Continuing the team-by-team look at the Western Hockey League, which begins play on Friday, we check out the Central Division, courtesy of the beat reporters (except Edmonton). The Central Division visits the U.S. Division this year, meaning Spokane Chiefs fans can see what remains of Calgary’s championship team (and early visit, Wednesday, Oct. 20).
Last season: 52-17-3; first in WHL; won WHL championship.
Head coach: Mike Williamson (second season).
Assistants coaches: Darcy Wakaluk (fifth season), Joel Otto (fourth season), Brent Kisio (third season).
Key losses: WHL scoring champ Brandon Kozun; WHL goaltender of the year Martin Jones; Eastern Conference defenceman of the year Michael Stone.
The 20-year-olds: LW Tyler Fiddler, LW Kris Foucault, D Zak Stebner, D Kyle Aschim (injured).
The imports: Unless a trade is made, the Hitmen have just one import - G Juraj Holly, 19.
Key returnees: C Jimmy Bubnick was named to the Memorial Cup all-star team last spring and will need to return to that level this season. D Matt MacKenzie, a Buffalo Sabres draft pick, should expect to play huge minutes on the back end.
New faces: Chase Clayton, the club’s top bantam pick in 2009, has quick feet and will be one of many new faces on the team. Fellow 16-year-old Keaton Lubin has shown poise beyond his years and should crack the blue line. Winger Rob Trzonkowski is another 16-year-old who could develop into a power forward. American Trevor Cheek, 17, and D Alex Roach will also be part of the mix.
Watch for: G Michael Snider to perform admirably as the new starter. In two seasons as Martin Jones’ backup, Snider is 26-7-2.
Just notes: The Hitmen have won three straight Eastern Conference regular-season crowns … Williamson joined the club after spending 15 years as a player, assistant coach and head coach with the Portland Winter Hawks.
Did you know?: The Hitmen have qualified for the post-season for 13 consecutive seasons - the longest active streak in the league.
Prognosis: With numerous new faces in the lineup - a much younger lineup -
the Hitmen likely won¹t be in the hunt for a third straight Scotty Munro Trophy. But they should be good enough to get into the playoffs.
SCOTT FISHER/Calgary Sun
EDMONTON OIL KINGS
Last season: 16-43-4-9; last in Central Division; last in Eastern Conference.
Head coach: Derek Laxdal (first season).
Assistant coaches: Steve Hamilton (first season), Lyle Mast, goalie coach (second season).
Key losses: RW Garry Nunn, G Torrie Jung and D Drew Nichol, to graduation; RW Robin Soudek, traded to Chilliwack.
The 20-year-olds: C Jordan Hickmott, acquired from Prince Albert; LW Mike Piluso; D Adrian Van de Mosselaer.
The imports: Czech D Marek Hrbas and Latvian RW Kristians Pelss, both selected in June¹s CHL import draft; Pelss was also picked by the Edmonton Oilers in the seventh round of this year¹s NHL entry draft.
Key returnees: D Mark Pysyk, who was taken by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, chosen 23rd overall; sophomore C Michael St. Croix, the club¹s first-round pick in the 2009 bantam draft and leading scorer last season with 18 goals and 46 points; C T.J. Foster; G Cam Lanigan; RW Klarc Wilson.
New faces: Hickmott, who is expected to be among the team’s top scorers; towering D Griffin Reinhart, the Oil Kings’ top pick - third overall - in the ‘09 bantam draft; LW Mitchell Moroz; RW Josh Lazowski; import picks Hrbas and Pelss.
Watch for: St. Croix to again lead the Oil Kings in scoring with a breakout season; Reinhart to contend for league rookie-of-the-year honours.
Did you know?: New head coach Laxdal played for the Portland Winterhawks and Brandon Wheat Kings and was picked by Toronto in the 1984 NHL draft. He played 67 games in the NHL with the Maple Leafs and New York Islanders and retired as an active minor-league player in 2001. He was coach of the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads for five years before being hired by the Oil Kings during the off-season; Hamilton coached the Spruce Grove Saints to an AJHL championship last spring, then watched his club extend the eventual Royal Bank Cup champion Vernon Vipers to seven games in the AJHL/BCHL series.
Prognosis: The Oil Kings will almost certainly improve on last season’s sorry showing, but making the playoffs in what should be a tight Central Division will be difficult.
GREG MEACHEM/Red Deer Advocate
Last season: 43-24-3-2; fourth in the Eastern Conference; lost in the first round.
Head coach: Kris Knoblauch (first season).
Assistant coaches: Todd Johnson (first season), Jerry Bancks (first season).
Key losses: Leading scorer C Dustin Sylvester; D Ryan Molle; coaches Mark Holick and Scott Beattie.
The 20-year-olds: LW Matt Fraser; RW Kevin King; C Steele Boomer; G Todd Mathews.
The imports: None. Kootenay chose not to draft any imports this season.
Key returnees: D Brayden McNabb, a Buffalo Sabres third-rounder, will play big minutes; the 20-year-olds - Boomer, King and Fraser - will lead the club; C Max Reinhart could lead the club in scoring.
New faces: C Adam Rossignol, 17, is a sure-thing. Smooth-skating pivot will look to provide depth scoring; D Mike Simpson, 16; G Mackenzie Skapski, 16, and forward Colby Cave, who turns 16 on Dec. 26. Watch for: G Nathan Lieuwan to finally have the season the former first-round draft pick was destined for when he arrived four seasons ago.
Just notes: The Ice has never missed the WHL playoffs since moving to Cranbrook, a streak of 12 straight seasons.
Did you know?: The Ice season-ticket base shrunk this season to a low of 1,726, 307 less than last season.
Prognosis: The Ice return a thick lineup with 18 of a possible 22 faces returning from last year’s club when all is said and done. A trade for an impact forward or, if the current crop can’t do the trick, a goaltender could push this bunch into contention for a deep playoff run.
JEFF BROMLEY/Daily Townsman
Last season: 20-44-5-3; 11th in Eastern Conference; fifth in East Division; missed playoffs.
Head coach/general manager: Rich Preston (second season).
Associate coach: Matt Kabayama (fourth season).
Assistant coach: Chris Chisamore (second season).
Key losses: F Carter Bancks, the captain.
The 20-year-olds: LW Mitch Maxwell, FW Max Ross and D Mike Reddington.
The imports: Jacob Berglund and rookie Alex Kuvaev. Kuvaev looks like an offensive power while Berglund did little after arriving via trade, with just nine goals.
Key returnees: Can you have key returnees after 20 wins? G Brandon Anderson looks like the real deal, taking over from the graduated Linden Rowat. Also, forwards Austin Fyten and Cam Braes will need to continue their season-by-season improvement.
New faces: Too many to count. The biggest change could be the addition of forward Brady Ramsay, who should help the team improve on the 178 goals scored.
Watch for: A team that ticks people off. Last year’s ‘Canes were timid most nights, allowing the league to push them around. If training camp’s aggressive look is any indication, Lethbridge’s games could get ugly. An offensive breakout from defenceman Landon Oslanski and forward Fyten would help.
Just notes: The team plans a Memorial Cup host bid to showcase $35 million in changes to the Enmax Centre.
Did you know?: Max Ross in the grandson of the family which billeted each of the Sutter brothers. And that Mitch Maxwell and his brother, Russell, are the nephews of Memorial Cup-winning head coach Bryan Maxwell?
The prognosis: They have a long way to go, but a general upgrade in skill and experience and a new attitude could mean a crack at the bottom of the playoff heap. Anderson needs to be a stud, and the scoring needs to go way, way up.
DYLAN PURCELL/Lethbridge Herald
MEDICINE HAT TIGERS
Last season: 41-23-3-5, fifth in Eastern Conference, third in Central Division. Lost in second round of playoffs.
Head coach: Shaun Clouston (first season, 10th overall in WHL).
Assistant coach: Darren Kruger (fifth season).
Key losses: All-time winningest Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins (NHL-Dallas), C Bretton Cameron (overage), LW Taylor Gal (University of Lethbridge), C Tristan King (NHL-Dallas), LW Zdenek Okal (Czech Republic), D Mark Isherwood (overage), D Thomas Kundratek (overage).
The 20-year-olds: D Thomas Carr, D Jace Coyle, C (and captain) Wacey Hamilton and RW Joey Frazer.
The imports: Two defencemen, big 19-year-old Atlanta Thrashers draft pick Sebastien Owuya of Sweden and 17-year-old Patrik Parkkonen, who’s smaller and a power-play specialist.
Key returnees: C Emerson Etem, a first-round NHL draft pick of his hometown Anaheim Ducks, is likely to play on the United States world junior team. G Tyler Bunz was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers this past summer. RW Linden Vey, 19, is expected back from Los Angeles Kings camp is on Canada’s radar for the world juniors as well.
New faces: LW Tyler Pitlick, a second-round Oilers draft pick, played college hockey in Minnesota last year. C Ryan Harrison, 18, was acquired in a trade from Prince Albert.
Watch for: Rookie Hunter Shinkaruk, who missed nearly his first year of midget AAA with a broken leg but has shown the offensive spark that made him a first-round bantam pick in 2009.
Just notes: Aside from the imports, there aren’t any rookies on the Tigers’ blue line … Either 16-year-old Dawson MacAuley or 19-year-old Deven Dubyk will back up Bunz.
Did you know?: D Tanner Sohn, 19, and C Curtis Valk, 17, are both from Medicine Hat. Valk is related to ex-Tiger and current Hockey Night in Canada commentator Kelly Hrudey.
The prognosis: The end of the Desjardins era might be seen as bad news to some, but he has left a team that believes it can make a run at a league title. Vey, Etem and Pitlick lead a group of strong scorers and the defence is the best since the 2006-07 WHL championship team.
SEAN ROONEY/Medicine Hat News
RED DEER REBELS
Last season: 39-28-0-5, sixth in Eastern Conference, fourth in Central Division. Lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Jesse Wallin (third season).
Assistant coaches: Bryce Thoma (third season), Chris Neiszner (first season), Brent Belecki, goaltender coach (first season).
Key losses: D Cullen Morin, C Nathan Green, both to graduation; RW Willie Coetzee, to pro ranks; C Landon Ferraro, traded to Everett.
The 20-year-olds: LW Brett Ferguson; Eastern Conference all-star G Darcy Kuemper; D Colin Archer, the team captain.
The imports: Slovak LW Andrej Kudrna, who scored a team-leading 30 goals after being acquired from Vancouver last fall; Swedish LW John Persson, returning for a second season.
Key returnees: D Alex Petrovic, who was selected by Florida in the second round of the 2010 NHL entry draft; C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, projected as a top-three to top-five pick in next year¹s NHL draft and last season¹s WHL rookie of the year; D Justin Weller, Kuemper, Archer, Kudrna.
New faces: Solid two-way C Byron Froese, acquired from Everett in exchange for Ferraro; D Matt Dumba, D Matt Pufahl, C Chad Robinson, D Lucas Grayson, G Bolton Pouliot, LW Tyson Ness and possibly LW Marc McCoy, all selected over the last two WHL bantam drafts; D Brad Deagle, who played two seasons with Brooks of the AJHL; listed RW Locke Muller.
Watch for: Dumba, the club¹s first-round pick in the 2009 bantam draft, to mount a serious challenge for league rookie-of-the-year honours. Dumba is an excellent skater with a big shot and craves the open-ice hit.
Just notes: Petrovic (Florida), Weller (Phoenix), Froese (Chicago), Coetzee (Detroit), Kudrna (Phoenix) and Kuemper (Minnesota) attended NHL camps this fall.
Did you know?: Coaches Wallin, Thoma and Neiszner are former Rebels players. Belecki backstopped Portland to the 1998 Memorial Cup championship.
The prognosis: Even without Coetzee, a signed player and thus a longshot to return from Detroit¹s camp, the Rebels should easily surpass last year’s win total. Anything less than a top-three finish in the Central Division and a decent playoff run will be considered a failure.
GREG MEACHEM/Red Deer Advocate