Thursday, September 25, 2014

Avalanche Player Grades - Sept. 25th vs. MTL


Brief player notes from September 25th, 2014
Colorado (2) - Montreal (3)  OT


G

#20 Reto Berra – Had a good performance overall, giving up 3 goals, all of which came on Montreal’s PP.  Still have some concerns with the glove hand, obviously, and once again showed some signs of going down early and also of not picking up pucks through traffic.  But he battled hard and didn’t leave too many juicy rebounds around until a couple late in the game.  Definitely a showing he can build off of.  If he can play like this every time he’s out there, he’ll be just fine as a backup.


D

#2 Nick Holden – Was a fairly solid game from the 2nd year Avalanche blueliner.  Skating has clearly improved from last year. Looks faster, smoother and stronger on his skates.  Also looks more composed with the puck.  He still lost a few positioning battles along the walls and needs to sharpen up his defensive positioning and decision making.  He should be just fine as a #5 defenceman, as he’s currently penciled in to be.

#4 Tyson Barrie – His knee looks full healed, was moving around the ice nicely.  Opened the scoring with a nice pinch and shot to the shelf. Looked like he was really trying to help set the games tempo with some of his puck control up the ice.  Got a bit carried away in the second half of the game with some of his pinches and rushes into the neutral zone, getting caught up ice a bit.  Also overcommitted on Galchenyuk on the OT winner.  He looks poised for a big year.

#5 Nate Guenin – Was awful to start, had a brutal turnover before the game was even 3 minutes old.  Also closed out the frame with another bad one on an attempted breakout.  Got a bit better and smarter as the game went on, but I flat out don’t see any reason for him to make the team to open the year.  He does block a lot of shots, though.

#22 Zach Redmond – Really liked him tonight.  Great combination of size and skating ability.  Loved to jump into the offence, joining the rush and even having a few shifts where he was on the forecheck and then behind the Canadiens goal.  Made some nice simple plays with the puck and some nice quiet pinches.  Tried to do a bit too much at times, but you can’t blame him when he’s trying to make the team.  Had some turnovers throughout the game and will need to clean those up.  He seems like a lock to make the team in my opinion.

#27 Bruno Gervais – Was often out there with Guenin and it was a trainwreck.  Spent a lot of time chasing, took some bad routes to pucks and lanes.  A middle pairing AHL guy but a nice move by Roy to let him stick around and play in the Bell Centre.

#44 Ryan Wilson – Moved around ok tonight.  Played decent defence, for the most part, in regards to his body positioning.  Made some nice reads and pinches down into the slot.  Hit the crossbar on the PP, also had some other good shots toward the net.  Played decent on the PK, including in OT before the winner.  Not perfect, but a decent showing.  I think he’s a lock to make the team if he can continue playing like he did tonight.  He’s a #7 guy and just needs to accept that.


F

#9 Matt Duchene – Was a threat here and there was a pretty average showing from him.  Seemed like he was going at about 75%.  Was only 2 of 9 on his draws.  Seemed like him and O’Reilly were moving the puck around ok from time to time, but Borna Rendulic’s bobbles here and there seemed to slow them down from creating off the rush much.

#10 Ben Street – Has good speed but didn’t show much tonight with limited minutes.  Pretty clearly a top 6 guy on the Monsters who should give them some good offence.

#18 Jesse Winchester – Skates well, plays aggressive. Had a great assist on the Landeskog goal. Made some nice hits and was working hard on the forecheck.  Saw decent time on the PK.  Didn’t seem too far out of place on the 2nd line, which is a good sign for him as a 4th line fit.

#24 Marc-Andre Cliché – Led the team in shorthanded PK time but didn’t do much for me.  Was pretty scary a few times when him and Gervais were the two guys on the right side of the PK unit.  I know that he’s going to make the team, but I just think he's more of a 14th forward.

#25 Max Talbot – Looked ok playing down the middle, but wasn’t taking a lot of draws.  He’ll be a good fit as a 3rd line winger or 4th line centre.  I just hope Roy doesn’t intend on using him as the team’s 3rd line centre.  Those will be some tough matchups for him in this conference.

#29 Nathan MacKinnon – Was arguably the team’s best player in this one and I still felt it was pretty quiet for him.  Wasn’t blazing out there a ton, but still made things happen when he had the puck.  He’s so smart offensively as he knows when to get rid of the biscuit and when to hold it.  Had a pair of assists and his cycle work on the 1st goal was something nice to see.  He's going to be tough to handle below the opposition goal line this year.  Showed some good work on the backcheck, too, but his overall defensive coverage was quite loose and scrambly at times.

#45 Dennis Everberg – Had a great first period and then seemed to cool off.  He’s a big guy and moves well.  Took some pucks to the net and had some nice plays off the rush too, including attempting a sauce feed to Street on a 2 on 1.  I think he’ll make a great fit as a depth forward.  Played twice as much as his linemates.

#55 Cody McLeod – Didn’t do much outside of his work on the PK. He’s a 12th forward, at best, these days.  Still like the effort, not many players are as rugged as he is.

#56 Daniel Maggio – Not sure why he's still around. A physical kid who threw his weight around but is only AHL depth at this point in time. 

#71 Borna Rendulic – Looked fairly comfortable now that he got to play with some skill guys.  Like Everberg, he also moves well for his size.  Was a bit soft along the walls and just on his stick in general.  Mishandled many pucks throughout the game.  Was sneaking into the slot on the PP and it resulted in at least one good chance.  Overall he started well and ended up being pretty mediocre tonight.  He needs some AHL seasoning, but looks to have some nice tools if he can figure it out.

#90 Ryan O’Reilly – Like Duchene, it looked like he was only going at about 75% effort.  Made some nice plays with and without the puck but overall didn’t help create a ton out there.  He’ll be fine, though.

#92 Gabe Landeskog – Had a good game, scoring a goal and generating some good chances, especially on the powerplay.  Had a couple of glass rumbling hits, too.  Above average showing in relation to his teammates, but he also looked like he wasn’t quite going more than 80% out there.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Colorado's Blueline Battle


While the Colorado Avalanche have some interesting battles taking place for depth forward positions (you can read more about that here), the same can be said for the blueline.

Heading into the offseason many people around the league and fans of the team felt that the defensive group was the main area that needed improvement. While the team got Vezina-calibre goaltending throughout the year and possessed one of the best young forward groups in the NHL, the blueline didn’t quite match up.  Both in quality and depth.

The team allowed nearly 33 shots against per game in 2013-14, sitting in the bottom 6 in the entire NHL in that regard.  To help counteract that fact, the team had an impressive, and likely unsustainable, shooting percentage of 10.12%.  That mark of 10.12 was the 2nd highest such mark among NHL teams, trailing only the Anaheim Ducks.  Many of the team’s defencemen played big roles in that high shooting percentage including Tyson Barrie and Nick Holden, both of whom were revelations for not only the amount of goals they scored but also for their clutch timing on said goals.

So, what has been done to try and improve this defensive group?  While I’m sure some defensive structure changes are on the way from head coach Patrick Roy, it’s too early to try and pinpoint any of them.  Therefore, we’re forced to take a look at some of the personnel changes that the team made over the summer.

The Avalanche opened 2014-15 training camp with 9 defencemen on one-way contracts, three of which didn’t play on the team last season. While the team was fairly active in the trade and free agency market on defence, they also apparently just missed out on a pair of big name fish.  Colorado seemed to be in the running for Matt Niskanen, while the team also had big interest in Brooks Orpik.  In the end, both opted to join the Washington Capitals, forcing the Avalanche to pursue other options. 

Who Is Gone?

Andre Benoit 

The Avalanche let Benoit walk as he was an unrestricted free agent.  The longtime AHL defender was 3rd on the team in time on ice last year at a shade over 20 minutes.  He was also 3rd on their blueline in both assists (21) and points (28), while finishing 2nd in shots with 113.  He signed a deal with the Buffalo Sabres this summer.

Cory Sarich

The Avalanche also let Sarich walk as an unrestricted free agent.  The veteran and former Stanley Cup winner suited up in 54 games for Colorado last year, playing 17 minutes a night.  Sarich is currently not on an NHL roster as a scary offseason accident nearly cost him his life, as he was run over by a truck while riding his bike.

Who Is Back?

Erik Johnson

Johnson continues to round into form as a legit number one NHL defenceman.  He played 23 minutes a night against tough competition, leading the defensive core in assists, points, PIMs, powerplay points, shots on goal and takeaways.  If only this team could find a legit top-pairing partner for him.

Tyson Barrie

Barrie was a revelation for the Avalanche last year after a brief stint in the minors early in the season.  He played 18:32 per game, posting a defence-best 13 goals.  He also led the blueline in powerplay goals and plus-minus, netting 5 game-winners, including 3 in overtime.  A knee injury to him in the playoffs was a massive blow to the team as he helped set the pace for the team’s offence. He’s back healthy and poised for another good year.

Jan Hejda

The big Czech enters the final year of his contract with Colorado.  He finished 2nd on the team with over 22 minutes of ice per night, leading the blueline in both hits and blocked shots.  He had an injured hand late in the season and not having him fully functional in the postseason was also a big blow.  The team needs his presence on the left side of the defence, even if he would ideally be a 3rd pairing guy rather than a 2nd, which he is.

Nick Holden

While Barrie was a big revelation, Holden might have been the biggest for the Avalanche.  A minor-league journeyman, Holden was signed by Colorado before the 2013-14 year.  He responded by making the team, posting 10 goals, 25 points, providing a physical edge while also scoring a number of timely goals.  I personally hope he shows progression defensively, as he’s not likely to post the kind of offensive numbers he did last year (take a peek at his sh% of 15.2 if you think otherwise).

Ryan Wilson

Wilson only drew into 28 games last year, missing time due to injury and seemingly being a regular in Patrick Roy’s doghouse.  I feel bad for him, to be honest, as he was showing some real promise a couple of seasons ago before his frequent injury issues started popping up.  If he can have a good pre-season and stay healthy he would make a solid bottom pairing guy as he’s proven he can play in a top 4 when he has confidence.

Nate Guenin

Like Holden, Guenin was mostly a career minor-leaguer before being signed by Colorado, eventually cracking the Avalanche in a depth role in 2013-14.  He suited up in 68 games, showing a willingness to put his body in front of pucks.  Was a regular target of fan fury as his defensive abilities were very hit and miss while often making mistakes with the puck.

Who Is New?

Brad Stuart

Colorado’s biggest blueline acquisition this offseason came in the form of Brad Stuart.  The veteran has been around the block in the NHL and while many people figure he’s on his last legs, he’ll still provide some valuable experience to a blueline that needs it.  While I feel he is better suited to be a number 4 or 5 guy at this point in his career, it sounds like Patrick Roy intends on using him against other team’s top lines alongside Erik Johnson.  Something tells me that could lead to some bad results from time to time.

Zach Redmond

Many Winnipeg Jets fans were a little sour when their team let Redmond walk as an unrestricted free agent this summer.  He’s a big kid who moves well and is coming “into his prime” at age 26.  While he doesn’t have a ton of experience at the NHL level, only 18 games, he’s proven himself to be extremely valuable at the AHL level with the St. John’s IceCaps.  While he might not be more than a 7th defender to start the year, he’s definitely in the mix to grow his role if he can earn the trust of the coaching staff.

Maxim Noreau

Noreau is a bit of a journeyman, leaving Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland to join the Avalanche this offseason.  The 27 year old hasn’t spent time in North America since 2010-11, when he posted 54 points in 76 AHL games with the Houston Aeros.  Colorado’s pro scouts identified him as a guy who can provide puck-moving depth in their system, possibly playing well enough to make the big team outright.  Despite having only 6 games of NHL experience, all with Minnesota, Noreau was signed to a one-way deal to convince him to come back to this side of the Atlantic and take his crack at making an NHL roster.

Who Are The Longshots?

Stefan Elliott

Elliott has long been hyped as an elite offensive prospect.  And while he has developed bit by bit in the AHL, he’s yet to really take advantage of his limited opportunities to crack the Avalanche roster.  With 9 other blueliners on one-way deals, it seems unlikely he has much of a chance to stick in the NHL to start this year.  I still have hope he can make it in the NHL, though.  There is just too much skill for him to not be able to carve out a role as a 6th defender and 2nd unit powerplay guy, even if it’s with another NHL team or in 2-3 more years down the road.  And regardless of that, he still has value to this organization at this point in time.

Duncan Siemens

Siemens is another guy that could potentially play his way onto the team with a stellar pre-season. He is coming off his first year of pro, which from all accounts was rather successful minus injury.  But when he was healthy, he played well according to Joe Sakic. He’s healthy now and has apparently played well at camp.  He provides a major mean-factor and is a tough kid to play against due to his size, reach and high-end skating ability.  While he could make the team, the more likely scenario in his case is that he plays top 4 AHL minutes, maybe gets an NHL game here or there due to injury later in the year, and battles for a full-time spot in Colorado in 2015-16.

Who Are The Long, Long Shots?

Chris Bigras

The Avalanche seem to remain high on Bigras, the teams 2nd round selection in 2013.  He plays a smart and composed game, highlighted by his top-end skating ability.  While he’s still eligible to return to junior for one more season and that seems like the likely route, there is an outside chance he blows the coaching staff away during exhibition play and ends up on the final roster.  The more likely scenario is that he plays junior this year, helps Canada at the coming World Junior tournament and then battles for a full-time spot at Avalanche training camp next year.

Bruno Gervais

While also considered a journeyman, Gervais at least has quite a few NHL games under his belt in his pro career.  He was inked to a two-way contract this summer after spending last year in the AHL with Adirondack and should provide nice top 4 minutes this coming season with the Lake Erie Monsters.  There may be a chance he gets a game here or there at the NHL level, but it would likely take 3-4 injuries before that happens.

Karl Stollery

The 26 year old is the type of guy that every NHL team needs.  He provides nice depth within the system, playing a steady game with an offensive lean.  He’s spent the last two years within Colorado’s system, playing a total of two NHL games.  Last year he posted 30 points in 68 games with Lake Erie, his likely destination again this season.  Down in the AHL, he’ll provide leadership to the team’s young defensive prospects including Elliott, Siemens, and newcomer Cody Corbett.

Who Cracks The Top 8?

This offseason, after missing out on at least one “big name” in Niskanen, it appears as if Avalanche management took the “throw crap at the wall, hope it sticks” method.  And while that means they still lack the top-end firepower (lacking two, top 4 guys to play the left side, in my opinion), it’s clear the blueline's depth is at least better than it was on last year’s division-winning club. 

So after listing all of the personnel involved in the situation, how does it come together? 

The top 4 seems rather cut and dried, barring injury:

Stuart – Johnson
Hejda – Barrie

As you can see, the left side of that blueline remains this team’s weakness.  While the veteran presence and physical play is a nice asset to get from Stuart and Hejda, skating and durability need to be stated as concerns.  Barrie and Johnson on the other hand, are more than capable of playing well and producing in their roles.  After the top 4, things get even more dicey.  Here’s how I see that bottom group shaping up:

Holden – Redmond
Wilson – Guenin

With Roy stating he wants to start the year with 8 defencemen, these are the guys I see making the cut.  Holden and Redmond make due as a 3rd pairing and should be fairly solid in that role.  They both can move the puck and provide some offence, with defence obviously being a concern on that pairing (lack of skating mobility defensively for Holden, lack of experience for Redmond).  Wilson and Guenin crack the NHL roster as the 7th and 8th defencemen, respectively, in my opinion.  I’ve touched on both of their skillsets already up top and think they are more than capable to play these roles and should thrive as depth guys with little expectation and pressure.  Guenin just edges Noreau in the battle for the 8th defensive spot in my predictive roster, with Roy’s familiarity of his game giving him the slight edge.  Elliott would probably slot in at 10th in this prediction.

After all of this it remains clear that while weak spots do exist on the blueline for Colorado, there are more spare parts this time around to try and plug potential holes.  Ultimately I feel that Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic are aware that these problems exist and will look to rectify them either through trade this year (Kulikov, anyone?) or next offseason via free agency (Marc Staal, Paul Martin or Christian Ehrhoff, anyone?).  At that point in time, the club will also have Stuart, Wilson and Hejda coming off the books with youngsters Siemens and Bigras looking for NHL minutes. 

Colorado will take their bumps defensively again this year, but some help does appear to be on the horizon in the form of cap space and young talent.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who Is Lucky Number 13?


The Colorado Avalanche are a popular topic in the hockey world as NHL camps are underway.  The topics are many, including Nathan MacKinnon's big offseason, the loss of Paul Stastny to a division rival and the fact that the analytics crowd remain poised to jump all over the team once (if) they show signs of regression from last year's 112 point performance.

With that in mind, I've decided to tackle a few topics of my own as training camp is in full swing.  To start things out, who exactly will be the 13 Avalanche forwards to begin the season?

Here we go.

I won’t even get into the forwards on the top end of this lineup.  We all know that players like Duchene, O’Reilly, Landeskog, Iginla and the others are proven commodities in this league.  I really have very little concern about the first two lines of the club at this early part of the year.  It’s a versatile bunch and a group that shouldn’t have too much of an issue putting up goals, regardless of who plays where. 

But, the Avalanche do appear to have a battle upcoming for roles in the bottom 6, including the rank of 13th forward.  Most of last year Patrick Roy carried 13 forwards, 12 of which can draw into the lineup each night.  This fall, Roy has already confirmed he intends to follow that same format to begin the year.  He wants 13 forwards, 8 defencemen and two goalies to make up his 23-man opening night roster.

As things stand right now, the Avalanche have a total of 14 forwards on one-way contracts.  Out of those 14, it sounds as if at least one, Patrick Bordeleau, won’t be taking part in camp due to off-season back surgery.  While it sounds like he’ll be out for the next 3 months, it also sounds like a few other Avalanche players have more “minor” injuries.  After looking at the injuries and doing the math, it leaves 13 “healthy” bodies up front who are on one-way deals. 

But, is that group of 13 the group that will start the season up in the NHL with the Avalanche?  If you base it off of a financial mindset, then yes, it seems black and white considering you have to pay NHL money to a guy on a one-way deal even if he happens to get cut and start the year in the AHL.  But, I’m not so sure it will be that easy of a decision given new GM Joe Sakic’s preaching of a need for “more depth” on the NHL roster.  I would assume that means “let the 13 best forwards crack the opening night roster, regardless of who’s getting paid what”.  At least that’s what you’d expect given the fact that the team has strived to add depth, and therefore competition, to the team.  Hopefully they can live up to that and prove that Stan Kroenke and co. are ok with spending some big money for guys to play in the AHL.  That will be the case on the blueline, too, in case you were wondering, as 9 defenders are currently on one-way deals.

Let’s do a quick projection on how this team’s lines might shake down as things stand right now.  We start with the projected top six, as Roy has already outlined:

O’Reilly – Duchene – Iginla
Landeskog – MacKinnon – Tanguay

This is a nice looking group.  Duchene and O’Reilly have good chemistry, while Iginla will provide a big body down the right side of that line.  The MacKinnon line also looks ready to step in and do damage.  Tanguay and Landeskog had some decent chemistry last year before Alex was injured, while MacKinnon returns to his original position in the middle of the ice. While these lines will surely provide great looks offensively, I am a bit concerned as to who will play against the other team’s top lines in the brutally tough Western Conference and more-specifically, Central Divsion.  Paul Stastny and Landeskog did much of that heavy lifting last year and frankly, losing Paul is probably going to be a bigger blow than most Avalanche fans realize.  But hey, watching MacKinnon shred people will help ease the sting.  Now my bottom six predictions:

McGinn – Mitchell – Briere
McLeod – Talbot – Winchester

This is where things get a bit more interesting. Given the nature of the conference and Roy’s apparent good feelings toward John Mitchell, I would say it’s safe to assume he ends up as the third line centre.  He’s a big body and will be better suited to face tough matchups than players like Briere, Talbot or even Winchester would.  Briere is a right-hand shot and has played both the wing and centre, but seems to fit in nicely on a line like this, a line that should be able to add some good depth scoring.  On the last line, both Talbot and Winchester have the ability to play the wing and centre, but neither played much down the middle last year.  Talbot took less than 200 draws compared to only 130 for Winchester in Florida.  Regardless of that, this bottom six seems to have some nice versatility even though the “depth” would probably still be a concern in my eyes. 

I guess that's what this entire thing is supposed to be about, anyway.  Depth forwards.

Personally I don’t really see much of a change from this forward group, overall, when compared to last year in speaking about the depth.  Especially considering Sakic mentioned that was a primary goal of the offseason, given how the team’s injury issues were a major factor in their postseason loss to Minnesota last year.

The team brought in Jarome Iginla.  A great veteran signing for the next the years.  But, the team also lost Paul Stastny.  I call this one a wash, likely even a downgrade.

The team traded regular doghouse member PA Parenteau to Montreal, bringing back Daniel Briere.  Briere is a veteran with some very nice playoff experience.  He’ll also probably be better in the room, given how Roy seemed to value, or not value, Parenteau.  But, they’re similar players with Parenteau most likely being the better of the two at this point of their careers.  I call this one a wash, at best, even though Briere’s veteran presence will be valuable.

The team signed Jesse Winchester to a two-year contract as the 30 year old leaves the Florida Panthers to join the Avalanche.  He’s a noted hard-worker who excels on the penalty kill.  I like the signing, but ultimately that’s really the only “upgrade” I would say this team made up front, aside from the fact that a move like this would normally bump Marc-Andre Cliche down to the AHL, at least until an injury to someone else, aka Bordeleau in this case. 

Finally after all this rambling we get to the real issue I wanted to address.

Who are the candidates for the 13th forward spot?

The Returnee:  Marc-Andre Cliche

- This essentially seems like it’s Cliche’s job to lose, given he was on the team last year.  After being claimed on waivers from Los Angeles last season, Cliche played a depth role and was, to put it frankly, quite bad.  He seemed to drag down his linemates on a regular basis and had very little to give offensively.  Despite his lack of production and value to the lineup, he was given an extension in the middle of the season.  He’ll now be making NHL money for the next two years, regardless if he cracks the Avalanche this year or not. 

The Up And Comer:  Joey Hishon

- This is already one of the feel-good stories of Avalanche training camp.  Hishon has battled some major concussion problems since being Colorado’s first round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.  He finally got healthy enough to play in the second half last season, showed well in the AHL and was rewarded with a callup to Colorado during the playoffs.  He actually played in the postseason against Minnesota and didn’t look out of place.  He’s clearly transferred that confidence to this season as he’s apparently been buzzing at camp.  The top 9 looks fairly crowded for him, given his role at the NHL would likely need to be offence-first.  But, it would seem that Colorado is one more forward injury from Hishon stepping into the lineup at the start of the year.  Unless it comes to that, one would have to think the brass would want him to play big minutes at the AHL level, learn more about defensive hockey and prove he can stay healthy before earning a job in the NHL for good.

The Old New Guy:  Tomas Vincour

- Tomas Vincour is back in North America and looking to crack the NHL full-time.  After acquiring him from Dallas during the 2012-13 season, Vincour saw limited time with the Avalanche.  He had 1 assist in 2 NHL games late in the year, also spending 6 games with the Lake Erie Monsters.  Last summer, he decided to play in Europe, signing with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL.  He put up 11 points in 39 games in Russia.  But, this summer the Avalanche reached out to him, hoping to get him back under contract.  Vincour agreed and is now armed with a one-year, two-way deal and looking to prove himself again as the old new guy.  

The Longer Shots:  Paul Carey, Ben Street, Borna Rendulic, Dennis Everberg, Michael Sgarbossa

- Paul Carey is an energy guy who saw 15 games with the Avalanche last year, including 3 in the postseason.  Brings speed but not a ton of other qualities at this stage.
- Ben Street is a top six AHL signing more than anything, but played 13 NHL games with Calgary last season and was over a point per game in the AHL during 2013-14.
- Borna Rendulic is the first player born and raised in Croatia to sign an NHL deal, which he did this summer.  Have heard mixed reviews from camp as he likely needs seasoning.
- Dennis Everberg is a big kid who was also a free agent signing this offseason.  He scored 17 goals in Sweden’s second tier Allsvenskan last season.
- Michael Sgarbossa is entering his 3rd full season of pro and is coming off of a down offensive year where he faced injuries. Played 6 games with Colorado in 2012-13.

What are the possible outcomes?

- As mentioned above, the most logical answer is that Marc-Andre Cliche retains his spot on the roster.  While I really wasn’t a fan of his play throughout last season, he’s a prototypical depth forward who can do a lot of things.  While his offence was non-existent, evidenced by his shooting percentage of 1.4 (the lowest of any Avalanche player who scored a goal in 2013-14), it also makes the most sense financially.  If the team can come out of camp with Bordeleau being the only long-term injury, I would predict that Cliche starts the year as the 13th forward, getting sent down once Bordeleau is back and ready to play.

- If I had to pick a secondary option for what I think might happen, say for some reason another forward gets hurt in pre-season, I would guess Vincour earns a job.  While I like Joey Hishon and think he’ll make a good player in Colorado’s top nine one day soon, he needs to get more AHL time under his belt while staying healthy in the process.  Vincour is big, skilled and has played against men for a few years now.  Ultimately I would like to see Vincour beat Cliche out of the job outright, but admit that seems to be a long shot given the contract situation and the fact that waivers play a role, too.

With all of that in mind, here’s how I predict Colorado’s forward lines look to start the season, assuming everyone minus Bordeleau is healthy:

O’Reilly – Duchene – Iginla
Landeskog – MacKinnon – Tanguay
McGinn – Mitchell – Briere
McLeod – Talbot – Winchester
Cliche
Bordeleau (IR)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

2014-15 East Division Preview


When I first decided to do these previews I figured I would do a brief summary of each team, highlight some key players and make a small prediction.  Nearly a week later and I'm finally posting my last one.  As I got going, the pieces kept getting longer and longer, culminating in a final project that included nearly 18,000 words and spanned a 33-page Microsoft Word document.  It's been a fun way to get back in the swing of things with the WHL season just around the corner and really helps freshen up a few things on-ice personnel-wise.  Hopefully it helped accomplish that for you as well.  Finally, I close this out with the WHL's East Division.  Thanks for reading.

Brandon Wheat Kings

2013-14 record: 34-29-6-3 = 77 points – 3rd in East Division – 7th in Eastern Conference

The Brandon Wheat Kings look poised to improve as much as almost any team in the WHL when compared to last year.  And that’s saying something, considering this group was already a playoff team in 2013-14.  Every aspect of their roster seems to be rounding into form, familiar face Kelly McCrimmon is back behind the bench and possibly the biggest component of all, they don’t seem to have as much inter-division adversity as their friends in the Central seem to have. 

It looks as if 7 of their top 9 scorers from last season will be back in the lineup in 2014-15, with 5 of those players being forwards.  They are led by Florida Panthers second round pick Jayce Hawryluk, who finished first in team scoring last year with 64 points.  He should have no trouble hovering around 30 goals and 80 points this year.  Tim McGauley is proving himself to be a very capable junior player after posting 60 points in 68 games last year, while Rihards Bukarts appears to be a lock for 30 goals.  John Quenneville was a first round pick in 2014, going to the New Jersey Devils 30th overall, and he’s back and should have the ability to improve on his 58 point season.  Richard Nejezchleb appears a likely candidate to turn pro after being drafted by the Rangers this past June, but he’s still yet to be signed.  Peter Quenneville is in the same boat as Nejezchleb, being a 1994 who can sign a pro contract, but that appears less likely right now for the Columbus draft pick.  And while this team has a large amount of top-end veteran talent set to return, their young talent is also on an elite level.  Nolan Patrick led them in pre-season scoring with 7 points in 4 games and looks poised to be a Rookie Of The Year candidate.  He’s the 4th overall pick from the 2013 WHL Draft, scored nearly a goal per game in midget last year and is already in a man’s body at 6’3 and over 190 pounds.  Along with Patrick, Jesse Gabrielle is a 1997 that plays big, plays hard, provides offence and will be a very sought after draft prospect in 2015, while Braylon Shmyr and Tyler Coulter are second-year players who look to take that next step in several aspects.  This group of forwards is scary and I have no real problem considering them top 3 in the league, if not higher.

On defence, they lose captain Ryan Pulock to professional hockey, but still return a very good core.  Ryan Pilon heads the group as a potential 1st round pick in 2015 while Eric Roy is also likely back, despite being eligible to sign and play pro in the Calgary Flames organization.  While Kord Pankewicz, Taylor Green and Colton Waltz provide some more veteran depth, the team also has a pair of new flashy standouts on the blueline.  Kale Clague is a slick puck-mover and former 6th overall pick and should have little issue transitioning to the WHL as a 16 year old.  To go along with that big addition, import Ivan Provorov provides another massive boost to their blueline. The 1997-born Russian was taken 30th overall in this summer’s CHL Import Draft, led their blueline in pre-season scoring with 6 points and already has experience playing in North America with Cedar Rapids of the USHL.  Despite being a fairly young group on defence, they’re extremely talented and should have no problem replacing some of the offence that disappeared when Pulock left town.

In goal, Brandon also looks quite comfortable as Jordan Papirny is back for his second full WHL season.  The goalie from Edmonton appeared in 46 games last year, going 22-15-4-3 with a .900 save percentage, elevating that to .914 in the postseason.  While Papirny wasn’t drafted by an NHL team, he was invited to Montreal Canadiens rookie camp and that should provide a nice confidence boost.  I like his chances of improving both his numbers and consistency this season as long as he can stay healthy. Rookie Logan Thompson will back him up after posting very solid pre-season numbers in 3 appearances.  I don’t see goaltending being much of a problem for the Wheat Kings, even though it would be their obvious “weakness”, just due to the lack of experience between the pipes. 

Unique Storyline:  Expectations

The way this preview reads, it’s pretty clear that I really like how the Brandon Wheat Kings are shaping up this season.  I’m not the first one to put these kinds of words onto paper or onto a screen, either.  And with that comes expectations.  Expectations can be a scary thing for a team, especially a young team.  I’ve seen if first hand.  When a team is expected to win, and doesn’t, it takes a lot of character to keep going, to stay committed, and to ultimately put your best foot forward on your way to reaching your goals on the ice.  And while McCrimmon will be managing things like his goaltending, defence pairings and lines as the season gets underway, teaching his team do manage outside expectations could be the biggest challenge of all.  The team needs to set their own internal expectations, strive for those and not worry about outside pressures.  While that seems pretty simple, sometimes it’s much easier said than done.

Standings Prediction:  1st in East Division – 1st in Eastern Conference

Swift Current Broncos

2013-14 record: 38-25-3-6 = 85 points – 2nd in East Division – 5th in Eastern Conference

The Swift Current Broncos seem to be in a good position when heading into the season. Despite being knocked out of the first round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons, they’ve had solid regular season success by winning 36 and 38 games in those years.  While they’ve lost their top two offensive options from last year, and their starting goaltender, I think the Broncos are in a spot to quietly rack up some wins, stay under the radar a bit and quietly slide into a comfortable spot in the middle of the Eastern Conference.

As mentioned, the Broncos lose 1993’s Graham Black and Nathan Burns, the top scorers from last year’s team.  That’s a tough blow, considering the two players finished last year with a combined 61 goals and 174 points.  I do like how things look to try and replace some of that offence, though.  Captain Colby Cave is back for his overage season and he should be capable of improving on his 70 point season from last year.  Coda Gordon is also a 1994-born skater, who will likely flank Cave and have a good chance of at least matching his 71 points from last year, too.  Jay Merkley looks ready to roll after 7 points in 5 pre-season games, providing a bit more veteran scoring depth for their forward group.  Big Swede Andreas Schumacher seems like an intriguing player to watch as well, putting up 3 points in 5 exhibition contests.  I also think 1996’s Luca Leone and Dakota Odgers have more to contribute offensively, with Odgers looking particularly improved in my lone pre-season viewing of the Broncos. But, I think the biggest boost this team will get from their offence comes in the form of Glenn Gawdin and Jake DeBrusk. Both are eligible to be drafted into the NHL this coming June and I’m expecting big things.  Gawdin plays a smart and fairly heavy game down the middle and should be able to at least double his 22 points from last year, if not hit 50.  DeBrusk is a dynamite player who brings speed off the wing, plays aggressively and can finish plays. While he might not double his 39 points from last year, I don’t think a 25 goal, 60 point season is too far of a reach for him.  To me they look to be a hard-working bunch up front, a group that will bang, crash and be at least in the middle of the pack offensively in the conference.

The Broncos blueline is shaping up to be one of the best in the WHL, regardless of Julius Honka returns or not.  If he does come back to junior, the Broncos will have their top 5 defencemen all back from last year’s team.  While Honka is the star of that show and should be a 70 point blueliner if he’s back this year, the rest of the group are no slouches in their own right.  Dillon Heatherington, Brett Lernout and Brycen Martin are all drafted into the NHL, while I think Jordan Harris has a ton to offer as a hockey player.  Late 1997 Max Lajoie had a very good pre-season and was a clear standout in my viewing of the Broncos last week, while players like Cole Bevan and Stephen Shmoorkoff provide decent depth if they can beat Jaydan Gordon (1997) and Colby Sissons (1998) out of a roster spot.  This is an extremely talented group with lots of experience to back that up.

Landow Bow takes the reigns in the cage from Finnish goaltender Eetu Laurikainen, who has graduated from junior hockey and is off to his home country to play pro.  Bow has seemingly always played quite well in games where I’ve watched him and has good size at 6’4, but he’s still only got 41 games of WHL experience under his belt. While that is a bit of a concern, I think he can handle the number one role, especially when looking at how structured this team plays defensively.  He responded well to the challenge with a dazzling pre-season, surrendering only 5 goals in 4 appearances.  Travis Child is the backup and looks to be their goalie of the future as he’s only a 1997.

Unique Storyline:  Honka’s Immediate Future

The return of Julius Honka continues to be a fairly big topic of interest for WHL fans.  The stud puck-mover was a 1st round pick of the Dallas Stars this past June and has already made some good impressions on his new NHL franchise.  But unlike most players freshly drafted out of the CHL, his options don’t appear to be limited to either the Stars of Broncos for this coming season.  He has the option to play in Finland, while there also may be a loophole existing where he could find his way onto the AHL’s Texas Stars.  It’s a complicated process and one that will probably take another week or two, at least, to sort itself out.  As a fan of the league I ultimately hope he comes back to the WHL.  But, I’m not going to hold my breath considering the other options he may have, which all include him getting a chance to prove himself against bigger, stronger and faster competition.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in East Division – 4th in Eastern Conference

Regina Pats

2013-14 record: 39-26-4-3 = 85 points – 1st in East Division – 2nd in Eastern Conference

The Regina Pats really seemed like a paper tiger last season.  They never seemed to be an overly dominant team, yet ended up taking home the East Division crown despite stumbling a bit down the stretch.  They ultimately were swept in the opening round of the WHL playoffs by the 7th seeded Wheat Kings.  Over the summer, they went through an ownership change and let go first-year head coach Malcolm Cameron.  So how do things appear to be shaping up in Regina for the 2014-15 year? 

Offence could be a bit of a challenge for Regina this year as they lose 4 of their top 5 scorers from last year’s team, 3 of which play up front.  While Chandler Stephenson is technically eligible to be back, the Washington Capitals love his game and he’s signed.  He’ll be in the AHL. Boston Leier is gone, while Dyson Stevenson has also graduated from the league. I’m a big fan of Morgan Klimchuk, and he’s due to be back for one more year of junior and should be around a 90 point guy this season regardless of potentially missing time for the World Juniors.  Logan McVeigh and Braden Christoffer are both competent 20 year olds, while Dryden Hunt and Connor Gay continue to be two guys that fly under the radar offensively.  Adam Brooks and Max Kammerer are two 1996’s that also provide some decent depth.  While that group seemingly makes up their returning core of forwards, Sam Steel is new on the scene and looks poised to light things up.  I was lucky enough to catch one of his pre-season games and he was on another level.  Elite hockey sense and a great shot, he potted 2 goals and added an assist in the game.  He led the Pats and the WHL in pre-season scoring (10 points in 4 games) and should team up with Klimchuk to form one of the CHL’s most dynamic duos in his rookie season.

On defence, they lose 2 of their top 3 scorers in Dmitry Sinitsyn and Jesse Zgraggen.  Captain Kyle Burroughs is back and should be worth at least 45 points this coming year, while Colby Williams should also provide some decent offence from the back end.  Sophomores Brady Reagan and Chase Harrison both look like they can play after having solid, yet unspectacular rookie years.  The Pats also get a big boost from a new Russian defender named Sergey Zborovskiy. He’s a towering blueliner who skates well, moves the puck and provided 3 goals and 5 points in 7 pre-season games.  While that offensive pace might not be maintained during the regular season, he looked to me like a guy who can play top-4 minutes while garnering some attention for the 2015 NHL Draft.  It’s not a defensive group that has a bunch of high-end talent, but it’s balanced and fairly experienced.

In goal, the Pats will be going with a pair of 1995’s in Daniel Wapple and Tyler Fuhr.  Despite bouncing around in his WHL career, Wapple has posted fairly respectable numbers in 65 career games.  His career goals against average is just a shade over 3.00 and his save percentage perches right at .900.  If they can get him to repeat those types of numbers they shouldn’t have a problem making the playoffs.  Looking further down the line, I think next year we could see a combination of Wapple and then-rookie Jordan Hollett, who was a 1st round pick by the Pats in 2014.

Unique Storyline:  Paddock Coaching The Junior Game

I mentioned the firing of Malcolm Cameron earlier, but never mentioned the fact that longtime bench boss John Paddock was his replacement.  It’s an interesting hire.  Clearly he’s got a fantastic resume and track record in the professional ranks, but he’s never coached junior before.  And while the game on the ice is essentially the same, the player management aspect of things is very different.  He’ll be dealing with teenagers.  Enter new assistant coach Dave Struch. Struch was the head coach in Saskatoon last year and is the epitome of a players coach.  He’ll be an excellent bridge between the coaching staff and players and will be a great person to work alongside Paddock.  It will be interesting to see how this group can come together under this new coaching framework.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in East Division – 7th in Eastern Conference

Saskatoon Blades

2013-14 record: 16-51-2-3 = 37 points – 6th in East Division – 11th in Eastern Conference

Last year was a tough one for Saskatoon in what was the first season of their “rebuild”.  They finished the year with 12-straight losses, allowed the 2nd most goals of any team in the WHL and finished 2nd last in their conference, 3rd last in the WHL.  To cap it off they didn’t even own their 1st round pick.  That pick was in the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings, who promptly won the WHL Bantam Draft lottery and snagged Stelio Matheos with the top pick.  But things appear to be on the up and up for the Blades and I think they have a chance to sneak into the playoffs despite having an extremely young hockey club.

It’s hard not to get into the Nikita Scherbak situation right off the hop, but I will leave that for later.  To skirt around it for now, I will say that leading scorer Nikita Scherbak has the chance to be back in a Saskatoon Blades uniform this coming year.  He was a possession driver for the team last year, scoring 28 times and putting up 78 points while finishing 2nd in the race for WHL Rookie Of The Year.  A 90 point season is surely attainable if he’s back in the WHL.  As far as returnees go up front, many of their top scorers are back from last year, minus Connor Sanvido.  Cory Millette, Nick Zajac, Chase Clayton and Brett Stovin are veteran guys who look poised to provide nice depth and a wave of secondary scoring, while third-year forward Ryan Graham and sophomore Cameron Hebig both look poised to at least double their offensive production from last year.  Austin Adamson and Josh Uhrich look to be two guys who provide both energy and some decent offensive ability, with former 7th overall pick Ty Mappin looking to do the same if he can survive final cuts.  Along with the above-mentioned names, Saskatoon also has a pair of fresh new faces who should provide some nice punch.  They acquired former 1st overall pick Alex Forsberg in the offseason, while rookie Wyatt Sloboshan has committed to the team and was a standout during pre-season, tying for the team-lead with 5 points in 5 games. This is a solid forward group with a lot of versatility, work ethic and skill. 

The blueline in Saskatoon has had a bit of a makeover since last season.  Dylan Busenius and MacKenzie Johnston have both graduated form the WHL, the team opted to not bring back import David Nemecek, while Clayton Kirichenko was traded to Vancouver.  Winnipeg Jets draft pick Nelson Nogier highlights the group as the likely captain of the team.  Alongside him is former 4th overall pick Jordan Thomson, who looks more comfortable on the ice after leaving the game briefly last year and getting traded from Kamloops to Saskatoon.  Ayrton Nikkel is hard-nosed veteran that will be counted on to play middle-pairing minutes, the same can be said for the newly acquired Isaac Schacher, while new import Amil Krupic tied for the team lead in pre-season scoring.  Outside of those 5, the team still has 5 others battling for spots.  Both Nolan Reid and Schael Higson look like stud 1998’s, but are they worth keeping if they only play 12 minutes a night and 40 games?  Turner Ottenbreit, Ross Hnidy and Tyler Dea are the other three who remain in the mix to make the final team.  While it’s not an overly spectacular group, they have a good mix of size, skill and grit.  While they probably aren’t that much better than last year’s team, I think the potential of this blueline is exponentially greater.

In goal is where things get even more interesting.  Troy Trombley seemed to be the go-to guy as the starter following the end of pre-season, with 1996-born Trevor Martin as the backup.  That was until the team acquired fellow 1996 Michael Herringer from Victoria earlier this week.  Herringer had a very good pre-season and the team now has three guys in the mix for two spots.  It sounds like the team will open the year with three goalies, making a final decision next week sometime. There are obviously benefits to each route.  Longterm, it makes sense to go with two 18 year olds.  But on the other hand, Trombley is the only one with any real WHL experience, even if he hasn’t shown he can handle being a starter.  Regardless of what they decide to do, goaltending seems to be the weakest link in their roster equation.

Unique Storyline:  Will Scherbak Be Back?

By all accounts, Montreal Canadiens 1st round pick Nikita Scherbak will be back in the WHL this year.  There’s very little chance he makes the Canadiens roster.  But where does he play once he comes back?  The team has three imports currently on their roster, with fellow Russian Nikita Soshnin joining the already-mentioned Scherbak and Krupic.  Krupic appears like a lock as the team needs his veteran presence.  So, do you keep the 1995-born Scherbak for one more year of junior and take a big step towards making the playoffs?  Or do you keep the 1997-born Soshnin, who has several years of junior left in him, despite the fact that he’s not nearly the player Scherbak is?  I think it needs to depend on two things.  How much can you get for Scherbak?  And, how bad do you want to make the playoffs?  While trading Scherbak could net you a big windfall, there are only so many places you can even trade him as an import.  To me, I think it’s an easy decision.  I keep him.  I know teams in the past have failed to capitalize on trading a star during the early part of a rebuild, but this team needs to start adopting a winning culture for it’s fanbase while still maintaining a focus on 2, 3 and 4 years down the line.  The team has some really nice 1999-born prospects in the pipeline, and hanging on to Scherbak won’t set them back as much as it has for other franchises in the past.  While I’ve predicted them to sneak into the playoffs, I don’t think they will if they do indeed deal their Russian star.

Standings Prediction:  4th in East Division – 8th in Eastern Conference

Prince Albert Raiders

2013-14 record: 35-32-3-2 = 75 points – 4th in East Division – 8th in Eastern Conference

The Prince Albert Raiders were expected to do big things last year.  They had depth at every positioning, including studs like Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey. They had a proven winner in the cage in veteran Cole Cheveldave.  They loaded up for a big run. And then things fell flat.  They stumbled to an 8th place finish in the conference and were promptly dusted in 4-straight by the eventual WHL and Memorial Cup Champion Oil Kings.  It wasn’t the season they wanted and clearly it shows what a little thing like expectations can help do to a team.  Looking ahead to this year, those same expectations don’t exist.

Part of the reason for lesser expectations is due to the amount of turnover the Raiders face from last year, starting up front.  Edmonton Oilers 3rd overall pick Leon Draisaitl is as good as gone, even though I think it wouldn’t hurt him to play junior for another year (More so due to the Oilers depth situation than Leon’s skill. Do you really want a raw 18 year old as your 2nd line centre?).  Also gone is Collin Valcourt, whose 72 points in 71 games was 3rd best on the team last year.  Despite those losses, the team does bring back some talent. Dakota Conroy has the skill to elevate to up over a point per game this year, Reid Gardiner looks poised for a decent jump offensively, I like the style of game that Jayden Hart brings to the table and newly acquired Jordan Tkatch adds some speed, skill and grit to their top 9.  Same for Calder Brooks.  Aside from them, I think Matteo Gennaro is a good offensive prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, Gage Quinney and Darcy Zaharichuk provide effort and offence, while new import Simon Stransky looks to have a great set of hands to match his hockey sense.  Their forward group likely won’t have the big name in Draisaitl, but they still should be fairly competent at putting the puck in the net.

On defence the Raiders could also suffer a big loss in Josh Morrissey, as I think he’s definitely worth discussing as a possible player who will jump to the Winnipeg Jets.  But, as a 1995, he’s either going to need to play in Prince Albert or Winnipeg.  And while I think he’s close to ready for that jump, Winnipeg already has 8 defenceman on one-way contracts.  Are they going to bury someone and pay them $700,000 to play with the AHL’s Ice Caps? One would think Morrissey would have to have a great camp to make that situation happen.  Even if he does come back, would he actually stay with the Raiders or be traded? As far as the rest of the Raiders defence, Graeme Craig is the only guy guaranteed to be gone from last year’s team.  Sawyer Lange has proven more than capable as a top pairing guy, Tomas Andrlik should have a nice second season in the WHL, Mackenzie Stewart should play with confidence after being drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, Ryan Coghlan is a depth guy with a year of experience under his belt and a guy like Brendan Guhle looks to have all the tools that NHL scouts are after.  Big Hunter Warner is an experienced 1995 who has joined them from the USHL’s Fargo Force, while rookie Brennan Riddle is also a newcomer to the team.  Regardless of Morrissey’s status, this appears to be a group that’s good enough to help keep them in the playoff hunt.

The Raiders are going young in goal, with second year tender Nick McBride taking the main spot in the cage.  I’m a big fan of his game.  He’s got size and shows great composure both in his positioning and in his mental game.  With that being said, he’s a 1997 without a ton of time in a WHL net, so this will be a tall task for him.  Rylan Parenteau is the backup.  The late 1996 from Saskatoon only has a pair of games under his belt in the WHL and didn’t have a great pre-season.  This area seems to be one that the Raiders might show some inconsistency in and would probably be the main thing I look at when pegging them to finish just outside of the playoff picture.

Unique Storyline:  Raiders At The NHL Draft

The 2015 NHL Draft is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.  The Raiders will likely have a few players selected at the event, too.  So which one gets drafted the highest?  Obviously they don’t have a top 5 pick like Leon Draisaitl on their squad this year, but they still have some intriguing names.  I already touched on McBride and he’d be a guy I’m sure NHL scouts are interested to see. Teams love big and composed goalies and he fits the bill there.  Matteo Gennaro is another player that has skill, speed and size and should see plenty of opportunity to play good minutes in his draft year.  On defence, Brendan Guhle is one to watch.  He’s a big kid with a smooth stride and I’m sure scouts will have decent projections on him and his game.  Will one of those guys be the first one drafted from the Raiders this year, possibly as high as the late 1st round?  Time will tell.

Standings Prediction:  5th in East Division – 9th in Eastern Conference

Moose Jaw Warriors

2013-14 record: 21-42-3-6 = 51 points – 5th in East Division – 10th in Eastern Conference

The Moose Jaw Warriors continue to plug away in their rebuilding effort, having missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.  Last year the Warriors finished 10th in the conference, missing the playoffs by two dozen points.  They finished near the bottom of the conference in both goals for and goals against.  And while they look like they might be ready to take that next step, I just have a hard time seeing them having the ability to jump over enough teams to make the playoffs.

The Warriors forward group is a nice mix and hasn’t suffered too much turnover from last year.  They’re led by Brayden Point, a 3rd round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The diminutive Point led the Warriors with 91 points in his draft year in 2013-14, and will likely have the ability to crack 100 in this coming season.  Along with Point they feature a trio of solid, above-average 20 year olds in Jaimen Yakubowski, Tanner Eberle and Jack Rodewald.  Names like Torrin White, Brandon Potomak and Ben Duperreault round out some of their returning forward depth, while Kolten Olynek has also been acquired in the offseason.  The team should also benefit from the addition of a pair of rookies in Brett Howden and Jayden Halbgewachs with new import Jiri Smejkal providing some much needed size in their forward ranks. While I still think this group is rather top-heavy offensively, much of their depth is now a year older and they should be able to improve on their 202 goals from last season.

On the blueline the Warriors lose Jesse Forsberg to graduation but still return familiar names in Alexey Sleptsov, Dallas Valentine, Spenser Jensen, Tyler Brown and Reid Zalitach.  Austin Adam was also acquired from Everett over the summer and he will be relied upon to play some decent minutes, based on their depth chart.  American and former 8th round pick Christos Zinis also threw his hat into the ring for a spot by leading the team in defensive scoring in pre-season, with fellow 1997 Ryan Gardiner also appearing to land a spot on the team.  Overall, it’s an extremely young defence, probably the second youngest behind Spokane.  They don’t have a 1994 and only have two 1995’s.

While they look ok up front and young on defence, this team looks set in goal.  Justin Paulic and Zach Sawchenko will once again fight for starts, or so it appears.  Paulic, a 95, got into 56 games last year with Sawchenko, a 97, getting into 26 games.  Sawchenko was better than Paulic in the pre-season, but no matter how you slice it, this appears to be a pretty solid duo in the cage.  With Sawchenko looking like their goalie of the future don’t be surprised if Paulic ends up being the odd man out if they aren’t in a playoff push, heading to a team looking to bring in some depth at the position.

Unique Storyline:  How Good Can Brett Howden Be?

Coming into this season, players like Tyler Benson, Sam Steel, Nolan Patrick and Kale Clague seem to be getting much of the attention when it comes to potential WHL Rookie Of The Year candidates.  And while their buzz is fair, Brett Howden seems ready to try and force his way into that discussion.  The brother of Quinton Howden, a former Warriors star, was taken 5th overall by Moose Jaw in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft.  Last year he had 58 points in 38 midget games in Manitoba while also putting up 2 points per game for Team Manitoba at the Western Canada Under-16 Challenge Cup.  Early this fall he finished T-2nd on the Warriors in pre-season scoring with 3 points in 6 games.  He’s a big, strong kid at 6’2 and nearly 190 pounds and should have every opportunity to challenge for the award as he sits perched nicely in the Warriors top 6 forward group as a 16 year old.

Standings Prediction:  6th in East Division – 10th in Eastern Conference

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2014-15 Central Division Preview


My division previews now make their way to the Eastern Conference, starting with the Central Division. I see this division as a real dog fight this year, with Calgary the main contender for top spot.  Edmonton should be good again, buoyed by an elite goalie, Medicine Hat is a darkhorse to contend for top spot, Red Deer should be a lock for postseason play, you can never count out Kootenay and Lethbridge should take a small step forward in their rebuild.  Here's a more detailed breakdown: 

Calgary Hitmen

2013-14 record: 48-17-3-4 = 103 points – 2nd in Central Div. – 3rd in Eastern Conference

The Calgary Hitmen are an interesting topic when looking ahead to the 2014-15 season.  They return many extremely good players from last year’s squad, but have also lost some of the key figures from a club who has finished second in their division for three seasons in a row.  They’ve also got a new boss behind the bench in Mark French, who takes over for Mike Williamson.  They went 4-2 in the pre-season, scoring the second most goals of any Eastern Conference team.  And while there may be many changes to how this squad looks, they’re a fairly safe bet to be a top finisher in not only their division, but in the Eastern Conference.

It appears as if the Hitmen will be losing 5 of their top 9 scorers from last year’s 103-point team, but only two of those are forwards.  They would be Brady Brassart, who was signed by the Minnesota Wild last year and Pavel Padakin, who I hear is the odd man out in their import battle.  Despite those losses (they scored 62 goals combined) the Hitmen have a ton of firepower on the front lines.  Greg Chase is back, with a new contract from the Edmonton Oilers, looking to do better than just repeat his 85 point year.  Vancouver Canucks 6th overall pick Jake Virtanen could score 50 goals this season, while Adam Tambellini has been pegged by some as a possible leading WHL scorer this year.  That doesn’t even mention veterans like Mike Winther, Chase Lang, Radel Fazleev, Elliott Peterson and Connor Rankin, who are all back again. Meanwhile youngsters like Terrell Draude, Landon Welykholowa, Jordan Stallard, Layne Bensmiller and Russian Pavel Karnaukhov all had very good pre-season showings.  This team will score. Probably more times than any other team in the conference.

On the blueline, they did lose some very key pieces.  Gone are Jaynen Rissling and Alex Roach.  I expect rover Kenton Helgesen to also play pro as a signed member of the Anaheim Ducks organization.  All three were big time minute munchers who played well in any and all situations.  Luckily, they do have a pair of young defencemen who are ready to take control of their blueline.  Travis Sanheim was a 1st round pick by the Flyers this past June and should be close to a 45 or 50 point defender this coming year. I think the Tampa Bay Lighting got great value in selecting Ben Thomas in the 4th round of that same draft.  They’ll have no problem excelling as 25 minute guys this year.  I’ve really liked the growth of Colby Harmsworth’s game over the last year and he likely slides in as the team’s 3rd defender.  After him, Michael Zipp and Kirk Johnson provide some decent depth.  The Hitmen also have some real bright young players on defence.  I liked Lochlan Morrison in the one pre-season game I saw the Hitmen play, while Jake Bean and Aaron Hyman have both been getting some nice reviews as 1998’s.  Overall it’s a group that’s not nearly as good as last year’s team, but should still be considered well above average in comparison to the rest of the conference.

The biggest question the Hitmen face is in goal, with Chris Driedger signing on with the Ottawa Senators and making the jump to the AHL this season.  He’s been a horse for them the past 3 seasons, appearing in a combined 148 games with 88 wins in that stretch.  That leaves 1995-born Mack Shields as the go-to guy between the pipes.  Shields has been a serviceable backup in this league the last two years, posting a 30-10 record with a goals against average under 3.00 and a .900 save percentage.  But can he handle a full load of 50 or more starts?  That’s a pretty big ask, regardless of how good the team in front of him is.  Overall I think he should respond to that challenge ok and prove to be a goaltender that won’t win them many games, but won’t lose many for them either.  If he can stay in the middle of the pack in most of the main stat categories, the Hitmen should challenge for the top spot in the conference.

Unique Storyline:  Can They Piece It All Together?

For me, the Hitmen storyline is fairly simple and I’ve alluded to it throughout.  Can they have all of their questions answered by the time the important games start in the second half of the season? They come in with some fairly high outside expectations, as noted by their 7th overall pre-season ranking among all CHL teams. Those expectations are there despite having some less than stellar playoff performances in the last few seasons.  As mentioned, they’ll score a ton of goals regardless of who their imports or 20 year old players are, but those remain questions none the less.  A new coaching staff is in place and that sometimes takes it’s time to sort out.  They seem fairly top-heavy on their blueline, unless the 1998’s that crack their roster show they can really play the game and have little in the way of an adjustment period.  Can Shields handle the goaltending load in a respectable manner?  The questions are there.  While I’m confident they’ll find the answers to those questions (I am picking them to be first in their division), I still have to point out that this team isn’t as much of a slamdunk as some might think.

Standings Prediction:  1st in Central Division – 2nd in Eastern Conference

Edmonton Oil Kings

2013-14 record: 50-19-2-1 = 103 points – 1st in Central Div. – 1st in Eastern Conference

Is this the year we finally see a big drop off from the Oil Kings?  I’ve learned a lot over the last few years while following and working in this league and one of those things is to never bet against Edmonton.  It’s been a magical run for the Oil Kings since they last missed the playoffs in 2009-10.  In the 4 years since then, under Derek Laxdal, the team has averaged over 45 wins per season (including 3-straight 50+ win seasons), have won the WHL title twice and took home the 2014 Memorial Cup this past May to cap it all off.  And while Steve Hamilton is now the guy behind the bench and they have experienced some major player turnover, I just don’t see this team falling that far down the standings.

It’s scary to look at some of the talent this team has lost since last year, especially among their forward ranks.  Six of their 7 top scoring forwards from last year’s team are likely gone, with that group including both Curtis Lazar and Edgars Kulda, who are eligible to play professional.  So, how do they replace those 172 goals from Henrik Samuelsson, Mitch Moroz, Reid Petryk, Riley Kieser, Kulda and Lazar?  To put it in basic terms, it won’t be easy and they won’t likely match their 290 goals from last year, a spot that was tops in the conference.  Brett Pollock is back and looking to improve on his 55-point sophomore season.  Mads Eller should easily double his 23 points from last year. Luke Bertolucci and Brandon Baddock are also both due for big bumps in offensive production.  Lane Bauer is a guy that I could see having a bit of a breakout year now that he’ll have more responsibility, rookie Andrew Koep led them in pre-season scoring, while I expect Tyler Robertson to garner some solid NHL Draft attention as a late 1996.  And while you can talk about personnel until you are blue in the face, the Oil Kings continue to succeed because of their style of play and their top-notch development system.  They draft well, uncover undrafted talent, make smart trades and ultimately put players in good positions to succeed.  They’ve lost many players from their Memorial Cup winning team, but like any good franchise, they’ve got depth to help fill those holes.

Much of the team’s blueline does return for this season, minus record-setting offensive defenceman Cody Corbett, who has graduated and will play pro with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.  Dysin Mayo and Aaron Irving are two freshly drafted players who return to anchor their defensive group, while Ashton Sautner and Blake Orban return as 20 year olds.  That’s a fairly solid set of 4 defencemen.  1995-born Ben Carroll put up some solid pre-season numbers as he looks to expand off of his 11 points in 52 games last season, while big Jesse Mills, Chance Patterson and Marsel Ibragimov all remain on the team’s roster as 1997’s.  I would consider this blueline to be better, personnel-wise, than their rivals to the south in Calgary.

Possibly the biggest reason why I see this team maintaining a high spot in the standings is in goal, where they roll out possibly the best goalie in the CHL in Tristan Jarry.  He won 44 regular season games last season, and while I don’t expect him to repeat that, he will undoubtedly provide a great amount of stability for what is a fairly young team overall.  This will be Jarry’s final year of junior as he should jump to the AHL next season.  With that in mind, look for Edmonton to keep Patrick Dea (1997) as their backup, passing the torch off to him next season.

Unique Storyline:  The Return Of Lazar

What’s going to happen with Ottawa Senators prospect and Oil Kings star Curtis Lazar.  As a 1995-born player, the Senators have the option of either playing him in the NHL or sending him back to the WHL.  This brings up two questions for me.  First, does he make the Senators?  He’s bulked up and is a very versatile player.  The Senators have already experimented with him as a winger at rookie camp, testing the waters to see how he might fit in their lineup as a first-year NHL player.  Second, if he does get sent back to junior, what does Edmonton do with him?  This team is in the second tier of “contenders”, in my opinion, but adding him to the lineup would likely elevate them to that top level with the likes of Kelowna, Portland, Victoria, Calgary, etc.  Would they take another run at a WHL title, or would they opt to trade Lazar and fully restock the cupboards?  It’s a tough decision, but we’ve all seen what happens when teams hang on to their stars too long and fail to fully realize their opportunity to build from the ground up.  In the end, the trading of Lazar is likely a non-issue as I think there’s likely a 90% chance he plays in Ottawa this season.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in Central Division – 3rd in Eastern Conference

Medicine Hat Tigers

2013-14 record: 44-24-3-1 = 92 points – 3rd in Central Div. – 4th in Eastern Conference

The Medicine Hat Tigers seem to do it every year.  They never seem to be a standout team on paper, but always find a way to play well and end up not just making the playoffs, but surprising people along the way.  That was the case again last year as they climbed to 4th in the conference standings during the regular season and then knocked off Kootenay and Swift Current in the playoffs before eventually falling to Edmonton in the Eastern Conference Finals.  They did that all without arguably their best player, Hunter Shinkaruk, who underwent hip surgery and didn’t play a game for them from December 2nd until the end of the year.  And while the 2014-15 version of this team doesn’t seem to have many elite talents, they’re a well-coached group that should have no problem making the playoffs for the 13th straight season.

While the Tigers lose their top scorer from last season in 1993-born Curtis Valk, they still possess a ton of depth.  That depth comes in the shape of 9 of their top 11 scoring forwards from last year all being set to return. Trevor Cox, Cole Sanford and Miles Koules highlight that group as that trio combined for 83 goals and over 200 points in 2013-14.  If the pre-season is any indication, it looks like German import Markus Eisenschmid is due for an uptick in production after posting 23 points as a WHL rookie last year, as well.  And while the Tigers are returning a large number of players from last year’s squad, they also appear to have some game-breaking talent ready to step into the lineup up front.  15 year old Mason Shaw led them in scoring in the pre-season, putting up 8 points in 5 games.  He turns 16 in November and is therefore eligible to play this year as a 1998.  Meanwhile, 1997 Matthew Bradley also had a great exhibition campaign, putting up 6 goals in 5 games, tied with Sam Steel for the most in the WHL.  For the Tigers, the nicest part of that emergence might just be the fact that those young players won’t be counted on night in and night out to provide offence.  Too much depth seems like a good problem to have.

Speaking of depth, the blueline packs a nice punch for Medicine Hat as well.  While the team loses forward-turned-defenceman Dylan Bredo, they still bring back a deep group.  Tommy Vannelli is the key component as the St. Louis Blues prospect is a special talent who should be near a point per game this season as a 1995. Tyler Lewington is as mean as they come, combining a mix of skill and physical force. After those two, they’ve got a bunch of size including Ty Stanton, Matt Staples, Kyle Becker and 6’6 Scott Allan, who had 3 points in 4 pre-season games.  Ultimately I don’t think all 4 of those guys will be in Medicine Hat for good this year and that’s due to the amount of young talent they have pushing for minutes.  The third of the WHL’s Quenneville brothers, David, is an elite puck mover and looks to be a lock after being the 10th overall pick in 2013.  1997-born Connor Hobbs won Gold with Canada this summer at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and he is a sure-fire bet to see some good opportunity to climb into their top 4.  And finally, Ty Schultz appears to be a player they’ll keep around as a former 16th overall selection who had over a point per game in midget last year with the Vancouver North West Giants.  It’s a young, deep and extremely talented group.  They quite possibly have the best blueline in the division.

In goal is where things could be a bit more interesting.  Technically speaking, 1994-born Czech Marek Langhamer is eligible to be back.  But, as a signed member of the Phoenix Coyotes organization, I would say the chances of that are pretty slim. That leaves Jared Rathjen as the starter, who is also a 1994.  He spent last year in Vancouver, appearing in 29 games while posting a record of 13-8-4-1 with a sub-3.00 goals against average and .898 save percentage. With that being said, he is currently on the shelf with what Shaun Clouston has called a "medical abnormality". Considering that situation, 1997-born Nick Schneider will be the go-to guy for now as he was 8-2-0-2 split between the Regina Pats and Tigers last year while also having a pretty solid pre-season.  Neither guy is terribly proven (at least Rathjen has over 70 games under his belt) and it’s clear that when it comes to on-ice personnel, goaltending would be their only real question.

Unique Storyline:  Can They Challenge The Big Two?

Coming into writing these previews I felt that the Hitmen and Oil Kings were quite clearly the best teams in the division.  And while I still feel that way, for the most part, it’s obvious to me that the Tigers could potentially challenge for a division title if things go well.  Another thing is also clear, unlike the WHL’s Eastern Division, the Central won’t be a walk in the park.  Calgary and Edmonton are both solid hockey clubs, Red Deer is young, but will work hard, Kootenay is a bit of a wildcard, while there’s no chance that Lethbridge will be as bad as they were last year.  It will be a grind for all the teams involved.  Can the Tigers overall depth help them challenge the other teams in the division, especially the Hitmen and Oil Kings?  If they get some goaltending, it could definitely happen.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in Central Division – 5th in Eastern Conference

Red Deer Rebels

2013-14 record: 35-32-1-4 = 75 points – 5th in Central Div. – 9th in Eastern Conference

The Red Deer Rebels 2013-14 season ended on a sour note as they fell in a tie-breaker game to the Prince Albert Raiders, subsequently finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs.  And while they have lost some of the key pieces from last year’s team, including starting goalie Patrik Bartosak, I feel like they have the ability to take a step forward and get back into the playoffs.

It’s time for several of the Rebels forwards to take that next step in their hockey careers with the likes of Rhyse Dieno, Aspen Sterzer and Lukas Sutter no longer in Red Deer.  I guess we can start with Conner Bleackley, the team’s captain and a 1st round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche.  He was a 68 point guy last year, but should have the ability to elevate that up into the level of 80+, while still maintaining his heart and soul style of play.  Brooks Maxwell is the lone 1994-born forward on their roster and should ride shotgun with Bleackley for much of the season.  I like their group of 1995-born forwards which includes Wyatt Johnson, Scott Feser and Presten Kopeck. Another reason to like their forward group is the young talent they have.  Grayson Pawlenchuk is a fire-cracker who mixes speed, offence and grit.  I see him doubling his 19 points from last year, at least, and being one to watch for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Adam Musil is another 2015 NHL Draft prospect to watch as he led the team in pre-season scoring and provides a good mix of physical play, defensive acumen and scoring ability.  Continuing with this theme, Meyer Nell had a great exhibition stint as a 1997, while former 14th overall pick in 2013 Jeff de Wit appears to be the lone 1998-born forward to crack the squad.  They didn’t score a ton last year and probably won’t again this year.  But, they’ll play with speed, work hard and ultimately be a tough group of forwards to play against.

Defensively, they should be just fine.  Haydn Fleury was the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and while he could be gone for part of the season with Team Canada at the World Juniors, he should elevate his game to new heights when in the lineup.  Brett Cote is a 1994 who was acquired this offseason from Victoria.  He’s a capable top-4 blueliner who should be able to crack the 40 point barrier.  Devan Fafard remains on the club’s roster as a 1994 as well, and he’s a hard nosed guy that will be a leader and help kill penalties.  Nick Charif is a player who they are expecting to see take his game to the next level after a fairly solid rookie season last year.  He’s answered some of those expectations early by putting up 4 assists in 6 pre-season games.  Like Charif, Kayle Doetzel is a 1995 who provides a lot of stability and will likely be tasked with eating some hard minutes given his physical brand of hockey. Along with this capable two-way group, Red Deer also has a pair of new European defencemen. Mario Grman is from Slovakia, Hugo Jansons is from Latvia.  Both are 1997’s.  Unfortunately, both are hurt, with Jansons expected to be out up to 10 weeks and Grman’s injury being less severe.  Despite those injuries, I see this as being a capable blueline that can both score and defend.

In goal is where things get a bit interesting for the Rebels.  Patrik Bartosak was a great CHL netminder but he’s moved on up within the Los Angeles Kings organization.  That leaves Taz Burman (1997) and Rylan Toth (1996) as their two goaltenders.  They have a combined 17 games of WHL regular season experience, all of which belong to Burman.  He was 2-6 last year with a 3.85 GAA and .884 save percentage, while Toth put up solid numbers with the SJHL’s Battlefords North Stars.  While both were decent in the pre-season, the regular season is a different animal.  In order for the Rebels to get back into the playoffs, I think the goaltending questions will need a response.

Unique Storyline:  Can The Young Forwards Elevate?

While I’ve stated that their goaltending questions need an answer in order for the Rebels to make the playoffs, the same can probably be said for their forward group.  I really like the talent they have up front, but they are still young and fairly unproven.  Bleackley showed last year that he could really elevate his game in his second year.  Now players like Pawlenchuk, Musil and Nell need to take a step in that direction this year.  If they can, while getting good defensive play and even average goaltending, I can definitely see this team reaching my predicted spot of 6th in the Eastern Conference.

Standings Prediction:  4th in Central Division – 6th in Eastern Conference

Kootenay Ice

2013-14 record: 39-28-2-3 = 83 points – 4th in Central Div. – 6th in Eastern Conference

Last year was another good one for the ever so consistent Kootenay Ice.  The franchise made the playoffs for the 16th consecutive year since moving to Cranbrook, BC, made it to the second round of the WHL Playoffs and had their star player selected 2nd overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.  So how do Ryan McGill and his group follow that up?  It will be a challenge and quite honestly, I have a hard time seeing their impressive stretch of consecutive playoff appearances staying intact.

Kootenay’s top 5 scorers from last season were all forwards and they are more than likely going to lose 3 of them.  Sam Reinhart, the previously alluded to star, seems to be a lock to make the Buffalo Sabres.  While he’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest player around, he’s extremely smart and should have no problem sliding into the Sabres bottom 6.  Tim Bozon moves on in his career, joining the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. To finish it off, Zach Franko has graduated from the WHL. Despite those losses, the Ice still have two premier talents in Jaedon Deschenau and Luke Philp.  They will be counted on to carry the main offensive load, getting help along the way from the likes of Jon Martin, Levi Cable, Austin Vetterl and Alexander Chirva. Zak Zborosky is a name to watch for the 2015 NHL Draft, while players like Vince Loschiavo (98), Austin Wellsby (97) and Jared Legein (98) are all former high draft picks looking to earn minutes.

Their blueline is anchored by a pair of NHL draftees in Rinat Valiev and Tanner Faith, with Tyler King playing a nice complimentary roll.  Troy Murray should be able to take some big strides after seeing decent minutes as a 16 year old rookie last year, while the same can be said for Jordan Steenbergen. Dylan Overdyk is a former 2nd round pick who led their blueline in pre-season points per game, so he would be a name to also watch out for.  They still have 9 defenders listed on their roster and obviously have some decisions yet to make and no matter what they decide, this group will be a fairly young one.  Leafs fans should be happy in regards to how this Kootenay blueline is shaping up, as signed Toronto draft pick Rinat Valiev should be seeing close to 30 minutes each and every night.

In goal, New York Rangers draft pick MacKenzie Skapski is signed and ready to go pro after appearing in over 150 career WHL games.  That’s a big loss as he had improved both his save percentage and goals against average in each of his past 4 years in the league.  That graduation means Wyatt Hoflin of Spruce Grove, Alberta takes over between the pipes.  Despite the fact that I’ve always liked his game, he’s another one of those guys that is fairly untested in this league.  He’s got 51 regular season and playoff games under his belt, going 15-19-1-1 with a save percentage around .895.  While Hoflin is a 1995-born goalie, a pair of 96’s in Jayden Sittler and Keelan Williams remain on the Ice roster in the battle for backup spot.

Unique Storyline:  Tempted To Wheel And Deal?

As I’ve stated in previous “Unique Storyline” posts, I really hate speculating about trades before the season even starts.  Part of the appeal of the hockey season starting again is everyone starting with an optimistic approach.  New beginnings, so to speak.  With that being said, it’s pretty obvious that the Ice have some nice pieces that other teams might want via trade.  Players like Jaedon Descheneau and Luke Philp are guys that could take a middle-of-the-pack team and quickly help elevate them to a new level.  The same can be said for Valiev, if you can find the right fit with the import factor considered.  Is this something the Ice might entertain if they don’t get off to a start they are hoping for? 

Standings Prediction:  5th in Central Division – 11th in Eastern Conference

Lethbridge Hurricanes

2013-14 record: 12-55-2-3 = 29 points – 6th in Central Div. – 12th in Eastern Conference

What a tough stretch it’s been the last little while for the Hurricanes.  I actually feel bad for how things have gone there, as I really think that they have some good people within their organization.  While they weren’t in amazing shape with their on-ice personnel when stuff started happening there, it’s basically impossible to come out ahead when players start demanding trades.  Last year was tough for the Canes in the standings as they lost their final 14 games of the season to finish with 29 points.  Looking ahead to this year, while I don’t see them as a playoff team, I do see them winning more than 12 of their 72 games.

Six of the Hurricanes top 7 scoring forwards from last season are back in uniform this year.  Riley Sheen and Reid Duke lead the way in that group as I fully expect both players to post at least 60 points this year while potentially playing on the same line.  Tyler Wong has shown steady improvement in his first two seasons in the WHL and should follow that up in his third.  Jamal Watson seems due to dominate a bit more this year as he’s been one of the fastest players in the league since his rookie year.  Meanwhile, a player like Giorgio Estephan seems poised for big things in his draft year, once he gets healthy (if his foot rehab is going well then he should be back a couple of weeks into the season).  Outside of those names, 16 year old rookie Jaeger White was tied for the team lead in pre-season scoring and should stay in the offensive mix, while rugged forward Carter Folk could catch a few people by surprise as a darkhorse breakout player.

The blueline is a bit of a mixed bag for the Hurricanes, with standout and top defensive scorer Macoy Erkamps remaining steady in his holdout after asking to be traded.  Nick Walters and Tyler Bell are back as physical 1995’s that will try and anchor a fairly young core.  Griffin Foulk and Lenny Hackman are also returning ’95’s that have some experience in the league.  After those 4, they appear to have some solid young talent.  I liked Thomas Lenchyshyn in the one Hurricanes pre-season game I caught, the same can be stated for fellow ’97 Kade Jensen.  Bryton Sayers also appears to be a guy that is ready to make a jump in his production after putting up roughly a point every 4 games last year on the lowest scoring team in the WHL.  While the top-end talent doesn’t appear to quite be there right now for the Hurricanes blueline, it does appear they’ve got some decent help on the way.

In goal things are also interesting for Lethbridge as they are putting a lot of eggs in one basket with goaltender Stuart Skinner.  The 6’4 product of Edmonton is the former 17th overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft by the Hurricanes and appears to be their go-to guy right now.  Did I mention he’s still only 15 years old?  Yes.  He doesn’t turn 16 until November.  So, that’s interesting.  A bold move, regardless of how good he might be (and don’t get me wrong, I think he’s going to be very good).  The Hurricanes backup is also unproven as they traded to get Zac Robidoux from Medicine Hat at the end of August.  He’s an 18 year old with 3 career WHL games under his belt, 2 of those being wins.  Last year they surrendered nearly 5 goals against per game, more than a half goal per game worse than any other team in the WHL.  I’ll be interested to see how their goaltending shapes up this year now that they will be rolling out the youngest tandem in the league.

Unique Storyline:  Impact Imports

The Hurricanes hardly got any production from their import slots last year, with Axel Blomqvist getting traded after 19 games and Kris Khenkel not playing a game until the last week of December.  Overall they combined for 9 goals and 17 points in 48 games.  Will that change this year? I think so.  Lethbridge have a pair of new Russians on their squad, both of whom are right-wingers and eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Nikita Milekhin was taken in the first round of the 2014 CHL Import Draft, with Pavel Skumatov going in the second. I had the chance to see them both play already this fall and they both look like players.  Neither is big, but they both have good hands and hockey smarts.  They’ll be nice complimentary pieces inside their top 9 and should help provide some more offence for a team that was far and away the worst in the conference in that regard last year.

Standings Prediction:  6th in Central Division – 12th in Eastern Conference