Eleven years — that’s enough.
For more than a decade, the road to the Ed Chynoweth Cup has only gone through Saskatchewan when someone had to bus through the province to play the Brandon Wheat Kings. That has changed, with the Regina Pats led by Adam Brooks and Sam Steel stacking up as the favourites. However, the Pats could see credible challengers present themselves as early as Round 2.
The case can be made that the Western Conference is a toss-up. In any event, there’s a good chance a WHL championship series will be staged in Saskatchewan for the first time since 2006.
The Western League playoffs begin on Friday.
(1) Regina Pats
Ceiling: Winning the whole thing, which no Pats team has done since 1980. Regina has run out in front all season, with Steel (ANA) shading Brooks (TOR) 131-130 to be leading scorer in all of major junior. If you’re predisposed to thinking the best defence is an unstoppable offence, Regina scored a league-leading 353 goals and conceded only 210, the fourth-least.
Floor: Being host of the centenary MasterCard Memorial Cup is a pretty sweet fallback for the Queen City kids. Drafted 19-year-olds such as Filip Ahl (OTT), Connor Hobbs (WSH), Austin Wagner (LA) and Sergey Zborovskiy (NYR) likely will not be around for that bit of hoopla, though.
Player to watch: Steel was left off Team Canada in December at the WJC, so he still has a score to settle.
You’ll be missed: Brooks plays like he’s got a cloaking device and is remarkable at getting lost in coverage.
(2) Moose Jaw Warriors
Ceiling: Coach Tim Hunter has not shied away from saying the Warriors could beat Regina in a best-of-seven series, so let’s put the bar there. With 50-goal scorer Jayden Halbgewachs and goalie Zach Sawchenko, Moose Jaw has a difference-maker at each end of the rink.
Floor: One would think it would be tough to reconcile the what-might-have-been if the Warriors fail to get by Swift Current and earn a shot at Regina. Regardless, their window will be open in 2017-18. Core forwards Brett Howden (TB) and Noah Gregor (SJ) are still 18 and Halbgewachs’ size (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) could play into him returning as an overager.
Player to watch: The Warriors’ probability of coming out of the East can be put down to the performance by Sawchenko, one of the best undrafted netminders in the CHL.
You’ll be missed: Right winger Thomas Foster deserves a playoff run after some early springs during his four full seasons in Vancouver.
(3) Swift Current Broncos
Ceiling: The Broncos won twice in six tries against first-round opponent Moose Jaw and boast two legit scoring lines, one with WHL goals co-leader Tyler Steenbergen and one with Finnish dervish Aleksi Heponiemi. A series win would be a nice cap for coach Emanuel Viveiros’ first season in southwest Saskatchewan.
Floor: It is always tough to gauge how a high-tempo team will adapt when everyone has motivation to go to a grinding game.
Player to watch: How will the undersized Heponiemi fare in his first North American post-season?
You’ll be missed: Goalie Jordan Papirny has the second-most wins in league history.
(4) Calgary Hitmen (wild card)
Ceiling: The Hitmen are 16-13-4-0 since the trade deadline, which was roughly the same time they regained the full services of cornerstone defenceman Jake Bean (CAR) after the world juniors. They also won decisively in their last visit to Regina, so there is your case that they could put a scare into the Pats in Round 1.
Floor: They finished 42 points behind Regina, whose transition game has made many teams feel silly.
Player to watch: Offensive leader Matteo Gennaro (WPG) will be looking for his first WHL playoff goal.
You’ll be missed: Captain Micheal Zipp had a letter on his sweater for his entire three-season tenure in Calgary.
(1) Medicine Hat Tigers
Ceiling: Based on form, the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league boils down to Regina and Medicine Hat. The Tigers’ personnel group was a moving target throughout the second half, due in part to a mumps outbreak. Yet they pushed through, with 103-point scorer Chad Butcher as the top scorer on a team with 10 players who hit 20 goals.
Floor: Very hard to see how the Tigers do not advance out of the Central. The initial stage(s) of the playoffs might be all about re-establishing continuity on the back end. Clayton Kirichenko and David Quenneville (NYI) lead a group that might regain Kristians Rubins (out since March 3) and Ty Schultz (Jan. 13).
Player to watch: Matt Bradley (MTL) has some Brendan Gallagher-like qualities.
You’ll be missed: At the team skills competition in January, overage Steven Owre attached sparklers to his skates. That’s a crowd pleaser.
(2) Lethbridge Hurricanes
Ceiling: The ‘Cane Train, which includes WHL goals co-leader Tyler Wong, should sail by Red Deer in Round 1. They have had issues containing southern Alberta rival Medicine Hat all season.
Floor: Wash away the stain of a first-round flop against wild-card Regina in 2016 and go from there. Elusive Giorgio Estephan (BUF) could be an X-factor. Lethbridge allowed more goals (250) and has a lower-rated penalty kill (78.6 per cent) than one would like to see from a dark horse contender.
Player to watch: Draft-year goalie Stuart Skinner will make his 5,000th career save for the ‘Canes before the end of the calendar year.
You’ll be missed: Both Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky, the overage scorers who came as a package deal from Kootenay, have been banged-up over the past three weeks.
(3) Red Deer Rebels
Ceiling: Red Deer will probably be chippy in order to try to throw off Lethbridge, who had 22 more points and went 5-0-1-0 in the season series. Advancing to Round 2 will be a tall task, especially without the presence of captain Adam Musil (STL; lower body).
Floor: Red Deer is very young on the back end and has the third-worst penalty kill among playoff teams. Not exactly a recipe for a Cinderella.
Player to watch: Team scoring leader Michael Spacek (WPG) had an eight-game point streak snapped in the regular-season finale.
You’ll be missed: The donnybrook that overage right winger Evan Polei had at the Traverse City rookie tournament in 2015 is still the stuff of legend, if you’re into that sort of thing.
(4) Brandon Wheat Kings (wild card)
Ceiling: Classic house money scenario against Medicine Hat. Consensus top NHL draft prospect Nolan Patrick and overage Reid Duke (VGK) are each healthy. Still pretty thin gruel for the upset mill.
Floor: The sharps believe the Tigers, who scored 348 goals and tallied 31 more points than Brandon, should not need more than five games.
Player to watch: Defenceman Kale Clague (LA) will have to carry his group at times if Brandon is to stretch out the series.
You’ll be missed: It will be a while before Westman sees another prospect like Patrick, who will surely be a NHLer come October.
(1) Prince George Cougars
Ceiling: Winning the conference is attainable. With eight 20-goal scorers in the lineup now that Brad Morrison (NYR) is back from a high ankle sprain, the Cougars have a more diverse attack than the other top West seed, Everett. Overage Ty Edmonds also holds down the fort in goal.
Floor: It is always interesting to see how it plays out when a franchise unaccustomed to winning has to deal with the attention and increased expectations that come with being a No. 1 seed. The Cougars first have to handle the speedy, skilled Portland Winterhawks in Round 1.
Player to watch: Draft-year left winger Nikita Popaguev saw his points-per-game drop by half after coming over from Moose Jaw.
You’ll be missed: Overage Sam Ruopp (CLB) is a rarity as a three-season captain.
(2) Kelowna Rockets
Ceiling: When the gang’s all there, Kelowna rates among the three or four teams with the capability of winning the Western Conference. Between the tone-setting trio of Nick Merkley (ARI), Calvin Thurkauf (CLB) and Reid Gardiner (PIT), plus 18-year-old Dillon Dubé (CGY) and team scoring leader Kole Lind, they generate a lot of scoring chances.
Floor: Making the second round and keeping “hand,” in the Costanzan sense, against Kamloops. The Rockets will have to maintain their newfound discipline and hope overage goalie Michael Herringer remains consistent.
Player to watch: The playoffs give Lind a chance to show that he can finish plays through heavy contact.
You’ll be missed: Overage captain Rodney Southam has been a glue guy extraordinaire since his arrival early in 2014-15.
(3) Kamloops Blazers
Ceiling: Winning a post-season series for the first time since 2013 under Guy Charron is a starting point. Between Deven Sideroff (ANA) as its offensive leader and Connor Ingram (TB) of Team Canada fame in net, Kamloops has the high-end pieces to advance. They are also reportedly healthier than Kelowna.
Floor: Losing back-to-back series to their Interior rivals would be some loss of face, eh? Kamloops’ Achilles heel is a power play that is the second-worst in the playoff field.
Player to watch: Ingram had a .938 save percentage in his first playoff series last season.
You’ll be missed: Overage Lane Bauer took the road less travelled, migrating from Alaska to the WHL, and now has a chance to finish on good terms.
(4) Portland Winterhawks (wild card)
Ceiling: The U.S. has been the stronger Western division over the years. The Winterhawks are a 40-win team, with the big Cody Glass-Skyler McKenzie-Keegan Iverson line and Caleb Jones (EDM) providing a spark on the back end. Coach Mike Johnston is building toward peaking in 2018-19, but they could make a run at Prince George in Round 1.
Floor: An X-factor is how the 2-2-1-1-1 scheduling in a series with a 13½-hour drive between cities (as per DUB Network) affects each team. Clearly, Prince George is banking on its edge in depth and physical maturity winning the day.
Player to watch: The 6-foot-2, right-shooting Glass, age 17, has drawn some comparisons to the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele.
You’ll be missed: Iverson, the robust right winger, is the last holdover from Portland’s 2013 Memorial Cup finalist.
(1) Everett Silvertips
Ceiling: The ‘Tips sell out on close coverage and shot blocking and have Carter Hart (PHI) and his league-best 1.99 GAA, plus a solid line of defence featuring Noah Juulsen (MTL), one-time Memorial Cup champion Aaron Irving and power-play QB Kevin Davis. It would make for an interesting contrast if they ended up in the final against Regina.
Floor: Finishing first means the low bar is set at winning two rounds. But arguably the last defence-first team in the CHL to win a league title was the 2012 London Knights. Everett didn’t have a forward other than Patrick Bajkov (78 points) and Dominic Zwerger (75) crack the 50-point mark.
Player to watch: Winger Riley Sutter (son of Ron), a late-birthday 17-year-old, broke out as a 20-goal scorer.
You’ll be missed: Stable overage D Lucas Skrumeda, who’s seeking a WHL title to bookend the league title he was part of as a rookie in Junior A with the Winnipeg Blues in 2014.
(2) Seattle Thunderbirds
Ceiling: When they have their full lineup, anchored by centres Mathew Barzal (NYI), Scott Eansor and Alexander True, Seattle is lethal. They won 28 of 36 games in the second half. There’s potential there to win the division.
Floor: The statuses of Barzal (illness) and overage goalie Rylan Toth (lower body) for Game 1 against Tri-City are what the kids call “complicated.” Still, they are the defending conference champion.
Player to watch: Ryan Gropp (NYR) can be a force as a two-way left winger.
You’ll be missed: Defenceman Ethan Bear (EDM) earned conference all-star recognition — along with unofficial all-time, all-name team status.
(3) Tri-City Americans
Ceiling: The Ams generate enough chances to hang in with most teams. Inconsistent goaltending and a poor track record against Seattle makes it hard to picture a first-round upset, but taking it to seven games would be a moral victory.
Floor: The Ams have six 20-goal scorers — even with Michael Rasmussen out — and won’t get shut down completely.
Player to watch: Juuso Välimäki could be one of the first defencemen chosen in the 2017 NHL draft, but has struggled in the defensive zone against first-round foe Seattle.
You’ll be missed: Overage Tyler Sandhu filled the captaincy after returning to Washington state, where he started with Everett.
(4) Victoria Royals (wild card)
Ceiling: Defenceman Chaz Reddekopp (LA; broken foot) being out for the early portion of the series hurts Victoria’s chances of making Everett nervous.
Floor: With the Carter Hart-Griffen Outhouse goalie matchup in the Royals-‘Tips series, there’s always a chance of the Royals ekeing out a low-scoring win.
Player to watch: Draft-year forward Ryan Peckford missed the last quarter of the regular season, but could play.
You’ll be missed: Two-time 30-goal scorer Jack Walker (TOR) has played 354 games (regular- and post-season) in Royals blue.