2.Tri-City Americans: As this season preview begins to wind down, it's donned upon me that I've been extremely adulatory towards the 2016 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. It has the making to be a historically dominant draft class. In the past experts have glowed over the 2003 National Hockey League Draft and how it's viewed as generational but within WHL circles, this 2001 born crop I believe will be looked back with great prestige. From Logan Barlage to Peyton Krebs, Americans future franchise Sasha Mutala deserves equal praise as being someone who is definitely in the frey for rookie of the year consideration. Full marks go out to governor Bob Tory as his drafting/scouting expertise has earmarked Tri-City as one of this year's league favourites and it's part of the reason the Americans are the model of consistency year after year.
One of a few reasons why Tri-City won the coinflip over Portland in these rankings was because of team depth. This certainly rings true when assessing the forwards. One through twelve there's truly not a weakness throughout the lineup. I'm okay admitting that prior to the 2016-2017 my knowledge towards Ams playmaker Kyle Olson was obsolete but he's now just one of many reasons I'm picking the Americans to the final(and this bodes well for Ams brass as I've correctly predicted the last two finals pre-season).His ascension up the scoring ladder last goes to show what a little confidence can do for a player as in his rookie 2015/2016 campaign the Calgary born and bred Olson had a forgotten ten points and there had to be some within the Americans hockey administration that were doubting if Olson would even secure a spot on the team at all this year. He made the team and ran with the opportunity so much so that the Anaheim Ducks welcomed him to California with a fourth selection. Not a stat that is likely kept but there can't be too many examples of a player like Kyle who puts up such finite statistics one year to the following year going as high as the fourth round in the NHL. Incredible, the ultimate rags to riches story! The other reason why I'm now a proponent of Kyle may come off as peculiar but the penalty minute count signifies a no holds barred approach to the game. Players that slowly work their way through the lineup but lack the credentials don't normally condone themselves with such a tenacity but that was the opposite with Kyle as he refused to play tentative . Fifty two penalty minutes is not the first thing you want to highlight on the resume but you won't find many other players risking drawing the ire of their head coach but a player with that character I'd take any day of the week over someone that plays timid and is just playing to see another shift. The on ice attitude displayed by Kyle is something governing general Bob Tory in an exclusive interview on dubnetwork.ca that he emphasizes character and does extensive research before bringing over a player to Kennewick. Kyle epitomizes everything that Tory has facilitated to make this organization a competitive and respected franchise year after year. While Olson will be tasked with maintaining his output from a year ago, he's not the only American that rose of stardom from general obscurity last year as leading scorer Morgan Geekie had a sixty five point increase. A lot of the praise for the remarkable development from a player such as Morgan has to be steered in the direction of Mike Williamson. Another take away from that aforementioned interview was how few coaches Bob has had to hire and by result of it's allowed the coaching staff to become familiar with it's kids and can teach and implement systems that the parents and players know won't have to relearned each year, it's very replicable. Mike was hired prior to the 2014-2015 season coming over from the Calgary Hitmen and would've arrived entering the fold. Here in Regina we've been privy to what John Paddock has been able to do by monitoring the progress of Sam Steel and Austin Wagner, players that were beginning their careers in Regina with Paddock and both have paved out exceptional careers. From an American angle, these two were thrown in the proverbial fire at the same time and the patience Mike showed Morgan early in his career that hard work and perserverance were necessary to reach the pinnacle he's at now. I remember watching a couple games, probably in that rookie 2015-2016 season of his which saw him play a full regulsr season and I recall internally opining that Morgan may cap out as a defensive minded forward, I wasn't seeing someone who down the road was going to have the skill level to net thirty five goals, nowhere close. It's not always pretty with him but he's visibly a hard worker and definitely leads by example. Geekie has been a positive influence for Detroit Red Wing first rounder Michael Rasmussen from the sense that they've went about it from different ways and it's taught Rasmussen that being persistent on the forecheck is an absolute necessity because in junior hockey creating your own offence is half the battle. Morgan along with surely the rest of Williamson's troops are envious of the cannon Rasmussen owns. It was once said, no idea by who that there's never been a nice goal Michael has scored which in a roundabout way a positive connotation. He's been a can't miss kid his entire life and has never had trouble lighting the lamp so instead of sitting in the perimeter and channeling his inner Brett Hull, the presence of Geekie has rubbed off on him because he now drives the net and cashes in on greasy rebounds.Morgan's contributions go well beyond the scoresheet so thank goodness Morgan made the decision he did to pursue hockey unlike his younger brother, Calgary Hitmen prospect Noah who coming off a Canada Summer games appearance in Baseball has put hockey on the backburner. American administration are thankful.
The Ams defence is currently undergoing a European invasion of sorts. Star defenceman Juuso Valimaki has now left to Calgary Flames camp which leaves Roman Kalinichenko and Sergei Sapego still in Kennewick presumably fighting for one position. Muddling things even further is the inclusion of Russian forward Vladislav Lukin who reported to camp. On the topic of Lukin, I'm hearing conflicting reports that Lukin has desired to play his overage season in Major Junior but additionally hearing contrasting news that he's set to join a Russian team in the VHL but whichever report is true it's likely a moot point for Tri-City as with Maxwell James, Jordan Topping and newly brought in goaltender Patrick Dea, theirs simply not a spot on this roster for Vladislav which is unfortunate as parting ways with a twenty six goal scorer is always a tough pill to swallow. To finish on the Lukin front, IF he chooses to stay in Canada and the WHL, the only true fit that I foresee that could use an overage/European upgrade could MAYBE be the Spokane Chiefs but even that's a stretch. So the real battle commences amongst Kalinichenko and Sapego....or does it? Juuso Valimaki who I earlier mentioned is with the Calgary Flames and when interviewed by the Calgary Sun he implicitly said that he hopes he's left junior hockey behind and can make the Flames this year. Would the Flames actually disregard the long term development of the eighteen year old Valimaki to rush him into a lineup that currently constructed the argument could be made the Cleveland Browns are closer to winning a championship then Calgary? That was in a tongue in cheek terrible joke as I happen to like the prospects of the Flames heading into this winter but don't pull a former Chilliwack Bruin Roman Horak of 2011-2012 and rush him into the NHL needlessly when he's not quite ready to contribute. I know NHL General Managers will say all the time that they put no stock into what type of direction their prospects junior team is in(try telling that to the Prince Albert Raiders re Leon Draisatl) but with Juuso the advantages are endless through keeping him in the Tri state one more year. The team itself is set to make a real run at the Ed Chynoweth cup, he in all likelihood will anchor Finland's defence core at the upcoming World Junior Championship and he can spend the season continuing to work under the guidance of Williamson as the offensive side of things are down pact, there are definitely a few defensive positioning attributes that need refinement before Calgary can safely insert the Fin in their nucleus. Juuso may want to take up residence in Cow town but once he returns and re-discovers the winning atmosphere established, the expected immediate sorrows will quickly be put to rest. And I'm definitely not just saying that because I don't want to see my streak of correctly predicting finals come to end, it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that no Juuso would put a dagger in those plans. I spoke to a small criticism of Juuso's game and that was his momentary lapses in his own zone resulting in opposing quick strike offence but it wouldn't be fair to solely fault Valimaki for this as for a team that notoriously struggled with the penalty kill last season, more defensive cognizance will be required collectively. I've been awfully positive throughout this entire Ams synopsis but the player I need to see growth out of is Dakota Krebs. Dakota is more then capable of upping his performance level and I would imagine with little brother, Kootenay Ice first overall selection Peyton set to make his Major Junior debut it will force Dakota to ensure he's not the forgotten Krebs in the strong hockey family lineage. The elder Krebs even making the WHL is a feat of it's own and has defied the odds due to the fact that he went undrafted and was listed by Tri-City in September of 2014.The departure of Parker Wotherspoon has left a gaping hole in the lineup and players such as Krebs and Seth Bafaro to fill the shoes and provide Valimaki and Daniel Gatenby some running mates on the top pairings. I could go into detail over how Bafaro was one of the draft steals in 2015 getting plucked in the third round but staying on the subject of Dakota I fully believe he can still transform into a top four defenceman entering his eighteen year old season. What concerned me last year and I know on numerous occasions I've outlined my feelings towards the merit of the plus/minus category so I apologize for being repetitive but for a 41-28 hockey club, skating to a -21 statistical anomaly is unacceptable and Williamson needs to harp on simplification. Dakota must be clamouring at the bit knowing that if he has a successful first quarter of the season then management won't be forced to make any rash acquisitions and can sustain a permanent top four role. If not, another defenceman will have to be brought in because they can't afford to let this season pass them by. The likes of Jake Bean and Kale Clague could be available but it's never ideal for Bob Tory to delve deep in the farm system to make these trades work. The maturation of the Okotoks, Alberta product could prevent major headaches for all involved.
To the surprise of many, former Edmonton Oil King Patrick Dea was invited to camp to compete for the starters position. Former incumbent Evan Sarthou elected to walk away to pursue post secondary options and by virtue of this they felt it wasn't fair to have to rely on an unproven eighteen year old in Beck Warm, so a veteran presence by way of Dea provides a security blanket. This is fairly reminscint of the Seattle Thunderbirds when last fall they acquired veteran Rylan Toth from Red Deer Rebels to be that glue on a championship calibre club. Ironically or with how the plight of Carl Stankowski took course some might say fortunately Toth was lost for the season midway through and as the playoffs approached the unheralded sixteen year old sensation Stankowski took over and the organization didn't miss a beat. Was Toth around during the playoff chase imparting wisdom on Carl because keep in mind Rylan had the Memorial Cup experience from the year before to lean on, I'm not exactly sure but if Patrick can provide paralled tutelage towards the pencilled in 2018-2019 starter Warm, then it's plausible this team could enjoy a special two year run. I expect to see the Americans in Regina for the Memorial Cup after you decipher which team I have ranked at the top but with someone that has the potential of Beck, a 2019 Memorial Cup jaunt may not be too far off.