Flaming Hot Takes: New Season, New Questions

Training camp is done, pre-season games are complete and now the fun begins. The 2018-19 WHL season kicks off on Friday with eight games, but before then there is a lot to talk about.

The team previews here at DUBNetwork are well under way and on my program, The Pipeline Show, I’ve spent the last month in conversation with all the WHL broadcasters for their perspective and insight for the teams that they share the bus with. The league’s website will have their own write ups ahead of the opening puck drop too, so there are a some great places for fans to get primed before Friday.

As always at this time of year, there are question marks for pretty much every team and today I’m going to look at some of those that come to mind for me. I’m also going to bullet point some things that caught my attention during the pre-season I think are worth noting.

First I want to touch on the WHL Live package.

About ten days ago, the American Hockey League began promoting their new online platform which allows fans of the minor pro loop to follow their favourite team (or all of them) at an extremely fan friendly price point. You can get an All-Access pass for the entire season of AHL hockey, every game for every team, for $80 USD. Perhaps you only want to focus on the team you cheer for? The ‘Full Season Single Team’ package will run you $60 USD. If you have season tickets so only want to watch that team’s road games, that will cost you $40 USD.

That certainly got fans of other leagues excited as the AHL TV prices are significantly more affordable than what CHL fans have had to shell out in recent years. So when the WHL released their Early Bird specials you can imagine the response from fans who had been ready to sign up at the new market rate.

However, WHL Live prices continue to be through the roof as the All-Access pass comes in at $300 CDN ($280 if you act now!), the Single Team package is $195 CDN and the road games for one team are set at $100 CDN.

At the time the league tweeted out the new rate I replied with a couple of responses.

And that prompted this reply from the WHL:

So it appears that fans will have to wait another season before things can change as they are locked into their agreement with NeuLion for the coming year. The Western Hockey League will certainly have options after this season and fans have a right to expect comparable prices to other league packages. The company that the AHL has partnered with is called Hockey Tech. The Canadian Junior Hockey League uses the same broadcast partner as the USHL, NAHL and other lower level junior leagues. You would also have to think that NeuLion will see the market correction too and adjust their rates so as not to lose their business.

Pre-Season

You have to take most of the results of exhibition season with a grain of salt because so many teams were without key roster players for much of it. That said, here are some things that stood out to me.

  • The Calgary Hitmen were the only team that managed to stay perfect through the pre-season. They finished with a 6-0 record and led the league in goal scoring with 27, that’s 4.5 goals per game.
  • The Victoria Royals scored at an even more impressive rate. The Royals went 4-1 through their five game schedule and struck 24 times, 4.8 goals per game.
  • The Edmonton Oil Kings, who finished dead last in goal scoring last year, were next with 4.4 goals per game as they went .500 through five games.
  • The teams with the lowest goals per game? Brandon (2.75), Vancouver and Moose Jaw (both at identical 2.5) and Swift Current (1.75).
  • The only team to not taste victory? The Kelowna Rockets who went 0-2-1-1 through 4 games.
  • Speaking of the Rockets, Kelowna ended the preseason with the best Penalty Kill and the worst power play.

22 Teams, 22 Questions

Brandon – Is Luka Burzan about to break out? The former sixth overall pick saw his goal scoring plateau as a sophomore. He scored 14 as a rookie in Moose Jaw and followed that up last year with 15 split between the Warriors and the Wheat Kings. After being ignored at the NHL Draft, I’m expecting a motivated Burzan to be an impact player this year in Brandon.

Calgary – Can Carl Stankowski seriously miss an entire 17-year-old season and return to his 2016 playoff form? Only time will tell but what a great story that would be. He had a 1.51 GAA and .963 sv% in three pre-season appearances.

Edmonton – Do the Oil Kings have a starting goalie? Not since 2014-15 when Tristan Jarry started 55 games has Edmonton been strong in net. Some of that is due to rampant injuries to the guys who tried to hold down the position but the improving team will need better performances, and health, between the pipes this year. Todd Scott and Boston Bilous will compete for the number one job.

Everett – Carter Hart is gone…now what? Dustin Wolf has huge pads to fill in Everett but haven’t we learned anything over the last dozen years? The Silvertips know what they are doing when it comes to developing goaltenders and playing sound defensive hockey. Before there was Hart there was Austin Lotz and Kent Simpson before him. Thomas Heemskerk, Leland Irving to Mike Wall. Call me crazy but maybe goaltending is the least of Everett’s concerns.

Kamloops – What does Jermaine Loewen do for an encore? Last season saw the big power forward smash personal records to finish with 36 goals and 64 points. The effort helped get him drafted by the Dallas Stars and while he could theoretically play in the AHL this season, the late bloomer is expected back in Kamloops for his final year of eligibility. Is 50 goals out of the question?

Kelowna – Can the Rockets hold onto a playoff spot after losing the last pieces of their 2015 championship squad? It’s on the next wave of Rockets to establish their own winning tradition and that means guys like Kyle Topping, Leif Mattson, Nolan Foote, Liam Kindree and Kaedan Korczak have to lead by example. In a development year for much of the BC Division, it should be a tight race for most of the season.

Kootenay – Is the 1-2 punch of Peyton Krebs and rookie Connor McClennon enough in Cranbrook? Maybe that’s a little unfair to the Ice as Brett Davis, Cam Hausinger and Martin Bodak also wear the jersey but it will be the young pair that draws the most focus. In a division that looks to be getting stronger, are the Ice keeping pace? Much will ride on the shoulders of the talented 16 and 17-year-old.

Lethbridge – Will Jordy Bellerive still have his scoring touch? It’s hard to phrase the question without sounding insensitive in light of the horrific campfire accident that injured a trio of Hurricanes this summer, but the question is a legit one. Let’s face it, the Hurricanes are probably the best team in the Central even if Bellerive took the year off. But the Pittsburgh prospect is a serious candidate to lead the league in scoring if he’s close to 100%.

Medicine Hat – What happens if the Tigers get Mason Shaw or David Quenneville (or both) back as 20 year olds? Medicine Hat is the model of consistency; always in the mix even in the years when they aren’t actually contenders. This season should be more of the same but if they get one of those two guys back, it could mean the difference between a playoff spot and contention for the division title.

Moose Jaw – Can Justin Almeida continue to put up the points now that he’s going to be the focus every night?  Almeida’s production more than tripled last season as the former first round pick nearly broke the 100-point plateau. But we all know that much of the Warriors offensive forwards from last season are gone so Almeida is going to have to elevate his play even more. Easier said than done when every team is going to have his name circled before the game.

Portland – Where is Henri Jokiharju playing this season? The Winterhawks definitely lose four of their top six scorers from last season and that number could grow to five depending on Cody Glass and the Vegas Golden Knights. Then there is Finnish defenceman Henri Jokiharju who could stick in Chicago or may be allowed to move to the AHL, media in Chicago doesn’t appear to know for sure. That worst case scenario would actually see only Ryan Hughes return from the team’s list of top 9 scorers from last season as Alex Overhardt and Keoni Texeira no longer have eligibility.

Prince Albert – Is this the year that Ian Scott finally establishes himself as a top junior goaltender? The former ninth overall pick has not yet, in my opinion, lived up to expectations of a player chosen that highly. But entering his fourth season and playing behind what is expected to be a strong Raiders team, there is no excuse (save for injury) that Scott shouldn’t be in the running for the Top Goaltender Award at the end of the year.

Prince George – Will Taylor Gauthier be the first goaltender from the WHL to be drafted next June? Coming off a strong Hlinka/Gretzky Cup performance with Canada, Gauthier raised the level of expectation. However, he’s not the only talented WHL keeper up for grabs in June and he won’t have the luxury of playing behind the quality of team as some of his counterparts. It might depend on a NHL team that is willing to look past the stats to take Gauthier ahead of Dustin Wolf or Nolan Maier.

Red Deer – Where is the offence going to come from? With the graduations of Mason McCarty, Grayson Pawlenchuk and Kristian Reichel, gone are 90 goals from a team that scored only 206 of them last year. That’s 43% of their goals that have to be replaced…and that’s just to get back to where the Rebels were last season as the 2nd lowest scoring team in the WHL.

Regina – When does the fire sale start? No one will blame the Pats for doing what they needed to do last year to make sure they were respectably competitive as hosts of the 100th Memorial Cup. But the deals they made came at the expense of their future and as broadcast voice Phil Andrews suggested recently on The Pipeline Show, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if restocking efforts began in earnest before the deadline this year. Jake Leschyshyn, Nick Henry, Brady Pouteau, Liam Schioler and Cale Fleury (if he’s back at all) will probably end the season in a different jersey.

Saskatoon – This is the year…right? No seriously. A return to the playoffs. I’m sure it was a tough pill for everyone around the Blades last season when they were on the outside looking in with their .514 winning percentage while Red Deer got some bonus home gates despite their .465 record. But that’s in the past and now Saskatoon is poised to be more than just a playoff team but one that can challenge for a conference title armed with the likes of Kirby Dach, Max Gerlach, Josh Paterson, Norwegian newcomer Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen, Eric Florchuk, Chase Wouters and netminder Nolan Maier. They have too much to miss the post season again…right?

Seattle – Is Slovakian import Andrej Kukuca the real deal? Kukuca will turn 19 in mid-November so the T-Birds are getting a player that they expect can be an impact guy for them right away. If pre-season means anything (debatable) then it appears that might be the case. Kukuca had 9 points in 7 games for Seattle so fans are hoping he can keep it up and erase the pain that Sami Moilanen’s early departure has created.

Spokane – Are the Chiefs ready to claim their first US division crown? Spokane hasn’t finished atop their division since the turn of the century when their 7-team ‘West Division’ was one of three in the WHL. Many I’ve spoken with are picking the Chiefs based on their balanced attack, quality blueline corps, experienced goaltending and top calibre coaching.

Swift Current – How long, how far and how hard will they fall? I think that it’s pretty reasonable to expect a team that loses it’s top two lines, four playoff defencemen and its starting netminder to take a tumble in the standings. Dean Brockman has an enormous task of rebuilding a franchise without some key building blocks lost to trade so fans may need to be patient. At least they can look upon a WHL championship banner hanging from the rafters in the iPlex this year.

Tri-City – Do the Americans have a starting goaltender? Beck Warm is the most experienced netminder in Kennewick but this will be his first year as the top guy between the pipes. With just 46 WHL games under his belt, it’s fair to say that Warm has a question mark next to his name. There is no safety net in place, at least not a certain one. The backup job belongs to 15-year-old (16 in November) Talyn Boyko, a third round pick in 2017. At 6’6 and 167 lbs, Boyko is the epitome of “plenty of room on his frame to fill out”.

Vancouver – Are the Giants going the be killers once again? One of the consensus opinions I’ve gotten over the last month of speaking with broadcasters around the WHL has been that Vancouver should be the top dog in the BC Division this year. Part of that is based on the thought that it’s a rebuilding year for the other four clubs but to be fair, the Giants have been on the upswing for a couple of years now. A solid goalie, a top ranked NHL prospect, depth up front…there really is no reason not to expect Vancouver to lead the pack.

Victoria – Is good goaltending enough to make the playoffs? I recently asked my audience who the top goalie in the WHL would be this year and many people suggested it would be Griffin Outhouse. His numbers over his 3-year WHL career would justify that nomination but I do have to wonder how he will fare on a team in transition. In fact, I wonder if Outhouse might become one of the big trade chips that a contending team feels could put them over the top.

If you think you have the answers to my 22 questions or want to touch on anything else you may have read here today, fire me off a tweet @TPS_Guy. I look forward hearing from you soon. Cheers!

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