Tuesday, July 7, 2015

2015-2016 Western Hockey League Preview: Teams 17 and 18

17.Victoria Royals-After consuming in a  lengthy interview process with the San Jose Sharks, Dave Lowry is back in Victoria which means he will retain the head coaching position for Team Canada at the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships. I can fully grasp on why Lowry thought long and hard about jumping to the Shark tank as the folks on the island are expected to take several lumps and bruises this season.

Losing Brandon Magee and likely Greg Chase will exploit a real scoring conundrum for the Royals. Chase, the nephew of TSN veteran sportscaster Darren Dutchyshen is on his way to Bakersfield as part of the Edmonton Oilers new American Hockey League affiliate. Replacing his twenty goals, and the more I surmise Chase had a horrendous season with Victoria and Calgary, won't be as hard as I thought but it's overall ability to lead a line and create chances that will be sorely sought after. Lowry is a tactician in his sleep so I'm confident that he's going to put a system in place that will be condusive to utilizing cycling the puck down low to create chances for a team that frankly won't be able to score the conventional ways. Two players who will be looked upon for opposite reasons are Tyler Soy and Taylor Crunk.  Soy, who the Royals exhausted the eighth overall pick in 2012 on,  was shockingly passed over in this past summers NHL draft, so it's time for him to live up to his Bantam promise, which in some regards he has and be the first line commodity Lowry so desperately needs. Soy is asking himself what more he needs to do to make a noteworthy impression amongst NHL scouts, and I hate to forecast the particular outcome I'm about to, but usually when a player with this much promise feels like for whatever reason he is being slighted, he may ask to be moved. For a team that has didly goals for contending this year, he's a valuable trade chip to build for the future. Sixty three points would look pretty damn good with *cough,Spokane, cough*. Crunk  on the other hand has about as much offensive potential as former Toronto Raptor Rafeal Arajuao, but it's not the offense that his role will be labelled as. He very well, and  I would  lump him in with Regina's Austin Wagner and Vancouver's Carter Popoff as in contention for the league's best penalty killer award if there was such a thing. Any bobble by a defenceman on the power-play and he is gone to the races and not coming back until tomorrow.

World class defenceman Joe Hicketts will be the lead signal caller on the back-end. Calling him a world class player is an aberration because I for one, and I hate to do this(actually I don't mind at all) consider him to be one of the league's overhyped players. I could poke as many holes in his game then there were holes in the greens at this year's U.S Open of golf site Chambers Bay. Physicality? He plays like former Saskatoon Blade Mike Green in his own zone in that respect, and I do recognize he has some special offensive instincts but you need more then just that to be a regular contributor in the National Hockey League level. If I'm General Manager Cameron Hope, just like Soy, I'd look to sucker in some team overpaying for Hicketts and try to stockpile assets for the 2016-2017 and beyond. The price would be undeservingly astronomical so I say for a team that at best will slide into a bottom seed, why not make the move as early as possible to signal a new tenure on the Island.  This perceived new tenure should and will revolve around the champion from Coquitlam, soon to arrive sixteen year old Scott Walford.  This soon to be phenom I have through this world expectations as no doubt in my mind he'll be a top ten pick in 2017 NHL draft. At 6'2, he'll already be Victoria's most physical presence. The suggested route of business would be for Hicketts, who I never doubted was an excellent off the ice leader to show Walford the ropes and have him ready by early January to take possession of the number one defenceman mantra presuming they deal Hicketts.

If you thought the defense wasn't mystery enough, wait until we dissect the goaltending. Wait, what goaltending? The predicament they face is that there are a plethora of nineteen and twenty year old goaltenders available in the trade market but the dilemma they face is they are nowhere near contending so bringing in a player of that age would serve no purpose. This furthers my agenda about the time being now to deal Joe Hicketts because atleast this way you could probably pry a younger goaltender out of a contending organization.  I have no idea who that name could be, Moose Jaw's Brody Wilms comes to mind but then again, Victoria may be sick of acquiring goaltenders from the Warriors because the last one they brought on, Justin Paulic essentially flamed out.

18.Lethbridge Hurricanes- So, what we can take away from the last week is that clearly the Sudbury Wolves  don't pay attention to the Western Hockey League. The Wolves' hiring of Drake Berehowsky is ridiculous as he not only drove promising players out of town that didn't want to be anywhere near Lethbridge but also built up a negative reputation of not working cordially with his assistants. I regress as this is a preview of the Hurricanes, not the Brandon Wheat Canes or the Sudbury Wolves. Newly appointed coach Brent Kisio has his work cut out for him  but the idea is that he'll be able to transfer over the winning habits he obtained from the Calgary Hitmen.  For the last five years, the Hurricanes have been the league's whipping post, but if the new plan goes according to form, it will be the Hurricanes players whipping posts and scoring goals more then not.

I'll be the first to admit that there is a chance I've ranked the current carnation of the Hurricanes regrettably too low but until they prove they can keep up with the league's better run organizations I had a difficult time placing them any higher for the time being. Color me intrigued when it comes to the prospect of the Russian they selected in the import draft, Egor Babenko. He put up more then respectable numbers last year while playing in his homeland tallying fifty points. Because of Lethbridge's checkered past, I do have small concerns that you may not see Babenko report but let's hope Anholt and Kisio did the required homework and don't start resorting to principles put in place by the Robson/Berehowsky era. Cochrane, Alberta native Tyler Wong has been here through all the miserable, but it's now time for him to showcase his ability to be the Hurricanes next Zach Boychuk and be part of the nucleus that can lead the Hurricanes back to the league final. Purportedly, a very well balanced individual evidenced from his Humanitarian player of the year finalist honours, he needs to provide a little more stability in his game because although nothing against last year's fifty six points on a very sub par team, simply put the Hurricanes will need more of a heroic effort if they have any aspirations of dancing in the playoffs this year.  Wong's a talented player, but more perhaps more talented is Giorgio  Estephan. Estephan and Wong will make up 2/3 of the first line after the controversial trade departure of Jamal Watson and I think Estephan and Wong have enough complimentary features that they can echo the production of Zach Boychuk and Dwight King back in the almost golden year of 2008. Estephan I just would utilize the shot more because it's a part of his repoire that I would expect Kisio to bark at using more next year.

After looking at who the Toronto Maple Leafs selected in the third round, sixty fifth overall, it had me asking myself the question, " Who is Andrew Nielsen and where the heck did he come from?". Well, this 6'3, 207 defenceman now will become a household name in the Western Hockey League, but for a minute let's circle back to the fact that it was the Toronto Maple Leafs who made the selection and their history in recruiting prospects lately hasn't exactly been a first class flight.  The emergence of Nielsen will have the Hurricane faithful begin to say "Ryan who?", referencing Ryan Pilon, the once highly touted prospect who was shipped off to the Brandon Wheat Kings a year and a half ago in at the time was a very controversial deal. Losing a safety net like Nick Walters, who probably did wonders for the development for Nielsen's game will be hard to overcome but look no further than Kade Jensen to help Nielsen out and fulfill a more prominent role for this franchise. When you look at this statistics for last season, along with a number of Hurricanes, numbers like -27 in the plus minus department may disgust you, but take a deep breath and appreciate that this will be a more complete hockey team this year and seeing extraordinarily poor statistics like we see with Jensen and like we've seen with numerous Lethbridge "failures" over the last few seasons, at least partial failures will be no longer the norm.

The pleasure I got from immersing in this preview is it allowed me as a whole to really delve into the league's depth charts and what has become noticeable  is that the 2015-2016 Western Hockey League season includes an incredibly weak crop of goaltenders across the board. Lethbridge, fortunately for them does not fall into this category. Stuart Skinner is a gem in every sense of the world. In the 2014-2015 escapades, Skinner was pounded by more rubber then the late Robin Williams was when filming the classic movie "Flubber". The stats I was able to pull on Skinner was that he faced an astonishing 1,430 shots while trekking his way to a 3.69 goals against average. As my own rule of thumb, I am of the opinion that never should a goaltender be selected in a first round of a NHL draft as I feel developmental curves are so drastic rendering it impossible to know when a goaltender is ready, but I might be ready to break that rule for a player of Skinner's ability.

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