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WHL EASTERN DIVISION PREVIEW

As the 2018-19 Western Hockey League’s regular season approaches, each division will be previewed leading up to the first day of the regular season Friday Sept. 21. Team capsules are presented in order of 2017-18 finish within their own division. Today, we take a look at the East Division.

 General Manager: Alan Millar

Head coach: Tim Hunter

Pre-season record: 2-3-0-1, 5 points

2017-18 record: 52-15-2-3, 109 points ­– First in East Division, First in WHL

2018 Playoffs: Eliminated in second round by Swift Current Broncos

Top scorers: C Jayden Halbgewachs (70-59–129), LW Brayden Burke (31-82–113), C Justin Almeida (43-55–98)

20-year-olds: LW Tristin Langan (16-26–42), D Dalton Hamaliuk (4-12–16), D Brandon Schuldhaus (8-19–27), G Brodan Salmond (13-10-0-1, 3.67 GAA, .880 SV%)

Imports: RW Yegor Buyalski (Belarus), C Daniil Stepanov (Belarus)

Forwards: CHL leading scorer Jayden Halbgewachs, along with his 70 goals and 129 points are gone – graduated to the professional ranks with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. The same can be said for 82-assist man Brayden Burke, who is off to the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. Combined, that’s 101 goals and 242 points subtracted from the arsenal of head coach Tim Hunter.

While Halbgewachs and Burke won’t be easily replaced, fans and opponents shouldn’t sleep on Justin Almeida. Selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins (5-129) at the 2018 NHL Draft, the product of Kitimat, B.C. shone in a supporting role last season and will have every opportunity to take on some of the offensive slack left behind by Halbgewachs and Burke.

None of the aforementioned includes the loss of heart-and-soul captain Brett Howden, who graduates to join the New York Rangers organization. LW Ryan Peckford, acquired from the Victoria Royals prior to the 2018 WHL Trade Deadline enjoyed a breakout year with 49 points in 73 contests and will be relied upon in a bigger role.

Defence: Despite the graduation of Kale Clague – who took home the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as WHL Defenceman of the Year – the blueline remains an area of strength in Moose Jaw. Also departed is import defenceman Oleg Sosunov, and there’s no question the big man logged big minutes.

Still, a capable crew exists in the form of Montreal Canadiens prospect Josh Brook and Vancouver Canucks prospect Jett Woo, while rookie Daemon Hunt joins the roster full-time and stands to make his presence known after being selected 15th overall at the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.

Goal: Unexpectedly, overage goaltender Brody Willms won’t be available to the Warriors in 2018-19 due to a hip injury. Sophomore Adam Evanoff was a bright spot in relief of Willms last season, going 15-4-0-1 with a 2.65 goals-against average (GAA) in 20 appearances last season. How he responds to a heavier workload in 2018-19 will factor into the Warriors success.

Brought into the mix in the absence of Willms is 20-year-old Brodan Salmond, who joined the Warriors after having spent the past three seasons with the Kelowna Rockets. The product of Calgary battled injuries in 2017-18 and went 13-10-0-1 with a 3.67 GAA and .880 save percentage in 26 appearances. But with an unsettled overage situation, it remains to be seen whether or not Salmond will stick around.

Player to watch: With quality minutes left vacant up front, the time has never been better for Brayden Tracey – the 21st overall selection of the Warriors at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. The 17-year-old product of Calgary skated in five contests with the Warriors last season, notching two assists, while racking up 52 points (21G-31A) in 30 contests with the Calgary AAA Northstars. Having also skated for Canada Red at the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Tracey has high-end ability and his youthful spark will be a welcome addition in Moose Jaw.

Prognosis:  One year after eclipsing the 50-win plateau for the first time in franchise history, en route to claiming the Club’s first Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as WHL Regular Season Champions, the Moose Jaw Warriors enter a new era with the departure of Howden. While star power carried the Club in 2017-18, success will need to come by committee in 2018-19. Healthy seasons from the likes of Brook and Woo on the blueline, coupled with shared responsibility up front on offense and the Warriors will find themselves off to the post-season once again in 2019.

General Manager: Dean Brockman

Head coach: Dean Brockman

Pre-season record: 1-3-0-0

2017-18 record: 48-17-5-2, 103 points ­– Second in East Division

2018 Playoffs: Won WHL Championship

Top scorers: C Glenn Gawdin (56-69–125), C Aleksi Heponiemi (28-90–118), C Tyler Steenbergen (47-55–102)

20-year-olds: C Kaden Elder (18-14–32), RW Tanner Nagel (5-6–11), RW Andrew Fyten (9-14–23), D Artyom Minulin (13-30–43), D Ryan Pouliot (2-8–10)

Imports: RW Joona Kiviniemi (Finland), D Roope Pynnonen (Finland), Minulin (Russia)

Forwards: Perhaps the only team hit worse than the Moose Jaw Warriors would be the Broncos. Gawdin, Heponiemi and Steenbergen were perhaps the most lethal trio in all of Canadian junior hockey and there’s no question they contributed immensely to the Broncos championship run in 2018. All three have graduated on to the pro ranks, leaving large shoes to be filled Swift Current.

Newcomer Ethan O’Rourke – a former third-round selection of the Prince George Cougars at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft – was acquired from the Everett Silvertips this offseason after post 18 points (6G-12A) in 66 games last year. The product of Penticton, B.C. serves as one new candidate to take on some of the vacated minutes.

Aside from the 20-year-olds, Max Patterson returns as a big-bodied veteran up front. The product of Kamloops, B.C. was versatile in his ability to move up and down the line up when injuries called for it last season. This year, with plenty of room in the top six, this could be the year the lanky winger finds a permanent home there. In 72 contests last season, Patterson posted career highs in all major offensive categories with nine goals, 15 assists and 24 points.

Aside from the big three, the Broncos also graduated Giorgio Estephan, Matteo Gennaro and Beck Malenstyn up front.

Defence: The cost of winning a WHL Championship is often immense turnover and the Broncos saw more of the same on the blueline. Gone are Colby Sissons, Sahvan Khaira, Josh Anderson and Jacson Alexander. Minulin will begin the season on the injured list and seems a long shot to play as both an import and overager.

Ryan Pouliot serves as the most experienced on the blueline, having 169 games of WHL experience under his belt. Next in line is Noah King (70 games) and sophomore Connor Horning (50 games).

Import Roope Pynnonen could provide some mobility and two-way presence after being selected in the second round of the 2018 CHL Import Draft.

Goal: Sophomore puck stopper Joel Hofer takes over from Stuart Skinner. After being selected in the fourth round (107th) by the St. Louis Blues at the 2018 NHL Draft, the product of Winnipeg, Man. will have every opportunity to impress as the only returning netminder with WHL experience. In 19 appearances last season, the 6-foot-3 goaltender went 8-31-1 with a 2.61 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and one shutout.

Set to backup Hofer is 17-year-old rookie Isaac Poulter, who was a sixth-round selection (112th) at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

Player to watch: Right winger Ben King will look to shoulder some of the heavyload left behind by the likes of Gawdin, Heponiemi and Steenbergen. Selected 13th overall at the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, the 6-foot, 169-pound product of Vernon, B.C. carries immense potential and will have ample opportunity to make the most of it in 2018-19.

Prognosis: The Broncos went all out in their effort to win the 2018 WHL Championship – the franchise’s first since 1993 – and they were rewarded with the Ed Chynoweth Cup in May. But the 2018-19 edition of the Broncos is vastly different from that which won the WHL title this past spring. Gone is head coach Manny Viveiros, who left for the Edmonton Oilers. The veteran rangers have moved on for pro opportunities. Make no mistake, this roster saw near complete turnover. Fans in Swift Current can look forward to cheering on some fresh faces this season.

General Manager: John Paddock

Head coach: Dave Struch

Pre-season record: 3-3-0-0

2017-18 record: 40-25-6-1, 87 points – Third in East Division

2018 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Swift Current Broncos

Top scorers: C Cameron Hebig (41-49–90), C Sam Steel (33-50–83), C Matt Bradley (37-42–79)

20-year-olds: LW Bryce Platt (4-2–6), D Aaron Hyman (3-10–13), D Cale Fleury (12-39–51), D Brady Pouteau (1-12–13), D Liam Schioler (0-9–9), G Kyle Dumba (0-0-0-0, 4.44 GAA, .857 SV%)

Imports: LW Sergei Alkhimov (Russia), D Nikita Sedov (Russia)

Forwards: Like many of their East Division brethren, the Pats saw plenty of turnover since the page turned on the 2017-18 WHL season. The Clubs’ top three scorers – Hebig, Steel and Bradley – have all graduated.

The time now comes for Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jake Leschyshyn (18-22–40) and Colorado Avalanche prospect Nick Henry (14-15–29) to take the lead in 2018-19. Mix in the physicality of Robbie Holmes (16-13–29) and Austin Pratt (7-13–20) and you have a nice mix of veterans up front.

Intrigue exists in the form of former first-round bantam selection Koby Morrisseau. Selected ninth overall by the Spokane Chiefs at the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, the product of Grandview, Man. showed immense potential in racking up 61 points through 30 games with the Parkland AAA Bantam Rangers. Injuries have slowed the skilled forward, but perhaps the departure of key pieces up front will provide the former bantam standout with an opportunity to shine.

Defence:  There’s a backlog of four overage blueliners in the Queen City, including Montreal Canadiens prospect Cale Fleury. While not all will be able to stick around, the veteran depth on the back end will help Regina keep pace in the East Division race this season.

Import Nikita Sedov steps in to take the place of import defenceman Libor Hajek, who is off to the pro game with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Jonas Harkins came over in a mid-season trade last season. Standing 6-foot-2 and tipping the scales at 234 pounds, the hefty rearguard could grow into a bigger role this season after skating in 21 contests last season.

Harkins isn’t the only sophomore looking to munch more minutes. Mobile Marco Creta found his way into 33 outings last season and could tackle bigger tasks in 2018-19.

Let’s not forget the departure of two-way beast Josh Mahura, who moves on to join the Anaheim Ducks organization, leaving a monstrous amount of minutes behind in his wake.

Goal: Max Paddock had his coming out party at the 100th Memorial Cup this past May, going 3-1-0-0 with a 3.65 goals-against average and .908 save percentage on the national stage. The 6-foot-2, 161-pound product of Brandon, Man. did all he could to steal a home-tournament triumph for the Pats, but ultimately fell just short.

Still, it did enough to earn him an invite to training camp with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. With former Pats Tyler Brown and Ryan Kubic having moved on, the crease belongs to Paddock, who will look to build upon a 2017-18 where he went 19-7-1-1 with a 2.90 GAA and .904 SV%.

Player to watch:  The sky is the limit for 15-year-old Cole Dubinsky. Potentially one of the youngest skaters in the entire WHL, the product of Adrossan, Alta., was selected in the fourth round (79th) of the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and won’t turn 16 until December 4. The Pats remain very high on the 5-foot-8, 154-pound speedster after watching him register 30 points (7G-23A) in 34 games with the Delta Hockey Academy Prep squad in 2017-18.

Prognosis:  With the celebration of their 100th season and the accompanying 100th Memorial Cup entered into the history books, the second century of Pats hockey begins with a new face behind the bench. Gone is former WHL Coach of the Year John Paddock, who relinquished his dual duties in favour of strictly the general manager’s role. Taking the reins is former associate coach Dave Struch, who previously served as head coach of the Saskatoon Blades during the 2013-14 season.

The star-power of Steel and Mahura is long gone. But the Pats return a number of key pieces that should allow them to once again push their way in the WHL Playoffs come spring 2019.

 

General Manager: Grant Armstrong

Head coach: David Anning

Pre-season record: 2-0-1-1

2017-18 record: 40-27-3-2, 85 points ­– Fourth in East Division

2018 Playoffs: Eliminated in second round by Lethbridge Hurricanes

Top scorers: LW Ty Lewis (44-56–100), C Stelio Mattheos (43-47–90), RW Evan Weinger (31-26–57)

20-year-olds: LW Ty Lewis (44-56–100), LW Linden McCorrister (20-23–43), D Schael Higson (5-23–28),

Imports: G Jiri Patera (Czech Republic)

Forwards: Mattheos figures to be the focal piece for the Wheat Kings in 2018-19. The 19-year-old product of Winnipeg was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round (73rd) of the 2017 NHL Draft and brings with him 182 points (83G-99A) in 188 career WHL regular season contests.

Lewis remains eligible to return for his WHL overage campaign after signing with the Colorado Avalanche as a free agent last season. Should the hometown product return for one final run, the Wheat Kings will welcome his offensive exploits with open arms.

Passed over at the 2018 NHL Draft, 18-year-old Luka Burzan will be out to prove people wrong. A former first-round bantam selection (sixth overall, Moose Jaw), Burzan posted 40 points in 72 games last season, including 21 points in 30 contests after being acquired by the Wheat Kings at the WHL Trade Deadline.

A mix of talented youngsters fills out the forward group, with Jonny Hooker and Ben McCartney looking to build upon promising rookie seasons.

Defence: The hard-nosed Higson serves as the veteran anchor on the blueline. Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 220 pounds, the product of Grande Prairie, Alta., has collected 335 penalty minutes in 262 WHL regular season contests and won’t give an inch freely to the opposition.

The mobile Chase Hartje landed in Brandon as a key piece in the deal that sent Kale Clague to Moose Jaw last season. A product of Bemidji, Minn., the 5-foot-11 mobile defender managed 25 points in a 58-game rookie campaign.

Perhaps the greatest intrigue on the Brandon blueline exists in a pair of youngsters.

Sophomore Braden Schneider stands 6-foot-2 and already weighs 210 pounds at only 17 years old. In a 66-game rookie season, the former 12th overall bantam selection registered 22 points and followed up by helping Canada win gold at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Meanwhile, Jonny Lambos was acquired by the Wheat Kings in another mid-season deal that saw Tanner Kaspick shipped to the Victoria Royals. Lambos, a product of Winnipeg, was a third-round pick (49th) at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, and is highly touted after notching 28 points in 36 games with Rink Hockey Academy of the CSSHL last season.

Goal: Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jiri Patera appears set to take over the crease in Brandon. Selected in the sixth round (161st) at the 2017 NHL Draft, Patera spent the 2017-18 season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL, going 13-13-0-0 with a 3.24 goals-against average in 34 appearances. While the jury remains out on the 6-foot-2 product of Prague, the fact he already has some North American hockey under his belt should help.

Player to watch: Connor Gutenberg is the kind of player who oft goes unnoticed, but night in and night out provides incredible value to his Club. Beyond notching 53 points (18G-35A) in 72 contests last season, Gutenberg is a reliable shutdown force. The product of Brandon, Man. has continually increased his offensive output and the expectation will be for more in 2018-19. So long as he continues to make life difficult for the opponent any extra offense is a simple bonus.

Prognosis: There is plenty to be excited about in Brandon heading into 2018-19. Not far removed from winning the 2016 WHL Championship, the Wheat Kings find themselves firmly planted in contender conversations heading into the WHL season. Timely offense from veteran forces combined with an up-and-coming blueline and a large European netminder could provide the recipe for success.

General Manager: Curtis Hunt

Head coach: Marc Habscheid

Pre-season record: 2-2-0-1, 5 points

2017-18 record: 32-27-9-4, 77 points – Fifth in East Division

2018 Playoffs: Eliminated in first round by Moose Jaw

Top scorers: C Jordy Stallard (44-47–91), LW Cole Fonstad (21-52–73), C Kody McDonald (34-32–66)

20-year-olds: C Sean Montgomery (12-17–19), McDonald, G Curtis Meger (8-10-5-1, 3.43 GAA, .886 SV%)

Imports: C Aliaksei Protas (Belarus), D Sergei Sapego (Belarus)

Forwards: Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth round (128th) of the 2018 NHL Draft, Cole Fonstad seems set to carry the Prince Albert Raiders in their pursuit of an East Division title. The two-way winger broke out with career-high marks in all major offensive cateorgies last season, including goals (21), assists (52) and points (73). With the departure of leading scorer Jordy Stallard, there’s no better time for Fonstad – a product of Estevan, Sask. – to step up his game.

In a year where the Moose Jaw Warriors, Swift Current Broncos and Regina Pats had all loaded in up for the hunt, the Raiders acquisition of Kody McDonald left some puzzled. Fast forward to 2018-19 and it’s easy to see the plan GM Curtis Hunt had in mind. McDonald, a 6-foot-1, 188-pound power forward from Lethbridge, could emerge as one of the tougher overage players to handle this year.

When you mix in veterans Brett Leason (16-17–33), Spencer Moe (9-13–22), Justin Nachbaur (9-11–20), and Carson Miller (1-7–8), it’s easy to see the Raiders boast enviable depth.

Rookies Ozzy Wiesblatt (2-25, 2017) and Jakob Brook (2-40, 2017) will be eager to make a mark.

Defence: Freshly-minted captain Brayden Pachal is coming off a training camp invite with the Calgary Flames after enjoying a career campaign in 2017-18, notching 26 points (7G-19A) in 68 contests. The 19-year-old product of Estevan, Sask. is set to lead the Raiders as they seek out their first WHL Championship since 1985.

Providing a strong secondary presence on the blueline is veteran Max Martin. The product of Winnipeg also enjoyed a career year in 2017-18, posting 32 points (8G-24A) in 72 outings.

With high-end veterans in Pachal and Martin, the experienced depth of big man Jeremy Masella (6-foot-5, 216 pounds), Zack Hayes (3-14–17) and Konrad Belcourt, not to mention import Sergei Sapego, has the Raiders well stocked on the blueline.

Goal: Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott returns to tend net in Prince Albert. After going 24-16-3-3 with a 3.10 goals-against average and .897 save percentage last season, the pressure is on for the 6-foot-3 product of Calgary to elevate his game. If the Raiders hope to extend their year deep into the post-season, they will need a monstrous performance from the former first-round bantam selection.

Player to watch: Prince Albert will debut 2017 first-overall selection Kaiden Guhle in 2018-19. The younger brother of former WHL standout Brendan Guhle, Kaiden has a bevy of supports to work with, which should help to alleviate any pressure in his rookie season. But make no mistake, the kid can play. After securing 39 points (14G-25A) in 35 games with OHA Edmonton of the CSSHL last season, the younger Guhle brother is already being flagged as a top prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft.

Prognosis: There is absolutely no reason to believe the Prince Albert Raiders won’t run with the best of the rest in the East Division this season. You can count on the Raiders being big, tough and nasty – no win against this Club will come easy. But don’t be surprised if they rack up an impressive regular season while battering opponents along the way. Marc Habscheid-coached teams rarely give an inch and this edition of the Raiders is set to beat teams both on the scoreboard and in the alleyway.

General Manager: Colin Priestner

Head coach: Mitch Love

Pre-season record: 6-1-0-0, 12 points

2017-18 record: 35-33-3-1, 74 points – Sixth in East Division

2018 Playoffs: Did not qualify

Top scorers: LW Braylon Shmyr (37-51–88), RW Max Gerlach (35-35–70), C Josh Paterson (31-22–53)

20-year-olds: RW Max Gerlach (35-35–70), C Bradley Goethals (15-17–32), D Dawson Davidson (10-33–43)

Imports: LW Kristian Roykas Marthinsen (Norway), D Emil Malysjev (Sweden)

Forwards: The Blades are set to return two of their top scorers in Gerlach and Paterson, which is always a good starting point for a Club coming out of the gates.

Meanwhile, sophomore forward Kirby Dach appears healthy after having helped Canada to a gold medal performance at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup. The product of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., has seen his stock rise and is ranked among the top prospects for the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver. Despite battling injuries, the 6-foot-4 pivot still managed to post 46 points (7G-39A) in 52 games last season. Now, expectations are as high as they’ve ever been for Dach.

Two-way centre Chase Wouters was passed over at the 2018 NHL Draft, but found his way to training camp with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The product of Lloydminster, Alta. will be out to prove his worth once again after registering a career-high 51 points (18G-33A) in 72 contests last season.

Centre Eric Florchuk may have been the final player selected in the 2018 NHL Draft (Round 7, 217th – Washington), but he will find himself front and centre in the Bridge City this season. Acquired at the WHL Trade Deadline from the Victoria Royals, the 6-foot-2 product of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. found his stride in Saskatoon and finished the campaign with a career high 50 points (16G-34A) in 71 games.

Defence: Davidson, an overage product of Moosomin, Sask., brings with him 233 games of WHL regular season experience and will serve to anchor the backend.

Jackson Caller enjoyed a solid sophomore season in the Blades lineup last season, notching 26 points (4G-26A) in 70 games.

The exciting name joining the Blades blueline this season is that of former fifth overall bantam selection Aidan De La Gorgendiere. The 16-year-old product of Langley, B.C. was solid in 19 games with Yale Hockey Academy last season, registering 17 points (3G-14A). He was a force at the 2017 WHL Cup, notching two assists in five games to help Team BC knock off Team Alberta to win the entire tournament. The sky is the limit for the impressive youngster. The expectation is for De La Gorgendiere to step in and make an immediate impact as the Blades pursue a return to the post-season.

Goal: Sophomore puckstopper Nolan Maier exploded onto the scene in 2017-18. Originally selected in the second round (25th) of the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, not many expected the product of Yorkton, Sask. to take over the starting role in Saskatoon as a 16-year-old. But after earning an early season call-up from the SJHL’s Yorkton Terriers, Maier forced the Blades’ hand as he earned himself start after start. By the end of the campaign, the youngster had appeared in 43 games, going 23-17-1-1 with a 3.31 goals-against average, .895 save percentage and two shutouts. He was nothing short of exciting and earned himself a place on Canada’s gold-medal winning squad at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

This season, the crease belongs solely to Maier. What he does with it from here on in is up to him.

Player to watch: Former 10th overall bantam draft selection Kyle Crnkovic provides Blades fans with yet another electrifying rookie to be excited about. Like De Le Gorgendiere, Crnkovic showed off his skills at the 2017 WHL Cup, as he tallied 12 points (3G-9A) in five games for Team Alberta. The pint-sized speedster has an engine that doesn’t quit and talent for days, proven by the 64 points (36G-28A) he registered in 30 games with the CSSHL’s Northern Alberta Xtreme last season.

Should Crnkovic – a left winger – establish the smallest shred of chemistry with a player like Dach – look out.

Prognosis: The 2018-19 WHL season might bring with it the most excitement felt in Saskatoon since the Club hosted the 2013 Memorial Cup.

This is a team that has been built with high-end young talent primarily through the WHL Bantam Draft. Dach, Wouters, Paterson, Crnkovic, De La Gorgendiere and Maier have all been drafted and developed within the Blades system.

New head coach Mitch Love is nothing short of motivated, having spent seven seasons as an assistant coach in Everett before earning his opportunity in Saskatoon. Having made a trip to the 2018 WHL Championship as a member of the Silvertips staff and also worked with Hockey Canada at various events, Love brings with him excellent experience and will demand accountability.

With youthful enthusiasm, experienced veterans and an emerging netminder, the expectation is not only an appearance in the WHL Playoffs, but a push well beyond the opening round.

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