September 19, 2019
by Robert Murray
Here’s an overview of the five BC Division WHL teams ahead of the season openers this weekend. A look at who’s returning, who’s new, and team expectations for the new season.
Teams are presented in order of finish in theirdivision last season.
General Manager: Bruce Hamilton
Head coach: Jason Smith
Pre-season record: 0-2-1-1
2017-18 record: 43-22-5-2, First in B.C. Division
2018 Playoffs: 0-4-0-0, Eliminated in Round One of 2018 WHL Playoffs to Tri-City Americans (4-0)
Top scorers: RW Kole Lind (39-56-95), C Dillon Dube (38-46-84), LW Carsen Twarynski (45-27-72)
20-year-olds: RW Ryan Bowen (1-5-6), D Braydyn Chizen (6-13-19)
Imports: D Libor Zabransky (Czech Republic), D Lassi Thomson (Finland)
Forwards: Through the likes of Kole Line, Dillon Dube, and Carsen Twarynski, the Kelowna Rockets roared to their eighth B.C. Division title in franchise history last season, but now face the reality that all three are bound for the professional game.
That leaves Kyle Topping as the team’s highest-scoring returning player. A 65-point (22G-43A) campaign in his second full season had Topping on the radar for the 2018 NHL Draft and after being passed over, he’ll be on a mission to show teams made a mistake on not selecting him.
Big seasons from Leif Mattson and Conner Bruggen-Cate during 2017-18 will thrust the pair into bigger offensive roles this coming season. On the overage front, Ryan Bowen could find himself in a critical spot throughout the team’s top nine forwards. Acquired in a trade with the Lethbridge Hurricanes last January, Bowen has 57 points (21G-36A) in 143 career WHL games.
The spotlight will continue to be on the Rockets’ and their system of development as 2019 NHL Draft prospect Nolan Foote earns more attention in the build up to June’s annual event. With impressive campaigns of 40 and 35 points, Nolan will spend the year striving to try and equal or better his older brother’s draft position of 14th overall from 2017.
Defence: Losing their three highest-scoring defencemen in captain Cal Foote, Gordie Ballhorn, and James Hilsendager isn’t an easy blow for the team to take, but they still have some strong talent coming back to them in the form of Braydyn Chizen and import Libor Zabransky.
Kaedan Korczak’s role will the team will also undoubtedly increase as he enters his first year of eligibility for the NHL Draft. The Yorkton, Sask. product was part of the group of WHL players who won gold with Hockey Canada at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup and could garner more requests to represent Canada on the international stage in the short future. The 11th overall selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft put up a respectable 16 points (3G-13A) in his rookie campaign. While his offensive contributions aren’t what make Korczak who he is, after the pieces the Rockets lost, they certainly won’t turn down anything the promising young talent has to offer.
While the Rockets have lost three big names, their incoming defensive core is centred around a group of five players who have just turned 18 or are soon-to-be turning 18-years-old as Finnish defenceman Lassi Thomson will celebrate a birthday on Monday, September 24. It may not be enough to keep them in championship contention this year, but could provide dividends during next year’s run and beyond.
Goaltending: The Rockets appear to have been set for a while on the going with the young tandem of 18-year-old James Porter and 17-year-old Roman Basran, a smart move for a team experiencing so much change.
While the natural thought process would be to stick a strong veteran in net or trade for an upgrade in net, the team appears to be content for the time being in letting the pair battle it out amongst each other for the right to earn the majority of time in net. This is a battle that Porter may get the edge in too as the Bonners Ferry, Idaho product aptly filled in with a 22-9-4-1 record while picking up three shutouts last season.
Basran meanwhile made his first start one to remember in November 2017, stopping all 38 shots from the Medicine Hat Tigers to shut them out. Now, both weren’t perfect and experienced their own share of struggles, but by leaning on the pair, the hope appears to be that the team can develop one of the better young tandem’s in the league that could be with them for the next three seasons.
Player to watch: Names like Lind, Comeau, and Guard among many others have followed their roots from the province of Saskatchewan to the Kelowna Rockets and beyond while other players like Erik Gardiner and Korczak carry the flag currently. Weyburn’s Ethan Ernst could be the next to follow that path as the 16-year-old center looks to make an impact in his rookie season with the Rockets.
Ernst had himself a productive season in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League, recording 35 points (15G-20A) in 41 games with the Notre Dame Hounds as they won the 2018 Telus Cup. With that championship experience in the back of his mind, he’ll be ready to take on a role with the Rockets that could lend itself to more offensive responsibility as he matures and adjusts to the league.
Prognosis: Given the offseason losses for the Rockets, they may have a hard time contending for their ninth B.C. Division crown. Exceptional performances from a young roster will be required to keep the Rockets in contention. That being said, the Rockets have never strayed too far from the spotlight. Any of the other four B.C. Division teams making inroads this season will have to keep an eye on the rear-view mirror as soon as the start of the 2019-20 campaign. It’s fair to expect a dip in performance this coming season, thought that still may be enough to earn them a playoff spot.
General Manager: Cameron Hope
Head coach: Dan Price
Pre-season record: 4-1-0-0
2017-18 record: 39-27-4-2, Second in B.C. Division
2018 Playoffs: 4-7-0-0, Eliminated in Round Two of 2018 WHL Playoffs to Tri-City Americans (4-0)
Top scorers: C Matthew Phillips (48-64-112), C Tyler Soy (36-56-92), C Dante Hannoun (25-54-79)
20-year-olds: C Dante Hannoun (25-54-79), D Ralph Jarratt (2-13-15), G Griffen Outhouse (35-17-4-1, 3.08 GAA, 0.914 SV%, 2 SO)
Imports: LW Igor Martynov (Belarus), Phillip Schultz (Denmark)
Forwards: Losing your top two scoring forwards in franchise history over the course of an off-season, but that appears to be a reality the Royals will live through heading into the 2018-19 campaign with absences of both Tyler Soy and Matthew Phillips.
Returning to lead the club’s group of forward though will be Dante Hannoun, who finished third behind the aforementioned duo with 79 points (25G-54A), with import Igor Martynov another top-scoring returner with 43 points (18G-25A) last season. Kaid Oliver is another returning forward that could give the club a boost after the White Rock, B.C. product tallied 25 points (6G-19A) in 64 games last season, establishing career highs in all three categories.
With 17 points (8G-9A) in 99 career WHL games, D-Jay Jerome hasn’t quite found his offensive game at the WHL level until the 2018 WHL pre-season. In five games, the Lethbridge, Alta. product led the league with 10 points (5G-5A). Could the 2018-19 WHL Regular Season be a breakout one for the former Lethbridge AAA Hurricanes forward?
While last year’s version of the Royals heavily relied upon Soy and Phillips, Vancouver Island’s team will need to enact a by-committee approach to achieve offensive success. After an 18-point (11G-7A) rookie campaign, Parker, Colo. product Dino Kambeitz could become a critical part of the team’s offensive attach. Offseason acquisitions like Brandon Cutler and Tanner Sidaway will also be looked to for help while the trio of Tarun Fizer, rookie Tyus Gent and import Phillip Schultz will be given opportunities to succeed.
Defence: With the departures of Chaz Reddekopp and Jared Freadrich, the Royals will also undergo some change on the blue line, but remain in a relatively stable position.
Luckily for them, they’ll have Montreal Canadiens prospect Scott Walford back into the fold to help ease the team’s transition to a new generation. Regulars from last season, including Mitchell Prowse and Ralph Jarratt will be back in the lineup and looking to contribute more as well. Trading for Jameson Murray isn’t quite the blockbuster move the club, but more a calculated depth one that could be beneficial in the long run of the team’s season.
Walford returns having been one of the team’s top two leading scorers as he tied Freadrich for the scoring lead among blue liners with 32 points (2G-30A), though Walford had 10 fewer goals and 10 more assists, tying them for 35th in the league’s defensive scoring race. Former captain Joe Hicketts was the last defenceman to surpass 50 points and finish inside the Top 10 for defensive scoring, so the Royals aren’t leaning too heavily on Walford and company to drive
Goaltending: Last season, you could easily find Griffen Outhouse on the highlight reels as he made one spectacular save after another. The unfortunate reality was that while we saw him there on several occasions, it wasn’t enough to turn the tide in the Royals’ season as they fell short of capturing the B.C. Division crown in the regular season then were swept in Round Two by the upstart Tri-City Americans.
Now, there’s no benefit to shouldering the blame on Outhouse, his defence or other teammates, but in a year where he could have worked himself into a conversation among the elite goaltenders in the league, he seemed to always be just on the outside of that bubble, setting a new career-high with 35 victories while posting a 3.08 goals-against-average and 0.914 save percentage.
Luckily for the Likely, B.C. product there’s still one more season to showcase and it could provide a strong second chance for him. What he does with it will define his time in the league.
Player to watch: With secondary scoring a big requirement for the Royals coming into the season and the period open for the team to test out new options to determine their fit, Delta, B.C. product Tyus Gent could find himself as one of those options. The 2001-born winger recorded his first WHL point last season in a five-game audition with the Royals and is back for more. The team’s fourth round selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft was a force for the Delta Hockey Academy of the CSSHL last season, racking up 45 points (21G-24A) in 29 games. How quickly he transitions his game to the WHL could be of great importance to the Royals.
Prognosis: The Royals window for being a division contender may be closing, but there’s still a ray of hope for the club this season. Without a doubt, the club should have an easy time returning to the WHL Playoffs in March 2019, but without Soy and Phillips, the path won’t be as certain. After scoring the most goals in the B.C. Division last season, they’ll be hard-pressed to repeat that feat, but an area they could identify for improvement comes with their defence where they allowed 264 goals, the second-highest total in the five-team division.
General Manager: Barclay Parneta
Head coach: Michael Dyck
Pre-season record: 2-3-0-1
2017-18 record: 36-27-6-3, Third in B.C. Division
2018 Playoffs: 3-4-0-0, Eliminated in Round One of 2018 WHL Playoffs to Victoria Royals (4-3)
Top scorers: RW Ty Ronning (61-23-84), LW Tyler Benson (27-42-69), C James Malm (19-47-66)
20-year-olds: RW Davis Koch (22-36-58), RW Jared Dmytriw (15-11-26), D Matt Barberis (3-27-30)
Imports: C Milos Roman (Slovakia), RW Yannik Valenti (Germany)
Forwards: The Giants had three players selected at the 2018 NHL Draft, including forward Milos Roman, who was taken by the Calgary Flames and appears poised to come back and be a bigger part of the Giants’ success.
The highest-scoring returning forward is 19-year-old James Malm, who set career-highs in goals (19), assists (47), and points (66) last season and is ready for more.
Mid-season acquisition and Surrey, B.C. product Davis Koch will play his overage season close to home with the Giants. In 68 games last season between Edmonton and Vancouver, he tallied 58 points (22G-36A), dipping down from his 70-point season in the 2016-17 campaign. If he can return to that form, the Giants will be better off for it.
Brayden Watts is another forward with potential going forward. The 19-year-old California product broke out for 39 points (17G-22A) last season and will be on the hunt for more.
Also from the team’s group of 1999-born forward is Dawson Holt. The team’s first round selection from the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft performed at his best last season in 65 games, potting 34 points (12G-22A). If he can continue to play a regular role this coming season, Holt could be a big reason the Giants succeed how they do.
Defence: If the Giants are going to live up to the contender status for this coming season, you can bet their strong defensive core will have a lot to do with it.
The biggest storyline heading into the season is that of Cranbrook, B.C. product Bowen Byram, whose name has been tossed around as the top defenceman available at the 2019 NHL Draft. Byram finished his rookie season by recording 27 points (6G-21A) in 60 games, third among all rear guards on the team.
While he’s in competition with the league’s other top prospects, he’s worked with them on the international stage over the past 12 months, winning silver with Canada Red at the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and then being a part of Canada’s gold medal victory at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
With June’s draft taking place just a short distance from his home rink of the Langley Events Centre, Byram has had his name mentioned as one of the top-ranked WHL talents available in the draft and will face a lot of attention over the coming months.
In addition to Byram’s growth, the team will welcome back their top two scoring defencemen in Dylan Plouffe and Matt Barberis, who recorded 40 (9G-31A) and 30 (3G-27A) points respectively last season.
Even after ranking those three, there’s still the matter of discussing Alex Kannok-Leipert, who heard his name called at the 2018 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals. A modest 21-point (5G-16A) rookie season for the 6-foot-0, 195-pound Regina, Sask. product has emerged as a strong option on the right side for the team and could take a step forward on a strong Giants team this coming season.
Goaltending: The Giants’ roster has their fair share of first-round blue-chip selections up front and on the blue line, but what’s become more apparent in looking at this year’s roster buildup is lower-round picks that are now yielding benefits for the Giants.
Case in point, with the 130th overall selection at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, the Giants selected North Vancouver, B.C. product David Tendeck. In his first season handling full-time duties, he rose to the challenge, going 25-16-3-2 with a 3.02 GAA, and a 0.912 SV% with three shutouts.
The Arizona Coyotes deemed Tendeck worthy of the 166th selection at last June’s NHL Draft and the 18-year-old, who will turn 19-years-old in late November, is eager to prove his team worthy of an entry-level contract.
If that wasn’t enough, Brandon, Man. product and the 20th overall selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft Trent Miner, is waiting in the wings as this year’s backup.
Player to watch: The 2018 WHL Trade Deadline yielded many benefits for the Giants, but perhaps it was most evident in Edmonton, Alta. product Joel Sexsmith.
The 2017 first-round selection from the Swift Current Broncos tallied 16 points (3G-13A) in 19 games with the Edge School Elite 15s last season and has five games worth of WHL experience under his belt already. Sexsmith may not yet be the dominant offensive beast the Giants might want from him in the future, but for this coming season, it feels like the perfect situation to let him grow in a second or third pairing role, possibly attend the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and have him for a lengthy run in the 2019 WHL Playoffs.
Prognosis: It’s important for every team to take baby steps when rebuilding their franchise, but the Giants appear ready to run after their long-awaited return to the WHL Playoffs last March.
Of the teams already discussed as having a roster balanced and deep enough to compete for the Ed Chynoweth Cup, the Giants deserve a mention on that list too.
In losing Ronning and Benson, the Giants took a hit, but not as much as some may think. The team still has the pieces in place to succeed up front and retained the core of their defence for the coming season.
While those writing the previews may believe this team is ready to make another run at winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup, it’ll be interesting to see what the new General Manager and Head Coach duo of Barclay Parneta and Michael Dyck do to improve the team’s odds.
General Manager: Matt Bardsley
Head coach: Serge Lajoie
Pre-season record: 4-1-0-0
2017-18 record: 30-37-1-4, Fourth in B.C. Division
2018 Playoffs: Did not qualify for 2018 WHL Playoffs
Top scorers: LW Jermaine Loewen (36-28-64), D Joe Gatenby (13-46-59), RW Quinn Benjafield (19-28-47)
20-year-olds: LW Jermaine Loewen (36-28-64), C Luc Smith (21-23-44), G Dylan Ferguson (24-28-1-3, 2.95 GAA, 0.907 SV%, 1 SO)
Imports: RW Martin Lang (Czech Republic), Joonas Sillanpää (Finland)
Forwards: Jermaine Loewen’s breakout 64-point (36G-28A) was one of the major individual storylines for the season. Loewen, who calls Arborg, Man. home set career-highs in all three statistical categories.
At the 2018 NHL Draft, his story continued as the 20-year-old was selected in the seventh round, 199th overall, by the Dallas Stars, making him the first-ever Jamaican-born player to be selected at the NHL Draft. With Loewen now established as the team’s top scoring threat for the coming season, how he follows up last season’s performance will be worth watching.
Luc Smith is another one of the team’s returning 20-year-olds, looking to improve on a 44-point (21G-23A) campaign last season. Like Loewen, Smith experienced a sharp offensive increase, doing so in his first full season with the club, producing at a point-per-game pace nearly double to what he accomplished in 61 games between the Regina Pats and Blazers last season. What he has planned for an encore will be critical for the Blazers’ success as he takes on a bigger offensive role with the club.
Secondary scoring options for the Blazers are plentiful.
Offseason acquisition Zane Franklin is one of those options, tallying 38-points (14G-24A) in 67 games with the Lethbridge Hurricanes last season.
That was a similar point total put up by Brodi Stuart, who had 16 goals in 70 games to boot as part of an impressive rookie season, helping him earn WHL Rookie of the Month honours in November 2017.
Connor Zary and Orrin Centazzo will also feature in a Blazers attack that will be eyeing an improvement on the 212 goals they scored last season, ranking last among all B.C. Division clubs.
Defence: Surprisingly, a statistic lost in the shuffle of last season was that the Blazers allowed the fewest goals in the B.C. Division, giving up just 3.29 goals per game, though their offensive production couldn’t meet that same standard.
Looking to turn the tide to the positive on the offensive side of the puck, the Blazers will be eyeing a continuation of what made them successful defensively.
With the departure of overage defenceman Joe Gatenby, the Blazers will look to players like Nolan Kneen to steer the team’s group of talent on the blue line.
The third overall selection from the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft recording a career-high 37 points (7G-30A) in 68 games. As one of the two 19-year-olds on the team’s defence, Kneen is the eldest and most experienced, entering the season with 194 games of WHL experience.
Piquing NHL interest was Montana Onyebuchi, who put together a modest 17-point (4G-13A) campaign split between the Blazers and Everett Silvertips.
The 18-year-old’s physical play is one of his many positive traits as is his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame, which should punish those seeking to score against Kamloops this season. After being ranked by NHL Central Scouting on their list of North American skaters last season and earning an invite to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s rookie camp, Onyebuchi will be out to get noticed and make the Blazers better in the long run.
Goaltending: For the Blazers, a lot depends on whether or not the Vegas Golden Knights return veteran Dylan Ferguson to the WHL club.
His return could significantly boost the odds of the Blazers returning to the WHL Playoffs, especially as the Golden Knights aren’t in a particularly dire need of players between the pipes at the moment — knock on wood. Ferguson’s 2.95 GAA and 0.907 SV% were solid performances that may have gone unnoticed. During a 13-day stretch in late January 2018, Ferguson won all five games he played in, allowing seven goals for a 1.41 GAA and 0.960 SV%. Those were peak good times though, which didn’t always last.
It’s fair to question Ferguson’s consistency, which stands to reason that another year in the league honing is skills is a benefit to Ferguson, the Blazers, and the Golden Knights.
Waiting in the wings are a trio of puckstoppers at or under the age of 18 in Max Palaga, 2017 WHL Cup champion Dylan Garand, and Saskatoon, Sask. product Rayce Ramsay.
Player to watch: Martin Lang is an intriguing add to the Blazers’ forward core. Turning 17-years-old just a few days ago, the 14th overall selection in the 2018 CHL Import Draft was born on the cutoff date for the 2019 NHL Draft.
Posting 59 points (37G-22A) in 35 games with HC Plzen U18 last season, it’s evident Lang is eager to test his offensive talents in the WHL as part of his journey that he hopes leads to the professional game. He’s found offensive success quickly at his respective age groups and even when tasked against playing up a level in his native Czech Republic.
Like many of the 2019 NHL Draft Canadian-born talent available, Lang has represented his country internationally over the past year, participating in the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup. How quickly he adapts to the league will be a storyline worth taking note of.
Prognosis: A rough start at the beginning of the season put the Blazers in a hole early on. While they did an admirable job at finishing strong, the difference for them missing the 2018 WHL Playoffs could easily be factored into that early slide. Simply put, avoiding a repeat of that performance will be essential.
With a new General Manager and Head Coaching duo in Matt Bardsley and Serge Lajoie the Blazers have two quality minds at the helm of the organization in an important time. The team also has a top-ranked WHL prospect waiting for them in the 2019-20 regular season as Logan Stankoven will look to boost his home team’s status within the league.
Eyeing the 2019 WHL Playoffs and beyond, the future is bright for the Blazers.
Led by Sherwood Park, Alta. product Joel Lakusta, the Cougars retained the majority of their defensive core for the coming season. Lakusta led all Cougars defenders last season with 42 points (9G-33A) and will figure to be the team’s top-performing offensive option on the blue line.
The team also appears ready to return the likes of Ryan Schoettler, Cole Moberg, Austin Crossley, Cameron MacPhee, and Rhett Rhinehart to keep together a group for another season that can hopefully develop more chemistry and improve on the aforementioned goals allowed figure from last season.
Goaltending: As a rookie, Taylor Gauthier posted the first eight wins of his WHL career, facing 30.47 shots per 60 minutes in his first 32 games. While he showed great potential throughout the year, his efforts sometimes weren’t full utilized by the Cougars.
Case in point, Gauthier recorded 56 saves against the Regina Pats in January 2018. In mid-December, he stopped 50 of 54 shots against the eventual-Western Conference Champion Everett Silvertips.
Against the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy-winning Moose Jaw Warriors, Gauthier stopped 44 of 48 shots in early February. Finally, against the B.C. Division Champion Kelowna Rockets near the end of the regular season, Gauthier stopped 44 of 50 shots. He took a regulation loss in all four of those games and picked up just one win in games where he stopped 35 or more shots.
Gauthier showed at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup how valuable he can be, stopping all 16 shots he faced in the gold medal game of the tournament after replacing the game’s starting goaltender.
The Cougars have a talented netminder in Gauthier, who should have control of the net this season. It’d be best to build around the 17-year-old for the next two seasons.
Entering his first year of eligiblity for the NHL Draft, Gauthier will be looking to elevate his game to the next level.
Player to watch: Tyson Phare, the 18th overall selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft has already made his WHL debut, playing a pair of games for the Cougars last season, but he’s hoping to lock down a full-time role this coming season.
Winning gold at the 2017 WHL Cup with British Columbia, the Maple Ridge, B.C. product has switched from forward to defence where the Cougars are hoping his 6-foot-0, 183-pound frame will be most effective.
With the Yale Hockey Academy last season, Phare recorded 39 points (20G-19A) in 27 games. Now those numbers were in his previous position, and asking him to replicate those same numbers from the blue line would be too much to ask of a 16-year-old.
Regardless, the Cougars have a strong prospect in Phare, regardless of where he plays and he’ll be an up-and-comign asset for years to come.
Prognosis: A year after winning their third division title in franchise history last season, the Prince George Cougars missed the playoffs, mainly due to the process of losing their top offensive stars ahead of the 2017-18 WHL Regular Season, a reality many of their rivals in the division have no undergone.
To build upon that, last year’s young stars are now a year older and with more of a stable footing in the league should provide a better effort than last year’s 58-point effort.
Things still won’t be easy, but even with the introduction of new General Manager Mark Lamb, there was no big offseason shakeup of the roster, leaving the team’s young core in tact for the coming seasons.
The Cougars capitalized on the value of both Dennis Cholowski and Josh Anderson at the 2018 WHL Trade Deadline, adding several assets for the coming years that Lamb will be able to play with to keep his team in the spotlight as a divisional contender.
What the Cougars have now is a window with their talent like Gauthier, the Cougars will look to improve upon their 13-15-5-1 record in the B.C. Division last season and will get plenty of opportunity to compete for a spot in the 2019 WHL Playoffs.