WHL B.C. Division preview

By Jeff Dahlia


Though the Kelowna Rockets have been the perennial powerhouse of the
WHL B.C. Division for some time now, last season we saw the reemergence of Kootenay. A lot of the teams are adding new players and putting the final adjustment to their rosters. Given the talent and experience
around the division, it is going to be another battle all season long. Let’s take a look at what’s in store.

Kootenay Ice

The Ice won took the B.C. Division last year, their first
divisional title since the 2000-01 season, when they won the then eight-team West Division. As the 2004-05 regular season champions, Kootenay also captured their first Scotty Munro Trophy in franchise history. Even though the roster will have a few players missing from last year’s winning squad, Kootenay is well within their limits to challenge for another B.C. Division title. Expect to see some more young faces take to the rink this season.

The biggest setback the Ice will have to deal with is the graduation of last season’s point leader, Nigel Dawes (NYR). However, the team will return Adam Cracknell (CGY), Ryan Russell (NYR) and second-year center, Ben Maxwell (2006 eligible). Cracknell, who wasn’t
on the radar a couple of years ago, has become a pleasant surprise. He has all the heart, determination and leadership
skills necessary. He might not put up gaudy numbers, but you’ll never see him take a shift off. Russell finished last year second in goals and fourth overall in scoring. He will most likely
be the team’s go-to goal scorer this time around. A young, but proven all-around competitor, Maxwell will be able to showcase his good hands and above average vision as his minutes increase this year.

Kootenay will also welcome in freshmen forwards Luke Wiens (2006 eligible) and Andrew Bailey (2006 eligible) for the 2005-06 season. Wiens is a chippy forward who has shown the ability to put up decent points and be a willing enforcer. Standing at only 5’9, Bailey will use his speed and skill to beat the opposition off the rush. The Hazlet, Saskatoon native put up a well-balanced amount of points with the Swift Current Legionaries in the SMAAHL last season.

Mike Busto, who led all defensemen in scoring last season, is back to guide the group into battle this year. Besides Busto, Kootenay returns three other
defensemen from last year’s squad, including sophomore, Chad Greenan (2006 eligible).

The Ice will also add Slovakian import Lukas Bohunicky (2006 eligible) to the roster, while it will be a toss up for the remaining spots. In any case, rearguards Paul MacDonald (2006 eligible) and Todd Panchyson (2006 eligible) will be worth keeping an eye on.

Taylor Dakers (SJ) will finally get his turn as the team’s starting goalie when the season opens. Dakers spent the 2004-05 season playing behind Jeff Glass (OTT), who turned in a brilliant season en route to WHL goalie of the year honors. Backing Dakers will be rookie Kris Lazaruk (2006
eligible), who joins the Ice after spending the last season with the Edmonton Canadians in the AMHL.

Kelowna Rockets

Kelowna might have finished the 2004-05 regular season as the first runner-up to Kootenay, but they were all the buzz in the post season. They went onto to take the WHL title, but fell short of winning their second consecutive Memorial Cup. Head coach Jeff Truitt and the rest of the Rockets are in fine shape as they prepare for the 2005-06 season. They return a group full of talent, experience and leadership.

Even though the team’s roster is very balanced, Kelowna is loaded up front with bona fide point producers. Tyler Spurgeon (EDM), Justin Keller (TB), Troy Bodie (EDM), and Blake Comeau (NYI) all return to lead the Rockets this year. The four combined for 47 percent of the team’s total goals (215) and 36 percent of the team’s total points (580). Spurgeon lead the way in overall scoring with 62 points, Keller led the team with 31 goals and Bodie and Comeau tied for second in goals scored (24).

They return Latvian import Lauris Darzins (NSH) and Kevin Hill (2006 eligible) up front.
Darzins led all Kelowna rookies in scoring last season and is expected to take on an even bigger role this year. Hill suited up for only 27 contests last season for the Rockets, but seems to be turning heads during the preseason. Expect the Winnipeg, Manitoba native to have a breakout year if he continues to progress.

The Rockets will also look to add center Myles MacRae (2006 eligible) and right wing Rob Roteliuk (2006 eligible). MacRae was spent the 2004-05 season with the Abbotsford Pilots, where he was in the top ten in team scoring. Roteliuk comes to Kelowna after playing in the MJHL with the Portage Terriers. He missed significant time due to illness, but the Terriers went
on to win the 2005 MJHL/Anavet Cup Championship.

Kelowna will have to deal with the loss of last year’s heart and soul of the defense, Shea Weber (NSH). Luckily, they do return two great offensive blueliners in Matt Card (BUF) and Kyle Cumiskey (COL). Card is a great all-around talent, who also led all
defensemen in scoring during the 2004-05 regular season. Cumiskey is returning after a good season, where the versatile rearguard stood out at both ends. Expect to see him running Truitt’s power play again this year.

The team will also have two newcomers on their blue line with Swedish import Alex Edler (VAN) and rookie Tysen Dowzak (2006 eligible). Edler left behind an option to sign with Modo in the SEL to join the Rockets. He’s another offensive-minded defenseman who comes in at 6’4
and 201 pounds. Dowzak comes to the team after spending two years in the most heralded U.S. hockey prep school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Michigan. His size and ability makes him very sought-after prospect. He should have the NHL scouts full attention this season.

When it comes to goaltending, both Derek Yeomans and Kristofer Westblom (MIN) both had equally impressive 2004-05 seasons. Even though head coach Truitt will probably give the veteran Yeomans the nod, don’t expect him to shy away from Westblom either. Both were integral in helping Kelowna so far into the post season last year.

Vancouver Giants

Heading into their fifth full season, the Giants continue to build and retain strength as a franchise. Finishing third in the division during the 2004-05 season, Vancouver looks to have the ability to
compete with the likes of Kelowna and Kootenay for the top spot this time around. They too have had a couple of key personnel losses, but also have a lot of offensive firepower and an above average defense.

Off the top, the Giants return three of their top five scorers from the 2004-05 squad.
The two most notable forwards would be last season’s goal and points leader Gilbert Brule (CBJ) and fourth-year free agent Mitch Bartley. Both are expected to bring their scoring prowess back to the team this year.

The team also welcomes back a pair of Calgary Flames prospects in J.D. Watt and Cam Cunning. Watt is an energy player who is good in the agitator role. He led the team with a total of 213 penalty minutes, which also happened to sixth best in all of the WHL last year. Cunning returns to the Giants for his final full year of WHL competition. The team traded Matt Kassian to the Kamloops Blazers for him at the trade deadline. At that time, he was among the top
goal scorers with the Blazers.

Vancouver will also welcome returning center Jason Reese (2006 eligible), rookie Milan Lucic (2006 eligible) and Slovakian
import Mario Bliznak (VAN). Reese saw action in the majority of Giants games last year as a freshman and has a lot of raw talent and skill that is just waiting to be tapped. Lucic is a gritty forward who played with the Coquitlam Express last season in the BCHL. The Giants are hoping that Bliznak will make a solid
contribution to the league after spending last season in his native land, playing with Dubnica’s junior team. If all goes well, you can assume that he’ll be consistent contributor to the team’s offense.

Although Andrej Meszaros (OTT) has moved on, Mark Fistric (DAL), Cody Franson (NSH) and Max Gordichuk (EDM) are just three of many experienced defensemen returning for the Giants this year. Fistric is a 2004 first round selection by Stars, and has been
terrific with Vancouver. Franson was the team’s most improved player last year, while Gordichuk suits up for his first full season with the Giants. He came over to the club from the Kamloops Blazers via a trade.

The goalie situation is a bit up in the air this season. After Czech Republic import Marek Schwarz (STL) left the team, the
full-time duties have been bequeathed to a trio of willing netminders in Dustin Slade, Tommy Tartaglione (2006 eligible) and Tyson Sexsmith (2007 eligible). Currently, Slade is dealing with a nagging knee injury while Sexsmith has sustained a stress fracture to his pelvis. Tartaglione comes to the team from the California Wave system, based out of Anaheim,
CA. He’s small at 5’9, but has had a great preseason thus far. He hasn’t had any prior experience in the WHL, while Slade is the veteran and Sexsmith only saw a total of 85 minutes of action last year.

Kamloops Blazers

The Blazers made it into the playoffs last season limping with an anemic offense. The club realized they needed to make some key changes to boost the energy
of the club. From a retooled roster to more comfortable on-ice systems, head coach Mark Ferner and GM Dean Clark continue to raise the bar, in hopes to fend off mediocrity.

While Kamloops has the majority of their forwards coming back this season, they have also added a couple
to help increase the offensive output. They traded Kris Hogg to Lethbridge in exchange for Kris Versteeg (BOS) and signed undrafted Swiss import Janick Steinmann. Versteeg is a crafty winger who has a balanced scoring approach. Over the last three seasons with the Hurricanes, he has increased his points every year. Steinmann comes to the Blazers basically unproven in either the Swiss A or B leagues. It is going to be interesting to see
how he adjusts.

The Blazers will also look to Moises Gutierrez (PIT) and Matt Kassian (MIN) to pick up the pace and put
up good numbers. Gutierrez a fourth-year right winger is looking to have an explosive season. After progressing for three years in a row, it appears as if he might have gained the
confidence that made him such a sought-after prospect. Kassian joined the Blazers last season at the trade deadline in exchange for Cam Cunning.

The defense was equally challenged last season, but the club does return bright spots in Ray Macias (COL) and Russian import Roman Tesliuk (EDM). Splitting time between forward and defense, Macias was the
team’s assists and overall points leader last year. The Long Beach, California native was the heart and soul of the team during the 2004-05 season and hopes players this year will continue to follow his lead. In his final season with the Blazers, Tesliuk will look to help anchor a defense that needs to lend some solid support to their above average talent back in net.

The team will also have the services of Victor Bartley (2006 eligible) this season. He’s a talented
rearguard who has also caught the eye of Hockey Canada. He completed his rookie season last year and should be more of a factor in the top two pairings for the Blazers.

Devan Dubnyk (EDM) returns to lead Kamloops between the pipes. Despite a poor overall record, Dubnyk put up good numbers, which helped keep the team in a lot more games last year. Michael Maniago (2006 eligible) returns in the backup role for the Blazers. He saw action in 14 games last season and posted a 3-5-0 record.

Prince George Cougars

After spending the three years in the cellar of the division, the Cougars are looking to get over the hump and back into the post season for the first time since
2001-02. Prince George started in the right direction by hiring Mike Vandekamp as their new head coach. Vandekamp brings a new look and 10 years of junior coaching experience to the franchise.

The Cats will welcome back hometown hero Nicholas Drazenovic (STL), and overagers Colin Patterson
and Brett Parker to the lineup. They were three of the team’s top five scorers from last year. Drazenovic was the
team’s top setup man and second overall points leader, while Patterson was the team’s top goal scorer and ranked third overall in points. Both Drazenovic and Patterson played all 72 games for the club last season. Parker continued to brings his consistency and edge to the team last year, something they’ll welcome again.

Prince George will also expect good things from second-year right winger Evan Fuller (2006 eligible) and rookie Swedish import, Fred Wikner (CGY). Fuller spent last year with the team and saw action in 55 contests. The Mile House, British Columbia native will likely get top six minutes this season. As for Wikner, he joins the team after ending a junior career back home with Frolunda HC. His twin brother John Wikner (OTT) is also starting his WHL career this year in Brandon as well.

With Dustin Byfuglien (CHI) graduated, anticipate last season’s newcomer Andy Rogers (TB) to guide the Cats defense. Rogers is a stay-at-home
defenseman who is smart and reads the game well. Don’t expect a lot of points from him, but you can count of him for consistent play.

The team also looks to bring along two second-year rearguards in Mike Berube (2006 eligible) and Ty Wishart (2006 eligible). Berube was often paired with Byfuglien last season and will hopefully take what he learned and apply it to this season. Wishart has improved his game dramatically over the year. It showed when Team Canada’s U-18 team came calling this summer,
and offered him a roster spot on the Junior World Cup team.

The Cougars will go into battle this season with two undrafted goalies in Real Cyr and Scott Bowles. The two had comparable
numbers, but Bowles got the bulk of the workload. Another year older and stronger could prove the difference for these two netminders.

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