Thursday, August 11, 2016

2016-2017 Pre-Season Western Hockey League Report(Teams 15 and 16)

16.Lethbridge Hurricanes-In doing my research for this piece I'm unsure if I forgot or was unaware completely that Brayden Burke was once Red Deer Rebel property. The trade that landed the Canes Burke in exchange for Riley Sheen and a fifth round pick was a franchise defining trade as it's safe to say Burke may be blessed with the league's best scoring touch and coming back and after getting passed over, particularly after posting 109 points this year, he's out for blood and I marvel on what his point totals could look like this campaign. However, and this is important, the Hurricanes as is usually the case in the junior hockey cycle have lost a lot of key cogs and Brayden will not have the same level of supporting cast now so I'm questioning if Burke can do as much with far less at his disposal.

You can't partake in a Lethbridge Hurricanes preview without trivializing over their murky twenty year old situation. It's anybody guess how General Manager Peter Anholt who I for one am convinced is one of the best talent assessors in the business has a dilemma on his hands. When most teams are granted the luxury of having multiple twenty year olds to choose from, generally the quandary filters out naturally but in Lethbridge's case,it will make for a lot of sleepless nights in early to mid September for Peter.  Who Peter stumbles on at the end of the day is out of my control although from my vantage point I'm siding with Wong, Pankewiecz and Lindgren unless Nielsen is miraculously returned to the organization but frankly Tim Tebow has a better chance of playing a game in the majors than that transpiring. Due to having no control over the matter, eventually a team will smarten up and covet my hockey knowledge but I digress as I will primarily focus on forwards I know will head back to the Windy City. One of these offensive dynamos happens to be Barrett Sheen. It's ironic that I'm choosing to depict the trajectory of Barrett as his cousin Riley like mentioned was part of the heist that secured Burke's services to Lethbridge. My recollection on Riley is a little fuzzy other then the fact that he had superb wheels so it's hard to know exactly if Riley and Barrett share  a similar skillset but one adjective best describes Barrett, brute.  Is he an "offensive dynamo" as I portrayed earlier? No,that's just me having fun but what can't be denied is his work ethic and his propensity to lay the intimidating hit. A north-south skater, he has an unusual skating stride but it's effective as his long limber legs make amends for a stride that not many coaches would advocate. This rugged style that Barrett brings to the table in a convulated way eases the tension Anholt might have as a result of fellow twenty year old Carter Folk then becoming expendable. Some may disagree with the following statement but I view Folk and Sheen as carbon copies of one another. Folk's just an older version of Sheen. It pains me to say this as Folk is a local Saskatchewan product  but I'm not sold Carter is going to find a home in major junior unless he's one of those content moving out to Quebec and may have to resort to Junior A. What impressed me the most when watching the Lethbridge Hurricanes when they squared off against the Pats in quarterfinal playoff action last season, well first of all the fact that anything exhilarated me do not construe as an insult as I know a lot of Hurricane fans were left shaking their head with how poorly the series went was Giorgio Estephan's faceoff acumen. Estephan was a monster in the series as Adam Brooks is considered league wide to be one of the better faceoff takers but Estephan held his own. Divisiveness ensued during the infamous Drake Berehowsky tenure as reportedly the family of Giorgio wasn't comfortable having their son play under Drake who was developing a troublesome reputation pertaining to player alienation and in some rare cases as was the story with Brad Lukowich, alienating fellow coaches. All privy to the inner workings of the Western Hockey League are aware that the Berehowsky employment set back the reputation of the once proud franchise so we can't sit here faulting Giorgio for not wanting to endeavour into a unhealthy working environment. The stormy waters finally cleared out, concessions were made and Estephan finally donned the Red, White, and Blue. His faceoff strength has been well documented by now but there are some areas of his game that need improvement.  He has a satisfactory pair of mitts but his skating needs conditioning. The stride unlike Sheen is visibly pleasing but too many times over the last couple seasons is he just ever so slightly behind the play. I concede that it may be a mirage as you're drawn to the speed of his former linemates Tyler Wong and Brayden Burke therefore by comparison Estephan looks like Hal Gill. If he can improve on the skating, he's been blessed with a decent all around game, vision and the shot all pass the smell test, it's time for him to put it all together and strive for the ninety point plateau. Regarding the forwards, and feasibly this could apply to all positions, as good of a year as the Hurricanes had in 15/16 and it was needed after consecutive snoozers, I do subscribe to the theory that they could've been a little more sensible in evening out the age groups. The Central division win was an aberration and I think the early season success forced Anholt to put the blinders on and ignore foreseeable sustainability. Knowing that they were going into this problem now, it was a mistake in my eyes not to trade either Folk or Wong at the trade deadline. Both were having exceptional years and both would've garnered an arm and a leg on the market. I profiled Sheen yes but as a whole the 1998 age group is very weak in Hurricane land and every report I've read, they're  a little thin with the 2000's and they had attractive pieces to correct that wrong. Was a division win that much more important then say still making the playoffs and finishing third in the central? Time will tell how much that comes back to be their Achilles heel.

Losing Andrew Nielsen to the Marlies will not go unnoticed. When some of you finish reading this preview, you may form the opinion that this ranking is too low and not giving the Canes enough credit, well to that I say it's the concerning depth behind the loss of Nielsen that led to this ranking.  I feel like I'm contradicting myself as I'm about to conduct a rave review of Calen Addison. Yes, I did just remark that the issues with the 2000 depth as a conclusive observation but a generality doesn't apply to every individual and I'd be a fool(unless you think I'm one already) if I were to knock the alluring skillset of Addison. Addison, who's approaching his rookie season is your prototypical puck moving defenceman. Being from Brandon, I'm only going to assume, and you know what they say about assumptions that he grew up idolizing the likes of Colby Robak and Ryan Pulock but it's the game of Robak that harkens visible similarities. Size aside as Addison is only currently listed at 5'9 and Robak is 6'3, but Robak was a soft 6'3, played  a small mans game. Addison for being that short has excellent lower core strength and with that shouldn't have any problem adapting to the next level. There was a calculated reason why I brought up the name of Robak and that's because when I remember Colby play in junior, the size was unquestioned but his artistry was on full display, and he took chances a lot of the times in the opposing end. There'd be plays watching Colby when at the point he'd elect to make a pass cross ice that left you shuttering in amazement that he even tried. It's with a similar confidence that Calen purportedly plays with that will make a fan favourite in quick order. This is the trend I'm noticing as rookies are entering the league differentiating from year's past.I tell this to my friends all the time, my introduction to junior hockey which carved my passion was the 2001 Memorial Cup hosted in Regina. Brendan Bell, a member of the Ottawa 67's and eventual World Junior participant was seventeen throughout that tournament and keep in mind he was a NHL prospect at that juncture. He had a solid tournament,and I know you're thinking, "it was back in 2001, how does he remember?" Well, I have  a peculiar memory like that and that tournament holds a special place in my heart which is why getting back to Bell it was noticeable that his stellar play amounted to making conservative, unassuming plays. That back in 2001 made you a good prospect. Fast track to 2016 and if you're not showing the creativity to make plays at a tender age, scouts will sour. Climate has changed and Calen fits into the mold of  a player who sacrifices defensive pride for being counted upon in the rush. The last defenceman on the docket tonight is the Delta, BC born Nick Watson. I can't help but feel their's an untapped potential offensively. There are astounding differences between the games of Addison and Watson. While Addison exudes confidence, Watson could take a page out of Calen's book as his rookie season was filled with unsuredness and trepidation. If he made one stretch  pass, please speak up. Modern era hockey requires stretch passes, a need to at times think outside the box as the forechecks now a days are just far too tenacious to sit back and let the play come to you. I'm genuinely surprised coach Brent Kisio didn't instill a pre requisite of pushing the puck up the ice at all costs which  is surprising because when you review the style the Hurricanes practiced, it was up tempo with the defence activating to create odd man rushes. Watson was the anomaly in this group and I'll be looking for more swagger this fall.

I could spend this time sharing my true thoughts on impending number one goaltender Stuart Skinner and while he's a fine goaltender, I'm going to use this platform to illustrate my aggravation on teams still to this day selecting goaltenders in the first round as building blocks. I can be swayed to postulate that Skinner is one of the better 1998 born goaltenders in the dub but at what cost? I hope my preview clarifies that the Hurricanes have  a gaping hole in the 1998 department and even through that, they're enamored with this delusion that they can win from the goaltender upwards,a theory disproved time and time again. How did the Seattle Thunderbirds fare with Calvin Pickard manning the net? What about the Montreal Canadiens with Carey Price, I haven't any noticed new banners hanging from the rafters since 1993. In fact, 1993 was probably the last time you built around a netminder and won and to defend this argument, Patrick Roy was not a high pick in his NHL entry draft. Goaltenders progress at different speeds than positional players do. Do the Dallas Stars regret choosing Jack Campbell with the eleventh overall pick in 2010? Absolutely, aside from the obvious fact that the Stars have now parted ways with the American goalie, this is a contending club that could've used a stud like Vladimir Tarasenko. Goalies are a dime a dozen,  for every hot shot coming into the league like Stuart Skinner, there a million other Jordan Papirny's of the world that weren't touted but have become capable commodities. I think this team is going to struggle regardless this year, but you can only imagine what last year would've looked like had they went in a different direction with that particular Bantam Draft and added an impact player.  First round goaltenders is not a winning strategy, an overdue truthism that teams for whatever reason don't pick up on.

15.Victoria Royals- Was there a faster team last year? That was the perception they instilled to the rest of the  Western Hockey League as they just pushed the pace to no end and rightfully so because particularily upfront you had the likes of Jack Walker, Tyler Soy and Vladimir Bobylev that displayed Darren Helm-esque speed and it created a trademark for Royal hockey. However, as the old adage indicates all good things must come to an end after accumulating  a Western Conference high two hundred and eighty one goals in the regular season but had the output dried up completely in the playoff and I have a theory for that. I was listening to an iteration of one of the insider clips on one of the major television networks as the playoffs were winding down, I  believe it was TSN radio's Jeff O'Neill but don't hold that against me that formulated the thought that you get to the playoffs with a formidable offence, case in point Victoria but reign victorious in the playoffs with an astronomically efficient defence. The overused defence wins championships analogy. Ironically, defensive exploits weren't the Royals kryptonite as the once feared offence became obsolete.Reverting back to my theory, and even though I didn't elude to this possibility in the Lethbridge preview, the small stature caught up to them. It's the nature of the beast where teams clamp down and disinfect offensive attacks in the playoffs  and when you can't fight through traps you automatically find yourself behind the eight ball. I've long been a proponent of focusing on size with the realization being that the smaller teams generally get weeded out come April with the rare exception being the 2016 Memorial Cup champion London Knights although it doesn't hurt having Canada's best junior in Mitch Marner. The bottom line is there are alot of players to get excited about with this incoming group but I do have concerns with the defensive core sans Joe Hicketts and the repeated lack of height with the forwards. It'll be a dog fight to make the playoffs although only two teams missing the playoffs in the West( we need a crossover) assists their cause.

The Royals have in their stable one of the more intriguing prospects league wide in Matthew Phillips. In the few occasions I was fortunate enough to watch Matt play, I wasn't overly impressed which is why I find it astonishing that he racked up the points he did. In my analysis of Phillips, I surmise that we're staring at a player that can't be the go to player on the line, he moreso capitalized on teams game planning for Tyler Soy and Alex Forsberg(we'll get to Soy later on) and was the beneficiary of playing against second and third defensive pairings. With the graduations of Jack Walker and Logan Fisher, Phillips will be a more of a focal point when breaking down game tapes readying for the Royals and color me not convinced he can replicate what he accomplished a season ago. His proneness to shy away from the tough areas allowing his linemates to fight for loose pucks may have worked when he had aggressive linemates but would be a failed way of positioning himself this season when Dave Lowry will need him to step up his all around game and be an asset in all areas. I was thinking about this and got to asking myself has there been a player who exuded a similar presence to Phillips in the WHL in recent memory and one name actually came to mind. Kruise Reddick formerly of the Tri-City Americans is a shining example of a player who advanced his statistics being able to hide behind Colton Yellow Horn and Jason Reese as a seventeen year old but as those two exited his statistics dropped off.  I reference the junior career of Kruise because I can see Phillips taking a similar turn. I simply can't stress enough the likelihood of teams within his own division ensuring that their top pairs are out immediately when Matthew sets foot. He may as well already get acquainted with names such as Cal Foote and Tate Olson who won't be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon. Lowry has had a fair level prosperity coaching in the Western Hockey League, his international escapades leave a lot to be desired and I'll be watching to see what adjustments are made to open up more space for Matt. Now Tyler Soy on the other hand, not written with a mean intent, but are NHL scouts blind???. After being left hanging in 2015, the Anaheim Ducks took a chance on him with the two hundred and fifth overall pick. It's degrading to the work Soy put in that A)he wasn't selected at all in '15 and B)his outstanding Under eighteen tournament in the summer 2015 compounded with his tremendous season in Victoria wasn't enough  to merit a top three round selection. I honestly believed it was a formality that he was going to be picked within the first three rounds, but clearly I'm seeing something scouts are not. He's a complete player, his one hundred and eighty career points speak for itself but the area I wanted to touch on was his defensive awareness. You won't find many players especially in Junior who have the penchant for the back of the net but also take pride in penalty killing and engaging in the back check to the extent Soy does.  Soy's speed fits in just fine with the skating deftness the Royals promote, essentially hes' a Victoria Royal in every sense of the word. If I was left in charged for evaluating for the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championships, Soy at the very least would be on my invite list but sadly with the way Hockey Canada has compiled their lists in recent years, a seventh round pick virtually has no shot.  I think Soy is their best player, an assertion made clear with my skepticism regarding Phillips progression. Lowry favors the cycle sometimes to his own detriment and due to Soy's down low work he's able to handle the rigors that this kind of play can provide. I've forecasted both Soy and Phillps, now it's time to deliver a brief synopsis on this crop as a whole. First of all,who am I kidding as nothing I do is a brief but I'll opine this pertaining to the forwards. The B.C division with the way I see it as a smaller reputation which will conceivably aid the Royals but if I"m correct and Victoria emerges in a dog fight for the final position a date with likely number one seed Seattle Thunderbirds(spoiler alert) would be a disastrous matchup. Seattle would make the Chinese men's Olympic basketball team look small so good luck to Victoria not getting run out of the building. After last year's pleasant ride it may be advisable for Lowry and Hope to cut their losses and try to package some of their compelling assets. Too small for tangible playoff success combined by the atrocity of the defense, see below is why the Royals are appropriately ranked fifteen.

These defence will cause fans of Victoria to go to bed having endless nightmares. The catalyst holding this fringe group in Joe Hicketts is gone so basically it'll be a free for all for opposing teams visiting the Island. Not known for his offence, Marsel Ibragimov plays a fierce game, His plus minus of plus thirty one indicates to me that he's exerting his physical advantage and as he grows a year older this will only strengthen. Where Ibragimov tends to get caught is I think he's aware he's stronger then most so I find he takes that for granted. Just because you can routinely handle somebody in front of the net doesn't mean you can get scrambly chasing after the puck carrier and then miss your assignment and just expect to get back. Not necessarily from a junior  point of view but if Marsel chooses to proceed to the professional circuit then these types of liberties will have to be abolished. I maintain Ibragimov will be the most reliable member of the back end but that doesn't say much when Lowry and company are going to have to try innovative ways to insulate some of the unproven stalwarts into contributable roles. Somebody like Ralph Jarratt for example may have to carry the buck offensively. Transitioning from a third line d pairing role to now quite possibly first pairing minutes is a seismic leap but I'm sure he'll be amicable to the added responsibility. This is Ralph's draft year and any time you're on the precipus of being drafted and being afforded  a top role you quickly become a motivated player. While Jarratt is probably headed for a role he's not ready for, the theme of overstepping your boundaries defensively will be a common occurrence for this tandem. It's just the case at times where all you can do as a management staff is just pray that the players asked to exceed their will can do just that. Totally out of their control, Jarratt does possess some swagger to his game as when enrolled in the Pursuit of Excellence program he put up admirable offensive numbers and these numbers could inflate in 2016/2017 with the expected power play time coming his way. I say that but also internally ponder whether with the lack of experience on the back end if Lowry could employ a five forward power play setup. Within the realm of possibilities to be sure.  To put it mildly, Dave Lowry has worked some miracles in the  past, arguably with more and if this unit becomes competent throughout the season then Lowry deserves NHL attention.

With the troubling defenceman in front of him, I'm sure there will be some nights that Griffen Outhouse will literally want to lock himself in an outhouse at the avoidance of getting bombarded by pucks. Coleman Vollrath had a praiseworthy season in 2015-2016 which unfortunately limited the playing time Griffen received but with Coleman aging out, the pressure falls solely on Griffin. When Griffen was called upon to action he ran with it as he tallied a 18-3-3-1 record with a splendid .937 save percentage. The calming influence in Joe Hicketts as mentioned earlier is gone to Grand Rapids(AHL) so it'll be impossible to replicate these kind of numbers again. Goaltenders as I've eluded to several times are the most difficult to assesss because it falls back on the quality of the team often times. Technically he has no glaring issues and if he comfortably handle the barrage then I foresee no reason why he'll go unnoticed by National Hockey League clubs again.

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