The Western Hockey League celebrated its 50th anniversary this season, and the playoffs will be capped off with the league’s Red Deer Rebels hosting the 2016 Mastercard Memorial Cup. Between now and late May, though, is a four-round, 16-team free-for-all known as the WHL playoffs.
Because of several injuries and a series of wild finishes to the season, the first round could be unpredictable.
The Western Conference
VICTORIA ROYALS (50-16-3-3) VS. SPOKANE CHIEFS (33-30-5-4)
Season Series: Split at two wins apiece.
Key Injuries: Victoria is relatively healthy. Spokane has several depth players missing.
This is a situation where a powerhouse team has an interesting first round match-up. A healthy Spokane team gave Victoria run for their money early in the season, but their depth is depleted a bit and Victoria has a veteran coach in Dave Lowry with a team that’s really well-positioned for the post-season after going on a pretty strong run to close out the season. The Royals lack bonafide star power, but they have a great team approach to the game and should have the horses to run over Spokane.
Prediction: Victoria in five games.
KELOWNA ROCKETS (48-20-4-0) VS. KAMLOOPS BLAZERS (38-25-5-4)
Season Series: Kelowna won five of their eight meetings.
Recent High NHL Picks: Kelowna’s Nick Merkley (2015 30th overall, Arizona)
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Kelowna’s Dillon Dube (35th-ranked North American skater) and Lucas Johansen (38th-ranked North American skater)
Key Injuries: Kelowna will be without goalie Jackson Whistle and star forward Nick Merkley for the next while. Kamloops is healthy.
The Rockets, when healthy, are a powerhouse. They have a lot of depth and can get scoring from all over their roster. They’re not healthy, though, and are missing their most dangerous scorer and their starting netminder. But while Kamloops is healthy, they don’t have enough firepower to win out over a seven-game series. It’ll take longer than it would normally, but the Rockets grind it out.
Prediction: Kelowna in six games.
SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS (45-23-4-0) VS. PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS (36-31-3-2)
Season Series: Split at two wins apiece.
Recent High NHL Picks: Seattle’s Matt Barzal (2015 16th overall, NY Islanders), Ryan Gropp (2015 41st overall, NY Rangers); Prince George’s Jansen Harkins (2015 47th overall, Winnipeg)
Key Injuries: Seattle is relatively healthy. Prince George is missing blueliner Josh Anderson.
The Thunderbirds impressed many this season, winning their division for the first time since 2004-05 powered by a well-rounded scoring attack led by Barzal and Gropp. The Cougars have a more veteran-led team and haven’t been nearly as consistent as Seattle. The Thunderbirds are just a bit too deep for Prince George to grind out a series win.
Prediction: Seattle in five games.
EVERETT SILVERTIPS (38-26-5-3) VS. PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS (34-31-6-1)
Season Series: Split at five wins apiece.
Recent High NHL Picks: Everett’s Noah Juulsen (2015 26th overall, Montreal); Portland’s Paul Bittner (2015 38th overall, Columbus)
Key Injuries: Everett is missing several depth players. Portland is missing Paul Bittner.
This could be a long one. Everett and Portland played each other 10 times this season. They split the series. Portland’s missing Bittner, who’s missed most of the season, while Everett’s having their depth tested. This should be a long, drawn-out series, but Everett’s just a little bit deeper and should be able to eke this one out.
Prediction: Everett in seven games.
The Eastern Conference
BRANDON WHEAT KINGS (48-18-4-2) VS. EDMONTON OIL KINGS (29-36-3-2)
Season Series: Edmonton won three of four meetings with Brandon.
Recent High NHL Picks: Brandon’s Ivan Provorov (2015 7th overall, Philadelphia), John Quenneville (2014 30th overall, New Jersey), Jayce Hawryluk (2014 32nd overall, Florida); Edmonton’s Brett Pollock (2014 45th overall, Dallas).
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Brandon’s Kale Clague (22nd-ranked North American skater).
Key Injuries: Brandon is missing several depth players. Edmonton is missing two goalies and some depth players.
Edmonton’s a sub-.500 team. Brandon’s one of the top teams in the WHL and has a veteran-laden team full of top NHL prospects. Oh, and 2017 top prospect Nolan Patrick, who was 5th in league scoring. The Oil Kings are good enough to make the post-season, but this should be a pretty by-the-numbers victory for the Wheaties.
Prediction: Brandon in four games.
PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS (38-26-7-1) VS. MOOSE JAW WARRIORS (36-27-7-2)
Season Series: Moose Jaw won six of eight games against Prince Albert.
Recent High NHL Picks: Prince Albert’s Brendan Guhle (2015 51st overall, Buffalo)
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Prince Albert’s Simon Stransky (25th-ranked North American skater); Moose Jaw’s Brett Howden (27th-ranked North American skater)
Key Injuries: Both teams are missing a couple of depth players.
The Raiders and the Warriors are both really well-matched, but Moose Jaw has had a lot more success against Prince Albert this season and just seems to have their number. Prince Albert is a good team, but the Warriors have two difference-makers in Dryden Hunt and Brayden Point, and that should be enough to win the series.
Prediction: Moose Jaw in six games.
LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES (46-24-1-1) VS. REGINA PATS (36-28-3-5)
Season Series: Regina took three of four games between the two clubs.
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Regina’s Sam Steel (29th-ranked North American skater).
Key Injuries: Both teams are largely healthy.
The Hurricanes were one of the big success stories of the season, as new coach Brent Kisio took a team that was a laughingstock for several seasons and brought them to a division title. Now the standings are reset and the club with arguably the most complete team concept in the WHL faces Adam Brooks and the Pats. The Pats have a great top line, but the Hurricanes are deeper and should be able to either work around Brooks or shut his line down.
Prediction: Lethbridge in five games.
RED DEER REBELS (45-24-1-2) VS. CALGARY HITMEN (42-26-2-2)
Season Series: Calgary won four of their seven match-ups.
Recent High NHL Picks: Red Deer’s Jake DeBrusk (2015 14th overall, Boston), Haydn Fleury (2014 7th overall, Carolina), Conner Bleackley (2014 23rd overall, Colorado); Calgary’s Travis Sanheim (2014 17th overall, Philadelphia).
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Calgary’s Jake Bean (13th-ranked North American skater).
Key Injuries: The Hitmen are relatively healthy. The Rebels will be without top goalie Rylan Toth, defender Josh Mahura and top forward Conner Bleackley.
The Rebels are a deeper team up-front, while the Hitmen have the edge on defense – bolstered by the superb pairing of Travis Sanheim and Jake Bean. However, despite missing starting netminder Rylan Toth, the Rebels still boast significantly better goaltending than the Hitmen. If the Rebels are healthy, this series likely ends quickly. But combined with the X-factors of the Rebels having a guaranteed Memorial Cup berth as hosts and the fact that Calgary will be hosting two of their three home games at the old Stampede Corral where the Rebels are unfamiliar, this series should take a bit longer. The difference-maker will be Red Deer’s better goaltending.
Prediction: Red Deer in seven games.
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.