Ice set to win now, Oil King paying price going all in

Darren Steinke -- Submitted photo.

The Winnipeg Ice are the team to beat in the WHL, while the Edmonton Oil Kings are showing the consequences of going all in.
As all the teams in the WHL approach their respective 10-game marks, it is starting to become clear which clubs will be the teams to beat. The Ice top the list of the teams to beat, and they happen to be listed first in the CHL Top 10 rankings.
Last season, the Ice finished first overall in the WHL regular season standings with a 53-10-3-2 record. They advanced to the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series falling in five games to the eventual WHL champion Oil Kings.
The Ice roster is stocked with returnees from last year like Matthew Savoie, Zach Benson, Connor McClennon, Conor Geekie, Ben Zloty, Carson Lambos and Daniel Hauser. They have solid youngsters like defenceman Jonas Woo, who turned 16-year-old in November and played every game in the Ice’s playoff run last season.
They’ve started the season 7-1, and all those contests have been played on the road. The Ice actually open the regular season playing their first 13 games on the road while major infrastructure work is completed at their home rink the Wayne Fleming Arena on the University of Manitoba campus in Winnipeg.
Earlier this year, the U of M received federal funding to replace the ice plant, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the Max Bell Centre, which the Wayne Fleming Arena is a part of. The Ice play their home opener on Oct. 29 against the Brandon Wheat Kings.
If the Ice come out of opening their first 13 games on the road with like only three losses, they will be in an enviable position going into the rest of the campaign with a home heavy schedule. It isn’t out of the realm of possibilities the Ice could be 12-1 after their first 13 contests all played on the road.
The Ice will have competition when it comes to being the WHL’s best. In the Western Conference, the Seattle Thunderbirds, who lost to the Oil Kings in six games in last season’s WHL final, are off to a 7-0 start. They currently have eight players averaging a point per game or better including former Saskatoon Blades star left-winger Kyle Crnkovic, who has six goals and five assists.
The Red Deer Rebels had a breakout season in 2021-22 posting a 45-19-2-2, and they’ve gotten out to a 7-0 start. Their roster got better early last week when star overage centre Ben King, who finished second last in the WHL’s scoring race, was returned to Red Deer by the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.
The Portland Winterhawks, who have started 7-0, and the Memorial Cup hosting Kamloops Blazers, who have started 4-1, will be sure to make noise as the season goes on.
The Oil Kings will learn what it is like to live on the bottom side of the standings. They loaded up last season and finished second overall in the regular season standings with a 50-14-3-1 before moving on to win the WHL title.
This season they’ve started out 1-7-1 to sit last in the entire WHL. All of the Oil Kings key core players from last season have moved on.
They currently have nine returnees on their roster from last season, but most of those players were mainly youngsters who saw limited playing time. Edmonton is already on the road to building for future seasons.
As the season goes on, you can expect the Ice, Thunderbirds, Rebels, Winterhawks and Blazers to shine. It will be difficult for any of the WHL’s other 17 clubs to knock those five teams out of the top tier.
Time right for Raiders to tinker with roster
From the Captain Obvious observation department, it is safe to say the Prince Albert Raiders haven’t had the start they wanted to.
The Raiders reached the 10 games played mark posting a 2-6-2 record. Their roster isn’t near the place it needs to be to contend for a WHL title, but they should be a contender for a WHL playoff berth. It is still way too early to say the Raiders won’t contend for a post-season spot.
With that said, the 2022-23 season might be the time for the Raiders to have an off campaign or gear their focus to being a better club for next season or future campaigns. The Raiders would have to give up too much to get to the point where they can compete with the Ice, Thunderbirds, Rebels, Winterhawks or Blazers.
Prince Albert’s brain trust has already started to tinker with the Raiders roster as Trevor Thurston, Anton Yatsyshin, Vladislav Shilo, Jesiah Bennett, Tre Fouquette, Alessandro Segafredo and Tayem Gislason have all played games with the club but are now no longer with the team.
To complicate the competitive balance in the Eastern Conference, word on the street is Regina Pats ownership has told team head coach and general manager John Paddock that phenom centre Connor Bedard cannot be traded. As the 17-year-old is expected to be selected first overall in next year’s NHL Entry Draft, the Pats are trying to build a roster around Bedard to win this season.
The Pats have gotten out to a 6-4-1 start. They have a roster that should be able to capture a playoff berth, but it is not capable of knocking off the Ice or Rebels in the playoffs.
To make a long playoff run, the Pats have to hope a few players on their roster make quantum leaps in their respective games in the improvement department, or Paddock is going to have to make some deals that will continue to hurt the franchise for years to come. When the Pats made a massive amount of moves to ready their roster to host the Memorial Cup in May of 2018, they still haven’t returned to the post-season since that time after dealing away prospects and first and second round draft picks.
Raiders general manager Curtis Hunt has wisely sidestepped arms races in the trading department in the past, and it would be wise to continue to do that in the present.
Back in the 2016-17 season, the Raiders missed the playoffs, but they focused on bringing a consistent good work ethic and creating good habits with a younger roster looking to build to what happened in a magical 2018-19 WHL title winning campaign. If other teams in the Eastern Conference are going to try to do drastic things to knock off the Ice and Rebels, it is likely a wiser decision to go younger and build for future seasons, especially now when it is unlikely the COVID-19 pandemic will throw wrenches into seasons.
Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at