Monday, September 15, 2014

2014-15 BC Division Preview

Here we go with part two of my WHL Division previews and I stay in the Western Conference, highlighting the BC Division.  I think this is set to be a very competitive division this coming season when compared to their neighbors to the south.  I have the Rockets pegged as early favorites, but the Royals look poised to be an extremely good club again this year.  The other teams are all very capable of being playoff teams, as long as they find ways to overcome some specific holes.  

Here's how I see things shaping up in the BC Division in 2014-15:

Kelowna Rockets

2013-14 record: 57-11-0-4 = 118 points – 1st in BC Division – 1st in Western Conference

Like many teams, the Kelowna Rockets lost some key players over the offseason.  Included in that group were their top three scorers from last year in Myles Bell, Ryan Olsen and Damon Severson.  Not only that, they also lost their starting goalie, the CHL’s Top Goalie in fact, in Jordon Cooke.  Oh yeah, and their head coach Ryan Huska moved on with Dan Lambert replacing him.  So how will the Rockets weather that storm and earn top spot in the BC Division, as I’m predicting them to?  Well, it’s not actually that hard when you draft and develop as well as Bruce Hamilton and his group have.

Despite the above-mentioned forwards, the Rockets bring back some talented kids up front including potential 1st round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Nick Merkley.  He was the WHL’s Top Rookie last year and will be looking to build off his 58 point campaign.  Along with him down the middle, they also have Tyson Baillie, Rourke Chartier, Cole Linaker and new import Tomas Soustal.  Others like Austin Glover, Kris Schmidli and Justin Kirkland are back on the wings, with Kirkland poised for a big year after being a Nashville Predators draft selection in 2014. It’s a great group, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Tyrell Goulbourne, Carter Rigby and Colton Heffley are fighting for roles as 20 year olds.  The Rockets will score, maybe not 310 times like last year (2nd in the WHL), but they will have no trouble creating offence.

As mentioned, Severson is off to the pro game to play with Albany of the AHL.  He was their leading defensive scorer last season, but besides him the Rockets return the rest of their group. And it’s a good one.  They’re led by Washington Capitals prospect Madison Bowey, who scored an impressive 21 goals last year.  Along with him, they feature Riley Stadel, Mitchell Wheaton, Jesse Lees, Dalton Yorke and potential overager Colten Martin.  They’ve also got some stud prospects itching for minutes, but more on them in a second.  When looking at how their roster stacks up, it actually becomes apparent that they don’t have the room to give everyone proper ice time.  They return 7 guys who were at least semi-regulars last season.  You have to imagine someone needs to leave The Defence Factory early in the season.  What a good problem to have. 

Goaltending is really the only question for this club.  Cooke has graduated, leaving two-year backup Jackson Whistle as the starter.  Whistle has 64 career games under his belt and while he’s not overly experienced, he has posted some pretty good results including a 34-13 record with a sub-2.70 GAA.  Has he played behind a great defence in Kelowna while posting those numbers?  Yes, he has.  But that hasn’t changed for this coming year. They’re still a stacked team. He’s 19 years old and has been around a bit, if he can stay healthy and even just be “average” this team should still be good enough to battle Victoria for a division title.  Look for 1997-born Jake Morrissey, Josh Morrissey’s brother, to be the backup and eventual starter in the cage down the road.

Unique Storyline:  Who’s The Next Defensive Stud?

I called Kelowna “The Defence Factory” and it’s no secret that they are.  Let’s see…Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Alex Edler, Josh Gorges, Scott Hannan and Sheldon Souray are some of the NHL names that have spent time roaming the Rockets blueline.  So who’s next?  It seems like every year the team has a shiny new toy.  Last year Joe Gatenby got into only 43 games, but he looks poised to take that next big step forward during his NHL Draft year.  Meanwhile, a couple of new faces look to be ready for minutes.  Lucas Johansen is one of them.  He’s the brother of Columbus Blue Jackets forward Ryan Johansen and is a former 6th round pick.  At the time of that selection he was considered to be a “potential steal” by their director of player personnel Lorne Frey.  He’s coming off a good year in midget and has a skillset that should fit in perfectly.  Devante Stephens is another name to watch.  Like Johansen, he’s a 1997, but was undrafted.  The Surrey product is pushing hard to make a name for himself and earn a roster spot, further cementing the idea that the Rockets might need to trade a body or two to keep the development train rolling along.

Standings Prediction:  1st in BC Division – 2nd in Western Conference

Victoria Royals

2013-14 record: 48-20-1-3 = 100 points – 2nd in BC Division – 3rd in Western Conference

The Victoria Royals have some unfinished business to take care of in 2014-15.  They return much of their 2013-14 club, a team that fell in the second round of the WHL Playoffs at the hands of the Portland Winterhawks.  And while I have Victoria pegged to finish 3rd in the conference, like they did last year, it’s pretty obvious to me that this team could actually end up being better than both the Winterhawks and Rockets. 

The Royals return their top three scorers from the 2013-14 season, all of which are forwards.  While Brandon Magee and Axel Blomqvist are guaranteed to be back as big contributors, 57-point man Austin Carroll’s future is still a bit up in the air.  The Calgary Flames draft pick is a 1994-born player, meaning he’s technically eligible to sign a professional deal and move up from the WHL as early as this fall. Tyler Soy is eligible for the NHL Draft and should greatly improve on his 30 points from 2013-14, while Brandon Fushimi and Logan Fisher will both be looking to elevate their games in bigger roles.  Along with those veterans, they’ve got some younger players looking to make a push to stick with the team for the season.  Jared Dmytriw, one of two 1998-born forwards still on their roster, has had a nice pre-season, being tied for the team lead in pre-season scoring as I write this.  Matthew Campese is looking to earn a full-time job while Nic Petan’s cousin Dante Hanoun should crack the squad.  He’s the other 1998-born forward left on their roster, is the former 11th overall pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft and had 52 points in 32 major midget games last year for the Greater Vancouver Canadians. 

While the forward group is fairly solid for the Royals, the blueline appears to be their biggest strength.  They return 5 defencemen from their 2013-14 club and that doesn't include the fact that Jack Walker is switching back to the blueline from the wing.  Travis Brown headlines the bunch with Joe Hicketts looking like he’ll also be one of the best offensive blueliners in the WHL this coming year after going undrafted but showing strong at Detroit’s rookie camp.  Keegan Kanzig will once again be a tower of power on their backend with Chaz Redekopp already earning some major attention ahead of the 2015 NHL Draft.  I’ve also heard some decent things about the future of 1998-born Ralph Jarratt.  It’s a scary talented group on the blueline and one has to imagine they’ll again be the favourites to post the lowest total of goals against in the conference, as they did last season. 

While this team has a big group of returning players both up front and on defence, their dynamic goaltending duo has been cut in half.  Patrik Polivka has moved on to play in Europe after two solid seasons, including posting 28 wins in 43 appearances last year.  That leaves Coleman Vollrath as the man in charge. And while he didn’t play as much as Polivka last year, he still put up great numbers with 20 wins in 34 games, a 2.29 goals against average and .928 save percentage.  Michael Herringer has played well this pre-season as a 1996, with 1997-born Evan Smith being the other guy competing for the backup job.

Unique Storyline:  Are Their Scoring Concerns Legitimate?

While I do like some individual pieces up front, it’s no secret that Victoria isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. They’re a team that really takes care of their own end first and foremost.  But, while they’re impressive goals against tallies from 2013-14 are exactly that, impressive, they didn’t exactly blow teams away offensively.  Their 238 goals for were tied with two other teams for 4th best in the Western Conference, but ranked 11th overall in the WHL.  Their powerplay clicked 20.5% of the time, not good enough to crack the top 12 in the league.  They’ve followed that up with only scoring 11 times in 6 pre-season games, winning once.  And while it’s the pre-season and they’ve had players gone to NHL camps, it’s still worth noting that they haven’t been able to score as much as some other top-ranked teams.  Returning their top three scoring forwards and defenceman from last year is at least a start.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in BC Division – 3rd in Western Conference

Vancouver Giants

2013-14 record: 32-3-7-4 = 75 points – 3rd in BC Division – 7th in Western Conference

The Vancouver Giants are actively attempting to be more “active” when it comes to their style of play.  Gone is the grinding, dump and chase style of outgoing coach Don Hay.  In comes the more puck-possession friendly style of new head bench boss Troy Ward.  There are several teams that haven’t been afraid to employ that up-tempo pace, including the Portland Winterhawks with Mike Johnston, and now it appears the Giants hope to be next in line.  Their general manager Scott Bonner has made that clear on several occasions, including during a radio interview I caught the other day.  It’s still a fairly fresh concept for this league and it will be fun to see how the Giants players can adapt.

When it comes to this style of play, you need the proper personnel to make it happen.  While the Giants have lost some skill up front in players like Cain Franson and Dominik Volek, they’ve also brought in a few that should help replace them.  That group includes the likes of former Giant Matt Bellerive, new import Vladimir Bobylev and standout rookie Tyler Benson.  Carter Popoff was the team’s leading scorer and has picked up where he left this pre-season, while Jakob Stukel, Alec Baer, Ty Ronning and Thomas Foster look poised to take big leaps forward. Mix in veterans Jackson Houck, Joel Hamilton and Dalton Sward, and you have a group of players that should be at least in the middle of the pack offensively in the conference.

On the blueline, the Giants lose their top two scorers from last year in Brett Kulak and Dalton Thrower, but they still have some nice pieces to work with.  Mason Geertsen is ready for more minutes and to provide more offence as he tries to earn a contract from the Colorado Avalanche.  Arvin Atwal has developed into a very solid hockey player.  Tyler Morrison will be given the chance to handle more opportunity after back to back 21 and 23 point seasons. Dmitry Osipov will surely improve on his 3 goal, 3 point 2013-14 season, too. To me, the big Russian is the wildcard.  If the 6’4 defender can turn himself into a top pairing blueliner this year and justify his 1st overall import pick status, the Giants could possibly slide into the top 5 in the conference. 

In goal, the weight of the team’s potential success falls on Payton Lee. The 1996-born goalie is entering his 3rd full season in the league and needs to prove that he’s more than an .880 goaltender, which he’s been so far in his career.  On the bright side of that equation, he does have a pair of youngsters pushing him so far in Giants camp. Both Cody Porter (97) and Ryan Kubic (98) have posted sparkling numbers up to this point.  For the Giants sake, hopefully one of those two can continue to do that once the regular season begins. If they can even get .900 save percentage goaltending, it should work some wonders.

Unique Storyline:  Just How Good Is Tyler Benson?

Last year Nikita Scherbak led rookie WHL scorers with 78 points.  The year before, Oliver Bjorkstrand did so with 63 points.  So what kind of damage could this former 1st overall pick do?  Is it unfair to expect those totals from Benson, considering both of those import rookie players were older than this 16 year old phenom?  Yeah, it probably is.  With that being said, he’s still being billed as the best young player the WHL has seen in quite some time.  He’s smashed records coming up through minor hockey and has the body to compete with some big boys in the WHL.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just how good this kid is and also intrigued to see if he starts to wear down in the second half of the season or if that’s the time he really starts to get into the swing of things offensively.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in BC Division – 6th in Western Conference

Prince George Cougars

2013-14 record: 27-37-3-5 = 62 points – 4th in BC Division – 9th in Western Conference

I have to give some credit to the Prince George Cougars.  They’re a team that constantly has adversity facing them, but continue to put up a decent fight in the standings year after year.  They’ve only missed the playoffs by a handful of points in each of the past three seasons.  Is this the year they get back into the dance?  It could be, but they once again have some challenges to face and it starts with their forward group.

The Cougars will start the 2014-15 year without their top 5 scorers from last year, all of which are forwards.  Todd Fiddler, Troy Bourke, Zach Pochiro and Klarc Wilson are all moving on in their hockey careers, while Jordan Tkatch is now with the Prince Albert Raiders.  Those players combined for 149 goals and 355 points last year.  That’s a ton of offence no matter who you have coming in to replace them.  And unfortunately, they don’t have a ton of new bodies looking to pick up that slack.  Draft-eligible Jansen Harkins should nearly double his 34 points from last year, same with fellow-eligible Brad Morrison.  But those guys were there last year.  Newcomers Chance Braid and Lance Yaremchuk are both hard-working guys but not likely to contribute a ton in the skill category.  Chase Witala should have a good year, likely a point per game, and rookie Colby McAuley has had a good pre-season, but this team appears to need scoring from all four lines and the blueline to stay in the playoff mix.

Now while I am not terribly sold on their young forward group, I do like the makeup of their backend even if it’s also fairly young.  Marc McNulty had a monster season with 17 goals last year and will look to replicate that again this year while eating hard defensive minutes.  I like the game of big Sam Ruopp and guys like Will Tomchuk, Joseph Carvalho and Raymond Grewal have all proved they can at least be somewhat serviceable in the league.  But it’s the young talent on defence that looks to be the biggest potential bright spot.  Former 3rd overall pick Josh Anderson is looking like a lock to make the team, with the 1998-born putting up 3 helpers in 4 pre-season games.  Shane Collins (97) has put up a point per game in exhibition while fellow 1997 Tate Olson looks poised to have a good year after suiting up in 52 as a rookie last year.  They’ll need this group to not only help defend, but also to help push the pace offensively as much as possible.

In goal, the Cougars look to have the makings of a very good junior hockey goalie, if not more, in Ty Edmonds.  The Winnipeg product was often thrown to the wolves last year, responding as well as anyone could expect by posting 19 wins to match his 19 losses.  The rookie put up the 8th most saves in the league with 1488 while facing roughly a shot every 30 seconds.  That experience as a young player in the league should do wonders for him and the Cougars, who gave up the most goals of any team in the West (tied with Kamloops, actually, with 305).  He’s a good sized goaltender who went undrafted in the NHL despite attending the Top Prospects game in the middle of the season.  Mix that in as some motivation and you should have a goalie that can help contribute nicely to a team whose strength is from the blueline-in. 

Unique Storyline:  Can Their Imports Have A Bigger Impact?

I have yet to mention the Cougars import players at all in this preview, but that’s because I had this in mind.  In following junior hockey the last number of years, it’s become clear to me that the best teams get good performances from either their 20 year old players, their imports or a combination of both.  The Cougars didn’t get a lot from their imports last year.  David Soltes was a high pick in the 2013 Import Draft (4th overall, in fact) but was injured for much of the year, putting up only 5 points in 15 games.  Martin Bobos didn’t score a goal in his 67 games, tallying 7 assists and 57 PIMs. Despite that lack of production from both of the 1995-born imports, the Cougars opted not to use their pick in the 2014 Import Draft, which was perched nicely at 15th overall.  That is a lot of faith from management shown towards these two players.  They’re both 19 this coming season and need to return that good faith by playing hard, producing and doing their best to get the Cougars back into the playoffs.

Standings Prediction:  4th in BC Division – 8th in Western Conference

Kamloops Blazers

2013-14 record: 14-53-2-3 = 33 points – 5th in BC Division – 10th in Western Conference

It’s pretty tough to sugar-coat this one, the Kamloops Blazers were beyond awful last season.  Even if you doubled their point total from 2013-14, they still wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the light, 10-team Western Conference.  Surprisingly enough, they weren’t even the worst team in the WHL last year.  But, I’ll have more on the Lethbridge Hurricanes at a later date. 

I actually like some of the building blocks the Blazers have in place for Don Hay to use at his disposal, especially up front.  I’m a huge fan of Cole Ully and I think he has an 85 point season in him.  Matt Revel has proven himself more than capable as a good junior player and should elevate close to near a point per game this year.  Players like Matt Needham, Chase Souto and Collin Shirley provide good secondary scoring.  Looking further down the lineup, youngsters like Jesse Zaharichuk and Jake Kryski have been point per game players in exhibition action.  As a team the Blazers were second last in scoring in the WHL last season, but they have enough weapons to at least be near the middle of the pack in 2014-15.

On the blueline, Brady Gaudet should be a 40+ point guy as an overager.  Ryan Rehill is as hard to play against as anyone.  Josh Connolly is looking to repeat what was a very solid season for him last year.  Meanwhile, imports Patrik Maier and Michael Fora will look to make an impact.  To be perfectly honest, the first two categories of this team aren’t too bad as they’ve got nice pieces both up front and on the blueline.  Good enough to be a playoff team?  It’s close, but I think most of there chances will depend on this next category.

Bolton Pouliot is currently penciled in as the Blazers starting goaltender for 2014-15.  He’s got a career .895 save percentage and was 8-30 last season with Kamloops.  As a 20 year old, he’s going to have to really take his game up a notch for them to have a chance at making it into the post-season.  He’s had a good pre-season, so that’s a positive sign.  Behind him they have a pair of 1997’s still battling for a spot in Cole Kehler and Connor Ingram. 

Unique Storyline:  Can Hay Work His Magic?

Don Hay is back with the Kamloops Blazers, returning to a spot where he not only played and coached, but a place where he was born.  It’s a great story.  He’s won over 600 games as a coach in the WHL and has only missed the playoffs once in his past 15 years as a Western League bench boss. He might be just what the Blazers need, a fresh voice and a new leader.  But the question remains, can he turn this current roster around, or is he going to embrace the fact that many people see them as a re-tooling franchise.  I’m sure much of their season’s final results will depend on how the first quarter of the year goes, but either way it will be a fun story to watch.  I have them ranked as the 9th team in the conference, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they played their way into the top 6 or 7.

Standings Prediction:  5th in BC Division – 9th in Western Conference

Sunday, September 14, 2014

2014-15 US Division Preview

It’s almost that time of year again as hockey is oh so close to being back.  In fact, it’s already started in some places including Russia’s KHL and the QMJHL.

The WHL season is quickly approaching, getting underway on September 19th when the puck drops for 7 separate games.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to piece together some division previews.  We’ll kick things off with our friends to the south in the US Division.  Here's nearly 4,000 words on how I see these 5 teams shaping up as the season creeps closer.

Portland Winterhawks

2013-14 record: 54-13-2-3 = 113 points – 1st in US Division – 2nd in Western Conference

I feel it necessary to start off the US Division preview with the team who won the entire Western Conference last year, the Portland Winterhawks.  The Winterhawks are in pretty special company heading into the year, having won the division in three of the past four seasons and looking to head to the WHL’s Championship Series for a 5th straight year.  Will they accomplish that goal?  Time will tell, but they certainly have the personnel to get them there. 

Speaking of personnel, they do lose quite a few key guys from their 2013-14 squad, which was the highest scoring bunch in the league.  Gone are the likes of Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier, Matt Dumba, Garrett Haar, Derrick Pouliot and others.  But despite those massive departures, they seem to be as deep offensively as any team in the league.  Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand will be looked upon to dominate in their final year of junior, with Dominic Turgeon, Keegan Iverson and Alex Schoenborn expected to take big leaps forward now that they are drafted into the NHL.  They’ve also got a potential 1st rounder for the 2015 NHL Draft in their top 6, likely on a line with Petan and Bjorkstrand, in big Paul Bittner.  It’s a scary group. 

The back half of their lineup isn’t quite as scary, but it should still be effective.  While losing some of the above-mentioned blueliners will hurt, they’ve still got some experience in guys like Josh Hanson, Anton Cederholm and newcomer Joshua Smith.  Besides those veterans, Keoni Texeira is expected to take a big step forward for them in his draft year while Washington Capitals prospect and former Sioux City Musketeers captain Blake Heinrich should add some pop to the lineup as he netted 3 goals in 3 pre-season games.

In goal, Brendan Burke is back while veteran Corbin Boes has graduated.  Burke will be looking to follow up his 34 win season with another good year, likely having more appearances than his 2013-14 total of 48.  The team still has three goalies on their roster with 6’4 Aidin Hill (’96) and Michael Bullion (’97).  One would assume Hill starts while Burke is with the Phoenix Coyoes when the WHL season starts, with Bullion ending up as the third guy on the depth chart once Burke returns.  But, I guess you never know.  Bullion did post some solid numbers in pre-season hockey.

Unique Storyline:  New Coach, Same Results?

Like many other WHL teams, the Winterhawks begin the 2014-15 season with a new head coach behind the bench in Jamie Kompon.  Kompon takes over for Mike Johnston, who left the organization to become the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins (can you believe it took someone THAT long to give Johnston a head coaching job in the NHL?).  Things look like they’ve been left in pretty good hands with Kompon, a former ECHL defenceman and assistant coach in the NHL.  He brings a wealth of knowledge with him to the Winterhawks, where he will be both the head coach and general manager.  He’s a former Stanley Cup Champion with the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, having also spent time as a coach with the St. Louis Blues.  Having spent time with those teams, it’s safe to assume he knows how to play fast-paced, puck-possession hockey.  That’s what the Winterhawks players and fans are used to, and I would imagine things will still flow in that direction as we kick off 2014-15.

Standings Prediction:  1st in US Division – 1st in Western Conference

Seattle Thunderbirds

2013-14 record: 41-25-2-4 = 88 points – 2nd in US Division – 4th in Western Conference

There is plenty of buzz around the Thunderbirds as the season approaches, and much of it has to do with the NHL Draft.  Seattle’s roster features several highly ranked prospects for the deep 2015 NHL Draft, including potential top 10 selection and former 1st overall bantam pick Matt Barzal.  Along with Barzal, Ryan Gropp is a highly touted forward prospect, with Ethan Bear looking to make a big splash on the blueline.  And while it’s easy to get caught up in the sparkle of the draft, it must be noted that this team will need to get some good performances up front in order to make up for the loss of some solid forwards.  Gone are the likes of Roberts Lipsbergs, Branden Troock, Connor Honey, Jaimen Yakubowski and Alexander Delnov.  Ouch.

Despite those losses up front, they’ve still got a decent cast of characters to insulate Gropp and Barzal.  Justin Hickman leads that pack as the player who spent much of 2013-14 on the wing with the two star sophomores.  Big Keegan Kolesar looks to take his game to the next level as he had 4 points in 6 pre-season games after putting up only 8 in 60 games all last season.  The same can be said for Colorado’s Scott Eansor.  Sam McKechnie is a veteran who will be counted on more this coming season while former 5th round pick and Saskatoon Blazers alumni Lane Pederson had 5 points in 7 pre-season games. If their two new imports Alexander True (48th in 2014) and Florian Baltram (108th in 2014) can have average rookie campaigns as 1997’s it will go a long way in determining how far this team might get in the postseason.  

The real strength of this team appears to be on the blueline, and that’s a big positive.  While Seattle was one of three teams in the Western Conference to score exactly 238 goals in 2013-14 (PG and Victoria did so as well), they surrendered 249.  That tally was the most of any playoff team in the conference and simply not good enough.  Luckily, they return all of their top 7 defencemen from last year.  They’ve got a nice mix of offence and defence on the backend, highlighted by potential 80 point guy Shea Theodore.  Along with him, they’ve got a pair of solid 1994’s in Evan Wardley and Adam Henry.  Henry brings some skill, while Wardley brings the punish.  Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith, Kevin Wolf and Ethan Bear will also provide good minutes, with Sahvan Khaira appearing to crack their final roster as a 1998.  It’s a balanced group which possesses tiers of skill and defensive ability, not to mention arguably the best pure offensive defender in the league.  It’s a group that will need to provide good defensive structure while also having the ability to get the puck up the ice to the forwards, who are a good mix of skill and lunch bucket attitude.

Looking further back into their own end, the Thunderbirds do have an interesting battle going on in the crease.  Taran Kozun was fantastic last year after getting dealt from the Kamloops Blazers to Seattle, posting 14 wins in 24 games with a .928 save percentage and 2.40 GAA.  While he seems to be a lock in the crease, the Thunderbirds do have a bit of a battle in regards to their 20 year olds, which Kozun is, more on that later.  I would assume he’s their starter, but I know they also really like 1997-born Logan Flodell and 2013-14 backup Danny Mumaugh, a 1996, was fairly decent in his second full campaign.  So what do they do?  Keep Kozun and Flodell? Keep Kozun and Mumaugh?  Keep Flodell and Mumaugh?  I won’t speculate, but it seems like it could be hard to keep Flodell off the roster considering how he’s developed and how he performed in a pair of pre-season games, registering a .947 save percentage.

Unique Storyline:  Still Too Many 94’s

I’ve alluded to it throughout, but the Thunderbirds still have too many 20 year olds on their roster and will need to make some tough decisions.  Looking at it right now, they’ve got five on their roster and have done quite well cutting back, considering I believe they had 13 1994-born players at the end of last season.  The five on their roster now are Sam Mckechnie, Justin Hickman, Adam Henry, Evan Wardley and Taran Kozun.  Two have to go, but who do you choose?  If I were a betting man, which I kind of am, I would say that Kozun, Henry and Hickman are the three that stick around.  I think Wardley has some decent value and would improve some team’s blueline nicely.  Mckechnie is a good character kid who wouldn’t look out of place as some team’s third overage player.  Either way there are some tough calls to make and I wish all five of them the best of luck.

Standings Prediction:  2nd in US Division – 4th in Western Conference

Tri-City Americans

2013-14 record: 29-33-4-6 = 68 points – 5th in US Division – 8th in Western Conference

After Portland and Seattle, things start to get pretty interesting in the WHL’s US Division.  I felt Tri-City underachieved a bit last year but were still decent enough to sneak into the playoffs before falling out in the first round at the hands of Kelowna.  And while last year might have been a bit of a disappointment, there are two things I would like to point out.  First, they have a new coach.  Out is Jim Hiller, in is Mike Williamson.  Second, while the coaching staff is new, most of the faces are the same.  That’s one big reason why I think the Americans might have the edge on division opponents in Everett and Spokane, not to mention Prince George, Vancouver and Kamloops in the conference as a whole.

All you need to do is look at the team’s pre-season scorers to feel good about how Tri-City is shaping up offensively.  There are a lot of familiar faces near the top of that list and many guys who were contributors on the team last year. Ty Comrie led the way with 7 assists in 7 games and he will be counted on to do more than 9 points worth of damage, like he did last season.  Along with Comrie, five of their six top scoring forwards from last year are back including Brian Williams, Beau McCue, Parker Bowles, Lucas Nickles and Justin Gutierrez.  Mix in youngsters like Taylor Vickerman (who is nearly healthy again), Braden Purtill and Rodney Southam and you have a group that is balanced and fairly deep, probably deeper than Seattle’s. 

While the forward group is very deep, the same can’t quite be said for the blueline.  They lose both Mitch Topping and Michael Plutnar from last year’s team and those guys munched some decent minutes for them.  On paper, the team’s top 4 appears to be made up of Justin Hamonic, Josh Thrower, Parker Wotherspoon and Brandon Carlo, with the last two on that list being fairly high-profile guys for the 2015 NHL Draft.  Hamonic and Thrower are both meat and potatoes guys that can play some harder minutes and try to defend their net while the two draft-eligible guys should carry the load offensively.  After those four, you have some youngsters including former 3rd rounder Dylan Coghlan, Colorado-born Riley Hillis and big Texan Brendan O’Reilly. They’re a very young group, but they do have some talent. 

Unlike almost every other team in this division, the Americans strength is in goal with Winnipeg Jets prospect Eric Comrie manning the cage.  The product of Edmonton put up 26 wins and 25 losses last year with a .925 save percentage, good for 2nd in the WHL, and a 2.57 goals against average.  He’ll be in the net as much as possible, while also potentially suiting up for Team Canada at the World Juniors in December and January.  It’s no secret that he’s the backbone for this franchise and he’s good enough to help along the clubs young blueline, while also potentially carrying them to a middle-of-the-pack playoff position.  Expect to see Evan Sarthou as the backup, with Nathan Alalouf serving as the 3rd string guy while Comrie is gone camping with the Jets.

Unique Storyline:  Offence From Ufa

Looking at how their roster is shaping up, it’s a bit interesting to note that they selected a pair of Russian forwards at the 2014 CHL Import Draft, opting not to take a blueliner.  As noted, the forward group appears to be fairly strong for Tri-City, while the blueline could have used another horse or two.  Either way, the Americans have two new Russians to show off this coming year in Semyon Krasheninnikov and Vladislav Lukin.  “Krash” was taken 18th overall, with Lukin coming 60 picks later.  They’ve combined for 16 points in their exhibition games, are both born in January of 1997 and play right-wing.  The WHL as a whole has undergone a Russian invasion, especially the Eastern Conference, but it will be interesting to see what kind of game these two bring to the table.  Both are listed as being at least 6’0 and 180 pounds, so they’ve got some decent size for young players.

Standings Prediction:  3rd in US Division – 5th in Western Conference

Everett Silvertips

2013-14 record: 39-23-7-3 = 88 points – 3rd in US Division – 5th in Western Conference

While the story for the Tri-City Americans was the return of much of their 2013-14 team, it’s the exact opposite for the Silvertips.  Three of their top four scoring forwards are gone from last year’s team, with Josh Winquist, Manraj Hayer and Juhjar Khaira taking their 78 goals and moving on in their careers.  That’s a lot of offence.  Not to mention the fact that they are also losing their top scoring blueliner in 50-point man Matt Pufahl.  The focus for this team will be getting good performances from a combination of veterans and youngsters who haven’t been counted on as the go-to guys at this level.

So who exactly is back up front for Everett?  Moscow product Ivan Nikolishin returns and should improve on his 59-point rookie campaign.  Zane Jones is a big body that will be counted on to score, while Dawson Leedahl, Carson Stadnyk, Kohl Bauml, Remi Laurencelle and Logan Aasman need to provide a mix of leadership, scoring and two-way play.  Will Brayden Low crack the final roster? He's in tough, but his team-leading 8 pre-season points are worth making a note of.  Tyler Sandhu, Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne are young guys looking to take big strides, while newcomer Graham Millar was brought in from Saskatoon to provide depth and the ability to chip in some offence.  It’s a decent group with some speed and balance, but they were already the 2nd lowest-scoring playoff team in the conference last year.  Scoring will be a bit of a challenge.

As things stand right now, Ben Betker is the anchor of this defensive core.  The 6’6 Edmonton Oilers prospect is the oldest guy on the blueline and will be counted on to eat up some large minutes in all aspects.  After him, a player like Cole McDonald will be expected to elevate his game.  The Silvertips do have a pair of potential studs on the back-end too, in 1997-born Noah Juulsen and Kevin Davis.  Both have earned some early 2015 NHL Draft buzz and the Silvertips need them to have solid, if not spectacular, second seasons in the WHL.  Aside from those four guys, names to watch are American Tristen Pfeifer and Lucas Skrumeda, both 1996’s.  Skrumeda put up some decent pre-season numbers while Pfeifer has size and is coming off of a good season with the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes last year.

The only team besides Tri-City to have a goaltender as arguably their top player is the Everett Silvertips with Austin Lotz.  And obviously, he’s a big reason why I think they will slide their way into the postseason.  While his save percentage of .905 wasn’t spectacular last year, he remains the core to this team’s playoff chances.  His 2.53 save percentage was 4th best in the league last year, finishing 6th in wins with 31, T-2nd in shutouts with 5 and 5th in minutes played with over 3200.  He’s a workhorse and will continue to be this coming year.  While the Silvertips didn’t score a ton last year, they also didn’t give up many goals.  In fact, their 206 goals against was the 2nd best in the conference, 4th best in the entire WHL.  I’m sure that will need to be the case again this year for Everett to get into the dance.  And for the record, I definitely believe Lotz needs to improve on his .905 save percentage for this to happen.

Unique Storyline:  Will Mirco Mueller Return?

I’ve avoided it all along, but it’s pretty clear that the biggest storyline for this team is the Mirco Mueller situation.  The 1995-born San Jose Sharks 1st round pick was the team’s number one defenceman last year, logging tough minutes and finishing 2nd in blueline scoring.  He’s currently eligible to turn pro with the Sharks, but it’s either the NHL or WHL for him.  Due to his age, he can’t play in the AHL.  So, is he NHL-ready?  I hate to say it for Silvertips fans, but I think he is.  He plays such a smooth and smart game and would make a nice fit in San Jose.  He would be counted on in a minor role and would be allowed to slowly grow and improve his game while on a fairly good club.  But that is only part of the equation.  Do the Sharks have room for him? It would appear that, yes, they do.  They currently have 7 defencemen with one-way contracts on their roster, Mueller included.  Sorry to say Tips fans, but odds are slim he’s back in green, white and grey this season. 

Standings Prediction:  4th in US Division – 7th in Western Conference

Spokane Chiefs

2013-14 record: 40-26-3-3 = 86 points – 4th in US Division – 6th in Western Conference

More often than not, junior hockey runs in cycles due to the amount of player turnover.  And while it keeps things fresh and exciting, it also means some teams are forced to use the dreaded “rebuild” word.  Unfortunately for fans of Spokane, that’s where they appear to be at right now as a franchise.  While it’s been a number of years since they’ve done some real damage in the playoffs (dating back to their 2008 WHL and Memorial Cup titles), they still have a recent history to be proud of.  They’ve made the WHL playoffs in eight straight seasons, finishing no worse than 3rd in the division in each of the past seven years.  But, things on the horizon appear to be a bit more challenging.

The Chiefs were a dynamic group last year, scoring 244 goals, 3rd most in the conference.  They were led by Mitch Holmberg, who finished the year with 62 goals and 118 points, leading the league in both categories.  Mike Aviani chipped in 38 goals and 81 points.  Both those guys are now gone.  While that news is tough, it’s worth noting that several of the Chiefs “next wave” of players remain intact including Adam Helewka (50 points), Connor Chartier (32 points), Riley Whittingham (32 points) and Liam Stewart (28 points).  And while those guys might not have “star power” to their name, they are still more than capable junior hockey players.  You mix in guys like import Dominic Zwerger (96 born, 26 points), Keannu Yamamoto (96 born, 25 points) and rookies Curtis Miske (97 born) and Kailer Yamamoto (98 born) and you have a group that should be able to still find ways to put the biscuit in the basket.

The back half of the roster is where things start to get a bit more interesting, including the fact that they lose leading defensive scorer Reid Gow.  Jason Fram is back after putting up an impressive 57 point season.  Fram is a 1995-born player, and the oldest one on the blueline. In fact, not only do they not have a 20 year old defenceman, they don’t even have another 19 year old to play alongside Fram.  It’s a young group. A group that actually currently has 11 players listed on their depth chart as I type this.  Obviously there are more decisions coming on who sticks around.  The other big, literally big, name to watch is Tamas Laday.  He was taken 42nd overall in the 2014 CHL Import Draft and is from Hungary. The 6’6 blueliner put up 7 goals and 20 points in 34 Under-20 games in Austria last season and will be counted to play a fairly large sized role right off the hop for the Chiefs.  Two other names worth watching on the blueline are Evan Fiala and Jordan Henderson, both of whom are 1997’s.

Behind the young defence is a trio of fairly untested goaltenders.  In trading for Alex Moodie during the offseason, one would imagine that he’s the most likely candidate to start over Garret Hughson.  But Hughson has put up a decent fight this pre-season.  Either way, both guys are 1995-born, so there’s little chance both stay with the team to start the year.  Tyson Verhelst is the third and final guy in the mix as a 1997, and I fully suspect the former 3rd round pick would be the backup to one of Moodie or Hughson.  Regardless of who’s starting, they’re going to face a lot of rubber and neither guy has an overly tremendous track record of stopping that rubber.  As mentioned, the back half of this roster is why I think the Chiefs will fully embrace the early stages of a tear-down project.

Unique Storyline:  How Aggressive Is The Rebuild?

I hate to have such a negative early outlook for teams, but not every team can make the playoffs.  Could Spokane battle all year, get goaltending and make a push for the postseason? Sure.  But, if the Chiefs stumble out of the gate, how quickly could they possibly look to expedite the rebuilding process?  In other words, will they look to start making a few trades before say, mid-November?  I think they’ve got some ok role playing forwards up front and those types of guys should have some ok value when it comes to trading to try and gain assets.  It’s something this team hasn’t had to do in recent years, but if you are going to start building things back up, an aggressive approach might be the fastest way back to becoming a playoff team.

Standings Prediction:  5th in US Division – 10th in Western Conference

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mock Fantasy Draft Recap

I’ve been taking part in fantasy hockey for as long as I can remember, even helping my dad find sleeper picks for his draft when I was 11 or 12 years old (he always won and sometimes he was nice enough to give me some winnings). 

Last year I was in 5 fantasy hockey leagues, including a few that were keeper/dynasty leagues.  This year I don’t plan on going in as many, but still take the time to brush up on the drafting process around this time of year to see if I can find some trends and value to get an early edge on the competition. 

With that in mind I took a break from writing this afternoon to do a mock draft on Yahoo! and have decided to post my results.  Now, the draft was for a 10-team league which is probably about average.  Unfortunately it wasn’t an overly deep draft with only 16 players per team.  I like my drafts to be much deeper, nearly twice as deep, because it’s much easier to get late steals and really take advantage of the knowledge you have.   

I slotted myself in with the 8th overall pick and here’s how things turned out:

Pick 1 (8th overall) – John Tavares – NYI – C

Malkin slid to 7th overall in the draft and he was my target in that situation at 8th overall, but when he went I was forced to gamble a bit with Tavares.  I’m a huge JT fan and it looks like the Islanders are starting to take some nice strides.  They’ve added some very good depth in their top 9 forward group and should start scoring more.  Tavares could definitely be top 10 in NHL scoring so I was happy to gamble on him despite his surgery last year.

My second option:  Ryan Getzlaf

Pick 2 (13th overall) – Tyler Seguin – DAL – C

I’m really loving the Dallas Stars when it comes to both real and fantasy hockey this year.  They’re going to score a ton of goals and play a fun style of hockey.  They have arguably the NHL’s deepest forward group and while their D isn’t star-studded, it’s effective.  With that in mind I happily added Tyler Seguin to my team with my second selection.  He’s the offensive leader of this group, racks up a ton of shots and is a darkhorse candidate to be a top 5 scorer in the NHL.

My second option: Jamie Benn

Pick 3 (28th overall) – Nathan MacKinnon – COL – C/RW

I think MacKinnon has the game to be picked in the top 15 of fantasy drafts this year.  He is the reigning Calder winner and is poised to potentially lead the Avalanche in scoring this year.  He fills up a number of categories and is a game-breaking talent.  I think I got crazy value taking him 28th overall.

My second option: Zach Parise

Pick 4 (33rd overall) – Kari Lethonen – DAL – G

I kicked off my goalie hoarding with the backbone of the Dallas Stars in Kari Lehtonen.  I’ve had him in various leagues for each of the past few seasons and he rarely disappoints when staying healthy.  He plays a lot and puts up decent secondary category numbers.  A no-brainer with how I think Dallas will be this year. 

My second option:  Semyon Varlamov

Pick 5 (48th overall) – Cory Schneider – NJ – G

I went back to back with goalies in order to ensure I got two above-average starters.  I do things like this every year to ensure I try and corner the market on goalies, as they hold value due to the lack of depth at the position not to mention potential injury insurance.  Schneider didn’t play as much as he should have last year as his numbers were great while Martin Brodeur was awful.  Either way, this is a good value pickup considering he was the 14th goalie off the board. 

My second option: David Backes

Pick 6 (53rd overall) – Wayne Simmonds – PHI – RW

Talk about value.  Simmons is one of fantasy hockey’s most valuable players as he crushes several categories including goals, shots, hits and powerplay points.  Happily snagged him at 53rd overall.

My second option: James van Riemsdyk

Pick 7 (68th overall) – Oliver Ekman-Larsson – ARI – D

I always hold off in picking defencemen and this mock was no different.  I don’t see the point of taking a 55 point blueliner when there are 80 point forwards on the board.  With that being said, the value on OEL was too good to pass up at this point.  I don’t really the Coyotes fantasy-wise, but OEL is still a solid player despite their defensive style.  Plus, he puts up good shot and powerplay totals. 

My second option:  Ryan McDonagh

Pick 8 (73rd overall) – Thomas Vanek – MIN – LW/RW

I’m not a big Vanek guy, but he does kill it in many categories.  I’ve been heavy on Minnesota players the last couple of years and have had fairly mixed results.  Either way, you can’t go wrong with getting a guy like Vanek around 75th overall, considering his point totals had him in the top 25 in the NHL last year.

My second option: Milan Lucic

Pick 9 (88th overall) – Jakub Voracek – PHI – RW

More major Flyers value here with Voracek as he produces major powerplay points and shot totals. Another no-brainer at this spot for me.

My second option:  TJ Oshie

Pick 10 (93rd overall) – Kevin Shattenkirk – STL – D

I had to crack under the pressure and eventually take another defenceman and I am a big Shattenkirk fan.  He racks up the shots, sees good PP time and is part of one of the deepest teams in the NHL. 

My second option: Mark Giordano

Pick 11 (108th overall) – Evander Kane – WPG – LW

I definitely took a bit of a gamble here with Kane as I’m not a huge fan of the attention that follows him around everywhere.  Either way, this was a mock draft and it’s a gamble that could pay off big.  His plus-minus will likely never be good as Winnipeg could be downright awful this year, but he shoots the puck and could score 35 goals if he gets back to an even average shooting percentage.

My second option: Brad Marchand

Pick 12 (113th overall) – Brad Marchand – BOS – LW

After gambling on Kane instead of Marchand one pick earlier, I still got the Bruins pest at 113.  I’ve had him in leagues before and I love him.  He shoots, he gets goals, assists, has good plus minus numbers and chips in PIMs. 

My second option: Justin Faulk

Pick 13 (128th overall) – Tomas Hertl – SJ – LW

Hertl was lighting the NHL up last year as a rookie before blowing out his knee.  Because of that he’s definitely under the radar heading into hockey pool season.  If he even comes close to his pace from last year, he’ll provide some massive value inside the top 130 of a fantasy draft. 

My second option:  Brandon Saad

Pick 14 (133rd overall) – Roman Josi – NAS – D

Constant sleeper.  He was in the top 25 of defencemen scoring last year.  Enough said.

My second option: Jack Johnson

Pick 15 (148th overall) – Jacob Trouba – WPG – D

Another Jet, yeah, I know.  Risky, but he was a monster in his rookie season and I don’t see any reason why that won’t continue.  Unfortunately I was forced to take some defenders at this point with the draft coming to a close quickly.  Man, there were some great forwards still left. 

My second option:  Jay Bouwmeester

Pick 16 (153rd overall) – Jake Allen – STL – G

I finished off my goalie hoarding and this was a tough call.  I almost took John Gibson, but just figured Allen has a slightly better team in front of him when considering the Hitchcock factor.  Plus I’m not a big believer in Brian Elliott being a 50+ start guy.  I could see Allen stealing the starting job by Christmas and being in the top 10 in wins and some other categories. 

My second option:  John Gibson

Final Results:

Vanek - Tavares - MacKinnon
Kane - Seguin - Simmonds


OEL - Shattenkrik
Josi - Trouba


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

WHL Enjoying Russian Invasion

The WHL’s Eastern Conference is going through a bit of a Russian invasion as the season continues to approach.

And don’t take that as a negative.  It surely isn’t.  I’ve already had the chance to see a bunch of the new imports and they are going to provide a nice influx of skill into a league known for being the most gritty and physical in the CHL.

There are currently 12 Russian players battling for jobs in the WHL’s Eastern Conference this very second.  Yes, 2. That’s essentially one for every team from Kootenay to Brandon. 

Seven of those 12 are actually first-time eligible players for the NHL Draft in 2015, too.
The WHL’s Eastern Conference only had six Russians in it during the entirety of last season, spread amongst five different teams.  Right now, there are currently eight teams in the East who have at least one Russian battling for a roster spot with Calgary, Kootenay, Lethbridge and Saskatoon each having two currently on their pre-season roster.

So what’s the reason for the influx?  Is it just a coincidence?  Was the 1997 birth year just a good one for Russian players?  Hard to say, but part of me has to wonder if Nikita Scherbak’s emergence has something to do with it.

For those who don’t know, Scherbak was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 CHL Import Draft by the Saskatoon Blades.  The team had never seen him play, but were going off a few tips from various NHL scouts. 

That sight-unseen gamble ended up paying off.  Big time.

Once getting cleared to get on WHL ice late in training camp, Scherbak lit it up.  He led the rebuilding Blades in scoring by a mile, was a far and away team leader in possession statistics and ended up being a 1st round selection of the Montreal Canadiens at the 2014 Draft.  He was the Eastern Conference Rookie Of The Year, and most people believed he should have won that crown for the entire WHL, too. 

All of that from a late import pick.

I don’t necessarily have evidence to back up the Scherbak-factor when it comes to this new crop of Russian rookies, but I’m sure his Cinderella story didn’t hurt things when GM’s had to pull the trigger at the Import Draft.

Speaking of that draft, seven of the 12 Russians in the conference right now are 100% new to the league, having just been selected in May.  So, who are they exactly and are they a lock to spend the 2014-15 season in the WHL?  Let’s find out.

The new Russians:

Ivan Provorov – Brandon Wheat Kings – D

This 1997-born blueliner makes the jump to the WHL from Cedar Rapids of the USHL, being the 30th overall pick in the 2014 CHL Import Draft.  Brandon technically have three imports on their roster with Rihards Bukarts and New York Rangers prospect Richard Nejezchleb.  Nejezchleb is an overage and is looking to earn a pro deal from the Rangers at their upcoming rookie camp and I fully expect that to happen, solidifying Provorov’s spot with the Wheat Kings.  For the record, Provorov already has 4 assists in 2 pre-season WHL games and will be looking to help provide some of the offence that will be lost as Brandon captain Ryan Pulock begins his pro career.

Pavel Karnaukhov – Calgary Hitmen – C

Karnaukhov is a big, rangy centre for Calgary and was the 56th overall pick in the most recent Import Draft.  He’s also a 1997-born skater and has picked up 4 points in 4 exhibition games so far.  I’ve had the chance to see him playing and he’s got some nice tools.  His skating is a bit clumsy but he’s got good hockey sense and hands and should be an impact player in North America.  His likeness on the ice actually reminds me a bit of a young Leon Draisaitl.  Like Brandon, Calgary currently have three imports with Radel Fazleev and Pavel Padakin being the others. Also like Brandon, their “issue” will likely clear itself up as Padakin is hoping to earn a pro contract with Calgary at their quickly-approaching prospect camp.  I expect that to happen, and even if it doesn’t Karnaukhov and Fazleev have a 99.9% chance of being the two imports who stick around for good.

Nikita Milekhin – Lethbridge Hurricanes – RW

Milekhin had the honour of being the first import player selected by a WHL club in May, going 3rd overall to the Hurricanes.  Like the other two above him, he’s also a 1997-born player and has some nice skill.  He’s only picked up 1 point in 3 pre-season games so far, but he should fit right in with Lethbridge as they need to improve on their WHL-worst 171 goals in 2013-14.

Pavel Skumatov – Lethbridge Hurricanes – RW

As with Milekhin, Skumatov is 1997-born and listed as a RW.  He was taken 63rd overall at the 2014 CHL Import Draft.  He doesn’t have the same size or skating ability as Milekhin does, but in watching him it became quickly apparent that he’s smart and has some nice mitts.  Having two new, highly skilled imports in their top 9 could really help the Hurricanes this season.  He’s picked up 3 points in 3 exhibition games so far.

Sergey Zborovskiy – Regina Pats – D

This kid looks to be a difference maker.  He’s 6’4 and skates well, plays a physical game and has some decent offensive tools in his toolbox.  He’s right-handed and should slide right into the Pats top 4 defensive group.  He’s also a 1997 and was the 39th overall pick in 2014.  He’s already netted 4 points in 5 pre-season games and will help make up for the loss of Dallas Stars prospect Dmitry Sinitsyn on the Pats blueline.

Nikita Soshnin – Saskatoon Blades – LW

The Saskatoon Blades used the 9th overall pick in the CHL Import Draft to snag speedy and skilled winger Nikita Soshnin.  He’s fit in fairly well, picking up a pair of points in 3 exhibition games so far.  But, things are a bit interesting for him and the Blades going forward.  Scherbak is set to attend Montreal Canadiens training camp and who knows how long he’ll be gone, or if he’ll come back. The Blades also have Swedish defender Amil Krupic on the blueline. He’s a bit older and play the game just fine from what I’ve seen, despite having never played in North America before.  Obviously the club will need to make a decision when Scherbak returns, and I think he will return.  But what do they do once he’s back?  I think the two options are either to trade him or cut Soshnin.  What will they do?  Hard to say.  But if you ask me, Scherbak could be the difference between being a 10th seed and a 6th seed in the conference.  It’s unfortunate he’ll only be around for one more year in the WHL as a late 1995 birth year, and Soshnin could be around for much more, but I would only trade Scherbak if the return is massive, which it should be.  It will be a neat story to follow as NHL training camps get underway in coming days.

Marsel Ibragimov - Edmonton Oil Kings - D

The Oil Kings used their first round pick in the 2014 CHL Import Draft to grab Ibragimov, a big blueliner who spent last season with Dynamo Moscow (U18).  He's dressed in 4 pre-season games so far, being held pointless but picking up 8 PIMs and a +2 rating.  The Oil Kings are another one of those teams who have a bit of an influx in personnel when it comes to imports.  While Mads Eller is a lock to stick around, Edgars Kulda is looking to earn a pro contract as a 1994-born and drafted player.  Like the other situations listed above, I full expect Kulda to make that jump and leave an import spot open for this Russian blueliner, who is also a 1997-born skater and NHL Draft eligible this coming June.

The returning Russians:

- Calgary – Radel Fazleev
- Kootenay – Rinat Valiev, Alexander Chirva (spent last year in Moose Jaw)
- Moose Jaw – Alexey Sleptsov
- Saskatoon – Nikita Scherbak

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Combining Scouting And Stats 4.0 - The Forwards Of 2013

After working to develop a system to grade players based on a combination of scouting reports and statistical output, I’ve been attempting to try and double-check the system using some of my old scouting reports.

In my last piece I looked back at the 2014 NHL Draft and introduced the idea of a Hybrid Ranking.  While that data brought up some interesting notes, it was hard to really dig too much into it because that draft is still so recent, having just happened this past summer.

With that in mind, I decided to go back and do some digging into the 2013 and 2012 NHL Drafts.  Looking back at these draft years should give me a bit more of a window to see how some of those players in question have developed since their big draft day. 

I decided to start with looking back at the WHL forwards from 2013.

I’ve sorted the 2013 NHL Draft forwards based on their “Hybrid Ranking”.  Just as a refresher, the Hybrid Ranking is a combination of my own personal “final draft ranking” and their NR ranking.  As a further refresher, the NR is a final score based on my formula which combines my own personal scouting report data for the player (PR) and their on-ice statistical output (SR). 


- First off, I will make a note that the SR data compiled in this exercise only represents the player's production up until their draft year, not the most-recent 2013-14 season.  That's obviously necessary in order to actually give the proper context to how they all compared at the time of their draft day. Hopefully down the line I can experiment more with SR rates related to the idea of 'draft year only' vs. 'career numbers', as they would differ based on how I've structured my formula.

- Despite neither of them being the first WHL forward drafted in 2013, Hunter Shinkaruk and Nic Petan do battle here for top spot on this list with only a half point separating them in their hybrid ranking.  I was a big supporter of both of them pre-draft and thought both the Canucks and Jets got immense value in the selection of each player.  Curtis Lazar was my highest rated WHL forward heading into the draft that year and he hasn’t done much for me to question that, so having him 3rd on this list for the Hybrid Ranking will make for some interesting critiquing in 5 or so years down the line.

- Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand appears to offer some fantastic value on this system when looking back, being rated as 4th on this list while actually being the 6th WHL forward drafted.  Since draft day, he’s done nothing but grow as a player and continue to impress.  I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up being a top 2 or 3 guy out of this WHL draft class when fast-fowarding several years down the road.

- There is a noted drop-off in quality of prospect between Morgan Klimchuk and Myles Bell according to this list with 2.5 data points separating their Hybrid Ranking. In my mind, that’s a pretty accurate assessment that shows there was basically an elite 5 group of WHL forwards in the 2013 NHL Draft. 

- Similar to Bjorkstrand, this list seems to hint that Edmonton Oilers prospect Greg Chase offers immense value as  a 7th round selection.  I had him as my 6th best WHL forward for the draft, while he actually was the 12th one off the list.  And while that tells me I had already thought there was great value with that pick by Edmonton, this type of a system seems to validate it with him having the 7th best Hybrid Ranking among WHL forwards.  And while he nearly doubled all of his offensive categories this past season when compared to his draft year, it’s obviously still too early to say this model is fully accurate, even if he is clearly trending in the right direction.  I have enough sense to know that he’s still a junior player and hasn’t validated anything yet as a pro.  But, it's still interesting to see him doing so well after sliding in the draft a bit.

- Undrafted Roberts Lipsbergs is a great example of one of those guys that is aided nicely by his offensive production in this system.  I liked him as a player and felt he was a draftable prospect during his time in the WHL.  If he had ended up as property of an NHL team, who knows how his career might have been different as he would have had an opportunity to get more guidance from a development coach and more ice time against pro-quality competition at various rookie/NHL training camps.  Either way, I’m sure he’ll have a nice pro career in Europe and who knows where that might take him.

- I am somewhat surprised that Curtis Valk didn’t end up a bit higher on this list, given his offensive prowess.  He was one of the WHL’s most dynamic scorers the past two seasons and looks to earn a pro contract with the Canucks at the upcoming Penticton Tournament.  He was always was a borderline draftable guy for me, mostly due to his size, but I definitely think he has the ability to be a lights out AHL scorer.  At the end of the day, guys like that still have value to an NHL team in my opinion.

- It’s kind of scary to see Tyrell Goulbourne that far down this list.  The Philadelphia Flyers really stepped up that day in June of 2013 and made the Kelowna forward the 5th WHL forward off the board.  It was a surprise to many, including myself, as I had him ranked 20th among forwards on my own list.  And while this Hybrid Ranking still has him buried near the bottom of the pile, I will give Goulbourne a ton of credit as he had a very solid 2013-14 season in the WHL and showed he’s capable of being more than just a pest with cement fists.  But can he do that as a professional?  That's obviously the bigger question in my mind.

- I guess the final observation I will make on this list is that it becomes apparent that in this style of system you need to have the proper sense of where the “cut-off” is.  As you can see on the list above, it basically indicates there were 10 or 12 WHL forwards worth drafting in 2013.  But where do you draw the line?  That’s the real question, especially when weighing these results against the other two CHL leagues in Canada, players in Europe, Junior A, USHL, NCAA, etc. 

I have received many questions about how I plan on using this system going forward.  With the junior season gearing up and being close to getting underway, I am happy to announce that I’ve already started using this formula to track prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft.  I’ve got some viewings already under my belt, have started compiling my early WHL Rankings and have already started converting draft reports into PR scores for future use.

I plan on keeping the system going all season long as I feel I have gathered a decent enough amount of evidence so far to show that this type of hybrid system carries a bit of validity. The biggest issue at hand with that is keeping "My Ranking" and the concept of a "Stat Ranking" as separate entities throughout the year.  With that in mind I will more than likely save my NR calculations for the end of the season to ensure it doesn't sway how my "visual scouting rankings" end up taking shape.

Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully I will be back with another post soon, as I investigate the 2013 NHL Draft from a defensive perspective.