2019-20 WHL Season Review: East Division

This is the first in a five-part series that will run over the course of the week as we recap the shortened 2019-20 Western Hockey League campaign.

In addition to looking over each team in the division, Daily Herald sports reporter Lucas Punkari will discuss how right or how wrong he was in his pre-season assessments and what the future holds for all 22 clubs.

Ryder Korczak (Robert Murray/WHL)

Moose Jaw Warriors (14-44-4-0 – Sixth Place in East Division – Missed Playoffs for the first time since 2015)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

Brayden Tracey and Daemon Hunt put the team on their back with impressive sophomore campaigns and the team gets an added boost when a healthy Adam Evanoff arrives after Christmas. Thanks to those three players, and a couple of surprise breakout performances, the Warriors sneak their way into the playoffs as a wild card.

Worst Case Scenario

Evanoff misses the entire campaign due to his hip injury and the backend is a complete mess other than Hunt. Tracey is dealt in January in the hopes of adding assets that were lost in the 2018 run and the Warriors miss the playoffs for the first time since 2015, which leads to a coaching change. There is one positive, however, as the Warriors still have their 2020 first round pick and end up winning the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.

What Actually Happened:

The Warriors had a solid start to the campaign but everything went pear-shaped after a 7-3 road loss to the Swift Current Broncos in the middle of November. Hunt missed almost three months of action after getting his arm cut by a skate, Hunter was let go in early January and the team made several trades, with the biggest being a deadline deal that saw Tracey and Evanoff go to the Victoria Royals.

As a result, the Warriors fell to the bottom of the division standings as their young roster looked to gain valuable experience in the final two months of the campaign, despite several lopsided outings.

What Lies Ahead:

Although they didn’t win the Bantam Draft lottery, the Warriors still have some interesting pieces on their roster. Ryder Korczak will look to have a big campaign ahead of his NHL Draft year, Hunt and rookie Denton Mateychuk are the two big pieces on the blueline and the club has a couple of secondary pieces on offence in Martin Lang and Eric Allaire.

In addition to a pair of veteran netminders in Boston Bilous and Brock Gould, the Warriors can also add to their lineup with two open overage slots. Marc O’Leary’s first full season behind the bench will still have some long nights, but the team could be a fun one to watch. 

Austin Pratt (Keith Hershmiller Photography)

Regina Pats (21-34-6-2 – 5th in East Division – Missed Playoffs for the Second Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

A strong overage trio, a bounce-back campaign by Max Paddock and the surprise arrival of either Daniil Gushchin and Ty Smilanic help the Pats earn a wild card spot. Plus, they also end up with the top overall pick in the Bantam Draft as they got Swift Current’s first round pick (which was dealt to Lethbridge during the madness that was the 2018 trade deadline) from the Hurricanes last season.

Worst Case Scenario

The bottom falls out completely for the Pats and they end up at the bottom of the league table. To make matters worse, the Saskatoon Blades end up having the chance to take Connor Bedard on draft day as they got Regina’s first round pick at the 2018 trade deadline for Ryan Kubic and Cameron Hebig.

What Actually Happened:

Although they didn’t get Gushchin or Smilanic and they dealt away Paddock to the Prince Albert Raiders at the trade deadline, the Pats’ older players were the key to the success as they made the team a tough one to face all year long.

Their biggest win, however, came last Wednesday as they retained the first overall pick in the draft lottery and will welcome Bedard to their roster this fall. 

What Lies Ahead:

The arrival of Bedard, who is the first player to be granted exceptional status and enter the WHL a year early, will help to accelerate the Pats’ rebuild, though a return to the playoffs might not come next season.

With three of their key faces (Robbie Holmes, Austin Pratt and Zach Wytnick) set to graduate, the team will need their younger talent to take the next step so that they aren’t as reliant on veterans like their leading returning scorer Carson Denomie. If Bedard’s arrival allows the Pats to bring in more high-end talent, a post-season berth might not be out of the realm of possibility.

Tristen Robins (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

Saskatoon Blades (34-24-2-3 – 4th in East Division – Made Playoffs for the Second Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

A dynamic offence, a great season from Nolan Maier and a defence that only gets stronger as the year goes on propels the Blades to their best season in a generation. Not only are they in the mix for a league title, but they are able to land the next great piece for the franchise by taking Bedard first overall at the Bantam Draft with a pick they got from the Pats.

Worst Case Scenario

Kirby Dach makes the jump to the NHL and everything changes for the Blades a result. They still make the playoffs, but the question of what-if hangs over the side all year as they miss out on the chance to make their first trip to the conference final since 1994.

What Actually Happened:

Dach never came back from Chicago, which left a big hole in the Blades’ offence throughout the campaign. Despite an up-and-down season, Saskatoon had enough pieces to be a tough opponent for whoever they faced in their first round matchup before the season came to an end.

What Lies Ahead:

As has been the case during the last couple of seasons, the Blades will more than likely have to add a veteran on defence as they will be losing Nolan Kneen and Scott Walford to graduation. Both blueliners found the back of the net 12 times each this season, which was the total the rest of the backend had combined.

Chase Wouters should be back for his overage campaign, while the offence has some other strong talent in Tristen Robins, Kyle Crnkovic and Colton Dach. If Nolan Maier or Koen MacInnes have an excellent season in goal, the Blades could again be in the mix for a home playoff seed if the defensive questions are answered.

Luka Burzan (Tim Smith/Brandon Sun)

Brandon Wheat Kings (35-22-4-2 – 3rd in WHL East Division – Made Playoffs for the first time since 2018)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

The new changes in the Wheat Kings regime pay off in spades as the team has a balanced offensive attack under Dave Lowry’s new systems. The defence gets its footing underneath itself early as Jiri Patera has a solid campaign in goal, which turns the Wheat Kings into one of the top sides in the East.

Worst Case Scenario

Although they improve enough to make the post-season, the steps forward aren’t dramatic enough to make the Wheat Kings a true conference threat as the real growth arrives next year when a bevy of young players come to town.

What Actually Happened:

It took a little bit for everything to click, but the Wheat Kings turned into a solid side during the second half. A lot of that had to do with Patera, who put together an excellent overage campaign and should earn a pro contract with the Vegas Golden Knights as a result. 

What Lies Ahead:

Patera’s graduation does leave a question mark in goal, but backup Ethan Kruger appears to have the inside track for the starting job for the time being. He should be helped by a blueline that will return everyone except overager Dom Schmiemann and will be anchored by Prince Albert product Braden Schneider, who is expected to be a first round pick at the 2020 NHL Draft.

Luka Burzan could potentially turn pro if he signs with the Colorado Avalanche, but the offence still looks pretty solid with Cole Reinhardt, Ben McCartney and Ridly Grieg all returning. The Wheat Kings will also welcome three first round picks from last year’s WHL Bantam Draft, with the key arrival being fifth overall pick Nate Danielson. 

Isaac Johnson (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Winnipeg Ice (38-24-1-0 – 2nd in East Division – Made Playoffs for the first time since 2015 when the club was based in Cranbrook, B.C.)

Best Case Scenario

With an offence that benefits from the early arrival of Matthew Savoie ahead of Peyton Krebs’ return from injury and a much-improved backend, the Ice end up making the playoffs and build some buzz in their first year in Winnipeg before they unleash Savoie and Conor Geekie on a full-time basis next season.

Worst Case Scenario

Krebs misses more time than expected, Savoie only plays in a handful of games and the backend remains a mess as the Ice miss the playoffs once again. Their young talent makes them a team to watch in 2020-21, but it will be with a new coach behind the bench.

What Actually Happened:

The Ice showed a rapid improvement this season and they were in the mix for the division title throughout the second half. Despite a collarbone injury to Connor McClennon, there were still several solid weapons on an offence that was made even better with the mid-season return of Krebs. The defence got stronger at the deadline with the arrival of Dawson Barteaux from Red Deer and Liam Hughes solidified the team’s netminding with his surprising arrival partway through the campaign. 

As for Savoie, he only had seven assists in 22 games and wasn’t in a top six role like his similar hyped 2004-born counterpart Shane Wright was this year for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. However, he did have 52 points in 22 games for the CSSHL’s Rink Hockey Academy and was impressive for Canada at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the Youth Olympic Games. 

What Lies Ahead:

Even if Krebs moves on to the Golden Knights next year, the Ice still have excellent players up front with McClennon, Michal Teply and Owen Pederson all set to return, while Savoie and Conor Geekie will be entering the league on a full-time basis.

However, there are some question marks on the backend. While Ben Zloty and Carson Lambos should only get better, the Ice will lose two key veterans as Reece Harsch ages out and Barteaux will more than likely move on to the pro ranks. 

Their most pressing issue though is in goal, as Hughes will graduate from the junior ranks. Backup Gage Alexander played in just seven games this season and the only other signed netminder is 2019 sixth round pick Daniel Hauser. That need will have to be addressed if the Ice want to be a legit contender during their second season in Winnipeg.

Aliaksei Protas (Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald)

Prince Albert Raiders (36-18-6-4 – 1st in East Division – Made Playoffs for the Third Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

With a solid defence and good weapons on offence right away, the Raiders are able to get off to a strong start as Boston Bilous find his legs as a starter and they once again find themselves as a contender in the East Division.

Worst Case Scenario

The replacement for Ian Scott isn’t found and the offence takes a step back. The Raiders make their third straight trip to the playoffs, but their season ends in quick fashion.

What Actually Happened:

Bilous did get off to a solid start but had some struggles once December hit. That led to a brief run with Keegan Karki as the starter, before Max Paddock arrived from Regina had an excellent run in goal.

The Raiders would again lead the way in the East Division with a blueline that stymied many teams in the WHL. Although the offence wasn’t what it was last year, they still had enough weapons to keep teams honest and looked set to put up a strong title defence in the playoffs.

What Lies Ahead:

Barring a pro deal, Paddock should be back for his overage campaign and will be one of the top starters in the league. Although Zack Hayes and Jeremy Masella are both graduating from the blueline, the likes of Kaiden Guhle, Landon Kosior and Nolan Allan should more than make up for those losses.

Overager Brayden Watts is the only player currently slated to leave the Raiders on offence, which should help them quite a bit as the season gets underway. Aliaksei Protas and Ozzy Wiesblatt will form an excellent one-two punch, while Spencer Moe and Ilya Usau will also keep opposing defences on their toes. 

-Advertisement-