The Spokane Chiefs make the long trek through the Eastern Division of the Western Hockey League early this season - starting the last weekend of November. It could be a difficult journey with stops in Brandon and Moose Jaw - which is in the final season of its old “Crushed Can” arena, but Regina and Saskatoon aren’t expected to be very strong.
Below is the team-by-team report, as shared by WHL beat writers.
BRANDON WHEAT KINGS
Last season: 50-18-1-3, second in Eastern Conference, first in East Division. Lost in conference final.
Head coach/general manager: Kelly McCrimmon (seventh season as coach, 22nd as GM).
Assistant coaches: Dwayne Gylywoychuk (eighth season), Darren Ritchie (fourth season), Mike Vandenberghe (interim, first season), Matt Cockell (goaltending coach, fourth season).
Key losses: LW Matt Calvert, C Jay Fehr and RW Aaron Lewadniuk graduated, LW Toni Rajala returned to Finland, while D Colby Robak, D Travis Hamonic, D Alexander Urbom and C Brent Raedeke should play professionally as 20-year-olds.
The 20-year-olds: LW Shayne Wiebe, RW David Toews, D Mark Schneider, D Darren Westland, G Andrew Hayes and G Jacob DeSerres are competing for three spots. At least one goalie will go.
The imports: Danish RW Mark Mieritz was selected in the CHL import draft and s willing to play along the boards.
Key returnees: The club hopes C Brayden Schenn (34 goals, 99 points) returns from the NHL and expects C/RW Scott Glennie (32 goals, 89 points) back. Brodie Melnychuk (24 points, plus-46 plus/minus) becomes the No.1 defenceman.
New faces: Toews arrived from the University of North Dakota. G Liam Liston, 17, is a top prospect and D Eric Roy, 16, was a first-rounder in the 2009 bantam draft.
Watch for: More offence from Wiebe (50 points last season). Breakout seasons from LW Mike Ferland and RW Brenden Walker. Plenty of ice for rookie defencemen, with likely no more than three returnees on the blue line.
Just notes: Schenn is the first player to win or share the team scoring title three straight seasons.
Did you know?: Toews is the brother of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
The prognosis: A step back from their 2009-10 Memorial Cup finalist season is expected, but the club boasts enough depth up front, particularly if Schenn returns, to keep the drop-off from being too steep. The young defence will be tested, but the Wheat Kings are talented enough to make an 11th straight trip to the playoffs.
ROB HENDERSON/Brandon Sun
MOOSE JAW WARRIORS
Last season: 33-27-5-7, eighth in Eastern Conference, fourth in East Division, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Dave Hunchak (fourth season).
Assistant coaches: Trevor Weisgerber (first season); David Marcoux, goaltender coach (second season).
Key losses: Three-time team MVP Jason Bast and D Ryan Stanton to graduation.
The 20-year-olds: The Warriors have five overagers ‹ G Thomas Heemskerk, C Spencer Edwards, RW Thomas Frazee, LW Dylan Hood and C Brendan Rowinski. Rowinski is out until at least October after having off-season knee surgery. Heemskerk will stick, but which two forwards join him will be up in the air until Rowinski is healthy.
The imports: Second-year Czech winger Antonin Honejsek, who scored 16 goals last season, and feisty 6-foot-2 rookie Slovak forward Michal Hlinka.
Key returnees: LW Quinton Howden and D Dylan McIlrath (both taken in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft) along with whichever two 20-year-old forwards make the grade.
New faces: Heemskerk, D Collin Bowman, 19, acquired from Kelowna for D Kevin Smith. D Morgan Rielly, 16, who was the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League defenceman of the year on the national-title-winning Notre Dame Hounds.
Watch for: The offensive side of Rielly¹s game. The former second overall bantam pick is a work in progress, but has been absolutely dazzling when he has rushed the puck.
Just notes: All seven of the Warriors’ defencemen are likely to be back with the team in 2011-12 … The Warriors will have 14 days to get back down to three 20-year-olds after Rowinski returns to the lineup.
Did you know?: This will be the Warriors’ final season in the Civic Centre before moving into a new arena next fall. The Warriors have sold 2,186 season tickets to date, a franchise record.
The prognosis: After a 37-point turnaround last season, the Warriors are looking to take another step forward. Goal-scoring is a concern, but with Heemskerk and five veteran defencemen, the Warriors are aiming to be among the contenders in the Eastern Conference.
MATTHEW GOURLIE/Moose Jaw Times-Herald
PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS
Last season: 32-35-3-2, ninth in Eastern Conference, fifth in East Division; missed playoffs for third straight season.
Head coach: Bruno Campese (fourth season).
Assistant coaches: Craig Bedard (fourth season), Steve Young (third season).
Key losses: G Garrett Zemlak (Ontario, ECHL), F Dustin Cameron (Elmira, ECHL), F Craig McCallum (University of Saskatchewan), F Ryan Harrison (traded to Medicine Hat), F Jordan Hickmott (traded to Edmonton).
The 20-year-olds: D Nathan Deck, D Jordan Rowley, F Igor Revenko.
The imports: Revenko, a third-year Raider, and new F Sebastian Svendsen, a 19-year-old Dane acquired from Edmonton in the Hickmott deal. (D Stefan Warg jumped to pro in Sweden.)
Key returnees: Jamie Tucker in goal, Deck, Rowley and Ryan Button on defence, and forwards Revenko, Brandon Herrod, Justin Maylan and Mark McNeill.
New faces: D Austin Bourhis (Yorkton, SJHL) and F Todd Fiddler (Saskatchewan midget AAA scoring champion) were acquired from Medicine Hat in the Harrison trade. Young forwards include Brock Balson, Shane Danyluk, Marc Mackenzie and 2009 first-round pick Mike Winther. G Eric Williams, 17, is Tucker¹s backup.
Just notes: F Jonathan Parker is the lone player left from the three Californians with last season¹s Raiders. … Before this year¹s final cuts, nine Saskatchewan products were among the 26 players on the Raiders’ roster. … McNeill, who was a finalist for Canada¹s under-18 team, and D Harrison Ruopp are candidates for the 2011 NHL draft.
Did you know?: Including their junior A glory days, the Raiders are celebrating their 40th anniversary. They won four Centennial Cups and the 1985 Memorial Cup.
The prognosis: Plenty of depth on the blue line, with skilled veterans and physical play from the likes of Ruopp and Emerson Hrynyk. In goal, Tucker has big shoes to fill in succeeding MVP Zemlak. Up front, Herrod, McNeill and Revenko are poised for big years, but will the kids be able to complement that offence? The Raiders’ youth movement should come to fruition in a year or two, but the community-owned organization needs to make the playoffs this season and win back its fickle fans.
JOHN MacNEIL/Prince Albert Daily Herald
Last season: 30-35-3-4, 10th in Eastern Conference; missed playoffs.
General manager: Chad Lang (first season).
Head coach: Curtis Hunt (sixth season).
Assistant coaches: Shaun Sutter (second season), Ryan Cyr (goalie coach, fourth season).
Key losses: CHL player-of-the-year Jordan Eberle, D Colten Teubert, RW Brett Leffler, LW Matt Strueby.
The 20-year-olds: C Colin Reddin. Two openings.
The imports: A pair of Swedes ‹ veteran F Hampus Gustafsson and rookie D Ricard Blidstrand.
Key returnees: With Eberle and Teubert gone, new captain Garrett Mitchell, C Jordan Weal, LW Carter Ashton, D Brandon Davidson and D Cody Carlson must collectively take the reins … Myles Bell, 17, is on the verge of becoming a dominant blue liner … Gustafsson and Reddin need to provide secondary scoring behind Weal and Ashton … Diminutive RW Killian Hutt has the skill to be an X factor on offence … G Damien Ketlo must mature into a game-stealer in his second year as a starter.
New faces: Reddin (trade with P.A.), Blidstrand (first round, 46th overall, 2010 CHL import draft), flashy LW Dane Muench (free-agent castoff from Swift Current), speedy F Mikael Jung (trade with Vancouver); blue-chip C Chandler Stephenson (fifth overall, 2009 bantam draft); feisty F Dyson Stevenson (fifth round, 2008).
Watch for: Lang to begin putting his stamp on the team by adding two new 20-year-olds … Ashton to be dealt for future assets before the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
Just notes: Bell helped the Canadian under-18 team win a gold medal this summer … Ashton is a strong candidate for Canada¹s world junior squad.
Did you know?: Regina has missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since joining the league in 1966-67.
The prognosis: Expectations couldn¹t be lower for the Pats, who are projected to finish at or near the bottom of the conference. However, with the pressure off - and Eberle¹s blinding spotlight removed - an optimist might say there’s still enough high-end talent to overachieve and perhaps even slip into the playoffs under the radar.
Last season: 46-19-3-4, second in East Division, third in Eastern Conference; lost in second round to Brandon.
Head coach-GM: Lorne Molleken (seventh season).
Assistant coach: David Struch (fifth season).
Key losses: LW Derek Hulak - Saskatoon¹s captain and leading scorer - graduated along with RW Walker Wintoneak and shutdown D Sam Klassen. C Charles Inglis, 18, and C Travis Toomey, 20, were dealt to Prince George and Seattle, respectively, earlier this month.
The 20-year-olds: C Marek Viedensky, C Gaelan Patterson and D Teigan Zahn are the leading contenders. Viedensky (San Jose) and Zahn (Tampa Bay) have already been returned by their NHL teams but Patterson is auditioning with the Calgary Flames. The other overage contenders are: G Steven Stanford, and forwards Sena Acolatse, Jeremy Boyer and Randy McNaught.
The imports: Slovakian C Marek Viedensky, 20, and Czech RW Matej Stransky, 17. The Blades also drafted C Andrej Stastny, 19, but haven¹t secured his release from Slovakia¹s under-20 program.
Key returnees: Viedensky has dynamic skills and relentless work ethic. Expect increased point production from LW Curtis Hamilton, a second-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, and abrasive LW Darian Dziurzynski. On defence, Zahn is a tough curmudgeon, and Stefan Elliott could lead all blue liners in points. Also expect a breakout year from D Duncan Siemens, who won under-18 gold with Canada.
New faces: C Ryan Olsen, the 20th overall bantam pick in 2009. C Lukas Sutter, 17, helped the U.S. win under-18 silver this summer in the Czech Republic.
Watch for: The Blades to deal more 20-year-olds for bantam picks.
Just notes: Sutter grew up in Lethbridge, but has dual citizenship because he was born in the U.S. while his father, Rich, was a member of the St. Louis Blues.
Did you know?: Molleken is 36 wins shy of reaching 500 for his WHL career. Only three WHL coaches - Ken Hodge, Ernie McLean and Pat Ginnell - have reached that milestone.
The prognosis: The Blades have the top-end talent to again challenge for the division title. At the very least, they should secure a top-four seed in the eight-team Eastern Conference.
Cory Wolfe/Saskatoon StarPhoenix
SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS
Last season: 37-30-1-4, seventh in Eastern Conference, third in East Division. Lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Mark Lamb (second season).
Assistant coach: Darren Evjen (first season).
Key losses: D Derek Claffey, RW Michael Stickland and C Matt Tassone, all to graduation.
The 20-year-olds: G Mark Friesen, D Travis Bobbee, C Justin Dowling and RW Stepan Novotny.
The imports: Centre Stepan Novotny of the Czech Republic was acquired in a trade last season. Defenceman Richard Nedomlel from the Czech Republic and F Juraj Roznik of Slovakia were both selected in the CHL¹s import draft in June.
Key returnees: C Cody Eakin and C Justin Dowling, if they return from the NHL, should lead the team in scoring. LW Adam Lowry and D Reece Scarlett who will be young leaders on the team. The dark horse will be LW Brad Hoban, 19, who has been a hot/cold offensive threat. He will be leaned on, especiallyif Eakin and Dowling don¹t return.
New faces: F Shea Howorko, RW Robbie Newton and G Austin Smith.
Watch for: Nedomlel and Graham Craig should be tough forces on the blue line.The Broncos could be active on the trade market depending on G Mark Friesen¹s play, what they decide to do with their overagers, imports and what happens with Eakin.
Just notes: The Broncos have Smith, 17, listed as the backup goalie after the Broncos dispatched vet Morgan Clark to Prince George. If Friesen falters or gets injured, the Calgary native becomes vital.
Did you know?: The Broncos are celebrating their 25th anniversary of moving back to Swift Current.
The prognosis: The Broncos should be strong offensively and they look to have improved defensively. The question mark, as was the case last year, is in goal. With only 17-year-old rookie Austin Smith in the wings, the Broncos will be as good as their goaltending. No Eakin, no goaltending, they don¹t make the playoffs. With both, maybe a solid second place in the East
CHRIS JASTER/Prairie Post