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WHL U.S. Division preview: Portland reloads

Spokane Chiefs logo (The Spokesman-Review)

The Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division should provide an interesting race this season.

Interesting, that is, for places two through five.

Defending WHL champion Portland, which came within one win of capturing the Memorial Cup last May, boasts enough returning firepower to stake its claim as strong division favorite again.

“I still see Portland at the top,” Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “I still see them as the team to beat.”

Portland easily topped the division field last season with 117 points. Spokane (90) and the Tri-City Americans (85) held significant gaps over the Seattle Thunderbirds (58) and Everett Silvertips (57).

But Seattle and Everett appear to be on the upswing – the Silvertips just capped a 7-0 preseason – while Spokane and Tri-City need to fill big offensive losses.

All five division teams advanced to the eight-team Western Conference playoffs last season. Spokane eliminated Tri-City in the first round but was swept by Portland in the second round.

U.S. Division capsules (in order of predicted finish):

Portland Winterhawks

Last season: 57-12-1-2, first in Western Conference; won WHL championship.

Head coach/GM: Mike Johnston (sixth season)

Key losses: RW Ty Rattie, D Seth Jones and D Tyler Wotherspoon will likely move on. G Mac Carruth, C Taylor Peters and D Troy Rutkowski graduated.

The 20-year-olds: C Shane McColgan was acquired from Saskatoon but won’t play until October (thumb surgery); D Garrett Haar is a new addition from Western Michigan University; either C Adam Rossignol or C Tayler Thompson will stick.

Key returnees: CHL co-scoring champs Brendan Leipsic and Nicolas Petan return after putting up 120 points each last season; D Derrick Pouliot should be back after Pittsburgh Penguins preseason to lead the defensive corps; LW Taylor Leier is a key two-way forward; C Chase De Leo is looking to make a big impact in his draft year.

New faces: Californian D Keoni Texeira and Nebraska-born RW Ethan Price are likely to be the only 16-year-olds on the roster.

The prognosis: The Hawks have lost major pieces each of the last three seasons, but got better each time. Still, guys such as Carruth, Jones and Rattie are nearly impossible to replace. A deep, experienced forward group should score plenty of goals, but a fourth straight Western Conference title will hinge on a retooled defense and goaltender Burke.

Scott Sepich, freelance writer

Spokane Chiefs

Last season: 44-26-2-0, fourth in Western Conference; lost to Portland in second round of playoffs.

Head coach: Don Nachbaur (fourth season).

Key losses: Western Hockey League defenseman of the year Brenden Kichton (22 goals, 63 assists) graduated, as did RW Blake Gal (17 goals, 24 assists) and C Dylan Walchuk (19 goals, 39 assists); top goal scorer Todd Fiddler was traded to Moose Jaw; midseason pick-up Alessio Bertaggia (29 goals, 25 assists) returned to Switzerland to play for professional team EV Zug.

The 20-year-olds: G Eric Williams, C Mike Aviani, RW Mitch Holmberg.

Key returnees: Williams was 32-19-2-0 with four shutouts; Holmberg had 39 goals and 41 assists; Aviani had 30 goals and 38 assists; D Reid Gow had seven goals and 44 assists; LW Adam Helewka was team rookie of the year with 10 goals, 17 assists.

New faces: Imports Zwerger, known for his size (6-foot, 205 pounds), and Hascic, known for his speed, are rookies; local product Keanu Yamamoto, at right wing, is on the 24-man roster as of Tuesday; eight other rookies are still on the roster.

The prognosis: Defense and goaltending may have to carry the Chiefs this season. Repeating as second-place finisher in the U.S. Division is an achievable goal, but catching defending WHL champion Portland may again prove elusive.

Chris Derrick, The Spokesman-Review

Tri-City Americans

Last season: 40-27-2-3, third in the U.S. Division, fifth in the Western Conference; lost to Spokane in first round of the playoffs.

Head coach: Jim Hiller (fifth season).

Key losses: F Justin Feser, who led the team in scoring with 44 goals and 62 assists; F Malte Strömwall, the team’s second-leading scorer, who opted to stay in his native Sweden.

The 20-year-olds: D Mitch Topping, who was named team captain; D Zach Yuen, who still is in Toronto’s camp; F Phil Tot, who was limited to 15 games last season with a concussion; F Jessey Astles, acquired in an offseason trade.

Key returnees: G Eric Comrie had successful hip surgery and is 100 percent to start the season; F Connor Rankin, 19, the top returning scorer (32 goals, 26 assists); F Brian Williams will be counted on to improve on his 20 goals from last season.

New faces: F Ty Comrie, younger brother of Eric Comrie, led the team in preseason scoring with seven points; F Taylor Vickerman, a Kennewick native who played his rookie season with Vancouver last year.

The prognosis: A disappointing preseason (2-6-0-0) shouldn’t have any bearing on the regular season. Comrie should be solid in net. The team averaged 3.4 goals a game last year, which won’t be enough if they want to be in the upper half of the Western Conference.

Annie Fowler, Tri-City Herald

Seattle Thunderbirds

Last season: 24-38-7-3, seventh in Western Conference; lost in first round of playoffs.

Head Coach: Steven Konowalchuk (third season).

Key losses: No. 1 G Brandon Glover, C and team captain Luke Lockhart and C Adam Kambeitz all graduated.

The 20-year-olds: D Jesse Forsberg; RW Seth Swenson; LW Mitch Elliot.

Key returnees: D Shea Theodore; RW Connor Honey; LW Roberts Lipsbergs; C Alexander Delnov.

New face: C Mathew Barzal, the first overall pick in the 2012 bantam draft, finally signed after a protracted recruitment.

The prognosis: Seattle, which made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, returns nearly intact. If Seattle can get adequate goaltending, it should make significant strides forward this season.

Nick Patterson, Everett Herald

Everett Silvertips

Last season: 25-40-3-4, eighth in Western Conference; lost in first round of playoffs.

Head coach: Kevin Constantine (first season).

Key losses: D Ryan Murray, who missed much of last season because of a shoulder injury, is off to the professional ranks; LW Ryan Harrison, D/RW Landon Oslanski and D Connor Cox graduated.

The 20-year-olds: C/LW Joshua Winquist, C/RW Reid Petryk and C Manraj Hayer return; D Matt Pufahl was acquired in a trade with Saskatoon.

Key returnees: Swedish D Mirco Mueller; G Austin Lotz; Winquist was Everett’s leading scorer last season.

New face: LW Jujhar Khaira, who left Michigan Tech University during the summer, is expected to be a major impact player if he returns from camp with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.

The prognosis: Everett went through a full rebuild last season and added some potential impact pieces during the offseason. The Silvertips expect to climb several notches up the ladder.

Nick Patterson, Everett Herald