2020-21 WHL Season Preview: East Division

Fans of the WHL teams located in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are about to become very familiar with the Brandt Centre.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brandon Wheat Kings, Moose Jaw Warriors, Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades, Swift Current Broncos and Winnipeg Ice will be squaring off against one another in a bubble/hub setting that starts Friday and will run until April 28.

Brandon Wheat Kings blueliner and team captain Braden Schneider said earlier this week that he expects a playoff style of play when the games begin and that might just be the case, especially with the Broncos moving back from the Central Division to reunite with their provincial rivals.

With a number of high-end NHL signed prospects and exciting young talent competing all across the division, the next two months of contests in Regina could prove to be the most interesting to watch among the four WHL regions, especially as there’s no guarantee of a post-season after the 24-game slate ends.

Ridly Greig (Lucas Chudleigh/Apollo Multimedia)

Brandon Wheat Kings

A new era has officially begun for the Wheat Kings as longtime owner Kelly McCrimmon sold the franchise to the J&G Group of Companies and local businessman Jared Jacobson.

The Wheat Kings also have a change behind the bench as assistant coach Don MacGilivary earned a promotion after Dave Lowry departed the club after one season to join the Winnipeg Jets staff.

On the ice, the team has also lost starting goaltender Jiri Patera to the Vegas Golden Knights system, while forwards Luka Burzan and Cole Reinhardt are both in the American Hockey League and aren’t expected to return for their overage campaigns.

Ottawa Senators prospect Ridly Greig and Arizona Coyotes draft pick Ben McCartney are now the leaders on offence and will be joined by a trifecta of first round picks from the 2019 Bantam Draft that is headlined by Nate Danielson, who put up impressive numbers the last two years with the Northern Alberta Xtreme and the Red Deer Chiefs.

Ethan Kruger and Connor Ungar will battle it out for the starting duties in goal and will be aided by a defence that only lost one player from last year’s roster.

Schneider, who is from Prince Albert and recently signed with the New York Rangers, is the anchor for the group but Chad Nychuk is also worth watching after he put up 39 points a season ago.

Daemon Hunt (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Moose Jaw Warriors

Following a disastrous season that resulted in a bevy of trades and head coach Tim Hunter being fired in January, the Warriors will look to rebound in Marc O’Leary’s first full year as head coach.

Although import Martin Lang isn’t returning, Ryder Korczak is back after a breakout 67-point campaign and will have several young talents surrounding him at forward.

One of those players will be Brayden Yager, who was the third overall pick in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft and has joined the club earlier than planned after the provincial Under-18 AAA circuit came to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The blueline is also on the young side but is helped by the arrival of 2019 first round pick Denton Mateychuk and a full season from Minnesota Wild draft pick Daemon Hunt, who missed three months last year due to an arm injury.

In goal, former Raiders netminder Boston Bilous will once again have starting duties for a WHL club, as the Warriors dealt Brock Gould (who was acquired from the Victoria Royals in the Brayden Tracey blockbuster at the 2020 trade deadline) to the Portland Winterhawks last month.

The biggest change for the team occurred recently, however, as longtime general manager Alan Millar moved on to take a job with Hockey Canada as their director of player personnel.

A replacement for Millar has yet to be announced.

Kaiden Guhle (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Prince Albert Raiders

While they weren’t the juggernaut squad from a year earlier, the Raiders were in the mix to defend their Ed Chynoweth Cup title when the season ended, especially after acquiring goaltender Max Paddock from the Regina Pats.

Paddock is back for his final campaign in the WHL and is again joined by Carter Serhyenko, but the defence in front of the pair will be slightly different as Zack Hayes and Jeremy Masella both aged out of the league.

Despite their departures, the blueline shouldn’t take that much of a hit with Montreal Canadiens first round pick Kaiden Guhle returning for a third season and sophomores Nolan Allan and Landon Kosior moving into bigger roles.

The one question mark does involve the team’s goal scoring, especially as Brayden Watts has graduated and both Ilya Usau and Washington Capitals prospect Aliaksei Protas aren’t expected to return after spending this year in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk.

San Jose Sharks prospect Ozzy Wiesblatt and overager Spencer Moe should both lead the way, but who emerges as the squad’s secondary scoring options will be something worth keeping an eye out for in the coming weeks.

Carson Denomie (Keith Hershmiller/Regina Pats)

Regina Pats

Despite dealing away Paddock and not being able to land high-end forward prospects Daniil Gushchin and Ty Smilanic, who were both selected at the 2020 NHL Draft, the Pats older players still made them a tough opponent last year despite missing the playoffs for a second straight season.

Their biggest win came in the WHL Bantam Draft Lottery, however, as thanks to acquiring Swift Current’s first round pick from the Lethbridge Hurricanes as part of the Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry deal two years ago, the Pats got the first overall selection last April and drafted Connor Bedard.

Bedard, who is the first player to be granted exceptional status and enter the WHL on a full-time basis a year early, is easily the most hyped prospect to hit Regina since Sam Steel and will be the most watched player during the course of the campaign.

He isn’t the only major addition to the lineup, however, as the Pats landed Philadelphia Flyers draft pick and overage netminder Roddy Ross in a deal with the Seattle Thunderbirds to serve as their starter this year.

The Pats veterans should once again be the key to any success the team has, as forwards Carson Denomie and Logan Nijhoff are the leading returning scorers and blueliner Ryker Evans is coming off of a quiet 31-point campaign.

Tristen Robins (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

Saskatoon Blades

Although the Blades saw Kirby Dach leave for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks a year earlier than expected, they still had enough pieces to keep teams honest as the playoffs neared a year ago.

Despite the graduation of Riley McKay and overage import Martin Fasko-Rudas not coming back, plus 2020 import pick Brad Lambert electing to stay in Finland, the Blades still have a number of strong pieces on offence with Kyle Crnkovic, Colton Dach, Chase Wouters and Sharks prospect Tristen Robins leading the way

The Blades also have a trio of netminders on their roster with Nolan Maier and Koen MacInnes both returning, while local product Ethan Chadwick is waiting in the wings.

The biggest change will be on the blueline, however, as Scott Walford and Nolan Kneen both graduated and import Radek Kucerik stayed in the Czech Republic.

Aidan De La Gorgendiere and Rhett Rhinehart will be expected to lead the way on defence, along with overager Wyatt McLeod, who was acquired from the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Also joining the backend will be Prince Albert’s Marek Schneider, who spent the last two seasons with the Prince Albert Mintos after being picked in the second round of the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft.

Isaac Poulter (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Swift Current Broncos

After moving every asset in sight for the second straight season, the Broncos ended the 2019-20 campaign on an 18-game losing streak and sat at the bottom of the league standings. To make matters worse, the pick they dealt to Lethbridge to land Stuart Skinner, Giorgio Estephan and Tanner Nagel ended up in Regina and was used to take Bedard.

The rebuild is still ongoing for Swift Current, but some of the key pieces for the future are starting to join the roster, as 2019 draft picks Josh Davies and Mathew Ward enter the fray, along with the early arrival of 2020 first round selection Brady Birnie.

Even with 2019 first round pick Tyson Jugnauth electing to play in the BCHL and committing to the Wisconsin Badgers, the defence has a good mix of youth and experience on it, with Prince Albert’s Alex Moar returning for a third campaign.

The key to any Broncos success this year though will be the play of returning netminder Isaac Poulter, who posted an impressive .896 save percentage last season. If he keeps up that level of play and the youngsters hit the ground running, this team might surprise a few people.

Carson Lambos (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Winnipeg Ice

The Ice showed a rapid improvement in their first year in Winnipeg as they were in the mix for a division title and had clinched a spot in the playoffs after missing out on the dance during their final four seasons in Cranbrook.

While Michael Teply has started his pro career with the Rockford Ice Hogs and Matthew Savoie’s full-time arrival in the WHL has been delayed as he suits up for the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, the Ice’s offence is still impressive with Peyton Krebs, Connor McClennon, Owen Pederson and Jackson Leppard all returning.

The forward core has also been strengthened with the additions of Conor Geekie, who was taken right after Savoie in the 2019 WHL Draft, and overager Anderson MacDonald, who posted 142 points in 196 games over the last four seasons in the QMJHL. 

The blueline takes a hit with the departures of Dawson Barteaux and Reece Harsch, but the Ice still have point producers Benjamin Zloty and Carson Lambos, the latter of which is expected to be a first round pick at the 2021 NHL Draft.

With Liam Hughes aging out of the league, the biggest question mark for the team was who was going to be their starting goalie, as backup Gage Alexander only played in a handful of games last year and Daniel Hauser would be coming into the team as a 16-year-old rookie.

That issue was answered recently with the signing of overager Carl Stankowski. Injuries curtailed his WHL career after helping the Seattle Thunderbirds to a league title in 2017, but he put up strong numbers a year ago with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees.

Another new addition to the squad is former Prince Albert Mintos forward Chase Bertholet, who recorded three assists in six games earlier this winter with the SJHL’s Melville Millionaires.