The Prince George Cougars

The Prince George Cougars

2014-15 WHL Regular Season Preview: B.C. Division

With help from beat reporters around the WHL, The Townsman looks at what to expect in 2014-15. We close with a look at the B.C. Division

Kelowna RocketsDoyle PotenteauKelowna Daily Courier

Last season: 57-11-0-4, first in B.C. Division, first in Western Conference. Lost in third round of playoffs to Portland in five games.

Head coach: Dan Lambert (first season, sixth with Kelowna).

Assistant coaches: Kris Mallette (1st season), Travis Crickard (goaltending coach, 1st season).

Key losses: Leading scorer RW Myles Bell (42 g, 77 pts.), C Ryan Olsen (30-34-64), No. 1 D Damon Severson and goalie Jordon Cooke (Kelowna’’s MVP).

The 20-year-olds: D Cole Martin of Texas, who’’s a lock as an over-ager, LW Tyrell Goulbourne plus LW Carter Rigby and RW Colton Heffley.

The imports: LW Kris Schmidli, 18, of Zurich, Switzerland, returns for asecond season. Kelowna’’s second import is 6-foot-3 rookie F Tomas Soustal, 17, who hails from Unicov, Czech Republic.

Key returnees: D Madison Bowey, last season’s captain; Martin, one of seven returnees on defence; Goulbourne, with his physical presence; C Rourke Chartier, 18, and C Nick Merkley, 17. Chartier was sixth in team scoring (24-34-58) while Merkley, as a rookie, was fifth (25-33-58).

New faces: D Lucas Johansen, 16, the younger brother of NHLer Ryan Johansen; C Dillon Dube, 16, who joined Kelowna in the playoffs and appeared in one game; and F Tanner Wishnowski, who played last season with the Okanagan Rockets of the B.C. Major Midget League.

Watch for: Kelowna’’s depth to wear down the opposition, much like last season. The Rockets don’t have any true game breakers, but they should have plenty of 20- to 30-goal scorers.

Noteworthy: No less than 18 players are projected to return from last season’’s roster. That team set franchise records for most wins and points in a season. . . . Kelowna had 10 players invited to NHL camps this fall.

Did you know? This will be the Rockets’ 20th season in Kelowna since relocating from Tacoma, Wash., in the summer of 1995.

The prognosis: With a large cast of returning players, especially on the blue-line, take Kelowna to win their third consecutive B.C. Division pennant.

Victoria RoyalsCleve DheenshawVictoria Times-Colonist

Last season: 48-20-1-3, third in Western Conference.

Head coach: Dave Lowry (third season).

General manager: Cam Hope (third season).

Assistant coach: Enio Sacilotto (fifth season with franchise).

Key losses: G Patrik Polivka, 20, has turned pro in his native Czech Republic; Reliable D Brett Cote, 20, was traded to Red Deer; Third-round Florida Panthers pick C Steven Hodges, 20, was dealt to Tri City; Forwards Ben Walker and Logan Nelson and D Jordan Fransoo have graduated.

The 20-year-olds: LW Austin Carroll, RW Brandon Magee and D Travis Brown.

The imports: Swedish RW Axel Blomqvist is signed by the Winnipeg Jets; RW Slovakian Kristian Ferletak was selected in this year’s import draft.

Key returnees: Energetic RW Brandon Magee led the team in scoring last season but will miss the first 12 games this season due to suspension; Muscular LW Austin Carroll, hard to budge in front of the net, led the Royals in goals with 34; Strapping six-foot-seven D Keegan Kanzig is signed by the Flames; D Joe Hicketts is undersized but highly mobile and hugely under-rated; Travis Brown is another puck-moving D; C Tyler Soy, 17, is an emerging scorer; G Coleman Vollrath is the incumbent starter in the net.

Key rookies: C Dante Hannoun, 16, and LW Matthew Campese, 17, could bear watching.

Watch for: This isn’t a squad with much glitter, but some true grit. The unsung spine consists of C Logan Fisher, RW Brandon Fushimi, LW Taylor Crunk, D Ryan Gagnon.

Noteworthy: The real strength of this team is off the ice – the respective 2013-14 WHL coach and executive of the year, Dave Lowry and Cam Hope, whose tight structure managed to squeeze the most out of this blue-collar group last season to obliterate the old franchise records in setting new standards for wins (48) and points (100).

Did you know? This is the ninth season in franchise history, the fourth as the Royals after the first five as the Chilliwack Bruins.

The prognosis: After the greatest regular season in franchise history, followed by a franchise-first playoff series victory, the Royals will be looking for more this season. While not yet an elite team, the Royals at least look to have the kind of moxie it takes to be a top-four team in the Western Conference.

Vancouver GiantsSteve EwenVancouver Province

Last season: 32-29-7-4, third in B.C. Division, seventh in Western Conference. Lost in first round of playoffs to Portland in four games.

Head coach: Troy Ward (first season.)

Assistant coaches: Matt Erhart (second season), Yogi Svejkovsky (eighth season), Eli Wilson (goalie coach, second season).

Key losses: F Cain Franson, RW Tim Traber and D Dalton Thrower graduated. D Brett Kulak is expected to play pro in Calgary’s system.

The 20-year-olds: F Dalton Sward, F Joel Hamilton and RW Matt Bellerive.

The imports: D Dmitry Osipov, a Russian who was the first overall pick in the 2013 CHL import draft, returns for second season. F Vladimir Bobylev, a Russian, is a 17-year-old rookie.

Key returnees: C Carter Popoff was Vancouver’s leader in points last year, with 64. RW Jackson Houck was tops in goals, with 34. D Mason Geertsen played significant minutes.

New faces: LW Tyler Benson was the first overall pick in the 2013 bantam draft. He’s been superb through the preseason, showing a savvy two-way game. D Clayton Kirichenko came over from Saskatoon for a pair of draft picks.

Watch for: C Alec Baer and D Arvin Atwal to have breakthrough seasons, considering how well they’ve performed in the preseason.

Noteworthy: RW Ty Ronning suffered a broken collarbone in preseason is expected to miss at least the first four weeks of the regular season. … Ward, the former coach of the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat, is promising a more offensive, puck-possession approach than the Giants had under Don Hay, who guided the Giants for 10 seasons but was let out of the last year of his contract to take a gig with the Kamloops Blazers this season.

Did you know? The Giants are bidding to host the 2016 Memorial Cup, along with the Red Deer Rebels.

The prognosis: There’s much to figure out. How will Ward handle juniors? Will his scheme work? How will Benson do? Vancouver, led by young talent, should make the playoffs, though.

Prince George CougarsTim ClarkePrince George Citizen

Last season: 27-37-3-5, ninth in Western Conference, missed playoffs.

Head coach: Mark Holick (third season, joined Cats in January 2013).

Assistants: Michael Hengen (assistant/strength and conditioning, first season); Roman Vopat (assistant, first season); Brent Arsenault (educational assistant, 10th season); Justin Cardinal (goaltending consultant, second season).

Key losses: LW Todd Fiddler (50 goals, 98 points), graduated; C Troy Bourke (29 goals, 85 points, going pro with Colorado); C Zach Pochiro (27 goals, 66 points, in St. Louis pro system); RW Klarc Wilson (27 goals, 60 points, graduated); G Brett Zarowny (chose not to return); C Alex Forsberg (traded to Saskatoon); C Jordan Tkatch (traded to Prince Albert).

The 20-year-olds: RW Jari Erricson (missed all but four games with concussion); LW Chance Braid (seven goals, 24 points with Prince Albert); D Wil Tomchuk (six assists in 51 games split between Tri-City and Prince George).

The imports: C David Soltes of Slovakia (four goals, five points in 15 games before knee injury); D Martin Bobos of Slovakia (seven assists, 67 games).

Key returnees: C Jansen Harkins (10 goals, 34 points as 16-year-old); LW Chase Witala (18 goals, 32 points in 43 games); D Marc McNulty (17 goals, 42 points, drafted by Detroit in sixth round, 2013); G Ty Edmonds (3.85 GAA, 19-19-6).

New faces: Braid (acquired from Prince Albert); C Haydn Hopkins (acquired from Saskatoon); LW Lance Yaremchuk (acquired from Prince Albert); LW Cody McAuley (Sherwood Park midget triple-A; D Josh Anderson (South Island major midget).

Watch for: Harkins to emerge as an NHL prospect (son of new Cougars GM Todd Harkins helped Canada win gold in Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament); Erricson to stay healthy and become a dominant winger; CHL Top Prospect goalie Edmonds to show the benefits of playing 55 games with the Cats last season as a  rookie.

Noteworthy: The Cougars have not had a winning season since 2006-07 and have missed the postseason in five of the past seven years. Since the franchise moved to P.G. from Victoria in 1994, the team has advanced just twice to the third playoff round (1997 and 2007).

Did you know? The Cougars averaged just 1,693 fans in 2013-14 (lowest in WHL). New ownership group, which includes NHL defencemen Eric Brewer and Dan Hamhuis, dubs its marketing strategy the New Ice Age and has the city excited about the team again after years of indifference.

Prognosis: Young defence is a big question mark but they should have adequate scoring, toughness and goaltending. Bigger crowds at CN Centre will bring fun back into the building and should be worth at least an extra goal per game for the Cats. They will make the playoffs.

Kamloops BlazersGregg

Last season: 14-53-2-3, last in 10-team Western Conference.

Head coach: Don Hay (first season).

Associate coach: Mark Ferner (second season).

Key losses: D Sam Grist graduated. Swiss D Edson Harlacher stayed home.

The 20-year-olds: D Brady Gaudet, who was traded to the Red Deer Rebels on Oct. 21, 2012, and reacquired over the summer; G Bolton Pouliot, another acquisition from Red Deer; F Chase Souto, a Californian entering his fifth season, was sent home early in camp with concussion issues left over from last season.

The imports: Swiss D Michael Fora, who turns 19 on Oct. 30, and Slovakian D Patrik Maier, who will be 18 on Nov. 6, were selected in the 2014 CHL import draft.

Key returnees: Pouliot, the No. 1 goaltender. Ryan Rehill, a big horse and a minute-eater, and Josh Connolly, a gambler, on the back end. F Matt Revel, F Matt Needham and F Cole Ully, who have to score. Injuries limited Needham to 42 games and 35 points last season. F Collin Shirley, acquired from the Kootenay Ice last season, has to be better than 27 points.

New faces: F Jake Kryski, the 13th overall pick in the 2013 bantam draft, and F Quinn Benjafield, the 19th pick in that draft. Kryski, from Vancouver, was acquired from the Prince Albert Raiders during the summer of 2013. Benjafield is from North Vancouver.

Watch for: Ully to continue to show that he is one of the WHL’s best forwards. . . . Rehill to bang his way into the psyches of opposing forwards.

Noteworthy: Hay last coached the Blazers in 1994-95 when they won their third Memorial Cup in four seasons. He spent the past 10 seasons as head coach of the Vancouver Giants.

Did you know? The forwards on this season’s roster accounted for 106 WHL goals last season, with Ully scoring 30 of those and Souto chipping in 20. Souto‘s future is cloudy, at best.

The prognosis: The Blazers are coming off the worst season in franchise history. They’ll be better, but it’ll be an uphill struggle to make the playoffs.