2020-21 WHL Division Preview: B.C. Division

A month after the Alberta-based Central Division started off the campaign, all four regions in the WHL are now back in action as the B.C. Division began their 24-game slate on Friday night.

Only two arenas will play host to contests during the next few weeks, as the Kamloops Blazers, Prince George Cougars and Vancouver Giants are setting up shop in Kamloops, while the Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals are based in Kelowna.

Like their counterparts across the league, the divisional matchups should provide some close battles as they look to earn British Columbia bragging rights, especially as there’s no confirmation on if a post-season will take place in the league.

Orrin Centazzo (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Kamloops Blazers

With the best offence in the league and a balanced squad from top to bottom, the Blazers were celebrating their first division title since 2012 and gearing up for a chance to make the league final for the first time in over two decades when the campaign ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although forwards Zane Franklin and Ryan Hughes have both aged out of the league, along with blueliner and Prince Albert Raiders alumni Max Martin, the offence still has a ton of firepower with overager Orrin Centazzo, Calgary Flames prospect Connor Zary and potential 2021 NHL Draft first round pick Logan Stankoven leading the way.

Former Prince Albert Minto Josh Pillar is also back up front as he looks to improve upon his 44-point showing during his sophomore campaign.

The backend also welcomes back overager Montana Onyebuchi and Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Quinn Schmiemann, while New York Rangers draft pick Dylan Garand returns as the starter in goal following a stint in the American Hockey League after playing for Canada at the World Juniors.

The team has also welcomed in their two first round picks from the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft in forward Connor Levis and defender Mats Lindgren, who were previously committed to the NCAA’s Michigan Wolverines.

The Blazers will also have some extra motivation to succeed this season as former Mintos captain Kyrell Sopotyk was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident in January.

“Missing Kamloops and the guys a little extra today,” Sopotyk tweeted on Friday. “Best of luck today (to the Blazers) heading into the home opener. Will be cheering you on loud and proud.”

Kaedan Korczak (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Kelowna Rockets

The 2019-20 season was a star-crossed campaign for the Memorial Cup hosts. The team fell off a cliff after the trade deadline with three wins in 12 games, which resulted in the firing of head coach Adam Foote.

They showed improvement under Kris Mallette as players came back from injuries, but their chance to face Canada’s best major junior teams would disappear due to the pandemic.

While forwards Nolan Foote and Matthew Wedman have both turned pro and import Pavel Novak isn’t crossing the pond this season, the Rockets have welcomed back signed San Jose Sharks prospect Dillon Hamaliuk for his overage campaign and acquired overager David Kope from the Edmonton Oil Kings during the off-season.

The defence still looks strong for the Rockets as Sean Comrie and Jake Lee return along with Vegas Golden Knights prospect Kaedan Korczak, who would have been the biggest name on the trade market had this been a normal season.

Roman Basran is also returning as the starting netminder, which could prove to be important as the backend will keep the Rockets in many games while the younger pieces try to get used to playing bigger roles on offence.

One of the new faces up front is former Prince Albert Minto Turner McMillen, who had 39 points last season and was a point per game player this year for the Estevan Bears Under-18 club.

Taylor Gauthier (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Prince George Cougars

Although they were lacking in offensive firepower, the Cougars made things interesting for the Seattle Thunderbirds as they were seven points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with six games left in the regular season.

The Cougars have lost leading scorer Josh Maser and their top defensive player Cole Moberg to the AHL, but they are welcoming in a bevy of prospects that should help accelerate their rebuild.

Riley Heidt is the big name up front after he was picked second overall in the WHL Bantam Draft last April, but the offence will also welcome 2019 first round pick Koehn Ziemmer and 2019 second round pick Kyren Gronick, the latter of which dominated the Under-18 ranks earlier this year with the Regina Pat Canadians.

2019 first round pick Keaton Dowhaniuk is a big addition on the blueline, along with 2018 second round selection Hudson Thornton, who had been committed to the NCAA’s Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs before signing with the Cougars last month.

While Jack Sander and Majid Kaddoura will lead the way on defence and netminder Taylor Gauthier should continue his stellar play in between the pipes, the Cougars will need veteran players like Jonny Hooker, Tyson Upper and Connor Bowie to produce offensively if they want to make their way back up the standings.

Tristen Nielsen (Vancouver Giants)

Vancouver Giants

After a slow start to the season, the 2019 WHL league finalists turned things around after the trade deadline with an 11-game win streak that was helped by an improved offence.

Despite losing Tyler Preziuso and Milos Roman to graduation, plus losing second-year forward Cole Shepard for the entire year after he underwent off-season surgery, the Giants are still strong on offence with Tristen Nielsen and Eric Florchuk returning for overage campaigns and Florida Panthers prospect Justin Sourdif looking to build off of a 54-point campaign last year.

With overager David Tendeck joining the Arizona Coyotes system, Colorado Avalanche draft pick Trent Miner will finally take over the starting duties as he looks to continue his strong play from his short stint with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles.

The biggest change for the Giants is on the blueline as Bowen Byram made the jump up to the Avalanche after the World Juniors, while potential overagers Seth Bafaro and Trevor Longo did not return. Alex Kannok-Leipert will return for his final season, but the rest of the group will have to step up and fill the holes of the graduating players.

Tarun Fizer (Jay Wallace/Victoria Royals)

Victoria Royals

The Royals went all-in at last year’s trade deadline in acquiring Anaheim Ducks first round pick Brayden Tracey from the Moose Jaw Warriors, but the next two months saw the club hover around .500 as they dealt with a few injuries.

Tracey’s back to lead the way on offence, along with Tarun Fizer and overager Brandon Cutler, but the team lost 20-goal scorers Gary Haden to graduation and Kaid Oliver to the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Adam Evanoff, who was also acquired in the Tracey trade, will be the starter in goal with Shane Farkas aging out of the league, but he’ll have an extremely young defence in front of him.

Due to the graduation of Will Warm, Mitchell Prowse being traded to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and the trio of potential overager Jacob Herauf, 2018 first round pick Nolan Bentham and former Oil King Jackson Alexander not on the roster, a bevy of youngsters are now on the blueline along with 20-year-old Matthew Smith.

With a ton of new talent on the roster, which is headlined by 2019 first round pick Jason Spizawka on defence, it could be an interesting season for head coach Dan Price, who now wears the general manager’s hat in Victoria after Cameron Hope and the team parted ways in the spring.