Basically, they say in life do what makes you happy. I had started my preview for the National Hockey League, got approximately about half way done but then came to the realization that a deeper passion of mine is unequivocally the Western Hockey League. Will I eventually finish the NHL season preview, I suspect I will but for now I will focus on completing an extensive WHL outlook. I completed one last year that brought back fairly positive feedback so I will continue down a similar path as per last season. What I do is the following. I rank the teams in descending order for how I foresee their chances heading into the upcoming campaign and potentially hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup and in each team summarization I analyze all three facets(goaltending,defence, forwards). After all of the teams have been profiled I will venture into handing out my Major award predictions. I hope you enjoy and as always I encourage feedback and critique pertaining to the content dispersing out.
22.Vancouver Giants-Since their inception leading into the 2001-2002 campaign, the Vancouver Giants built the unbreakable reputation of a model franchise which lasted from about up until the 2012 campaign. Circa 2012, it's been a coaching carousel of sorts that from my vantage pointed has stunted development in some and has incited instability across the organization. Records of the club over the past three or so years along with coaches coming and going quicker then Philip Rivers can throw an interception has unquestionably in my mind caused the once promising career of a now graduated Carter Popoff to fade into obscurity and while Popoff is the poster child for a kid who had immense talent that was left untapped, the consensus on Social Media that the Claude Noel/Lorne Molleken/and now Jason McKee coaching tandem has hindered the career of Tyler Benson, This notion couldn't be further from the truth as being plagued with injuries is partly why Benson hasn't thusfar lived up the first overall billing. We'll dig a tad deeper into Benson below but I just wanted to put out the fire right now to those conspiracy theorists who feel mismanagement is why #17 didn't meed his quasi exceptional player status mantra that the media(some media..I'm looking at you Bob McKenzie) bestowed upon him. Can the rookie head coach McKee with limited Junior A experience climb this team out of the basement or has the basement already flooded with the clean up set to wrap up in time for 2018-2019. If my prognostication is correct, it projects to be a dreadfully long year for the G-men.
Let's analyze further the status of the aforementioned Tyler Benson. I vividly remember that back in May 2013, as someone who's long supported the Regina Pats being upset on the eve of the draft due to full well knowing that the Patties inherited the misfortune of missing out on Tyler. There are a plethora of reasons to feel sorry for Tyler not the least of which is that he has to continue enduring this endless rebuild but the main reason I wanted to touch on asto why we should feel sorry for the Edmonton native was for the unfair hype labelled on him from the great TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie. I remember watching an edition of "Sportscenter" and purely coincidentally I tuned into the nightly episode, presuming some time in early 2013 where the Sportscenter host, probably Dan O'Toole or Jay Onrait(gosh do I miss those guys) brought on McKenzie to discuss the exceptional player candidates for the Canadian Hockey League's respective drafts., On this particular edition of Sportscenter, McKenzie was adament that Benson should be granted exceptional status referencing recent examples such as John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad, players who carried a physical maturity just like Benson and could flourish in the league as a fiffteen year old. I can't quite recollect whether by that time if the league had issued a ruling or not or whether Bob was vocalizing an after the fact editorial, but one thing was then clear, the name of Tyler Benson was now known to Canada. It's hard for this blogger to put myself in the shoes of a fourteen-fifteen year old who's been nationally spotlighted and expected to break, at the very least match records. In fairness to Tyler not withstanding injuries, coaches such as the aforementioned Molleken and Noel preach a defensive first system and being aware that pro scouts put a large emphasis on offence and not nearly enough on a well rounded game his spare statistics surely scared some teams off in this past summer's NHL draft. A coach like Jason McKee who spent last season Spruce Grove Saints reportedly encourages a more offensive pace which hopefully put to ease any concerns the majority of the hockey world have with his overall game and will make every team not named the Edmonton Oilers look foolish for letting him slide for as long as they did. Aside from Benson,who undoubtedly will be the catalyst for any fringe success the Giants may see this winter, but let's evaluate some other players on this squad, perhaps a tad more unheralded who McKee will need tom contribute to ride shotgun to Benson. Langley,British Columbia native James Malm, a 1999 born player who was their second round pick in 2014 secured his educational contract with the club and now presumably is pencilled in for the next three years, Malm is the prospect that has me the most excited t even over more than advertised youngsters in Tyler Popowich and '16 third overall selection Bowen Byram. The 5'9 frame that Malm possesses in years past would've thrown to the curb but thanks to exceptional play from the likes of Brayden Point and Nick Merkley when accounting for recency bias has paved the way for Malm to contribute more sternly than what would normally be expected. As okay as I am singing the praises of Malm, who's skating is world class it's important to temper expectations slightly due to the stage of the rebuild the Giants find themselves in. Malm to be blunt was non-effective in 2015-2016 in limited action which saw him suit up for twenty five games but I largely equate that to being stuck in a game plan that didn't maximize his repertoire. From a suspect two assists, I foresee young James being good for at least thirty points this season banking on the premise that the mandate is to allocate increased playing time to the future core. To transition to a more defensively reliable player, I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on seventeen year old Owen Hardy. Hardy from my viewings has a low ceiling, likely won't ever see the light of the day in the top six but is one of those needed commodities in the lower half of the lineup that can be counted upon to kill penalties and play with an unfeared physicalness. He distinctly reminds me, keeping this conversation fully entrenched in Western Hockey League circles of former Prince Albert Raider Dane Byers who enjoyed a cup of coffee professionally. Let's be frank, the Giants are going to be pinned in their own end a lot this season and it's imperative that shot blockers such as Hardy are in the lineup to at the very least make this extremely young Vancouver organization a pain to play against.
I've been receiving conflicting reports to whether or the not the Giants will have returned the services of shut down defenceman Ben Thomas. Thomas, the former Calgary Hitmen who was brought over in the what I perceive to be controversial Jackson Houck(I mean Benson needed a scoring winger desperately) deal acted as a godsend for Lorne Molleken because as a veteran defenceman in this league, Molleken enlisted Thomas to play all situations particularly the penalty killing aspects as Thomas throughout his young career has never been given the proper respect for his fluent skating. I've read reports over the last couple of years that Thomas possesses a choppy, unsustainable skating stride which I don't personally agree with. The question at hand is will the Tampa Bay Lightning who have recently signed Thomas return Ben for his twenty year old season. It's an interesting dilemma to be sure, but I have a sneaky suspicion he'll get returned and I'll explain why. The Tampa Bay Lightning ever since the hiring of General Manager Steve Yzerman have displayed patience with their prospects, sometimes at the expense of alienating some of their top future(Jonathan Drouin).It's arguable whether my alienation surmization holds validity but the point is that with how Yzerman and company choose to develop prospects, it's conceivable that they'll run the course of allowing Thomas to partake in a leadership role in junior hockey. Like mentioned a little earlier, his progression within the junior ranks has been subject to a great deal of controversy although I think the "controversy" has gotten overblown. The fact of the matter is that the former third round Bantam selection was overshadowed by Travis Sanheim who ironically was picked much later in the draft but as any knowledgeable junior hockey observer, late bloomers are a dime a dozen. Thomas' maturation was slower then hoped but that's okay as the Giants will indubitatly benefit through this season coming. Another stalwart McKee will assuredly utilize profusely is Matt Barberis. I should've specified earlier if it wasn't obvious enough arleady that this d core as a whole is the teams weak link but Barberis showed promise and by the oft chance Thomas turns professional, we could be filling out lineup cards inserting Barberis as the number one defenceman. Apologies for scaring Giant fans but it's not as if Barberis is a lost cause. While Thomas'a repertoire is more on the defensive side of the ledger. the aforementioned Barberis is a budding offensive whiz. Throughout my days watching the Western Hockey League I've been privy to a multitude of bad hockey clubs but by extension what generally happens is a player or two will come out of nowhere and when you observe the stat sheet at the end of the year, said player accumulates a fifty-sixty point season, well within the realm for the Surrey product.
Goaltending is another dicey area for the G-men but then again for a team ranked in the basement, multiple deficiencies become the norm. I've been fooled in recent years when prognosticating the Giants goaltending structures going back to the days of them criminally mishandling Payton Lee or how about when they brought in the flash in the pan that was Dustin Slade over allowing Tyson Sexsmith to seethe through growing pains. Before I'm crucified with incorrect fact checking for this piece keep in mind that I'm fully apprised of the fact that the "mishandling" which is completely opinion based happened under a previous regime but the jury's out on whether they'll ensure the earlier transgressions won't be repeated. Ryan Kubic has to be the guy between the pipes, right? In previewing hockey teams, the most difficult task is judge the quality of a goaltender who finds himself on a poor hockey club. I call this the "Calvin Pickard effect". Pickard endured so much rubber through this time with the then struggling Seattle Thunderbirds that he became allergic to silicon. Okay that joke was terribly unfunny, some would say my humour is so bad it's actually comical but getting this preview re-engaged in a serious tone, the tribulations of Pickard while living in Kent, Washington were nearly impossible to assess. Is Calvin Pickard a good goaltender? Undeniably but when you face forty five to fifty shots a game,you're bound to let in a few softies and a responsibility of a pro scout are to determine whether it's a technical flaw or a case of being over cooked on a nightly basis. Scouting goaltenders is an inexact science and once again scouts attending games in Vancouver will be put to work deciding whether Kubic has any tangible pro potential. The daunting task of backstopping a tumultous hockey team served Calvin well in the end, is a similar fate in store for Kubic? Only time will tell.
21. Kootenay Ice-I'll be honest, ,my inner premonition was pleading with me to rank the Kootenay Ice dead last in this preview. I just couldn't do it. Was it because of the Vancouver Giants have a defence that exudes something you would've seen out of the Trinidad &Tobago entry at the Junior Goodwill Games from D2? I'm leaning towards saying yes, but there's something about this Ice organization that wants me to see them succeed. It's been well documented the murky waters the city of Cranbrook and the Ice find themselves in as inconsistent attendance even through the Ice's golden years and there's been endless speculation of eventual relocation and owner Jeff Chynoweth threw gasoline to the fire when he publicly stated the financial shortcomings the Ice have endured and that the Chynoweth family is actively looking to sell. Based off of nothing more then educational guesses, you'd have to assume that Winnipeg, Lloydminster, and Fort McMurray would be on the short list for possible moves. With all that being said, in order for average attendance numbers to upturn, it's vital that they put forth a more competitive squad unfortunately however when looking at the big picture, they don't have the cogs to accumulate many wins together.
Fans in Cranbook, I'm sure you already are but get familiar with the name Zak Zborosky. Hailing from my home city of Regina,Saskatchewan Zborosky is someone that will be counted on to supply the lions share of the offensive production. Sixty eight points a year is outstanding considering the little he had to work this and with some of these younger individuals a year older, the now twenty year old could see his production bolster once again. What kind of player is Zborosky you ask? He uses his size very well, a nuisance to play against in the corners and as of last year developed a decisive shot, an area for where has lacking as early back to the 2014-2015 season. Luke Pierce, the second year coach will rely on Zak heavily, thus creating an interesting conundrum. As discussed in the opening, Chynoweth has openly stated his preference would be to sell and what makes an entity more attractive, acquiring useful younger pieces of course. And how does one acquire these coveted commodities, by selling off veteran players such as Zak. Damned if you, damned if you don't would be an appropriate saying surveying the pickle they're in. Don't construe what I'm about to say as being a homer Regina Pat fan, but wouldn't Zborosky look fantastic in Pat blue and white. Everybody in Regina would be thrilled with the exception of maybe play by play commentator Phil Andrews as having to differentiate between Zborosky and Zborovsky would be a herculean task. The water cooler conversation in Cranbrook is whether trading Zak is what most fans could get behind for what very well could be the last season in Cranbrook or whether most fans would like to see Zak retained as at least from my vantage point having Zborosky in the lineup could signal an additional five wins. It's essentially impossible to quantify the value of him but what can be quantified and proven is that Zak comes to training camp as their best player.There's no right answer but if I were a betting man which I am at times, I'm calling that he's gone by Christmas so the fans best be getting out in the fall to watch him grace their presence. A different person that merits spotlighting is Tanner Sidaway. From what I know of Tanner, what the Ice will be implementing in their lineup is an individual who's bigger then his diminutive listing suggests. The hockey I.Q is exemplary and he could easily be, if Luke Pierce was so inclined used in a variety of roles. Don't let the glaring 138 Penalty minutes playing in the VIJHL scare you away because every team needs that sandpaper, a trait the Ice sorely missed last year. I understand the role of the enforcer holds littler importance then it did in yesteryear but I was thinking about this long and hard and if there was one team who could use an "enforcer" it's the Ice. Last year in my brief viewings of this club they were so small and young that the opposition's game plan would be to run them out of the rink. It's not a healthy environment when your star players, someone like Zborosky or for example Jaedon Descheneau last year, go in a game knowing that they'll pushed around without any actual repercussions. Sidaway has enough skill, just enough to fulfill an everyday spot in the lineup and unless they're content allowing their small building blocks to be physically exposed, one would assume a spot is locked up for Tanner.
I referenced a while back the reservations I had with the Vancouver Giants defence. The reservations are high although I feel only slightly better when breaking down the Ice backend. I'll pat myself on the back when I made the suggestion back before the 2014-2015 season when I made the bold proclamation to friends that not only would Regina Pat forward and Calgary product Austin Wagner get drafted after being sparsely used the year before and also eventually become a top prospect of his NHL organization, which he has. I'm going to spout off a similar observation with another Calgary bred player, Jason Wenzel. Right off the hop, Jason's size is intriguing being listed at 6'1 and 187 pounds and the common belief is a player of that size has a troubling time getting around the ice. As stereotypical as this misconception is, what people will hopefully learn when reading this and when watching Jason plays is that his mobility is one of his strong suits. Ignore the egregious plus/minus as that is representative of the team, not the player. I've already touched on this once but I feel it's necessary to rehash this thought and that's it's important to remember that a player like Jason was passed over in his first bout of eligibility because it's hard for a scout to differentiate talent in a losing culture and the reason why this year will be different is because the role will exponentially grow as the year goes on, and judging off the depth charts he should see specialty minutes playing on the top four. For the Ice, I could profile another player on defence but instead I want to go on one of my tangents and critique the defensive structure Pierce enlisted last year and likely will again this year and the flaws that are attached to it. I also want to preface this tangent by saying that I don't totally fault Pierce with this approach because under his previous employer in the BCHL, he wasn't forced to stomach such a youth movement. A sign of a great coach is a coach who can adapt, a ascertation I choose not to label Luke with. I've already admitted my viewings of the Ice were brief last season but my opinion watching the defence operate was that they were using a National Hockey League themed break-out. Too many times, and I'm no coach(maybe should be) the defenceman would be attempting the breakout with the wingers in the proper areas but the positioning of the center left no window for error as the support in the neutral zone was non-existent. This was particularly applicable when accounting for the overall lack of size which led to the wingers getting beat on the boards, the puck being sent down low and the opposition beginning the cycle game. As a rule of thumb for all junior teams, the center has to be lower to offer much needed support and a secondary pass outlet, You can't expect sixteen or seventeen year old defencman to fire off crisp passes time and time again and for an organization that has so many of them as Kootenay does, it's imperative they do a better job restructuring their defensive system.
Correct me if I'm wrong Ice supporters, but the way I see it two twenty year old positions are locked up with the aforementioned Zborosky and Matt Alfaro. For the third spot, it creates interesting dialogue. Because we're talking about goaltenders,due to having eighteen year Declan Hobbs on roster, I can't fathom any scenario where Keelan Williams is brought back to camp especially when in my humble opinion I'd advocate they'd be foolish not to retain Nathyn Mortlock on defence, Can Hobbs handle the every day load? Render me skeptical. With so many other markets likely dangling a goaltender at some point, Brody Wilms out of Moose Jaw and Mario Petit from Everett could be plausible fits. Someone else's "trash" and by no means am I classifying Wilms or Petit as trash could very well be Kootenay's treasure. I feel like propping Hobbs up as the starting goaltender is a pointless endeavour as 95% sure you'll see them acquire another goaltender. In the small chance Declan is the opening night starter, what you're getting is a player with decent bloodlines, brother Connnor anchors the Pats defence, and possesses a great blocker but will need to strengthen his susceptible glove hand. I've been known for making a prediction now and again and I'll predict Brody Wilms is the opening day starter for the Ice.
***update: Due to a lacklustre Kootenay Ice website, it had slipped my mind that they've already acquired a veteran goaltender in Edmonton's Payton Lee. It scraps the Wilms to Kootenay theory however it does fill a hole that Kootenay desperately needed filling***
My message to Ice fans is please support the team. Cranbrook is too beautiful of a market not to have major junior hockey.