Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The 2016-2017 Western Hockey League Power Rankings(Volume 8)

Keep in mind when perusing through these rankings that the objective of this  article isn't to rank the teams based off of current position which would skew the rankings, it's a ranking where enlies my thoughts on where teams currently situate when assessing the likelihood or lack thereof of said team hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

1.Seattle Thunderbirds(Last time # 1)

Remember when some(most) scoffed at the notion of labelling the Seattle Thunderbirds pre-season favourites? Perhaps I'm having a difficult time deciphering but aside from the Lethbridge Hurricanes who's the hottest team in the league and fastly nipping on the heels of the Everett Silvertips? That's right, indeed the T-Birds. Injuries have been a common denominator through the U.S divison so the excuse that Everett isn't as well oiled with Noah Juulsen is a noted one but we shouldn't discount the loss of Jarrett Tyszka. Keeping in mind that Matt Barzal has only played twenty three games to date and has accumulated thirty eight points but the narrative of this campaign has very much been scoring by committee. The current leading scorer is defenceman Ethan Bear and at last check(Feb 2), they have twelve players over twenty points. Depth is where they'll flourish come playoff time. 

2.Regina Pats(Last time # 6)

In the last volume, I was prematurely critical of the direction John Paddock and company took at the January trade deadline. Although you'll never and I don't care with what kind of approach you take will convince me that some of the trades were necessary for this season, not currently worrying about the 2018 Memorial Cup hosting potential. I frequent a lot of games and the consensus that's been slowly building is former Kamloops Blazer Dawson Davidson is failing to live up to the billing bestowed upon him prior to heading to the prairies. The thing that understandably gets on a cynic's nerve is his penchant for taking risks. The Moosomin,Saskatchewan native is a smallish defenceman who possesses Pavel Datsyuk-esque puck skill and puts it to good use 80% of the time. I fully get the undertone of the messsages most Pat fans attempt to convey when they look at the offence they've been privy so they automatically presume our defenceman should just sit back and make the "safe" play. Don't be fooled by the fact that a gargantuan reason for the success of some of the forwards such as Adam Brooks and midway M.V.P favourite Sam Steel are due to the defenceman, like Dawson pushing the pace.

3.Lethbridge Hurricanes(Last time # 8)

When you're 10-0-1 in your past eleven a spike in the rankings is inevitable. When constructing these entries I try(however difficult it is) to be impartial when seeding and discussing the respective teams but I'll be frank, as a supporter of the Regina Pats the 'Canes worry me. The big ticket items such as Tyler Wong,Giorgio  Estephan and newly acquired Zak Zborosky are the ones stirring the drink in the Windy City but  lest we not overlook the contributions of Russian nineteen year old Egor Babenko. When the Hurricanes were pitted against the aformentioned Pats in last years first round I was  left disenchanted by Babenko. Part of the problem when I now think back, and I stress only part of the problem was that Babenko and current Warrior Brayden Burke brought too much of the same repertoire to the table and their wasn't near enough versatility in the Canes lineup. With Burke a distant memory it's becoming apparent that Babenko is playing with more comfort and creativity. I suppose it doesn't hurt any getting slotted with Zborosky who is one of the more renowned snipers in the Dub. The other reason the Hurricanes will present a plethora of problems to playoff opposition is their style of play. The Pats play up tempo sure but it pales in comparison to the game plan implemented by Brent Kisio. Activating defenceman into the rush in all situations aren't doing any favours to the statistics of Stuart Skinner but if a statistic was kept tracking offensive odd man rushes then Lethbridge would be leaps and bounds above everybody else. I wasn't sold on the Hurricanes going into the season but I'm a vocal believer now I'm already preparing to view an epic conference final between Regina and Lethbridge.

4.Ptince George Cougars(Last time # 3)

Admittedly before Radovan Bondra was shipped out of Vancouver to Prince George I had only seen him play a few times. I do recall however reading reports after the Giants selected him in the import draft and everything that I read was that he projected out to be a top end European in the Canadian Hockey League and until very recently I wasn't sure I was ready to believe the hype. There's a certain calmness that he plays with, Prince George, particularly with the forward group are an eccentric group so the arrival of Bondra welcome because he's an asset in all three zones and what it does is it allows forwards like Jesse Gabrielle or Brad Morrison who crave gaining a step int he odd man rushes to take a chance or two because they know more often that not Bondra will be their to bail me out. I'm not implying that Bondra was the most important acquisition made at the trade deadline, I'm indicating that it may be the most logical transaction given what this club needed as we enter their playoff push.

5.Kamloops Blazers(Last time #5)

Ken Hitchcock's name has been in the news over the past while after having his contract terminated by the St.Louis Blues. I bring up Hitch's name because after closely examining the mid nineties dynasty that the Blazers were privy to I couldn't help but think Don Hay stepped in the first go around and put the finishing touches Hitchcock's masterpiece. No such controversy this go around as this team has Don Hay written all over it. This team's identity is a defensive first mentality  They leave no stone unturned, finish their checks and even some of their more skilled forwards have an exlempary commitment to the defensive side.  Case in point Saskatoon native Collin Shirley. the 2013 blockbuster featuring Tim Bozon being sent to the Kootenay Ice sent Shirley Kamloops' way and surely enough the twenty year old is the focal point of the attack. I'm not here suggesting that Collin possesses the teams best set of mits but it's the all around tool box that allows the likes of Devin Sideroff and newly acquired Lane Bauer to work their magic. The unsung hero generally rises come playoff time and expect nothing less out of Collin.

6.Swift Current Broncos(Last time # 4)

Despite skating to a 4-5-0-1 mark in their past ten games, I'm still willing to buy what the young lads out of Speedy Creek are trying to sell me. As touched on in the last rankings, this is a new regime and I tend to theorize that if the Broncos administration didn't believe what was in the dressing room their is no chance that they would've expended the assets to acquire netminder Jordan Papirny, just wouldn't have. Earlier in the campaign most that monitor the Western Hockey League would have unequiovcally said that the offence catalyst was Alexi Heponiemi but all of a sudden at least perceptively, the reigns have been handed over to Tyler Steenbergen  and quite frankly he's suddenly reached stardom status.  There has been an outcry from hockey loyalists to potentially raise the draft age to eighteen because I think it's becoming abundantly that their are more frequent cases of players who begin to blossom after endeavouring through leisurely seventeen year old seasons.  If his first crack at draft eligibility was 2017 I assure you at thirty nine goals currently he's a top three round pick. Whoever takes the waiver on Tyler late in the draft has themselves a keeper.

7. Tri-City Americans(Last time # 12)

I'm not one to ever avoid tooting my own horn especially when an opinion not shared by many becomes fruitul but in the pre-season I was very complimentary of Dylan Coghlan and while most perceived my admiration to be a tad premature he's lived up to the billing and them some.In fact I would go as far to say that the defensive exploits are the strength of this team when taking into account the graduation of Brandon Carlo last season. Sure Parker Wotherspoon  possesses the coveted foot speed and Juuso Valimaki has a Shea Weber-esque shot but the most complete defenceman from this bloggers vantage point has been Coghlan. I was internally brainstorming which WHL alum does Coghlan compare best to and after careful consideration that would be former Prince George Cougar and Moose jaw Warrior Ty Wishart. Lanky defenceman that are deceptively punishing but are no slouch with the puck. Already a darkhorse for 2017 defenceman of the year for an Americans team that if the cards align could enter as the pre-season favourite.

8.Everett Silvertips(Last time # 2)

Only with teenagers can somebody(Carter Hart) look like Martin Brodeur and a minute later begin to channel his inner Andrew Raycroft.  I pulled his game by game stats and since returning from the World Junior Hockey Championship on January 13th, Carter has compiled a .892 save percentage. That's very un-Carter Hart like and in order to restore the momentum that the Silvertips accumulated in the first half of the season, it's imperative that Carter re-discovers his swagger. Hart's struggles have been most noticeable but, and once again my pre-season preview is proof in the pudding but I had and still have some doubts that Everett has compiled enough goal scoring acumen to compete in the playoffs. As nice of a story that Patrick Bajkov has been, is it enough to lift Everett to a Ed Chynoweth Cup? Time will tell but another forward needed to be added at the deadline and that precisely where upper management missed the boat.

9.Moose Jaw Warriors(last time # 13)

Unless the Warriors do end up enjoying an extended playoff run which judging from the rank of #9 I don't necessarily foresee I venture to say the narrative of the campaign will be missed opportunities. I likely say this everytime with the Warriors but where was and where is the direction of this team headed? This is a good hockey club but it's almost like for every step forward they take that two steps back are taken.  I usually touch on the positives but unfortunately I have to spend  a New York minute detailing some concerns I've had and that starts and for the time being ends with defenceman Josh Brook. This defensive core is a mess, would make the Colorado Avalanche's backend look elite for someone in Brook who at seventeen was the fourth overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft I've failed to see a lot of growth. A lot of this gets pinned on General Manager Alan Millar for not surrounding Josh with enough Western Hockey league calibre defenceman instead he's been bestowed the responsbility of mentoring sixteen year old Jet Woo which isn't healthy for all parties. At some point,especially if next year is the campaign they target to make bold and aggressive moves, a veteran defenceman is a absolute requirement. No more fillers like Matt Sozanski and Josh Thrower.

10.Victoria Royals(Last time # 9)

I have no doubt in my head that I'll look back on this in a couple weeks and accept the fact that I rated the Royals too low but part of the reason why is due to the conference imbalance that exists in today's league. If they belonged in the Eastern conference they along Regina and Lethbridge are perennial final contenders but are a victim of circumstance because they reside in the B.C division.  Matthew Phillips is a heck of a player, I don't need to blog about the obvious factoid but Dante Hannoun is fastly reaching Phillips levels and the fact that he's only eighteen and will be back in the league next year makes him a viable 2017-2018 M.V.P candidate. With Hannoun I'm going to pose why he's not receving more time on the penalty kill and you're naturally going to retort with that he's not a shot blocker but let me point out that some of the league's best penalty killers such as Austin Wagner and Jayden Halbgewachs don't get by blocking shots and Coach Dave Lowry should be looking to utilize his extreme speed and puck take away skills. Dante is a special talent so the onus is on the coaching staff to find ways to maximize the production.

11.Medicine Hat Tigers(Last time # 11)

The Tigers have dropped in these rankings for the simple, well maybe not so simple that this team has been ravaged by injuries,perhaps only the Saskatoon Blades can lay claim to the devastation of key injuries which has greatly effected the potential for a prolonged playoff run. Losing mainstays defence such as David Quenneville and Ty Schultz is crippling to the backend but in fairness the reason the Tigers have been staying afloat is on the laurels of Brad Forrest and Dylan MacPherson. IF either Quenneville or Schultz are back for the playoffs and reports indicate that the latter is expected back that will eventually diminish the role of someone like Dylan but from where we currently MacPherson is fulfilling a top four role and flourishing. The most pleasant observation  when breaking down the game of his is that he's always positionally sound.  Even backtracking statistics archiving his days in Medicine Hat'a Midget AAA program the essence I get out of it is that he's never been one to provide many points but on a run and gun style that the Tigers encourage, defenceman like this are required commodities.

12.Saskatoon Blades(Last time # 14)

The theme of the last couple synopsises has been injuries. As aforementioned in the Tigers snip it, no one has been more injury ridden then the Saskatoon Blades. From Cameron Hebig who's had hover over him conflicting reports on his actual status all season long to October/November star Mason McCarty to now Jesse Shynkaruk(not believed to be serious) and Braylon Shymr who's reportedly dealing with concussion like symptoms. With Shmyr, and as per the nature of this blog never choosing away to shy away from bold proclamations, I consider Shmyr to be a top ten, arguably top five talent in the Western Hockey League. I've been a fan of Shmyr going back to his Brandon days and I have difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that he remains undrafted/unsigned in the National Hockey League. Adam Brooks who broke out last season was drafted after his nineteen year old season and because Braylon has singledhandely carried the Blades on his back since the new year, I fully expect to hear his name called in June 2017. Prediction:5th round.

13.Kelowna Rockets(Last time # 10)

A model franchise in thanks to the sheer genius of General Manager and governor Bruce Hamilton. After battling their way to the league championshp series two years ago, Hamilton had to enlist in a retool of sorts but unlike  a lot of fellow General Managers, the retool was swift and successful. Even more amazing when fantasizing over the quick turn around was that the player who was supposed to be the foundation of this year's team in Nik Merkley has thusfar skated to a meager forty one point campaign. In the absence of Nick setting the world of fire, Jason Smith and company have relied on draft eligible Kole Lind and World Junior breakout star Dillon Dube. The thought I had here is whether the cohesion in the locker room would stay strong when you bring into the equation that you have a first rounder like Merkley who's now been cut twice by Team Canada with someone like Dube who rose to Hockey Canada prominence and as some would say, surprisingly made the squad. Whether Merkley was able to check his ego at the door at the betterment of team morale could be an interesting storyline as the season progresses. I can't imagine the frustration Nick must be feeling this year.

14.Brandon Wheat Kings(Last time # 7)

In an earlier blog posting I implied that the Brandon Wheat Kings would be a team I'd like to avoid in the first round of the playoffs. Well......I'm slowly but surely backing off that stance evidenced by the dip in my Power Rankings. I'm having trouble pin-pointing what, but something is off about this team. And in saying all of that, I've done a complete 180 on my thoughts pertaining to Kale Clague. Do I think a lack of size will make it difficult for him to adapt to them professional level, I do however I'm taken a back with the hockey I.Q he plays with and his propensity to always get pucks on net. Not meaning to clamour over his shot but if a stat was kept for players who get pucks through from the point, Clague would have to be near or at the top. Unfortunately there's nothing beyond Clague that will strike any fear into the opposition. James Shearer is playing higher in the lineup then I'm sure the Wheaties desire and when clumping together both the forward and defence group, a lack of foot speed defines Manitoba's lone team.

15.Portland Winterhawks(Last time # 16)

With all the sanctions set in place by the Western Hockey League during the tail end of the first Mike Johuston era, questions were aplenty for how long it would take to restake the legacy that they worked so hard to configure. Well, Mike Johnston is back fully entrenched in the Western Hockey League and thus expectations have been raised. I knew the Hawks had a special one on their hands with Skyler McKenzie but the rocketing development of Cody Glass has left me speechless. I fully appreciate the fact that he was a former first round Bantam pick but that's not to say  I entered this season thinking Cody was going to be the focal  point  of the attack.It's Glass along with the likes of rookie Henri Jokiharju that have instatenously allowed the city of Portland to once again view a competitve hockey game. So much so that it's kind of crept up on me that they could conceivaly earn enough points to secure the Western Conference's first wildcard berth, an insurmountable feat from a few months back.

16.Red Deer Rebels(Last time # 17)

No question that the Rebels are seizing the opportunity of residing in the league's weakest division, thath being the Central but I have to give full credit to Brent Sutter because after hosting the 2016 Memorial Cup wholesale changes were inevitable but the carryover pieces from last year have transitioned to leadership roles but by saying that the main reason they are firmly supplanted in the playoffs can be thanked to some of the unheralded stars and that begins with Austin Pratt. I remember reverting back to the January 2015 trade deadline when Red Deer began to make moves in preparation for hosting said Memorial Cup and it was the decision to trade former fifth overall pick Jake Leschyshyn to Regina because it was important to Brent pertaining to the recruting pitch to assure Austin enough allocated ice time. It was a decision that looking back upon it might be met with some regrets as Austin struggled and fought through his sixteen year old campaign however a year's maturity has paid dividends as the Lakeville, Minnesota product is now a bonafide top nine forward with the makings of a first line player. I've said on a few occasions that my "kryptonite" if you will when assessing draft eligible talent is I jump to conclusions too fast and probably rushed to judgments with Austin. Sutter's patience has noticeably paid off.

17.Calgary Hitmen(Last time # 18)

I haven't heard much in the way of the news regarding the attempted recruitment of former Saskatoon Blade pick Johnny Tychonick but let me tell you, and I fully assume the most stingent Hitmen supporter share my line of thinking when I say the hopeful arrival of Tychonick and the imminent arrival of 2016 first rounder Jackson Van De Leest can't come soon enough. This entire season and arguably last year as well has produced  a bland style of hockey, giving little reason for the residents of Calgary to justify expending their recreational  dollar on Hitmen hockey.They currently go to the rink expecting the Hitmen won't tally more then a couple a game, presumptions that they'll lose 2-1,3-2 but even that's not happening anymore as their goaltending has tanked in lieu of the Cody Porter season ending injury. Back to De Leest for a moment, fans can grab some solace that he's prospering at the Okanagan hockey academy and reports suggest he'll be able to step in immediately next year and lock down a top four assignment

18.Spokane Chiefs(Last time # 15)

Envisions of going toe to toe with the Winterhawks for the final playoff spot have begun to fade as unfortunately this proud organization has resigned themselves to a non playoff year. I started asking myself, where has it gone wrong in Chief land this year and the answer that I stumbled upon and everyone is entitled to their own opinion is that the defence constructed is too diminutive.  I've spoken glowingly of Nolan Reid and super rookie Ty Smith previously however aside from the giant himself Tyson Helgesen there's virtually no grit on the back end. I raise this up as a point of contention because it was Chief management that chose to make the controversial trade that ended  blowing back up in their face by shipping Evan Fiala off to Saskatoon for a player in Wyatt Sloboshan who had no intention of ever dawning the uniform. Frankly, I chalk this blunder up to the Chief hockey operations department not putting in their due diligence and results on the ice have suffered because of it. I feel bad for the players as I'm sure they're working hard out on the ice but those in senior positions have failed them in allowing the players to succeed.

19.Prince Albert Raiders(Last time # 21)

In November throughout December, it wasn't uncommon for the Raiders to find themselves in extreme blowouts on the losing end and General Manager Curtis Hunt knew something had to change. They needed another veteran body who could mentor some of the future core on what it takes to be consummate athlete at this level. Nineteen year old Jordy Stallard was brought in and when the acqusition took place, sixteen year old budding phenom and possible 2018 NHL first rounder Spencer Moe has blossomed to a  point where on most nights he exudes tendencies as the most dangerous Raider. Stallard had taken Moe under his wing and a more complete player was born, not just the player who would consistently cheat in the D-zone to gain a break. As good as things were going in Hockey town North, as they say all good things must come to an end as Stallard has now officially been ruled out for the season with and injury. A forgettable season can't finish soon enough for all parties.

20.Vancouver Giants(Last time # 19)

Strong suspicion that they will regret not trading Tyler Benson at a juncture when he had premium value. Apologies for essentially copying what I was implying in the last edition but the fact that this club is nowhere close to contending  makes it unforgivable that they chose to hold onto a widely sought after asset. What I was hearing was by trading Benson that it would affect ticket sales and while that holds some merit, if I've learned anything from being a longtime loyal supporter of the Regina Pats is that winning ultimately puts butts in the seats. What could've been a couple more years of painful hockey will likely amount to a 4-5 year rebuild because they elected to hang on to Benson and Ty Ronning.

21.Kootenay Ice(Last time # 20)

It may sound like I'm contradicting myself from the Giants snip-it however  full credit goes out to the Ice regime for identifying they had a couple assets in Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro that would bring back a monstrous package and they delivered.  Reports are out there that the WHL schedule makers have issued out two separate schedules, one involving if the Ice remain in Cranbrook, the other one involves a scenario where the Ice make the rumoured move out to Nanaimo. Either way, and I think fans out on the Island would be appreciative that they have a lot of young blood to work with going forward but my concern, and the primary reason why I chose to rank them below the Giants is just because you stockpile the farm doesn't always equate to holding on to blue chippers. I correlate the situation of the Ice to the Chicago White Sox of the MLB where they went through a overhaul trading away almost all contributing veterans and while fans in Chicago are currently pleased with the returns, prospects are often times crapshoots and the Ice better hope that the Peyton Krebs of the world materialize.

22.Edmonton Oil Kings(Last time # 22)

You lose fourteen in  a row, is there any justification needed for the basement ranking?  The team was stripped down of all capable veterans the coaching staff is grasping at straws for who can step up and save this sinking ship. Relating to the plight of first half anomaly Trey Fix-Wolansky, I don't have the answers aside from the obvious lack of relevant line mates for why his production level has bottomed out.  I was clamouring over Prince Albert Raiders Spencer Moe and I think a similar issue has stunted point production. Both due to being small in stature need linemates that can properly engage in the cycle and allow the uber talented Fix-Wolansky time to work his magic. Being as how Moe is  a year younger, his draft stock is not yet ruined, for Trey's sake let's hope Randy Hansch is committed to finding a veteran for him to play with next year.

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