Goaltender Jackson Whistle returns to backstop the Kelowna Rockets as they seek a second consecutive WHL championship.

Goaltender Jackson Whistle returns to backstop the Kelowna Rockets as they seek a second consecutive WHL championship.

WHL Season Preview: Part III – B.C Division

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

  • Sep. 24, 2015 10:00 a.m.

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.

In Part III, we move on to a breakdown of the B.C. Division.

Kelowna Rockets

Larry FisherKelowna Daily Courier

Last season: 53-13-5-1, first in B.C. Division, first in Western Conference. Won WHL championship, sweeping Brandon in final round to capture franchise’s fourth Ed Chynoweth Cup. Advanced to Memorial Cup championship game, but lost 2-1 in overtime to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals.

Head coach: Brad Ralph (first season, new to Kelowna).

Assistant coaches: Kris Mallette (second season), Travis Crickard (goalie coach, second season).

Key losses: Playoff and Memorial Cup MVP C Leon Draisaitl (10G, 28pts. in playoffs, 19G, 53pts. in 32 GP), captain D Madison Bowey (17G, 60pts., world-junior gold), fellow top D Josh Morrissey (13G, 38pts., world-junior gold), shutdown D Cole Martin (combined plus-105 over last two seasons).

The 20-year-olds: G Jackson Whistle of West Kelowna, C Tyson Baillie, C Cole Linaker and LW Gage Quinney.

The imports: F Tomas Soustal, of Unicov, Czech Republic, returns for a second season. LW Calvin Thurkauf, 18, of Zug, Switzerland, will be a rookie.

Key returnees: Leading scorer RW Nick Merkley, 18, and C Rourke Chartier, 19, will lead the offence again. Merkley, a first-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes this June, topped the Rockets with 90 points (20G, 70A) last season, while Chartier scored 48 goals in just 58 games. Baillie and Justin Kirkland, 19, are also top forwards, while C Dillon Dube is expected to take a big step forward in his draft year as a potential first-round pick.

New faces: D Cal Foote, the son of former NHLer Adam Foote who turns 17 in December; D Jonathan Smart, 16, a first-round bantam draft pick in 2014 drawing comparisons to Tyson Barrie; D Danny Gatenby, 17, the younger-but-bigger brother of current Rockets blue-liner Joe Gatenby; and F Tanner Wishnowski, 18, who is healthy again after only playing one game last season before missing the rest of the campaign with a concussion.

Watch for: Kelowna’s offence to light it up again, led by the dynamic duo of Merkley and Chartier, who could both represent Canada at the world juniors this winter. Ralph wants to play a puck-possession, attacking style, which should make for a smooth transition from Dan Lambert. The battle to watch is the overagers, with only three roster spots available and an Oct. 15 deadline looming.

Noteworthy: Kelowna’s roster can feature up to 14 players who were in the lineup for the Memorial Cup championship game. That’s a lot of depth and experience, with the Rockets having won at least 50 regular-season games in each of the last three campaigns. They might be able to make it four in a row.

Did you know: The Rockets will have new jerseys this season to commemorate the franchise’s 25th anniversary. They are throwbacks to the original Tacoma Rockets jerseys from the 1991-92 season. The Rockets relocated from Tacoma, Wash., to Kelowna for the 1995-96 campaign.

The prognosis: With plenty of firepower returning up front and solid goaltending, the Rockets are in good shape to win their fourth straight B.C. Division pennant and to go on another lengthy playoff run.

Victoria Royals

Cleve DheenshawVictoria Times Colonist

Last season: 39-29-3-1, second in B.C. Division, fifth in Western Conference.

Head coach: Dave Lowry (fourth season).

Assistant coach: Enio Sacilotto (fifth season).

Key losses: F Austin Carroll, F Brandon Magee, D Travis Brown aged out; F Greg Chase will go pro in Oilers system.

The 20-year-olds: F Alex Forsberg needs to provide offence, F Logan Fisher a veteran presence, and G Coleman Vollrath some game-stealing abilities.

Imports: A pair of veteran Russians, with D Marsel Ibragimov returning and F Vladimir Bobylev acquired from the Giants.

Key returnees: The face of the franchise is undersized but mobile D Joe Hicketts, a Red Wings prospect, gold medallist for Canada at the 2015 world junior championships and likely to be skating again for Canada at the 2016 world juniors. F Tyler Soy needs to come through with some offence. F Jack Walker and D Chaz Reddekopp provide crucial veteran depth.

New faces: F Matthew Phillips, only five-foot-six but flash-quick, and D Scott Walford surprisingly led the team in scoring during a 3-4 pre-season with seven points each.

Noteworthy: The team’s biggest asset is on the bench. After his gig as 2015 assistant coach as Canada reclaimed world junior gold, Royals boss Dave Lowry will be the head coach guiding Canada at the 2016 world juniors in Helsinki.

The prognosis: After 39 victories last season and a franchise-record 48 in 2013-14, the Royals embark on a significant rebuild with only 13 returnees. So look for a youthful team that will slide from a formerly veteran-laden upper-middle-of-the-pack the past two seasons to lower-middle-pack as it looks to grow and find its way. But it’s hard to imagine a Lowry-coached team missing the post-season, so the Royals should be competitive for the final three playoff slots in the Western Conference.

Prince George Cougars

Ted ClarkePrince George Citizen

Last season: 31-36-2-3, seventh in Western Conference, eliminated in first round of playoffs.

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

Assistant coaches: Mike Hengen (second season), Roman Vopat (second season), Justin Cardinal (goaltenders, third season), Brent Arsenault (11th season).

Key loss: Offensive-minded defenceman Josh Connolly, 20, third in team scoring with 13 goals and 41 assists (acquired from Kamloops at trade deadline), now attending University of British Columbia.

The 20-year-olds: F Chase Witala, (invited to Dallas Stars camp), D Joe Carvalho, LW Aaron Macklin, G Mack Shields. Shields and Witala here to stay, Cats will have to decide on the other two.

The imports: Dutch born-and-raised F Bartek Bison, Slovenian D Luka Zorko. Both picked in 2015 CHL import draft.

Key returnees: C Jansen Harkins (Winnipeg Jets, second round, 2015) led Cats in scoring (20G 59 A); C Brad Morrison (New York Rangers, fourth round 2015), shifty puckhandler and great finisher; D Sam Ruopp (Columbus Blue Jackets, fifth round, 2015), punishing D-man and team captain; G Ty Edmonds, better than his 3.64 goals-against average and .892 save percentage, played 115 regular season games in just two seasons.

New faces: RW Jesse Gabrielle (Boston Bruins, fourth round, 2015) acquired in trade from Regina; Shields, played three seasons for Calgary.

Watch for: D Josh Anderson, poised for breakout season as 17-year-old; LW Jared Bethune, attended Minnesota Wild camp, has all the tools to become a WHL star. The Cougars will be much better defensively. Only two teams allowed more goals in 2014-15.

Noteworthy: Since the franchise relocated from Victoria in 1994, the Cougars have advanced to the third round of playoffs just three times, in 1997, 2000 and 2007.

Did you know: Morrison, Witala and C Brogan O’Brien all played their minor hockey Prince George. Morrison’s dad is former Boston Bruin F Doug Morrison and his brother-in-law is Buffalo Sabres D Josh Gorges.

The prognosis: The growing pains have subsided after too many years depending on their younger talent to carry the weight. Still looking for their first banner to hang from the CN Centre rafters, the Cats will push Kelowna for the B.C. Division crown and could go deep in the playoffs.

Kamloops Blazers

Gregg DrinnanTaking Note

Last season: 28-37-4-3, fourth in the B.C. Division, missed playoffs for second straight season.

Head coach: Don Hay (second season in second stint here).

Assistant coaches: Mike Needham (second season full-time), Chris Murray (part-time), Dan De Palma (goaltenders), Terry Bangen (senior consultant).

Key losses: F Cole Ully led in goals (34), assists (60), points (94). . . . D Brady Gaudet was plus-10 for team that allowed 44 more goals than it scored.

The 20-year-olds: F Luke Harrison, D Marc McNulty, F Matt Needham, D Ryan Rehill. Needham, in his fifth season, is captain.

The imports: Slovakian D Patrik Maier is a sophomore; Czech D Ondrej Vala, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, is a freshman.

Key returnees: There could be 19 veterans, led by Needham (76 points in 71 games) and sophomore F Deven Sideroff (42 in 64). D Dawson Davidson, 17, joined the Blazers after Christmas and could be key on the PP. G Connor Ingram, 18, was terrific in the second half last season.

New faces: F Garrett Pilon, son of former NHL D Rich Pilon, has speed and skill. He had 87 points in 44 games with the midget AAA Saskatoon Contacts last season. . . . D Nolan Kneen, 16, was the third overall pick in the 2014 bantam draft. . . . F Erik Miller, 16, was a third-round pick in the 2014 bantam draft.

Watch for: Sideroff, a third-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2015 NHL draft, to continue to grow into a dominant winger. He has big league speed.

Noteworthy: F Jake Kryski and F Quinn Benjafield combined for 36 points last season. Both were first-rounders in 2013 bantam draft. They need to produce.

Did you know: The Blazers made one major change during the off-season when ownership decided to remove ‘Kamloops’ from its primary logo.

The prognosis: The Blazers have missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons. They have won more than 33 games twice in the last eight seasons. It might be an uphill battle again this season.

Vancouver Giants

Steve EwenVancouver Province

Last season: 27-41-2-2, last in B.C. Division, last in Western Conference. Missed playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

Head coach: Lorne Molleken (first season with Vancouver, 17th in WHL)

Assistant coach: Tyler Kuntz (first season), Matt Erhart (third season), Paul Fricker (goalie coach, fourth season).

Key losses: D Mason Geertsen, who was arguably the team’s best player last season, is expected to play his overage year in the Colorado Avalanche system. C Dalton Sward, RW Matt Bellerive and LW Zane Jones all graduated.

The 20-year-olds: RW Jackson Houck, C Carter Popoff, LW Taylor Crunk.

The imports: D Dmitry Osipov, a Russian, is back for a third season. RW Radovan Bondra, a Slovak, is a WHL rookie.

Key returnees: C/LW Tyler Benson, 17, was the first pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and is projected to be a first rounder in the 2016 NHL draft; D Brennan Menell, 18, a Minnesota native, wound up the power-play quarterback last season; LW Jakob Stukel, 18, a speedster.

New faces: LW James Malm, 16, has shown craftiness and touch early on. Other 16-year-olds in the mix include D Dylan Plouffe, C Dawson Holt and RW Brendan Semchuk.

Watch for: The Giants to make a goalie trade. They’re starting the season with three netminders: returnees Payton Lee, 19, and Cody Porter, 18, as well as Ryan Kubic, 17. It’s doubtful that will last long. They started last season with the same three on the roster before re-assigning Kubic to Junior A in mid-October,

Noteworthy: Benson (lower-body injury) and Foster (upper-body injury) will miss the first few weeks of the season.

Did you know: Molleken became the Giants fourth coach in 14 months when he was hired in late June, replacing Claude Noel, who had replaced Troy Ward, who had replaced Don Hay, who jumped to the Kamloops Blazers in early May 2014.

The prognosis: Getting into the playoffs should be the goal, considering the step back they took last season. It looks attainable, especially with the West seemingly weaker this season.