(Today begins the process of looking at teams for the 2017-18 Western Hockey League regular season. As an added twist if you will, we have decided to look at the teams in the order they were brought into the WHL. This means we will start with the Regina Pats and end with the Victoria Royals).
Regina Pats (2016-17 record: 52-12-7-1, 112 points, lost to Seattle in WHL Final)
The Regina Pats enter the season as the hosts of the 100th Memorial Cup. This is also the number of seasons the team has been in existence. Last season the team was expected to make a run to the Memorial Cup but were thwarted by an extremely strong Seattle Thunderbirds team in the WHL Final.
Gone from the winningest WHL team in franchise history are defencemen: Chase Harrison (aged out), Connor Hobbs (eligible to play in the AHL) and Sergey Zborovskiy (eligible to play in the AHL) and forwards: Dawson Leedahl (aged out), Adam Brooks (aged out), Filip Ahl (left to play overseas). Austin Wagner, who is signed by the L.A. Kings and thus eligible to play in the AHL could still return to the Pats, due to a shoulder injury that won’t see him return to action until possibly January of 2018. Backup goalie Jordan Hollett was also moved over to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the off-season. In the preseason, the Pats also moved d-man Riley Bruce to Everett for a draft pick.
Enter a new season and with it some new and exciting players joining the Pats roster. First of all the imports, Egor Zamula and Emil Oskanen. When picking 60th and 120th, the choices for imports that will make an impact are not always substantial, but the Pats have got to be happy with the preseason showing for both. Another new face to the Pats, but not to the WHL is overage center Matt Bradley. He is a proven scorer in the WHL after racking up 77 points last year with the Togers. Bradley was brought over to the Pats in the deal for Hollett. Another player who is looking to make strides this season is Jeff de Wit. de Wit looked to be a throw in in the deal between Regina and Red Deer last season but he has scored six goals in three preseason games to date. Expect some big things from Jeff this coming season as the Pats look to go through the front door to the Memorial Cup.
Regina is expected by many to be the class of the Eastern Conference if not the entire WHL for a second straight season. This will be a tough task to handle as the team has experienced a lot of turnover and do expect for some of the regulars in the lineup to be away at NHL camps for some time. For them to keep the pace expected of a Top-10 CHL-ranked team, the Pats will need their young lineup to gel quickly and produce. The Pats will also need to make some shrewd deals throughout the year and at the trade deadline, to be able to compete with the other top teams in the East. Especially the teams within their own division like Moose Jaw and Swift Current, who are expected to have strong years.
The main battles playing out in camp are on the back end. There are a five defensemen considered rookies on the roster through the later stages of training camp and any number of them may end up making the team. Whomever does make it out of camp will need to step up in the early stages with Josh Mahura, Liam Schioler and Jonathan Smart at NHL training camps. Look for at least a couple of; Parker Gavlas (’99), Owen Williams (’00), Ryker Evans (’01) or Marco Creta (’00) to make a push to stay for the long haul.
The 20-year-old situation for the Pats is a good one, they have had only three at training camp and therefore began the process of creating a cohesive leadership group from the start. This also gave them one less area to have to make a decision on right now. Goaltender Tyler Brown has had a great career with 61 wins over his three seasons with the club. He was able to dramatically cut his goals against average down from 3.15 to 2.64 last season. Wyatt Sloboshan is entering his second season with the Pats after being brought in from the Spokane Chiefs. He posted 11 goals and 20 assists last year despite being dealt twice during the year.
Frankly, the opening night roster will not be the one Head Coach and General Manager John Paddock wants by the end of the regular season. If he has his way, Regina will add to this group in order to be assured a competitive Memorial Cup team.
The Pats will see defencemen Johnathan Smart (TOR), Josh Mahura (ANA), Liam Schioler (EDM) away at NHL training camps as well as forwards Sam Steel (ANA), Matt Bradley (MIN) and Jake Leschyshyn (VGK).
Regina fell just short of winning the WHL last year and we have seen a recent trend of WHL teams winning the year after losing in the final. For the Pats to keep that trend going, they will need their depth offence and defence to make large strides. There is still a whole lot of offence here with the likes of Steel, Mahura, Nick Henry and co. but they will need more form their bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing on the blue line, to take the next step and win their first WHL title since 1980.