With the world junior championship just around the corner, we have reached the point in the WHL season when some of the top teams are paying for their success.
Nine players from the WHL were invited to Team Canada’s world junior evaluation camp, which will leave their teams short-handed for a bit.
Who is affected the most?
The Brandon Wheat Kings might be at the top of that list. Forwards Jayce Hawryluk and John Quenneville are in camp with Canada, robbing the Wheat Kings of two of their top offensive players. Neither guy is a lock to make the final roster, but they will almost certainly lose defenceman Ivan Provorov to Team Russia.
The Kelowna Rockets are without Nick Merkley and Rourke Chartier. Chartier nearly made Team Canada last season and despite dealing with injuries through the first half of this year could end up on the final roster. The Rockets were 15-9 without Chartier early in the year but they had Merkley there to pick up the slack. If both make it, they could struggle a bit in December.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s weekly CHL podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. Sam Cosentino, the CHL's top analyst/insider, joins Marek each week to discuss the latest from around the league, as do newsmakers from across the CHL. Couple that with NHLers remembering their days in junior hockey and regular updates on the latest risers and fallers for the NHL Draft, and there’s really nowhere else fans need to go.
Seattle will most likely lose New York Islanders first-round prospect Mathew Barzal. The playmaker is tied for fourth in the WHL scoring race and is the driving force in Seattle’s offence. To make matters worse, centre Scott Eansor is at the U.S. camp as is Alexander True with Denmark. That means the Thunderbirds are looking at being without their top three centres.
Brayden Point is a lock to make Canada’s roster and hasn’t played for Moose Jaw since Nov. 17 due to a shoulder injury that has been labelled day-to-day. The Warriors have already tasted life without Point over the last 10 games and have won five of those.
Victoria went 1-2 without Joe Hicketts early on and can count on him making the roster and being out until January, while Calgary will probably be looking at playing without Travis Sanheim. The Hitmen lost Sanheim for a stretch early in the year due to injury and found a way to go 8-3.
Elsewhere, Red Deer will miss Haydn Fleury and Everett will be without Montreal Canadiens prospect Noah Juulsen.
Here’s the rest of this week’s WHL musings:
An ounce of revenge?
The Kelowna Rockets were in Brandon Saturday for a rematch of last year’s WHL final. While there were many players missing from that series, including Merkley and Chartier for Kelowna, Brandon put a 5-1 pasting on Kelowna. The Wheat Kings poured 35 shots on the Rockets over the first 40 minutes, scoring all five goals in that period.
While it won’t heal all the wounds from last spring, there has to be some sense of satisfaction from handing Kelowna that kind of loss.
Mike Johnston’s return?
When the news of the Pittsburgh Penguins firing head coach Mike Johnston broke on Saturday morning, the WHL world was buzzing.
The obvious speculation was that the Vancouver Giants would swoop him up to replace outgoing general manager Scott Bonner. The logic is sound for the most part. Johnston has ties to Vancouver from his days as a Canucks assistant coach and he had a dominant run as the GM and head coach with the Portland Winterhawks.
It would be a splashy move for the Giants for sure, but there are some complications. For starters, nobody knows if Johnston is eyeing a return to junior hockey at this point. If he is, does he want a job where he is the coach and GM? The coaching job in Vancouver is currently occupied by Lorne Molleken and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the former Saskatoon coach and GM will be happy working under a strong personality like Johnston.
With the incredible instability the Giants have had over the last couple years – five coaches over three seasons – would they want to make yet another move? On the other hand, perhaps they’d be willing to rip the band-aid off one more time for the promise of future stability.
Needless to say, the Johnston development will be an interesting one to watch.
Bittner out in Portland
The Portland Winterhawks announced Monday that forward Paul Bittner will be out indefinitely after having surgery on an injured hip. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect will miss his chance at playing for the United States at the world juniors.
But what does it mean for the Winterhawks moving forward?
Currently, Portland is holding on to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Does this news turn Portland into a seller at the trade deadline? The Winterhawks have a number of players who would be intriguing to contending teams and it would give Portland a chance to restock its system.
They will be a club to watch over the next month.
Player of the week
Rihards Bukarts, LW, Portland Winterhawks
It’s hard to argue anyone in the WHL had a better week than Rihards Bukarts. The Portland winger potted six goals on seven points over three games this past week. The highlight was a manic third period in Everett where Bukarts notched three power-play goals as Portland scored five times in the third period to win 7-5.