With a couple of weekends now in the books, let’s have a look at the early returns in the B.C. Division, from worst to first.
The Kelowna Rockets have played eight games so far, the first seven against divisional rivals. Four games have been played on home ice. Its 1-7-0-0 record is not pretty, nor has the manner in which it has been achieved.
The Rockets only victory came in Prince George against the Cougars, a 5-2 verdict in the second game of a weekend doubleheader at the CN Centre. Aside from this glimmer of hope, the Rockets have scored a paltry 10 goals in its seven losses.
Kelowna has long run roughshod over B.C. Divisional opponents, but not so far this season. In fact, each divisional rival has walked into Prospera Place already this season and each has left with two points. Kelowna is 0-4 on home ice.
The offensive polish Kelowna possessed over the past two seasons has disappeared, due to departures to professional hockey and the graduation of overage players. The power play has gone 3-for-34 out of the gate and the Rockets are far and away the division leaders in penalty minutes.
The last time Kelowna won only once in its first eight starts to begin the regular season schedule was back in 2006-07, when the team went 1-6-0-1. Coincidentally, that is the only season this storied franchise has missed the WHL playoffs.
Kelowna was awarded the 2020 Memorial Cup tournament last week, the only real highlight to date. It is very likely the impact of this announcement will resonate with the 18- and 19-year-olds on the current roster. However, due to the 1-7-0-0 start, it is also very likely that changes are inevitable.
While early season games seldom draw big numbers in the Okanagan Valley, averaging less than 4,400 fans through four starts at home is not something the organization would want to tolerate for an entire winter. One also must wonder about the heat on head coach Jason Smith and his coaching staff, as the Kelowna market does not take kindly to more losses than wins.
The Kamloops Blazers looked terrific out of the gate, sweeping its home-and-home series on opening weekend against the Rockets. While its 2-0-0-0 start was inspiring, the Blazers have curiously dropped its last five outings, three of which have come at the hands of the Victoria Royals.
The overage group of goaltender Dylan Ferguson along with forwards Jermaine Loewen and Luc Smith is among the best in the entire WHL, yet the Blazers as a group have not been able to sustain energy and urgency.
There is size, strength and experience on the backend in Kamloops, though the blueline brigade is still trying to find cohesiveness in the defending zone. Up front, without a pure, high-octane goal scorer yet to emerge, the Blazers will have to scratch and claw for every even-strength goal it can muster.
There is good progress is on the power play, where Kamloops is among the WHL’s best with a 9-for-33 standard through seven games.
Head coach Serge Lajoie has no previous WHL coaching experience, but his resume of late is near impeccable in USPORTS. With the University of Alberta Golden Bears, Lajoie worked almost exclusively with WHL graduates and the teams achieved tremendous success. There is no reason to expect anything less in Kamloops, although new general manager Matt Bardsley will play a key role in player acquisition.
Last season, the Blazers went 0-9 to start the season and simply could not recover from the horrid start. At 2-5-0-0 through seven games so far, these may be restless times in Canada’s Tournament capital.
The Prince George Cougars are in a rebuild under new general manager Mark Lamb. Following the Cats 4-2 victory in Kelowna, Lamb expressed to DUBNetwork that due to the current roster makeup, the team will have to play a particular style of hockey this season.
With some size up front and on the backend, the Cougars will have to play the body to slow down opponents. While this worked well against the Rockets, more skilled teams will be able to utilize speed to expose the Cougars. However, there is no reason to expect that Prince George will be an easy mark. Grit, tenacity and work ethic can make the Cats a tough opponent.
At 2-4-0-1 through seven games, the Cougars only two victories came against Kelowna – one on the road and one at home. With only 13 goals to show thus far, scoring by committee will be the order of the day.
On the power play, Prince George has yet to muster much success, operating at a 2-for 34 clip, the worst in the B.C. Division and 21st overall in the WHL. However, the Cats are among the league leaders on the penalty kill, surrendering only five goals in 30 attempts by opponents.
Goaltender Taylor Gauthier is in his draft year and should he meet high expectations, he will provide the Cats an opportunity to win every time out. Gauthier will have to steal a few games for Prince George to threaten for a playoff spot, but he will require plenty of help from the entire group.
The Vancouver Giants came into the campaign as heavy favorites to win the B.C. Division and they have not disappointed so far.
At this juncture, it is difficult to find a weakness. The David Tendeck/Trent Miner goaltending tandem is solid, and the forward group is deep and experienced. Of note is 19-year-old forward James Malm, who has scored seven times in seven games. The backend is perhaps the deepest group in the Western Conference. A couple of key early season injuries look to be the only slight hiccup so far.
One wonders if the coaching carousel in Vancouver has finally come to a halt. The new tandem on the management side, general manager Barclay Parneta and head coach Michael Dyck, have inherited rather a cohesive group. The departure of key players Tyler Benson, Ty Ronning, Darian Skeoch and Brennan Riddle presented some challenges, though the returnees are more than capable and should excel playing against their respective age classes.
At 6-1-0-0 through seven games, the Giants are undefeated on the road at 4-0. The group is doing most of its damage at even strength, accounting for 18 of the team’s 23 goals so far. The power play success – 20.8% – is middle of the pack stuff, but the Giants are a stingy 86.7% on the penalty kill.
The Victoria Royals are currently the only undefeated team in the entire WHL at 6-0-0-0. The Royals played its first four games on home ice before collecting road wins in Kelowna and Kamloops. To suggest this is a surprise would certainly be an understatement.
Victoria graduated some key elements at the end of last season, but the understudies have stepped up so far. Victoria has solid overagers in Griffen Outhouse, Dante Hannoun and Ralph Jarratt. That’s one 20-year-old at each position – a solid mix.
Special teams play has been efficient so far. The Royals are rolling along at 28.1% (9-for-32) on the power play, which is good for fifth overall in the WHL. The penalty kill has been outstanding, second overall in the league at 88.9% (3-for-27).
The Royals have yet to play a team from outside the B.C. Division. The coming weekend will be a stern test for the upstart islanders as they will play host to the Giants for a doubleheader at the Save On Foods Memorial Centre. The teams will meet a total of 10 times this season.