Monday, August 8, 2016

2016-2017 Preseason Western Hockey League Report(Teams 19 and 20)

20.Portland Winterhawks-It could be suggested that the Mike Johnston tenure overseeing the Pittsburgh Penguins was a mitigated disaster, however I don't care how much the squad was underachieving as of the December 12th,2015 firing, the fact that the Penguins went on to capture Lord's Stanley clarifies to me that Johnston implemented a little something to the group that was just seeking a different message and we shouldn't disregard his contributions to the Championship run.  The change in philosophy led Johnston to the open market and immediately(by immediately, I'm referencing to after the 2015-2016 season concluded) speculation was rampant that a Johnston-Portland reunion was imminent. Sure enough, the endless speculation turned fruitful as Johnston is back behind the bench in a dual GM/Head Coach role. When Johnston originally took over the Hawks before the '08 season, the team was in shambles, a couple 50+ loss seasons made it abundantly clear a change in leadership was needed, and this is what Mike brought to the forefront accounting for his previous professional experience with the Vancouver Canucks. The Winterhawks as they were before Mike began his first stint are in shambles again and it'll be up to him to identify the building blocks and weed out the stragglers.

The Winterhawks are as a whole significantly decimated in all facets due to the scandal that stripped them of several draft picks and handed down Johnston a lengthy suspension. Whether or not the penalties could be deemed to stiff is subject to debate but the past is the past and we must adjudicate if this forward group has enough cutlery in the cupboard to serve up more then their fair share of wins this season. I'm skeptical they do but they'll likely sink or swim under the guidance of eighteen year old Skyler McKenzie. I'm basing this fact on the anticipated premise that both Paul Bittner and Dominic Turgeon will be turning pro this season although I give slightly better odds of Bittner returning over Dominic but the Hawks have to prepare as if none are coming back. Is Skyler set to take on a more substantiated role? He better be and I think his skills will back up a solid performance as when I pay attention to McKenzie I constantly recollect a poor man's Mike Cammalleri because when you watch Cammalleri play, reminiscing back to his University of Michigan and World Junior days he was an undersized player who was surprisingly complimentary in and around the corners and had a knack for winning puck battles that he had no business prevailing in. This describes McKenzie to  a t and while his statistics from a year ago(8 G 17 A) leave plenty to be desired, I put the onus on ex coach Jamie Kompon who failed on developing a lot of the future for what should've been a developmental year. What Kompon set out to do a year ago naturally will secure more W's but at what expense I a few more wins and locking up a playoff spot worth alienating the needs of young players such as the aforementioned McKenzie. I've seen this in Regina a few years back and it really opened to my eyes to what's important for respectable longevity. When Malcolm Cameron was the head coach of the Patties, they did just that, rode the first line consisting of Klimchuk, Stephenson and Stevenson ensuring a playoff postion but at the same time hindering the progress of Adam Brooks among others, and well let's just say it's remarkable what a little tutelage can do for a player striving to find confidence. As a attendant of games that year, I loved the fact that the Pats were doing everything in their power to win games but as I've grown up I've come to realize it's much more influential to primarily focus on long term development. This unquestionably is what Kompon was guilty of this past season. Another forward worth keeping a keen eye on is Cody Glass. Coach Johnston is enamored with an up tempo style and that trademark should benefit the young Glass. The Winterhawks would love if Glass could rediscover his eclectic scoring touch from Bantam when with the Winnipeg Hawks(he just can't away from the name) of the AAA league, he put up a whopping seventy seven points and what that corroborates to me is that he has the skill level to flourish in the Dub, just needs a little direction. When I break down the depth chart of Portland, the question marks they have with their twenty year olds as from my perspective Keegan Iverson the only overage forward projected to return this should open significant minutes to the players just profiled. Barring injuries, a 50 point season out of both McKenzie and Glass shouldn't be viewed as an impossibility. Mike Johnston is an excellent coach and although results aren't expected this year you just know they'll do everything in their power to work their way up to the competitive powerhouse they once were. I just wish the proper approach was taken at last year's trade deadline when they could've traded valuable overage asset Alex Schoenborn to escalate the rebuild.

The backend is the shining strength of this group. Led by Seth Jones's younger brother Caleb, the Winterhawks are a big mobile group that's ability to create offence shouldn't be overlooked.Seth Jones is unarguably one of the best defenceman to come out of the dub in some time, so I'm sure some casual fans would like to know if there's any similarities between the siblings. Sadly, as good as Caleb is and can be, him and Seth are different players, much different. The sizeable difference between the two is how they approach the offensive side of the ledger. Seth has always been known for his lanky frame which translates into outstanding reach but in offensive situations he tends to buckle under the pressure only in the sense that his creativity diminishes when the high pressure situations arise. Caleb on the other hand is someone that covets having the puck on his stick, a more robust player if you will. There's a greater intensity to his game and as a closet Edmonton Oiler fans, the Oil hit a two run home run landing Caleb in the fourth round. I don't have  a clue where the veteran offence will come from to alleviate some of the pressure off this superb defensive group, I would suspect you'll see Johnston add a twenty but if the necessary changes are met I foresee a scenario where Caleb could find himself in contention for WHL Defenceman of the Year. Another defenceman that I feel obligated to discuss is Brendan De Jong. Now, Brendan won't receive the accolades of Caleb or even Keoni Texeira but he's equally if not more important than those two if for no other reason that when this team resumes competitiveness Caleb and Keoni will be long gone and Brenden could be anchoring the blue line. At 6'5 he has size for days and when I watch him play, which admittedly has been few and far between I elicit former San Jose Shark Marcus Ragnarsson vibes. Interesting comparison right? I juxtapose these two together because when Marcus was in his prime any way, he was a heavy hitter who at times got pigeon holed for being nothing more than a bruiser when in fact his offensive abilities were paramount. I can see Brendan following a similar direction where he's always going to be labelled a heavy hitter but a quick look at the stat sheet will leave you speechless when he puts up 50ish points as early as next season. More playing time could potentially lead to Brendan being drafted this season, wouldn't shock me if he went in the fourth to fifth round. There's too much upside for him not to have a prosperous professional career.

In goal, unlike the Kootenay Ice  there are no Monday Morning Quarterbacks on this one as Adin Hill has supplanted himself as one of the better goalies in this league. On a mediocre team Adin accumulated thirty two wins which not only exudes confidence for the rest of the squad it also peaked the attention of Hockey Canada. With Hockey Canada keenly observing the progress of Hill, the pressure will be on for him to replicate the performance of a year ago but I do ask myself if it's that humanly possible with the team he's playing behind. Entertaining the thought of a trade is not something I'm sure Johnston is salivating over as by trading Adin Hill wouldn't exactly endear him to the Portland market but as I touched on earlier in this preview, sometimes as the old adage goes, short term pain for long term gain. Trading twenty year olds can be a strenuous task but in order for Hill to push to that next level, playing on a contending club, earth to Calgary may be a pre-requisite to get him to the show. Resting their laurels on Michael Bullion may have to be what's done this year and the jury is most certainly out to whether or not he has the capability to handle the load. As a disclaimer, I'm basing all this chatter off the principle that Hill does indeed get returned to junior because I'm aware he is signed. I just think it would be a foolish proposition for the Coyotes(Hill's rights holder) to rush him to the pros when he could use another year of junior seasoning.

**UPDATE AUGUST 9th,2016** THE Winterhawks acquire Cole Kehler from Kamloops all but ensuring Adin Hill turns professional***

19.Moose Jaw Warriors-Gone are Brayden Point and Dryden Hunt, the two Warriors who catapaulted the startling numbers which between the duo amounted to two hundred and four points. The question that the majority of Warrior fans are asking this pre-season are whether Noah Gregor, somebody that we'll touch on later and Brett Howden can safely have the torch passed and maintain the playoff position they locked down a year ago. Judging from the number nineteen ranking, it's easy to assume that I remain skeptical as any time you lose your best two players, concerns arise if others can take on substantiated roles. The offence last year was so top heavy, it's crucial that Head Coach Tim Hunter doesn't fall into the trap that so many junior coaches have before him where they choose ignore long term development at the expense of making another, some would say unrealistic playoff push. This is something that I've chose to elaborate on with a couple of teams already, you have to know your team capabilities and for the fans in the Jaw,  trotting out Gregor and Howden out on the ice for thirty plus minutes a night will does not enhance the game of the younger crop.

Surveying the Warriors projected forward group, one name sticks out, and to surprise some it's not Tampa Bay Lightning first rounder and Brayden Point's teammate Brett Howden, it's actually San Jose Sharks selection Noah Gregor. Don't get me wrong, Brett I fully expect to have a great year with Moose Jaw and a prosperous career professionally as when I did my draft grades in an earlier entry I was very laudatory regarding what I thought  Howden would become but by saying all of that, he's not the 2016 draft pick that I have the highest hopes for. That mantra belongs to Noah Gregor. I remember attending a Warrior-Pat game last year and before the game in question, I had heard of Gregor but truly had no idea what to expect. Going into the game all the prospect talk belonged to Howden and goaltender Zach Sawchenko but indisputably it was lesser known prospect, Gregor that stole the show that night. Lesser known no more as the Sharks saw what I witnessed that night and many others. Gregor has hands that mimic those of Mike Ribeiro.  Apologies to those who view that as an insulting comparison as I to am not a huge Ribeiro advocate. Let's further elaborate on those hands though, for most of the year he wasn't provided the luxury of playing alongside Point or Hunt, was more than not "stuck" playing with the enigma that Nikita Popaguev has become and for all that could've gone wrong, he took the bull by the horns and offered Hunter tangible secondary production. He made players such as Popaguev and Ryan Bowen better players and that's a sign of a player who I'd be more then satisfied building around. He didn't pout over not getting first line minutes even though his seventy three points would prove that he deserved such.  And while we're on the subject, let's bounce off some thoughts pertaining to Ryan Bowen. I could be way off base but it wouldn't surprise me if Ryan Bowen in 2016-2017 was to Moose Jaw what Gregor was in 2015-2016. I'm a big golf fan,terrible at playing the game but hold a special affinity for the sport, and when I think of ways to describe Ryan Bowen, the career path of Jerry Kelly comes to mind. Kelly who coincidentally was in contention at this past week's "Travellers Championship", is a player throughout the course of his career goes about his business quietly yet posts consistent results accumulating three career wins. This quiet nature results in him not getting a lot of media attention and when I say not a lot I actually mean none at all and wrapping this back to Bowen, this trajectory comfortably suits Bowen's worth to the Warriors. Bowen from all accounts goes about his business. Yes he's a 1998 born Gregor but with the late birthday this coming season is his draft year.  Fifteen points would have most considering his production elementary but when you dig deeper, spending the entire season on the fourth  line and all of a sudden fifteen equates to something you can write home about. The next point I wanted to make is a opinion I could comfortably hash out with any player but before my forgetful self has this thought evaporated let's talk about the pressure on these sixteen and seventeen year olds moving far away from home and experiencing culture shocks, both on and off the ice. A player like Ryan Bowen who hails from Penticton I'm sure had some opportunities to play closer to home and pursue the Junior A/NCAA route but chose to make the long drive down to Moose Jaw knowing full well he'd have to pay his dues on the fourth line. Having been born and raised in Saskatchewan, I can't imagine the feeling one must have when they venture off to a new province at such a tender age. I give full kudos to Ryan for sticking with the program and his patience I guarantee will be rewarded with a top nine role this season which will provide  a chance to be a late round draft pick. Throughout my days following junior hockey, too many players have got up and walked away while being utilized the way Ryan was so it's refreshing to see somebody buy into the team concept.

The millennials have arrived, and gracing Moose Jaw's backend is one of the great names to surface in our league in Jett Woo. A 2000 born player, makes me feel incredibly old even typing that will be given every chance to fulfill a top four position this coming season. This is the impression I've formed when valuing the potential of Woo, Jett is someone that I don't think well ever meet the hefty offensive expectations some have bestowed upon him. However, he's certainly a well rounded player, skates incredibly well but I think in the grand scheme will excel in the defensive aspects more then being a dependable point producer. Ever since Travis Hamonic was dealt to the Wheat Kings in lieu of their 2010 Memorial Cup Hosting, Moose Jaw has been in search of that franchise number one defenceman. Before you shoot me, I haven't forgot about current Leaf Morgan Reilly, however I was never sold on Morgan even going back to his Moose Jaw days. His hockey I.Q has been overrated by some in the media, not to name names(Craig Button) have sung his praises too highly for my liking,  and at the end of the day I outline that Reilly at best is an average NHL defenceman that led below average Moose Jaw teams during his tenure. Forgive me for my negative Reilly connotations, some points just need to be made but I will circle this back to Woo. Woo undeniably has number one written all over him, he's been a media darling in Winnipeg going back to his first year Bantam days as many anointed him as the one of the best defenceman to come out of Manitoba' capital in some time. I can drink the kool-aid that likely as early as next year Jett could be jetossining(excuse the pun) to the top of the Warriors depth chart, but he's not there yet. It's up to Tim Hunter to refine his puck skills as that's the one area that will need vast improvement in his rookie season. Could Josh Brook be that one to pillar the backend? His confidence is seemingly running sky high after being named to Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka summer tournament and I suspect he'll propel that inflated ego into bigger and better things this fall. It's hard not to get giddy over a potential Brook-Woo pairing down the road.  It'll be interesting to see how Hunter eases Brook into a top billing role. The facet of Brook's game that was well known around the the league last year was his hard hitting ability. For being a sixteen year old rookie last campaign, it was incredible to witness the physical maturity he continued to showcase night after night and I can only postulate that the fear he's instilled on opposing forwards will grow larger.  The trend I'm noticing when I look at all potential defenceman is there's a serious lack of creativity from this group and this may have to be addressed via trade to add some scoring prowess. As much as I've hyped up the potential of Brook and Woo the common denominator is they're not natural offensive specimen and that is cause for concern going forward.

They say a player with  a grudge is the best kind of player and with Zach Sawchenko, getting passed over in the 2016 National Hockey League Draft should serve as a reminder that he's entering the 2016-2017 season with loads to prove. Sawchenko is everything you want in a goaltender as he has size, and is generally a strong kid so it's difficult for forwards attempting to  divulge a screen to be effective as his strength will easily push said screeners away. I can only surmise the reason he was not picked in the draft was the propensity to give up the troubling, untimely goal. For this very reason even though he saw action in last weekend's  World Junior "Summer Showcase",is why I don't expect him to be named to the Evaluation Camp when Dominique Ducharme selects his team in December. In Sawchenko's first two years it could be argued that his statistics were negatively effected by a lack of power upfront but in his third year, the most important being it fell on his draft year he had added star presence with them making last summer's blockbuster acquiring former Pat and Tiger Dryden Hunt. I can only guess respective scouts were hoping to see a more polished Sawchenko but unfortunately for all parties involved, it was more of the same where one night he channeled Carey Price but then the next he could be mistaken for Roman Turek. In my Kootenay Ice preview, I proposed that goaltender Brody Wilms may be a solid fit in Cranbrook and as an adverse effect the exit of Wilms may ease the pressure that Zach feels at this juncture and without someone looking over his shoulder his play could heighten to heights that Zach thought he would've found when he entered the Dub three seasons ago.

The last point worth stressing for the Warriors is some after reading this will be curious why I ranked the Warriors so low when  seemingly I've handed out glowing praise in every facet.The main reason why is due to my aforementioned skepticism with the roles players played last year and whether they were given the needed proper seasoning to excel now. No doubt in my mind the Warriors are headed in the right direction but with this organization so top heavy last year, is there enough scoring to go around to replace Brayden Point and Dryden Hunt?  I say no but we'll see if some of these individuals that played minimal roles surprise me.

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