One of the joys of watching the Western Hockey League is having the chance to see future stars of the National Hockey League grow up before your eyes.
For those fans, this weekend offers a bonanza of top-level NHL prospects at the Arena as the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks arrive to take on the Spokane Chiefs.
But fans aren’t the only ones keeping a close eye on the league’s top prospects.
“I have to think that all those NHL scouts who aren’t out there watching NHL games are out watching kids play,” Spokane Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “We’ve had a lot of scouts come through. (Detroit Red Wings and former Chiefs coach) Mike Babcock even came through town and took in a game.”
Tonight’s opponent, the Blazers, were the top-ranked team in all of the Canadian Hockey League, according to The Hockey News’ CHL Power Rankings, until the team lost two of its past three games (falling to 17-2-0-1) and lost its No. 1 ranking to the Halifax Mooseheads.
In those last three games Kamloops’ No. 1 line of J.C. Lipon, Colin Smith and Tim Bozon has been held scoreless – but they still hold down the top three spots among WHL scorers.
Lipon, who figures to go early in the NHL draft, has 16 goals, 24 assists and 40 points. Smith has 13 goals, 26 assists and 39 points. Bozon, who will not be in uniform for tonight’s game after receiving a one-game suspension, has 14 goals, 17 assists and 31 points.
“It’s not unusual to see one line have a lot of success,” Speltz said. “But it is very unusual to see one line score like that.”
Spokane fans will have to wait to see the full Kamloops line skate together. Bozon got into a fight with Edmonton defenseman Keegan Lowe after the final buzzer of a 2-1 win by the Oil Kings Tuesday, and drew the game misconduct for spitting at Lowe.
Saturday’s opponent, Portland, is capable of putting on an offensive show and is ranked No. 6 in the Hockey News power rankings. The Winterhawks, in first place in the U.S. Division, one point ahead of the Chiefs, scored 17 goals last week and were 6-0 in their recent homestand.
Three Winterhawks will join Spokane’s Mitch Holmberg and coach Don Nachbaur in Vancouver and Victoria next week for the Subway Series against Team Russia: Ty Rattie, Derrick Poilot and Tyler Wotherspoon.
Drafted by No. 8 by Pittsburgh, Poilot is generally considered the Penguins’ No. 1 prospect and some experts peg him as the best of the current crop of WHL defensemen. Rattie, a second-round pick by the St. Louis Blues, is among the league leaders in scoring, while Wotherspoon, a defenseman, was taken in the second round by the Calgary Flames.
“I think the quality of talent we have in the U.S. Division, and when you add in Kelowna and Kamloops and those teams in the B.C. Division, can’t be overlooked,” Speltz said. “Scouts have to keep a close eye on what these teams have to offer every year.”