The Edmonton Oil Kings will have history on their side in this year’s Western Hockey League playoffs — but not much else.
The defending WHL and Memorial Cup champions hope to become a Cinderella team after taking a steep fall in the standings. Although the Oil Kings have won two league titles and a Canadian crown in the past three years, they will be hard pressed to knock off the powerhouse Brandon Wheat Kings in their first-round Eastern Conference series.
"It’s been a different experience this year for our team," said Edmonton coach Steve Hamilton. "We’re certainly going through a transition as an organization."
The Oil Kings are seeking their fourth-consecutive WHL finals berth and third Memorial Cup trip in four years.
"I don’t think we carry the burden of the pressure that we’ve had over the last few years," said Hamilton. "We’re certainly heavy underdogs by most people’s expectations."
Edmonton had to settle for the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference after finishing eighth with a 34-31-4-3 record. The Wheat Kings placed first in the East with a 53-11-4-4 mark.
Hamilton, an Edmonton assistant and associate coach the previous four seasons, said the Oil Kings can no longer cast expectations "down the road" like they did while posting three straight 50-win campaigns under Derek Laxdal, who now coaches the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars.
Edmonton’s new underdog role stems from the departure of stars Curtis Lazar, now with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, Henrik Samuelsson and Griffin Reinhart, who are toiling in the AHL. But most of this season’s Oil Kings also played for last year’s dual-championship squad, and Brandon’s last two post-seasons (2013-14 and 2011-12) ended with losses to Edmonton.
"Being the underdog doesn’t mean you have no chance," said Hamilton. "It just means, on paper, you’re not picked to win."
Calgary Hitmen vs. Kootenay Ice
The Hitmen (45-22-5) enter the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Adam Tambellini, who finished 10th in league scoring with 47 goals and 39 assists, will lead the Calgary attack. Unheralded Kootenay (37-31-4) has gifted offensive players in Luke Philip (30-52-82), Jaedon Descheneau (34-47-81) and Sam Reinhart (19-46-65), the second-overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft (Buffalo).
Regina Pats vs. Swift Current Broncos
Both the Pats (37-24-11) and Broncos (34-31-5) enter the playoffs having lost six of their past 10 games. But the all-Saskatchewan affair promises to be a memorable battle.
Medicine Hat Tigers vs. Red Deer Rebels
The Tigers (45-23-4) boast two of the league’s top scorers in Trevor Cox (29-80-109), who placed second and Cole Sanford (51-45-95), who wound up fourth, while Dryden Hunt (33-50-83) finished 13th. Riley Sheen leads the Rebels (38-23-11) with 24 goals and 47 assists.
Kelowna Rockets vs. Tri-City Americans
The Rockets (53-13-5) are the clear favourites to come out of the West after making key trades that brought stud defenceman Josh Morrissey and power centre Leon Draisaitl in separate deals from the Prince Albert Raiders. Draisaitl recorded 53 points in 32 games after beginning the season with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. Beau McCue’s 51 points led Tri-City (31-38-3).
Victoria Royals (39-29-4) vs. Prince George Cougars
The Royals, led offensively by Austin Carroll (38-31-77), do not come across as overly flashy but play a steady brand of hockey that will make them difficult to unseat. The Cougars (31-36-5) are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.
Everett Silvertips vs. Spokane Chiefs
Nikita Scherbak justified his trade to Everett (43-20-9) from Saskatoon at the start of the season by leading the Silvertips in scoring (27-55-82). Now, it’s a question of whether he can help the Silvertips handle the pressure of being one of the favourites in the West against a dangerous Spokane (34-34-4) team.
Portland Winterhawks vs. Seattle Thunderbirds
Portland (43-23-6) is seeking its fifth-straight WHL finals berth and second trip to the Memorial Cup in three years. The Winterhawks must limit Seattle (38-25-9) winger Mathew Barzal, who missed much of the season with an off-ice knee injury but still recorded 12 goals and 45 assists in 44 games. Barzal will show why he is a potential early first-round NHL draft pick this summer.