A shift in the Western Hockey League’s balance of power could see the Eastern Conference’s championship drought end this season.
The Saskatoon Blades and Memorial Cup-host Brandon Wheat Kings are consensus front-runners for the Ed Chynoweth Cup after each finishing with more than 100 points last season. The East Division rivals represent the Eastern Conference’s potential to have a winner from their conference for the first time since the Medicine Hat Tigers of 2007.
Six of the last eight WHL champions hail from the Western Conference while the East Division has yet to see a winner since the Wheat Kings from 1996. The Blades have yet to be crowned WHL champions, another drought which could end this season.
“Saskatoon is probably the team to beat in the Eastern Conference,” said Kelly McCrimmon, head coach and general manager of the Wheat Kings. “They returned almost their entire team and they were the (East Division) pennant winners a year ago. I think that they’re going to be a real good team.”
The Blades still have some question marks but have the added benefit of the solid nucleus from last season returning.
The team, however, was dealt two big blows, one expected and another unexpected. Saskatoon anticipated the departure of goaltender Braden Holtby, the Eastern Conference’s goaltender of the year last season, while defenceman Sam Klassen’s signing with the New York Rangers came as a surprise.
“We expected him to be one of our overage guys but good for Sammy,” Saskatoon head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken said.
The team is confident in first-year starting goaltender Adam Morrison, who played sparingly behind Holtby last season. Morrison recorded a shutout in his first career start last season and became property of the Philadelphia Flyers as a third-round pick in the summer.
The Blades’ offence is deep with draft prospects Curtis Hamilton and Charles Inglis both anticipated as breakout candidates. Hamilton blends a solid work ethic with a defensively-reliable approach. Inglis developed a reputation as the league’s premier pest last season but has the offensive imagination to produce in his second season.
Molleken, however, wasn’t ready to plan the parade route down 8th Street just yet.
“I think what happened is we’ve come off a good year and I think people are looking at that and one thing I caution is we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves because it’s a new year,” he said.
Like the Blades, the Wheat Kings are approaching the new season with just as much caution. The weight of National Hockey League training camps looms large over Brandon as the Wheat Kings will likely begin the new season without several star players.
Brandon boasted one of the top lines in junior hockey last season with Brayden Schenn, Scott Glennie and Matt Calvert. Schenn and Glennie were both top 10 picks in the NHL draft while Calvert’s status as an overage player in the WHL remains in the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Those would create huge holes for our team if something happened and those players weren’t back,” McCrimmon said. “If we have all our players back that we anticipate, I think that we have a good nucleus to work with and it’s real hard to predict much more than that in terms of where we’d be able to place.”
Schenn was drafted fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings while Glennie was taken eighth by the Dallas Stars. McCrimmon labeled Schenn as having a “realistic opportunity” at staying with the Kings, who would have no other option than to return him to Brandon if he fails to make the team.
“I think that any time you have players like Schenn or Glennie on a team you can certainly build around those kinds of guys and Kelly McCrimmon has done a real good job there,” Molleken said. “I would say that they’re the favourites of our league and I think as far as our division goes I think it will be extremely competitive.”
The situation with Finnish forward Toni Rajala is also unknown. Rajala broke Alex Ovechkin’s point record at the Under-18 tournament in April with 19 points in six games. He is in Edmonton, attending the Oilers’ training camp after being selected in the fifth round in June’s NHL draft.
He sustained a knee injury at the Finnish world junior camp this summer and remains sidelined. It’s unlikely Rajala sticks with the Oilers once healthy, which leaves the door open for him to join the Wheat Kings.
The news has been more positive surrounding Brandon’s other import, Swedish defenceman Alexander Urbom. The hulking, stay-at-home defenceman enjoyed a solid camp with the Wheat Kings and has earned quality minutes in Brandon.
“He will do a lot of the same things for our team that Keith Aulie did (last season),” McCrimmon said. “He’s got great size, he’s a very good skater and defensively he looks very solid.
“He looks to be a very good player.”
The Portland Winterhawks turned a corner last season and appear poised to turn another one this season. After having missed the playoffs the last three seasons, the Winterhawks have a young team with plenty of promise as a potential dark horse.
Portland was a stronger second-half team following the franchise’s sale in October. Head coach Mike Johnston helped steer the young team back to respectability last season and is excited about the start of his first full season behind the bench.
“We have changed quite a few of the faces,” Johnston said. “I like the look of our team. I like the speed and I think we’ve upgraded our skill and I think we can play a real puck-moving type of game. We’re moving in the direction we want to go but I think it’s really early to know where we’re going to fit in with the league.”
Kelowna Rockets head coach Ryan Huska doesn’t think the Winterhawks will sneak up on anyone this season.
“The way they finished their year last year, they’re a year older, they have more experience under their belt and they have some very quality players there,” Huska said. “I think they’re going to be one of those teams right from the beginning that will be challenging for things.”
The foundation of the Winterhawks remains in their group of 1992-born players. Brad Ross, younger brother of Phoenix first rounder Nick Ross, could have a big campaign while second overall import draft pick, Nino Niederreiter is considered a top prospect for this summer’s draft.
“We feel our ’92 group is really, really strong,” Johnston said.
The Edmonton Oil Kings, Regina Pats and defending league champion Kelowna Rockets remain other potential dark horses. Edmonton made the playoffs last season after beating the Prince Albert Raiders in a one-game tiebreaker. The Oil Kings were swept by the Calgary Hitmen in the opening round but gained some much needed experience.
“We qualified for the playoffs by the hair on our chinny, chin, chin and hopefully we can continue to get better as an organization and continue to improve,” Edmonton head coach Steve Pleau said.
Pleau’s team will be young once again but he looks forward to the contributions of those younger players this season.
“Michael St. Croix, Dylan Wruck, T.J. Foster — these guys look very good at this point and it’s always fun when you haven’t lost a game,” he said.
The Pats, meanwhile, could have a turn-around season after failing to qualify for the playoffs last season. Curtis Hunt returned as head coach after leaving last season to join the Ottawa Senators as an assistant. Much will still depend on whether Jordan Eberle returns from Oilers camp after another big year in junior last season.
“I think that Curtis Hunt returning back as the head coach will be an added dimension there and certainly he’s a proven coach at this level and I think he’ll really help that team,” Molleken said.
The Rockets are in a holding pattern, patiently awaiting the possible returns of star players. However, after having won the league and marching all the way to the Memorial Cup final last season, Huska will have fewer options this season.
“Because of our success last year a lot of guys have had opportunities to move on so we’ll be without quite a few key guys from our team last year but having said that it gives other guys an opportunity to step up,” he said.
“Who they get back from pro camp will determine whether they’re a favourite or not,” Johnston added. “But you have to give them a nod because… they would have top-end talent if those players do come back.”
“There is no weak team (in the Western Conference),” Huska concluded. “It’s a situation where you have to play your best every night or you’re not going to win.”
Although the Brandon Wheat Kings’ spot in this year’s Memorial Cup is guaranteed, the question marks hanging over the start of the season should make this an exciting year.