WHL 2012-13: How the Western Conference shapes up

 

 
 
 
 
New Vancouver Giants captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen is a tough customer, an intimidating presence on the blue line, and has strong leadership skills.
 

New Vancouver Giants captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen is a tough customer, an intimidating presence on the blue line, and has strong leadership skills.

Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, PNG files

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What’s the outlook for western teams this coming season in the Western Hockey League? Here’s a breakdown:

• B.C. DIVISION:

VANCOUVER GIANTS

General Manager: Scott Bonner

Head Coach: Don Hay

2012 pre-season: 1-3-1-1

2011-12 Record: 40-26-2-4, 86pts (2nd in B.C. Div., 4th in Western Conf.) GF: 255 GA: 234

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 20.2% (14th); PK: 79.6% (9th)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in six games to Spokane in first round

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Brendan Gallagher 54gp-41g-36a-77pts

Marek Tvrdon 60gp-31g-43a-74pts

Jordan Martinook 72gp-40g-24a-64pts

Up Front: The Giants lose three of their top five point-getters from last season, including 40-goal men Brendan Gallagher and Jordan Martinook, who combined for nearly a third of the team’s goals. Returning to carry the offensive load are 19-year-olds Marek Tvrdon and Cain Franson. Tvrdon, a big Slovakian power forward, and Franson scored 31 and 27 goals, respectively, and will be key in helping the Giants generate offense this year. Riley Kieser, 19, showed some offensive acumen in 31 games last season while veterans Taylor Makin, Nathan Burns and Dalton Sward will also be expected to take on big roles up front. Czech winger Ales Kilnar has been productive through the pre-season, and will hopefully carry that production into the regular season, while Jackson Houck also has looked good through the pre-season.

On The Blue Line: Led by newly-appointed captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, the Giants see five rearguards return from last season. Vannieuwenhuizen is a tough customer, an intimidating presence on the blue line, and has strong leadership skills. Also back are NHL prospects David Musil and Brett Kulak, who both possess good two-way ability. The graduation of offensive rearguard Neil Manning should open up more opportunities for the likes of Musil and Kulak on the power play. The Giants acquired 20-year-old John Niebrandt from Kootenay to add more experience and size. Niebrandt also has the experience of winning a WHL championship with the Ice in 2011.

Goaltending: With last year’s starter Adam Morrison moving on, the Giants acquired 19-year-old Liam Liston from Lethbridge to assume the top job in net. Liston owns a 29-30-0-1 record over 68 career games with the Hurricanes and Brandon Wheat Kings. Tyler Fuhr, 17, will slot into the back-up role. Although from the Edmonton area, Fuhr is not related to Oiler goaltending legend Grant Fuhr.

Player to Watch: Brett Kulak. Kulak made his full-time WHL debut for the Giants as a 17-year-old last season, and established himself as not only one of their top defencemen, but one of the better rearguards in the WHL. The Stony Plain, Alta., product put up nine goals and 24 points while posting a team-leading +29 rating in 72 games, and helped the team to a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference. A very smart, calm and poised defender, Kulak is the type of player who you may not notice throughout the game, but will greatly appreciate his contributions. Kulak boasts great skating ability, outstanding hockey sense and excellent puck-moving skills. He always seems to make the right plays, and rarely gets caught flat-footed. Likened by some to Duncan Keith, Kulak should be able to develop his offensive game over time. A fourth-round pick of the Calgary Flames at the 2012 NHL draft, expect Kulak to play a huge role on the blue line for the Giants this season.

KAMLOOPS BLAZERS

General Manager: Craig Bonner

Head Coach: Guy Charron

2012 pre-season: 5-0-0-0

2011-12 Record: 47-20-2-3, 99pts (1st in B.C. Div., 2nd in Western Conf.) GF: 290 GA: 211

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 23.8% (6th); PK: 78.9% (10th)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in seven games to Portland in second round

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Brendan Ranford 69gp-40g-52a-92pts

Colin Smith 72gp-35g-50a-85pts

Tim Bozon 71gp-36g-35a-71pts

Up Front: The Blazers return many of their key offensive stars that helped them to the third-best scoring output of any team in the WHL last season. Led by Brendan Ranford, a 92-point man last season, the Blazers boast three returnees – Tim Bozon and Colin Smith included – who scored 35 or more goals and another two who tallied at least 23 goals. Having Jordan DePape back and healthy for the season adds another impact forward to what will be a deep and potent offense. 17-year-old Matt Needham showed plenty of potential as a rookie last season, and can expect to play a larger role this season. Veterans JC Lipon and Dylan Willick both topped the 50-point mark last season, and should add to the depth of what will be a potent offense.

On The Blue Line: Though they lose two of their top defencemen from last season with the graduation of Austin Madaisky and Bronson Maschmeyer, the Blazers still return a solid group of rearguards this year. Two-way Czech blue liner Marek Hrbas is primed for a bigger role, while veterans Tyler Hansen and Brady Gaudet will also be expected to take on more responsibility. 18-year-olds Tyler Bell and Landon Cross also return, armed with more experience, while highly-touted rookie Jordan Thomson will look to make an impact in his first season. Thomson was selected fourth overall in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, and is viewed as a future leader on the Blazers’ blue line.

Goaltending: Cole Cheveldave returns as the Blazers’ top man in goal after enjoying an outstanding campaign as an 18-year-old rookie last season. The Calgary, AB, product has proven he can be a difference-maker in the Blazers’ cage, and should provide them with a steady and reliable presence in net. Taran Kozun, 18, will take on the back-up duties after getting into two games last season.

Player to Watch: Tim Bozon. Following in the footsteps of fellow Swiss players like Nino Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi, Bozon came to the WHL as a little-known commodity and took the League by storm. The Lugano product netted an impressive 36 goals and 71 points in 71 games last year and was a big reason the Blazers took first place in the B.C. Division. A skilled and creative player with great speed, Bozon has plenty of offensive tools at his disposal. Yet, what can set him apart is his competitive nature and determination. Expect Bozon to put up big numbers for the Blazers again this season.

KELOWNA ROCKETS

General Manager: Bruce Hamilton

Head Coach: Ryan Huska

2012 pre-season: 2-2-0-2

2011-12 Record: 31-31-4-6, 72pts (3rd in B.C. Div., 6th in Western Conf.) GF: 217 GA: 242

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 22.0% (10th); PK: 76.8% (16th)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Portland in first round

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Shane McColgan 70gp-18g-46a-64pts

Brett Bulmer 53gp-34g-28a-62pts

Colton Sissons 58gp-26g-15a-41pts

Up Front: The Rockets lose their top two point-producing forwards from last year with the trade of Shane McColgan and the graduation of Brett Bulmer. Yet, they still return several young forwards who can put the puck in the net. Colton Sissons, a second-round pick of Nashville in June, will head up the attack, looking to improve on a 26-goal effort last season. He’ll also be charged with leading what will be a younger group up front. Ryan Olsen, who came over from Saskatoon in the McColgan trade, will be expected to improve on his 15 goals and 32 points last year, while Zach Franko should be able to contribute significant offense as well. Tyson Baillie enjoyed a strong year as a 16-year-old last season, and will also be counted on to step up his production. The Rockets acquired 20-year-olds JT Barnett from Everett and Dylen McKinlay from Kootenay to add veteran experience. Both players are very capable of adding to the attack.

On The Blue Line: With seven regulars returning from last season, the Rockets should be strong on the blue line. Led by 19-year-old Myles Bell and 18-year-old Damon Severson, the Rockets’ defence corps features a good blend of defensive acumen and offensive skill. Bell provides the Rockets with a solid option to quarterback the power play while Severson and sophomore Madison Bowey will also contribute to the attack. Though just 17 years old, Bowey is expected to play a much larger role with the team this year, and is considered a top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft. Towering 6’5” rearguard Mitchell Wheaton, a highly-regarded prospect, recently signed with the team and should make a big impact. Veterans Mitchell Chapman and MacKenzie Johnston are also back to provide experience and leadership.

Goaltending: The departure of Adam Brown leaves the door open for a new starter to emerge for the Rockets. 19-year-old Jordon Cooke backed up Brown in each of the last two seasons, and has shown he’s capable of providing a steady presence in net with a career .915 save percentage through 47 games. The Rockets also acquired 17-year-old Jackson Whistle from Vancouver. Whistle appeared in 21 games for the Giants last year as a rookie, and will help share the load in the Rockets’ net.

Player to Watch: Madison Bowey. The Rockets’ second-round pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Bowey could be the next on the Rockets’ lengthy list of elite defencemen they’ve developed over the years. A quick and mobile skater, Bowey put up a respectable eight goals and 21 points in 57 games as a 16-year-old last season, and showed plenty of promise as a strong two-way defender. The Winnipeg, MB, product is smart and committed in the defensive zone, using strong positioning and a quick and active stick to separate the puck from opposing players. Bowey also boasts good puck-moving skills and a strong first pass. This season, expect Bowey to contribute more on the offensive side of the game, and continue his progression into a key piece of the Rockets’ defence corps.

PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS

General Manager: Dallas Thompson

Head Coach: Dean Clark

2012 pre-season: 3-1-0-1

2011-12 Record: 24-46-0-2, 50pts (5th in B.C. Div., 10th in Western Conf.) GF: 166 GA: 257

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 12.0% (22nd); PK: 76.6% (18th)

2012 Playoffs: Did not qualify

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Troy Bourke 71gp-18g-38a-56pts

Alex Forsberg 51gp-15g-25a-40pts

Cody Carlson 72gp-9g-30a-39pts

Up Front: The Cougars head into the 2012-13 season looking to improve on what was the 22nd-ranked offense last year. Troy Bourke and Alex Forsberg, their top two scorers from last season, will be key in helping the Cougars to a bigger offensive output. Bourke, drafted in the third round by Colorado in the 2012 NHL Draft, led the team in goals and assists last year, factoring in on nearly a third of the team’s entire offensive output. Forsberg, 17, enjoyed a strong campaign last year with 40 points. The Cougars added some offense and experience with the acquisition of Colin Jacobs from Seattle. The Buffalo Sabres prospect will see a significant role up front this season. 17-year-old Chase Witala and Jordan Tkatch should be able to contribute to the attack while veteran Daulton Siwak will also be counted on to take a big role in the offense.

On The Blue Line: The Cougars will be a young group on the blue line with only three rearguards over 18 years old. 20-year-old Dallas Ehrhardt, acquired from Moose Jaw in May, and fellow overage Daniel Gibb will play important roles both on the ice and in providing leadership and a veteran presence. Though neither is known for their offense, Ehrhardt and Gibb are solid defenders with plenty of experience between them. Aside from Ehrhardt and Gibb, the Cougars will be thin on experience on the blue line. 17-year-old Michael Mylchreest got into 64 games, which is the most of any other returnee. Marc McNulty and fellow 1995-born rearguards Raymond Grewal and Joseph Carvalho combined for 36 games. The Cougars’ blue line certainly won’t lack size. Latvian rookie Rinalds Rosinskis stands 6’5”, McNulty is 6’6”, and four others are at least 6’3”.

Goaltending: Drew Owsley’s departure means the Cougars will have a new face as their No. 1 netminder this season. 18-year-old Devon Fordyce served as Owlsey’s back-up last year, posting a 2-8-1 record in 14 appearances. 17-year-old Brett Zarowney, a third-round pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, has been impressive during the pre-season, and will push Fordyce for time in the Cougars’ cage.

Player to Watch: Alex Forsberg. A product of Waldheim, SK, Forsberg was the first overall pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. Forsberg showed plenty of reasons why he is such a highly touted prospect last season, netting 15 goals and 40 points in 51 games as a 16-year-old rookie. A pivot with excellent vision and offensive skills, Forsberg should be able to put up much better numbers in his sophomore season. His ability to make plays and see the ice helps make those around him better, and his puckhandling skills allow him to beat defenders one-on-one. Having carried a big workload as a 16-year-old last year, expect Forsberg to establish himself as the go-to guy in the Cougars’ offense this season.

VICTORIA ROYALS

General Manager: Cameron Hope

Head Coach: Dave Lowry

2012 pre-season: 4-2-0-0

2011-12 Record: 24-41-3-4, 55pts (4th in B.C. Div., 7th in Western Conf.) GF: 233 GA: 325

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 20.1% (15th); PK: 77.7% (13th)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Kamloops in first round

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Jamie Crooks 72gp-37g-30a-67pts

Logan Nelson 71gp-23g-39a-62pts

Robin Soudek 65gp-27g-30a-57pts

Up Front: With most of their top point producers set to return, the Royals should be able to score goals this season. 20-year-old Jamie Crooks is back after netting 37 goals last season, and should be able to equal or better that number this year. Also returning are Logan Nelson and Steven Hodges, who were both drafted by NHL clubs in June, and Brandon Magee. All three topped the 20-goal, 45-point mark last season. Ben Walker, who joined the Royals in late November last year, is expected to contribute significant offense as well with a full season to work with. The Royals acquired 20-year-old Russian Alex Gogolev from Calgary during the pre-season. Gogolev scored 25 goals for Calgary last year, and gives the Royals another offensive weapon. Dakota Conroy should also be able to provide some scoring depth. New head coach Dave Lowry has a knack for getting the most out of his forwards, in terms of generating offense. Time will tell what Lowry can do with this group in Victoria.

On The Blue Line: The Royals head into the 2012-13 campaign knowing they need to pare down on the League-high 325 goals they surrendered last season. Though they lose their top offensive rearguard from last season, Hayden Rintoul, the Royals could return up to six regulars from last year’s team. 20-year-olds Jordan Fransoo and Tyler Stahl will play important roles on the blue line. Fransoo was solid for the Royals in 30 games for the team after coming over from Brandon, and will be expected to make an impact at both ends of the rink. Stahl missed most of last season due to injury, and will add an imposing physical presence. Also back is sophomore Keegan Kanzig, who stands 6’5”, and Brett Cote, who will all look to make strides this year. 16-year-old Joe Hicketts has been good during pre-season, while fellow 16-year-old Jack Walker – the younger brother of Ben Walker – is also an option for defensive depth.

Goaltending: 18-year-old Czech netminder Patrik Polivka is the likely candidate to take the starting job in the Royals’ cage after last year’s starter, Keith Hamilton, was released. Selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, the Royals hope Polivka can replicate the success enjoyed by fellow Czech netminder Patrik Bartosak with the Red Deer Rebels last year. Polivka has been good during the pre-season, and hopes to carry that strong play into the regular season. 18-year-old Jared Rathjen, who backed up Hamilton last season, and 17-year-old rookie Coleman Vollrath are also battling for a spot in the goaltending tandem.

Player to Watch: Joe Hicketts. Though it’s often tough for a 16-year-old to be an impact player in their first year in the WHL – particularly a 16-year-old defenceman – expect Kamloops, B.C., product Joe Hicketts to be an exception to the rule. Selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Hicketts has dominated at every level he has played. The former B.C. Minor Hockey Player of the Year put up 16 goals and 49 points with the Okanagan Hockey Academy’s Midget prep team last year, and captained Canada’s entry to a Bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games last winter. A dynamic two-way rearguard, Hicketts works hard and plays a smart game in the defensive zone, and boasts terrific offensive upside. Expect Hicketts to become a household name in WHL circles over the next few years.

• U.S. DIVISION:

EVERETT SILVERTIPS

General Manager: Garry Davidson

Head Coach: Mark Ferner

2012 pre-season: 3-4-0-0

2011-12 Record: 22-40-2-8, 54pts (4th in U.S. Div., 8th in Western Conf.) GF: 185 GA: 268

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 19.4% (17th); PK: 76.7% (17th)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Tri-Cities in first round

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Josh Birkholz 70gp-29g-28a-57pts

Ryan Harrison 70gp-20g-32a-52pts

Josh Winquist 68gp-19g-22a-41pts

Up Front: The Silvertips had difficulties scoring goals during the 2011-12 campaign, with an offense that ranked 20th in the WHL. This year, the ‘Tips will need scoring by committee. 20-year-old Ryan Harrison, the team’s leading scorer from last year, is the only returning forward to have hit the 20-goal mark last year. The gritty Harrison will have to play a big role in the attack and in providing leadership. Also back are 19-year-olds Josh Winquist and Reid Petryk, who both should be able to crack at least the 20-goal plateau this season. Look for 18-year-old Kohl Bauml to improve on his 14-goal, 39-point campaign as a rookie last year, while hulking Czech winger Stathis Soumelidis will also be expected to contribute. 16-year-old Ty Mappin, the team’s first-round pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, may be able to contribute after enjoying a stellar Telus Cup-winning campaign with the Red Deer Rebels of the Alberta Major Midget League.

On The Blue Line: The big question on the blue line for the Silvertips is if they will have their captain, Ryan Murray, back for another season. Selected 2nd overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets this past June, Murray would have a great shot at making the NHL club. However, with the NHL season up in the air, Murray is currently with the ‘Tips. If he’s back with Everett for any length of time, their defence immediately improves greatly. Veteran Nick Walters is back, and will play an important role on the blue line. The ‘Tips also acquired 20-year-old Landon Oslanski from Lethbridge, adding experience and a solid two-way presence to the defence corps. Switzerland’s Mirco Mueller, a puck-moving defenceman, should help fill the void should Murray end up in the NHL at some point this season. 17-year-olds Griffin Foulk, Cole MacDonald and Austin Adam are slated for their rookie campaigns.

Goaltending: The graduation of Kent Simpson, their starter for the past two seasons, means the No. 1 job in the ‘Tips’ net is open. 19-year-old Cole Holowenko was acquired from Prince Albert to give the ‘Tips an experienced starter. Holowenko got into 41 games for the Raiders last season. 17-year-old Austin Lotz is also back in the mix. Lotz served as Simpson’s back-up last season, getting into 17 games and posting a 2-9-0-2 record.

Player to Watch: Ty Mappin. Granted, he’s only entering his first season in the WHL as a 16-year-old, but Mappin has all the tools to become an elite offensive forward in the WHL over the next few years. A product of Big Valley, AB, Mappin was the Silvertips’ first round pick, 7th overall, in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. A highly competitive, hard-working pivot who knows how to handle the puck, Mappin finished seventh in scoring in the Alberta Major Midget League last season as a 15-year-old with the Red Deer Optimist Rebels, and led them to the Telus Cup as national Midget AAA champions. In addition, he helped lead Team Alberta to the Gold medal at the Western Under-16 Challenge Cup. Silvertips fans should have fun watching Mappin develop into a star for their team.

PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS

General Manager / Head Coach: Mike Johnston

2012 pre-season: 4-1-0-0

2011-12 Record: 49-19-3-1, 102pts (2nd in U.S. Div., 3rd in Western Conf.) GF: 328 GA: 229

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 29.4% (1st); PK: 82.8% (3rd)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in seven games to Edmonton in WHL Championship series

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Ty Rattie 69gp-57g-64a-121pts

Sven Bartschi 47gp-33g-61a-94pts

Brad Ross 68gp-42g-40a-82pts

Up Front: The Winterhawks were the highest scoring team in the WHL last season, thanks largely to the offensive exploits of Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi and Brad Ross. Of those three, only Rattie will be back this season, looking to improve on what was an outstanding campaign last year. Expect Rattie to be among the WHL’s top scorers again this season. Also returning are 18-year-olds Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier, who were both selected in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Leipsic is primed for a big season, having moved up the depth chart, and should be able to better his 28-goal, 58-point effort last year, while Leier will also take on more responsibility in the offense. Look for Danish rookie Oliver Bjorkstrand, 17-year-old sophomore Nicholas Petan and 16-year-old rookie Dominick Turgeon, the son of NHL great Pierre Turgeon, to contribute to the attack as well.

On The Blue Line: The Winterhawks return five defencemen from last year’s squad, including Derrick Pouliot, who was the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. With Joe Morrow having moved on, Pouliot becomes the team’s go-to guy for offense from the blue line. Having put up 59 points last season, expect Pouliot to be a dominant force again this season, especially on the power play. Though they may have lost Morrow, the Hawks added blue chip prospect Seth Jones in a trade from Everett. Expected to be a top-5 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Jones should make a huge impression at both ends of the Ice for the Hawks this season. Also returning are veterans Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon and Josh Hansen, giving the Hawks great defensive depth. Rutkowski is another defender who can put up offense, while Wotherspoon and Hansen are solid in the defensive zone.

Goaltending: 17-year-old Brendan Burke is considered the future starter for the Winterhawks. Having backed up Mac Carruth last season, Burke will likely see more minutes this season as a sophomore. Though 20-year-old Carruth has signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, there is a chance he could remain in Major Junior with the Winterhawks this season. If Carruth returns for his fourth season in Portland, he’d provide the Hawks with experienced and reliable netminding. The Hawks also acquired 20-year-old Cam Lanigan from Kamloops as another experienced option. Lanigan performed admirably for the Blazers in their second-round series versus Portland in the 2012 playoffs, meaning the Hawks know full well what he can offer.

Player to Watch: Seth Jones. Selected in the first round, 11th overall, by the Everett Silvertips in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Jones was dealt to the Winterhawks in the spring of 2012. Considered a can’t-miss prospect, Jones boasts all the tools that make for an elite defender. He has size, toughness, great skating ability, excellent puck skills and hockey sense, and a strong work ethic. The native of Plano, TX, spent the last two years playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program, becoming a key part of the Under-18 team that won Gold at the World Under-18 Championship in 2011. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, expect Seth Jones to make an immediate and resonating impact on the Winterhawks’ blue line this season.

SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS

General Manager: Russ Farwell

Head Coach: Steve Konowalchuk

2012 pre-season: 3-2-1-0

2011-12 Record: 25-45-1-1, 52pts (5th in U.S. Div., 9th in Western Conf.) GF: 173 GA: 292

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 16.3% (21st); PK: 75.9% (20th)

2012 Playoffs: Did not qualify

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Burke Gallimore 72gp-22g-18a-40pts

Luke Lockhart 72gp-16g-21a-37pts

Shea Theodore 69gp-4g-31a-35pts

Up Front: The Thunderbirds hope to see their offensive totals improve this year after finishing with the 21st-ranked offense a year ago. Luke Lockhart is their top returning forward, having amassed 16 goals and 37 points last season. As the elder statesman on the team, Lockhart will need to see his numbers increase if the T-Birds are to get back into the post-season. Branden Troock, 18, is ready for a big campaign after getting drafted by the Dallas Stars this past June. If the big power forward can put all his injury woes behind him, Troock should be a major factor up front. 18-year-old Connor Honey showed good offensive acumen after joining the T-Birds midway through the season. Honey will be expected to take on a scoring role this season. Latvian rookie Roberts Lipsbergs and veterans Justin Hickman and Seth Swenson must also step up and contribute scoring to help the T-Birds to a better offensive record this season.

On The Blue Line: The T-Birds return seven WHL-experienced defencemen, including 19-year-old Jesse Forsberg, who was acquired from Prince George in exchange for Colin Jacobs. Forsberg is a tough, hard-nosed defensive rearguard who should help strengthen the T-Birds in the defensive zone and provide leadership for what will be a young defence corps. 17-year-old Shea Theodore was impressive as a rookie last year, posting 35 points in 69 games. Already having proven he can generate offense, Theodore will look to improve in his own zone this season. Also back are sophomores Jared Hauf and Evan Wardley. Hauf, selected 4th overall in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, should see great improvement in his game in his second season in the WHL, and could be a key performer on the blue line for the Thunderbirds this season.

Goaltending: For the first time in four seasons, the Thunderbirds won’t be able to pencil in Calvin Pickard’s name as the starter on the game sheet. The graduation of Pickard, who holds the WHL all-time records for career minutes played and career saves, leaves a void in the T-Birds’ net that won’t easily be filled. 20-year-old Brandon Glover was acquired from Calgary, providing the team with an experienced, proven presence in goal. However, Glover will be pushed by Daniel Cotton, last year’s back-up, and rookies Justin Myles and Danny Mumbaugh.

Player to Watch: Branden Troock. Troock hasn’t had it easy over the course of his WHL career. Selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, Troock was billed as the T-Birds’ next star; a big power forward with excellent offensive skills and a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality. Injuries kept him out of the entire 2010-11 campaign and limited him to 58 games last season. Now healthy, the Dallas Stars’ prospect is expected to be a massive part of the T-Birds’ offense this season. Look for Troock to greatly improve on the 14 goals and 26 points he scored last season.

SPOKANE CHIEFS

General Manager: Tim Speltz

Head Coach: Don Nachbaur

2012 pre-season: 5-1-0-0

2011-12 Record: 38-25-5-4, 85pts (3rd in U.S. Div., 5th in Western Conf.) GF: 257 GA: 225

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 16.8% (20th); PK: 78.7% (11th)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in seven games to Tri-Cities in second round

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Brenden Kichton 71gp-17g-57a-74pts

Dominik Uher 63gp-33g-35a-68pts

Mitch Holmberg 66gp-27g-28a-55pts

Up Front: The Chiefs could return four of their top six scorers from last season, including 19-year-olds Mike Aviani, Mitch Holmberg, Todd Fiddler and Marek Kalus. Holmberg scored 27 goals last season and added 11 goals in 13 playoff games, and is poised to have a big year as a go-to guy for the Chiefs. Fiddler, who has been great in the pre-season, scored 23 goals for the Prince Albert Raiders two seasons ago. 20-year-old forwards Blake Gal and Dylan Walchuk will also play big roles in the offense. Walchuk put up a respectable 10 goals and 24 points in 34 games while Gal is a former 23-goal man. Scoring depth is expected from the likes of Collin Valcourt and Liam Stewart, who both topped the 14-goal mark last season.

On The Blue Line: The Chiefs welcome back up to six defencemen from last season’s team, though there is still a chance that veteran star Brenden Kichton could end up in the AHL. Losing Kichton would be a blow to the team considering he led the Chiefs in scoring and was a finalist for WHL Defenceman of the Year last season. If he stays in Spokane, the Chiefs will have one of the best rearguards in the WHL at their disposal. 20-year-old Davis Vandane and 19-year-old Tanner Mort are the next two most experienced returnees, with both having more than 125 games of WHL seasoning. Vandane put up 25 points and a +14 rating last season. 18-year-old Reid Gow, a former first-round Bantam pick, should step into a larger role this season, especially if Kichton moves on. Sophomores Jason Fram, Cole Wedman and Tyler King will be vying for more responsibility in their second seasons in the WHL.

Goaltending: 19-year-olds Mac Engel and Eric Williams shared goaltending over the last half of last season. Both are capable of providing quality goaltending, and both have been good during the pre-season. Williams was particularly good during the post-season last year. 17-year-old rookie Garret Hughson also remains in the mix for a spot in the goaltending platoon.

Player to Watch: Mitch Holmberg. Holmberg enjoyed a breakout season for the Chiefs last year, netting 27 goals and 55 points in 66 games. He took his game up a notch in the playoffs, scoring 11 goals in just 13 games. The Chiefs’ first-round pick, 21st overall, in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft, Holmberg is a slippery, offensive-minded forward with a knack for finding the back of the net. The Sherwood Park, AB, product has a quick and accurate shot, good hand-eye coordination, and knows how to find open space. As the Chiefs’ top returning goal scorer, expect Holmberg to generate plenty of scoring as a first-line player this season.

TRI-CITY AMERICANS

General Manager: Bob Tory

Head Coach: Jim Hiller

2012 pre-season: 2-4-0-1

2011-12 Record: 50-18-2-2, 104pts (5th in B.C. Div., 9th in Western Conf.) GF: 281 GA: 190

2011-12 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 23.5% (7th); PK: 84.0% (1st)

2012 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Portland in Western Conference Championship series

2011-12 Top Scorers:

Brendan Shinnimin 69gp-58g-76a-134pts

Adam Hughesman 72gp-50g-66a-116pts

Patrick Holland 72gp-25g-84a-109pts

Up Front: Last season, the Ams were led by a trio of veterans – Brendan Shinnimin, Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland – who combined for an astounding 133 goals and 359 points. Of those three, only Holland is eligible to return, though he is signed to an NHL contract and could very well end up playing in the AHL. Fortunately, the Ams also return a handful of players capable of easing the loss of the aforementioned three. Justin Feser, 20, was the fourth-leading scorer on the Ams last year, netting 37 goals and 83 points. He is more than capable of providing top-line production this season. Also back is 20-year-old Jordan Messier, who has averaged 22 goals and 45 points per season over the last three years, and 18-year-old Connor Rankin, who will step into a much bigger role in the offense this season. Sophomores Malte Stromwall and Brian Williams will be tasked to play top-six roles among the forwards as well.

On The Blue Line: Zach Yuen heads up a group of six rearguards eligible to return from last year. Yuen, a prospect of the Winnipeg Jets, led the Ams’ defence corps in scoring with 12 goals and 38 points last season, and is expected to equal or better those numbers this season. 20-year-old Drydn Dow boasted a solid +24 rating last season, while 19-year-old Sam Grist was a healthy +27. Both will be valuable if the Ams want to remain the best defensive team in the WHL. 19-year-old Mitch Topping, who posted 20 points and a +11 rating last year, and sophomores Justin Hamonic and Michal Plutnar round out the returnees on the blue line. Topping is a former first-round Bantam Draft pick who plays a strong two-way game, while Hamonic and Plutnar should be more comfortable in their second WHL campaigns.

Goaltending: 17-year-old Eric Comrie takes over as the Americans’ starting netminder. The Newport Beach, CA, product got into 31 games for the Ams last season, posting a 19-6-1 record and a .900 save percentage while platooning with veteran Ty Rimmer. After helping Canada’s Under-18 team win Gold at the 2012 Memorial for Ivan Hlinka tournament in August, Comrie is poised for a busy season in the Ams’ cage. 18-year-old rookie Brenden Fiebelkorn will slot into the back-up role. Fiebelkorn got into a game with Prince Albert during the 2010-11 campaign.

Player to Watch: Eric Comrie. The Americans’ first-round pick, 13th overall, in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Comrie has been tabbed as the next great netminder to come out of the Ams’ organization, following in the footsteps of names like Carey Price and Chet Pickard. The Newport Beach, CA, product already showed tremendous potential as a 16-year-old last season, posting 19 wins in 31 games, and is ready to take on a heavier workload this season. The younger brother of former NHLer and WHLer Mike Comrie, Eric is an athletic goaltender with good poise and positioning. He sees pucks well through traffic, moves very well laterally, and has great reflexes. Expect to hear plenty about Comrie as he heads into his NHL draft-eligible season.

 
 
 
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New Vancouver Giants captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen is a tough customer, an intimidating presence on the blue line, and has strong leadership skills.
 

New Vancouver Giants captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen is a tough customer, an intimidating presence on the blue line, and has strong leadership skills.

Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, PNG files

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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