MID-SEASON REVIEW: WHL WESTERN CONFERENCE

Thu Dec 27

The 2012-13 Western Hockey League season is at the midway point with teams having played roughly half of their regular season schedules, and it's time to take a look at how the season has shaped up so far.

In the Western Conference, the Portland Winterhawks have asserted themselves as the cream of the crop while the Kamloops Blazers are making a serious run at their second straight B.C. Division title.  However, the Kelowna Rockets have steadily climbed up the standings and could pose a strong challenge over the second half.

Will the Winterhawks’ dominant season continue?  Can the Blazers keep their division lead, or will the Rockets blast themselves to the top?  Can the Spokane Chiefs or Tri-City Americans close the gap on the mighty Hawks?

Here’s a look at the WHL’s Western Conference teams through the 2012-13 season’s first half:

WHL WESTERN CONFERENCE

B.C. Division

Kamloops Blazers
2012-13 record: 38gp  25-9-2-2, 54pts (1st in Div., 2nd in Conf.)  GF: 133  GA: 98
Top Scorers:
Colin Smith                   38pg-25g-37a-62pts
JC Lipon                       34gp-22g-35a-57pts
Tim Bozon                    37gp-19g-28a-47pts

Having won the B.C. Division last season for the first time since 2002, the Blazers were marked as the team to beat in the division this season.  They haven’t been beaten very often so far this season.  The team got off to a blazing start, winning a franchise-record 14 straight games from September 30th through October 30th, and have led the division ever since.  Up front, the dynamic trio of Colin Smith, JC Lipon and Tim Bozon have been nearly unstoppable, while veteran Brendan Ranford has managed his usual point-per-game pace.  A little more secondary scoring would help ease the load of their top four scorers.  Veterans Tyler Hansen and Marek Hrbas have helped the Blazers keep their goals against down this season, while additions like Sam Grist and Joel Edmundson have strengthened the defence corps.  Rookie Jordan Thomson has been impressive, indicating the future is bright on the Blazer blue line.  Goaltender Cole Cheveldave has provided the Blazers with strong, consistent netminding, and gives them a chance to win every night he’s in net.  His 2.43 goals-against average ranks among the WHL leaders.

 

Kelowna Rockets
2012-13 record: 35gp  23-10-1-1, 48pts (2nd in Div., 3rd in Conf.)  GF: 143  GA: 87
Top Scorers:
Myles Bell                     35gp-20g-28a-48pts
Zach Franko                  33gp-12g-24a-36pts
Dylen McKinlay             35gp-10g-21a-31pts     

After a slow start to the season, going 4-6-0 through their first 10 outings, the Rockets have made a steady climb up the Western Conference standings and enter the break just six points behind the Blazers and with three games in hand.  A balanced offense, strong defence and quality goaltending have all contributed to the Rockets’ quietly putting together a very good first half.  Up front, converted defenceman Myles Bell has taken his offensive game to a new level while Zach Franko has stepped up his offensive game as well, helping the Rockets to the second-best offensive output in the WHL.  20-year-old veteran Dylen McKinlay has been a terrific addition while Colton Sissons, Tyson Baillie and Ryan Olsen have added great scoring depth.  Defensively, the Rockets have surrendered the third fewest goals of any WHL team and boast the fourth-ranked penalty killing unit.  Damon Severson has stepped up offensively while sophomores Madison Bowey, Jesse Lees and Colten Martin have made great strides in their play as well.  Collectively, the Rockets’ defence corps boasts a staggering +104 rating.  Veteran Jordon Cooke has provided excellent goaltending as the No. 1 guy while the acquisition of sophomore Jackson Whistle has given the Rockets one of the best goaltending tandems in the WHL.

 

 

Prince George Cougars
2012-13 record: 34gp  12-18-1-3, 28pts (4th in Div., 8th in Conf.)  GF: 87  GA: 116
Top Scorers:
Colin Jacobs                 28gp-11g-15a-26pts
Alex Forsberg               31gp-9g-10a-19pts
Daulton Siwak               33gp-9g-8a-17pts

The Cougars got out of the gate quickly, posting five wins over their first seven games of the season.  However, with just seven wins in 27 games since their hot start, the Cougars have fallen back in the B.C. Division race.  Injuries to key players have played a role in the Cougars’ struggles, with players like Troy Bourke, Alex Forsberg and Chase Witala missing time, captain Brock Hirsche being forced to retire due to injury, and Colin Jacobs losing games to a suspension.  Offensively, the Cougars have had a hard time generating scoring, with only Jacobs hitting the 10-goal mark at the halfway point, and have been shut out seven times this season.  Getting their top scorers healthy should help the team put up more offense.  The Cougars will aim to improve their special teams over the second half as both their power play and penalty kill rank 20th in the WHL.  Rookie goaltender Brett Zarowney and early-season acquisition Mac Engel have split netminding duties, with Zarowney posting solid numbers including an 8-7 record and a .910 save percentage. 

 

Vancouver Giants
2012-13 record: 34gp  9-25-0-0, 18pts (5th in Div., 10th in Conf.)  GF: 86  GA: 134
Top Scorers:
Trevor Cheek                 33gp-12g-14a-26pts
Jackson Houck              34gp-5g-21a-26pts
Marek Tvrdon                18gp-8g-14a-22pts       

The Giants have endured a difficult first half to the 2012-13 season, and find themselves sitting in very unfamiliar territory at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.  As a result of their tough first half, the Giants have begun a process of rebuilding, acquiring draft picks for valuable assets like defenceman David Musil and forward Nathan Burns.  Generating scoring has been challenging for the Giants this season, with only Trevor Cheek and Cain Franson having netted 10 or more goals.  Losing their top gun, Marek Tvrdon, to a season-ending injury only compounded their offensive woes.  However, younger forwards like Jackson Houck have taken the opportunity to show what they can do when given a bigger role.  Defensively, the Gianst have also struggled, having surrendered the second most goals in the Western Conference while seeing their penalty killing unit slip to 17th in the WHL.  Young netminder Payton Lee, 16, has been a bright spot for the Giants, though.  The Cranbrook, B.C., native has shown potential as the Giants’ goaltender of the future.

 

Victoria Royals
2012-13 record: 33gp  17-14-0-2, 36pts (3rd in Div., 6th in Conf.)  GF: 97  GA: 109
Top Scorers:
Alex Gogolev                33gp-13g-23a-36pts
Logan Nelson                33gp-8g-23a-31pts
Ben Walker                    31gp-10g-16a-26pts

The Royals got off to a great start this season, posting a 9-4 record through their first 13 outings.  Though they have cooled off since then, the Royals have put themselves in a good position in the Western Conference, and find themselves eight points clear for a playoff spot at the season’s halfway mark.  Early-season acquisition Alex Gogolev has been the offensive catalyst for the Royals, averaging better than a point per game, while sophomores Logan Nelson and Ben Walker have also been consistent contributors.  Brandon Magee and Jamie Crooks are both on pace to crack the 30-goal mark.  Getting a healthy Steven Hodges back in the lineup should help the offense over the second half.  Defensively, the Royals are in the middle of the pack, in terms of goals against.  16-year-old rookie Joe Hicketts has enjoyed a good start to his WHL career, and currently leads all Royals’ defencemen with an even plus-minus rating.  Netminder Patrik Polivka boasts a solid 14-8-0-2 record with a pair of shutouts and a .901 save percentage in the Royals’ cage, providing the Royals with a steady presence in net.

 

U.S. Division

Everett Silvertips
2012-13 record: 37gp  13-22-0-2, 28pts (5th in Div., 9th in Conf.)  GF: 92  GA: 134
Top Scorers:
Landon Oslanski            37gp-10g-15a-25pts
Reid Petryk                   37gp-9g-16a-25pts
Josh Winquist               24gp-12g-9a-21pts

With nine rookies in the lineup, the Silvertips have endured their growing pains through the first half of the 2012-13 season.  However, even with their struggles, the ‘Tips are in the mix for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.  Landon Oslanski, a defenceman who often plays forward, leads the ‘Tips in scoring while veterans Reid Petryk and Josh Winquist have also made strong offensive contributions.  Getting more offense from overage forward Ryan Harrison would greatly help the ‘Tips’ playoff hopes.  On the back end, the ‘Tips were pleasantly surprised to get Ryan Murray back due to the NHL lockout.  However, the ‘Tips were dealt a blow when their star player went down with a season-ending injury in mid-November.  Swiss rookie Mirco Mueller has been a great addition, putting up points and boasting a +4 rating among a blue line that has a combined -57 rating.  Sophomore Austin Lotz was originally given the starting role.  Yet, the team acquired Daniel Cotton from Seattle when Lotz went down with an injury, and has taken the majority of starts since.  Cotton has impressed with an 8-8-0 record and a.907 save percentage in 21 games.

 

Portland Winterhawks
2012-13 record: 35gp  29-5-1-0, 59pts (1st in Div., 1st in Conf.)  GF: 159  GA: 76
Top Scorers:
Nicholas Petan              35gp-24g-36a-60pts
Brendan Leipsic                        32gp-22g-34a-56pts
Ty Rattie                       30gp-19g-28a-47pts

The two-time defending Western Conference champions have enjoyed one of their best first-half performances in franchise history, and currently find themselves running away with the U.S. Division lead.  Despite losing many key players from last season and dealing with off-ice adversity, the Winterhawks continue to roll along pile up the wins.  The highest scoring team in the WHL by a wide margin, Portland has gotten outstanding performances from sophomore Nic Petan, 18-year-old Brendan Leipsic and veteran star Ty Rattie who all currently sit among the WHL’s top eight scorers.  Players like Oliver Bjorkstrand, Taylor Leier, Chase De Leo and Taylor Peters have provided plenty of secondary scoring while defencemen Derrick Pouliot, Troy Rutkowski and Seth Jones are all among the top seven WHL rearguards in scoring.  The highest scoring team in the WHL has also allowed the fewest goals of any WHL team by a good margin.  The Hawks have maintained the WHL’s second-ranked penalty killing unit, and none of the team’s regular skaters are in the negative on plus-minus.  Goaltender Mac Carruth has been outstanding since returning to the team in October, boasting a 1.80 GAA and a stellar .935 save percentage in 18 games.  Sophomore Brendan Burke has 10 wins in his 15 appearances this season as well.

                                                       

Seattle Thunderbirds
2012-13 record: 35gp  16-17-1-1, 34pts (4th in Div., 7th in Conf.)  GF: 116  GA: 136
Top Scorers:
Roberts Lipsbergs         34gp-17g-15a-32pts
Connor Honey               34gp-10g-22a-32pts
Riley Sheen                   35gp-8g-21a-29pts

Though the T-Birds came into the break on a five-game losing skid, the team’s first-half performance has helped put them in good shape to end their three-year playoff drought.  After struggling to score goals over the past three seasons, the T-Birds have displayed good offensive depth this year, helping them score the fifth most goals in the Western Conference.  Rookie imports Roberts Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov have played big roles in the offense while others like Riley Sheen and Connor Honey have also been steady contributors to a team that boasts eight players with 20 or more points and owns the League’s third best power play.  Defensively, the T-Birds will look to tighten up after allowing the most goals of any team in the Western Conference over the first half.  Shea Theodore and Jesse Forsberg have been able to chip in offensively, but will need to lead the defence corps to a better effort in their own zone if they are to remain in playoff contention.  Veteran netminder Brandon Glover has faced the second most shots of any goaltender in the WHL, and will look for his defence corps to tighten up and help cut that number down over the season’s second half.

 

Spokane Chiefs
2012-13 record: 34gp  23-10-1-0, 47pts (2nd in Div., 4th in Conf.)  GF: 140  GA: 101
Top Scorers:
Mitch Holmberg             29gp-23g-19a-42pts
Todd Fiddler                 34gp-24g-16a-40pts
Brenden Kichton            34gp-9g-31a-40pts        

The Chiefs are once again proving to be one of the top clubs in the Western Conference, and find themselves comfortably in a top-4 position in the conference at the season’s halfway mark.  Veterans Mitch Holmberg, Todd Fiddler and Mike Aviani have carried what is the WHL’s third-ranked offense and sixth-ranked power play, combining for 64 goals and 121 points this season, while rearguards Brenden Kichton and Reid Gow sit first and third in WHL scoring by defencemen.  Secondary offense has come from the likes of Dylan Walchuk, Collin Valcourt and Liam Stewart.  Kichton and Gow have also held together what is the Western Conference’s fifth-best defence.  Though they own just the ninth-ranked penalty killing unit, the Chiefs’ defence corps has been good at even strength, boasting a combined +67 rating this season.  Goaltender Eric Williams is tied for fourth among all WHL netminders with 17 wins this season, but will look to improve on his .895 save percentage.  Fortunately for Williams, he has a defence in front of him that doesn’t give up a lot of shots.

 

Tri-City Americans
2012-13 record: 35gp  20-12-1-2, 43pts (3rd in Div., 5st in Conf.)  GF: 105  GA: 96
Top Scorers:
Justin Feser                  35gp-19g-22a-41pts
Malte Stromwall             29gp-12g-16a-28pts
Beau McCue                 32gp-11g-8a-19pts

The Americans may have slipped from their normal pace from over the last five years, but they still find themselves comfortably in a playoff spot in the Western Conference.  Offensively, the Ams haven’t come close to the scoring they got last year when they boasted three of the WHL’s top scorers.  The team has relied heavily on veteran forward Justin Feser to lead the attack.  The 20-year-old has been in on 41 of the team’s 105 goals this season.  Second-year forward Malte Stromwall is the only other Ams player with more than 20 points.  Rookie Beau McCue has managed to chip in offensively, but more will be needed from NHL Draft-eligible Connor Rankin and sophomore Brian Williams if the Ams are to close the gap on Spokane and Portland.  The Ams have been strong in their own end, boasting the second lowest goals-against in the Western Conference.  Drydn Dow and Michal Plutnar have been solid in the defensive zone, combining for a +28 rating, while Zach Yuen and Mitch Topping have been able to chip in some offense.  Goaltending has been strong for the Ams with Eric Comrie appearing in 32 of their 35 games this season while maintaining a 2.59 GAA and a .917 save percentage.