2019-20 WHL Season Review: US Division

This is the fourth 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.

Sasha Mutala (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Tri-City Americans (17-40-4-2 – 5th in US Division – Missed Playoffs for the first time since 2016)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

With Kyle Olson and Sasha Mutala forming a one-two punch and Beck Warm stealing games, the Americans are able to avoid the Wild Card battle and get the third seed in the US Division.

Worst Case Scenario

Warm can only do so much in goal as the Americans struggle mightily and miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

What Actually Happened:

Olson and Warm would eventually be traded to the Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings at the deadline as the Americans finished well back of their divisional foes and ended up at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

What Lies Ahead:

The current roster for next season leans towards the younger side, though blueliner Luke Zazula will be a key overager for the team as they’ll try and push for a return to the post-season. Colorado Avalanche forward prospect Sasha Mutala is the key player for the Americans and could net them a ton of assets for the future if they were to deal him at the deadline.

Andrej Kukuca (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

Seattle Thunderbirds (24-32-4-3 – 4th in US Division – Made Playoffs for the Eighth Straight Season)

Best Case Scenario

With exciting young pieces and some good under the radar talent, the Thunderbirds are able to work their way up the standings in a tight US Division.

Worst Case Scenario

Roddy Ross regresses after his breakout rookie campaign and everything else on the team is just average as the Thunderbirds miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2012

What Actually Happened:

While Ross put together a pretty solid season in his first full campaign in the league, the Thunderbirds themselves stayed where they were a year earlier as they were set to enter the playoffs in a wild card spot.

What Lies Ahead:

Although they will be losing their leading scorer in Andrej Kukuca, the Thunderbirds offence is still in decent shape with Keltie Jeri-Leon and Henrik Rybinski being the two key veterans to go along with young talents Peyton Mount and Conner Roulette. The entire defence can return and Ross should be back for his overage season, which should lead to the Thunderbirds having a better campaign. However, they are in a tough US Division, so their improvements might not show in the final standings.

Adam Beckman (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Spokane Chiefs (41-18-4-1 – 3rd in US Division – Made Playoffs for the Third Straight Season)

Best Case Scenario

With the surprise return of Ty Smith doing wonders for the blueline, the Chiefs ride an excellent offence to contend in the Western Conference once again.

Worst Case Scenario

Although the offence is there, the defence is a mess after Smith sticks with the New Jersey Devils and Lukas Parik struggles in between the pipes. As a result, the Chiefs end up being in a battle for a wildcard spot.

What Actually Happened:

Even with the return of Smith, it took a little bit for the Chiefs to click under new head coach Manny Viveiros. They caught fire after the trade deadline, however, as they rattled off a 21-5 record and were enjoying a 10-game win streak when the season came to a halt.

In addition to having the league’s leading scorer in Adam Beckman, the squad also got offensive contributions from Parik as he became the ninth netminder in league history to score a goal during their final regular season game against the Kamloops Blazers.

What Lies Ahead:

Parik will be back for his second season in between the pipes and the Chiefs will be able to help him out with a ton of firepower. Beckman, who recently inked a deal with the Minnesota Wild, will be looking to win a second straight scoring title and will have a good supporting cast of Eli Zummack, Luke Toporowski and Jack Finley alongside him.

The one question mark surrounding Spokane’s roster at the moment is their blueline as Noah King will be aging out of the junior ranks, while Filip Kral and Smith will be turning pro with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Devils organizations. Overager Bobby Russell and youngster Graham Sward should lead the way, but the rest of the depth chart will need to be strengthened if the club wants to be among the contenders.

Bryce Kindopp (Chris Mast/Geddy Images)

Everett Silvertips (46-13-3-1 – 2nd in US Division – Made Playoffs for the 17th Straight Season)

What I Predicted:

Best Case Scenario

The veteran players lead the way and Dustin Wolf becomes the best netminder in the WHL as the Silvertips once again compete for a Western Conference title.

Worst Case Scenario

Wolf takes a step back and the Silvertips can’t overcome the loss of their veterans on offence as they suffer another early playoff exit.

What Actually Happened:

As Wolf took the mantle as the top netminder in the league, the Silvertips themselves got stronger as the year went on. Not only did they add the likes of Cole Fonstad, Ethan Regnier and Kasper Puutio via trades, but they also welcomed back overage blueliner Jake Christiansen after he started the season in the American Hockey League.

With some pretty good depth at both ends of the ice, Everett was once again a legit contender to win the league and the team was in a back-and-forth battle for the US Division lead with Portland during the final weeks of the campaign.

What Lies Ahead:

In addition to Christiansen, fellow blueliner Wyatt Wylie and forward Bryce Kindopp are also going to be graduating from the WHL, which will leave some holes to fill. The overage situation will need to be sorted as well, though a lot of that will depend on if Fonstad and defenceman Gianni Fairbrother turn pro with the Montreal Canadiens.

With that said, the Silvertips still have a solid looking team going into next season. If he returns, Fonstad could be a contender for the league scoring title with Gage Goncalves as his wingman. The defence will again be a pillar of strength with Puutio and Ronan Seeley possibly being joined by Fairbrother, while Wolf will just keep doing his thing in between the pipes.

Seth Jarvis (Keith Dwiggins/Portland Winterhawks)

Portland Winterhawks (45-11-3-4 – 1st in US Division – Made Playoffs for the 11th Straight Season)

What I Predicted: 

Best Case Scenario

Although they lose their two biggest weapons in Joachim Blichfeld and Cody Glass, the rest of the team picks up the pieces and Joel Hofer is great in goal as the Winterhawks once again compete for a title.

Worst Case Scenario

The goal scoring dries up and Hofer struggles. The Winterhawks exit out of the playoffs early yet again and the trade they made to get Hofer from the Swift Current Broncos looks worse by the day.

What Actually Happened:

Portland never brought in any extra pieces during the course of the campaign, and they didn’t need to. An excellent campaign from Hofer and an offence with a bevy of weapons put the Winterhawks in the US Division lead for almost the entire season as they ended up edging out the Silvertips by a point to end up with the top mark in the regular season.

What Lies Ahead:

The Winterhawks’ firepower won’t take much of a hit going into next year as Jaydon Dureau, Cross Hanas, Seth Jarvis and Reece Newkirk are among some of the players that will provide a handful for opposing teams.

With that said, things might be different at the other end of the ice. Hofer will be moving on to the St. Louis Blues organization while leading blueliner John Ludvig just signed a pro contract with the Florida Panthers and might not be back for his overage campaign. How the team fills those two holes could determine if Portland is a legit title threat once again.

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