Hockey fix: Canadian juniors (cont.)
Founded in 1966, the WHL is a 22-team circuit divided into four divisions and two conferences. The Dub is generally regarded as the world's second-best junior circuit and is legendary for toughness and developing big, rangy defenders. Approximately 20 percent of all NHLers hail from the league. Six first-rounders, including five of the first eight, were among the 32 WHLers taken in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
The league draws primarily from western Canadian provinces and states west of the Mississippi, with a recently heavy influx of Californians. Its draft differs from the other two CHL entities in that bantam-aged (13-14) players are selected and added to protected lists. They can take part in up to five games per season until the age of 16, at which point they're eligible to become full-time team members. Each club may also dress up to two overaged 20-year-olds.
The 12 teams in the Eastern Conference are based in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. The 10-team Western Conference features five teams from B.C. and five from Oregon and Washington. Each plays a 72-game schedule, the longest in the CHL, with the playoff champion taking home the Ed Chynoweth Cup, named in honor of the league's late commissioner. Notable league alumni include Bobby Clarke (Flin Flon), Joe Sakic (Swift Current), Scott Niedermayer (Kamloops), Marian Hossa (Portland), Carey Price (Tri-City), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer), Jamie Benn (Kelowna) and Zdeno Chara (Prince George).
Portland Winterhawks: The two-time Western Conference champs are going for three on the backs of a blueline that features five experienced defenders -- including Pittsburgh first rounder Derrick Pouliot and one of this season's most heralded prospects, Seth Jones. Rookies Oliver Bjorkstrand, a Danish import, and Dominic Turgeon, the son of Pierre, bring fresh legs and scoring prowess to a solid group up front.
Edmonton Oil Kings: Missing only one key contributor (Mark Pysyk), last season's champs are a strong bet to repeat and should be considered a favorite to win the Memorial Cup. Led by veteran goaltender Laurent Brossoit (Calgary), top scorer Michael St. Croix (Rangers) and elite defender Griffin Reinhart (Islanders), these Oil Kings are tougher, deeper and more experienced after falling in last season's tournament semi-final.
Calgary Hitmen: A strong side last season returns three of its top-four scorers -- Brady Brassart, Cody Sylvester and Viktor Rask (Carolina), assuming he's sent back from the AHL -- and one of the league's top goaltenders in Chris Driedger (Ottawa). Add in a physical, experienced blueline led by over-ager Spencer Humphries and Kenton Helgesen (Anaheim Ducks) and newly acquired winger Zane Jones (Lanny McDonald's nephew) -- and the Hitmen look to be a top-five team.
Saskatoon Blades: As hosts for the 2013 Memorial Cup, the Blades were hoping for something better than their 2-4 start, or the controversy that surrounded Colorado Avalanche first rounder Duncan Siemens after he was stripped of the captaincy. Clearly they're feeling the pressure early on, but with newly acquired forwards Brendan Walker and Shane McColgan (NY Rangers) and Russian national goaltender Andrei Makarov in the mix, they have the depth and experience to pull out of this early tailspin.
G Laurent Brossoit, Edmonton Oil Kings: A sensational playoff run (2.04 GAA and .933 save percentage) established the Calgary Flames' prospect as the league's top stopper and a candidate to start for Canada at the WJC, but his struggles against Russia during the summer challenge series threw that into doubt. He'll be motivated to play himself back into contention and lead the Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup.
C Alex Forsberg, Prince George Cougars: The first overall pick in the 2010 WHL draft was fine as a rookie, but experience and a summer workout program set this up as his breakthrough season. A 5-11, 185-pound center, he's a gifted playmaker blessed with top-end hockey sense.
D Seth Jones, Portland Winterhawks: After a brilliant tour with the US National Team Development Program, Jones is being pegged as a franchise defenseman who does it all. He's big (6-4, 206), quick, nasty and has great offensive instincts. He could be the first player taken at next summer's draft.
D Brenden Kichton, Spokane Chiefs: The over-age defender stacks up as the league's top offensive blueliner. A fifth-round pick by the Isles in 2011, he's out to prove that he deserves an NHL contract.
C Curtis Lazar, Edmonton Oil Kings: Lazar might not dazzle with high-end offensive talent, but he's the sort of player who does all the little things and does them very well. Scouts expect a jump from the 20 goals he scored last season to the 40 range as he builds his case to be a top-10 NHL pick next summer.
D Ryan Murray, Everett Silvertips: The second-overall pick (by Columbus) last June is the league's top player, at least until the NHL gets its act together. A smooth all-around defender, his best asset is his ability to control the tempo of a game.
RW Ty Rattie, Portland Winterhawks: A second-round pick by the St. Louis Blues in 2011, Rattie added 10 pounds of muscle over the summer. He's still small (5-11, 177), but the extra weight will help as he challenges for the WHL scoring title one year after scoring 57 goals and 121 points. He's expected to earn a top-six role for Team Canada at the 2013 WJC.
D Morgan Rielly, Moose Jaw Warriors: The flashy defender was limited to just 18 games last season due to an ACL injury, but that didn't stop the Maple Leafs from selecting him fifth overall. He needs to prove that Toronto's faith was well placed while he leads a Warriors team ravaged by graduations.
C Michael St. Croix, Edmonton Oil Kings: Maybe his dad leaked a few union secrets. The son of new Leafs goalie coach Rick St. Croix torched WHL netminders last season for 45 goals and 105 points. He could lead the circuit in scoring this season.
LW Hunter Shinkaruk, Medicine Hat Tigers: Three years ago, he was a kid posting videos of stickhandling tricks on YouTube. Now, he's a top-10 draft prospect coming off a 49-goal season and drawing comparisons to Patrick Kane. The pressure's on to prove that he can match, or improve on, those numbers without the help of graduated linemate Emerson Etem.
LW Jake Virtanen, Calgary Hitmen: The top pick in the 2011 WHL draft is set to become an everyday player for a Calgary team that has aspirations for a deep playoff run. Bantam scouts rated his skating and shot as pro caliber when he was 15. He could go early in the first round in the 2014 NHL draft.
In Western Canada: Shaw Communications will deliver 32 WHL games on channel 299 this season, along with a full series from each of the four rounds during the league playoffs.
Elsewhere: A variety of online options are available at http:whl.neulion.com/whl. A season pass can be had for $319.95, with team passes going for $199.95. Other packages are also available.
Oct. 12, Calgary at Edmonton: Nine games into the season, this will be their third meeting. Think they'll be a bit tired of seeing each other?
Nov. 14-15 Subway Super Series: The 2012 Subway Super Series pitting the WHL's best against Team Russia winds down in Vancouver and Victoria.
Nov. 17, Medicine Hat at Portland: The only regular-season meeting of the league's top-two draft prospects, Jones and Shinkaruk.
Nov. 24, Spokane at Tri City: Tensions in one of the league's best rivalries -- they've met in each of the past two postseasons -- should be at their peak on the second night of a home-and-home series.
Dec. 1, Lethbridge at Medicine Hat: A Saturday night in The Hat should bring out the best in these southern Alberta rivals.
Feb. 27, Edmonton at Portland: The Oil Kings captured the title in a tough seven-game series last spring. This final meeting of the regular season could set up the rematch.
Mar. 12, Saskatoon at Edmonton: The Blades already have their ticket punched to the Memorial Cup. The Oil Kings are expected to join them. They'll meet one last time before the playoffs in the season's final week.
Mar. 16, Portland at Seattle: Doesn't matter where these teams are in the standings. The I-5 Rivalry is sure to bring out the best in both clubs as they battle for the second consecutive night.