The Western Hockey League got it’s exhibition season going on Tuesday night with the Swift Current Broncos beating the Moose Jaw Warriors. Over the next several days nearly every team in the league will hit the ice to get ready for September’s start to the season.
What a season it could be this year.
The WHL will be as interesting as ever this year as there are new coaches, top NHL draft picks and surely some surprises to come. With the season looming, what are some of the questions to ponder over the next few weeks?
Which new coach adjusts the best?
The league saw an unprecedented number of coaches leave this summer. Ten teams will have new bench bosses this year which means players will have to adjust to new styles, systems and methods. In places like Portland, Kelowna and Calgary the new guys are stepping into teams that are still loaded with talent.
Perhaps the most intriguging will be Jamie Kompon in Portland. The Winterhawks have been to four straight WHL Finals and the expectations are sky high in the Rose City. The team returns a ton of offensive talent in Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase DeLeo and Paul Bittner. The question – as it seems it always is in Portland – is do they have enough defense to make another run to the finals.
Standing in their way out west are the Kelowna Rockets – who also have a new coach. Dan Lambert takes over for the departed Ryan Huska and like Kompon, inherits a pretty good team. Lambert has been in Kelowna as an assistant for the past five years, meaning the players know him and his personality. This may be the easiest transition of all of them, which could benefit the talented Rockets going into the season.
Who will win the East?
The Edmonton Oil Kings have won the Eastern Conference for three straight years now. With that success comes the loss of key players to the pro ranks. It appears that perhaps their reign could come to an end this season – especially if they lose Curtis Lazar to Ottawa.
So who will step up?
The top two pre-season contenders seem to be Calgary and Brandon. The Hitmen stumbled in the playoffs last year, got rid of their coach and are looking to improve their post-season prospects this year. They return a talented and deep team, led by scorers like Greg Chase and Jake Virtanen the Hitmen will be tough to handle this year. In the playoffs last year they struggled with discipline and defense so it will be up to new coach Mark French to clean them up if they want to go deeper in the playoffs.
In Brandon, the Wheat Kings seemed poised to make a lot of noise. They upset the higher-seeded Regina Pats in the first round of last year’s playoffs and are one of the favorites this season. Brandon could return five guys who topped the 20-goal mark last season, along with one of the top scoring defensemen in the league in Eric Roy. The Wheat Kings will score but the question is, can they stop their opponents from scoring.
Last season Brandon was one of the top scoring teams in the east but only had a goal differential of +2 – that won’t get you too far in the playoffs.
Will Josh Morrissey get traded?
The Prince Albert Raiders will be an interesting team to watch during the exhibition season. More importantly, the Edmonton Oilers and what happens to Leon Draisaitl will be interesting to watch. If Edmonton decides to keep the high-scoring German, the Raiders could be in a world of hurt.If Draisaitl is not in the picture for Prince Albert, will they move Morrissey?
They may have no choice in that there is still a chance that Morrissey will also stick at the NHL level, with Winnipeg. But if he is returned, the Raiders might consider moving the defenseman, if they can get a king’s ransom in return.
And why wouldn’t they?
Morrissey is a tremendous talent, scoring 28 goals last season and his 73 points was second only to Seattle’s Shea Theodore in defensemen scoring. Coming back for his 19-year-old season you would expect him to be at least as productive – if not more so – than he was last year.
A trade of Morrissey could set Prince Albert up for the future and swing the WHL race in the favor of whatever club picked him up?
Who will Seattle trade?
The Seattle Thunderbirds had one of their best seasons in quite a while last year – finishing fourth in the west and advancing into the second round of the playoffs. There are high expectations moving forward but they still have some work to do on their roster.
They ended last season with ten 19-year-olds, which meant they would have to make some tough decisions this year. As they head into the exhibition season they still have five over-agers on their roster and there are trades to come.
Each of those five players – Justin Hickman, Sam McKechnie, Taran Kozun, Adam Henry, Evan Wardley – are good players and would be attractive to every team in the league. The goalie Kozun could be the most interesting. He joined Seattle last year, coming over from Kamloops at the trade deadline, and was light’s out for the Thunderbirds. Would Seattle move him and rely on younger goaltenders Danny Mumaugh and Logan Flodell?
Time will tell, but needless to say, a lot of eyes will be on Seattle over the next few weeks.
What’s the end game in Lethbridge?
The Lethbridge Hurricanes continue to be a troubling story. After seeing numerous players ask for trades last year, they now are dealing with Reid Duke not showing up for the beginning of camp. The Minnesota Wild prospect reportedly will show up but the speculation is that he also would like to find a way out of town.
The team was abysmal last year and with the possibility of more player defections, something has to change? Lethbridge is a great WHL market and in many ways, it is a shame to see the franchise in so much turmoil? Does the community owned club need to be sold? Is that even possible?
Andrew writes about the WHL and NHL Draft Prospects. He also covers the Seattle Thunderbirds for 710 ESPN Seattle and spent two years with Sportsnet. Follow him on Twitter @andyeide.