The Calgary Hitmen and Victoria Royals played their 10th game last night, bringing all 22 WHL teams to that stage of the 68-game schedule.
The Saskatoon Blades and Vancouver Giants are already up to 15 games — with the other clubs somewhere in between — so there is a good sample size for evaluation purposes.
It’s still too early to be drawing any conclusions — the Jan. 10 trade deadline is a long way off — but the contenders and pretenders are starting to emerge.
Looking back on my preseason predictions, there haven’t been too many surprises in the standings, but I’d say Tri-City is exceeding my expectations and Brandon isn’t performing as well as anticipated. I thought Spokane and Prince George would be a bit better, Moose Jaw and Victoria a bit worse, but the rest looks about right with plenty of parity at the top of all four divisions.
Injuries have been a factor for some of those discrepancies, with Brandon and Spokane both losing their Czech import goaltenders in Jiri Patera and Lukas Parik. Those teams are also missing Marcus Kallionkieli and Jake McGrew as impact forwards, respectively, so they will get a boost whenever those four return and should start climbing the standings as a result.
These are still early days, but we’re a month into the Western Hockey League season, so here are 10 thoughts through 10 games.
Raiders Avoiding Hangover
Reigning champion Prince Albert picked up where they left off despite graduating some top-end talent to the pro ranks, with the Raiders getting out to a 7-0-3 start through 10 games. However, they are now on a three-game losing skid at the 12-game mark — struggling below the border on a road trip through the U.S. Division and slipping down to fourth in the CHL’s top-10 rankings.
Still, Marc Habscheid deserves mad props for keeping the Raiders on top of the East Division to this point. From Boston Bilous to Kaiden Guhle to Aliaksei Protas, several returnees have stepped up to alleviate the turnover concerns and take the torch for this season. It’s certainly a younger group — and the Cole Fonstad trade came as a shock — but the experience from last season’s playoff run is paying dividends and keeping Prince Albert in contention to potentially repeat.
Giants Experiencing Hangover
Vancouver, on the other hand, has been sluggish out of the gate as the other finalist from last season. The Giants were .500 through 14 games with a 7-7 record — and they were only missing Bowen Byram for the first two games (both wins), since he was reassigned before the NHL regular season began — but they have yet to hit their stride and should come on strong as the campaign progresses.
Byram is arguably the league’s best player — he’s producing at a point-per-game pace thus far — and his supporting cast has remained much the same on defence and in goal. Some of those veterans have been underachieving to start and Vancouver’s offence is still a work in progress. They weren’t able to lure local boy Brendan Budy to the WHL — he’s back with the BCHL’s Langley Rivermen — so Barclay Parneta will need to continue shopping for a ringer or two up front, but time remains on their side.
Blazers Team to Beat in B.C.?
Kamloops already has three wins over Memorial Cup host Kelowna and two blowouts of Vancouver to sit atop the B.C. Division. Matt Bardsley has been aggressive in upgrading his overagers — acquiring Ryan Hughes and Max Martin — and the Blazers have been firing on all cylinders ever since the preseason. Shaun Clouston has been a perfect fit there and his brother Cory recently joined the coaching staff, stating he saw the potential for something special with this group.
So far, so good, with Connor Zary leading the way offensively in his draft year and Logan Stankoven sure to heat up as one of the league’s most talented rookies. The Blazers’ best players are younger by WHL standards — including goaltender Dylan Garand — so they could be even better in the years to come, but Kamloops is for real this season and already looking like the team to beat in B.C.
Kamloops Continues Dominance of Kelowna
As mentioned, Kamloops has won three straight over Kelowna to start this regular season, but the Blazers have now beat the Rockets nine times in a row dating back to last season. They can make it 10 on Remembrance Day when Kelowna visits Kamloops for a Nov. 11 matinee — wouldn’t that be something to remember for the Blazers?
That total also includes three preseason wins this fall, the tiebreaker triumph to get into the 2019 playoffs, and the last two meetings of the 2018-19 regular season. Kelowna’s last victory over Kamloops was a 2-0 shutout in Kelowna on Feb. 23, which doesn’t seem like that long ago, but the losses have added up in the eight months since then. Five of those nine losses have been one-goal defeats, including two in shootouts and one in overtime. And the three preseason wins should come with an asterisk since Kelowna had seven players away at NHL camps and Kamloops was icing their regular-season roster for the most part. Still, it is six straight wins with full lineups and Kamloops won the 2018-19 season series over Kelowna 6-3-1-0 (Kelowna’s head-to-head record was 4-4-1-1) — and that’s not counting the tiebreaker. It’s been quite the resurgence for Kamloops, considering Kelowna won all eight meetings in 2017-18 — seven in regulation and one in a shootout.
That rivalry is alive and well now, with the biggest games still to come. They could be on a collision course for a first- or second-round playoff matchup, but the real battles begin with a home-and-home set on Jan. 10 in Kamloops and Jan. 11 in Kelowna since the Rockets will have loaded up for their Memorial Cup run by then. Those ringers will have time to develop chemistry before the final home-and-home on March 13 in Kamloops and March 14 in Kelowna. Those should be barnburners, with first place in the division potentially at stake.
Memorial Cup Hosts Off to Good, Not Great Start
Kelowna was 6-3-1-0 through 10 games and is now 7-4-1-0 at the 12-game mark. The Rockets are above .500 and have earned 15 of a possible 24 points thus far. That’s good, but not great for the Memorial Cup hosts. Three of the five losses have come at the hands of Kamloops, while letting one slip away in Prince George and also falling to Vancouver on the road. The latter was Kelowna’s third game in as many days on the second weekend of the season — a difficult stretch that started with an overtime loss in Kamloops before rebounding to beat Everett at home, then getting blanked 4-0 in Langley for Kelowna’s most lopsided loss to date.
Kelowna has played down to their competition at times — Prince George and Swift Current in particular — but, all in all, the Rockets have to be happy with their start. It sure beats last season’s 1-8 start through nine games that cost Jason Smith his job as head coach. Adam Foote is getting better results with a better roster this time around and Bruce Hamilton has yet to make any in-season moves to turn Kelowna into a true contender. Hamilton has been patient, as promised, but those trades will be coming ahead of the Jan. 10 deadline and the Rockets should be a force down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Saskatoon Awaiting Dach Decision
Saskatoon could come out of the Eastern Conference — that was my prediction — but the Blades will need to get back Kirby Dach for that to come to fruition. Dach has suited up for three NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks since recovering from a concussion sustained in a rookie tournament. Dach already has his first NHL goal and an assist — and it sounds like Chicago plans on giving him a long look, leaning towards the 40-game threshold instead of the nine-game audition. At 10 games, Dach’s entry-level contract will kick in with this counting as the first of three years. If he’s on the NHL roster — healthy or hurt — when Chicago plays game No. 41 on New Year’s Eve in Calgary, this season will also count towards unrestricted free agency. That is the bigger concern for Chicago and Saskatoon will be anxiously awaiting that decision in the meantime. Colin Priestner and the Blades will be hoping Dach becomes their trade-deadline ringer.
Ironically, the two teams I predicted to clash for the WHL championship — Vancouver and Saskatoon, with the Giants winning in seven — got off to identically mediocre starts, both .500 through 14 games with the Blades at 7-6-0-1. That prediction was contingent on both Byram and Dach returning to lead their teams through the playoffs. Dach is the last of the big four still in the NHL, with fellow top prospects Byram, Ty Smith (Spokane) and Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge) all surprisingly sent back before the start of the NHL regular season. Lastly on the Saskatoon front, I wasn’t a fan of the decision to keep Riley McKay over Ryan Hughes as their third overager but, to his credit, McKay is leading the Blades in scoring with 13 points in 13 games.
Draft Eligibles Performing Well
Zary was leading the entire league in scoring heading into Friday’s action, with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) over 12 games. He’s projected to be a first-round pick in June, ranked anywhere from No. 15 to No. 31 as of now. There are a handful of potential first-rounders, including Prince Albert’s Kaiden Guhle, Brandon’s Braden Schneider and Vancouver’s Justin Sourdif. Schneider, like Brandon as a whole, isn’t off to a great start statistically in comparison to his draft-eligible peers, but Schneider probably has the best chance of any 2020 prospect from the WHL to make Canada’s world-junior team.
Kelowna’s Pavel Novak could play for the host Czechs in that showcase, having made a smooth and productive transition to North America. Ditto for Everett’s Michal Gut. Portland’s Simon Knak will likely represent Switzerland as well. But those imports will probably be drafted behind the aforementioned Canadian products, and possibly the likes of Edmonton’s Jake Neighbours, Winnipeg’s Connor McClennon, Portland’s Seth Jarvis, Brandon’s Ridly Greig and Prince Albert’s Ozzy Wiesblatt. Defencemen Daemon Hunt of Moose Jaw, Ronan Seeley of Everett, and Finnish import Kasper Puutio of Swift Current could also crack the top three rounds.
Those are the top 15 prospects to track from the WHL this season, though there are at least 20 others on the draft radar as part of a deep class from the Dub despite lacking the elite talents of 2019. There may not be a top-20 pick from the WHL in 2020 after producing two top-five picks, three in the top 10 and five in the top 20 for 2019.
Winnipeg Still Buying, Trying to Win Now
The future is going to be very bright for the Winnipeg Ice — relocated from Kootenay (Cranbrook) — but Matt Cockell is pulling out all the stops to be successful in the present. He clearly wants to make the playoffs in the first season in Winnipeg and to win now as well as later. Cockell has been aggressive on the trade front, swinging and missing on a couple NCAA commits in acquiring the rights to Carter Savoie from Regina and Dylan Holloway from Everett, but he’s since landed Jackson Leppard from Prince George to prove Winnipeg is still a buyer.
The Ice were occupying a playoff spot at 6-4-1-0 through 11 games and on a three-game winning streak, with Leppard enjoying a three-point performance in his Winnipeg debut. Things are looking up there and Peyton Krebs should be back soon — considering he was named to Team WHL for the Canada-Russia Series in November. That should help McClennon pick up his scoring pace, while new import Michal Teply has hit the ground running with 11 points in as many games. Carson Lambos is already Winnipeg’s best defenceman as a 16-year-old rookie — racking up nine points (four goals, five assists) over 11 games. Matthew Savoie has been limited to one assist through five appearances, but the 15-year-old phenom is sure to get that first goal sooner than later and take off from there.
This group has significant upside and Cockell seems bound and determined to get them all playoff experience this season, so don’t expect Krebs to be traded despite the potential for a massive return as the league’s biggest fish ahead of that Jan. 10 deadline.
Prices Are High in Sellers’ Market
There haven’t been a ton of trades thus far, but it has been a sellers’ market based on the returns for Leppard and Fonstad as 19-year-old forwards and even for Hughes and Martin as overagers. Those packages were all quite steep and have set the bar high for the rest of the buyers.
Kelowna will be buying and could really use both Krebs and Ty Smith — reminiscent of the Rockets landing Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey for their 2015 championship run — but those two are unlikely to be available and would cost a fortune. And not a small fortune, with the asking price presumably being multiple first-round picks among other assets. But Spokane isn’t expected to sell — rather to contend in the U.S. Division — and Winnipeg has been very reluctant to move Krebs going back to last season’s deadline and the 2019 bantam draft when Kelowna was dangling the fifth overall pick.
Eventually more sellers will emerge and the prices may come down closer to the deadline, but the buyers will need to pony up in the present if they want to improve sooner than later. Based on the standings, it’s safe to assume Prince George is open for business after moving Leppard, but the Cougars don’t have much more to offer unless Taylor Gauthier is on the block — with Calgary looking like a good fit to bring home that goaltender. Swift Current and Regina don’t have many coveted players either.
Kelowna has an open import spot and will likely upgrade their third overager — no offence to Carson Sass — so those targets could include Tri-City’s Krystof Hrabik or Kyle Olson, Seattle’s Matthew Wedman, Red Deer’s Brett Davis and Regina’s Austin Pratt among forwards, but the Rockets’ preference is probably for another over-age defender, which is harder to pinpoint at the moment.
Red Deer also has defence captain Dawson Barteaux, Tri-City has hot-starting Sasha Mutala, and Moose Jaw has Brayden Tracey as NHL draft picks that would warrant bidding wars amongst the buyers if they become available as deadline additions. Another wild card could be Lethbridge, with Cozens and Calen Addison, but the Hurricanes are trending up on a five-game winning streak right now. Time will tell.
Battles of Alberta Brewing
The Central Division is going to be a slugfest the rest of the way — with Edmonton and Calgary still looking like the heavyweights on paper, but Medicine Hat and Lethbridge are hardly the undercard. They aren’t going to be pushovers, with Medicine Hat the league’s highest-scoring team thus far and backstopped by arguably the best goaltender in Danish import Mads Sogaard. Lethbridge has those high-end talents but depth is a concern there in comparison to the Central’s other frontrunners, which is why the Hurricanes could pull out of that race at some point. Calgary is technically scoring even more than Medicine Hat (4.22 to 4.17 goals per game is the math) and has cut Carl Stankowski to make room for another goalie — Gauthier makes the most sense there — while Edmonton is in good shape from top to bottom in topping the division standings heading into Friday’s action.
A lot could change between now and March 22 when the regular season wraps up, but there could be another Edmonton-Calgary Battle of Alberta in the 2020 playoffs — the WHL playoffs and perhaps even the NHL playoffs. Could you imagine, Oil Kings versus Hitmen and Oilers versus Flames in the same spring? That would be all kinds of fun. In the Dub, Edmonton (.792) and Calgary (.722) have the best winning percentages in the Central Division as of Oct. 25 and are both top-three teams in the league, along with Everett (.727). Medicine Hat and Prince Albert (both .708) round out the top five through the first month. The Central might be the best division right now, but B.C. is going to be just as interesting in determining the top three over the second half. Fun times ahead!