The WHL’s holiday break started Saturday evening and the unofficial mid-point of the season has arrived.
It’s been an entertaining first half for the league, especially in the Eastern Conference where the top five teams are separated by only five points. There have been great performances and some pleasant surprises in the league so far, which bodes well for an exciting second-half run.
While the junior hockey world prepares to focus its attention on the world junior championships in Finland, here are our WHL first-half awards.
Brayden Point, Moose Jaw Warriors
Yes, he’s missed 15 games to injury and world junior duty, but Point turned in a dominant first half and is a big reason that Moose Jaw is in the playoff picture. He was the run-away leader in scoring when he went out with a shoulder injury -- an injury that isn’t keeping him out of the world junior championships for Canada -- and is still 11th in league scoring. His 43 points gives him an outstanding 2.26 points per game and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue at that pace when he returns from Finland. Will he get traded? Will he storm back to the top of the scoring race?
Runners-up: Brayden Burke, Lethbridge Hurricanes; Reid Gardiner, Prince Albert Raiders; Mathew Barzal, Seattle Thunderbirds.
Michael Spacek, Red Deer Rebels
As the host team of the Memorial Cup, the Rebels need to load up as much as possible. Spacek’s season has made that job a bit easier for Brent Sutter. Red Deer sits two points off the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the Czech rookie has played a major role. He’s averaging a point per game and has meshed well with Ivan Nikolishin to form one of the top scoring lines in the WHL. While everyone expects the Rebels to make a big move, Spacek has helped get the team into a great position to be a real threat come May.
Runners-up: Noah Gregor, Moose Jaw Warriors; Egor Babenko, Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Carter Hart, Everett Silvertips
Everett finds itself one point out of first place in the U.S. Division despite being the third-lowest scoring club in the entire WHL. How are they doing it? Hart. The Alberta product has been nothing short of spectacular over the first half of the season. He has already recorded six shutouts this year -- last season seven led the league for the entire year -- and has the league’s best goals-against (1.97) to go with the second-best save percentage (.925). Everett will manage to stay in the race out West thanks to the stellar backstopping Hart is providing.
Runners-up: Ty Edmonds, Prince George; Coleman Vollrath, Victoria Royals.
Ethan Bear, Seattle Thunderbirds
In a league that can boast some top-end defencemen, Bear as come on strong to be the best in the first half. The Edmonton Oilers prospect is one point away from his career-best season and leads all WHL defencemen in scoring with 36 points. The Oilers may have found themselves a diamond in the rough after taking the Ochapowace, Sask., native in the fifth round of last year’s draft. Bear has yet to go two games in a row without recording a point and may have the best slap shot in the league.
Runners-up: Travis Sanheim, Calgary Hitmen; Jake Bean, Calgary Hitmen.
Dave Lowry, Victoria Royals
Expectations were not high for the Royals coming into the season and most thought they’d be fighting for their playoff lives all season. Dealing with a younger and smaller lineup than in years past, Lowry has his Royals in the thick of things in the Western Conference. Lowry has tapped into former first-round pick Alex Forsberg’s talents and he’s having his best season to date. Five-foot-six rookie Matthew Phillips has also been a revelation for Lowry and his 36 points at the break have helped the Royals surge to second in the Conference. Can they hold off the Prince George Cougars and push Kelowna for the top spot?
Runners-up: Brent Kisio, Lethbridge Hurricanes; Mark French, Calgary Hitmen.
Peter Anholt, Lethbridge Hurricanes
We’re only a couple seasons removed from the Hurricanes being labeled a complete disaster. The team struggled to win, several players begged out of town and the team’s future was in serious question. Enter Anholt, who took over as interim coach last year and then stepped up into the front office. He hired Brent Kisio as head coach and has put together a group of good players who play hard every night. Things are now looking good for the Hurricanes, who have surprised everyone to lead the Eastern Conference at the mid-way point of the season -- something nobody predicted pre-season. A long time coach in the WHL, Anholt has brought much-needed stability to the Lethbridge organization and, so far, the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
Runner ups: Todd Harkins, Prince George Cougars; Brent Sutter, Red Deer Rebels.