Commissioner Ron Robison made sure to make ample reference to "competitive balance" and "franchise stability" in his media address to kick off the 2012 Western Hockey League playoff schedule in Kamloops on Thursday. The local Blazers are heavily favoured coming into their series against the Victoria Royals, and according to Royals President Dave Dakers, the first shots have already been fired, albeit not by any hockey club.
"I'm not sure why we're playing this series if you read the newspaper," said Dakers, in reference to the local Kamloops Daily News having mistakenly referred to the first-year Royals franchise as "Grizzlies" in its sports section. Already entering as underdogs, this provides a little bit more bulletin board material for Victoria, who come in as the 7-seed having won just 24 of its 72 games this season and are out-matched on paper against the Blazers.
"I'm really proud of what our team accomplished this year," Dakers said. The Bruins were eliminated in five games last spring by the Spokane Chiefs, who would go on to the WHL Western Conference Finals series.
Kamloops has had a resurgence this season and find themselves well above Victoria in the standings, having won 47 games to Victoria's 24. The Blazers haven't won a playoff game since 2005 or a series since 1999, but both droughts have a good chance to fall this year. The 10-team WHL Western Conference was a three-horse race between Tri-City, Portland and Kamloops, who all finished 13 points above 4th-seed Vancouver. There was a 17-point gap between 5th-seed Spokane and 7th-seed Victoria.
The third component to a successful league is a good "on-ice product" noted Robison, who pointed to the fact that it's been 11 seasons since eight WHL players hit the 100-point barrier, and 13 seasons since the junior league had four or more 50-goal scorers. Robison also highlighted the 61-goal season by Medicine Hat's Emerson Etem, which stacks up as one of the best in the WHL's history.
For his playoff picks, however, Robison was keeping his selections close to his hands. "How it historically plays out it how well you play going into the playoffs and how good your goaltending is," he said afterwards. "as they say, it's a whole new season and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out."
Game One between Brandon and Calgary kicks off Thursday night, with the remaining series' starting on Friday.
Also on Thursday, the WHL announced the 2011-12 awards finalists for the Western Conference. To hardly any surprise, Tri-City's Ty Rimmer was nominated as the conference's top goaltender, leading the league in save percentage at .922. He'll be matched up in that category against Medicine Hat's Tyler Bunz, who had a .921 save percentage, but played at that high level over 15 more games than Rimmer.
Rimmer was also selected as the goaltender on the conference's First All-Star Team, along with teammate Brendan Shinnimin, who was a unanimous selection along with Portland's Ty Rattie. Shinnimin scored 134 points this season to lead the league and came through with a dominant final two months of the season to propel his Americans to #1 in the conference. Rattie was third in scoring with 121 points, also having scored 57 goals.
Kamloops' Tim Bozon was also given the nod as the conference's top rookie, and he'll match up head-to-head against Kootenay's Sam Reinhart for the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy when the awards are announced on March 2nd. Bozon had 71 points this season, three below Vancouver's Marek Tvrdon (Tvrdon played in 11 fewer games) for second in the league in rookie scoring. He was, however, a +27, although this can be thanked in particular to a deep Kamloops team that allowed Bozon to match up favourably against easier competition.
"When we play on the road, the other team wants to match up against my line," said Bozon, who is ranked 39th among North American skaters in the ISS for this June's NHL Draft. "When we play at home, we get to match up against the other line." Bozon had 20 goals on the road this season and 16 at home, but he was a +24 at home compared to +3 on the road thanks to the easier matchup.
Tri-City, as the conference's top team, cleaned up in the Conference All-Star team voting. In addition to Rimmer and Shinnimin, the Americans also had Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland named to the Second Team as forwards. Rounding out the honoured forwards were Brendan Gallagher of the Giants (First Team) and Sven Bartschi of the Winterhawks (Second Team). Gallagher and Holland make a pair of Montreal Canadiens prospects honoured.
On defence in the West, Joe Morrow and Brenden Kichton of Portland and Spokane were given First Team honours, while Kamloops' Austin Madaisky and the Everett Silvertips' Ryan Murray got the nod on the second team. The Blazers also saw rookie goaltender Cole Cheveldave granted a nod to the second team.
Brandon's Mark Stone was also given a unanimous selection in the Eastern Conference First Team, while last season's Memorial Cup representatives Kootenay had Max Reinhart and Nathan Lieuwen given Second Team honours.