The 50th anniversary season of the Western Hockey League opens Thursday night when the Moose Jaw Warriors host the Regina Pats.
With the help of beat reporters from around the league, the Townsman takes a look in on what to expect from each team heading into the WHL’s special campaign.
We begin with a breakdown of the East Division.
Brandon Wheat Kings
Perry BergsonBrandon Sun
Last season: 53-11-4-4, First in the WHL. Lost to Kelowna in WHL final.
Head coach/GM: Kelly McCrimmon (13th season).
Assistant coaches: Darren Ritchie (ninth season), David Anning (fourth season), Matt Cockell (goalie coach, seventh season).
Key losses: Former captain Peter Quenneville, (27g, 48a in regular season); five-year veteran D Eric Roy (45 points in 66 games; D Reid Gow (17 points in 50 games); F Morgan Klimchuk (50 points in 33 games with Brandon), who is expected to play pro at 20; D Ryan Pilon, 19, who left the team in training camp.
The 20-year-olds: The WHL’s third-leading scorer last season, F Tim McGauley, D Macoy Erkamps, D Colton Waltz, F Quintin Lisoway and Latvian F Rihards Bukarts.
The imports: It’s complicated. D Ivan Provorov, 18, of Russia returns if the Philadelphia Flyers don’t keep him; The Calgary Flames may send D Oliver Kylington, 18, of Sweden, to Brandon. F Dario Winkler, 18, of Austria, and Bukarts are seeking a spot.
Key returnees: Forwards McGauley, Jayce Hawryluk, 19, John Quenneville, 19, and Nolan Patrick, 17, will pace an attack that led the WHL last season with 340 goals. G Jordan Papirny played 78 games including playoffs; his save percentage rose from .910 to .921 in the playoffs.
New faces: 2014 No. 1 overall pick, F Stelio Mattheos, 16, is set to play full-time after getting into 10 regular-season and playoff games last season.
Watch for: Provorov and highly touted D Kale Clague, 17, played together in two pre-season games and were dynamic. Braylon Shmyr, Reid Duke, Tyler Coulter and Tanner Kaspick could make offensive gains.
Noteworthy: Brandon could lose four of its top eight scorers and could still be one of the league’s top offensive teams. They return up to 10 players who had 10 goals or more.
Did you know: Since missing the playoffs four times from 1988-92, the Wheat Kings have since had an early exit only twice.
The prognosis: The Wheat Kings were built to win this season. With a potent offence and a top goaltender, the team has the talent to win a second straight East Division pennant and contend for the title.
Greg HarderRegina Leader-Post
Last season: 37-24-5-6, second in East Division, lost in second round.
Head coach-GM: John Paddock (second season).
Assistant coach-assistant GM: Dave Struch (10th season in WHL, second with Pats).
Assistant coaches: Brad Herauf (first), Rob Muntain (goalies, fifth).
Key losses: LW Braden Christoffer, RW Pavel Padakin and C Patrick D’Amico (all graduated).
The 20-year-olds: D Colby Williams, LW Taylor Cooper, LW Aaron Macklin and G Daniel Wapple.
The imports: Two Russian D-men – sophomore Sergey Zborovskiy and rookie Nikolai Knyzhov.
Key returnees: Wapple’s status as a top-flight starter will be taxed behind one of the WHL’s youngest lineups … His saving grace is a relatively battle-tested defence led by three NHL draft picks: Williams, Zborovskiy and Connor Hobbs … Up front, linemates Austin Wagner and Adam Brooks – a breakout combo in 2014-15 – need to maintain their recent trajectory … Brooks provides a strong one-two punch up the middle with Sam Steel, an up-and-coming star … Cooper is a vital wing man given the team’s lack of veteran scoring punch.
New faces: RW Lane Zablocki, 17, joined a cast of promising rookies this summer when he was acquired from Prince George for LW Jesse Gabrielle … Power forward Aaron Macklin, 20, was picked up Monday from Prince George for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2016 … Undrafted LW Riley Woods, 17, spurned NCAA offers to stay home in Regina, where he was a star last season with the midget AAA Pat Canadians.
Watch for: The Pats’ inexperience to show without Cooper and Williams, both of whom could miss significant time due to injuries.
Noteworthy: Regina had a league-high five players selected in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft: Zborovskiy (third round), Gabrielle (fourth), Wagner (fourth), Hobbs (fifth) and Williams (sixth). Brooks received a free-agent tryout with the New York Rangers.
Did you know: Without Cooper and Williams, Regina is down to just two of its top eight scorers from last season: Brooks and Steel.
The prognosis: The Pats have talent but lack experience, which suggests they should finish better than they start. If the team can keep head above water early, a playoffs spot is realistic.
SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS
Taylor RoccaCranbrook Daily Townsman
Last season: 34-33-1-4, third in East Division, eliminated in four games by Regina Pats in first round of playoffs
Head coach: Mark Lamb (seventh season as coach/GM)
Assistant coaches: Jamie Heward (fourth season), Ryan Smith (first season)
Key losses: C/LW Colby Cave (35G, 40A) and LW Coda Gordon (25G, 36A) age out, C Jay Merkley (17G, 23A) opts for CIS over 20-year-old campaign, D Dillon Heatherington (Columbus Blue Jackets) and D Brett Lernout (Montreal Canadiens) expected to turn pro.
The 20-year-olds: G Landon Bow, D Griffin Foulk, C Scott Feser
The imports: Swedish RW Andreas Schumacher (8G, 9A), 18, returns. Russian D Artyom Minulin, 16, selected 29th overall at 2015 CHL Import Draft.
Key returnees: After hearing their names called at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, LW Jake DeBrusk (42G, 39A; Boston Bruins – first round, 14th) and C Glenn Gawdin (15G, 39A; St. Louis Blues – fourth round, 116th) will lead offense. Bow (31-27-1-4, seven shutouts) guards the goal. D Max Lajoie (7G, 33A) steps up after strong rookie season.
New faces: RW Calvin Spencer (5G, 8A) acquired from Seattle Thunderbirds and finish second in pre-season team scoring (2G, 3A). LW Tyler Adams, 18, should make the jump. D Kade Jensen, 18, provides a big body (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) after acquisition from Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Watch for: Lajoie, 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds, is considered a top prospect eligible for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Noteworthy: Bow was a workhorse in 2014-15, playing 66 games while facing the most shots (2,114), making the most saves (1,925) and registering the most shutouts (seven) amongst WHL goaltenders.
Did you know: The undrafted Bow’s 2014-15 campaign earned him an invite to Anaheim Ducks rookie camp, which he turned into a main camp invite before being assigned to the WHL Tuesday.
The prognosis: With elite goaltending and top-end offensive talent, Broncos should once again be playoff bound, albeit behind the likes of the Wheat Kings and Pats. Top-tier penalty kill (eighth, 81.2 per cent) will be hurt by loss of Heatherington.
MOOSE JAW WARRIORS
Matthew GourlieMoose Jaw Times-Herald
Last season: 32-35-4-1, fourth in East Division, missed playoffs.
Head coach: Tim Hunter (second season).
Assistant coaches: Mark O’Leary (fourth season), Jamie Hodson (goaltending, fifth).
Key losses: Departing forwards Jack Rodewald (35G), Tanner Eberle (33G), Axel Blomqvist (11G) and Jaimen Yakubowski (9G) accounted for 39.8 per cent of the Warriors goals a year ago.
The 20-year-olds: RW Torrin White. D Spenser Jensen opted to play CIS and the Warriors are looking to fill final spots via trade.
The imports: Czech C Jiri Smejkal looking to build on strong second half of his rookie season (9G, 13A). RW Nikita Popugaev missed the start of camp, but the 6-foot-4 Russian rookie comes in with lofty expectations.
Key returnees: C Brayden Point (38G, 49A, 60GP) is arguably the most valuable player to his team. C Brett Howden (22G, 24A) captained Canada’s U18s to a gold this summer. G Zach Sawchenko (.896 SV%, 3.32 GAA) is expected to be a leader in his third season.
New faces: D Josh Brook (fourth, 2014 bantam draft) looks to step in. RW Ryan Bowen had 28 points in 53 games in junior A last season.
Watch for: Balanced scoring. Five of the Warriors’ nine returning forwards enter second season and looking to step up.
Noteworthy: Warriors added size to their forward group. Two seasons ago they only had one forward 6-foot-2 or taller. They start this season with six.
Did you know: The Warriors have four Americans on the team this season — D Tyler Brown, C Landon Quinney, RW Brayden Watts and RW Blake Bargar — the most in franchise history.
The prognosis: Won eight of final 12 games to nearly make the playoffs last year. Seventeen returning players and improved depth should end their three-year playoff drought.
PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS
Brett SmithPrince Albert Daily Herald
Last season: 31-37-2-2,fifth in East DIvision, missed playoffs.
Head coach: Marc Habscheid (second season)
Assistant coaches: Dave Manson (11th season), Kelly Guard (second season as assistant, fourth overall)
Key losses: C Colton Heffley, C/RW Jayden Hart, and D Sawyer Lange all graduated, Kris Schmidli (Swiss league).
The 20-year-olds: The Raiders have four 20-year-olds in LW Craig Leverton, D Jesse Lees, C Jordan Tkatch and D Hunter Warner. D Mackenze Stewart, who is being converted to a forward, is eligible to be returned by the Vancouver Canucks.
The imports: LW Simon Stransky (12G, 30A) and rookie D Vojtech Budik, both from the Czech Republic.
Key returnees: RW Reid Gardiner (34G, 30A) led the Raiders in scoring last season and won the team’s MVP award. C Matteo Gennaro and D Brendan Guhle should be returned after spending time with the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres, respectively.
New faces: LW Dylan Williamson, 17, and LW Parker Kelly, 16, had good camps and pre-seasons. Terry Lange (strength and conditioning) and Mark Odnokon (skills) round out coaching staff.
Watch for: The Raiders have three capable goaltenders. Rylan Parenteau and Nick McBride shared duties last season and both can return. However, 2014 first-round pick Ian Scott is hot on their heels after impressive camp.
Noteworthy: During the final pre-season game, the Raiders acquired RW Cal Babych, 18, from the Prince George Cougars for a conditional seventh-round pick.
Did you know: The Raiders have drafted a player from the Czech Republic three years in a row at the CHL Import Draft. Since 2013, they’ve selected Tomas Andrlik, Stransky and Budik.
The prognosis: Under Marc Habscheid, last year’s Raiders showed improvements and fought until the end for a playoff spot. Expect the team to continue to improve and be in contention for third in the East Division or one of the two wild card spots.
Scott LarsonThe StarPhoenix
Last season: 19-49-2-2, last in East Division, missed playoffs.
Head coach/GM: Bob Woods (second season).
Assistant coaches: Jerome Engle (coaching on and off since 1989), Dean Brockman (second year), Tim Cheveldae (third year).
Key losses: Top scorers RW Brett Stovin (29G, 21A) and RW Sam Mackechnie (22G, 21A).
The 20-year-olds: LW Nick Zajac (11G, 19A), RW Connor Gay (23G, 38A), D Isaac Schacher and D Mitchell Wheaton. It appears forwards will stay barring a trade.
The imports: Returning LW Nikita Soshnin (10G, 17A) and rookie D Libor Hajek.
Key returnees: C Cameron Hebig is the top returning weapon (18G, 22A) and will team up with LW Ryan Graham (20G, 15A) as part of the top line along with Gay. D Brycen Martin, (Buffalo Sabres) will bring offensive capabilities after putting up 38 points last season between his time in Swift Current and Saskatoon.
New faces: Gay comes home after trade from Red Deer and expected to lead offensively. Mitchell Wheaton, another 20-year-old acquired from Kelowna, will help solidify a young defence. 16-year-old rookies — Lukus Mackenzie, Josh Paterson and Cameron Hausinger — are expected to progress throughout the year.
Watch for: Hajek, chosen second overall in this spring’s CHL Import Draft and a projected first-round NHL pick, and Martin. Both defenceman should be able to jump into the play and create offense from the blue line.
Noteworthy: Hebig may be on the verge of a big year. The 19-year-old centre has found his scoring touch recording five goals and three assists for eight points in two pre-season games.
Did you know: The Blades have not had a winning season since the 2012-13 campaign.
The prognosis: The Blades will in all likelihood ice the youngest team in the league and will need career and/or breakout seasons from a number of players. They won’t be vying for an East Division title, but with a little luck could sneak into the playoffs.
Look for further Western Hockey League previews featuring the Central Division, B.C. Division and U.S. Division in the coming days.