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Americans or Winterhawks?

The U.S. Division was the toughest in the Western Hockey League last season and there is no reason to think it won't be difficult again this season.

Tri-City won its third straight title in a tie-breaker with Everett with Spokane in the chase until the final weekend - but it was Portland that led the way most of the season and is getting the most love in preseason polls. The Winterhawks had eight players drafted, two in the top five, and have 10 overall on their roster (to Spokane's one).

That quartet all finished with more points than B.C. champion Vancouver, although the Giants earned the second seed for the Western Conference playoffs for winning its division.

How will it turn out this season, which gets underway Friday (with the Chiefs opening Saturday at Tri-City)? Check the predicted order of finish below. The story that goes with this is available here.

Tri-City Americans
Last season: 47-22-1-2, first in U.S. Division, won Western Conference title, lost in WHL finals to Calgary.
Head coach: Jim Hiller (second season).
Assistants: Scott Beattie and Brent Bilodeau.
Key losses: Johnny Lazo, Jarrett Toll and Brett Plouffe to graduation.
The 20-year-olds: Forwards Kruise Reddick and Mike Brown, defenseman Tyler Schmidt and goalie Alex Pechurskiy.
The imports: Overage Russian goalie Alex Pechurksiy and rookie D-man Nikita Kardashev, 18, from Belarus. Russian defenseman Nikita Nesterov has his interview with Homeland Security on Oct. 16.
Key returnees: G Drew Owsley, the 2010 Western Conference MVP; overage defenseman Tyler Schmidt; Brendan Shinnimin, last year¹s leading scorer (27g, 55a); Justin Feser (36 goals, 37a); Brooks Macek (21g, 52a); team captain Kruise Reddick (20g, 36a); Adam Hughesman (18g, 46a).
New faces: Forward Connor Rankin.The skilled forward will be 16 on Nov. 30, but he has talent beyond his years. Should be a regular on top two lines.
Watch for: Brendan Shinnimin to again be among the top scorers in the league and Justin Feser to join him.
Just notes: The Americans had a record number of players (7) attend NHL camps, with Brooks Macek held over for the Detroit Red Wings main camp. Tri-City will open the season against rival Spokane and former coach Don Nachbaur.
Did you know?: Drew Owsley won the long drive competition of Olie and Stu's Desert Bash with a drive of 324 yards. This season is the first in at least 10 years the Americans have two assistant coaches.
The prognosis: With 15 players returning, the Americans should be in line for a fourth U.S. Division title and a run at another Western Conference title. The majority of the scoring is back and the goaltending is solid. The defense is a bit young, but Tyler Schmidt and Zach Yuen should be able to hold the group together.


Annie Fowler, Tri-City Herald



Portland Winterhawks
Last season: 44-25-2-1, fifth in Western Conference, fourth in U.S. Division. Lost in second round of playoffs.
Head coach: Mike Johnston (third season)
Assistants: Travis Green (third season), Kyle Gustafson (seventh season)
Key losses: F Chris Francis to graduation; D Luca Sbisa to NHL; F Stefan Schneider to graduation.
The 20-year-olds: F Luke Walker (Colorado) and F Spencer Bennett (Calgary) are NHL draftees and could play in the AHL. F Tayler Jordan and G Ian Curtis are the other overagers.
The imports: Swiss F Nino Niederreiter (if he returns from the New York Islanders) will be joined by 18-year-old countryman F Sven Bartschi, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 import draft.
Key returnees: Leading goal scorer Niederreiter may not come back, but fourth-overall NHL pick F Ryan Johansen (Columbus) should, along with fellow 2010 picks F Brad Ross (Toronto), D Taylor Aronson (Nashville), D Troy Rutkowski (Colorado), G Mac Carruth (Chicago) and F Riley
Boychuk (Buffalo). 2009 draftee D Brett Ponich (St. Louis) returns as captain.
New faces: Bartschi and 18-year-old F Teal Burns arrive along with a highly regarded trio of 16-year-olds: former #1 bantam draft pick D Derrick Pouliot, D Josh Hanson and F Brendan Leipsic
Watch for: Portland opponents will focus on the Hawks’ 10 NHL draftees, but 17-year-old F Ty Rattie is poised for a breakout season that could cement his status as a first-round prospect for the 2011 draft.
Just notes: The Hawks sent 13 players to NHL training camps, so continuity could be an issue early in the season as the team regains its chemistry.
Did you know: Pouliot is the second #1 overall bantam draftee to play for the Winterhawks, following 2000’s Braydon Coburn, who now plays for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The prognosis: Two years ago, head coach/GM Mike Johnston inherited a mess. Now, even if Niederreiter sticks in the NHL, the Winterhawks are widely expected to win the U.S. Division and compete for the WHL crown. The goals should come in bunches, but can the Hawks keep pucks
out of their own net?
Scott Sepich, special to The Oregonian


Spokane Chiefs


Last season: 45-22-3-2, close third in tight U.S. Division and Western Conference; lost in first round of playoffs.


Head coach: Don Nachbaur (first season, 12th overall).


Assistants: Jon Klemm (second season), Denis Sproxton, goaltender coach.


Key losses: C Mitch Wahl to AHL/NHL; LW Kyle Beach to AHL/NHL; D Stefan Ulmer to Europe ; D Jared Spurgeon, D Brett Bartman, F Ryan Letts to graduation. Maybe D Jared Cowen to NHL.


The 20-year-olds: C Tyler Johnson, LW Levko Koper, G James Reid.


The imports: LW Dominik Uher, second year, and rookie F Marek Kalus, both from Czech Republic .


Key returnees: Forwards Blake Gal, 18, Anthony Bardaro, 18, Brady Brassart, 17, Mitch Holmberg, 17, Kenton Miller, 19, Steve Kuhn, 19, and Matt Marantz, 19; defensemen Brenden Kichton, 18, Corbin Baldwin, 19, and Tanner Mort, 17.


New faces: D Reid Gow, 16, first-round Bantam pick in ’09, Bruin McDonald, 18, acquired in a trade with Prince George and American D Tyler Vanscourt, 18.


Watch for: The 20’s to be the backbone of the team and Gal and Bardaro to take big steps offensively.


Just notes: Other than the obvious, first-round '09 draft pick Cowen to Ottawa, Johnson ( Minnesota ), Koper ( Atlanta ), Gal ( Philadelphia ) and Kichton ( Detroit ) went to NHL camps but only Koper, seventh round, was drafted.


Did you know: Tyler Johnson, a Spokane native, is only the second American player to win a Memorial Cup and World Junior gold medal.


The prognosis: After flaming out in the playoffs, coach Hardy Sauter was let go and Nachbaur returned to the league after one year in the AHL, which should off-set some of the expected drop off for a team that lost four of its top six scorers and its top five D-men if Cowen, a No. 1 pick for Ottawa , doesn’t return. Nachbaur should help the team remain competitive in the tough U.S. Division, where Portland is a heavy favorite and Nachbaur’s old team, Tri-City, has won last three regular-season titles. 
Dave Trimmer , The Spokesman-Review


Everett Silvertips
Last season: 46-21-3-2, tied for first in Western Conference and U.S. Division. Lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Craig Hartsburg (second season).
Assistants: Jay Varady (eighth season), Chris Hartsburg (second season), Jordan Sigalet, goaltending coach (first season).
Key losses: RW Shane Harper, C Zack Dailey and C Chris Langkow graduated. D Radko Gudas advanced to the pros. C Byron Froese was traded to Red Deer and G Thomas Heemskerk was traded to Moose Jaw
The 20-year-olds: C Clayton Cumiskey is the only returner. D Chad Suer was acquired in a trade with Moose Jaw
just before the start of the season. One spot is expected to remain vacant.
The imports: 19-year-old D Rasmus Rissanen (Finland) is in his second season. 17-year-old LW Jesse Huhtala (Finland
) is a rookie.
Key returnees: 19-year-old LW Tyler Maxwell and 19-year-old RW Kellan Tochkin are key offensive performers. 17-year-old D Ryan Murray had a fantastic rookie season. 18-year-old G Kent Simpson will take over the starting spot exclusively after splitting time with Heemskerk last season.
New faces: 19-year-old C Landon Ferraro was acquired via trade with Red Deer. 19-year-old RW Josh Birkholz arrived from the University of Minnesota
. Both are expected to be major contributors.
Watch for: Everett
to be an improved skating team thanks to the additions of Ferraro and Birkholz.
Just notes: Everett
moved for Suer because D Chris de la Lande and D Curtis Kulchar decided not to return for their overage campaigns.
Did you know: Murray captained Canada
to the gold medal at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament this summer.
The prognosis: Everett has good depth up front, a quality goaltender in Simpson, and the addition of Suer shores up the defense. The Silvertips should have a solid season, but the they'll have difficulty keeping up with emerging powerhouse Portland
Nick Patterson, Everett Herald



Last season:
19-41-7-5, fifth in U.S. Divison. Did not make playoffs.
Head coach: Rob Sumner (seventh season).
Assistants: Turner Stevenson (fourth season), Jim McTaggart (fourth season), Paul Fricker (fourth season, goaltender coach).
Key losses: LW Prab Rai, 41goals, 70 points, graduated and signed with  Vancouver. D Jeremy Schappert and LW Lindsay Nielsen also graduated.
The 20-year-olds: D Brenden Dillon, in his fifth season with the T-birds, is the only one.
The imports: LW Marcel Noebels, Germany (first round, 10th overall in  2010 CHL Import Draft). D Dave Sutter, Switzerland (first round, 34th,  2010).
Key returnees: G Calvin Pickard played in 62 games last season and  might play in that many again. C Charles Wells was solid with 21 goals  and 55 points. C Colin Jacobs led Seattle rookies in scoring (13-26)  and RW Tyler Alos finished strong (8-17). RW Burke Gallimore, acquired from Saskatoon, returns after 19 goals  last season...C Brendan Rouse, acquired from Brandon last year, is a  key penalty killer.
New faces: Noebels played half the season in the German Elite League (DEL) last season at 17... D Dave Sutter is 6-foot-5, 208.... C  Branden Troock and C Justin Hickman impressed in training camp.
Watch for: Alos, Jacobs and LW Mitch Elliot, all 17, to emerge as the  T-birds top line.
Just notes: All of Seattle's defensemen are 6-0 or taller with the  exception of Ryan Aasman (5-10)... The T-Birds have three US players on the roster:  Jacobs (Texas), Alos (Washington) and Jake Doty (Montana).
Did you know: Pickard was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, 49th overall, in the 2010 NHL Draft. He is one of  four goalies competing for a spot on Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York... D Scott Ramsay attended training 
camp with the Anaheim Ducks. Assistant Coach Turner Stevenson is a former T-Bird player who won a Stanley Cup with
New  Jersey in 2003.
The prognosis: The T-Birds are better offensively, but will need to  rely heavily on Pickard to return to the playoffs.
Jim Riley, Seattle Times




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