2017-18: The Warriors (52-15-2-3) had their best regular season in franchise history and captured the WHL’s regular season title for the first time. For the second straight season they lost a Game 7 on home ice to the Swift Current Broncos to exit the playoffs. Last season’s loss came in the Eastern Conference semifinal as the Broncos went on to win the WHL title.
Offseason departures: It would take less time to list who was still around. Jayden Halbgewachs, Brayden Burke and Tanner Jeannot all graduated. The Warriors also lost World Junior gold medalists C Brett Howden (New York Rangers) and D Kale Clague (Los Angeles Kings) who have signed NHL contracts. Import defencemen Dmitri Zaitsev and Oleg Sosunov have both moved on for their overage season, while goaltender Brody Willms announced he would not play his final junior season because of a hip injury. Depth forwards like Vince Loschiavo, Barrett Sheen and Brandon Klatt also moved on.
Newcomers: Goalie Brodan Salmond, 20, came over from Kelowna to help fill the void left by Willms’ departure. D Daemon Hunt (02) was the Warriors first round pick in 2017 and played nine regular season games a year ago and two more in the playoffs and should step into the Warriors top-four on the blue line. Another former first round pick LW Brayden Tracey (01) will be expected to chip in offensively immediately. Edmonton veteran C Nick Bowman (2000) was acquired in the off-season and will have plenty of opportunity for a large role.
Overage situation: D Brandon Schuldhaus was a revelation after coming over from Red Deer. The physical defender scored eight goals and had 15 points in 27 games and was a plus-20. C Tristin Langan has been one of the Warriors best penalty killers and defensive forwards in recent years. He had 16 goals and should get more opportunities to show off the offensive side of his game. Instead of anointing 18-year-old Adam Evanoff the starting goalie, the second-year Warrior is battling Salmond for the starting job. If Salmond (who had an .880 save percentage and a 3.67 GAA last season in Kelowna) doesn’t win the starting job outright, the Warriors could be in the market for another overage player. They also brought former Spokane defenceman Dalton Hamaliuk into camp during the pre-season.
Import situation: The Warriors drafted a pair of forwards from Belarus in the import draft — C Daniil Stepanov and RW Yegor Bulyaski. Both are 17 and are expected to need some time to adapt to the league. While Stepanov’s skill got him drafted first, Bulyaski has done good work on the forecheck hasn’t shied away from getting his nose dirty.
|101||Ryan Peckford||73||20||29||49 (22 pts with MJ)|
Forwards: The players that accounted for 212 of the Warriors’ league-best 326 goals are gone. That is 65 per cent of last year’s production. Almeida (43 goals) and Peckford (20) accounted for more than half of the returning goals and will be leaned upon heavily to drive the attack. Almeida’s stellar play in the playoffs will reassure that he will still be able to find the net even when he is the opposition’s primary focus this season. He and Peckford can’t do it alone and the Warriors will need players to develop into larger roles. Langan will provide strong two-way play and some offence. Tracey, Bowman, Tate Popple, Tyler Smithies and Brecon Wood are all capable of playing significant minutes, but some — if not all — will need to chip in offensively. Any production they get from the young Belorussians will be a bonus.
Defense: The blue line will be the strength of the team by a wide margin. Brook (Montreal) and Woo (Vancouver) are both second round NHL picks who went to Canada’s world junior summer camp. Both missed significant time with injuries a year ago and could be elite WHL defencemen over a full season. Schuldhaus was quietly the best Warriors defenceman down the stretch last year before a knee injury hobbled him through the playoffs. Rookie Daemon Hunt would have made the roster last year if he could and will slot into the top-four. Matthew Benson played regularly last year and Brenden Kwiatkowski started the season in the WHL before returning to play in the AJHL with Grande Prairie. Matt Sanders (6 pg) and Drae Gardiner (3 gp) got a taste of the league last year and six-foot-four Austin Herron and puck-moved Alek Sukunda have had strong camps. The Warriors have a lot of quality in their top-four, but lots of depth as well.
Goalies: Evanoff had a steady first season in the WHL and looked ready to assume the starting job. Whether Salmond can do enough to show he deserves to start significantly more games than Evanoff should be a plot line that evolves over the early part of the season. The availability of an overage forward who could help the offence could also factor in to the Warriors goaltending decision. Rookie Ethan Fitzgerald was part of Hockey Canada’s under-17 development camp and would back-up Evanoff if he is given the reigns. Fitzgerald played with the Okanagan Hockey Academy last season.
Outlook: The Warriors aren’t the only team rebuilding in the East Division which makes the playoffs a possibility. The obvious question is where the goals will come from and the Warriors are going to need to win some 2-1 and 3-2 games after winning a lot of high-scoring contests a year ago. The good news is that their defence stands up to any in the league and will keep them in a lot of games. The margin between winning and losing is going to be thin most nights so special teams and goaltending are going to be important. It goes without saying that a key injury or two could derail their aspirations in a hurry. Expectations may also change depending on what the Warriors opt to do at the trade deadline with a few veterans that could be enticing to contending teams. The Warriors goal is to speed up the development of their young players and get into the playoffs. They will need to succeed with the first part to achieve the second.