In an old-West gunfight do you prefer the fast young gunslinger or the grizzled ol’ hand with a few notches on his handle?
That’s how choosing the favorite in the U.S. Division of the Western Hockey League shakes down as the season opens tonight.
Portland had a eight players selected in the 2010 NHL Draft with 13 going to pro training camps.
Tri-City is the three-time defending U.S. champion and the cupboard isn’t bare with 15 players returning, seven attending NHL camps.
“I have no idea how to break it down,” new Spokane coach Don Nachbaur joked. “I’m new to the league, remember?”
Well, if you want to play that game, who’s going to be the brains behind the early-season scouting reports for the Chiefs until the head coach gets up to speed?
“I think I know what to expect,” Nachbaur said. “I’ve been around long enough to know, I haven’t been that far removed to forget.”
Nachbaur was behind the bench for Tri’s first two titles before spending last year coaching in the American Hockey League. His first head coaching job was with Seattle, giving him a 235-156-14-9 record in the WHL.
So, on a more serious note,
“Just based on the talent pool and who got drafted last year, the teams out there to beat definitely would be the Portland Winterhawks, the Tri-City Americans, Everett and there’s no reason not to throw Seattle into that group because they’ve got a big returning group,” said Nachbaur, whose team opens in Kennewick on Saturday. “Where we fit into that mix is really up to us.”
Everett tied the Americans in points before losing in the first round of the playoffs; Spokane was in the hunt for the top spot until the final weekend; and Seattle missed the playoffs but had a lot of young players get plenty of experience.
“I don’t think we can go into the season not respecting any of those teams,” Nachbaur said. “I don’t think there will be an easy game throughout the season in the U.S. Division.”
Put the bulleye’s on Tri-City on the strength of winning the Western Conference championship last year. The Americans return six of their top seven point producers, led by Brendan Shinnimin (27 goals, 28 assists, 55 points) and leadership with captain Kruise Reddick.
Still, you can’t help but be impressed with Portland, which led the U.S. for much of the season and finished with a 48-point turnaround after three straight seasons of failing to reach 20 wins.
Ryan Johnansen and Nino Niederreiter, top five draft picks, led the avalanche of Winterhawks selected, giving them 10 draft picks on the roster (compared to only one unsigned 20-year, Levko Koper, for Spokane).
Could the Winterhawks get off to a slow start because 13 players went to WHL camps, especially if a few don’t come back? At last report seven players were still gone, including their top four scorers.
That would put a lot of pressure on a team that is ranked third in the CHL preseason poll but has question marks in its own end, especially in goal.
Everett joined the league in 2003 and has never missed the playoffs, meaning the Silvertips can never be counted out.
The offense has been retooled, but the Silvertips are thin on the back end with a couple of overage defensemen deciding to move on.
Seattle must have a number of players take the next step, among them Spokane native Tyler Alos, a 17-year old center, to close the gap.
The Thunderbirds have a chance to be in every game with goaltender Calvin Pickard, who was picked in the second round of the draft.
As for the Chiefs, there are some big holes to fill but with three top-end 20-year olds, Koper (27-27-54), Tyler Johnson (36-35-71) and James Reid (38 wins, 2.41 goals against average), there is a good foundation.
Seven other forwards scored in double figures and are expected to become bigger contributors. If Jared Cowen comes back from Ottawa, the defense suddenly doesn’t look so green.
“It’s hard to tell right now,” Koper said. “It comes down to who gets better throughout the season. With our coaches and the players who want to get better, I think we have a good shot.”
Predicted order of finish
1. Tri-City Americans
2. Portland Winterhawks
3. Spokane Chiefs
4. Everett Silvertips
5. Seattle Thunderbirds
(Team-by-team capsules on SportsLink)