WHL U.S. Division preview

By Jeff Dahlia

The U.S. Division has historically been a tight, competitive division within the WHL. The same will likely be true for the 2005-06 season as the Pacific Northwest gears up for junior hockey. While a couple of the teams look to fill minor gaps in the roster, others have some important positional questions to answer. Here’s a look at what the division has to offer this year.

Seattle Thunderbirds

The Thunderbirds finished the 2004-05 season atop their division and third overall in the Western Conference. Led by first-year coach Rob Sumner last season, the T-Birds completed their worst to first campaign, which also put Seattle back into the playoffs after a year’s absence. Of the five teams in the division, they’re one of the top teams who have a good blend of veteran leadership and talented youth. The Thunderbirds appear to the most balanced team in the division from the forward position all the way back to the net.

The T-Birds will be led upfront by Aaron Gagnon (PHX), Chris Durand (COL) and Czech import, Ladislav Scurko (PHI). During the 2004-05 season, Gagnon and Durand went one and two in overall scoring for Seattle, while Scurko finished fourth.

With the departure of free agents Derek Couture and Tyler Metcalf, the Thunderbirds added import Roman Tomanek (PHX) from Calgary and Tyler Johnson (CGY) from Red Deer, via trades. Tomanek missed most of the 2004-05 season after sustaining a shoulder injury. It might take him a while to warm up after coming off two surgeries in the offseason. Johnson is noted as an effective grinding type of forechecker, who should help create a lot of space on the attack for Seattle.

Second-year forwards George “Bud” Holloway and Mitch Fadden (both 2006 eligible) are coming off successful rookie seasons as 16-year-olds. Expect them to have increased roles with the T-Birds. Holloway is an impact player who reads and understands the game very well. He’s very competitive and has a good set of skills with and without the puck. Fadden is a crafty forward, who will use his speed to his advantage. He’s a skilled scorer who will find ways to bury the puck.

Greg Scott (2006 eligible) is joining the squad after a successful year
playing in the VIJHL (junior b), where he was the second leading scorer as a 16-year-old. He should help round out a potentially powerful Seattle offense.

On defense, the T-Birds lost the services of Zack FitzGerald (STL) who graduated from the program. He will continue his career in the professional ranks with the Blues. Clayton Barthel (WAS), Bretton Stamler (DET) and Scott Jackson (STL) will be looked upon to lead the group of blueliners. Expect second-year stopper Eli Grossman (2006 eligible) to make a bigger imprint with the group. Rookies will primarily make up the remaining defensive roster spots.

The T-Birds have a traffic jam between the pipes this season. Though it is a good problem to have, it will be interesting to see how Sumner will address the situation. Returning is overager NHL free agent Bryan Bridges, whose 13 shutouts and a 1.79 goals-against-average set WHL records last year. At 6’6, 210 pounds, 2006 eligible Gavin McHale, has the frame and raw skills that would make any NHL scout very intrigued. The Thunderbirds are also considering Andrew Pinsent (2006 eligible), as a possible third option, if needed.

Portland Winter Hawks

The 2004-05 runners-up are a poised and balance team to challenge the Thunderbirds for the top spot in the division. Much like their rivals up Interstate 5, Portland has also done a good job of integrating youth into a system of proven players. This season should be no different. The Winter Hawks made a series of moves over the summer, parting ways with average, older players to open the door for young inspiring players.

Brain Woolger (free agent) and Dan DaSilva (free agent), and Brandon Dubinsky (NYR) should lead the Hawks offense this year. DaSilva led the team in scoring during the 2004-05 season, while Woolger and Dubinsky finished tied third overall.

Also returning to the squad is Kyle Bailey (MIN) and 2006 eligibles in Frazer McLaren and Sasha Golin. All three were key parts of Portland’s offensive puzzle last season, getting stronger as the year went on. Management feels this group of two-way forwards will fill important roles for the upcoming season.

The Hawks are also adding Kelly Friesen (2006 eligible) and two imports in Stanislav Balan (NSH) from the Czech Republic and Jannik Hensen (VAN) from Denmark. All three additions were successful in their prior leagues.

Although the Hawks graduated rearguard Braydon Coburn (ATL) at the end of last season, the strength of Portland’s roster still lies in their defense corp. Back with the Hawks are three 2005 second round draft picks in Brendan Mikkelson (ANA), Michael Sauer (NYR) and Michael Funk (BUF). While Mikkelson’s responsibilities will continue to increase with the club, Sauer is coming back healthy and raring to go. Cameron Cepek (2006 eligible) also returns to the Winter Hawks after a productive rookie season.

Portland will be tested in net this year. Gone is free agent overager Blake Grenier, who was picked up early on in the 2004-05 season from the Swift Current Broncos. Enter Dustin Butler (2006 eligible), who should start the season as the Hawks full-time netminder. Butler shared time with Grenier last season until he lost time resulting from an ongoing abdominal muscle pull. The Hawks will also look to rookie Luke Shier (2006 eligible) to help with the duties. Unproven in the league, Shier had his success last season with Hope in junior B and in the BCHL with Langley.

Everett Silvertips

In only two years of existence as a franchise, the Everett Silvertips has had successful back-to-back campaigns. Heading into their third season, they look to continue to build and grow into one of the Western Conference’s perennial powerhouses. Locking up head coach Kevin Constantine through the 2008-09 season is a good start, but Everett also has the talented youth to maintain atop their division and help them challenge the likes of their neighbors to the south in Seattle and Portland.

The Tips will have a fine blend of power when it comes to the forward position. It shouldn’t be a problem for Everett to replace last season’s leading scorer in free agent Alex Leavitt. Right wing overager Torrie Wheat was the team’s second leading scorer in 2004-05. He returns for his final year in junior and chances are he’ll be picking up where he left off.

Everett is also returning three potentially explosive forwards in Karel Hromas (CHI), Brady Calla (2006 eligible) and Zach Hamill (2007 eligible). Hromas, who hails from the Czech Republic, was the team’s fifth leading scorer in his first season with the Tips. Calla is coming back after a productive rookie season where he shared the lead in the plus/minus rating and put up good numbers. A solid two-way player, expect him to see a lot of action. Hamill, who is a late 1988 born player, had a superb rookie campaign and should be one of Constantine’s top spark plugs up this year.

The team also has Peter Mueller (2006 eligible) from the U.S. and Ondrej Fiala (2006 eligible) from the Czech Republic joining on. Mueller is a highly-touted prospect out of the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he played along side phenom Phil Kessel. He was slated to join his Kessel and other fellow NTDP teammates at the University of Minnesota, but chose the WHL instead. Fiala spent the 2004-05 season playing in the U-20 and top leagues back in Czech Republic. Expect the duo to make a swift and immediate impact for Everett.

The final piece of the Everett’s offensive puzzle is left wing John Lammers (DAL). After spending three successful seasons developing with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Constantine and the Tips acquired the Langley, B.C. native over the summer in a trade. Lammers has put up consistent points over his span with Lethbridge and will help ignite Everett’s offense.

A little young and inexperienced, the Tips have tried to bolster their defensive lineup for the 2004-05 season. After ending the 2004-05 season as the leading scorer as a defenseman, Shaun Heshka (free agent), will lead this year’s blue line. The team also added speedster Jason Fransoo (free agent) from the Swift Current in exchange for a future draft pick. Everett will also feature second-year rearguards, Jonathan Harty (2006 eligible) and Graham Potuer (2006 eligible). Both Harty and Potuer were late draft picks in their bantam draft years, but have progressed quite nicely.

With the Tips dealing overager goalie Michael Wall (free agent) to the Regina Pats, Leland Irving (2006 eligible) becomes Everett’s full-time netminder. Working in way into the league as a backstop last season, Irving is poised to take over the starting job. He’s coming in off a hot summer where he helped backstop Team Canada to a gold medal at the U-18 Junior World Cup.

Spokane Chiefs

The Spokane Chiefs played most of the 2004-05 season as the fourth place team. They would continue to lose ground to Tri-City, slide into last place in the division and miss the playoffs. The Chiefs will look to bounce back this year starting with a retooled lineup and a new head coach in Bill Peters. He returns to the Spokane for his second stint with the franchise. Before his appointment to head coach, he served as an assistant coach from 1999-02. During the 1999-00 season, he helped the franchise to its most notably turnaround in the franchises history. The pressure will be on for the Peters and the young Chiefs, but he is determined to get the club back to winning.

Spokane will look to its 2004-05 scoring leader and overager Chad Klassen to help lead the offense this year. He won’t be alone, because Michael Grabner (2006 eligible) and Adam Hobson (CHI) also return. Hobson, who had an impressive summer with Team Canada, is also looking to get back with Spokane to help right the ship. The team will also have the services of Grabner, who lost a large amount of the 2004-05 season to injury. Despite the time lost, he was still able to finish third overall in rookie scoring and led all first-year skaters in goals.

After spending the last two seasons playing within the Djurgardens system in Sweden, Spokane is hoping that import rookie Johannes Salmonsson (PIT) can bring his scoring touch to the club. The Chiefs will also look to wingers Michael Senseman (2006 eligible) and J.P. Szaszkiewicz (2006 eligible) to supplement the offense.

The Chiefs will have a decent blue line when play gets underway. Sean Zimmerman (NJ) will lead the group of rearguards. He is a good stay-at home defenseman, who has made many big strides over the last two seasons with Spokane.

Matthew McCue (2006 eligible) will be another defender to key in on. He missed a big chunk of time last season resulting from a severe ankle injury. He suffered a concussion early on in camp, but is back in action and ready to go when the season starts.

Spokane traded away forward Ned Lukacevic (LA) to Swift Current to get defenseman David Schulz (VAN). The Winkler, Manitoba native will bring his big frame, aggressive style and consistent play to the Chiefs.

The Chiefs will feature Thomas Stehr (2006 eligible) and free agent Jim Watt (free agent). The club dealt away Kevin Opshal to the Lethbridge Hurricanes for a 2006 bantam draft pick. Stehr spent the 2004-05 season in the AMHL with the Lethbridge Y’s and turned in an average season. Watt, however, is a 19-year-old, who is heading into his fourth season with Spokane. He will have the starting duties unless the rookie can steal his thunder with the starts he gets.

Tri-City Americans

Although the Americans got off to a rough start during the 2004-05 season, a series of trades and a little bit of chemistry helped the club come on strong at the end of the season. Tri-City would go onto to take over the fourth and final spot in the U.S. Division, which also landed them in the playoffs.

This year maybe another challenge season for head coach Don Nachbaur and the Americans, as many key players from last season’s squad have moved on. The teams overall success will depend if Nachbaur’s go-to players cash in on their chances and carry consistency throughout year.

Up front, the team welcomes back Matt Schneider (CGY), Riley Emmerson (MIN) and Juraj Gracik (ATL). Schneider is a big center that stands at 6’7, and 190 pounds. He will continue to grow into his large frame, but is already a monster in down low on the forecheck, most notably in close. Emmerson is another big forward that is listed at 6’8, 230 lbs. Although he is not an offensive threat, he can skate at defense and he’s also a willing enforcer. Gracik is a skilled winger who can score. He had a below average 2004-05 rookie season, but the team is banking he will be back and have the success that helped put him on the radar in his draft year. He already had a successful Traverse City tournament with the Thrashers.

Tri-City will also have newcomer Donnie Glennie (2006 eligible) and second-year left wing, Chris Inglis (2006 eligible) to help out. The Americans picked up Glennie in a trade with Medicine Hat during the preseason. He led the Manitoba midget AAA league with 88 points (37 goals, 51 assists). Inglis is another older and has another year of experience under his belt. He’s got the skill, but may take a longer time to bloom than others his age.

The franchise’s defense took a big hit because they lost three key players in Shawn Belle (DAL), Clayton Stoner (MIN) and Andy Thompson (free agent).

Returning is fourth-year rearguard Logan Stephenson (PHX), Matt Swaby (2006 eligible) and Mike McDonald (2006 eligible). Stephenson is a defensive defensemen who has the poise and leadership skills to guide a young defensive unit. Swaby, who is barely scratching 6’0, is a good overall blueliner who needs to look to develop his offensive game with the loss of Belle and Stoner. McDonald came to the Am’s last year in a trade involving the Vancouver Giants. He spent the season in junior B, but needs to make the transaction this season.

The Americans do have the best goalie in all the WHL returning this season. Carey Price (MTL) will be between the pipes for his third season with the team. The 2005 first round, fifth overall pick of Canadiens has been busy during the off-season with Team Canada, Canadiens rookie camp and then main training camp. He is an established hybrid goalie who will be the backbone of the Americans this season.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.