September 11, 2013
With the season starting on Sept. 19, we will look at each division in the WHL and make 14 fun facts and and fearless forecasts for the upcoming 2013-14 season.
In the WHL’s East Division, there are some easy predictions, but also a lot of uncertainty.
As far as the standings go, the Prince Albert Raiders seem to be the clear-cut front-runner, followed by a four-team logjam and the Saskatoon Blades on the outside looking in.
1. Raiders set to walk away with first place - On paper and in an educated prediction, Prince Albert is poised to top the East Division by at least a handful of points. They have the star power upfront, an elite blueline anchor, Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Josh Morrissey, and a high-end goalie, offseason acquisition Cole Cheveldave, to carry them to the top of the standings.
The only question in Prince Albert is whether they are strong enough to take a run at the Ed Chynoweth Cup. They do lack defensive depth and are banking on forwards such as Jayden Hart and Reid Gardiner to elevate their games. But the former can be fixed through trades and the latter seems likely to happen. Therefore, as long as new head coach Cory Clouston can win over his team with his defensive-minded style, the Raiders should still be playing hockey past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
2. Wheat Kings will get back into the post-season – The Brandon Wheat Kings missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000 last year. Owner and general manager Kelly McCrimmon didn’t take it lightly as he fired head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk after just one season and named himself the replacement. The combination of McCrimmon’s no-nonsense attitude back in the room, New York Islanders first-rounder Ryan Pulock leading the way and a handful of young forwards poised to take the next step should be enough to get Brandon back into the Eastern Conference’s top eight.
3. Morgan Rielly should return to Moose Jaw – Rielly showed last year that he is ready for pro hockey and quite likely the NHL; however, under Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle it seems it will be tough for him to stick in The Show. Carlyle won’t play defencemen, despite how strong they are offensively, if they don’t work well in his system. He showed that last year by sitting Jake Gardiner for the majority of the season. In addition, if the Leafs re-sign Cody Franson and keep John Michael-Liles, they will have a logjam of puck-moving blueliners. So it seems the question isn’t whether Rielly will return to the Warriors, rather will he end the season with them?
4. Warriors are a wildcard – Moose Jaw is the East Division’s wildcard. On one hand they have the potential to finish second behind Prince Albert, but on the hand it wouldn’t be that surprising for them to end up second or third last.
On the chance that Rielly ends up in Carlyle’s good books and sticks in Toronto, Moose Jaw’s lack of defensive talent should keep them behind the Swift Current Broncos in the standings. If, however, Rielly returns and a couple of their forwards such as Torrin White and Tanner Eberle take the next steps in their games, it seems the Warriors could finish as high as fifth in the Eastern Conference.
5. Broncos will make the playoffs, but aren’t a contender – Swift Current lost a lot of talent in the offseason in Winnipeg Jets prospect Adam Lowry, New Jersey Devils prospect Reece Scarlett and Detroit Red Wings prospect Richard Nedomlel. Nonetheless, they should return to the second season with Eetu Laurikainen back between the pipes, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Dillon Heatherington and 17-year-old Brycen Martin anchoring the blueline and Calgary Flames prospect Coda Gordon and New Jersey Devils prospect Graham Black up front.
At this point the Broncos are the safe pick to finish second behind the Raiders. But it would also be a safe bet to predict they won’t make it past the second round in the playoffs.
6. Blades will have a long year in Saskatoon – Who’s going to score the goals? Who’s going to anchor the back end? Who’s going to stop the puck? There is no shortage of concerns in the Bridge City Boys' Memorial Cup hangover season.
It was inevitable that the Blades would struggle this year with general manager Lorne Molleken putting all of his eggs in last year’s basket. One can’t fault him for selling the farm, though. He had to go for it with the rare opportunity of getting a free ride to the CHL’s big dance.
New head coach David Struch, who replaced Molleken following him relinquishing his bench boss duties, has a lot of work ahead of him. It seems it will take a miracle for Saskatoon to make the playoffs. Therefore, a more realistic goal for Struch’s Blades would be to capture 60 points.
7. Pats could have trouble in net – Goaltending will likely determine whether the Regina Pats make the playoffs or miss out for the second straight season. Surprises happen where players unexpectedly emerge, but at this point, it appears stopping the puck won’t be one of the Pats’ strengths and could ultimately be their Achilles heel.
Matt Hewitt’s replacements, former Yorkton Terriers’ Dawson MacAuley and last year’s backup Teagan Sacher, haven’t proved they can start in the Dub. Sacher maintained a .883 save percentage in 26 games last year. MacAuley, meanwhile, was a star in the SJHL last season, but the jump to major junior is a big one and he won’t have a strong defence in Regina to count on like he had in Yorkton.
8. Raiders’ Leon Draisaitl is ready for stardom – Draisaitl is regarded as the sixth best player in the 2014 NHL draft class by BTN’s scouting friends. So it’s safe to say expectations are high for the Germany native in his second season with the Raiders.
Taking into account Draisaitl scored 21 goals and 58 points in 64 games last year, it seems an 80-point season is well is in his grasp this season. He won’t have Chicago Blackhawks prospect Mark McNeill to help him get there this year, but he’ll still have a strong entourage highlighted by Dallas Stars prospect Mike Winther and 18-year-old scorer Jayden Hart.
9. Warriors’ Justin Paulic will assert himself as a star – Paulic, who turns 17 in October, got his feet wet last year in his rookie season with the Warriors. He maintained a .899 save percentage and a 3.15 average throughout 57 games. This year it seems he’s ready to blossom into one of the Dub’s elite goalies. He’ll have a better team in front of him, a year of WHL experience under his belt and improved strength.
10. If healthy, Pats’ Chandler Stephenson could put up big numbers – The Washington Capitals prospect missed 43 games in the last two years because of injuries. If he can stay healthy this year, it seems the Pats will finally see what Stephenson is capable of on the score sheet. Last year, he was only one-point short of a point-per-game ratio, racking up 14 goals and 45 points in 46 games. Therefore, it seems over a full season the 19 year old could net 85-plus points this year alongside Calgary Flames first-rounder Morgan Klimchuck.
11. Blades’ Nathan Burns shouldn’t bear the burden of his trade – Closer to the bantam draft, there could be a lot of chatter about the 2014 first-round pick that the Vancouver Giants acquired from Saskatoon for Nathan Burns last year. If the Blades struggle as much as they are expected to, it’s quite possible the pick could fall into the lottery category. It appears there is no way Burns can live up to a top-four pick, even though he was a strong third-liner last year and should be again this season as an overager. He shouldn’t have to justify the deal, though. He didn’t ask for the trade, so he should in no way bear the burden of Molleken’s questionable deal.
12. Broncos’ Julius Honka could standout for more reasons than his catchy name – Honka has garnered a fair amount of attention since joining the Broncos through the import draft. It has mostly been because of his sweet name, but he’s also turned heads in the pre-season for his play. The 17-year-old Czech Republic native potted four goals and two helpers in five games from the blueline.
13. Warriors’ financial success should just get better – Moose Jaw is not only one of Saskatchewan’s best major junior clubs on the ice, but also in the books. The Warriors earned $343,888 of net earnings last year without any post-season revenue. This season should only get better with an expected stronger on-ice product that should lead to playoff tickets.
14. Blades' new ownership should wait out season for change - There is some speculation that new owner Mike Priestner, who bought the Blades from Jack Brodsky last week, could make changes in the hockey operations sooner than later. But it seems that's all it is - speculation. All indications are Priestner will hold onto Molleken and Struch this year with change expected to come next offseason. This is the right move since he owes it to the fans to go through a thorough process to find the right hockey minds to run the team.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen