The 2022-23 Western Hockey League season is here.
The campaign opens on eight fronts Friday, including the Vancouver Giants hosting the Seattle Thunderbirds at the Langley Events Centre.
Vancouver had some flashy, fancy talent last year with Fabian Lysell, Justin Sourdif and Alex Cotton, but this year’s crew looks to be more of a heavy forecheck, grinding team.
Coach Michael Dyck has long been purveyor of work ethic and hustle. He has spoken of how this squad will need to play well in five-man units to have success this season.
In honour of that whole ideal, and the fact that we just flat out like lists, here’s some top fives to preview the upcoming WHL campaign.
Five teams to watch
1. Kamloops Blazers
Squads coached by Shaun Clouston have been known to play high-tempo, offensive hockey, and this one should be no different. They are loaded up front and they’ll again have one of the most fan-friendly guys to watch in Logan Stankoven when the 19-year-old Kamloops native gets back from the Dallas Stars training camp. The Blazers’ key off-season addition was associate coach Don Hay, who returns for a third stint with his hometown Blazers to work alongside Clouston. Hay has guided three teams to Memorial Cup championships and two of those — the 1995 Blazers and 2007 Giants — won it all as tournament hosts, so he has experience particularly pertinent to Kamloops this year.
2. Seattle Thunderbirds
The Thunderbirds finished fourth in the Western Conference in the 2021-22 regular season, but smart hockey people were continually pegging them as a team to watch in the playoffs thanks to size up front, puck movers on defence and a top-flight goalie in Thomas Milic, 19. Sure enough, they beat both the Portland WInterhawks and the Blazers in seven games before falling to the Edmonton Oil Kings in six games in the league final. The T-Birds had 10 players go to NHL camps, to they could start slow as guys return.
3. Everett Silvertips
The teams with the best defencemen tend to have success at this level and Everett will have a guy who should be in the conversation for top blueliner in the league when Olen Zellweger, 19, gets back from Anaheim Ducks camp. As well, the Silvertips should have a considerable chip on their shoulder after getting knocked out in the first round last spring by the Giants.
4. Moose Jaw Warriors
They should be another fan-friendly crew thanks to a high-powered offence featuring 2023 NHL Draft eligible forward Brayden Yager, who scored 34 times last season as a 16-year-old, along with defenceman Denton Mateychuk, 18, and forward Jagger Firkus, 18, who were first- and second-round picks this past summer of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Seattle Kraken, respectively.
5. Winnipeg Ice
Their lineup is set to include centre Matthew Savoie, 18, who went No. 9 overall in last summer’s NHL Draft to the Buffalo Sabres, and centre Conor Geekie, 18, who went No. 11 overall to the Arizona Coyotes. On the back end, they should have Carson Lambos, 19, who was the No. 26 overall choice of the Minnesota Wild in 2021. Suffice to say, you can build around that.
The Connor Bedard watch
Connor Bedard, the Regina Pats centre from North Vancouver, is the consensus No. 1 pick in next summer’s NHL Draft. He was fourth in league scoring last season after putting up 51 goals and 100 points in 62 games. Here are five things to know about him:
1. in March 2020, Hockey Canada granted Bedard exceptional status, meaning he could play in major junior full time the following season as a 15-year-old, becoming just the seventh player granted such status and the first in the WHL. The others included Ontarians John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.
2. Steve Marr, a defenceman who played four seasons (2001-05) with the Medicine Hat Tigers, was Bedard’s coach with West Vancouver Academy in 2019-20 when Hockey Canada was contemplating exceptional status. Marr told Postmedia back then that there were three major evaluation periods. Marr said that West Vancouver coaches and Bedard’s parents agreed to let him know beforehand when those stretches were because he was going to deal with “unreal expectations,” in Marr’s words, going forward. “And he killed it those three weekends,” Marr continued.
3. Bedard was nine games into his WHL career with the Pats in March 2021 when Jason Ripplinger, who was then the Moose Jaw assistant general manager, told Postmedia: “I think he’s going to be a heck of a player in the NHL.”
Asked about the chances of Bedard being passed over at No. 1 on draft day, an anonymous NHL scout was quoted in the McKenzie piece as saying “I supposed anything is possible, but when you look at how (Bedard) shoots the puck, his innate ability to score goals and you project him as an elite goal scorer who could very well get 50 or 60 in the NHL, how does a team picking first overall pass on that?”
5. The Pats have a B.C. road trip this coming campaign, visiting the Giants (Nov. 25), Victoria Royals (Nov. 26), Kelowna Rockets (Nov. 29), Blazers (Nov. 30) and Prince George Cougars (Dec. 2). Bedard is expected to play in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game at the LEC on Jan. 25 as well. He even filmed a video for the CHL social media channels to help promote the event.
Five players (besides Bedard) who could win the scoring title
1. Logan Stankoven, Kamloops Blazers
He might miss time at the start of the year with Dallas and at the world juniors with Team Canada, but Stankoven has shown he can pile up numbers in short order. Finished third in league scoring last year with 104 points, including 45 goals, in just 59 regular season games, and was the WHL leader in points per game. He’s on the smaller side (Dallas lists him at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds), but you watch Stankoven play a couple of times with the Blazers and it’s hard to believe he slipped all the way to the second round, No. 47 overall, in the 2021 NHL Draft.
2. Kyle Crnkovic, Seattle Thunderbirds
The 20-year-old was fifth in league scoring last year after totalling 94 points, including 39 goals, in 68 games with the Saskatoon Blades, and you can argue that he’s in a better offensive spot this year after getting traded to Seattle over the summer. He’s not age eligible for world juniors, which means he’ll get in more games than a Bedard or a Stankoven.
3. Ben King, Red Deer Rebels
King paced the league in goals last season with 52 and was second in points, his 105 leaving him behind only the 112 put up by linemate Arshdeep Bains, who followed up his 20-year-old season with the Rebels by signing with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent. King is 20 this year and is at camp with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that picked him in the fourth round last summer. At 20, King could play in the minors but the Ducks could also send him back for one last season of junior.
4. Connor McClennon, Winnipeg Ice
Taking this one at the advice of an NHL scout who covers the league. Pointed out that Winnipeg is stacked offensively, with the likes of Savoie, who was the seventh in scoring last year with his 90 points, including 35 goals. They should have a top-end power play. McClennon was 12th in league scoring last year, with 81 points including 43 goals, and as a 20-year-old this season won’t miss any time for things like world juniors. He’s also bound to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder after the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2020, didn’t sign him this summer, making McClennon a free agent.
5. Jagger Firkus, Warriors
He’s another smaller guy, with the Kraken listing him at 5-foot-10 and 154 pounds. You’d think that another year to get stronger and some training with Seattle would be a boost for him. Scouts do rave about Firkus’s hands. He was 14th in league scoring last year, putting up 36 goals and 80 points.
Five Vancouver Giants storylines
1. What is to like about this Giants team?
You get the feeling they’re going to play hard, they’re going to try to wear people out and they’re going to play together. The Giants did that in the playoffs to great success against Everett and then Kamloops. They were far too often on their own singular pages during the regular season, which led to barely squeaking into the playoffs in eighth spot.
They’ll also have a top-five goalie in the league when Jesper Vikman, 20, returns from Vegas Golden Knights camp, and a strong leadership group with Vikman and forward Zack Ostapchuk, 19.
2. What’s the worry about this Giants team?
They’re going to have trouble scoring. They’re going to need to score by committee and cause chaos and confusion in front of their opponents’ nets. This team is shy of one-shot scorer types.
3. What does this Giants team need?
As much as they could use a sniper up front, they could really use a veteran defenceman who can get the puck out of their end and up the ice and maybe chip in on the power play. The problem, of course, is those rearguards are in short supply and teams that have them aren’t the least bit interested in giving one up. Vancouver does have some extra trade capital after getting a third-round pick in the 2023 WHL Draft from the Lethbridge Hurricanes in last week’s deal for winger Cole Shepard and a 2025 second rounder along with forward Kyren Gronick from the Saskatoon Blades in the summer swap for forward Justin Lies.
4. When does Zack Ostapchuk return to the lineup?
Vancouver’s captain and top forward suffered some sort of injury while playing with the Ottawa Senators prospects group and word now out of Ottawa is he’ll be sidelined for two to four weeks. The plan, according to the Giants camp, is that Ostapchuk stays with the Senators until he’s healthy. He was so good in the playoffs for Vancouver last spring go and such a good fit with the way Dyck coaches that his mere presence in the Vancouver lineup would be a confidence boost to the group.
5. Does Vancouver make the playoffs?
They’ll need to play as a group and they’ll need to find ways to win 2-1 games. Last season’s Everett series, plus the leadership of Ostapchuk and Vikman, should aid in that.
Giants likely missing Zack Ostapchuk, Jesper Vikman when WHL season opens Friday
Giants to host top prospects game and local 2023 draft star Connor Bedard
Giants hopeful they’ll get goalie Jesper Vikman back from Golden Knights
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