2013-14 WHL WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Sep 17, 2013 - 09:06 MDT

Calgary, AB – The Western Hockey League’s 48th season begins on Thursday, September 19th, as fans gear up for another exciting winter of WHL hockey.

The Portland Winterhawks proved that the third time is the charm, celebrating the 2013 WHL Championship after having come up short in the WHL Championship series the two previous seasons.  Will Nic Petan and the Winterhawks be able to gun for a repeat?  Or, will another Club oust the three-time defending Western Conference champs?

WHL fans in the West will take great pleasure in watching the next wave of stars develop and shine throughout the 2013-14 WHL season.  From Vancouver’s Payton Lee to Everett’s Tyler Sandhu to Seattle Thunderbirds’ prized rookie Mathew Barzal, the West is jam packed with up-and-coming talent.

Which Club will claim the title of Best in the West during the 2013-14 WHL regular season?  Which players will take the biggest steps forward and become stars for their team?

Here’s a look at the WHL Western Conference:

B.C. Division

Kamloops Blazers
General Manager: Craig Bonner
Head Coach: Dave Hunchak
2013 pre-season: 1-4-0-0
2012-13 Record: 47-20-2-3, 99pts (2nd in B.C. Div., 3rd in Western Conf.) GF: 261  GA: 180
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 21.4% (T-6th); PK: 83.4% (7th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in five games to Portland in Western Conference Championship series
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Colin Smith                   72gp-41g-65a-106pts
Tim Bozon                    69gp-36g-55a-91pts
JC Lipon                       61gp-36g-53a-89pts

Up Front:  Kamloops returns four of their top eight scorers from last season, including 36-goal man Tim Bozon, who will be counted on heavily for offensive production.  The graduation of top point-getters like Colin Smith, JC Lipon and Brendan Ranford leaves the door open for others to step into greater roles in the attack.  18-year-old Cole Ully put up 22 goals and 50 points in a supporting role last season.  The Dallas Stars prospect should be able to up those totals this season with an expanded role.  18-year-old Matt Needham and 19-year-old Chase Souto will also be counted on to fill key offensive holes this season.  The addition of 20-year-old veteran Tyson Ness will add leadership and strong two-way play to the Blazers’ forward contingent.

On The Blue Line:  20-year-old Sam Grist heads up a Blazers’ defence corps that lost several key veterans from last year’s team.  Grist, a Saanich, B.C., product, led all Blazers’ rearguards with a +36 rating last season, and put up a respectable 23 points.  He and fellow veteran Landon Cross will need to provide stability and leadership for the Blazers’ back end.  Sophomore Jordan Thomson, the 4th overall pick from the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, is primed for a much bigger role while fellow sophomores Josh Connolly and Ryan Rehill will also be counted on to take on more responsibility.

Goaltending:  The Blazers sent Cole Cheveldave, their starter for the past two seasons, to Prince Albert during the off-season, leaving 19-year-old sophomore Taran Kozun as the top choice in goal this season.  Kozun posted a 2.36 GAA and a .914 save percentage in 20 appearances last season, showing he’s capable of providing steady goaltending.  The acquisition of 19-year-old Bolton Pouliot from Red Deer during pre-season gives the Blazers another option in goal.

Player to Watch:  Cole Ully
Ully spent his first two WHL campaigns with the Blazers playing behind the likes of Colin Smith, Brendan Ranford, Chase Schaber and JC Lipon.  Now, as a third-year veteran, Ully is ready to become a go-to guy in the Blazers’ offense.  Drafted by the Dallas Stars this past June, Ully has the offensive tools to be an impact player for the Blazers this season.  The Calgary, AB, product has good speed, skill and vision, and can be effective on both the power play and penalty kill.  Coming off a season that saw him put up 22 goals and 50 points in a supporting role, Ully should be able to boost those numbers this year in an expanded role. 

Kelowna Rockets
General Manager: Bruce Hamilton
Head Coach: Ryan Huska
2013 pre-season: 3-1-0-0
2012-13 Record: 52-16-3-1, 108pts (1st in B.C. Div., 2nd in Western Conf.) GF: 309  GA: 178
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 22.2% (4th); PK: 83.9% (5th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Kamloops in second round
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Myles Bell                     68gp-38g-55a-93pts
Zach Franko                  69gp-24g-48a-72pts
Dylen McKinlay             72gp-24g-44a-68pts

Up Front:  The Rockets lost three of their top offensive players from last season’s squad that owned the WHL’s second-best attack with the graduation of Myles Bell, Dylen McKinlay and Colton Sissons.  20-year-old Zack Franko, the team’s second-leading point-getter last season, returns to lead the Rockets’ offense.  Franko will have scoring support from the likes of Tyson Baillie, who enjoyed a breakout performance in last year’s playoffs, having scored eight goals and 14 points in nine post-season contests.  Sophomore Rourke Chartier will look to build on a solid rookie campaign last year that saw him post 13 goals and 30 points as a 16-year-old while hulking power forward Ryan Olsen is also back after scoring 32 goals last season.  Shifty 16-year-old freshman Nick Merkley has the potential to contribute in his first WHL season as well, should he earn himself a full-time job this season with the Club.  If 20-year-old converted defenceman Myles Bell returns, he’ll add a major offensive punch to an already solid group up front.

On The Blue Line:  The Rockets return a solid group of rearguards who helped the Club to the WHL’s third-best defensive record and fifth-best penalty kill.  Veterans Damon Severson, Madison Bowey and Jesse Lees combined for a whopping +121 rating while also contributing a combined 34 goals and 112 points to the offense.  They form the nucleus of what could be a very strong defence corps in Kelowna.  Veteran MacKenzie Johnston, towering Detroit Red Wings prospect Mitchell Wheaton and 19-year-old Colten Martin all add great depth on the Rockets’ blue line while 16-year-old rookie Joe Gatenby could also factor into the Rockets’ defensive plans.

Goaltending:  20-year-old Jordon Cooke returns as the No. 1 man in the Rockets’ net.  The Leduc, AB, product has 98 games of WHL seasoning under his belt, giving  the Rockets experience in net, and is coming off a 2012-13 campaign that saw him put up a WHL-leading 37 victories.  18-year-old Jackson Whistle posted an impressive 1.96 GAA and a .931 save percentage in 21 appearances last season in the back-up role.  Whistle provides a very solid option for the Rockets in goal.

Player to Watch:  Tyson Baillie
The Rockets’ third-round pick, 53rd overall, in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Baillie took great steps forward in his development last season, his second full WHL campaign.  The Edmonton, AB, native scored 26 goals and 56 points in 67 games, emerging as a solid two-way force for the Rockets.  He took his game to a higher level in the post-season, leading the Rockets with eight goals and 14 points in just nine games.  An offensively inclined player, Baillie has the skill to put up points and the grit and compete level to play a physical brand of hockey as well.  Entering his NHL Draft year, look for Baillie to become a key cog in all areas of the ice for the Rockets this season.

Prince George Cougars
General Manager: Dallas Thompson
Head Coach: Mark Holick
2013 pre-season: 5-0-0-0
2012-13 Record: 21-43-2-6, 50pts (4th in B.C. Div., 9th in Western Conf.) GF: 177  GA: 273
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 15.4% (21st); PK: 76.2% (19th)
2013 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Colin Jacobs                 66gp-25g-28a-53pts
Troy Bourke                  63gp-15g-35a-50pts
Zach Pochiro                65gp-15g-24a-39pts

Up Front:  Though they lose their top scorer from last season, Colin Jacobs, the Cougars return most of their offensive players.  Troy Bourke, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, has been a consistent point producer over his first three seasons in the WHL, but will need to take his game to the next level to help the Cougars improve on what was the 21st-ranked attack last season.  Zach Pochiro parlayed a strong rookie season last year into getting drafted by the St. Louis Blues in June.  The Las Vegas, NV, product will be counted on to up his offensive production this season.  Also back are 18-year-olds Alex Forsberg and Chase Witala, who will each look to contribute more up front.  Exciting youngsters Jansen Harkins and Brad Morrison represent the future leaders among the Cougars’ forward ranks.

On The Blue Line:  The Cougars’ blue line will be young this season, with the majority of their rearguards being 18-years-old or younger.  Marc McNulty showed promise in his rookie campaign last year, scoring eight goals and 15 points, and was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in June.  He will take on a large role on the Cougars’ blue line this year.  The acquisition of steady 20-year-old veteran Peter Kosterman adds much-needed experience.  17-year-old NHL Draft-eligible Joseph Carvalho has shown offensive upside, and could help the Cougars’ power play.  Size won’t be an issue on the Cougars’ blue line, with McNulty, Kosterman, and rookies Sam Ruopp and Martin Bobos each standing at least 6’4”. 

Goaltending:  18-year-old Brett Zarowny, a third-round pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, is the lone returnee in the Cougars’ cage.  Having gotten into 31 games as a rookie last season, Zarowney likely takes over the starting role this season.  17-year-old rookie Ty Edmonds has also been sharp during the pre-season.  The Winnipeg, MB, product got a taste of regular-season action last year as a 16-year-old, appearing in one game.  

Player to Watch:  Zach Pochiro
An 18-year-old from Las Vegas, NV, Pochiro made a splash for the Cougars as a rookie last season.  The 6’2”, 160-lb center scored 16 goals and 39 points in 65 games to finish third on the team in scoring, and also provided a great physical presence to the Club.  A feisty, fearless skater who stands up for his teammates while also boasting good offensive abilities, Pochiro became just the second product of Las Vegas to be drafted by an NHL Club when the St. Louis Blues traded up to take him in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft.  Look for Pochiro to take on more responsibilities for the Cougars in 2013-14.

Vancouver Giants
General Manager: Scott Bonner
Head Coach: Don Hay
2013 pre-season: 2-3-1-0
2012-13 Record: 21-49-2-0, 44pts (5th in B.C. Div., 10th in Western Conf.) GF: 197  GA: 299
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 17.3% (16th); PK: 73.6% (21st)
2013 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Jackson Houck             69gp-23g-34a-57pts
Cain Franson                 60gp-29g-25a-54pts
Brendan Rouse             71gp-14g-37a-51pts

Up Front: The Giants could return up to 10 of their top 12 scorers from last season.  Jackson Houck and Cain Franson, the team’s top two point-getters last season, will return, both looking to build on strong campaigns.  Houck, an Edmonton Oilers prospect, impressed with 57 points in 69 games as a sophomore, and should be able to improve on that total this season.  Franson, the team’s leading returning goal scorer, should be good to crack at least the 30-goal mark this season.  The Giants are keen to see what German forward Andreas Eder can add to the mix while the off-season acquisition of Joel Hamilton from Red Deer adds another scoring threat.  More will also be expected from the likes of Anthony Ast and sophomore Carter Popoff.  Rookie Center Alec Baer could play a role in the Giants’ attack as well.

On The Blue Line:  The Giants head into the 2013-14 season looking to improve on what was the 22nd-ranked defence last year.  Brett Kulak, the elder statesman on the Giants’ blue line, is back for a third campaign.  The Calgary Flames prospect led all Giants’ blue liners and finished fourth on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 44 points, and will eat up plenty of minutes again this season.  The Giants acquired 20-year-old Dalton Thrower from Saskatoon during the off-season.  Should he not turn pro, Thrower would provide the Giants with strong two-way play, a big physical presence, and important leadership. Also returning are 18-year-olds Mason Geertsen and Arvin Atwal, who will both look for bigger roles on the back end.  Russian rookie Dmitry Osipov, the 1st overall pick in the 2013 CHL Import Draft, comes in with a lot of fanfare, having also been the 1st overall pick in the KHL Junior draft in 2013.

Goaltending:  17-year-old Payton Lee looks to take on the No. 1 job for the Giants after impressing as a 16-year-old rookie last year.  A second-round pick, 28th overall, in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Lee appeared in 36 games last season, posting 14 of the Giants’ 21 victories last season.  19-year-old Jared Rathjen also returns for his third WHL campaign.  The Prince George, B.C., product has 45 games of WHL seasoning with Victoria and Vancouver, and will look to push Lee for starts.

Player to Watch:  Jackson Houck
The Giants’ third-round pick, 57th overall, in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Houck established himself as a huge cog in the team’s lineup last season.  The 6’1”, 193-lb winger led the team in scoring with 57 points, including 23 goals, and helped hold together a young, rebuilding group that endured a difficult year.  Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in June of 2013, Houck is a hard-working, 200-foot type of player who boasts good hockey sense, a physical presence, and strong leadership skills.  Though not the fastest player on the ice, Houck relies on his smarts and his vision to put up points and move the puck.  If the Giants are to push their way back into the playoff picture this season, expect Houck to be a massive contributor.

Victoria Royals
General Manager: Cameron Hope
Head Coach: Dave Lowry
2013 pre-season: 3-1-0-1
2012-13 Record: 35-30-2-5, 77pts (3rd in B.C. Div., 6th in Western Conf.) GF: 223  GA: 252
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 21.3% (8th); PK: 78.8% (14th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in six games to Kamloops in first round
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Alex Gogolev                49gp-20g-45a-65pts
Brandon Magee             72gp-30g-30a-60pts
Jamie Crooks                69gp-33g-20a-53pts

Up Front:  Despite the graduation of Alex Gogolev and Jamie Crooks, the Royals return many of their key offensive performers from last season.  With 20-year-olds Ben Walker and Logan Nelson, and 19-year-olds Steven Hodges and Brandon Magee back in the fold, the Royals have a solid group of veteran, offensively-inclined players to lead the way.  19-year-old veteran Austin Carroll put up 42 points while also bringing a strong physical element to the Royals’ forward contingent last season.  The Royals also boast several younger players who will be looking to contribute this season such as 17-year-old Jack Walker, the younger brother of Ben Walker, who is coming off an impressive rookie season on the blue line last year, and highly touted 16-year-old Tyler Soy, who could become a bigger factor as the season goes on and as he acclimatizes to the WHL level of play.

On The Blue Line:  The Royals return almost all of their blue liners from last year’s team, including veterans Brett Cote, Keegan Kanzig and Jordan Fransoo, who all bring different elements to the table.  Cote led all Royals’ defencemen with 41 points, Fransoo brings size and a two-way game, and Kanzig, a Calgary Flames prospect, is an intimidating, physical presence in the defensive zone.  Expect 17-year-old sophomore Joe Hicketts to play a much bigger role this season, especially on the attack, while fellow 17-year-old Ryan Gagnon is also expected to take on much greater responsibility on the blue line with his versatility and physical play.  16-year-old defender Chaz Reddekopp will be given the opportunity to get his feet wet at the WHL level, and represents the future on the Royals’ blue line.

Goaltending:  Both 19-year-old Patrik Polivka and 18-year-old Coleman Vollrath return to form the Royals’ goaltending tandem this season.  Polivka appeared in 53 games last year for the Royals, posting 28 victories, and was impressive in the Royals’ first-round playoff series versus the high-octane Kamloops Blazers.  The 6’0”, 173-lb netminder from Plzen, Czech Republic, will likely carry the majority of the workload again this season. 

Player to Watch:  Jack Walker
Royals’ fans have already come to know his older brother, Ben, as a talented playmaking forward.  However, they’ll soon come to know 17-year-old Jack Walker for many of the same reasons.  Having opened many eyes by netting nine goals and 22 points in 58 games as a 16-year-old on the Royals’ blue line last season, the younger Walker is a terrific skater with excellent mobility and fast-developing offensive acumen.  Though not the biggest player on the ice, Walker has shown he can handle the size and strength of players at the WHL level.  Moving to the forward position for the 2013-14 season, the Royals are hoping Walker can keep developing into a steady, consistent offensive performer alongside his big brother.

 

U.S. Division

Everett Silvertips
General Manager
: Garry Davidson
Head Coach: Kevin Constantine
2013 pre-season: 7-0-0-0
2012-13 Record: 25-40-3-4, 57pts (5th in U.S. Div., 8th in Western Conf.) GF: 172  GA: 268
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 16.2% (T-18th); PK: 76.8% (17th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in six games to Portland in first round
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Josh Winquist               51gp-24g-27a-51pts
Landon Oslanski           72gp-17g-31a-48pts
Reid Petryk                   70gp-16g-24a-40pts

Up Front:  The Silvertips endured tough times scoring goals during the 2012-13 campaign, with an offense that ranked 22nd in the WHL.  However, they return most of their top-scoring forwards who will all be looking to put up bigger numbers.  20-year-old Josh Winquist put up a point per game last season, and appears to be ready for a very big campaign in his final WHL season.  Fellow 20-year-olds Manraj Hayer and Reid Petryk also have the ability to be offensive catalysts if they remain with the Club.  Tyler Sandhu scored 19 goals as a 16-year-old rookie in 2012-13, and should see his role expanded this season while 19-year-old Kohl Bauml will also be counted on to better the 21-goal, 36-point total he chipped in last year.  Import rookies Ivan Nikolishin and Waltteri Hopponen have both shown good offensive abilities in pre-season.  However, the ‘Tips will likely only be able to keep one of the two with Swiss rearguard Mirco Mueller also expected back.

On The Blue Line:  The ‘Tips may see a return to their defensively-stingy roots with the return of inaugural head coach Kevin Constantine, who guided the team to the WHL final in their first season of existence.  Mirco Mueller, a San Jose Sharks prospect, will anchor the ‘Tips’ blue line this season.  The strong-skating, highly dependable two-way defender should also be able to increase his offensive output with a year of WHL seasoning under his belt.  20-year-old Matt Pufahl was acquired from Saskatoon in the off-season to add experience and another strong two-way presence.  Towering Cranbrook, B.C., product Ben Betker strikes an imposing figure in front of the ‘Tips’ net while 2012 first-round Bantam Draft pick Kevin Davis will be in the mix for a full-time job on the blue line.

Goaltending:  Austin Lotz, an 18-year-old from St. Adolphe, MB, returns for his second campaign as the ‘Tips’ No. 1 netminder.  The 6’1”, 200-lb netminder posted a 15-19-3-1 record last year while maintaining a .907 save percentage.  Lotz could see those numbers improve with a stronger defensive system in front of him.  19-year-old Daniel Cotton performed admirably over stretches last season while filling in for the injured Lotz.  He has proven he can be a solid option in the ‘Tips’ cage.

Player to Watch:  Tyler Sandhu
A 17-year-old product of Richmond, B.C., Sandhu was originally a second-round pick of the Portland Winterhawks in 2011 but was a key part of the deal that sent Seth Jones from Everett to Portland.  A skilled pivot with keen hockey sense and the ability to finish, Sandhu made a strong transition to the WHL as a 16-year-old rookie, netting an impressive 19 goals and 33 points in 62 games to finish fourth among all WHL 16-year-old rookies in scoring.  Entering his NHL Draft-eligible season, Sandhu has already drawn the eyes of NHL scouts, being named among 14 WHL players to the 2014 NHL Futures list.  With a successful rookie campaign under his belt, expect Sandhu to take on a much bigger role in the ‘Tips’ offense this season.

Portland Winterhawks
General Manager / Head Coach: Mike Johnston
2013 pre-season: 3-2-0-0
2012-13 Record: 57-12-1-2, 117pts (1st in U.S. Div., 1st in Western Conf.) GF: 334  GA: 169
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 23.4% (2nd); PK: 87.9% (1st)
2013 Playoffs: WHL Champions
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Brendan Leipsic            68gp-49g-71a-120pts
Nicolas Petan                71gp-46g-74a-120pts
Ty Rattie                       62gp-48g-62a-110pts

Up Front:  The Winterhawks return many of their top offensive players who helped the Club to the best attack in the WHL last season, including Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan, who tied for the WHL scoring lead.  Both Petan and Leipsic will be counted on to pace the Hawks’ offense again this year, and both could challenge again for the WHL scoring title.  Danish sophomore Oliver Bjorkstrand put up 31 goals and 63 points as a rookie last year.  The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect will likely increase those totals this season.  The Hawks boast good strong secondary scoring with Taylor Leier and Chase De Leo both set for increased roles.  Sophomores Paul Bittner and Dominic Turgeon are also ready to contribute more up front for what will be a potent Winterhawks’ offense.  The addition of Shane McColgan from Saskatoon gives the Hawks another great playmaking forward.

On The Blue Line:  Though they lose veteran stalwarts Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon, and likely won’t see the return of Seth Jones, the Hawks still have some quality talent on their blue line.  19-year-old Derrick Pouliot anchors the Hawks’ blue line and provides them with one of the League’s top power play quarterbacks.  The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect put up nine goals and 45 points in just 44 games last year.  Fellow 19-year-old Josh Hansen should see a big increase in his responsibilities, especially with the departure of Wotherspoon.  Layne Vivieiros and Shaun MacPherson are also back from last season’s WHL Championship side while Swedish defender Anton Cederholm and 20-year-old addition Garrett Haar should help add depth to a Hawks’ defence corps that lost a lot of experience.

Goaltending:  18-yer-old Brendan Burke is set to take on the top job in the Winterhawks’ net.  The 18-year-old Phoenix Coyotes prospect is coming off a strong 2012-13 season where he posted 24 wins and four shutouts with a 2.65 goals-agaisnt average in 33 appearances for the powerhouse Hawks.  Burke will be pushed by fellow 18-year-old Jarrod Schamerhorn, who has yet to appear in a regular-season WHL contest, but got valuable experience being with the Club during last season’s Championship run.

Player to Watch:  Chase De Leo
A gritty, offensively talented pivot, De Leo is a player who plays much bigger than his 5’10”, 175-lb frame would indicate.  The La Mirada, CA, product was the
Hawks’ ninth-round pick, 192nd overall, in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, and has spent his first two WHL seasons playing in a third-line role.  Yet, even with a more limited role last year, De Leo managed a very solid 56 points in 71 games, and was one of Portland’s better performers during the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament.  Expected to take on a bigger role this season, De Leo could very well see his numbers jump way up while playing alongside some talented forwards in Portland.

Seattle Thunderbirds
General Manager: Russ Farwell
Head Coach: Steve Konowalchuk
2013 pre-season: 4-3-0-0
2012-13 Record: 24-38-7-3, 58pts (4th in U.S. Div., 7th in Western Conf.) GF: 210  GA: 286
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 18.7% (14th); PK: 79.3% (13th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in seven games to Kelowna in first round
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Roberts Lipsbergs         64gp-30g-28a-58pts
Connor Honey               57gp-16g-38a-54pts
Shea Theodore              71gp-19g-31a-50pts

Up Front:  The T-Birds return seven of their top nine scorers from last season, including Latvian Roberts Lipsbergs, who led the team in goals and points.  Lipsbergs, Russian sophomore Alex Delnov and 19-year-old Connor Honey were consistent producers last season, and raised their game in the playoffs versus Kelowna.  If they can carry their strong finish from last season into the 2013-14 campaign, the T-Birds should be able to see their offensive totals go up.  High-scoring defenceman Shea Theodore and veterans Branden Troock, Justin Hickman and Seth Swenson will also be counted on to put up numbers for the T-Birds.  Of course, T-Birds fans are anxiously waiting to see what 16-year-old rookie Mathew Barzal can add to the team.  The first overall pick of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Barzal boasts elite-level skill, skating and overall talent.  He is sure to make an impact in his first campaign in the WHL.

On The Blue Line:  The Thunderbirds will be looking to cut back on their goals-against this season from what was the 21st-ranked team defence last year.  With the group of rearguards they have returning, they should be able to accomplish this task.  Veteran Jesse Forsberg and 18-year-old Anaheim Ducks’ first-rounder Shea Theodore provide a solid top pairing, with Forsberg playing a physical shut-down style and Theodore providing outstanding offense from the back end.  Jerret Smith has shown good two-way abilities, and could add a bit of offense from the blue line.  Also back are 18-year-olds Jared Hauf and Griffin Foulk, who will look to take on more minutes this season.  With four defencemen standing 6’4” or taller, the T-Birds’ blue line strikes an intimidating presence.

Goaltending:  17-year-old Danny Mumaugh aims to take over the starting job in the T-Birds’ net with the graduation of last year’s starter, Brandon Glover.  The product of Centennial, CO, got into 18 games for the T-Birds last year as a rookie.  19-year-old Devon Fordyce also has 18 career WHL appearances under his belt from his time with Prince George.  18-year-old Justin Myles is also in contention, having gotten into eight games for Seattle last season.

Player to Watch:  Mathew Barzal
The first overall pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Barzal is considered a special talent who will likely make a big impact for the T-Birds even at the young age of 16.  A dynamic offensive talent, Barzal has high-end skill and outstanding skating ability.  Coupled with his incredible hockey sense and intelligence, Barzal is a player who can beat you in many different ways.  He can play a finesse game or a speed and power game, and is equally dangerous as a scorer or playmaker.  Though it’s rare for a 16-year-old to become a high-impact player in the WHL, expectations are high for Barzal to do just that for the Seattle Thunderbirds this season.

Spokane Chiefs
General Manager: Tim Speltz
Head Coach: Don Nachbaur
2013 pre-season: 3-3-0-1
2012-13 Record: 44-26-2-0, 90pts (2nd in U.S. Div., 4th in Western Conf.) GF: 269  GA: 230
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 20.6% (10th); PK: 79.4% (12th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in four games to Portland in second round
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Brenden Kichton            71gp-22g-63a-85pts
Mitch Holmberg             66gp-39g-41a-80pts
Todd Fiddler                 70gp-42g-35a-77pts

Up Front:  The Chiefs lose a large chunk of their offense from last season.  The departures of high-scoring defenceman Brenden Kichton, and veteran forwards Todd Fiddler, Dylan Walchuk, Blake Gal and Alessio Bertaggia means the Chiefs need to replace 114 goals worth of combined production.  20-year-old veterans Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani will shoulder a heavy workload up front.  The pair combined for 69 goals and 148 points last year, and will need to equal or better that combined total.  Sophomore Adam Helewka and rookie Markson Bechtold have the offensive acumen to help replace some of the Chiefs’ lost scoring, while more will be expected from the likes of veterans Connor Chartier and Liam Stewart.  With several new faces in the Chiefs’ forward ranks, fans will be interested to see who steps up and helps fill the net up front.

On The Blue Line:  The graduation of Brendan Kichton leaves a big hole on the Chiefs’ blue line.  Not only was Kichton the WHL’s premiere offensive defenseman, he was also a big contributor in his own zone and played in all key situations.  19-year-old Reid Gow put up 51 points last season, and will be counted on to provide the offense from the back end.  17-year-old rookie Matt Sozanski has been impressive during pre-season play, putting up five points in five games, while Tyler King also has good two-way ability.  Returnees Jason Fram, Jeremy McIntosh and Cole Wedman will also be looking to increase their roles. 

Goaltending:  20-year-old Eric Williams and 18-year-old Garret Hughson return to form the Chiefs’ goaltending tandem.  Williams posted 32 victories, including four shutouts, in 55 games for the Chiefs last season, and provides the team with plenty of WHL experience.  Hughson saw 27 games of action as a rookie and has been very good during the 2013 WHL pre-season.  With Williams and Hughson both back, the Chiefs should be comfortable with their goaltending this season.

Player to Watch:  Mike Aviani
A fifth-round pick in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft, Avian is entering his fourth and final campaign in the WHL with the Chiefs.  The 20-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., has developed into a key offensive performer over the last two years with the Chiefs, netting 30 goals and 68 points with an impressive +37 rating in 71 games to help the Chiefs to a second-place finish in the U.S. Division in 2012-13.  With the Chiefs losing many of their veteran scorers, Aviani will be a key cog in generating scoring for the Chiefs this season.  A solid playmaker who can also put the puck in the net, expect Aviani to put up big numbers as the go-to guy in Spokane this year.

Tri-City Americans
General Manager: Bob Tory
Head Coach: Jim Hiller
2013 pre-season: 2-6-0-0
2012-13 Record: 40-27-2-3, 85pts (3rd in U.S. Div., 5th in Western Conf.) GF: 246  GA: 227
2012-13 Power Play / Penalty Killing ranking: PP: 22.5% (3rd); PK: 82.8% (8th)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in five games to Spokane in first round
2012-13 Top Scorers:
Justin Feser                  72gp-44g-62a-106pts
Malte Stromwall             66gp-21g-45a-66pts
Connor Rankin              72gp-32g-26a-58pts

Up Front:  Life will be different for the Ams without their former captain Justin Feser around.  The WHL’s Ironman had a hand in 106 of the team’s 246 goals last season, and replacing that production won’t be easy.  However, the Ams do return several players who are ready to step up and take on much bigger roles.  Veteran Connor Rankin cracked the 30-goal mark last year, and will need to be a big contributor this season.  18-year-old Brian Williams will also be in line for a greater role in the attack.  A 20-goal man last season, expect Williams to see his totals jump this campaign.  Parker Bowles also impressed as a rookie, netting 21 goals and 44 points.  The 18-year-old from Kelowna will be a key cog for the Ams up front this season, as will fellow sophomore Beau McCue.  16-yer-old rookie Ty Comrie, the younger brother of Ams’ netminder Eric Comrie, comes in with a lot of promise.  Comrie, a big part of the Ams’ future, has been very impressive during training camp, and could see his role increase as he acclimatizes to the WHL.

On The Blue Line:  Veterans Zach Yuen and Mitch Topping head up a veteran group of blue liners returning to the team.  Yuen enjoyed his best offensive season last year, netting 45 points, and will be tasked with generating offense from the blue line while remaining a solid presence in the defensive zone.  Topping will also provide strong two-way play and leadership.  Also back are 19-year-old Michal Plutnar and Justin Hamonic, adding veteran depth on the blue line.  Plutnar has steadily improved in his point production over the last two seasons, and adds yet another good two-way presence.  Rookie Brandon Carlo has plenty of upside, and will look to play a key role in his first full-time campaign.

Goaltending:  18-year-old Eric Comrie is back to take the majority of the workload in the Ams’ cage.  The Winnipeg Jets prospect has fully recovered from the injury that saw him miss the last half of the season last year, and will provide the Ams with as good netminding as there is in the Western Conference.  16-year-old Evan Sarthou, a third-round pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, is also battling for a job in the goaltending platoon.

Player to Watch:  Brandon Carlo
A 10th round pick of the Americans in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Carlo has progressed rapidly in his development over the last couple of years.  A good skater with a big frame, Carlo can play a physical style, making life difficult on opposing players.  Having gotten into a handful of regular-season and playoff games for the Ams last season, Carlo earned a spot on the U.S. Under-18 team for the Memorial for Ivan Hlinka tournament in August 2013, helping them reach the Gold medal game.  The Colorado Springs, CO, product is considered a big part of the Ams’ future on the blue line, but will likely turn some heads with his play this season.

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