As each Western Hockey League team hits the 18-game mark, they pass the “quarter pole” if you will. DUBnetwork takes a look at the East Division with a quarter of the season in the books.
The East Division was expected to be ultra-competitive and full of quality teams. So far they haven’t disappointed. Moose Jaw and Swift Current have the best winning percentages in the league and five of the six East Division teams have a winning record.
The Warriors started the season with a 7-1 record, making the most of their home-heavy schedule. They came home with a winning record on their trip to the strong U.S. Division and have won five straight games since. The Warriors success has come without Montréal Canadiens second-round pick Josh Brook on the blue line. Their balanced attack has six forwards on pace for at least 30 goals this season.
The Broncos were certainly expected to be good this season, but given the strength of the division, not many pundits were predicting that they would be the best team in the WHL to open the season. The Broncos won their first eight games and the line of Glenn Gawdin, Aleksi Heponiemi and Tyler Steenbergen have torched the league and occupy the top three places in the scoring race. The Broncos (13-3-1-0) are far from a one-line, offensive juggernaut — they have also surrendered the fewest goals against this season.
The Regina Pats (11-7-2-0) added defenceman Cale Fleury from Kootenay Monday. The Montréal third-round pick is the first in what could be many reinforcements that head to the Queen City before the trade deadline. The Memorial Cup hosts have played 21 games, tied for most in the WHL, and their 12 home games is also tied for tops in the league.
It was no surprise that the Brandon Wheat Kings (11-6-0-1) started the season without the services of Nolan Patrick. It is a surprise that Ty Lewis has done an admirable job of helping replace his production. While Patrick tries to earn a permanent place in Philadelphia, Lewis has 31 points and is seventh in league scoring. Kale Clague’s 10 goals and 27 points leads all WHL defencemen. The Wheat Kings began the season red hot — winning seven of their first 10 games — and were 9-3-0-1 at one point before losing three straight. The Wheat Kings have the seventh-best winning percentage in the WHL and sit fourth in the division. Such is life in the East in 2017-18.
After a disastrous 2016-17 campaign, the Prince Albert Raiders (8-7-3-0) have been one of the surprises of the early season, owning a winning record and sitting in a playoff spot. While the Raiders have lost to Moose Jaw four times, they have beaten Swift Current, Victoria and Medicine Hat, proving that they can play with any elite team in the league.
Despite that, they are still well under-the-radar sitting fifth in the East Division. The Raiders own a 2-5-1-0 road record as they begin a U.S. Division road trip that may show if they have the horses to contend in the East.
The Saskatoon Blades (7-10-1-0) are in the East Division cellar, but have the same record as Lethbridge who sit in fourth in the Central Division. After missing all of last season, Cameron Hebig is the feel-good story of the first quarter. The 20-year-old has 14 goals and 24 points in 16 games to lead the Blades.
Here is a list of players that we here at DUBNetwork felt deserved praise for their efforts leading up to the quarter pole:
Top Forward: Tyler Steenbergen — Swift Current
2013 WHL Bantam Draft: Swift Current Broncos, Round 1 (12th overall)
2017 NHL Draft: Arizona Coyotes, Round 5 (128th overall)
There are some quality forwards in the East, but Swift Current’s Tyler Steenbergen has been in a different class this season. Steenbergen is coming off of a 50-goal season that opened a lot of eyes, but he has 26 goals and 46 points in 17 games. He is on pace to potentially have the best offensive season in 20 years and surpass the 134 points that Pavel Brendl (1998-99) and Brendan Shinnimin (2011-12) each posted.
Steenbergen has scored four goals in a game three times in the first 10 games of the season.
(honourable mention: Aleksi Heponiemi, Swift Current; Glenn Gawdin, Swift Current; Jordy Stallard, Prince Albert; Ty Lewis, Brandon)
Top Defenceman: Colby Sissons — Swift Current Broncos
WHL Bantam Draft: undrafted
NHL draft: undrafted, signed with the New Jersey Devils in 2016.
The backbone of the Broncos’ defence, Sissons has had a breakthrough offensively to open the campaign. He has five goals and 22 points in 17 games which nearly matches his total of six goals and 28 points in 63 games a season ago. Sissons continues to excel defensively and his plus-25 leads all WHL defencemen.
(honourable mention: Kale Clague, Brandon; Josh Mahura, Regina; Jett Woo, Moose Jaw)
Top Goaltender: Logan Flodell — Swift Current Broncos
2012 WHL Bantam Draft: Seattle Thunderbirds, Round 3 (47th overall)
NHL Draft: undrafted.
The 20-year-old had a strong season with the Saskatoon Blades last season and has capable filled the rather sizeable hole in the crease left by Jordan Papirny. Flodell has a 12-2-1-0 record, a 2.59 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage.
Prince Albert’s Ian Scott has only played in seven games, but has a 2.38 GAA and a .926 save percentage and was neck-and-neck with Flodell.
(honourable mention: Ian Scott, Prince Albert; Brody Willms, Moose Jaw; Tyler Brown, Regina)
Top Rookie (16-year-old): Braden Schneider — Brandon Wheat Kings
2016 WHL Bantam Draft: Brandon Wheat Kings, Round 1 (12th overall)
Schneider has been quietly impressive in his debut campaign. He has five points in 15 games, but has also been a steady top-four pairing logging a lot of ice next to Schael Higson. Schneider’s good start to the season earned him an invite to the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge where he was named the captain of Canada White.
(honourable mention: Kirby Dach, Saskatoon; Logan Barlage, Swift Current, Rhett Rhinehart, Prince Albert)
Top Import: Aleksi Heponiemi — Swift Current Broncos
2016 CHL Import Draft: Swift Current Broncos, Round 1 (10th overall)
2017 NHL Draft: Florida Panthers, Round 2 (40th overall)
The playmaker on the devastating top line in Swift Current. The second-year Finnish import has 32 assists to lead the WHL and his 46 points has him tied with Steenbergen for the league-lead in points. The shifty 5-10 left winger showed plenty of promise in a standout rookie campaign, but is more than halfway to his total of 28 goals and 86 points for a year ago,
(honourable mention: Emil Oksanen, Regina; Oleg Sosunov, Moose Jaw; Libor Hajek, Saskatoon)
Top 20-Year-Old: Glenn Gawdin — Swift Current
2012 WHL Bantam Draft: Seattle Thunderbirds, Round 1 (fifth overall)
2015 NHL Draft: St. Louis Blues, Round 4 (116th overall)
Gawdin is third in league scoring behind his Broncos linemates, but he also does a lot of the dirty work to help make the line go. A strong two-way centre who provides some physicality to the line, Gawdin also has 14 goals and 24 assists in 17 games. Only two players have won more face-offs, than the 233 that Gawdin has won to date and his 55.1 per cent success rate is ninth in the league amongst centres who have taken at least 300 draws.
(Brayden Burke, Moose Jaw; Matt Bradley, Regina; Jayden Halbgewachs, Moose Jaw; Jordy Stallard, Prince Albert; Cam Hebig, Saskatoon)
Draft Eligible Players to watch:
Jett Woo (D) — Moose Jaw Warriors
6’0”, 201 pounds
6-11 — 17 points, plus-19 in 18 games
Draft history: 2015 WHL Bantam Draft – Moose Jaw Warriors, Round 1 (fourth overall)
NHL Central Scouting: “B” Rated
Luka Burzan — Moose Jaw Warriors
2-7 — 9 points, plus-4 in 19 games
Draft history: 2015 WHL Bantam Draft – Moose Jaw Warriors, Round 1 (sixth overall)
NHL Central Scouting: “B” Rated
(honourable mention: Cole Fonstad, Prince Albert; Caiden Daley, Brandon; Emil Oksanen, Regina; Michael Farren, Saskatoon)
(Les Lazaruk contributed to this article).