2018-19 WHL Season Preview: The Predictions

Photo courtesy of Robert Murray/WHL Stuart Skinner hoists the Ed Chynoweth Cup after the Swift Current Broncos captured their third Western Hockey League championship in May.

This is the fifth and final part of a series that will preview the 2018-19 WHL campaign, which begins Friday night.

The four previous posts featured overviews of the East Division, Central Division, BC Division and US Division, while this article will see me attempt to make predictions on this season.

Once again, a huge thanks to Robert Murray who passed along the photos of many of the players from around the circuit.

East Division

  1. Prince Albert Raiders
  2. Brandon Wheat Kings
  3. Saskatoon Blades
  4. Moose Jaw Warriors (First Wild Card)
  5. Regina Pats
  6. Swift Current Broncos

With a veteran defence and a steady hand between the pipes with Ian Scott, this is the time for the Raiders to be in the mix for a legit division title run, especially as the windows for their nearest rivals are a year or two away.

Brandon and Saskatoon both have the pieces to content, but both have question marks surrounding them. However, the Wheat Kings outlook might change dramatically if Vegas Golden Knights prospect Erik Brannstrom shows up on the blueline.

A solid defence should allow the Warriors to be in the playoff discussion, even though Brody Willms is no longer the starting goaltender due to a hip injury.

It’s going to be a long winter for the Pats and Broncos, but at least Regina has assets they can trade in Nick Henry and Jake Leschyshyn.

Central Division

  1. Lethbridge Hurricanes
  2. Medicine Hat Tigers
  3. Calgary Hitmen
  4. Kootenay Ice (Second Wild Card)
  5. Edmonton Oil Kings
  6. Red Deer Rebels

After two straight runs to the conference finals, the Hurricanes once again look like the team to beat, but a sneaky good offence in Medicine Hat might make this a tighter fight than it looks like on the surface.

The amount of young talent in Calgary and Kootenay should lead them towards better days and a return to the playoffs this season, while Edmonton might be a solid sleeper to make the dance. As for Red Deer, a lack of goal scoring might do them in.

BC Division

  1. Vancouver Giants
  2. Kelowna Rockets
  3. Kamloops Blazers
  4. Victoria Royals
  5. Prince George Cougars

Despite an abrupt coaching change this summer, the Giants have all the pieces to contend for the first time in a number of years. Meanwhile, Kelowna should have another solid season and push the Giants in the race for the division title, despite losing many weapons.

Kamloops and Victoria will battle it out to avoid the wild card mix, but the Blazers seem to the have the depth to earn the third seed. As for Prince George, they are probably another year away from being in the post-season discussion.

US Division

  1. Spokane Chiefs
  2. Portland Winterhawks
  3. Everett Silvertips
  4. Tri-City Americans (First Wild Card)
  5. Seattle Thunderbirds (Second Wild Card)

The window is wide open for the Chiefs to make a run this season, especially as their closest rivals in the division have lost key weapons. Portland and Everett should still be solid though, as will Tri-City on the offensive side of the puck. Although they don’t have a ton of firepower, Seattle should be able to sneak in the playoffs.

Coach On The Biggest Hot Seat: Richard Matvichuk

Part of my reasoning for this is based upon the situation in Prince George. With Mark Lamb now the general manager and the team in a rebuild, I wouldn’t be shocked if Lamb is back behind the bench before too long.

Biggest Name Traded: Michael Rasmussen

Josh Brook, Alexander Alexeyev, Trey Fix-Wolansky, Nick Henry and Jake Leschyshyn are more likely to be traded, but Rasmussen could net the Americans a ton of assets if they were to move him. Granted, you won’t get as much as you could before with the new trade rules in the WHL, but he’d be a huge pickup for a team that’s looking for offence in January. Unless he’s suiting up with the Detroit Red Wings on a full-time basis.

Best First Year Import: Akira Schmid

Lethbridge’s biggest question mark coming into this season was in goal and they got that need fulfilled with the return of netminders being selected in the import draft. However, if Erik Brannstrom comes over to Brandon from Vegas or Russian forward Vitali Podkolzin elects to play in Medicine Hat, they instantly become the favourites.

Top Scorer: Jordy Bellerive

I was pretty close to picking Trey Fix-Wolansky for this honour but with Bellerive seemingly back on track after his injuries this summer, it’s hard to bet against him. Cody Glass and Jaret Anderson-Dolan will be in the mix as well, but they will miss time for the World Juniors.

Coach of the Year: Marc Habscheid

Brett Kisio and Dan Lambert will also be contenders for this honour, but with the Raiders being expected to end a lengthy playoff series win drought, Habscheid was my choice.

Overage Player of the Year: Mason Shaw

Veteran netminders Griffen Outhouse and Dylan Ferguson make more sense here, as does Ty Lewis if he doesn’t turn pro with Colorado, but I’m calling my shot with Shaw. He missed all of last year with an ACL injury and I think it makes more sense for the Minnesota Wild to send him back to junior where he could dominate before starting his pro career.

Rookie of the Year: Jake Neighbours

You might be wondering why I didn’t pick Kaiden Guhle here. Well part of the reason is due to history as only two blueliners in the past decade have been named the league’s top rookie, and only one of them (Mathew Dumba) was a 16-year-old with the other being Seth Jones. With that in mind, I ended up taking Neighbours over Connor McClennon for this year’s honours.

Top Defenceman: Ty Smith

The current crop of blueliners in the WHL is super impressive with many of them set to put up a ton of points. Smith is my pick, but I can also see Calen Addison and Bowen Byram having excellent campaigns.

Top Goalie: Ian Scott

Outhouse and Ferguson will have a say, but it’s Scott’s time to shine. Of the three main contenders to take over the accolade of the league’s top netminder from Carter Hart, Scott has the best team in front of him and it should show with his numbers.

Most Valuable Player: Jaret Anderson-Dolan

Cody Glass is the popular pick here, but I ended up going with Anderson-Dolan. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I think the Los Angeles Kings prospect is going to have an excellent season.

WHL Champions: Lethbridge Hurricanes over Spokane Chiefs

It’s 1991 and 2008 all over again, but with a different outcome as the Hurricanes capture their first title in 22 years. With that said, this is a really wide open year as you could make a legitimate argument for up to eight teams to make a run at making it to the league final.

Number of First Round Picks at the NHL Draft: Eight (Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach, Nolan Foote, Peyton Krebs, Nolan Maier, Matthew Robertson and Josh Williams)

If you saw Canada’s roster at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the stage is for a banner crop of 2001-born players to be chosen in Vancouver in June, and that’s without Prince Albert product Braden Schneider who isn’t eligible until 2020.

Byram, Cozens, Dach, Krebs and Robertson appear to be first round locks, while Foote is a late birthday and should work his way into the mix. If he stays healthy, Williams will probably enter the discussion and a team could take a shot on a goalie and go with Maier.

Taylor Gauthier and Sasha Mutala will also be in the mix, though I really want to put Logan Barlage as a potential candidate as I believe he can be a dominant force in this league, especially with more ice time in his second go-around.

OHL Champions: London Knights over Niagara IceDogs

The Knights enter this season as the favourites, but they still have some question marks despite landing Chicago Blackhawks defensive prospect Adam Boqvist and potentially getting Brady Tkachuk if the Ottawa Senators send him down.

Besides the IceDogs, it’s a wide-open race to get to the league final this year, with the Guelph Storm, Oshawa Generals, Ottawa 67’s and Saginaw Spirit also in the mix.

QMJHL Champions: Halifax Mooseheads over Drummondville Voltigeurs

Although NHL Draft prospect Alex Newhook appears set on staying in the BCHL with the Victoria Grizzlies, the Mooseheads are still pretty loaded. They brought in Jordan Maher and Antoine Morand from the Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the summer, and there’s still an outside chance of Filip Zadina returning to Halifax if he doesn’t crack the Detroit Red Wings lineup.

If the Mooseheads make the final, their opponent will automatically earn the second QMJHL spot at the Memorial Cup. The Voltigeurs seem to have the inside track with Maxime Comtois joining Joseph Veleno, but the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and Rimouski Oceanic are also contenders.

Memorial Cup Final Standings

  1. Halifax Mooseheads
  2. London Knights
  3. Lethbridge Hurricanes
  4. Drummondville Voltigeurs

It’s hard to project what the rosters will look like when May comes around, but the tournament hosts and OHL favourites seem to have the inside track, especially if you take stock in the Canadian Hockey League’s pre-season Top 10 rankings. Plus, since I have the Hurricanes in the semi-final, I fully expect a WHL champion to win a game at the tournament for the first time since Kelowna reached the final in 2015.