With two of the WHL’s four divisions already underway and Regina Pats rookie forward Connor Bedard putting up more points in the time it takes you to read this sentence, the five teams located south of the border are ready to start their 2020-21 campaign.
The Everett Silvertips, Portland Winterhawks, Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans will all be able to play in their home arenas over the course of the next two months, though the rink will be without fans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the 2019-20 season came to a halt last March, the Silvertips and Winterhawks were neck-and-neck for the division title, while the Chiefs had a 21-5 record after the trade deadline and were enjoying a 10-game win streak.
A lot has changed for all five programs since that time as they look to earn bragging rights over one another this spring, especially since there are no assurances of a post-season at this time.
The Silvertips were once again a legit title threat last year as Dustin Wolf became the best goaltender in the league and the roster was strengthened by the additions of Kasper Puutio, Jake Christiansen, former Raider Cole Fonstad and Prince Albert product Ethan Regnier.
Although Christiansen and Wyatte Wylie have both graduated and Puutio will be staying in Finland, the defence is still strong with Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes prospects Gianni Fairbrother and Ronan Seeley both returning, while Wolf is back for a final season in the WHL before moving on to the Calgary Flames system.
Despite the departure of 40-goal man Bryce Kindopp, the offence is still impressive as Fonstad and Regnier return as overagers and will be joined by Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Gage Goncalves and Yorkton product Jackson Berezowski.
Unlike the Silvertips, the Winterhawks didn’t make any major additions last year as a strong offence and impressive goaltending from Joel Hofer had the team in front of the U.S. Division for most of the season.
A lot has changed for the Winterhawks since then, with the biggest development being a new ownership group for the club after they went into receivership in May following a bankruptcy filing by former owner Bill Gallacher.
On the ice, Hofer and leading blueliner John Ludvig have both started their pro careers, while forwards Cross Hanas, Jack O’Brien and James Stefan are currently on loan to the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, along with blueliner Clay Hanus.
Despite those losses, the Winterhawks will once again have an impressive offence. Seth Jarvis is back after leading the AHL in scoring to start the season and he’s once again joined by fellow NHL draft picks Jaydon Dureau and Reece Newkirk.
Prince Albert’s Gabe Klassen is also returning for his sophomore campaign after he put up 15 points in 30 games during his rookie season.
With Hofer moving on, the Winterhawks acquired Brock Gould from the Moose Jaw Warriors to form a tandem with Dante Giannuzzi, who has posted great numbers in limited appearances for the team.
After earning a wild card spot for the third straight season, the Thunderbirds enter this year with a brand new netminder after Philadelphia Flyers prospect Roddy Ross was traded to the Pats at the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft.
His replacement will be 17-year-old Thomas Milic, who has posted impressive numbers in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League for the Burnaby Winter Club and also suited up for Canada Red at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
The Thunderbirds have started to put together an impressive group of young talent at forward with Payton Mount, Matthew Rempe and Conner Roulette being joined by Florida Panthers prospect Henrik Rybinski.
The team will also be welcoming 2019 first round pick Jordan Gustafson and 2020 first round selection Sam Oremba, the latter of which had 133 points last year for the Regina Monarchs and had 13 points in seven games to start this season with the Regina Pat Canadians.
With the departure of import blueliner Simon Kubicek, the defence is now being led by Winnipeg Jets prospect Tyrel Bauer and will also welcome Kevin Korchinski of the Saskatoon Contacts, who was a first round pick in 2019.
The hottest team in the league at the end of last year will have a new head coach as Manny Viveiros departed after one season to become the bench boss for the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights.
Associate coach Adam Maglio, who led the Prince George Spruce Kings to the Centennial Cup final in 2019, earned a promotion after one year in Spokane and will be joined on the bench by longtime WHL assistant coach Ryan Smith.
Although Bear Hughes and Luke Toporowski are both in the USHL at the moment, the Chiefs are still strong on offence as league MVP and Minnesota Wild prospect Adam Beckman is returning along with overager Eli Zummack and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jack Finley.
With Lukas Parik also going to the USHL this season, the starting duties in goal now belong to Campbell Arnold, who had a strong start to the 2019-20 campaign before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December.
The biggest change for the Chiefs though will be on defence, as overagers Noah King and Filip Kral have both graduated, along with two-time WHL defenceman of the year winner Ty Smith.
One of the players who will be looking to help fill those vacancies is Prince Albert’s Chase Freidt-Mohr, who was the captain for his hometown Mintos last season and had 29 points in 38 games.
With key veterans Kyle Olson and Beck Warm being dealt away at the trade deadline, the Americans found themselves well back of their divisional rivals and were at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
In a normal season, Colorado Avalanche draft pick Sasha Mutala would be one of the biggest names on the trade market, but he’s back for the shortened campaign and will be the team’s leader on offence.
Nearly six years after he was selected by the Americans in the fifth round of the WHL Bantam Draft, overage forward Jack Barnes (who is the son of former NHL-er and Americans star forward Stu) has joined the club following a three-year stint in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees.
While last year’s fourth overall pick Lukas Dragicevic isn’t joining the team yet, the blueline does feature overager Luke Zazula and sophomore Marc Lajoie, as they both look to build off of solid campaigns.
The Americans will also feature a pair of youngsters in goal as Talyn Boyko and Mason Dunsford will battle it out for the starting job over the course of the shortened season.