I decided to do a piece on the WHL Season Preview considering the fact that there are WHL prospects that NHL teams draft every year. With nothing else major hockey related going on I am going to post my season previews for the three Canadian Hockey Leagues. The WHL, OHL, and QMJHL are the three junior Canadian Leagues that lead to someone eventually getting drafted in the NHL.
Kootenay Ice The Ice won the WHL last year and return two key players. Goalie Nathan Lieuwen and defender Jagger Dirk both return for the Ice who happen to be the defending WHL Champions.
The Kootenay Ice swept the Saskatoon Blades who had the WHL’s best regular season record and the Medicine Hat Tigers who had Linden Vey who led the WHL in points. They also defeated the Portland Winterhawks 4 games to 1 to represent the WHL in the 2011 Memorial Cup. I don’t know how the Ice are not in the conversation to contend this upcoming season.
Portland Winterhawks I do not see Ryan Johansen or Nino Neiderreiter who were top 5 picks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft playing for their NHL teams this season. Portland had 3 players drafted in the top 32 who should all return along with Johansen and Neiderreiter. Joe Morrow and Tyler Wotherspoon will be line 1 defenders with Derrick Pouliot a 2012 first round prospect playing line 2 on defense. The Winterhawks have a lot of talent returning to the point where they could end up winning the Memorial Cup in 2012 if they win it all in the WHL playoffs.
Last year Portland made it to the WHL finals before losing to the Kootenay Ice.
Saskatoon Blades Saskatoon has a lot of defensive players returning after finishing last season with the WHL’s best regular season record. I could see the loss of Brayden Schenn setting the Blades back. In the end, the Blades are too talented to regress to a tremendous degree.
2011 6th round pick Matej Stransky is also on the Saskatoon Blades so he is a future Dallas Star or Texas Star to keep an eye on.
Red Deer Rebels The Red Deer Rebels allowed the fewest goals in the WHL last season. This stat alone makes Red Deer a contender. If the #1 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft Ryan Nugent Hopkins fails to make the roster in Edmonton then teams in the WHL better watch out for Red Deer this fall.
Medicine Hat Tigers Linden Vey led the WHL in points last season. Vey turned 20 in July and enters his final year of eligibility in the WHL before he has to go to the American Hockey League for the Manchester Monarchs who are an NHL subsidiary to the Los Angeles Kings. As long as the Medicine Hat Tigers have Linden Vey there in contention.
The Medicine Hat Tigers knocked off Ryan Nugent Hopkins and the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL Eastern Conference Semifinals before getting swept by a Kootenay Ice team that swept the Saskatoon Blades.
Kelowna Rockets The Rockets have sniper Shane McColgan returning who was once a top 15 pick. McColgan should be able to challenge Portland in the Western Conference.
Spokane Chiefs The Chiefs came one point shy of tying the Portland Winterhawks for the top spot in the WHL Western Conference during the regular season. Not putting them in this conversation would be foolish.
WHL Middle of the Pack Team
Tri-City Americans The Tri-City Americans have the defense and goaltending. This team is good from a defensive standpoint. I feel like the offense could be slightly more productive. The offense is what makes this team a middle of the pack team rather than a contender at this point. I feel like Tri-City is one big move away from making that big leap in the WHL.
WHL Dark Horse Team
Edmonton Oil Kings The Edmonton Oil Kings are led by Michael St. Croix a 2nd round prospect who got drafted in the 4th round. Griffin Reinhart is a 2012 draft prospect who anchors this defense while Curtis Lazar should start to show some signs of leadership at center on the 2nd line. The Oil Kings have a chance to be a dark horse team in the WHL.
WHL Team Who Could Fall Off the Map
Brandon Wheat Kings Ever Since the 2010 Memorial Cup Finals where the Windsor Spitfires defeated the Brandon Wheat Kings 9 to 1 the Wheat Kings have been slowly fading away. They traded Brayden Schenn to Saskatoon the following season and now Scott Glennie is gone as Scott Glennie will play for the Texas Stars who are the Dallas Stars AHL subsidiary. Brandon has 2 potential defensive players that are draft eligible in 2013. Right now those players still have some work to do despite promising futures. I expect the Brandon Wheat Kings to take a step back this season without Glennei.
WHL Teams In Rebuilding Mode
Calgary Hitmen The Calgary Hitmen went from being the 2010 WHL Champion to being the worst team in the WHL last season. Ever since the brutal 5-4 overtime defeat in the Memorial Cup at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings this team just has not clicked. Hopefully 2011 #1 overall pick Jake Virtanen a left wing sniper can help the Hitmen become a WHL player again. Virtanen is not eligible to go to the NHL until 2014 so Calgary has a good 3 years with Virtanen.
Swift Current Broncos The Swift Current Broncos got Brycen Martin with their 2nd overall pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Some scouts had Martin graded higher than Virtanen in terms draft value. Martin has the ability of an offensive defenseman. Brycen Martin is a high character prospect who will not be draft eligible until 2014. The last WHL defenseman prospect to have a major impact in the NHL was Darryl Sydor. Martin seems to have the skill set of a future top 5 pick so I am interested to see what Brycen Martin does with this Swift Current Team over the next few seasons.