Nearly 12 months since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the league to a halt, the Western Hockey League will get back on the ice on Friday, though with a vastly different look.
No fans will be in the stands as the Central Division takes to the ice with the Medicine Hat Tigers visiting the Red Deer Rebels and the Lethbridge Hurricanes going up against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Oil Kings will be one of two Alberta-based teams not playing in their normal home this year as they have moved out of their normal confines at Rogers Place to compete out of the Downtown Community Arena.
The Calgary Hitmen, who open up their campaign next week, will play out of the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on Tsuut’ina Nation as the Scotiabank Saddledome is already in use.
With just 24 games taking place in the regular season and no assurances of a post-season at this point, it will be a rapid-fire sprint over the next few weekends as teams look to earn bragging rights over their provincial rivals and players look to earn opportunities in the pro ranks.
A pre-season favourite by many going into last year, the Hitmen never quite reached the expectations that were set for them, but they appeared to be a tough opponent for whoever won the East Division in the first round of the playoffs.
The Hitmen are losing many of their key veterans to the pro ranks, as forwards Carson Focht and Mark Kastelic are both in the American Hockey League, along with blueliners Jett Woo and Egor Zamula.
The departure of Focht, who could have come back for his overage campaign, solved the team’s 20-year-old situation as forwards Josh Prokop, Riley Stotts and Orca Wiesblatt will fill those slots.
The blueline is expected to be led by Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop and fourth-year player Jackson Van De Leest, while Jack McNaughton and Brayden Peters will battle it out in goal.
2018 first round pick Sean Tschigerl will move into a bigger role offensively and the team’s second round pick that season, forward Tristan Zandee, could make an impact right away after spending the last two years with the AJHL’s Canmore Eagles and spurning a commitment to the NCAA’s Colorado College Tigers to enter the WHL.
Edmonton Oil Kings
With a mix of youth and experience up and down the lineup, the Oil Kings looked to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference as the 2020 playoffs drew near, and they enter this year’s Central Division slate as the favourites to lead the way.
A lot of that has to do with who’s returning, as St. Louis Blues prospect Jake Neighbours and potential 2021 NHL Draft first round pick Dylan Guenther should form an exciting one-two punch on offence.
Although leading scorer and Prince Albert product Riley Sawchuk has graduated, the Oil Kings hope to offset that loss with the addition of overage forward Kaid Oliver, who was a point per game player over the last two seasons with the Victoria Royals.
The backend also has some star power with New York Rangers prospect Matthew Robertson leading the way on defence and netminder Sebastian Cossa trying to surpass Sweden’s Jesper Wallstedt as the first goaltender to be drafted later this year.
One player that is not expected to join the Oil Kings this year though is former Seattle Thunderbirds blueliner Simon Kubicek, who is currently playing for Motor Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic.
The Oil Kings acquired Kubicek’s rights last month in exchange for Belarusian forward Vladimir Alistrov, who is in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk.
A perennial contender in the Central Division over the last few seasons, it’s the start of a new era for the Hurricanes as blueliner Calen Addison is starting his pro career in the Minnesota Wild system and forward Dylan Cozens made the leap to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres after a dominating performance for Canada at the World Juniors.
Although the Hurricanes will be without Cozens and overage import forward Oliver Okiluar, who is currently second in scoring in the Slovak Extraliga, the offence is still in good shape with Logan Barlage and Zack Stringer now leading the way.
The Hurricanes goaltending is also in good shape as Carl Tetachuk and Bryan Thomson teaming up for a second straight season, but the blueline will have a different look to it.
Detroit Red Wings draft pick Alex Cotton will have former Victoria Royal Mitchell Prowse as a running mate, but the rest of the defence will be fairly young and will need to fill the holes left by the departures of Addison, Ty Prefontaine and Koletrane Wilson.
One of the players who is set to join the blueline is 17-year-old Chase Pauls, who had eight goals and 13 assists last year with the Prince Albert Mintos.
Medicine Hat Tigers
The return of Willie Desjardins behind the bench turned the Tigers into one of the best offences in the WHL as they were enjoying a six-game win streak and were set for a knockdown dragout series with the Hurricanes when the season stopped.
Overagers Ryan Chyzowski and Brett Kemp will lead the way for another strong Tigers offence, though they will be without the services of 2021 NHL Draft prospect Cole Sillinger, who is playing for the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and won’t return to Medicine Hat until their season is over.
With Ottawa Senators draft pick and overage netminder Mads Sogaard staying in Denmark, Washington Capitals draft pick Garin Bjorklund is set to become the starting goalie this year and will have a defence in front of him that features two 30-point producers in Daniel Baker and Cole Clayton.
Blueliner Aidan Brook and forward Oaisz Wiesblatt, who are the younger brothers of former Raider Jakob Brook and current Raider Ozzy Wiesblatt, are set to join the lineup this year, in addition to Prince Albert product Ashton Ferster.
Ferster, who was a fourth round pick by the Tigers in 2018, had 52 points in 74 games over the last two seasons with his hometown Mintos.
Red Deer Rebels
A slow start left the Rebels out of the wild card picture last season as they traded away Dawson Barteaux and Brett Davis at the deadline to build towards the future.
With only two players (forward Cam Hausinger and defenceman Ethan Sakowich) ageing out of last year’s lineup and 18-year-old Finnish blueliner Christoffer Sedoff staying in his home country, the fact that everyone else can return for the Rebels should bode well as they build towards the future.
Goaltenders Ethan Anders and Byron Fancy are both veterans in the WHL and should help out a defence that is still on the younger side, though it does have some upside.
Arshdeep Bains, Chris Douglas, Jayden Grubbe, Ben King and Josh Tarzwell will provide some damage on offence, but the most exciting piece to watch could be 15-year-old forward Kalan Lind, who can join the Rebels on a full-time basis once the Saskatchewan Hockey Association announces the official end to their 2020-21 season.
The younger brother of former Kelowna Rockets star and current Vancouver Canucks prospect Kole, Lind had 120 points in 27 games for the Swift Current U15 Broncos program last year and was tied for the league lead in scoring in the Under-18 circuit this fall with 14 points in six contests for the Saskatoon Contacts.
Away from the ice, the biggest change in Red Deer will come in the broadcast booth as long-time announcer Cam Moon has moved up to the NHL as the play-by-play voice for the Edmonton Oilers radio broadcasts.
Troy Gillard, who has been part of the Rebels radio team for the last decade, will be the interim voice of the club during the 24-game campaign.