Defenceman Travis Sanheim (#32) returns to Calgary in hopes of helping guide the Hitmen to another Central Division title. The Hitmen and Kootenay Ice open the WHL regular season Friday in Cranbrook.

Defenceman Travis Sanheim (#32) returns to Calgary in hopes of helping guide the Hitmen to another Central Division title. The Hitmen and Kootenay Ice open the WHL regular season Friday in Cranbrook.

WHL Season Preview: Part II – Central Division

With the help of beat reporters around the league, the Townsman provides a look in at the WHL's 50th anniversary season

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.

WHL Season Preview: Part I – East Division

In Part II, we move on to a breakdown of the Central Division.

Calgary Hitmen

Scott FisherCalgary Sun

Last season: 45-22-1-4, first in Central Division, lost in Eastern Conference final to Brandon Wheat Kings in five games.

Head coach: Mark French (second season).

Assistant coaches: Darcy Wakaluk (12th season), Joel Otto (ninth season), Trent Whitfield (first season).

Key losses: Overagers C Adam Tambellini, LW Connor Rankin and LW Kenton Helgesen as well as D Keegan Kanzig, who will likely play in the American Hockey League.

The 20-year-olds: D Colby Harmsworth, LW Elliott Peterson, G Brendan Burke.

The imports: C Pavel Karnaukhov (2014 CHL import, first round; Calgary Flames fifth round, 2015), C Radel Fazleev (2013 CHL import, first round; Philadelphia Flyers sixth round, 2014).

Key returnees: LW Jake Virtanen (sixth overall in 2014, Vancouver Canucks) will be a force to be reckoned with if he’s returned by the NHL club.

New faces: RW Matt Dorsey, C Mark Kastelic, LW Dawson Martin, RW Murhpy Stratton, RW Andrew Fyten, RW Lucas Cullen, D Jakob LaPointe, D Aaron Hyman, G Kyle Dumba, G Lasse Petersen.

Watch for: C Jordy Stallard scored six goals as a rookie. He’ll score 20 as a sophomore.

Noteworthy: Hitmen D Jake Bean, who put up 39 points in 51 games in his rookie campaign, went untouched through the bantam draft.

Did you know: The Hitmen have qualified for the post-season 17 of the last 18 seasons.

The prognosis: The Hitmen will be very deep on the blueline but will likely struggle to fill the net. They should still be a top four team in the Eastern Conference, but won’t be in the same league as the Brandon Wheat Kings.

MEDICINE HAT TIGERS

Ryan McCrackenMedicine Hat News

Last season: 45-23-2-2, second in Central Division, eliminated in second round of playoffs.

Head coach: Shaun Clouston (sixth season as coach, fourth as general manager).

Assistant coaches: Joe Frazer (sixth season),  Jerrid Sauer (second), J.F. Martel (goaltending).

Key losses: G Marek Langhamer — Big Czech was backbone for two seasons, now they’ll be leaning on 18-year-old Nick Schneider, who served as backup last year … D Tyler Lewington — Captain parted in the off-season as an overage player.

The 20-year-olds: Enter with as many as seven 20-year-olds, but unlikely D Kyle Burroughs (New York Islanders) or D Tommy Vannelli (St. Louis Blues) return. The Tigers likely retain leading scorers LW Trevor Cox (28G, 80A) and RW Cole Sanford (50G, 45A) as two of three, with the remaining spot up for grabs between D Ty Stanton (10G, 18A), import LW Markus Eisenschmid (19G, 25A) and D Matt Staples (2G, 8A).

The imports: Unlikely Medicine Hat retains Eisenschmid, as he occupies an import and overage spot. The Tigers have taken on Russian D Alexei Platonov and Hungarian D Tamas Laday.

Key returnees: Cox and Sanford reached career highs last season, while Cox became one of only four players since 1997 to record 80 assists in a season … D David Quenneville is coming off a strong 16-year-old season and will looking to cement his place as one of the league’s most promising defencemen.

New faces: RW Caleb Fantillo — drafted 123rd overall in 2013 — has two goals and two assists through four pre-season games and is poised to join as a 17-year-old … C Max Gerlach signed with the Tigers, ending his NCAA eligibility after previously committing to North Dakota.

Watch for: Options in the trade market as the season gets underway. Given the departure of many 19- and 20-year-old players, they’ll likely be in the market for veteran presence.

Noteworthy: The Tigers are known to play with a shoot-first mentality, and that won’t change this season. Expect some lopsided shot counts in close games.

Did you know: Cox (second in WHL scoring for 2014-15) and Sanford (fourth in WHL scoring for 2014-15) went undrafted in the NHL.

The prognosis: While the Tigers look as though they may be in the midst of a rebuild, with solid young talent and potential in the trade market, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see them extend their playoff streak to 14 years.

Red Deer Rebels

Greg MeachemRed Deer Advocate

Last season: 38-23-5, third in Central Division, lost in first round of playoffs.

Head coach: Brent Sutter (11th season).

Associate: Jeff Truitt (third season).

Assistant coaches: Steve O’Rourke (third season), Eric Lodge (skills development, first), Taylor Dakers (goaltenders, third).

Key losses: LW Riley Sheen, led club in scoring with 71 points (24-47), RW Brooks Maxwell (27-32-59), D Brett Cote (9-40-49), all to graduation.

The 20-year-olds: D Kayle Doetzel, C Presten Kopeck, C Wyatt Johnson.

The imports: LW Ivan Nikolishin, acquired in off-season trade with Everett; C Michael Spacek, selected in CHL Import Draft.

Key returnees: C Conner Bleackley (Colorado Avalanche), D Haydn Fleury (Carolina Hurricanes), Johnson (25-29-54), Kopeck (21-27-48), C Adam Musil (St. Louis Blues), Doetzel, D Nelson Nogier (Winnipeg Jets), LW Evan Polei (16G), G Rylan Toth.

New faces: Nikolishin, should be a point-per-game producer; Spacek, Jets fourth-rounder; RW Austin Pratt, LW Brandon Hagel, D Ryan Pouliot, C Lane Pederson, LW Akash Bains, D Ethan Sakowich, G Trevor Martin, D Austin Shmoorkoff.

Watch for: 2016 Memorial Cup hosts to play with purpose each and every night; Fleury and Bleackley to fully emerge as stars; Nikolishin and Spacek to be among the league’s elite imports; Pratt to be among the premier 16-year-olds.

Noteworthy: Spacek was selected by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 2014 import draft and eventually dropped. He scored five goals and collected 12 points in 40 games last season while playing in the premier men’s league in the Czech Republic.

Did you know: The Rebels had eight players attend NHL rookie camps this fall, and all eight — Fleury, Bleackley, Pederson, Nogier, Spacek, Johnson, Polei and Musil — advanced to main camps.

The prognosis: The Rebels are not in the same class as Brandon, at least on paper, but should contend for a top two to three spot in the conference and experience a decent and perhaps lengthy playoff run.

Kootenay Ice

Taylor RoccaCranbrook Daily Townsman

Last season: 37-31-1-3, fourth in Central Division, eliminated by Calgary Hitmen in first round

Head coach: Luke Pierce (first season)

Assistant coaches: Gordon Burnett (first season), Mike Bergren (goaltending coach, fourth), Wayne Dougherty (skills and development coach, second)

Key losses: Elite offense of C Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres), LW Tim Bozon (Montreal Canadiens) and D Rinat Valiev (Toronto Maple Leafs) won’t be easily replaced.

The 20-year-olds: Too many. G Wyatt Hoflin (36-26-0-3, 3.10 GAA) and C Luke Philp seem likely locks. Beyond that, RW Jaedon Descheneau (St. Louis Blues) could land third spot if returned from NHL. Also in the mix: D Tyler King (long-term injury), D Tanner Lishchynsky (short-term injury), RW Jon Martin.

The imports: D Mario Grman (Slovakia) has 35 games of WHL experience while LW Roman Dymacek (Czech Republic) is new to North America.

Key returnees: Philp (30G, 52A) will be relied on for leadership. RW Zak Zborosky (18G, 22A) needs to find consistency. D Cale Fleury (1G, 12A) can take over minutes vacated by Valiev.

New faces: D/F Nathyn Mortlock, 19, is pursuing a second chance after release by Regina Pats. RW Max Patterson (fourth round, 2014), 16 in December, could be one of the youngest WHLers on an opening-day roster. LW Jared Legien (first round, 2013), 17, looks to stick after 13 games last season.

Watch for: Work ethic will be the calling card. Pierce, 32, has preached that and intelligent play. If group buys into message being sold by WHL’s youngest coach, they will compete nightly.

Noteworthy: Hoflin was a workhorse in 2014-15, setting franchise marks in games played (67), minutes played (3,848), saves (1,837), wins (36) and consecutive games played (29). Will his workload be eased by G Keelan Williams (1-5-0-0, 4.77 GAA)  or G Declan Hobbs (0-0-1-0, 3.98 GAA) in 2015-16?

Did you know: The Ice have made the playoffs in 17 consecutive seasons and own an active WHL record of 16 consecutive regular seasons with a mark of .500 or better.

The prognosis: A young group with plenty to prove, both on the ice and behind the bench, will have to work hard for every win. That reality mixed with key veterans should keep the Ice in the Eastern wild-card mix.

Edmonton Oil Kings

Greg MeachemRed Deer Advocate

Last season: 34-31-4, finished fifth in Central Division, seventh in Eastern Conference; lost in first round of playoffs.

Head coach: Steve Hamilton (second season).

Assistant coaches: Ryan Marsh, Kurtis Mucha (goaltenders).

Key losses: D Ashton Sautner, D Blake Orban, LW Edgars Kulda, all to graduation; LW Mads Eller (pro); G Tristan Jarry (pro).

The 20-year-olds: C Brandon Baddock, D Ben Carroll, RW Luke Bertolucci.

The imports: RW Dario Meyer of Switzerland; D Anatolii Elizarov of Russia; both selected in this year’s CHL import draft.

Key returnees: LW Brett Pollock (Dallas Stars) led the club in scoring last season with 32 goals and 62 points; C Lane Bauer, second in team scoring in 2014-15 with 55 points (25G, 30A); D Dysin Mayo (Arizona Coyotes) who will co-anchor the back end with Carroll and fellow veteran Aaron Irving; Baddock, scored 19 goals last season and is a legitimate heavyweight.

New faces: G Alec Dillon, 6-foot-5 stopper played in the USHL last season and at one time was committed to NCAA school RPI; RW Colton Kehler, played in the BCHL last season with Langley and Cowichan Valley; LW Kole Gable, coming off a 22-goal, 44-point season with the midget AAA Fort Saskatchewan Rangers; G Carter Phair, posted a 2.82 GAA and .914 save percentage with midget AAA Yorkton Maulers; D Kyle Yewchuk, Calgary native played with midget AAA Northstars; LW Kobe Mohr, Oil Kings’ first-round selection in the 2014 WHL bantam draft, scored 15 goals and collected 34 points as a 15-year-old with the midget AAA Lloydminster Bobcats.

Watch for: The Oil Kings to start slow as their three rookie defencemen get up to speed; Dillon to immediately assume the starting goaltender job; Pollock to again lead the team in scoring and become a hot commodity at the trade deadline — or earlier — if the Oil Kings emerge as non-contenders.

Noteworthy: The Oil Kings, who captured the WHL championship in 2012 and ‘14 and won the Memorial Cup the second time around, have qualified for the league playoffs in four of the last five years.

Did you know: After having five players — Pollock, Mayo, Baddock, Irving and Kulda — selected in the 2014 NHL entry draft, the Oil Kings were shut out this year.

The prognosis: The Oil Kings are in their second season of a rebuild, but with the additions of the two Europeans and former junior A players Dillon and Kehler, will not ice an overly inexperience roster and should remain in the playoff picture all season.

LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES

Dylan PurcellLethbridge Herald

Last season: 20-44-5-3, sixth in Central Division, missed playoffs.

Head coach: Brent Kisio (first).

Assistant coaches: Mike Craig (third season), Josh MacNevin (first), Jeff Battah (goalies, third).

Key losses: Are there key losses after a 20-win season? If so, the trade of speedy captain F Jamal Watson (26G, 28A) might be it.

The 20-year-olds: New additions in F Corey Millette (from Seattle Thunderbirds), F Justin Gutierrez (Tri-City Americans) and D Arvin Atwal (Vancouver Giants). Millette was dealt for Watson and has the most pedigree.

The imports: Ukrainian D    Igor Merezhko doesn’t look fast while flashy Russian F Egor Babenko has been a nice surprise in the pre-season.

Key returnees: F Giorgio Estephan became team’s best forward. His 23  goals and 28 assists were almost all gathered after Drake Berehowsky was fired in December. He is on a line with the unrelenting Tyler Wong and the soft hands of Brayden Burke.

New faces: The only new face that matters to ‘Canes fans is 16-year-old  F Jordy Bellerive. No one blames Bellerive for waiting to sign with the organization until after Anholt put out the tire fire it had become.

Watch for: G Stuart Skinner. The sophomore doesn’t turn 17 until  November but put up an amazing rookie season in front of a team that didn’t block shots and showed little interest in gaining possession of the puck in their own zone.

Noteworthy: Community-owned Hurricanes weathered a shareholder vote to sell during the summer but that drama isn’t over. The team is broke, and if fans don’t return in big numbers, expect something to change.

Did you know: ‘Canes lost 10 consecutive games to end last season but you’d struggle to find someone who doesn’t believe better days are here.

The prognosis: It’s been a long time since the Canes were in the playoffs and their defence hasn’t proven anything. A .500 record and Anholt wouldn’t have to pick up his own tab anywhere in the city.

Look for further Western Hockey League previews featuring the Central Division, B.C. Division and U.S. Division in the coming days.

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