2021-22 WHL Preview: One question for every team entering season

Regina Pats star Connor Bedard. (Keith Hershmiller/CP)

The 2020-21 Western Hockey League season wasn’t traditional in any sense.

COVID-19 meant hub cities and teams making alternate living arrangements for players in some cases (the experience of the Red Deer Rebels players living at the arena is something they’ll likely remember for a lifetime).

The 2021-22 season will see a return to something the resembles normalcy with a full schedule planned.

With the regular season opening this week, we take a look at some of the questions surrounding teams across the league.

Brandon Wheat Kings: With an experienced group returning, how will the Wheat Kings build on a division title last season? With four overage players on the roster on the eve of the WHL regular season, the team will also have to make a decision on which three will remain with the club.

Calgary Hitmen: The 2021-22 season will see the Hitmen return to the Saddledome after COVID-19 forced the team to find a new home for last season. With some veterans mixed in, the young players on the Hitmen roster will look to build on a 2020-21 season that saw the club go 10-8-3-0. The question will be how the young players handle the new experiences this season and learn on the fly?

Edmonton Oil Kings: After he scored in his first pre-season game with the Arizona Coyotes, the Oil Kings might be wondering just how long they’ll be without 2021 first-rounder Dylan Guenther. With Guenther and Jake Neighbours (St. Louis Blues) off to strong starts at NHL camps, the longer the pair are away, the more younger players will be leaned on to make up for the loss of a pair of high-end offensive talents.

Everett Silvertips: There’s going to be a new starter between the pipes in Everett after the graduation of Dustin Wolf. Koen MacInnes and Braden Holt will step in to fill the void and with some experience in front of them both at forward and on the blue line, the hope will be that experience makes life easier for the men between the pipes.

Kamloops Blazers: On the heels of a solid rookie season, Logan Stankoven may have not played a lot with the Blazers in 2020-21, but he did have an impact in the few games he did get into. The Dallas Stars second-rounder scored seven times in six games with the Blazers after potting 29 in 2019-20. With added experience and an NHL camp under his belt, one has to wonder what kind of goal totals the 18-year-old will put up this season in Kamloops.

Kelowna Rockets: The acquisition of Chicago Blackhawks prospect Colton Dach will add a veteran presence to the Rockets roster. With a group of young players the Rockets are looking to build around, the former first-round pick will get a chance to bring his offensive game to another level this season. After scoring 11 times in 20 games last season, what’s next on the offensive side of the game for the 18-year-old forward?

Lethbridge Hurricanes: Overage players always play a major role in major junior hockey and the Hurricanes will look to the trio of Logan Barlage, Justin Hall, and Alex Cotton (Detroit Red Wings) to help lead the way. With a mix of veterans and youth up front, how much will overage forwards Barlage and Hall be leaned on because of their experience?

Medicine Hat Tigers: The biggest question for the Tigers this season is the future of forward Cole Sillinger in Medicine Hat. Having a solid training camp with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, his return to the Tigers would be a big help. Sillinger spent the 2020-21 season in the United States Hockey League after the delayed start to the WHL season. Should Sillinger not return, the Tigers will look to some veterans to take an even further step developmentally.

Moose Jaw Warriors: After scoring seven goals and 21 points in his first full WHL season in 2019-20, Eric Alarie topped those numbers in just 19 games last year. The former first-rounder saw limited pre-season action this year, getting into one game, but he showed that his offensive game is continuing to improve with a three-point night. What’s next offensively for the Winnipeg product?

Portland Winterhawks: After playing in 13 games over the previous two seasons, Dante Giannuzzi got into 20 games during the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season, posting strong numbers in the process. With a full schedule expected this season, Giannuzzi will be looked to again to lead the way in goal.

Prince Albert Raiders: Like a number of teams across the Canadian Hockey League, the Raiders will start the season low on experience in goal. Recently returned from the training camp of the Calgary Flames, Carter Serhyenko has 25 career games under his belt and is the most experienced of the group. With added games, how the group will adjust to regular game action will be a key for the Raiders this season.

Prince George Cougars: With a young roster heading into opening weekend, Cougars coach Mark Lamb has said the limited experience some of those players got last season will be important this year. The Cougars roster could feature as many as 11 players born in 2004 and 2005 as the regular season opens. How the youth handles the pressures of a full season remains to be seen.

Red Deer Rebels: Scott Konowalchuk returns behind a WHL bench this season in Red Deer. With some new faces on the roster via trade, the early part of the season will be about adjustments, be it Konowalchuk adjusting to his new team or players adjusting to the new coach. How quick that adjustment will be remains to be seen.

Regina Pats: What will Connor Bedard do for an encore in a full WHL season? The 16-year-old showed he was more than capable of producing in major junior last season with 12 goals and 28 points in just 15 games before playing for Team Canada at the Under-18 tournament. With a full season ahead of him, even more eyes will be on the young forward.

Saskatoon Blades: To say Nolan Maier is an experienced WHL netminder would be an understatement after 156 appearances in four seasons. Aside from his 17 appearances last season, Maier has shown an ability to carry a workload with the Blades. With 91 wins entering this season, what is the 20-year-old going to do for an encore in year five?

Seattle Thunderbirds: In interviews, coach Matt O’Dette has referred to the Thunderbirds depth for the upcoming season as being a strength of the club. Among the key pieces of that depth is Dallas Stars prospect Conner Roulette. After scoring 19 goals as a rookie in 2019-20, Roulette got into 11 of Seattle’s 23 games last season and scored six times. Roulette has shown an ability to take his development up a level. What is the next level going to be for the 18-year-old?

Spokane Chiefs: With the graduation of former 100-point scorer Adam Beckman, who is next in line in Spokane? Overage forward Bear Hughes, who played in the USHL last season with the Fargo Force, posted strong numbers in his first full season in Spokane in 2019-20 and the Washington Capitals prospect will be a key part of keeping the offensive game moving in Spokane.

Swift Current Broncos: With limited experience in some areas, how will the current crop of Broncos take what was an unusual 2020-21 season and build on the experiences of a year that was unlike any other? Going from playing a shortened season in hub cities to playing a full 68-game schedule isn’t easy, but the Broncos will look to take advantage of any experience they can heading into the new season.

Tri-City Americans: Former NHLer Stu Barnes takes over behind the bench for the WHL club he played for in the late-1980s. It’s the first head coaching gig for Barnes, who spent time as an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars, and the longtime pro will lean on that experience as he runs a bench for the first time.

Vancouver Giants: With limited experience in goal Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jesper Vikman looks to be the early favourite to step in for the Giants. The Giants learned earlier this week that the Swedish netminder, taking eighth overall in the 2021 CHL Import Draft, was being reassigned by the Golden Knights to Vancouver. Like many goaltenders taken in the Import Draft, the question will be how quickly can Vikman adjust to playing in North America full-time?

Victoria Royals: The 2020-21 season wasn’t easy in Victoria. With a young group returning, how will they take the experiences of the COVID shortened season and move forward? Austrian goaltender Sebastian Wraneschitz will look to take his pro experiences from playing overseas and help the Royals take a step this season.

Winnipeg ICE: The ICE will have a different look this season with Peyton Krebs (Vegas Golden Knights) making the jump to pro hockey. Replacing the offensive production won’t be easy, but not necessarily impossible. Exactly who will step up and chip in will be the question.

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