The Season Ahead: WHL

Part two of our three-part trip through the CHL will see us head west for a look at the season ahead in the Western Hockey League. Last season saw the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires end the WHL’s two-year reign as home of the Memorial Cup champions (the Vancouver Giants in 2006 and the Spokane Chiefs in 2007), and WHL teams will surely be looking to take the Cup back this year.

Still licking their wounds from a loss to Windsor in the Memorial Cup final, the 2008-09 WHL champion Kelowna Rockets have not fared much better in the offseason following the defeat. The Rockets have lost Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars), Colin Long (Phoenix Coyotes), and Michael Backlund (Calgary Flames), the team’s top three play-off scorers, to their NHL clubs. For Kelowna, hope for a return to the Memorial Cup comes in the form of 6’7” defenceman Tyler Myers, who Slam! sports referred to as “the Zdeno Chara of the WHL.” However, even his return to the team is a question mark, depending on his performance during training camp with the Buffalo Sabres.

Also watching NHL training camp battles with interest are the Vancouver Giants. Already reeling from the graduation of reigning scoring champ Casey Pierro-Zabotel, the Giants are specifically focused on the Atlanta Thrashers’ camp, where 2009 first round draft pick (fourth over-all) Evander Kane is looking to crack the big club. On the bright side, Vancouver has brought in former NCAA standout Kevin Connaughton to help form a solid core with new go-to forward Lance Bouma and up-and-coming defenceman David Musil. The team is heavy on intangibles after falling victim to the Rockets in the conference final despite going in as the No. 1 seed.

With conference front-runners Kelowna and Vancouver struggling with player personnel issues, the Western Conference could be ripe for the taking on the part of an opportunistic underdog and the Prince George Cougars could fit the bill. The Cougars boast a rising goaltending phenom in Michael Salmon and, most notably, scoring phenom Brett Connolly. The left winger’s 30-goal campaign last season as a 16-year-old caught the attention of many observers and helped him secure a No. 5 ranking in TSN’s top 10 prospect list for the 2010 draft. TSN’s Bob McKenzie called Connolly “a smooth and polished offensive performer who plays the game with a great deal of confidence.”

The Eastern Conference champion Calgary Hitmen were so flush with firepower last season that even losing a few of their top scorers should not diminish the team’s status as an offensive powerhouse. The Hitmen, who scored a WHL-high 330 goals and boasted three of the top eight leading scorers last season, will welcome back league leading scorer Brandon Kozun, bruising wingers Ian Schultz and Kris Foucault, and power play quarterback Michael Stone. Two games into the 09-10 season, Tyler Fiddler appears primed to step into an offence-oriented role with the Hitmen, already collecting four goals and an assist.
Breathing down the neck of the Hitmen are the Saskatoon Blades, who finished second to Calgary in the 2008-09 conference standings and return seven of their top eight scorers. These players include Saskatoon’s top three scorers from a year ago, Derek Hulak, Milan Kytnar, and Walker Wintoneak. On the defensive end, the Blades return Stefan Elliott and Teigan Zahn, as well as Finnish puck mover Jyri Niemi who, as notes, “has quickly become a crowd favorite in [two seasons] largely for his big shot and enthusiastic goal celebrations.” The team’s biggest question mark will come in between the pipes, where inexperienced Adam Morrison will be called on to backstop the Blades in just his second WHL season and first as a starter.

Though Kelowna and Vancouver have plenty to lose as they see their star players vie for NHL jobs in training camp, perhaps no team has more on the line than the Brandon Wheat Kings, who have to be considered the wild card in the East. Conference finalists last season, the Wheat Kings could see 2009 first round draft picks C Brayden Schenn (No. 5, Los Angeles) and RW Scott Glennie (No. 8, Dallas) depart. Yet, if they both return, Brandon quickly becomes a team to watch this year. If Schenn and Glennie stick with their NHL clubs, look for 30-goal scorer Jay Fehr to become the offensive focus. On the blue line, Florida Panthers draft pick Colby Robak is coming off a 42-point campaign and should take the reins on the powerplay.

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