WHL playoff preview: Odd balance of power makes for unfair matchups

Swift Current Broncos forward Tyler Steenbergen. (Darwin Knelsen/Swift Current Broncos)

Those who gripe about how the NHL’s playoff format unfairly punishes teams with difficult first-round matchups or daunting roads to the championship series should look at the WHL.

It’s even more pronounced in the western-most major-junior league this season.

The East Division is the NHL’s Atlantic. The Moose Jaw Warriors have been the class of the WHL all season, much like the Tampa Bay Lightning in the pros. That leaves the Swift Current Broncos and the Regina Pats – the league’s second- and seventh-best finishers – to duke it out in the opening round.

The winner, much like that of the projected battle between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins (or maybe Tampa), likely gets a date with the top team in Round 2.

That’s the undeserved similarity. Now for the glaring difference – and it only gets worse.

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The Brandon Wheat Kings sold at the trade deadline upon realizing how strong Moose Jaw and Swift Current are at the top. The Pats, who are hosting the Memorial Cup in May, needed to buy. They found their stride and charged past Brandon in March.

The Wheaties’ punishment? They secured the first wild-card berth and are the supposed underdog to open the playoffs even though they have more points than their opponents, the Medicine Hat Tigers. The fourth-best team in the conference has, on paper, the easiest road to the final by way of the Central Division.

Now for the kicker. The Saskatoon Blades finished last in the division, missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Although they, too, sold at the deadline, the result cost coach Dean Brockman his job on Sunday.

The Blades have more points than every team in the Central, except for Medicine Hat.

The balance of power also exists in the Western Conference where, as was expected, the U.S. Division is much stronger than the B.C. grouping.

The setup undoubtedly makes for some great battles early in the playoffs. But as the post-season wears on, some of the better squads will be gone far too soon.

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Eastern Conference

East Division

(1) Moose Jaw Warriors vs. (Wild Card 2) Prince Albert Raiders

Moose Jaw Warriors forward Jayden Halbgewachs. (Robert Murray/WHL)
Moose Jaw Warriors forward Jayden Halbgewachs. (Robert Murray/WHL)

Regular season series: Moose Jaw – 5-2-1

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Moose Jaw: D Jett Woo (20), LW Ryan Peckford (97), C Justin Almeida (125).

Prince Albert: C Cole Fonstad (78).

Player to watch

Moose Jaw: C Jayden Halbgewachs – He scored 70 goals, becoming the first player since Pavel Brendl (remember him?) to hit that mark. (Brendl had 73 for Calgary in 1998-99.) The San Jose Sharks prospect also topped the WHL in points with 129. He’s the leading candidate for the playoff scoring crown.

Prince Albert: C Jordy Stallard – The overager broke out with 91 points while playing all 72 games. After being drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, Stallard still hasn’t signed a contract. A nice post-season showing can only help his case.

How they match up: The Warriors fended off a late charge from Swift Current to earn top spot in the division and a weaker first-round opponent. The Raiders did go on a nine-game winning streak late to punch their playoff ticket, but the Warriors’ veteran talent and depth make them prohibitive favourites.

(2) Swift Current Broncos vs. (3) Regina Pats

Regina Pats Sam Steel
Regina Pats captain Sam Steel. (Keith Hershmiller/Regina Pats)

Regular season series: Swift Current – 5-0-1

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Swift Current: D Artyom Minulin (142), G Joel Hofer (6).

Regina: LW Emil Oksanen (193).

Player to watch

Swift Current: LW Aleksi Heponiemi – The Florida Panthers second-rounder racked up 118 points this season, third only to Moose Jaw’s Halbgewachs and Swift Current captain and linemate Glenn Gawdin. (Fellow Bronco Tyler Steenbergen was sixth.) Heponiemi will be looking to make amends for last year’s post-season when he had no goals and eight assists in 14 games.

Regina: C Sam Steel – The 2017 CHL scoring champ’s numbers were down as he started slowly with less talent around him and then missed time at the world juniors. However, he finished with points in 18 of his last 19 contests, including in each of his last 13 games played. That’s good news for an underdog team.

How they match up: It’s a rematch from the second round a year ago when the Pats overcame a 3-1 deficit en route to the final. The Broncos dominated the season series and have all the pieces – including a slew of deadline acquisitions highlighted by Oilers netminding prospect Stuart Skinner – to exact revenge. The Pats will be motivated to avoid being the latest Memorial Cup team ousted in Round 1.

Central Division

(1) Medicine Hat Tigers vs. (Wild Card 1) Brandon Wheat Kings

Brandon Wheat Kings’ Ty Lewis, right, is knocked off his feet by Red Deer Rebels’ Nelson Nogier during third period CHL Memorial Cup hockey action in Red Deer, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Regular season series: Brandon – 3-1

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Medicine Hat: LW Ryan Chyzowski (160).

Brandon: C Luka Burzan (89), LW Cole Reinhardt (164), D Chase Hartje (181).

Player to watch

Brandon: LW Ty Lewis – The Wheat Kings sold at the deadline, notably dealing Kale Clague to Moose Jaw and Tanner Kaspick to Victoria. But they kept Lewis, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, who had 100 points.

Medicine Hat: D David Quenneville – He led all defencemen in scoring with 80 points. That total tied him with winger Mark Rassell for the team lead. The Tigers’ power play runs through Quenneville. He had 12 goals and 32 points on the man advantage.

How they match up: The teams were separated by five points in the regular season, with the lower-seeded Wheat Kings holding the edge. They don’t have home-ice advantage, though, which levels the playing field. A lower-body injury that kept Brandon goaltender Logan Thompson out for the final week of the season is cause for some concern, too.

(2) Lethbridge Hurricanes vs. (3) Red Deer Rebels

Czech Republic’s Kristian Reichel (25) moves in on Finland goaltender Veini Vehvilainen (31) during second period preliminary round IIHF World Junior Championship hockey action in Montreal, Monday, Dec. 26, 2016. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Regular season series: Lethbridge – 4-3

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Lethbridge: D Calen Addison (34).

Red Deer: D Alexander Alexeyev (26), C Kristian Reichel (80), D Dawson Barteaux (156), D Jacob Herauf (203).

Player to watch

Lethbridge: Addison – He nearly doubled his point production, vaulting to 65 points (ninth among blueliners) from 33. Going a round or two in the playoffs may give his draft stock a boost. The retooling Hurricanes were a minus-16 in goal differential this season, which helps explain Addison’s minus-18 rating.

Red Deer: Reichel – No playoff team scored less often than the Rebels. In fact, only the cellar-dwelling Edmonton Oil Kings finished behind their 209 goals. Reichel scored 34 times, second only to Mason McCarty’s 38 for the team lead. The Czech Republic world junior forward will need to net some timely ones.

How they match up: They’re the two worst playoff teams, but one is guaranteed to play into April. The Hurricanes have the edge due to a bit more high-end talent and overager Logan Flodell between the pipes.

Western Conference

U.S. Division

(1) Everett Silvertips vs. (Wild Card 2) Seattle Thunderbirds

Carter Hart. (Photo by Julien Grimard)

Regular season series: Everett – 6-2-2

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Everett: RW Riley Sutter (72), D Wyatte Wylie (179).

Seattle: D Reece Harsch (188).

Player to watch

Everett: G Carter Hart – The Silvertips weren’t supposed to be at the top of the heap in the U.S. Division. They largely have Hart to thank for that. No other goaltender was even close to his .947 save percentage and 1.60 goals-against average. (Amazingly, his numbers were even better before he left for Canada’s world junior camp.) And his seven shutouts also ranked first. Elite goaltending can take a team a long way in the post-season.

Seattle: D Turner Ottenbreit – Led by Patrick Bajkov (FLA), Matt Fonteyne and Garrett Pilon (WSH), the Silvertips have plenty of offensive weapons. It’ll be up to Ottenbreit, the over-age captain who totalled 47 points and a plus-15 rating, to slow them down.

How they match up: As the defending WHL champions who lost Mathew Barzal and Ethan Bear to the pros, Thunderbirds are playing with house money. This is Hart’s last shot at a league title and Seattle shouldn’t stand in his way.

(2) Portland Winterhawks vs. (3) Spokane Chiefs

Portland Winterhawks forward Cody Glass looks to make a play during a WHL game against the Prince Albert Raiders on Nov. 12, 2017. (Chad Baker/Portland Winterhawks)

Regular season series: Portland — 5-2-1

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Portland: D John Ludvig (107).

Spokane: D Ty Smith (14), D Filip Kral (52).

Player to watch

Portland: C Cody Glass – The Winterhawks are stacked with point producers like Skyler McKenzie (WPG), Kieffer Bellows (NYI), Henri Jokiharju (CHI) and Dennis Cholowski (DET), but it’s Cody Glass who leads the way. Vegas’s first-ever draft pick followed up a 94-point campaign with 102. If he as another gear, the Winterhawks could be a force.

Spokane: RW Kailer Yamamoto – He was limited to 40 games due to a surprise early audition with the Edmonton Oilers and a spot on the American world junior team. He only slightly nudged his points-per-game output upwards to 1.6 from 1.54. His pro career can resume for good once the Chiefs are out. Could we see him back in Edmonton soon?

How they match up: Another unfortunate first-round series here as Portland and Spokane finished second and fourth, respectively, in the Western Conference. While Portland should have the edge, this should be a tight one. Spokane did win the last three head-to-head meetings.

B.C. Division

(1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (Wild Card 1) Tri-City Americans

Kole Lind. (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

Regular season series: Tied 2-1-1

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Kelowna: C Kyle Topping (64), D Libor Zabransky (110).

Tri-City: C Tyler Madden (49), LW Isaac Johnson (170).

Player to watch

Kelowna: RW Kole Lind – He was frustrated after being left off Canada’s world junior team, but he didn’t let the omission hinder his play. From the time he returned to the WHL through the end of the season, Lind was held pointless in just three games. The Vancouver Canucks prospect led Kelowna in scoring with 95 points.

Tri-City: D Jake Bean – The Americans won the sweepstakes for the 19-year-old defenceman at the trade deadline. They’ll need the Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder to be a difference-maker to get by the Rockets.

How they match up: The Americans would be in second place if they played in the B.C. Division. The one plus is they get to avoid the tougher U.S. bracket. Tri-City’s top players like captain Michael Rasmussen and goaltender Patrick Dea – one of the league’s better stoppers – must perform well to handle the Rockets and their top guns.

(2) Victoria Royals vs. (3) Vancouver Giants

Victoria Royals forward Matthew Phillips. (Jonathon Howe/Victoria Royals)

Regular season series: Victoria – 7-3

Draft-eligible players (from NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings for North American skaters and goalies)

Victoria: None.

Vancouver: C Milos Roman (40), C James Malm (176), LW Alex Kannok-Leipert (190), D Dylan Plouffe (208), G David Tendeck (8).

Player to watch

Victoria: C Matthew Phillips – He may be small, but all he does is play and produce. The five-foot-seven, 155-pound forward has missed a grand total of three games over the last three seasons. The Calgary Flames pick has also racked up 276 points over that same span, including 112 in 2017-18 – good for fifth in the league. Phillips hasn’t enjoyed the same success in the playoffs, though. He has 11 points in 19 games over two spring sessions.

Vancouver: LW Tyler Benson – With all due respect to Ty Ronning (NYR) and his club record 61 goals – second in the WHL – all eyes will be on Benson. The former bantam star and No. 1 WHL pick was the healthiest he’s been since his rookie season and produced accordingly with 69 points in 58 games. He’s eligible to move on to the Edmonton Oilers organization after this season and is only finally scheduled to make his WHL post-season debut.

How they match up: The teams were separated by only three points, but it seems like Victoria should be the big favourite. Including Phillips, the Royals have five 60-point players. The Giants have three. While the numbers of the goaltenders – Victoria’s Griffen Outhouse and Vancouver’s Tendeck – are almost identical, the Royals have the more experienced stopper. Give the advantage to the team from the island.

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