With players now returned from the world junior hockey championship, CHL clubs can now look ahead to playoff runs. Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino looks at 10 storylines to watch for in the unofficial second half of the season.
10. 700 Club
Coaches from both the OHL and WHL have achieved or are nearing the 700-win mark.
Don Hay became just the second coach in WHL history to hit the plateau when the Kamloops Blazers defeated the Kelowna Rockets Saturday night. Spokane Chiefs bench boss Don Nachbaur needs 18 wins for 700. Ken Hodge owns the WHL record with 742 wins.
In the OHL, Dale Hunter of the London Knights has 667 wins under his belt and will need his Knights to go on a big run to get to 700 this season. If not, Hunter should hit the magic number early next year. Stan Butler of the OHL’s North Bay Battalion is not likely to get to the 700 win mark this season, but with 663 wins and plenty of games left on the schedule, he should hit the mark before Christmas 2018. If you include 28 wins with the Prince George Cougars in the 1996-97 season, a CHL total of 700 is well within reach before season’s end. Brian Kilrea owns the OHL record with 1,193 all-time victories.
9. London Knights
Like the New York Yankees, the London Knights are the CHL team everybody loves to hate. London is coming off a 2016 Mastercard Memorial Cup title and is in the midst of a run of playing for the Cup in four of the last five years.
Without the likes of Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk, who could still be playing in London, the Knights have come up with another batch of shining stars that have them right in the mix in the vaunted Midwest division of the OHL. An OHL title, would put the Knights in rare air.
8. Team Movement
The Kootenay Ice situation is one to constantly keep an eye on. Will local suitors step-up to the plate, or is a move to another locale imminent? And if a move is made, does the WHL consider adding a team to Vancouver Island to give Victoria some company? Will the QMJHL return to St. John’s, N.L., now that there’s no plans for a pro team to play there beyond the end of this season?
7. Race to the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup
With the trade deadline about to close in all three leagues, the haves and have-not teams have separated themselves in hopes of a chasing down a league title to earn a berth in junior hockey’s oldest, most prestigious tournament.
Will the Windsor Spitfires hold serve and go in through the front door, allowing an OHL Eastern Conference team to earn the second league berth? Or will a Western Conference slugfest force the Spits to wait it out like four of the last five host teams? The last host team to go into the Cup as the league champion was the 2008 Kitchener Rangers.
Three other hosts in the last eleven years have played in the league championship.
6. 2017 Sherwin-Williams Top Prospects game (Jan. 30 -- Quebec City)
With the draft being wide open this year, the annual Prospects game will take on some added meaning. Nolan Patrick is expected to play in the game, but beyond that, the opportunity is there for players to make a move up the draft board in the second half of the season. This game represents the perfect springboard to do so. Halifax's Nico Hischier may have the most to gain as it is expected he’ll be in a showdown with Patrick, if he's healthy.
Speaking of Patrick....
5. Nolan Patrick watch
The projected first overall pick in the 2017 draft played just six games before going on the injured list. The Brandon Wheat Kings say his absence is a result of some residual issues from a summer sports hernia surgery. His return has been slower than expected, and clouded by trade rumours that have since been put to rest. The Wheat Kings star has returned to practice and all indications point to a January return.
4. Saint John Sea Dogs
No other CHL team will feature four players that participated in the world juniors. The Sea Dogs hired Trevor Georgie as president one year ago, and in the summer, he relieved GM Darrell Young of his duties to assume the GM title as well. Georgie has been very active in the trade market and owner Scott McCain feels he has one of the brightest young hockey minds in the business. McCain also knows just how hard it is to win a President Cup after winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
3. Erie Otters
A record breaking fourth straight 50-win season may be on the horizon for the Erie Otters. With head coach Kris Knoblauch likely to be courted by the pros at the end of the season, and the Connor Brown to Connor McDavid to Dylan Strome-run coming to an end, GM Dave Brown wants to take advantage of the window he currently has.
Strome, along with Canadian world juniors forward Taylor Raddysh and newly acquired Warren Foegele join scoring machine Alex DeBrincat which may allow the Otters to prevail in the West after a couple of near misses. There are several rumours out there about more firepower being added as well. It’s a gutsy move considering not only do you have to win the West, but win the league to get to the Cup.
2. The Prince George Cougars
You have to go back to the 2006-07 season for the last time the Cougars made any noise in the WHL playoffs. They defeated Everett that year before losing out to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants in the Western Conference final. Prince George has failed to make the playoffs five times since then and have suffered first-round losses in four others.
The Cougars put everyone on notice with the acquisitions of Sabres prospect Brendan Guhle and projected first rounder Nikita Popugaev from Moose Jaw. This is exactly what the new ownership intended to do when it took over the team in 2014.
1. The Canadian Returnees: Strome, Stephens, Chabot, Gauthier and Barzal
Traditionally teams will give their WJC stars a few days off to rest up and get ready for the unofficial second half of the season. Once those players return, there’s usually a significant re-adjustment period getting back to regular season play.
In the case of Julien Gauthier, he’ll have a new team to go to. Mitchell Stephens is likely to be dealt, while Strome and Mathew Barzal will attempt to get Erie and Seattle respectively, over the hump and into title contention. The most interesting player to watch will be Thomas Chabot, whose WJC performance elevated him to borderline NHL’er and rockstar status.