WHL Western Conference preview

SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

The Western Hockey League season begins tonight in Kelowna. Here's a Western Conference preview.

B.C. DIVISION

CHILLIWACK BRUINS

Last season: 19-46-2-5, 45 pts (5th in B.C. Division, 9th in Conference). Missed playoffs.

GM/coach: Marc Habscheid

Key returnees: The Bruins had the worst offence in the WHL last season, but, on the plus side, their two best scorers -- Calgary Flames prospect Ryan Howse and Kevin Sundher -- are back. Sundher had 19 goals as a 16-year-old rookie last season. Six D-men return, including vets Jesse Craige and Brandon Manning. Goaltenders Mark Friesen and Lucas Gore are both back.

Stepping up: Czech Roman Horak has been brought in to help improve the offence, while rugged 20-year-old rearguard Mitch McColm was acquired from Tri-Cities.

Rookie threat: Top prospect Mitch Topping, 16, could help improve a defence, which was 17th in the WHL last season.

KAMLOOPS BLAZERS

Last season: 33-33-2-4, 72 pts (3rd in B.C. Division, 6th in Conference). Lost in second round to Tri-Cities.

GM: Craig Bonner

Head coach: Barry Smith

Key returnees: The Blazers are expected to be dynamic offensively this season with several top returning threats, including C.J. Stretch, Tyler Shattock, Shayne Wiebe and Jimmy Bubnick, who combined for 116 goals in 08-09. Veteran blueliners Giffen Nyren and Zak Stebner are among six blueliners returning, while goaltending could be the team's biggest strength. Both Justin Leclerc and Jon Groenhyde are back.

Stepping up: Talented Slovak Dalibor Bortnak and 17-year-old Brendan Ranford will be given more responsibility this season. The Blazers traded for puck-moving D-man Bronson Maschmeyer from Vancouver.

Rookie threats: Dylan Willick, 17, and Colin Smith, 16, could be valuable members of a tough offensive attack.

KELOWNA ROCKETS

Last season: 47-21-1-3, 98 pts (2nd in B.C. Division, 3rd in Conference). Reigning WHL champs. Lost in Memorial Cup final to the Windsor Spitfires.

GM: Bruce Hamilton

Head coach: Ryan Huska

Key returnees: There are some huge holes left by the departures of stars Jamie Benn, Cody Almond and Michael Backlund. The biggest question is if towering rearguard Tyler Myers returns from Buffalo training camp or not. If he does, he will be the Zdeno Chara of the WHL this season. Up front, the Rockets will be led by Brandon McMillan, Kyle St. Denis and Lucas Bloodoff. There's a chance they could get Colin Long back from Phoenix. The Rockets are set in the nets with the return of Mark Guggenberger and Adam Brown.

Stepping up: D-men Tyson Barrie, Collin Bowman, Curt Gogol and Aaron Borejko form one of the biggest strengths of the team.

Rookie threat: Shayne McColgan is showing some offensive skill as a 16-year-old.

PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS

Last season: 25-44-0-3, 53 pts (4th in B.C. Division, 8th in Conference). Lost in first round to Vancouver.

GM: Dallas Thompson

Head coach: Dean Clark

Key returnees: Leading scorer Brett Connolly is back, coming off a 30-goal campaign as a 16-year-old, impressive, considering he played in one of the weakest offences in the league last season. Dallas Jackson returns to lead the defence which was second-worst in the WHL in 2008-09.

Stepping up: Scoring depth could be a challenge for Prince George, as only four players who topped the 10-goal mark are back. Tyler Halliday, Parker Stanfield and Marek Viedensky need to contribute more.

Rookie threat: Michael Salmon, 17, is the future in the team's nets, but the starting job belongs to 18-year-old James Priestner, who was acquired from Brandon in the off-season.

VANCOUVER GIANTS

Last season: 57-10-2-3, 119 pts (1st in B.C. Div., 1st in Conf.). Lost in Conference final to Kelowna.

GM: Scott Bonner

Head coach: Don Hay

Key returnees: WHL scoring king Casey Pierro-Zabotel has graduated, but they are hoping Evander Kane will return from the Atlanta Thrashers. If he comes back, the budding power forward could potentially lead the WHL in scoring. Defensively, the Giants have some big shoes to fill, losing Jonathan Blum, Brent Regner, Craig Shira and Nick Ross, but the club has reloaded nicely with the guys like Vancouver Canucks prospect Kevin Connaughton, who defected from the NCAA.

Stepping up: Provost, Alta., product and Calgary Flames draft pick Lance Bouma is one of the team's most valuable players, doing almost everything. Goaltender Tyson Sexsmith is gone, so the job comes down to a battle between Jamie Tucker, Mark Segal and Brendan Jensen.

Rookie threat: Top defensive prospect David Musil, 16, could step into a large role this season.

U.S. DIVISION

EVERETT SILVERTIPS

Last season: 27-36-7-2, 63 pts (4th in U.S. Div., 7th in Conf.). Lost in first round to Tri-Cities.

GM: Doug Soetaert

Coach: Craig Hartsburg

Key returnees: All of the Silvertips' top scorers are back, including Shane Harper, who broke out with 32 goals last season. They have some large holes on defence -- gone are Taylor Ellington, Graham Potuer and Mike Alexander. Chris de la Lande leads a rebuilt group into this season. Goalies Thomas Heemskerk, 19, and Kent Simpson, 17, return.

Stepping up: The 'Tips need lots of guys to step up if they want to improve on a mediocre offensive attack last season. Sophomores Kellan Tochkin, Byron Froese and Tyler Maxwell are all candidates for breakout campaigns.

Rookie threats: Recent CHL import draft picks Rasmus Rissanen and Radko Gudas, along with 16-year-old Ryan Murray could make an impact on the back end.

PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS

Last season: 19-48-3-2, 43 pts (5th in U.S. Division, 10th in Conference). Missed playoffs.

GM/coach: Mike Johnston

Key returnees: Veterans Luke Walker and Chris Francis are back to lead an offence full of returning players. Newcomers Spencer Bennett, a Calgary Flames prospect, and highly-touted scorer Ty Rattie have been added to the attack. The goaltending position is up for grabs between incumbent Kurtis Mucha, 19-year-old Ian Curtis and the young Keith Hamilton, who played 10 games last year.

Stepping up: Colin Reddin, Oliver Gabriel and Brad Ross all had strong rookie campaigns last year. Towering 18-year-old D-man Brett Ponich, a St. Louis Blues prospect, could be dominant on the blue-line.

Rookie threat: Swiss prospect Nino Niederreiter -- the second overall pick in the 2009 CHL import draft -- has been a point producer at every level.

SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS

Last season: 35-32-1-4, 75 pts (3rd in U.S. Division, 5th in Conference). Lost in first round to Spokane.

GM: Russ Farwell

Coach: Rob Sumner

Key returnees: The T'Birds lost four of their top five scorers and will be going younger this season. Veterans Prab Rai and Lindsay Nielsen will provide the leadership. All-star defenceman Thomas Hickey is gone, but six rearguards returns, including big-body Swede Stefan Warg and 20-year-old Jeremy Schappert. There's a goaltending battle going on between Philadelphia Flyers prospect Jacob DeSerres, sophomore Calvin Pickard and 19-year-old Kyle Jahraus.

Stepping up: California's Jonathan Parker should become a go-to guy on offence after a solid rookie campaign.

Rookie threat: Sixteen-year-old Colin Jacobs could contribute immediately to the offence.

SPOKANE CHIEFS

Last season: 46-23-0-3, 95 pts (2nd in U.S. Division, 4th in Conference). Lost in second round to Vancouver.

GM: Tim Speltz

Head coach: Hardy Sauter

Key returnees: Gone is Drayson Bowman to the pro ranks, but tons of talent returns, including Mitch Wahl, Tyler Johnson and Levko Koper -- a trio which combined for 81 goals and 187 points last season. First-round draft pick Jared Cowan is expected back from Ottawa Senators camp -- and he's a defensive defenceman of the highest order. Swede Stefan Ulmer and vet Jared Spurgeon also return to anchor one of the league's best defences.

Stepping up: Dustin Donaghy, 20, will be counted on for more offence. Goalie Dustin Tokarski's graduation leaves a big hole, but there are high hopes for James Reid to step up from the backup job.

Rookie threat: There are big plans for Czech freshman Dominik Uher. Rookie Chase Martin is the backup goalie.

TRI-CITY AMERICANS

Last season: 49-20-0-3, 101 pts (1st in U.S. Division, 2nd in Conference) Lost in second round to Kelowna.

GM: Bob Tory

Head coach: Jim Hiller

Key returnees: Ouch. A combined 104 goals and 238 points have left the squad with the departures of Taylor Procyshen, Jason Reese and Mitch Fadden. Johnny Lazo, 20, is the only returning forward who had more than 20 goals last season. To add another massive gap in the lineup, two-time WHL goalie of the year Chet Pickard is gone. Brett Martyniuk and Drew Owsley are vying for the starting job. At least the defence looks good. Veterans Brett Plouffe, Jarrett Toll and Tyler Schmidt give the Ams one of the best top trios in the league.

Stepping up: If the Americans hope to generate offence, Justin Feser, the club's rookie of the year last season, Kruise Reddick and Adam Hughesman will be crucial figures in that aim.

Rookie threats: Sergei Drozd and Patrick Holland are candidates to contribute on offence. Zach Yuen and Drydn Dow could draw in on D.


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