2012-13 WHL Eastern Conference season preview

By Jared Ramsden

Michael St. Croix - Edmonton Oil Kings

Photo: New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix will lead the offensive charge for what should be the team to beat in the WHL, the Edmonton Oil Kings (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 It's not easy to repeat as league champions, but the Edmonton Oil Kings appear poised to potentially buck that trend as they return a large portion of their WHL Championship team from last season. They might get a slight push from the Calgary Hitmen and Saskatoon Blades, but those are really the only two teams who can come even remotely close to matching the overall talent the Oil Kings possess.

The rest of the conference appears to be in a state of flux with the Prince Albert Raiders and Swift Current Broncos poised to make a move up the standings while the Brandon Wheat Kings and Moose Jaw Warriors look as though they will be in tough after getting hit hard by graduation.

Brandon Wheat Kings
Lost in second round of playoffs. Finished season with 83 points.

The Wheat Kings could be in for a rough go of it this season, having lost nearly 400 points from graduated forwards Mark Stone (OTT), Michael Ferland (CGY), Brenden Walker and Kevin Suhnder (BUF). Swiss winger Alessio Bertaggia, Brandon's highest returning scorer, will be counted on for more offense, as will Tyrel Seaman (STL), who could be in line for a break-out season if he can stay healthy.

If there is one area where the Wheat Kings are strong, it's the blueline, led by 2013 top draft prospects Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy, who are both entering their third full season of action in the WHL. Don't be shocked if they are both amongst Brandon's top scorers this season. Corbin Boes will carry the bulk of the goaltending duties after coming on strong down the stretch and into the 2012 playoffs.

Brandon will have to rely on a strong defense core and goaltending this season, but regardless, they will be hard pressed to make the playoffs after losing so much scoring up front.

Calgary Hitmen
Lost in first round of playoffs. Finished season with 91 points.

Despite a quick and disappointing playoff exit in the first round after a major bounce-back regular season, the club appears poised for even bigger and better things this year. The Hitmen offense will revolve around 19-year-old Swedish center Victor Rask (CAR), who was sorely missed in the playoffs last year. A 40-goal season isn't out of the realm of possibility for the talented pivot. Cody Sylvester, Brady Brassart, Trevor Cheek and Brooks Macek provide scoring and experience while youngsters Greg Chase and 2014 top draft prospect Jake Virtanen should also supplement the offense nicely.

Calgary's defense can be summed up in one way; steady, yet unspectacular. Jaynen Rissling (WSH). Kenton Helgeson (ANA) and Alex Roach (LAK) are just a few of the returning faces that will help anchor the Hitmen blueline. The goaltending reins will be handed over to Chris Driedger (OTT) after he split the time with Brandon Glover last year.

The Hitmen shouldn't have any problem repeating last year's regular season success with a strong, well-rounded team that didn't get hit hard by graduation. The key will be replicating that success in the post-season.

Edmonton Oil Kings
Won WHL championship. Finished season with 107 points.

Here's a scary thought for the entire WHL – the Edmonton Oil Kings could quite easily repeat as WHL Champions. The Oil Kings return a good chunk of their powerhouse offense from last year. Diminutive forward Michael St. Croix (NYR) shouldn't have any difficulty cracking the 100-point barrier again, and he is joined by returning top scorers T.J. Foster and Dylan Wruck. A healthy year from Travis Ewanyk (EDM), a full season from Henrik Samelsson (PHX) and potential breakout seasons from big bruising winger Mitchell Moroz (EDM) and top 2013 draft prospect Curtis Lazar augment a deadly and potent offense.

Despite losing captain Mark Pysyk (BUF) to the pros, the Oil Kings blueline still looks strong, headlined by all-weather workhorse Griffin Reinhart (NYI), who was recently named the team captain for the 2012-13 season.  Keegan Lowe (CAR), Martin Gernat (EDM) and Cody Corbett all return to give Edmonton a formidable top-four. Goaltender Laurent Brossoit (CGY) broke out in a big way last year and should pick up right where he left off last season.

Quite simply, it would be a major upset if the Oil Kings aren't able to at least advance to the WHL's final four and could very well take the WHL crown again when things are all said and done.

Kootenay Ice
Lost in first round of playoffs. Finished season with 82 points.

Kootenay lost a good chunk of their offense last season, losing Max Reinhart (CGY), Jesse Ismond and Joe Antilla to graduation. That's nearly 200 points of offense that won't be easy to replace. This team will more than likely be led up-front by 2014 top draft prospect and 2011-12 WHL Rookie of the Year Sam Reinhart. The youngest of the Reinhart brothers, Max arguably is the most talented of the three.

The Ice will have a rag-tag group of blueliners, led by 20-year-old Joey Leach, a former draft pick of the Calgary Flames. 6'5” Spencer Wand will be worth keeping an eye on this fall, though he likely won't put up a lot of points. The graduation of goaltender Nathan Lieuwen (BUF) will really sting as the workhorse was the lynchpin of the team the past few seasons. Mackenzie Skapski will take over as the starter this year.

If Reinhart can take his game up yet another level and Skapski can come close to replicating the elite goaltending that Lieuwen provided the Ice, then maybe a playoff berth is possible. But a lot will have to go right for the Ice to be a major contender this year.

Lethbridge Hurricanes
Last year missed playoffs. Finished season with 59 points.

The Hurricanes struggled last season, but that was to be expected as they iced a very young squad. While the group is still relatively inexperienced, expect to see some steps of tangible progress from the likes of second-year forwards Jay Merkley and Jamal Watson. Also, don't be surprised to see Reid Duke and Remi Laurencelle at the top of the Hurricanes scoring at season's end.

Lethbridge returns five blueliners from last years team, including 20-year-old Daniel Johnston. Highly touted 2011 bantam draft pick Ryan Pilon could make a big impact as a 16-year-old blueliner. The goaltending will be in the hands of Ty Rimmer, who was acquired from Tri-City over the summer. He will provide a very green team with a strong veteran presence in between the pipes.

It will likely be another learning season for the young core of Hurricane players, but the team appears to be heading in the right direction with a lot of good pieces in place for the future.

Medicine Hat Tigers
Lost in second round of playoffs. Finished season with 90 points.

The Tigers lived and died with the production of Emerson Etem (ANA) and Hunter Shinkaruk last year as they carried the offense, combining for 110 goals. While Etem gradated, the 17-year-old Shinkaruk returns, hoping to bolster his draft stock for this coming summer. It's not unreasonable to think Shinkaruk could flirt with 60 goals this year. Curtis Valk, Miles Koules and Jayden Hart will be depended upon to provide some secondary scoring behind Shinkaruk.

Medicine Hat lost their top two defenseman last year, including the 58 points of James Bettauer. Look for Alex Theriau, Dylan Busenius and recently acquired Derek Ryckman to carry the mail on the Tigers blueline. Losing starting goaltender Tyler Bunz (EDM) to the pros will definitely sting, but the team has high hopes for Czech import Marek Langhamer (PHX).

Despite the loss of Etem, the Tigers might be able to survive and hover around the middle of the WHL pack as long as Shinkaruk gets some help in the form of some secondary scoring and Langhamer is able to make a smooth adjustment to North America.

Moose Jaw Warriors
Lost in third round of playoffs. Finished season with 98 points.

The Warriors made a good run last season, advancing to the third round of the WHL playoffs before bowing out to the eventual league champion Oil Kings. This year, that feat might be hard to duplicate given the losses the team suffered upfront. Though there is some potential excitement in the form of 16-year-old Brayden Point and his long-term upside, the team lost Quinton Howden (FLA), Cody Beach (STL), James Henry and Cam Braes to graduation. Sam Fioretti and Justin Kirsch will be looked upon to carry the bulk of the offense.

Moose Jaw's strength resides on the blueline, despite the graduation of defenseman Dylan McIlrath (NYR). Morgan Rielly (TOR) should be primed for a huge season after missing the majority of his draft season with a torn ACL. The points should come fast and furious for the talented blueliner. Travis Brown (CHI), Joel Edmundson (STL) and Kendall McFaull team with Rielly to form a formidable top-four group of defenseman. Unproven 17-year-olds Justin Paulic and Daniel Wapple will man the nets for the Warriors.

It's looking like the Warriors will take a slight step back after winning the Eastern Division last season. It will be hard to withstand the loss of all that offense upfront, though a full season of Reilly should help keep the team above .500.

Prince Albert Raiders
Last year missed playoffs. Finished season with 48 points.

Is this the year the Prince Albert Raiders finally make the jump from pretender to contender? After a dreadful 2011-12 season that saw the Raiders fall to the bottom of the WHL standings, they appear poised for a breakout season. Despite losing leading scorer Justin Maylan to graduation, scoring goals shouldn't be a problem with Mark McNeill (CHI), Mike Winther (DAL) and Anthony Bardaro returning. Adding talented German-import Leon Draisaitl just adds another weapon up-front.

The Raiders defense is still somewhat suspect, but they have a blossoming star in Josh Morrissey. The 2013 draft-eligible defenseman scored 38 points last season, with a doubling of his point production this season not out of the question. Harrison Ruopp (PIT) supplies some snarl while Antoine Corbin provides leadership and strong two-way play. The team acquired overager Luke Siemens from Moose Jaw during the off-season, who should help solidify the Raiders goaltending.

The stars look to finally be aligning for the sad-sack Raiders franchise that is long overdue for a change in fortune. With one of the more potentially potent offenses in the conference, combined with even just average goaltending from Siemens, the Raiders should have no problem making the post-season.

Red Deer Rebels
Last year missed playoffs. Finished season with 70 points.

Red Deer got off to a good start last season, but a mid-season swoon that coincided with a season ending injury to goaltender Patrik Bartosak proved too much for the team to handle. Scoring goals was a problem last season, too, and could prove to be an issue again this year. The team will be relying on a trio of 20-year-olds for scoring, lead by Turner Elson (CGY). Keep an eye on youngster Conner Bleackley as a potential offensive contributor as a 16-year-old.

Electric defenseman Matt Dumba is worth the price of admission and will again be counted on to shoulder not only a major offensive role for Red Deer, but also carry the bulk of defensive duties once again. Simply put, Dumba can do it all, and he will have to if the team hopes to get back into the playoffs. Bartosak showed what he could do when healthy last season and the team hopes the Czech goaltender can replicate that over a full and injury-free season.

Even with a strong season out of Dumba and Bartosak, it's going to be a struggle for the Rebels again this fall if they can't bulge the twine on a more regular basis. Consider them a bubble playoff team at best.

Regina Pats
Lost in first round of playoffs. Finished season with 82 points.

The departure of Jordan Weal (LA) and his 116 points will definitely be felt by the Pats this season. It will have to be an offense-by-committee approach that tries to replace what Weal produced. Chandler Stephenson (WSH), 20-year-old Lane Scheidl and burgeoning 17-year-old star Morgan Klimchuk should lead the way for the Pats in the goal scoring department. The 2013 draft eligible Klimchuk should easily double the 18 goals he scored last year, and perhaps even hit 40.

With 20-year-olds Colton Jobke (MIN) and Brandon Davidson (EDM) no sure bet to return to the Pats blueline, the team has been busy adding veteran depth throughout the early part of September. Luke Fenske and Kyle Burroughs do return to the blueline. With 20-year-old Matt Hewitt between the pipes for Regina, the team should be in good hands in net.

Regina should be in contention for a playoff spot again this year, but it's tough to expect them to improve much from their showing last season. Hewitt should give the team a legitimate chance to win every night though, which will make them a difficult foe.

Saskatoon Blades
Lost in first round of playoffs. Finished season with 83 points.

The Blades were swept in the first round of the WHL playoffs last fall, but expectations will be much higher this season given that they are the 2012-13 Memorial Cup hosts. While they are far from a powerhouse, they look to be the most talented team in the conference behind the Oil Kings. The addition of Shane McColgan (NYR) and Brendan Walker this summer gives Saskatoon some more offensive punch to go along with returning Lukas Sutter (WPG) and Matej Stransky (DAL).

Saskatoon boasts an above average group of blueliners headlined by Duncan Siemens (COL) and Dalton Thrower (MTL). Darren Dietz (MTL) also returns along with 20-year-old Connor Cox. In net, the Blades will again go with Russian import Andrey Makarov (BUF). While he's capable of conjuring up spectacular saves and individual performances, his consistency over the course of the regular season and playoffs will be very important for the team.

There isn't much doubt that the Blades are one of the strong teams in the Eastern Conference. They will likely make some significant trades during the course of the season given that they are hosting the Memorial Cup to help supplement a good, but not great line-up.

Swift Current Broncos
Last year missed playoffs. Finished with 62 points.

Much like the Raiders, the Broncos appear to be on the verge of a breakout season after missing the post-season dance last year. They may lack star power, especially after the graduation of leading scorer Taylor Vause, but they are a well balanced team upfront. Coda Gordon (CGY) and his 30 goals return, as does center Graham Black (NJ), who is coming off a 50-point rookie season. A full-season from Adam Lowry (WPG) will be a big boost for Swift Current's group of forwards. Colby Cave is also a guy to keep close tabs on as he should get a boost in ice-time.

Defense looks to be a position of strength for the Broncos as they return six rearguards from last season. 19-year-olds Reece Scarlett (NJ) and Richard Nedomlel (DET) each cracked the 40 point mark last season and should both improve on those numbers this year. Top 2011 bantam draft pick Brycen Martin also could make an impact as early as this year. Import netminder Eetu Laurikainen will look to solidify the Broncos goaltending, which has been an on-going problem as of late.

After a couple of below-average seasons, the Broncos look like they are finally ready to turn the corner as a franchise. The key to the Broncos success this season likely relies on their goaltending. If the Czech-born Laurikainen can provide a solid backbone between the pipes, Swift Current should be playoff bound.