Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

WHL’s East Division a dogfight for top spot

There is not much breathing room in the race for first place in the Western Hockey League’s East Division. The Brandon Wheat Kings and Swift Current Broncos sit tied for top spot with 58 points while the Regina Pats are only three points back and Prince Albert Raiders remain in the dogfight with 49 points.

The division’s close competition wasn’t expected in the offseason. It seemed first spot was either the Broncos or Raiders for the taking. Few and far between thought it would be this wide open at the 50-game mark, including Pats general manager Chad Lang.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would be this close,” says Lang. “I knew there were some teams in our division that are going through a rebuilding stage and that it wouldn’t be as tough as some years, but I didn’t expect it to be this close.”

Ultimately, Lang’s Queen City Kids are the division’s pleasant surprise. They came into the season with a giant question mark in net and a lack of raw talent on the blueline. The offensive duo of Calgary Flames first-rounder Morgan Klimchuk and Washington Capitals prospect Chandler Stephenson were essentially the only reason why they appeared to have a chance at earning a playoff spot.

That said, Lang's wheeling and dealing deserves credit for the Pats' success. His first smart move was acquiring 19-year-old goalie Dawson MacAuley, who won an SJHL championship with the Yorkton Terriers the year before, from the Calgary Hitmen for a fourth-round bantam pick. MacAuley has held his own behind an inexperienced back end, maintaining a .893 save percentage throughout 43 games. His next two impact deals were landing 20-year-old winger Boston Leier from the Medicine Hat Tigers for a second-round pick and 20-year-old defenceman Jesse Zgraggen from the Hitmen for a fourth-round pick. Leier has been a key offensive contributor – scoring 29 goals and 59 points in 50 games on the year – while Zgraggen has noticeably strengthened the blueline.

“I knew we had some concerns in net and on our defence,” says Lang. “I watched MacAuley play in Yorkton last year and I thought he played very well there, so I thought he was a good fit to bring in. And Leier and Zgraggen were two 20-year-olds that happened to come available because teams were over the limit. I think Leier has done a great job for us. I can honestly say I didn’t expect him to score as much as he has when I traded for him. And Zgraggen improved our defence and has come in and done what we’ve asked from him.”

In addition to his key trades, Lang’s decision to promote Malcolm Cameron to head coach in replace of Pat Conacher, who stepped down at the end of last year, is paying dividends.

“I’m very happy with Cameron in his first year as head coach,” says Lang. “He came into the team last year with a lot of head coaching experience, but it was at the pro level and sometimes it’s a bit of a transition to get used to junior. But he has come in and done an excellent job this year.”

The Wheat Kings sit in a similar spot as the Pats. With Kelly McCrimmon back behind the bench and New York Islanders first-rounder Ryan Pulock on the blueline, they had enough going for them to be considered a wildcard. There, however, were just too many uncertainties to call them a shoe-in to make the playoffs after they finished in last spot in the Eastern Conference last year.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Raiders are the division’s biggest disappointment because they appeared to be the best team on paper in the offseason. They seemed to have a strong offense built around German superstar Leon Draisaitl and Dallas Stars second-round pick Mike Winther, who was traded to the Hitmen in January, with Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Josh Morrissey anchoring the back end and offseason acquisition Cole Cheveldave guarding the blue paint. Not to mention, new head coach Cory Clouston was supposed to solidify their play in the defensive zone. But as the season has progressed, the Raiders, who currently sit in ninth spot, have turned into a team scratching to make the playoffs rather than a club eying a title.

Because of the Raiders’ lack of success, the Broncos seem to be the division’s best bet to make some noise in the post-season. They have strength at every position, highlighted by New Jersey Devils prospect Graham Black, Columbus Blue Jackets second-round pick Dillon Heatherington, top NHL draft prospect Julius Honka and Finnish puck-stopper Eetu Laurikainen. The Broncos, however, remain a long shot to knock off the Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals.

The division’s other two clubs, the Moose Jaw Warriors and Saskatoon Blades, aren’t mathematically out of the playoff picture, but they don’t have the talent to go on a winning streak that would make the second season possible.

One has to keep in mind that the main reason why the division is this close is because it’s the weakest division in the league. The proof is in the pudding in the Eastern Conference standings with three Central Division squads, the Hitmen, Oil Kings and Tigers, sitting ahead of the top East Division team in points.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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