January 22, 2014
Apart from leading their leagues, there would seem to be not much in common between the Kelowna Rockets and Guelph Storm when, in reality, there is.
The two franchises hosted the Memorial Cup tournament in the early 2000s; under the current screwy setup where (t)here's no telling where the guarantee ceiling will end up," one wonders if either team could ever hope to host again. The Rockets lost out on the 2013 bid to the Saskatoon Blades, who couldn't meet the $3.5-million guarantee but had the provincial government make up the difference. The Storm also demurred from making a 2014 bid after astutely realizing its Sleeman Centre is barely half the size of the London Knights' home, the Budweiser Gardens.
It's long been an untenable situation for the Canadian Hockey League for far too long, although it might be symptomatic of some larger economic challenges within the game. Kelowna might have been a more game host team than Saskatoon was in 2013, while time will tell if Guelph is more worthy of being in the four-team finale than the Knights. Either way, it bears pointing out during these dog days of the season.
1. Kelowna Rockets, WHL (.588 RPI, +1.8 SRS, —) — The main guessing game with the Rockets going into this week revolves around when, likely not if, overage Marek Tvrdon breaks loose. He scored once in his first two games and probably deserved to have more to show for his effort. The Rockets, aside from their power play being on an oh-fer stretch, are sitting pretty with 11 of their next 14 games at Prospera Place. With a nine-point lead atop the league standings and games in hand on Calgary and Portland, it's probably not too early for coach Ryan Huska to start planning on how to get his main cogs some rest before the playoffs. That's a spoil of winning 15-of-18 games during a stretch in which you only played twice at home.
2. Guelph Storm, OHL (.587 RPI, +2.1 SRS, —) — The Storm average an OHL-best 4.76 goals and have proved eminently capable of playing a shutdown game, as it did during a 1-0 conquest at Erie last weekend. That's a mark of a contender. It would also be remiss, in the wake of two months of casting aspersions on Guelph's goaltending, that Justin Nichols has a 1.63 average and .950 save percentage since the start of the new year, as he's going as the Storm go.
Guelph remains at least two weeks away from reinserting rambunctious Red Wings second-rounder Tyler Bertuzzi into its lineup.
3. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (.576 RPI, +1.4 SRS, +2) — Why was Portland's win over Vancouver on Monday a model game at the Moda Center? Well, it found a way to have Matt Dumba and Derrick Pouliot, the Nos. 7 and 8 picks in the 2012 draft, score in the same game. Portland's M.O. will appear to be having the two 19-year-old stars pick their spots on when to rush the puck, since this iteration of the Winterhawks isn't quite as loaded up front as past editions and has to squeak out more 3-2 and 4-2 games.
Portland is against nothing but U.S. Division teams for the rest of the month, as it looks to get some separation for the No. 2 playoff seed. It will need a slump from Kelowna to have a shot at winning the Western half.
4. Erie Otters, OHL (.573 RPI, +2.2 SRS, —) — One addendum to that 1-0 loss to the Storm was that André Burakovsky (24 goals in 34 games) was out due to a head injury. Take this as just one person's opinion from someone who watched Erie in person once, but Burakovsky, 6-foot-2 with a laser shot, gives Erie's attack another dimension beyond the vets with the gaudy numbers, Connor Brown and Dane Fox, and can't-miss Connor McDavid. He's a matchup problem.
The question about Erie's lack of shared playoff experience. Erie's chance of finishing first overall could be decided over its next six games, five of which are against teams that are seventh or lower in the conference standings.
5. London Knights, OHL (.564 RPI, +1.4 SRS, -2) — Pardon the pot-stirring, but did anyone else notice that the Knights' player vote for who will wear the letters on the sweaters didn't include Max Domi, who's in his third season with London and leads the team in points per game? There is the whole 'I don't need a letter to be a leader on this team' motif, but it's curious. San Jose Sharks choice Chris Tierney has earned the C, with A's alternating between Josh Anderson, Brady Austin, Bo Horvat and Ryan Rupert.
London comes into the week with Horvat hobbled by the dreaded lower-body injury and Jake Patterson becoming the iron-man goalie.
6. Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL (.550 RPI, +0.2 SRS, +3) — So the goalie trade for Taran Kozun is working out fairly well, eh? Kozun has stopped 109-of-113 shots with two shutouts in his first four starts since arriving in Kent, Wash., helping the T-Birds become a much tougher out. Having a steady 19-year-old goalie was paramount Tuesday when Seattle was shooting itself in the foot with penalties. Seattle has a big Tri-City/Everett/Portland weekend ahead of it.
The gap between Nos 5 and 6 is wider than between 6 and 12, as Seattle continues to be a strength-of-schedule monster. The Thunderbirds
7. Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, QMJHL (.549 RPI, +1.0 SRS, -1) — A five-game stretch without a regulation time win is officially a slump. The Armada have struggled throughout the month, never more so than during a loss at Rimouski where it was not credited with a shot on goal during the first period. The offence by committee approach, with Danick Martel, Christopher Clapperton and Samuel Hodhod heading the attack, hasn't been dangerous enough of late.
8. Baie-Comeau Drakkar, QMJHL (.548 RPI, +1.2 SRS, —) — Last week's Top Prospects Game provided the audience outside of the QMJHL with a chance to size up Alexis Vanier, the 6-foot-5, 224-pound Foreurs defender who could be a riser in the draft. Vanier seems to be move easily and has a lighter touch with the puck than one normally expects with an 18-year-old with his physical dimensions, and Team Orr's stays inside the offensive zone seemed to last longer while he was on the ice. Vanier scored two goals in 26 seconds in a game last weekend. That is a far cry from the Q record for the fastest two snipes by a defenceman, which is five seconds.
9. Spokane Chiefs, WHL (.546 RPI, +0.8 SRS, -2) — Spokane needs a slump-buster, so Moose Jaw and its 18th-ranked defence coming through eastern Washington on Friday could not be better-timed for the Chiefs. Spokane has been blanked in two of its last four games, which isn't that much of an outlier for a team that relies so much on its power play, averaging 2.4 goals per game at 5-on-5 and on the PK. Overage sniper Mitch Holmberg is goal-less in five, and when he doesn't score, Spokane can be in trouble.
10. Victoria Royals, WHL (.545 RPI, +0.8 SRS, —) — If the mark of a good team is that it can grind out a win during the games without a "built-in rivalry," then bravo to Victoria for shading Medicine Hat earlier this week. The Royals, with the Dub's best true two-goalie tandem in Patrik Polivka and Coleman Vollrath, earned their spurs by splitting with league-leading Kelowna last week. They might not be elite but whoever draws the Royals later in the playoffs will probably be in for playing six or seven games.
11. Val-d'Or Foreurs, QMJHL (.543 RPI, +1.1 SRS, —) — The Route 117 rivalry between the Foreurs and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies has seldom had reason to be so intense, with both teams within reach of a top-five finish in the Q. Starting Friday, Val-d'Or and Rouyn-Noranda will play five more times before the end of the season, which could ultimately decide each team's playoff seeding. Anthony Mantha, who's been relatively contained since the world junior with 'only' six points in five games, will look to get back to his prolific form this weekend.
The Foreurs and Huskies also square off next week.
12. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL (.541 RPI, +1.0 SRS, +1) — C'est la vie and que sera, sera in one of the OHL's fishbowls. The 'Hounds are pursuing their first division flag in six years and there is an urgency, at least in the media, about locking down a No. 1 goalie for next season. In hindsight, there wasn't necessarily a way to predict the extent to which the aforementioned Justin Nichols would break out with Guelph (2.70 average, .924 save pct.) when the 'Hounds swapped him before the season for just a third-round pick.
The not as dynamic but still very distinguished dozen — 13. Drummondville Voltigeurs, QMJHL (.537, -1); 14. Calgary Hitmen, WHL (.532, +2); 15. Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL (.529, -1); 16. Québec Remparts, QMJHL (.526, +2); 17. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL (.526, -2); 18. Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL (.526, -1); 19. Rimouski Océanic, QMJHL (.521, —); 20. Everett Silvertips, WHL (.512, —); 21. Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL (.512, +3); 22. Windsor Spitfires, OHL (.512, —); 23. Vancouver Giants, WHL (.510, -2); 24. Oshawa Generals, OHL (.507, +2).
Hot team — Saginaw Spirit, up 5 (51st to 46th).
Cold team — Moncton Wildcats, down 6 (36th to 42nd).
Nowhere to go but up — Lethbridge Hurricanes (.429).
An explanation on rankings — Buzzing The Net uses Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) with a recency factor. RPI combines a team's record with the strength of its opponents to produce an overall rating. Our method also gives more weight to recently played games. Shootout wins and losses are classified as ties, for philosophical and practical reasons. Simple Ranking System (SRS), a ranking which combines goal differential and strength of schedule, is used as a complement. All three CHL leagues are considered equivalent in quality.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.