We're just under two months into the season and one team is steamrolling through the WHL, while three others are close behind. The Portland Winterhawks are riding a 16-2-0-1 record, which is not only the best in the US Division, but the entire league. The Kootenay Ice (13-4-0-2), Saskatoon Blades (13-5-0-1) and Red Deer Rebels (13-6-1-1) are close behind. The rest of the standings are all over the place. The numbers, after the break.
1. Saskatoon Blades (13-5-0-1)
2. Moose Jaw Warriors (10-8-0-1)
3. Swift Current Broncos (10-11-0-0)
4. Brandon Wheat Kings (9-11-0-1)
5. Prince Albert Raiders (6-10-2-2)
6. Regina Pats (6-10-2-1)
1. Kootenay Ice (13-4-0-2)
2. Red Deer Rebels (13-6-1-1)
3. Lethbridge Hurricanes (10-6-0-3)
4. Medicine Hat Tigers (9-7-1-0)
5. Edmonton Oil Kings (7-11-0-1)
6. Calgary Hitmen (4-14-1-0)
1. Vancouver Giants (12-8-1-1)
2. Chilliwack Bruins (10-7-1-0)
3. Prince George Cougars (10-8-1-0)
4. Kamloops Blazers (9-9-0-1)
5. Kelowna Rockets (9-10-0-0)
1. Portland Winterhawks (16-2-0-1)
2. Tri-City Americans (11-5-1-1)
3. Seattle Thunderbirds (8-4-2-3)
4. Spokane Chiefs (8-8-1-0)
5. Everett Silvertips (6-7-1-3)
Six coaches assessed their teams so far for FTR. Kamloops Blazers head coach Guy Charron summed up his team this way: "Our 5-on-5 play has been very good this season, but we are underachieving with our special teams and in particular, our penalty kill. Our goaltending at times has been inconsistent, but we are very confident in both our goaltenders and know their consistency will improve. Overall, I'm expecting our team to continue to improve and to generate more success than what we have had so far."
Jon Groenheyde started the season in net for the Blazers, marking one win, 5 losses, 1 shootout loss and 1 shootout win before being traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings, taking a .873 save percentage and 3.6713 goals against average with him. Cam Lanigan, who came to the Blazers in the trade, has 17 games in net for Kamloops, with a 5-9 record (plus 1 shootout loss and 1 shootout win). Jeff Bosch has appeared in 14 games for Kamloops and has a slightly better record (7-3, with one shutout).
Left Wing Brendan Ranford leads all scorers with 17 goals and 10 assists for 27 points in 20 games (that's the 7th best in the WHL so far). Center Chase Schaber is second with 7 goals and 18 assists for 25 points. Center Dalibor Bortnak is ten points behind (5 goals, 10 assists). The Blazers welcome the Kelowna Rockets to the Interior Savings Centre Saturday night. The last time the two teams met (November 3), the Rockets came away with a 5-2 win.
Prince Albert Raiders head coach Bruno Campese said of his team: "The team is progressing with many new faces in the lineup. It is a work in progress with much work to do. The team is working on consistent play and striving to become a consistent 60-minute hockey team."
Former Seattle Thunderbirds Right Wing Jonathan Parker leads the Raiders in scoring, with 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points. Center Mark McNeill also has 23 points, although his come from 8 goals and 15 assists. Goaltenders Eric Williams and Jamie Tucker have similar records (Williams: 3-4-1-1; Tucker: 3-6-1-1). Some of the losses have been very lopsided (9-2 vs. Medicine Hat; 6-2 vs. Red Deer) but as any team with growing pains can attest, it takes time for new players to gel and learn the team's system. The next month or two should prove to be very telling. The Raiders travel to Swift Current to face the Broncos tonight.
Kelowna Rockets Head Coach Ryan Huska says of his players: "We got off to a slow start but over the last little while, we are playing better hockey. We have more guys working hard every night. Now we just have to continue getting better."
Coach Huska is correct. The Rockets are riding a five game winning streak; their latest victims - the Edmonton Oil Kings, who they beat Wednesday night 2-1. Right Wings Mitchell Callahan and Shane McColgan lead the team in scoring (Callahan: 10 goals/13 assists/23 points; McColgan: 6 goals/15 assists/21 points). Goaltender Adam Browne has a 7-9 record but a pretty impressive .902 save percentage. Teammate Jordan Cooke has a 2-1 record and a .868 save percentage. Kelowna hopes to keep its winning streak alive against Prince George tonight.
Prince George Cougars Head Coach Dean Clark is feeling upbeat about his team so far, saying: "We didn't have a great year last year and we've bounced back, mainly because we haven't had injuries. We've added some new players."
Among the new players is former Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Sena Acolatse, who has been fitting in quite well with the team. Clark credits Acolatse with helping keep the Cougars competitive, especially on special teams. "He's on the power play a lot and plays a role in many different situations. He's done anything I've asked. He's a solid player and a great kid - a great team guy."
Clark also has praise for team captain Brett Connolly, who leads the team in scoring, with 15 goals and 10 assists for 25 points and says many players are having a solid season. The biggest challenge? Clark points to the team's lopsided play. "We've scored a lot of goals, but we've given up a lot of goals." Ty Rimmer has the highest save percentage for Prince George (.905) and a 5-3-0-0 record. James Priestner has a 6-6-1-0 record and a .874 save percentage.
Everett Silvertips Associate Head Coach Jay Varady took over the helm when Head Coach Craig Hartsburg underwent heart surgery last week, and understandably, Hartsburg's heath has had players concerned and maybe a little distracted. "That was a huge concern of ours that he got through his surgery," he said. "He's fine. He's on the road to recovery."
Now, Varady says the team is focusing on the schedule, one game at a time, and says everyone is looking forward to a brief stop back home at Comcast Arena this weekend (the Silvertips face the Tri City Americans tonight and Chilliwack Bruins tomorrow night), following a swing through Chilliwack, Portland, Vancouver and Red Deer. "I think when you come home, it just injects more energy because you're on your own ice in front of your own fans. We have to stick to our structure and play our style of game. We need to get pressure on the other team and continue with our work; stay out of the box and stay disciplined."
The Silvertips currently sit at the bottom of the WHL's U.S. Division, but don't let that fool you. Aside from the Portland Winterhawks, who has a firm grasp on first place, it's pretty much a dogfight for the other top spots. In fact, three teams (the Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and the Silvertips) each have 8 wins. Varady says right now, it's anyone's game, saying, "The teams are so evenly matched, any team can beat any other team on any given night."
Tyler Maxwell leads all scorers with 20 points on 14 goals and 6 assists. Landon Ferraro and Kellan Tochkin follow with 13 and 12 points, respectively. Starting goaltender Kent Simpson has a 6-5-1-3 record and a .910 save percentage heading into this weekend's home stand.
Red Deer Rebels Head Coach Jesse Wallin says as a coach, he's never really fully satisfied with the way his team is playing, but he's fairly happy with the way things are going so far: "I think in most of the games, if you look at the these 20 games, in 16 of them I felt we played really well and been fairly consistent. We had a game or two early in the year where I didn't like our play. The (first) Saskatoon game at home, the 2-1 loss. I thought as a team, we were okay but some of our top guys didn't play really well."
Wallin expanded on the Rebels' losses: "A lot of them have been by one goal. We just didn't bear down and score on some opportunities where we had chances to win those games."
Former Everett Silvertips Center Byron Froese and teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lead the team in scoring with 30 points each (Froese has 11 goals and 19 assists; Nugent-Hopkins has 5 goals and 25 assists). Andrej Kudrna is close behind with 27 points on 13 goals and 14 assists. Starting Goaltender Darcy Kuemper has a leageu-leading 13-4-1-1 record and a .936 save percentage.
Wallin says the team is focusing on continuing to get progressively better, but he's already looking ahead to the playoffs. "That's been our mentality since Day One," he said. "That's what we're preparing for. When we hit the playoffs, we want to peak and be at our best."
The Rebels' more immediate goal is to beat the Chilliwack Bruins tonight in Chilliwack.
More coaches will weigh in about their teams next week. I'd also like to hear from fans. What's YOUR assessment of your team so far? What do you like about what you're seeing? What problem areas do you want your team's coach to address? Leave a comment and let me know!
Now, a look at the weekend schedule:
Friday, November 12
Medicine Hat @ Moose Jaw
Seattle @ Regina
Prince Albert @ Swift Current
Portland @ Saskatoon
Lethbridge @ Brandon
Edmonton @ Spokane
Prince George @ Kelowna
Red Deer @ Chilliwack
Tri City @ Everett
Saturday, November 13
Lethbridge @ Moose Jaw
Portland @ Prince Albert
Seattle @ Swift Current
Edmonton @ Kootenay
Regina @ Medicine Hat
Kelowna @ Kamloops
Tri City @ Spokane
Prince George @ Vancouver
Chilliwack @ Everett
Sunday, November 14
Kootenay @ Calgary
Everett @ Kamloops