By Andy Eide
The Western Hockey League season is here as hockey returns to the Northwest and Western Canada this weekend.
For the first time in recent memory, the WHL doesn’t have a clear cut dominant team to watch. Last year, it was the Prince Albert Raiders, who we knew would be good, and they didn’t disappoint. They led from start to finish, piling up 112 points and winning the WHL Championship Series.
The picture this year is a bit murky.
There are teams that look good and could potentially be the team to beat, but have questions that need to be answered.
We’ll try to answer some of those questions to get you set up for what should be an interesting WHL campaign.
How will the NHL impact the WHL?
Two teams that could lay claim as the best are the Vancouver Giants and Saskatoon Blades, but both are pinning some of that hope on what happens in the NHL.
The Giants lost to Prince Albert last year in the championship series, in overtime, in Game 7. It doesn’t get any closer than that, and they have 14 players from that run on the roster heading into opening weekend.
One of those players is all-everything defenseman Bowen Byram, who was selected with the fourth pick in June’s NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. Byram is coming off a monster year that saw him lead the WHL playoffs in scoring following a 26-goal, 45-assist, and 71-point regular season.
If he sticks, the Giants will still be good but will bring the rest of the B.C. Division into the race, most notably the Kamloops Blazers and Memorial Cup hosting Kelowna Rockets. If Byram is returned by Colorado, the Giants could turn into that one dominant team.
The Blades are in a similar situation.
They had a great season last year, giving Prince Albert a run for its money in the playoffs. Saskatoon could be in a position to get into the championship series this year, if the Chicago Blackhawks help out.
That’s where Kriby Dach, the third pick of June’s NHL Draft, is as the season starts. If Chicago keeps him then the Eastern Conference is wide open, with the Calgary Hitmen, Edmonton Oil Kings, and Medicine Hat Tigers drawing into the mix.
Dach, who had 73 points in 62 games last year, is the key to the East and the Blades could streak to the Championship Series.
Who’s Winning the U.S. Division?
Local, Seattle area fans are in for another season of tough battles night in and out in the U.S. Division. All five clubs made the playoffs last year and it looks like that could be the case again this year.
The Spokane Chiefs are going to win the division this season. They have the firepower with guys like San Jose Sharks prospect Jake McGrew and Minnesota Wild pick Adam Beckman up front to go with Toronto Maple Leaf prospect Filip Kral on the back end.
If defenseman Ty Smith is returned by New Jersey and rookie, import goalie — and Los Angeles Kings prospect — Lukas Parik is as good as advertised, the Chiefs could give Vancouver a run for its money.
What about the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds?
The Silvertips are looking for their fourth straight division crown but that’s going to be tough to pull off. They have a solid defense and Calgary Flames prospect Dustin Wolf who will win the WHL goaltender of the year, so the Silvertips won’t be push overs.
But, they lost a lot of offense up front in guys like Connor Dewar, Riley Sutter, and Zack Andrusiak which will make it hard to compete with Spokane. They’ll need another strong year from overeager Bryce Kindopp and new import Michal Gut.
In Seattle, the Thunderbirds are going with youth. They have nine rookies on the opening day roster so there could be some bumpy nights. The young guys are good, and they have three promising rookies in Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, and Conner Roulette.
Philadelphia Flyers prospect, Roddy Ross is back in net to give the Thunderbirds solid goaltending and Florida Panthers draftee Henrik Rybinski will need to have a big year on the top line. Seattle is still waiting to see what will happen with 40-goal scorer, and over-ager, Matthew Wedman who is in camp with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, after being drafted by the Panthers in June. If he’s returned, it will be a big boost to the Thunderbirds.
Who are some 2020 NHL Draft Eligible’s to watch for?
This past June was a great NHL draft for the WHL as they led all feeder leagues in players selected. This year might not be as bountiful but, there will be some guys to watch.
Locally, Seattle’s two defensemen, Tyrel Bauer and Simon Kubicek should get some interest and in Everett, Roman Seely is another blueliner of note.
Portland has a pair of guys in Seth Jarvis and Cross Hanas. Both are forwards and both have tremendous offensive upsides.
Vancouver’s Justin Sourdiff is being looked at as a potential first-round pick in 2020 and playing for a team poised to make a long playoff run will certainly help his cause.
Other players to watch include Prince Albert’s Kaiden Guhle (D), Braden Schneider (D) of the Brandon Wheat Kings, and Kamloops Blazers center Connor Zary.
Who is the top WHL rookie?
The WHL has a lot of great rookies, whom will be eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft, the same year that NHL Seattle will be picking.
Coming into the season, the top guy on that list is Kamloops’ Logan Stankoven who is coming off an impressive preseason where he racked up 15 points in six games.
Who’s winning this thing?
Going out on a limb and predicting that Byram will return to the Vancouver Giants, look for them to get back to the Championship Series and this time, win. They’ll beat the Saskatoon Blades, who will have Dach, in six games.