Last season was one of triumph and disappointment for the Western Hockey League. As the league celebrated its 50th birthday, it had two representatives in the Mastercard Memorial Cup: league champions the Brandon Wheat Kings, and tournament hosts the Red Deer Rebels. Unfortunately, neither of the Dub’s representatives could capture the elusive Canadian Hockey League crown. Despite that disappointment, the season featured a good deal of excitement punctuated by the resurgence of the once-floundering Lethbridge Hurricanes into a league powerhouse.
The 2016-17 season is setting up to be just as interesting as the year it follows. Here’s a brief projection of each conference’s standings along with a bit of context for each pick.
1st: Victoria Royals (Last season: 50-16-3-3, 1st in West; lost to Kelowna in second round)
The Royals lost a few players from last season, but their offensive attack (including players like Tyler Soy, Matthew Phillips, and Dante Hannoun) remains deep, fast and talented. Their defensive group, anchored by the reliable Chaz Reddekopp, is one of the most reliable in the league, and goaltender Griffin Outhouse seems well-suited to take over for Coleman Vollrath in net. The Royals hit a roadblock last season but seem poised to remain a big dog in the West.
2nd: Kelowna Rockets (48-20-4-0, 2nd in West; lost to Seattle in conference final)
It seems like the Kelowna Rockets are always making noise in the West, and that’s because they usually are. A few faces are gone from last year (notably forwards Rourke Chartier and Tyson Baillie), but presuming everyone returns from NHL camps, the Rockets are extremely deep and extremely talented. Their blueline group is very strong from top-to-bottom, including 2017 draft eligible Cal Foote. Additionally, netminder Michael Herringer is rock-solid. They’ll probably challenge the Royals for the top spot in the conference.
3rd: Seattle Thunderbirds (45-23-4-0; 3rd in West; lost to Brandon in league final)
How well the T-Birds season goes is likely dependent on Matt Barzal, and whether he returns from the New York Islanders. Barzal is the straw that stirs the drink for Seattle, and it’d be a huge blow for a group that already lost Ryan Gropp to lose him as well. Their forward group is young and fairly deep, and Ethan Bear’s a reliable power-play quarterback, but they’re going to slide into the middle of the playoff pack without Barzal. This projection is based on the assumption that he returns.
4th: Everett Silvertips (38-26-5-3, 5th in West; lost to Seattle in second round)
Carter Hart may be the best goaltender in the league, which works for the Silvertips because they aren’t a team that is going to score a ton. If Hart can maintain his excellent play and some of the team’s younger forwards can take a step forward this year, perhaps they can go further. But at this point, this team goes as far as Hart and blueliner Noah Juulsen can lead them.
5th: Prince George Cougars (36-31-3-2, 6th in West; lost to Seattle in first round)
The Cougars are a solid, all-around team that arguably lacks higher-end talent (apart from Jansen Harkins and Josh Anderson, both recent NHL picks). Now, if you thought to yourself “Hey, what about…” you probably mentioned a 1997-born player, which is the challenge for the Cougars. They’re arguably a team that lacks the high-end talent to make noise in the West and presumably will have to start moving ’97s to contenders in order to build for the future.
6th: Kamloops Blazers (38-25-5-4, 4th in West; lost to Kelowna in first round)
Like the Cougars, Kamloops is a rock-solid team with some solid players and depth in all parts of their line-up. The thing that could set them apart, though, is that goaltender Connor Ingram is good enough to give them a chance to win most nights. It’s unclear where the extra goals will come from to help them eke out the games that he keeps them in, particularly given that they lost some key offensive contributors.
7th: Spokane Chiefs (33-30-5-4, 8th in West; lost to Victoria in first round)
If there’s a group that could leap up higher in the standings, it’s Sp0kane. They have a deep, emerging group of young forwards led by Kailer Yamamoto. They have a defensive group that’s a bit more raw, but no less interesting. And netminder Jayden Sittler is a great fit as a calming presence on a young team. If their youngsters can make a leap, the Chiefs could, too.
8th: Tri-City Americans (35-34-2-1, 9th in West)
The Americans have a bunch of decent young forwards and a few solid blueliners, but the line-up gets thin in a hurry and their goaltending is a big question mark.
9th: Portland Winterhawks (34-31-6-1, 7th in West; lost to Everett in first round)
The Hawks got their old coach back from the NHL, but they lost a lot of their established scorers as well as star goalie Adin Hill.
10th: Vancouver Giants (23-40-5-4, 10th in West)
If Tyler Benson could play a full season, the Giants could be deadly. But he’s already nursing a shoulder injury and Ty Ronning can’t carry the team’s offensive workload on his own. Beyond the forward ranks, their defense and goaltending both have some big question marks.
1st: Brandon Wheat Kings (Last Season: 48-18-4-2, 1st in East; won WHL Championship)
Brandon went to the Memorial Cup last year due to being a deep, mature team with some talented kids. Some of their older players are gone, but their talented kids have matured with their playoff experience. Oh, and Nolan Patrick is likely the first overall pick in the 2017 Draft and can take over games on his own.
2nd: Lethbridge Hurricanes (46-24-1-1, 2nd in East; lost to Regina in first round)
Last year, the Hurricanes transformed (almost overnight) from a league-wide punching bag into one of the most formidable clubs in the WHL. They were tripped up in the first round by Regina, but the majority of their big guns are coming back. They won’t catch anybody by surprise this season, but they’re deep and talented enough that they won’t have to.
3rd: Calgary Hitmen (42-26-2-2, 4th in East; lost to Red Deer in first round)
The Hitmen seem to always be pretty decent. They had a bunch of players drafted in June, led by Jake Bean, and they have no gigantic gaps in their roster, aside from goaltending inconsistency issues. If their young forward group can continue to progress and the defensive group behind Bean can improve a little bit, the Hitmen should keep doing what they do.
4th: Prince Albert Raiders (38-26-7-1, 5th in East; lost to Moose Jaw in first round)
The Raiders are just an all-around solid team. They may lack the star power that some other WHL clubs have, but Rylan Parenteau is a really good goaltender and they have a good amount of depth throughout their roster.
5th: Red Deer Rebels (45-24-1-2, 3rd in East; lost to Brandon in conference final)
The Rebels loaded up to host the Memorial Cup. They lost a lot of bodies over the summer that accounted for a lot of their scoring and depth, and they’ll need guys like Adam Musil and Michael Spacek to take a big step forward for the whole team to avoid a big fall backward.
6th: Regina Pats (36-28-3-5, 7th in East; lost to Red Deer in second round)
The Pats have a pretty strong forward group, even if it’s unclear whether they’ll get Adam Brooks back from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their forwards are their strength, but the team is pretty solid all the way around.
7th: Moose Jaw Warriors (36-27-7-2, 6th in East; lost to Brandon in second round)
Moose Jaw has no Dryden Hunt and no Brayden Point, but they still have players named Zach Sawchenko, Brett Howden, and Noah Gregor. Their defensive group is a bit of a question mark and it’ll put the onus on Sawchenko to keep being excellent, but they have the firepower to stay in most games.
8th: Medicine Hat Tigers (30-37-3-2, 9th in East; lost to Edmonton in tiebreaker game)
The Tigers are good offensively, but they’re a bit shaky on defense, and goaltender Nick Schneider lacks consistency. If he can figure out how to translate his successes from game-to-game, the Tigers could be dangerous.
9th: Edmonton Oil Kings (29-36-6-1, 8th in East; lost to Brandon in first round)
The Oil Kings have been a borderline dynasty in the Dub, but they lost a ton of scoring over the summer and they have depth questions in almost every area of their roster.
10th: Saskatoon Blades (26-42-4-0, 11th in East)
Saskatoon has a lot of effective ’97-born forwards which they’ll need to make decisions on, but they should probably try to use them to shore up their shaky defense and goaltending. They’re basically the Eastern Conference version of Prince George.
11th: Swift Current Broncos (24-38-7-3, 10th in East)
The Broncos are very similar to Saskatoon, albeit a little bit less talented. They’re heavy on fairly strong ’97-born forwards, but also don’t have a ton of defensive or goaltending depth.
12th: Kootenay Ice (12-53-6-1, 12th in East)
The Ice were not very good last year. They have 2017 draft eligible Cale Fleury on the blueline, but not a heck of a lot else in terms of high-end talent on their roster.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.