’s presence in Prince George will be vital in terms of maintaining an important offensive push from the blue line. The first overall selection in the 2009 WHL bantam draft, Jesse Forsberg, returns for his third full campaign with the Cougars.

The Cats added veteran goaltender Drew Owsley via the trade route this past off-season, and he will occupy one of the 20-year-old spots.

Up front, the key is whether or not Brett Connolly (TB) can crack the Tampa Bay Lightning’s roster. If he can’t, his only other option this season will be a return to Prince George where a productive regular season would likely ensure the Cougars a playoff berth. Among other top six forwards are Troy Bourke (2012), Charles Inglis and Nick Bounassissi. Alex Forsberg (2013), the Cats first overall pick at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, is expected to step into an offensive role as a 16-year-old.

Kamloops Blazers (Last Season: 29-37-3-3; 5th in B.C. Division)

The Blazers return a total of 16 players this season, including Brendan Ranford (PHI). Jordan DePape and Dylan Willick will also supply offense, while 20-year-old forward Chase Schaber is expected to have a huge impact in Kamloops. Diminutive forward Colin Smith is ready for a breakout year in his third full WHL season. Rookie Matt Needham arrives from the Okanagan Hockey Academy.

The team’s strength may very well be on the backend where Austin Madaisky (CBJ) returns after suffering a broken neck midway through last season. Josh Caron (MIN) brings shut down skills and some nastiness to the mix, while former Edmonton Oil Kings import Marek Hrbas adds depth and versatility. Towering Tyler Hansen is back for his third season, while Bronson Maschmeyer will occupy a 20-year-old spot.

Goaltender Cam Lanigan will be pushed by first year netminders Cole Cheveldave and Taran Kozun.

U.S. Division

Portland Winterhawks (Last Season: 50-19-0-3; 1st in U.S. Division)

The Winterhawks pre-season was interrupted briefly as an unprecedented total of 15 players attended NHL training camps. In fact, one pre-season game against the Seattle Thunderbirds had to be cancelled. It is this plethora of talent that makes the Winterhawks a front running threat again this season.

A handful of players are already signed to NHL deals, making their presence on WHL ice this season a bit of an uncertainty at his point. Veteran defenseman Brett Ponich (STL) checks in at 6’7 and wore the “C” in Portland last year until his season ended abruptly due to injury. The import forward combination from Switzerland, Nino Niederreiter (NYI) and Sven Baertschi (CGY) are both signed, as are Ryan Johansen (CBJ) and Oliver Gabriel (CBJ). Defenseman Joe Morrow (PIT) has also been signed. Ty Rattie (STL) has returned to the Winterhawks.

With the likes of Riley Boychuk (BUF), Brad Ross (TOR), Taylor Aronson (NAS), Troy Rutkowski (COL) and goaltender Mac Carruth (CHI) also seeking professional employment, it is apparent that the Winterhawks have become an important developmental organization in recent years. Carruth has returned to Portland, providing stability between the pipes.

Spokane Chiefs (Last Season: 48-14-4-2; 2nd in U.S. Division)

The Chiefs have graduated a pair of key players in Tyler Johnson (TB) and Levo Koper. If defenseman Jared Cowen (OTT) sticks with the Senators, Spokane will need a number of returnees to step up and fill some huge voids.

The responsibility lands squarely upon thelikes of Blake Gal, Anthony Bardaro, and Matt Marantz, while Darren Kramer may have to become less of a pugilist and more of a consistent offensive producer. Defenseman Brenden Kichton (NYI) was solid last season, collecting 81 points, tying him for top spot among rearguards with Stefan Elliott (COL) of the Saskatoon Blades. In goal, Mac Engel saw plenty of ice time last year when starter James Reid was out of the lineup with an injury. Engel is ready to handle the duties as a number one netminder, but will likely see less offense this season out of the group in front of him.

Tri-City Americans (Last Season: 44-24-2-2; 3rd in U.S. Division)

The Americans strength this season may very well be an effective one-two punch offensively from 20-year-old forwards Brenden Shinnimin and Adam Hughesman. With Patrick Holland (CGY) and Justin Feser back in the fold, the Amerks are guaranteed veteran depth up front. Connor Rankin, who collected 44 points as a 16-year-old will also be a key contributor.

Zachary Yuen (WPG) leads a somewhat uncertain blue line brigade, as the organization will have some important decisions to make concerning their complement of overage players. Matt MacKenzie (BUF) and Brock Sutherland. Between the pipes, Tri-City may start the season with 16-year-old Eric Comrie shouldering the load. Should he falter, 19-year-old Ty Rimmer, who has played previously in Prince George and Brandon, can provide insurance.

Everett Silvertips (Last Season: 28-33-7-4; 4th in U.S. Division)

The Silvertips experienced an inconsistent regular season last year before bowing out of the post-season quickly in the first round. This season, the ‘Tips will rely heavily on rearguard Ryan Murray, touted as a high first rounder for the 2012 NHL Draft.

The native of White City, Saskatchewan is perhaps the top prospect in the entire WHL. Murray has already been a prominent player in Hockey Canada programs, captaining the national team to a gold medal at the 2010 World U18 Championship. He was also asked to attend Hockey Canada’s developmental camp for the upcoming WJC in Alberta.

Among forwards, Tyler Maxwell, who tallied 41 times last year, has been returned to junior from the Minnesota Wild. Veteran Ryan Harrison, undrafted, is a relieable contributor who will essentially be playing for some recognition and a potential free agent tryout. In goal, Kent Simpson (CHI) provides stability, but will have to be outstanding game in and game out to propel the Silvertips to upper echelon status this season.

Seattle Thunderbirds (Last season: 27-35-5-5; 5th in U.S. Division)

The Thunderbirds top prospect in recent years has been goaltender Calvin Pickard (COL), who has been signed. He is expected back, but this season will have a solid group of forwards returning in front of him.

Import forward Marcel Noebels (PHI) has signed, but another season in the WHL should enhance his development. He played in the 2011 WJC for Germany. Colin Jacobs (BUF) and Luke Lockhart are also back, providing strength up the middle.

Gone is defenseman Brenden Dillon (DAL) who signed late last season. The T-Birds will be hard pressed to replace his 59 points from the back end.

Western Conference Prospects at 2011-2012 Training Camps
(**denotes signed by NHL team)

Everett Silvertips
Josh Birkholz, Florida Panthers, 2009
Landon Ferraro, Detroit Red Wings, 2009**
Ryan Harrison, Vancouver Canucks, F/A
Tyler Maxwell, Minnesota Wild, F/A
Rasmus Rissanen, Carolina Hurricanes, 2009**
Kent Simpson, Chicago Blackhawks, 2010

Kamloops Blazers
JT Barnett, New Jersey Devils, F/A
Josh Caron, Minnesota Wild, F/A **
Jordan DePape, Winnipeg Jets, F/A
Austin Madaisky, Columbus Blue Jackets, 2010
Brendan Ranford, Philadelphia Flyers, 2010
Chase Schaber, Edmonton Oilers, F/A
Colin Smith, Edmonton Oilers, F/A
Dylan Willick, Minnesota Wild, F/A

Kelowna Rockets
Jessey Astles, Pittsburgh Penguins, F/A
Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche, 2009**
Adam Brown, Edmonton Oilers, F/A
Brett Bulmer, Minnesota Wild, 2010
Mitchell Callahan, Detroit Red Wings, 2009**
Zach Franko, Detroit Red Wings, F/A
Colton Jobke, Minnesota Wild, F/A **
Shane McColgan, New York Rangers, 2011

Portland Winterhawks
Taylor Aronson, Nashville Predators, 2010**
Sven Baertschi, Calgary Flames, 2011**
Riley Boychuk, Buffalo Sabres, 2010
Mac Carruth, Chicago Blackhawks, 2010
Oliver Gabriel, Columbus Blue Jackets, F/A **
Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets, 2010**
Joe Morrow, Pittsburgh Penguins, 2011**
Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders, 2010**
Taylor Peters, Minnesota Wild, F/A
Brett Ponich, St. Louis Blues, 2009**
Ty Rattie, St. Louis Blues, 2011
Brad Ross, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2010
Troy Rutkowski, Colorado Avalanche, 2010
Tyler Wotherspoon, Calgary Flames, 2011
William Wrenn, San Jose Sharks, 2009

Prince George Cougars
Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay Lightning, 2010**
Charles Inglis, San Jose Sharks, F/A
Martin Marincin, Edmonton Oilers, 2010

Seattle Thunderbirds
Ryan Button, Boston Bruins, 2009**
Jacob Doty, Florida Panthers, F/A
Mitch Elliot, Washington Capitals, F/A
Colin Jacobs, Buffalo Sabres, 2011
Luke Lockhart, Washington Capitals, F/A
Marcel Noebels, Philadelphia Flyers, 2011**
Calvin Pickard, Colorado Avalanche, 2010**

Spokane Chiefs
Jared Cowen, Ottawa Senators, 2009**
Blake Gal, Calgary Flames, F/A
Brenden Kichton, New York Islanders, 2011
Darren Kramer, Ottawa Senators, 2011
Dominik Uher, Pittsburgh Penguins, 2011

Tri-City Americans
Carter Ashton, Tampa Bay Lightning, 2009**
Sam Grist, Philadelphia Flyers, F/A
Patrick Holland, Calgary Flames, 2010
Adam Hughesman, New York Islanders, F/A
Matt MacKenzie, Buffalo Sabres, 2010
Brendan Shinnimin, New York Rangers, F/A
Zachary Yuen, Winnipeg Jets, 2011

Vancouver Giants
Nathan Burns, Minnesota Wild, F/A
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens, 2010
Brendan Jensen, Vancouver Canucks, F/A
David Musil, Edmonton Oilers, 2011
Marek Tvrdon, Detroit Red Wings, 2011
Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, Edmonton Oilers, F/A

Victoria Royals
Roman Horak, Calgary Flames, 2009,**
Ryan Howse, Calgary Flames, 2009**
Curt Gogol, San Jose Sharks, F/A **
Tyler Stahl, Carolina Hurricanes, 2010
Kevin Sundher, Buffalo Sabres, 2010