WHL Central Division Roundup

By Glen Crichton

The Swift Current Broncos continue to lead the Central Division with twenty five points from an 11-2-3-1 record, while the Red Deer Rebels are only a point back with a 11-1-3 record, good for 24 points, however the Reb’s have two games in hand over the Broncos.

The Broncos are led by sniper Tim Smith (26 pts), Brent Twordik (24 pts) and sophomore defenseman Ian White(24 pts) offensively, but the Broncos have depth in scoring with guys like Nathan Smith (currently injured), James Hiebert (17 pts), Duncan Milroy (16 pts), Ben Ondrus (13 pts) and Ales Cerny (11 pts). While the Broncos can throw three lines capable of scoring at you each night, each line is also responsible defensively. When Nathan Smith returns, the Broncos will be a tough team to keep off the score sheet.

Defensively, the Broncos are led by Ian White, a small but gifted defenseman who is also capable in his own end, but guys like Ales Cerny, hard hitting and tough Steven Spencer, Jarad Bourassa and Kevin Seibel solidify the defence, while rookie Travis Friedlay rounds out the group. In goal the Broncos have two solid netminders in overage B.J Boxma (6-2-1, 3.13 GAA, .902 save %) and seventeen year old Todd Ford (5-1-1, 1.84 GAA, .930 save %). Teams looking to make a long playoff run need solid goaltending and the Broncos are in the position of having two “go to guys”. Either Boxma or Ford can be used in any situation and lend confidence to the team, so come playoff time all is well between the pipes for the Broncos.

Swift Current is solid from front to back, however if there is a weakness in my opinion, it is a lack of depth on the defence. Should White go down with an injury or one of the other top five, the Broncos don’t have a player with experience to fit in. Even Spencer at nineteen has little WHL experience and is not battle tested as a top four guy. Up front the Broncos are strong, goaltending is solid, but if there is an area which could use bolstering, it would be on defence. Look for the Broncos to make a strong run for it all this year.

The Red Deer Rebels who most thought would struggle, at least early with the turnover they suffered, have bolted out of the box. One point out of top spot (11-1-3-0, 25pts with two games in hand over the Broncos) in the Central after losing major cogs to graduation in Vandermeer, Erat and Wanvig, while losing Andrew Bergen for the first half of the season to knee surgery is amazing and a credit to the players. Import Mikhail Yakubov and Joel Stepp lead the way offensively, but are supported by a solid core in Boyd Gordon, Colby Armstrong, Diarmuid Kelly, Ladislav Kouba and Jeff Smith. As would be expected with a Sutter behind the bench, Brent Sutter has this group working hard for each other every night which can only lead to good things.

Defensively, the Reb’s aren’t really a veteran group in age, but with the experience of winning a Memorial Cup last year, this young defence is solid and poised. Led by tough and skilled Doug Lynch (’83), but ably supported by Bryce Thoma (the only defenseman with an 82 birth date), Jeff Woywitka (’83), Doug Meech (’84), Cody Holzapfel (’84) and Dion Phaneuf a sixteen year old rookie, this defence not only plays beyond their years, but looks good for at least a couple down the road. Woywitka, Meech and Lynch can all move the puck, but are solid in their own end which helps tutor the younger guys and this young defence could be a lot better come February and March when the games start to mean something. In goal the Rebels have arguably the premiere puck stopper in the WHL backstopping the young defence which should bolster their confidence. Bendera, (7-1-2, 1.58 GAA, .942 save %) is excellent while Cam Ward (’84) has shown he can play pretty well himself (4-0-1, 1.96 GAA, .923 save %). Winners are built with defence and Sutter has erected a steel barricade in Red Deer which could see another championship run come sooner than later.

Offensively, the Rebels need to upgrade if this is to be a second straight run for the Cup. Bergen will help, but the Rebels don’t want to be counting on all the youth up front to score goals come crunch time. As the playoffs near the other teams making a run will be solidifying their own defences and the Rebels could use a couple veteran snipers to take the pressure off the youth up front. Defensively, the Rebels might want to add a veteran defenseman who’s been through the wars to keep things on an even keel when the playoffs roll around, but this young group has played with poise and Bendera is rock solid. Look for Sutter to add a key scorer up front, but it still may be another year before this young group gets back to the Memorial Cup.

The third place Hurricanes, (10-3-2-0, 22 pts also with two games in hand on the Broncos) would likely be in top spot in any other division, but with the Rebels and Broncos also off to good starts, the Hurricanes will be in a year long battle if they hope to win the division. Nathan Barrett leads the way for the Hurricanes, but Tomas Kopecky, Ryley Layden and Martin Podlesak are key contributors as well. Tim Green, Warren McCutcheon and Scott Borders are all veterans who bring leadership and scoring to the table as well. Tristan Grant, rookies D.J. King and Paul McBrien add grit and size to the forward units, while youngster Nicholas Chibi is spotted in his rookie season. The Hurricanes have size, strength and scoring up front which could make them a tough team to deal with down the stretch. If the Hurricanes can land one more scorer/playmaker before the playoffs, they will be awfully tough.

On defence the Hurricanes top four are okay, with Phil Cole, Simon Ferguson, Andrew Jungwirth, and rookie Brent Seabrooke. Cole and Ferguson, who is the offensive leader on defence, are experienced and solid. Seabrooke will make some mistakes, however he is solid on offence and his defence will improve as he gains experience. Sophomore Matt Fetzner, Clay Plume, Matt Bergen and rookie Shawn Mezei round out the defensive group. What this group lacks is depth. While Jungwirth is tough and Seabrooke will continue to get better and will star in this league, for any kind of playoff run, the Hurricanes will need some experience to join the back end and act as a calming influence. In goal, veteran Blake Ward (4-1-1, 2.27 GAA, .919 save %) and rookie Logan Koopmans (5-1-1, 2.41 GAA, .899 save %) share the workload, however neither guy is a proven winner. Koopmans has been stopping the puck, but the Hurricanes have won a few of his starts for him, not because of him. Blake Ward can be great, but needs to stay focused to be at his best. Koopmans could very well improve as he gains experience, but if coach Maxwell is going to make a run this year, he may want to inquire around the league as to any available goaltenders for insurance.

Overall, the Hurricanes look solid, with the only major area of concern being the lack of depth on the blueline. Up front, the two imports, Kopecky and Podlesak are great compliments to Barrett and Layden, with McCutcheon and Green helping to fill out the first two units. Another goal scorer would be nice, however a veteran, stay at home defenseman would in my opinion be a bigger priority, as Seabrooke and Ferguson can do the job offensively for the back end. The addition of another solid defender might also delete the need for any goaltending help. The Hurricanes could be a dark horse come playoff time should Maxwell be able to find some additional scoring on his current roster and deal for some depth on the blueline.

The Calgary Hitmen (6-9-0-0) sit in fourth and are in rebuild mode. The Brendl, Moran, Krestanovich, Kinch era is over and it’s time to reload, not necessarily rebuild. Brandon Segal, recent acquisition Tyler Beechey, Michael Bubnick, Owen Fussey and import Frederik Sjostrom lead the way for the Hitmen offensively, but their numbers pale in comparison to the ultra talented bunch mentioned earlier. Rather than being loaded with top end skill, the Hitmen forwards need to come to work with the hard hats on every night and will need to work for every point. The future looks bright, with talented rookies Mark Stefchyk, Kyle Annesley, import Dennis Sergeev and Ryan Getzlaf mixed in with the younger veteran group of Fussey, Segal, Wolkowski and Lance Morrison, but it will likely be a year of learning for this group.

Defensively, the Hitmen have some experience loaded with some potential stars. Carli and Sarich have been around the league and add some veteran leadership to the back end, but it’s the youngster and potential top ten pick in the upcoming NHL draft Johnny Boychuk who seems to be taking over the leadership of this group. Tough, physical, solid skater and puck handler, Boychuk just seems poised beyond his years and usually makes the smart play. Mike Egener, who played almost as well as Boychuk in his rookie season, has had a bit of a sophomore jinx so far this season, but is another kid who adds to what appears a solid looking defence for a few years in Calgary. Throw in eighteen year old rookie Rob Smith and things could turn around quickly for the Htimen next year. This young group is being given every opportunity to improve, as the Hitrmen have moved veteran defenseman Wade Davis up front, not just to add some size to the forward unit, but because they have a pretty solid group of young defenseman they want to give ice time to.

Goaltending that seemed so solid a year ago, is again in transition as veteran Brady Block left the team and potential NHLer Brent Krahn is struggling with a chronic knee problem that has seen him play in only two games so far this season. Youngsters Ryan Pappaioanno (3-2-0-0, 4.40 GAA, .842 save %) and Ryan Martin (1-2-0-0, 4.56 GAA, .874 save %) have been thrown into the fray and will either sink or swim if or until Krahn returns from injury. Little offence and two rookie keepers will make this a longer season than most in Calgary expected, however the long term gains may be worth it. If Krahn returns healthy, the Hitmen may be able to turn him into a top end prospect as teams looking to make a run look for goaltending help come knocking

The Medicine Hat Tigers appear to most fans as a team treading water, with perennially small forwards and questionable goaltending always holding them back. Recent acquisition Derek Boogaard, will change the small forward theory for this year anyway, but the Tigers aren’t looking for him to score, they’re hoping he can create some room for their small crop of talented forwards. If Jason Boily sticks around after the Boogaard acquisition, the Tigers, or should I say “BOBS”, in Boily, Olynyk, Boogaard and Schefflemaier will be coming to your rink and raising havoc to create room for the talented forwards. Joffrey Lupul (21 pts), “BOBS” leading scorer, likely welcomed the addition and will now be able to take the target off his back and concentrate on doing what he does best, scoring goals. Ben Thompson, Ryan Hollweg, rookie Stefan Meyer, Brett Draney and Gable Gross should also benefit from the room the “BOBS” should be able to create. If Chris St. Jaques can return healthy, the Tigers may well be able to put a second half surge together and surprise some people come playoff time.

On defence, the Tigers have quite possibly the best undrafted defenseman in the world, Jay Boumeester. Huge, great skater and soft hands have NHL scouts wearing bibs when this defenseman’s name comes up. If he has any weakness (and I am nitpicking here), he could play with a bit more of a mean streak, but hey, you can’t have it all. Joining him on the back end is another huge defenseman, Brett Schefflemaier, who has other WHL teams looking to make a run, poking around seeing if this overage defenseman with a mean streak and ability to play is available. Add Schefflemaier to the forward group and you’ll have teams around the league saying we play the “BOBS” tonight instead of the Tigers. Add Rory Rawlyk, Josh Morrow along with rookies Steve Marr and Dan Idema to the likes of Schefflemaier and Bouwmeester and defensively the “BOBS”, er, I mean Tigers, look alright. Oft maligned Sean Connors (3-5-1-0, 4.01 GAA, .881 save %) and sixteen year old rookie Kevin Nastiuk (1-2-0-0, 5.83 GAA, .825 save %) man the nets for the Tigers. Connors, who struggled over the past two seasons in Moose Jaw, could well regain his form in Medicine Hat if the defence helps him out and could well be the key to any success the Hat might have this year. If Connors can show some consistency, there may be reason to think the Tigers could put something together, however, if he falters, it would be awfully tough for the rookie to step in and stop the flood.

After all is said and done, I do believe the Tigers can turn things around if “BOBS” play smart and create room for the skill guys like I think they can. The Tigers may only be one skilled forward and a goaltender away from being able to make the playoffs, but if nothing else, be sure to see the “BOBS” play when they come to your town, because one thing is for sure, it will be a feisty affair.