2019-20 WHL Season Review: Revisiting the Predictions

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Max Paddock watches on as the Brandon Wheat Kings and Prince Albert Raiders exchange pleasantries during what proved to be the final WHL game of the season at the Art Hauser Centre last month.

This is the fifth and final part of a series that has run this week to recap the shortened WHL campaign.

After going through each of the four divisions in the league, Daily Herald sports reporter Lucas Punkari is looking back at what he predicted in September and how they compared to what actually happened, in addition to who his pick would be vote for each award before the league announces their finalists.

His pre-season picks are on the left and the final results/who he would vote for each award are on the right. Let’s make fun of him shall we.

East Division

  1. Saskatoon Blades/Prince Albert Raiders
  2. Brandon Wheat Kings/Winnipeg Ice
  3. Prince Albert Raiders/Brandon Wheat Kings
  4. Winnipeg Ice (Second Wild Card)/Saskatoon Blades (Second Wild Card)
  5. Moose Jaw Warriors/Regina Pats
  6. Regina Pats/Moose Jaw Warriors

As it was for many people, my high expectations for the Blades were set around the fact that Kirby Dach would be back for his third campaign. Instead, he made the Chicago Blackhawks and teams like the Raiders and Wheat Kings surpassed Saskatoon.

The Ice’s second place result was one of the surprises of the season as they were able to address some of their questions on the back end during the campaign. Meanwhile, the Pats ended up finishing higher than the Warriors as Moose Jaw sold off many of their high-end assets. 

Central Division

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

Back in the summer, I was tempted to have the Oil Kings as my pick to win the Central Division, but I ended up going with a Hitmen side that seemed like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. As it turned out, that assumption on Edmonton was the correct one as they lead the way and the Hitmen sputtered at times.

Medicine Hat’s offence was what I expected it to be and their defence was up to snuff, but Lethbridge didn’t miss a beat despite losing a ton of pieces from their 2018-19 forward core, which surprised me a bit. 

The bottom two teams ended up finishing like I predicted them to, but Swift Current ended up regressing quite a bit, especially after they traded more of their high-end players.

BC Division

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

While I did feel like the Blazers’ offence was going to be pretty darn good, I certainly didn’t see them overtaking a Giants side that returned Bowen Byram. The Royals were a pleasant surprise, although they never took that next step to be a legit contender after acquiring Brayden Tracey in January.

As for the Rockets, their Memorial Cup season ended up being a mess as they fell off a cliff after the Christmas break. I was right on the Cougars though, as they are still building things up after going all-in three years ago. 

US Division

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

Hey look, I got something spot-on for once. To be fair, the race for first between Portland and Everett was wide open going into the final two weeks of the regular season, with the Winterhawks holding a single point edge when play came to a halt.

The return of Ty Smith brought Spokane into the mix with those two sides, though it took until the second half for them to really find their game. The Thunderbirds and Americans ended up being how I thought they would end up, with Seattle sneaking into the playoffs and the Americans having a tough time. 

Coach On The Biggest Hot Seat: James Patrick/Tim Hunter

The Ice finally turned a corner this season and were going to be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015, which easily moved Patrick off of the hot seat and put him into the coach of the year discussion. 

As for Hunter, a slide down the standings for the Warriors sealed his fate and it felt like a change was going to coming even before he was let go in January.

Biggest Name Traded: Calen Addison/Brayden Tracey

The Hurricanes ended up being much better than I expected at the start of the year and Addison stayed put along with Dylan Cozens, who could have been huge pickups for a team like the Rockets as they built their Memorial Cup roster.

In an era where the word blockbuster is overused in junior hockey, the move to bring Tracey to Victoria was certainly that. Not only did the Warriors add a ton of assets to their roster, but the Royals also signaled their intent to be a contender for the next two seasons. Granted, their roster does look to be in flux for the 2020-21 campaign, but you can’t fault a team for shooting their shot.

Best First Year Import: Marcus Kallionkieli/Michal Teply

The Vegas Golden Knights draft pick didn’t play until December after an injury and posted 11 points in 24 games. The Finnish forward could be a player to keep an eye on next season, but he certainly wasn’t near the point per game pace he had in the USHL last year.

Teply’s arrival helped to make the Ice an even more dangerous team up front as he led all rookies in the WHL with 63 points. The Czech forward should earn a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in short order. 

Top Scorer: Mark Kastetlic/Adam Beckman

Kastelic had another solid campaign and would have reached the 40-goal mark for the second straight year, but like the Hitmen themselves, he didn’t quite match up to the high expectations that were surrounding him. 

Following a 62-point campaign as a rookie last season, Beckman went off in 2019-20 with 107 points in 63 contests to top fellow sophomore Seth Jarvis and overagers James Hamblin and Zane Franklin for the league scoring title. 

Coach of the Year: Michael Dyck/Shaun Clouston

Without giving to much away, you’ll see my reasoning for picking the Giants bench boss a little bit later on. This is a pretty wide open year for the Coach of the Year accolades as you can make the case for five different guys, but in the end I’m leaning toward Clouston as he helped to turn the Blazers into a legit title contender for the first time in nearly a decade. 

Overage Player of the Year: Mark Kastelic/Jake Christiansen

We’ve gone over the forward side of things already, but Christiansen is my clear cut choice for the best 1999-born player in the circuit. After starting the year with the AHL’s Stockton Heat, the Silvertips blueliner put up 50 points in 38 games in his final WHL campaign and earned a pro deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the process, which is a pretty darn impressive run in a short span of time.

Rookie of the Year: Logan Stankoven/Sebastian Cossa

Although Stankoven didn’t destroy the league like he did in the pre-season with 15 points in six games, the 2003-born forward did light the lamp 29 times and was part of an impressive age group that also includes Dylan Guenther and Cole Sillinger.

In the end, and mainly because I don’t like to give top rookie honours to players who come into the WHL having already been drafted by NHL teams (sorry Michal Teply), I decided to give the top rookie honors to Cossa.

The last freshman to have numbers anywhere close to his 2.23 goals against average and .921 save percentage was Griffen Outhouse during the 2015-16 campaign, but he was doing that as the backup to Coleman Vollrath. Carter Hart was pretty close a year earlier, which puts the Oil Kings netminder into some rarified air. 

Top Defenceman: Bowen Byram/Ty Smith

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that I’m a big Bowen Byram fan. It took a little bit for him to get rolling this year, but he was pretty darn good after coming back from the World Juniors, which may help him earn a full time spot in Colorado next season.

Smith’s return from the New Jersey Devils camp surprised the heck out of me and he was a huge part of the Chiefs’ rise into a legit title threat, especially when he decided to have a casual eight-point performance against Prince George in late February.

It will be interesting to see if Smith, Wyatte Wylie of Everett or Johnny Ludvig of Portland gets the nod as the Western Conference nominee for the award, but I would be picking the Chiefs captain to be the first blueliner to repeat as a Bill Hunter Trophy winner since Kris Russell.

I’m suspecting that Lethbridge’s Alex Cotton will be the Eastern Conference nominee, which leads us to a bit of a fun fact. Since Brendan Kichton won the award in 2013, only one blueliner (Ivan Provorov in 2016) has led the WHL in defensive scoring and was named the league’s top defenceman.

Top Goalie: Dustin Wolf/Dustin Wolf

There’s not much more than can be said about the Silvertips starter. If there’s a better goalie in major junior besides the Calgary Flames draft pick at the moment, I’d like to meet him. At this point, all that’s left for him to do is help Everett capture their first title in franchise history, which he might have a good chance at doing next season.

Most Valuable Player: Bowen Byram/Adam Beckman

Given his importance to the Chiefs, especially before they started to fire on all cylinders, Beckman is my pick for the MVP. However, you can make a solid case for Wolf, Cozens and Peyton Krebs, who was excellent in his half-season stint with the Ice.

WHL Champions: Vancouver Giants over Calgary Hitmen

Seeing how the playoff matchups were setting up, this pick didn’t look very good in hindsight, though I did feel like this was a wide-open campaign in both conferences.

Although I always stick with my pick until it’s no longer possible, I had said on The Bagskate Hockey Podcast that Medicine Hat and Kamloops were the two non-Raiders sides that impressed me the most in the first half, so I may have gone with that if I had to pick again. Granted, that may have become Portland or Everett vs. Edmonton when the post-season actually started.

As I wrote in a column last week, it’s a darn shame that the playoffs didn’t happen this year across junior hockey, especially in the WHL. 

Number of First Round Picks at the NHL Draft: Four

While we wait to find out when the draft itself is going to take place, it does seem likely that there will be a handful of WHL talent that will be picked among the first 31 selections. Braden Schneider, Kaiden Guhle and Connor Zary seem like locks at this point, while Jarvis has probably worked his way into the mix with his impressive season.

OHL Champions: Ottawa 67’s over London Knights

Seeing that both sides led their respective conferences at the time of the campaign being suspended, I’ll consider this a sort of correct prediction. However, like in the WHL, there were a number of teams that were in the hunt to win the OHL crown this year and the playoffs were going to be epic.

QMJHL Champions: Chicoutimi Sagueneens over Sherbrooke Phoenix

The Phoenix probably would have had an easy road to the final with the way the QMJHL playoffs are formatted, but Chicoutimi seemed set to deal with a white-hot Moncton Wildcats side in the semifinal round, so my pick of them winning the league might have ended there. Plus, there was a Rimouski Oceanic club with a kid named Alexis Lafreniere on it. I heard he’s decent at hockey. 

Memorial Cup Final Standings

  1. Ottawa 67’s
  2. Chicoutimi Sagueneens
  3. Vancouver Giants
  4. Kelowna Rockets

The 67’s were my pick to win the Memorial Cup since the summer, especially as they returned the bulk of the squad that lost the 2019 OHL final to Guelph. I was going to stick with them until they got eliminated from the playoffs, but I had a hard time being convinced that any team in the CHL could top them.

Although the teams may have been different, I think I would have gone with the OHL champions to beat the Q title holders in the Memorial Cup final (though I may have been tempted to swap that around depending on the matchup), with the WHL winners reaching the semifinal and the Rockets being left out of the playoff picture.