(Courtesy of Chris Jaster, Brandon Sun) — It seems like the summer has flown right by, and it has to be over now.
The temperature is cooling off and hockey season is upon us. That’s right, the Western Hockey League’s pre-season is over and the Brandon Wheat Kings begin their new campaign on Friday when they host the Moose Jaw Warriors at Westoba Place at 7:30 p.m.
So what do we expect from the Wheat Kings and the league this season? Well, I’m no Perry Bergson, but here’s my take on the upcoming year.
First and foremost, the power in the Eastern Conference will shift from the East Division to the Central Division. Last year was a strange one as the teams with the four best records in the conference resided in the East Division. In fact, the top two teams in the league, Moose Jaw and Swift Current, were in the division. However, things will be a lot different this time around.
The Broncos and Warriors both sold a lot of assets at last year’s trade deadline to load up for a run to a league title — Swift Current eventually claimed it by beating Everett in six games in the final — and both will deal with the consequences this year and likely for a few more years to come with struggling seasons. The Regina Pats also were buyers last year as they hosted the Memorial Cup, but they have some young talent remaining who may keep them competitive.
That’s good news for the Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades, who have not been perennial playoff powerhouses for quite some time. With half of the teams in the division now in a rebuild, that should mean that Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Brandon should be pushing for the three guaranteed post-season berths for East Division squads.
Meanwhile, the Central Division will likely be a battle. The Lethbridge Hurricanes reached the conference finals each of the past two years and they look to be strong again this year. Although it’s tough to read into pre-season results, Calgary went a perfect 6-0-0-0 and there wasn’t a lot separating Medicine Hat, Edmonton, Red Deer and Kootenay. As much fun as it was to watch the East Division playoff race last year, the same may be said of the Central Division this year.
Based on that, East Division teams will want to stay in the division for their playoff run. The wildcard team that faces the top seed in the Central could be in for a quick exit.
But the playoffs are a long ways away and each team has 68 regular-season games to play (down from 72 last season) to decide who gets that far.
The joy of this time of year is that nothing is written and every team has a lot of hope for the season ahead. That can be said of the Wheat Kings as well.
The team did well last season. Despite trading its captain, Tanner Kaspick, and top defenceman Kale Clague at the deadline, the Wheat Kings posted the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They upset the Central Division champion Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round of the playoffs before being ousted in five games by the Hurricanes in the second round.
By all accounts, this team should be even more exciting this time around.
Other than the three graduates, Brandon didn’t have much turnover in the off-season, and it has a bunch of new players coming in.
There doesn’t appear to be a bad option in net. Dylan Myskiw, 19, showed he can carry the load during the playoffs last season, Ethan Kruger played well in the pre-season and camp while import Jiri Patera is a prospect of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
The team returned five defencemen, including Braden Schneider, who played with Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup this summer, and has 2017 second-round pick Vincent Iorio coming up and pushing for a spot as well as Jonny Lambos, who was acquired in the Kaspick deal. Neithan Salame and Chad Nychuk of Rossburn are also in the mix.
The big question on offence is whether last year’s leading scorer, Ty Lewis, who had 100 points, will return to the club or whether he’ll remain in the Colorado Avalanche system for his overage season.
Even without him, the Wheat Kings will still have Stelio Mattheos, who had 90 points last season, and players like Ben McCartney and Linden McCorrister, who stepped up in the playoffs last season and had a decent pre-season.
There are also hungry young players champing at the bit to make their debut with the team, like hometown product Ty Thorpe and 2017 first-round draft pick Ridly Greig and Lynden McCallum, who started last season with the team before being sent down to the Midget AAA Wheat Kings.
Combining last season’s success with a large number of returning players who are a year older and better as well as a talented new crop should mean the Wheat Kings will be in for a good year again.
I would expect them to be pushing for first place in the division. The question will be how will they fare against the Central Division teams and the ones out west.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot can happen in a season — and the team has a bit of a weird schedule with two extended road trips, one to the West Coast in October and another to Alberta in March while the Tim Hortons Brier takes over Westoba Place — but at this stage of the game, there should be a lot of excitement in Brandon and Westman about the Wheat Kings for the WHL season.