2018-19 WHL Season Review: Revisiting the Predictions

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Sean Montgomery skates with the Ed Chynwoeth Cup after the Prince Albert Raiders captured their second WHL championship on May 13.

This is the sixth and final part of a series that has run throughout the 2019 WHL playoffs.

With the Memorial Cup being decided on Sunday in Halifax, Daily Herald sports reporter Lucas Punkari is looking back on what he predicted would happen when the season got underway in September.

His pre-season picks are on the left and the final results are on the right. Let’s all make fun of him shall we.

East Division

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

The Raiders ended up being the class of the division, though they were more dominant than I expected. Saskatoon also had a better campaign than I thought in September, but a lot of had to do with them addressing their question marks on defence by acquiring Brandon Schuldhaus and Nolan Kneen.

I didn’t expect the Warriors to be higher in the standings than the Wheat Kings or for Brandon to miss the playoffs. At the time, there was a thought that either Erik Brannstrom or Ty Lewis would be in the lineup for the Wheat Kings, but that obviously didn’t happen and everything didn’t click for the team.

As for Regina and Swift Current, well they got some assets for the future, so that’s nice.

Central Division

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

I thought the Oil Kings would be in the mix for a Wild Card spot if they didn’t allow the number of goals that they had in recent years, but they proved to be much better than that. Obviously, they were carried by Trey Fix-Wolansky to start the year, but their depth got better as the year went one.

Lethbridge, Calgary and Medicine Hat were up and down at times, while Red Deer started off strong and had a late season swoon yet again that made my pick look not as bad.

Then there’s Kootenay, who turned out to be an absolute train wreck, though that may have been partly due to the impending move to Winnipeg. They should be better in their new locale, but where they fit in among the Eastern Conference is anyone’s guess.

BC Division

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

As many expected, the Giants were the class of the division but they ended up going on their best run in almost a decade a year earlier than expected. Victoria surprised many with a decent campaign, albeit in a weak division, while Kamloops went on a late run to make the playoffs.

The Rockets ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007 after a very lackluster season by their standards, which now has them in a strange spot as they gear up to host the Memorial Cup in 2020. As for the Cougars, well they are still trying to recover from their ill-fated all in attempt from two years ago.

US Division

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

I was a little surprised that Everett won the division, but the top three teams were all pretty solid. Tri-City and Seattle are in different stages of their cycle it feels like, but it was a tough division to make any noise in with how close it was. They probably would have been higher had they been based north of the border.

Coach On The Biggest Hot Seat: Richard Matvichuk/Jason Smith

Matvichuk’s time in Prince George ended due to a massive losing streak after the trade deadline, but Kelowna’s rough start led to Smith being let go in favour of Adam Foote. Those were the only coaching changes during this campaign and it didn’t end up working out for either side as they missed out on the post-season.

Biggest Name Traded: Michael Rasmussen/Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry

It was an interesting deadline as a lot of the bigger names such as Josh Brook or Stellio Mattheos weren’t dealt, though that may have been to do with the number of assets you are now able to pick up as you can’t trade for signed 15 or 16 year olds. Although the Hurricanes crashed out in the first round, the Pats pair heading to Lethbridge was probably the biggest deal as it set the trade winds in motion.

As for my pick of Rasmussen, well I expected him to return to Tri-City from the Red Wings, which of course didn’t happen.

Best First Year Import: Akira Schmid/Mads Sogaard (Or Aliaksei Protas based on his playoff performance)

The New Jersey Devils prospect lasted one game in Lethbridge as he gave up seven goals on 27 shots in an 8-4 loss to the Brandon Wheat Kings on Sept. 29. He would then go on to the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, where he had the second best goals against average (2.18) and the best save percentage (.926) in the league on a team that missed out on the playoffs. Make of that what will you will.

You can really make a case for a couple of guys for being the best first year import in the league this season. Sogaard became the starter for the Tigers and is set to be a high draft pick, Lassi Thomson became a key part of the Kelowna Rockets blueline and Protas increased his draft stock with an impressive playoff performance.

Top Scorer: Jordy Bellerive/Joachim Blichfeld

Seeing that he was a signed prospect of the San Jose Sharks and would be a double-slot player as an overage import, I certainly didn’t see Blichfeld in the mix for the scoring title.

Bellerive did have a good campaign with 81 points, but he was back of the likes of Joachim Blichfeld, Tristin Langan, Justin Almeida, Brandon Hagel and Trey Fix-Wolansky.

Cody Glass had 69 points in a not so nice 38 games, with his 1.82 point per game mark averaging out to 124 points if he had played the full campaign, though he would have not played in 68 games due to the World Juniors.

Coach of the Year: Marc Habscheid/Marc Habscheid

Hey look I got something right! Plus he didn’t get fired or leave the team at the end of the year like my previous three picks on the Bagskate Hockey Podcast.

Though you could make a case for Michael Dyck or Brad Lauer, it’s hard to bet against Habscheid with the job he did in leading the Raiders to their best campaign in a generation. Plus, barring him taking a job after signing his contract extension like Dan Lambert did in Spokane, he’ll be the first coach to return to the league champions since Derek Laxdal in 2012-13.

Overage Player of the Year: Mason Shaw/Joachim Blichfeld or Tristin Langan (take your pick)

Good job Lucas, you picked a player that ended up staying in the AHL, which is the same fate that befell my friends Marc Smith and Matthew Gourlie when they chose Ty Lewis.

With only one point seperating Blichfeld and Langan, they are easily the frontrunners here, though Dante Hannoun and Noah Gregor can make a case after teaming up for a slightly important goal last month.

Rookie of the Year: Jake Neighbours/Brayden Tracey

I tend to favour 16-year-olds over older guys, which is why I went with Neighbours over the likes of fellow high draft picks Kaiden Guhle and Connor McClennon.

With that said, Tracey’s performance was certainly a surprise, as he became a key cog of the top line in the WHL in Langan and Almedia. It will be intriguing to see what his numbers are like next season when he becomes the go-to weapon on offence.

Also, a shoutout to Saskatoon’s Adam Beckman who also had a great campaign as a 2001-born rookie for the Spokane Chiefs and probably should have been the other finalist for Rookie of the Year instead of a 2000-born Finn in Lassi Thomson, but that’s another rant for another day.

Top Defenceman: Ty Smith/Ty Smith

As you probably know by now, the crop of blueliners in the WHL was fantastic this year as Smith, Dawson Davidson, Josh Brook, Calen Addison and Jett Woo all put up a ton of points.

Plus, there’s that Bowen Byram kid, who only became the first defenceman to lead the league in scoring during the playoffs. If he ends up coming back to the WHL next season, I’m afraid of the numbers he could put up.

Top Goalie: Ian Scott/Ian Scott

Hey, I’m on a roll of all sudden. Scott took the ball and ran with it when it came to being the best netminder in the league as he put up some eye-popping numbers and scored a goal along the way.

Carter Hart’s protege Dustin Wolf had a brilliant campaign as well in Everett and seems set to take over the mantle from Scott as the league’s best goaltender coming into next season, though the likes of Nolan Maier and Mads Sogaard might have something to say about it.

Most Valuable Player: Jaret Anderson-Dolan/Joachim Blichfeld

Anderson-Dolan started the year in Los Angeles with the Kings, got hurt after two games with the Chiefs and didn’t come back till after the World Juniors, so that pick didn’t go as planned.

While Blichfeld is a deserving winner of the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the league’s most outstanding player, I would probably go with Fix-Wolansky as the player that was most valuable to his side. Sure the Oil Kings turned into a much better side as the year went on, but that doesn’t happen without what the Columbus Blue Jackets provided to the offence.

You can also make the same case with Byram and Scott for what they brought to the Giants and Raiders, or Brook with the Warriors. Aren’t awards debates fun?

WHL Champions: Lethbridge Hurricanes over Spokane Chiefs/Prince Albert Raiders over Vancouver Giants

Welp, that didn’t work out at all, though the Chiefs pick doesn’t look that bad in hindsight. At the start of the year, I thought that you could make a legitimate argument for up to eight teams to make a run at making it to the league final, which almost proved to be the case.

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)

We won’t know the answer to this question for a couple of weeks, but at this point in time, it seems like five to six players could hear their name called in the first 31 picks.

Byram, Cozens, Dach and Krebs are locks, while Brett Leason and Robertson are in the mix, along with Thomson who appears to be heading back to Finland for next season.

To be fair, the draft looks like a total crapshoot after the first 15 picks, so we could see a team take a flyer on a guy like Foote if they wanted to. Maier will hopefully be picked as I think he’s shown what he can do in Saskatoon, while it remains if and where Williams is picked after a bit of a disappointing campaign.

OHL Champions: London Knights over Niagara IceDogs/Guelph Storm over the Ottawa 67’s

The Knights ended up being reverse swept by the Storm in round two while the IceDogs crashed out in the second round against the Oshawa Generals after going all-in with a number of big deals. It’s like the OHL is a hard league to get out of.

Although the 67’s were the team to beat and they started off the playoffs with a 14-0 mark before losing four straight, this was another campaign where six to seven teams had a legit chance of being the champs. The Storm got hot at the right time and a heck of a roster to boot with the moves they made, which made them deserving OHL title holders.

QMJHL Champions: Halifax Mooseheads over Drummondville Voltigeurs/Rouyn-Noranda Huskies over the Halifax Mooseheads

With the likes of Maxime Comtois and Joseph Veleno, the Voltigeurs had the best offence in the CHL but ended up going against the Mooseheads a little earlier than I expected as the Memorial Cup hosts won in six games in the semifinal round.

However, I don’t think anyone was going to touch the Huskies, as they were on a different level to everyone else in the second half thanks to a 25-game win streak.

Memorial Cup Final Standings

  1. Halifax Mooseheads/Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
  2. London Knights/Halifax Mooseheads
  3. Lethbridge Hurricanes/Guelph Storm
  4. Drummondville Voltigeurs/Prince Albert Raiders

Other than their first meeting with Guelph and the Storm’s near comeback in the semifinal, the Huskies were excellent in Halifax. They may have had a slow start in the final against a Mooseheads team that was really strong all week, but Rouyn-Noranda’s complete dominance in the second half of that game was something to behold.

Naturally, the big story out here was the fact that the Raiders went 0-3 and became the fourth straight WHL champion to go winless at the tournament. I expect that dubious mark to change in Kelowna next year but it’s still not the best look for the league.