2019-20 WHL Season Review: Central Division

This is the second 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.

D-Jay Jerome (Ed Fonger)

   Swift Current Broncos (10-48-2-3 – 6th in Central Division – Missed Playoffs for the Second Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

The young talent ends up improving the Broncos’ fortunes much earlier than expected as they end up in the wild card mix.

Worst Case Scenario

The change that comes with moving to a strong Central Division proves tough for the Broncos as they end up with the worst record in the league for the second straight season. To make matters worse, the Regina Pats end up with the top pick in the draft as they acquired the Broncos’ first round pick from Lethbridge last year.

What Actually Happened:

For the second straight year, the Broncos moved every asset in sight, including a trio of draft eligible talent in Joona Kiviniemi, Ben King and Kasper Puutio. As a result, the Broncos ended the year with an 18-game losing streak and were at the bottom of the standings once again.

While the Pats will use their draft pick to take Connor Bedard first overall next month, the Broncos did the win the league title two years ago and flags fly forever, so the fanbase can take solace in that. 

What Lies Ahead:

Even though one of their first round picks from last year’s draft (blueliner Tyson Jungauth) is heading to the BCHL to play for the West Kelowna Warriors, the Broncos will welcome two talented young forwards in first rounder Mathew Ward and third round pick Josh Davies, in addition to returning workhorse netminder Isaac Poulter.

The Broncos have a number of draft picks at their disposal to add assets, but they feel further back than they were at this time last year. It might be another long season in Swift Current, but the team does have their 2021 first round pick, which allows them to be in contention for the Berkley Catton sweepstakes. 

Arshdeep Bains (Byron Hackett Red Deer Advocate)

Red Deer Rebels (24-33-3-3 – 5th in Central Division – Missed Playoffs for the first time since 2014)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

Although the offence doesn’t scare anybody, the Rebels backend is solid and puts them in the playoff picture once again as they are a thorn in the side of the top Eastern Conference teams all season.

Worst Case Scenario

The lack of offence means that the Rebels miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Changes take place in the off-season and a new coaching tandem of Cam Moon and Byron Hackett take over, much to the confusion of everyone in Red Deer.

What Actually Happened:

The “Dream Team” of Mooner and Bae-Ron wasn’t needed as the Rebels were a competitive side throughout the campaign. However, a bad start proved tough to overcome as they were well back of the wild card picture and ended up trading their captain Dawson Barteaux and 20-year-old forward Brett Davis at the deadline. 

What Lies Ahead:

Of the teams that were to miss out on the playoffs in 2020, the Rebels might be the one that’s in the best shape to make a bit of noise next year. Although the defence is still on the young side, everyone can return except graduating overager Ethan Sakowich, while netminders Ethan Anders and Byron Fancy are both eligible to come back.

Their biggest strength, however, might be on offence as they only lose one forward in 20-year-old Cam Hausinger. Josh Tarzwell and Arshdeep Bains are solid vets, while Ben King and Jayden Grubbe should only get better. As a result, a return to the post-season looks likely. 

Mark Kastelic (Candice Ward/Calgary Hitmen)

Calgary Hitmen (35-24-4-1 – 4th in Central Division – Made Playoffs for the Second Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

Mark Kastelic and James Malm form a one-two punch up front, the defence is excellent with Egor Zamula and Jett Woo leading the way and Jack McNaughton continues to grow as a starter as the Hitmen are a legit title contender for the first time in five years.

Worst Case Scenario

Kastelic turns pro, the defence isn’t great behind the top two and the goaltending sputters. The Hitmen make the playoffs, but are nowhere close to being a championship contender.

What Actually Happened:

Kastelic did come back for his overage campaign, but the Hitmen didn’t really match  the high expectations that many had set out for them in the pre-season. Malm was traded to Tri-City (who he never reported to) in favour of Kyle Olson, Zamula’s season ended in January with a back injury and McNaughton’s numbers weren’t as good as they were in his rookie campaign.

Although they were in fourth in the Central, they looked set to cross over to the East Division for the playoffs and would be a tough opponent for whoever they were to match up with. Alas, that possible path to the Eastern Conference final wasn’t to be.

What Lies Ahead:

With a veteran lineup, the Hitmen will be losing some key pieces as Kastelic, Olson and blueliner Dakota Krebs will age out, while Woo and Zamula are set to start their pro careers.

The biggest question mark at the moment might be on the overage front, as forwards Carson Focht and Riley Stotts are eligible to sign pro deals with the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs respectively. If neither player returns, there will be a lot of offence for the team to replace.

However, there are some positives. Orca Wiesblatt had a surprise breakout campaign up front and could be one of the top overagers in the league, Jackson Van De Leest and Luke Prokop will move into bigger roles on the blueline, and Brayden Peters will more than likely have a chance to become the full-time starter after a solid rookie season in goal. 

Dylan Cozens (Erica Perreaux)

Lethbridge Hurricanes (37-19-2-5 – 3rd in Central Division – Made Playoffs for the Fifth Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

Thanks to having two of the best players in the league in Calen Addison and Dylan Cozens, the Hurricanes are able to build off of their play and find themselves back in the Central Division title hunt again.

Worst Case Scenario

With the offensive losses proving way too much to overcome, Peter Anholt pulls the trigger and deals both Addison and Cozens at the trade deadline as the Hurricanes claw their way into the post-season.

What Actually Happened:

Despite seeing a ton of offence depart from last year’s team that crashed out in the first round, the Hurricanes picked up right where they left off with a number of players putting up points. The stage was set for a matchup with the archrival Medicine Hat Tigers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which could have been the best opening round series in the entire CHL.

What Lies Ahead:

The defence will look quite a bit different with Ty Prefontaine and Koletrane Wilson both graduating, in addition to Addison leaving for the pro ranks, which means someone will have to step up to carry the load with Alex Cotton after his breakout 67-point campaign. Carl Tetachuk and Bryan Thomson are both eligible to return, however, which should help out with the transition process.

Meanwhile, the offence does have two question marks going into the upcoming campaign. Does Oliver Okuliar come back as a dual-slot player and will Cozens make the jump to the Buffalo Sabres? Logan Barlage and Zack Stringer will both be key pieces up front, but the possible departure of their two leading scorers could be a tall task to overcome. 

James Hamblin (Randy Ferre/Medicine Hat Tigers)

Medicine Hat Tigers (41-19-2-1 – 2nd in Central Division – Made Playoffs for the Fourth Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

A great offence and a strong sophomore season by Mads Sogaard leads to the Tigers into being a surprise contender in the Eastern Conference in Desjardins’ first year back in town.

Worst Case Scenario

Although they make the playoffs, the defensive struggles prevents Medicine Hat from being in the mix as they deal some of their veterans as they look towards the future.

What Actually Happened:

Desjardins’ return resulted in a change of fortunes for the Tigers as they were one of the top offensive sides in the WHL all season and were on a six-game heater when the season came to a halt. 

What Lies Ahead:

In addition to losing James Hamblin, Parker Gavlas and Dylan Plouffe to graduation, the Tigers will need to figure out their overage situation for next season as they currently have eight 2000-born players on the roster.

One of the potential overagers is Sogaard, who has yet to be signed by the Ottawa Senators and would be a dual-slot player if he were to return. Garin Bjorklund is waiting in the wings to be a full-time starter though, so there could be a chance that man with the best flow in the WHL ends up being moved if he doesn’t turn pro.

Cole Clayton and Daniel Baker will more than likely be the top defenders for the side, but the offence will once again be the strength of the team. In addition to possible overagers Ryan Chyzowski and Brett Kemp, veterans Corson Hopwo and Lukas Svejkovsky will be expected to lead the way, while Cole Sillinger will look to improve upon his impressive rookie season. 

Riley Sawchuk (Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings)

Edmonton Oil Kings (42-16-6-4 – 1st in Central Division – Made Playoffs for Second Straight Season)

Best Case Scenario

With a number of great offensive pieces, a stellar defence and solid goaltending, the Oil Kings strengthen an already strong lineup at the deadline and return to the top of the mountain.

Worst Case Scenario

Despite having a lot of solid veterans and exciting youth on the roster, the goaltending is average and the losses of three overagers and Trey Fix-Wolansky are too much to overcome up front as they exit the playoffs much earlier than planned.

What Actually Happened:

The Oil Kings looked to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference as the post-season drew near. Not only did they have a good mix of youth and experience on their roster, but they were getting contributions from all over the lineup, which would have made them a challenge for any team they matched up against.

What Lies Ahead:

Despite the departures of overagers Ethan McIndoe, Riley Sawchuk and Beck Warm, the rest of the Oil Kings top players are going to be back next season. Sebastian Cossa will become the full-time starter and the offence will feature an impressive trio of Dylan Guenther, Jake Neighbours and Josh Williams.

If there’s one question mark about the Oil Kings though, it is on the blueline. While Matthew Robertson will return, four of the six possible overagers on the roster at the moment are defenceman, so some holes will have to be filled if they want to contend for a league title. 

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