This is the fifth and final part of a series that will preview the 2019-20 Western Hockey League campaign, which begins Friday night.
Once again, a huge thanks to Robert Murray, Brett Smith and Marc Smith who passed along the photos of many of the players from around the circuit, in addition to the ones I took over the course of last season.
Another thanks goes to Guy Flaming as he chatted with the general managers and or head coaches of the 22 WHL teams (well, except the Winnipeg Ice because of reasons) in the lead-up to the upcoming campaign. Those interviews were a valuable resource in putting this together.
- Saskatoon Blades
- Brandon Wheat Kings
- Prince Albert Raiders
- Winnipeg Ice (Second Wild Card)
- Moose Jaw Warriors
- Regina Pats
Saskatoon enters as the favourites, but a lot of their success hinges on what happens with Kirby Dach. If he ends up sticking with the Chicago Blackhawks, their championship window may have slammed shut much earlier than they had anticipated.
Brandon and Prince Albert both feature enough talent to keep the Blades honest and it might be a closer race for the division title than many thought heading into the summer.
Although there are still question marks surrounding the Ice’s backend, the team does have enough offensive talent to make the playoffs in the first year in Winnipeg, especially if Peyton Krebs comes back strong from an off-season ACL injury.
Moose Jaw and Regina are both in rebuilds, but the Warriors have some stronger high-end talent that puts them just ahead of the Pats.
- Calgary Hitmen
- Edmonton Oil Kings
- Medicine Hat Tigers
- Lethbridge Hurricanes (First Wild Card)
- Red Deer Rebels
- Swift Current Broncos
The most-heated matchups in the league can be found at the top of this division, as the Hitmen and Oil Kings look set to beat the tar out of each other all year long. With so much talent on either side, a potential second round renewal of the Battle of Alberta could end up being one of the best playoff matchups in years.
Medicine Hat has another strong offence and great goaltending in Mads Sogaard, but their defensive depth isn’t quite as impressive as the top two sides at this point and might keep them out of the divisional race.
The Hurricanes are losing a ton on offence but should make the post-season thanks to having Calen Addison and Dylan Cozens around, though both players could be trade targets in January.
As for the bottom two teams, Red Deer’s lack of a true goal scoring threat is rather concerning and Swift Current should have a better side than a year ago, though their improvements might not be apparent in the standings due to their switch to a tougher division.
- Vancouver Giants
- Kamloops Blazers
- Kelowna Rockets
- Victoria Royals (Wild Card 1)
- Prince George Cougars
Although it’s not clear yet if Bowen Byram will be back or if he’ll start his NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche, the Giants still have a lot of faces returning from last year’s title run to contend once again, though the Blazers are going to make them earn it with an impressive offence.
The Rockets’ roster is going to look dramatically different after the trade deadline, but it’s hard to put the Memorial Cup hosts ahead of Vancouver and Kamloops at this point, especially with how their defence looks.
In the race for a wild card spot, the Royals forward core should give them a chance at another playoff berth, while the Cougars are a year away from being a year away.
- Portland Winterhawks
- Everett Silvertips
- Spokane Chiefs
- Seattle Thunderbirds (Wild Card 2)
- Tri-City Americans
In what is without a doubt the toughest division in the league on paper, the Winterhawks, Silvertips and Chiefs can all claim to be the top team heading into the season.
Each side has questions around it, but the biggest one is in Spokane as they await to see if Ty Smith turns pro or not. If he’s sent back to the WHL by the Devils, the outlook of the entire Western Conference changes.
Even though they lost a few pieces, the Thunderbirds still have enough coming back to make the playoffs, while the Americans are hoping that their younger talent can gel with their older veterans to make a post-season push.
Coach On The Biggest Hot Seat: James Patrick
In moving to Manitoba’s capital and shifting over to the East Division, the Ice will be looking to make a strong first impression and end a four-year streak of missing the playoffs. If the team has a slow start, Patrick’s job might be in jeopardy.
Biggest Name Traded: Calen Addison
With the Hurricanes looking to add assets that they dealt away in their attempt to win the league a year ago, Addison seems likely to be moved to a team that wants to improve their blueline, such as one that’s hosting the Memorial Cup.
Best First Year Import: Marcus Kallionkieli
Given his experience in the USHL and what he was able to do alongside Philadelphia Flyers prospect Bobby Brink this past season, the Finnish forward should make an immediate impact in Brandon.
Top Scorer: Mark Kastetlic
Unless he signs a pro deal with the Ottawa Senators, Kastelic will enter his overage campaign as the favourite to lead the league in points after finding the net 47 times last season. If he doesn’t return, the likes of James Hamblin, James Malm and Luka Burzan could lead the way.
Coach of the Year: Michael Dyck
Mitch Love, Shaun Clouston, Steve Hamilton and Brad Lauer will all have a case to earn the honour, but Dyck’s success with the Giants should continue in his second year in charge.
Overage Player of the Year: Mark Kastelic
Since he’s going to be in the mix to be the top scorer in the league, it’s hard to bet against the Hitmen forward to be the WHL’s best 1999-born player. In addition to the aforementioned Hamblin and Malm, keep an eye out for Zane Franklin, Nolan Kneen, Scott Walford and Brayden Pachal to all have strong overage seasons.
Rookie of the Year: Logan Stankoven
Even if you don’t include 2004-born forward Matthew Savoie, who is expected to play half the season for the Winnipeg Ice, the crop of 2003-born rookies is an incredible one. Dylan Guenther, Carson Lambos, Nolan Allan, Cole Sillinger, Eric Alarie and Zack Stringer are among those to watch, but Stankoven’s 15 points in six pre-season games has him ahead of the pack.
Top Defenceman: Bowen Byram
After becoming the first blueliner to lead the WHL playoffs in scoring, Byram could put up science fiction numbers for the Giants. If he sticks in Colorado, Addison and Jett Woo would be the favourites, unless a wild Ty Smith reappears in Spokane.
Top Goalie: Dustin Wolf
It might be tough to top what he did last year, when he was the finalist to Ian Scott for the award, but Wolf has a chance to improve upon his great 2018-19 numbers as he looks to start for the Americans at the World Juniors. If he struggles though, Nolan Maier and Mads Sogaard will be looking to take over the title of the league’s best netminder.
Most Valuable Player: Bowen Byram
A defenceman hasn’t won the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy since Kris Russell and Karl Alzner went back-to-back in 2007 and 2008, but Byram has a chance to do it if he returns. Kastelic and Wolf will also be in the mix if they put up crazy numbers, but Dach and Smith could have a say if they don’t turn pro.
WHL Champions: Vancouver Giants over Calgary Hitmen
With the extra motivation of last year’s Game 7 overtime loss to the Raiders in the back of their heads all season, the Giants get one more win and capture their second title. However, this appears to be a wide-open campaign in both conferences as a number of the main contenders have questions that need to be answered.
Number of First Round Picks at the NHL Draft: Four
Although it doesn’t appear to be as strong as last year’s crop when Dach, Byram and Cozens went in the top ten, there’s still a good group of draft eligible talent in the WHL this season. Braden Schneider, Kaiden Guhle and Connor Zary are the favourites to be first round selections at this early stage, though cases can be made for Justin Sourdif, Jake Neighbours and Seth Jarvis among others.
OHL Champions: Ottawa 67’s over London Knights
After a rough finish to a playoff run that saw them win 14 straight games before suffering four consecutive losses to the Guelph Storm in the league final, the 67’s will be looking to finish the job this year with a lineup that is easily the best in the Eastern Conference.
The Knights have the offensive weapons and a solid netminder in Jordan Kooy to get to the championship series, though they face a challenging foe in a Saginaw Spirit side that is coming off their first trip to the Western Conference final and features draft eligible forward Cole Perfetti.
QMJHL Champions: Chicoutimi Sagueneens over Sherbrooke Phoenix
Like the OHL, the QMJHL appears to be a three-team race, but the Sagueneens should come out on top with an exciting side that’s headlined by former Rouyn-Noranda Huskies forward Raphael Harvey-Pinard and a potential top 10 pick in Hendrix Lapierre.
The Phoenix seems poised to have their best season in franchise history, but the Rimouski Oceanic are also going to be in the mix as they look to build around Alexis Lafreniere before he moves on to the NHL.
Memorial Cup Final Standings
- Ottawa 67’s
- Chicoutimi Sagueneens
- Vancouver Giants
- Kelowna Rockets
Despite losing some of their top forwards and netminder Michael DiPietro to graduation, the 67’s squad is still loaded from top to bottom. Anything less than a Memorial Cup might be viewed as a disappointment for this team.
Meanwhile, the WHL champions should finally end their 13-game skid at the tournament and it might come at the expense of the Rockets, especially at this point when no one has any idea of what their roster is going to look like.