We had our massive WHL Preview show a couple of weeks ago with both Dean Millard and I joined in studio by a couple league broadcasters and on the phone by a third plus a media man in Seattle. Corey Graham or the Oil Kings and Red Deer Rebels voice Cam Moon were kind enough to sit in with us. Then we also spoke with Kamloops Blazers broadcaster Jon Keen and ESPN 710 Seattle's Andy Eide.
I'll refer you to that show, the archive is RIGHT HERE, as I will not be going as in-depth here in the blog but using this as more of a summary to what we discussed that night.
After the jump, my predictions for the East conference and the two teams I'm looking at for the conference finals. Plus, having posted my Western conference predictions earlier, I'll also include my WHL Championship final and who I'm selecting as the WHL representative at the 2014 Memorial Cup in London, ON.
1. Edmonton Oil Kings - The Oil Kings have been the best team in the conference by 10-15 points for the last two years. I still think they are the top team but that cushion is now gone. No question the team loses a lot from last season but they still return Henrik Samuelsson, Curtis Lazar and Griffin Reinhart (probably). Newcomer Mads Eller has impressed in camp and could get top line minutes. The defence is thinner but Reinhart, Dysin Mayo, Cody Corbett and Ashton Sautner are joined by former 1st round pick Aaron Irving. Goaltending won't be an issue with Tristan Jarry and new back up Tyler Santos. The scoring depth is the biggest question and will need to be answered by 2014 eligible Lane Bauer and Mitch Walter and former depth players Mitch Moroz, Brandon Baddock, Luke Bertolucci and Edgars Kulda.
2. Prince Albert Raiders - Led by one of the top ranked players for 2014 in German Leon Draisaitl, the Raiders are the cream of the crop of a weak East Division. The team will get to beat up on their divison rivals and pile up the points like Portland has for the last few years. The Raiders added goalie Cole Cheveldave so are secure in net. Josh Morrissey captains the defence which includes newcomers Tomas Andrlik and Brendan Guhle. I expect a much better year from Mike Winther and Dakota Conroy. Add Reid Gardiner and Tim Vanstone to the mix and you have a team deep at all positions. P.A. will win the division and could build up enough points to finish ahead of the best team in the Central to claim top spot in the entire conference.
3. Calgary Hitmen - The Hitmen are going to be very good once again but do lose some big pieces from last year too. Gone are Dustin Sylvester, Victor Rask and Brooks Macek. It's time for 2014 eligible Jake Virtanen to show why he's a former 1st overall pick after compiling 34 points as a rookie. Greg Chase will be motivated after a productive year ended with him being taken in the 7th round of the NHL draft. Brady Brassart will be one of the top 20-year-olds in the league and Jaynen Rissling should be a force on the back end. Scouts will be watching a lot of the Hitmen this year for not just Virtanen but Josh Thrower, Ben Thomas, Travis Sanheim and Chase Lang but also for new Russian import Radel Fazleev who turned heads in pre-season. I think Calgary is one year away from being THE team to beat.
4. Red Deer Rebels - You have to like when you return the CHL Goaltender of the Year and I know the Rebels are ecstatic to have Patrik Bartosak back for his final WHL season. The jury is still out on a possible return of Matt Dumba but I'm going to suggest that he's back with the Rebels and helping to lead the team in scoring. If not, the weight will fall to Rhyes Dieno, Connor Bleackley, Dominik Volek, Matt Bellerive and rookie Adam Musil. Like his brother David, Adam Musil has formidable size but unlike his brother, Adam can skate and will be one to watch for sure. 2014 eligible Haydn Fleury and Kayle Doetzel headline a respectable defensive group that currently consists of six players listed at 6'3. Of course Brent Sutter is behind the bench and many consider that alone to be worth a handful of wins.
5. Swift Current Broncos - The next best team in the East division, the Broncos begin life without Adam Lowry but have a pretty solid team that should be up to the task. Colby Cave and Graham Black are joined by rookie Jake Debrusk and veteran Connor Sanvido. Swift's blueline group is pretty impressive with Dillon Heatherington, 2014's Brycen Martin, sophomore Bobby Zinkan and skilled import Julius Honka. Etu Laurikainen will return as the starter and provides the club with top-notch goaltending. The pieces are in place that it wouldn't be out of the question for the Broncos to keep pace with Prince Albert and make things interesting. Like the Raiders, Swift should be much better than the rest of the division ranked below them.
6. Medicine Hat Tigers - This ranking is obviously contingent on Hunter Shinkaruk's return to the club for a final year. There is no reason for he and veteran Curtis Valk to not approach the 100-point plateau as they lead the Tigers this year. Miles Koules could be a key player this year; if he takes a step forward in his production it would give the Tigers a much more faceted attack and make it harder on the opposition. Chad Labelle, Trevor Cox, Boston Leier and Logan McVeigh round out the notable forwards. On the blueline, it's a capable group but devoid of any real star power. Can Marek Langhamer take over the job as the clear starter in net? That might be the key question facing the Tigers this year.
7. Kootenay Ice - Two of our in studio panelists (Dean and Corey) both had the Ice finishing much higher than this so I could be off the mark with the Kootenay Ice, which wouldn't be the first time. Sam Reinhart, the current top ranked player in the Class of 2014, is obviously a threat every time he's on the ice and brings a certain level of expectation for team success. Next to him, Jaedon Descheneau is an undersized skill player who finished with 78 points in 59 games last year. But behind it quickly gets thin. Luke Philp managed 45 points as a rookie last year so he should be one to watch. Other than that, the Ice are very young so high expectations are risky. The defensive group is average and MacKenzie Skapski has his fair share of supporters, of which I am not one. To me, Kootenay is an exceptional coached team thank to Ryan McGill but one that can only win through playing stifling defence.They scored the second fewest goals of any playoff team last year and I don't really see that changing this season. They have a stellar number one line but in the end, they are a one line team.
8. Brandon Wheat Kings - It's not very often that the Wheat Kings miss the playoffs like they did last year with their last place finish. Kelly McCrimmon is back behind the bench, like Brent Sutter that might be worth have a dozen wins. 2014's Jayce Hawryluk and Tim McGauley are complimented by sophomore John Quenneville and newcomer Rihards Bukarts. Of course the blueline boasts Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy so you can expect the offensive attack to begin there once again. Edmonton natives Curtis Honey and Jordan Papirny form the goalie platoon for the Wheat Kings.
9. Lethbridge Hurricanes - It could be a close race for the final playoff spot and it's not unreasonable at all to think that the 'Canes could edge out Brandon when it's all said and done. For now I have Lethbridge missing out because I think they're still a bit too young. That said, who doesn't like Ryan Pilon and 2014 eligible Reid Duke? Russ Maxwell and Jaimen Yakubowski are back and so is Sam Mckechnie, sophomore Tyler Wong plus rookie Giorgio Estephan. I'm not sold on Corbin Boes though and you know with the massive price they paid to get him, the Hurricanes are going to ride him this year. Rookie head coach Drake Berehowsky is a bit of a wild card.
10. Moose Jaw Warriors - Cam Moon is a fan of Justin Paulic's and when he tells me that Paulic is ready to become a top goalie in the league, I listen. That said, even a top goalie isn't going to help the Warriors much this year. Brayden Point will be one to watch for the 2014 draft but he and Sam Fioretti are the two known quantities on the team for offence. There just isn't enough offence here unless the Toronto Maple Leafs drop Morgan Rielly back on their lap, and even then they should trade his rights to speed the rebuild.
11. Regina Pats - Morgan Klimchuk is banged up to start the year and that's not a good thing considering the rest of the Pats line up. Chandler Stephenson is about it up front unless someone really elevates their game this year. Defensively, it's an older group but when Dmitry Sinitsyn is your 'Player to Watch', it's going to be a long year.
12. Saskatoon Blades - It's to be expected when you've gone hard after a Memorial Cup twice in three years so no one should be surprised if the Blades finish dead last in the league. The biggest addition to the team comes off the ice with new ownership and from that we'll see if there is an injection of success that comes from it - but that won't happen this year. Nathan Burns and Matt Revel headline the remaining Blades who hosted the Memorial Cup last year. I am intrigued by big defenceman Nelson Nogier, another player to watch for the 2014 draft.
Eastern Conference Final: We had varying opinions on the show with Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Prince Albert and Kootenay all getting votes as finalists. I have the Oil Kings and the Raiders meeting in the Eastern final with Edmonton capturing their third consecutive conference title.
WHL Championship: On the air I said that I would take the Edmonton Oil Kings to defeat the Kelowna Rockets but knew at the time that it didn't feel right. I am retracting that radio prediction and going with my initial gut reaction: Kelowna Rockets will be the 2013-14 WHL Champions.