The Seattle Thunderbirds haven’t won a division title since the 2004-05 Western Hockey League season.
If the sages are correct, that’s about to change.
The Thunderbirds, 38-25-4-5 last season, are favored to supplant the Everett Silvertips atop the tough U.S. Division during the WHL’s 50th season.
Seattle was ranked seventh in the WHL’s preseason poll, the only U.S. Division team among the top 10. Spokane Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said that makes sense.
“For me, the way that I would look at a preseason poll is that you look at the last few years and see where (the Thunderbirds have) drafted as a team,” Speltz said. “So for their 19-year-olds, I think Ryan Gropp was the sixth overall pick that year, so that’s going to give you a good player. The year after, they picked (Mathew) Barzal. He was first overall.
“So that’s kind of the start of your 19- and 18-year-old group, and that’s a pretty good start. I don’t think any other team in our division can say, ‘Boy, we have those types of returning players coming back.’ ”
The division had been dominated by Portland until last season, but the Winterhawks can never be counted out.
“It’s pretty obvious that Seattle’s going to be good, and I like Portland’s team. I think they’re going to be tough,” Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur said. … “There won’t be any easy games in our division.”
U.S. Division capsules (in predicted order of finish):
Last season: 38-25-4-5, third in U.S. Division, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Steve Konowalchuk (fifth season).
Key losses: D Shea Theodore signed with Anaheim; RW Justin Hickman signed with Boston; LW Roberts Lipsbergs, G Taran Kozun and D Evan Wardley all graduated.
The 20-year-olds: RW Jamal Watson; D Jerret Smith; D Jared Hauf.
Key returners: C Mathew Barzal (12G, 45A) drafted by New York Islanders; LW Ryan Gropp (30G, 28A) drafted by New York Rangers; RW Keegan Kolesar (19G, 19A) drafted by Columbus Blue Jackets; D Ethan Bear (13G, 25A) drafted by Edmonton Oilers.
New faces: G Taz Burman, acquired from Red Deer Rebels; D Jarret Tyszka, team’s first pick in 2014 bantam draft.
The prognosis: Seattle will have a high-end group of forwards up front and a strong defensive group. If the goaltending holds up, the Thunderbirds could be the favorites in the division.
Andy Eide, 710 ESPN Seattle/Sportsnet.ca
Last season: 43-23-2-4, second in U.S. Division, lost Western Conference final.
Head coach: Jamie Kompon (second season).
Key losses: WHL MVP RW Oliver Bjorkstrand is off to pro hockey, as are C Nic Petan, C Chase De Leo and D Anton Cederholm; F Miles Koules, D Adam Henry and D Josh Hanson graduated.
The 20-year-olds: D Blake Heinrich; RW Alex Schoenborn.
Key returners: LW Paul Bittner; C Dominic Turgeon; RW Keegan Iverson; G Adin Hill.
New faces: D Caleb Jones, brother of ex-Hawk Seth Jones; D Jack Dougherty; C Cody Glass.
The prognosis: The Winterhawks may not be the elite powerhouse they’ve been in recent years, but there’s enough talent to reasonably make a run at a sixth consecutive conference final appearance.
Scott Sepich, freelance writer
Last season: 43-20-3-6, first in U.S. Division, eliminated in second round of playoffs.
Head coach: Kevin Constantine (third season).
Key losses: RW Nikita Scherbak (27G, 55A) is a Montreal Canadiens draftee who will play professionally this year; C Ivan Nikolishin (16G, 46A) was traded to Red Deer; C Kohl Bauml (30G, 30A) graduated.
The 20-year-olds: G Austin Lotz; C Remi Laurencelle (23G, 18A); RW Carson Stadnyk (27G, 42A); D Cole MacDonald (10G, 26A); (one must go).
Key returners: D Noah Juulsen (9G, 43A); RW Patrick Bajkov (23G, 22A); D Kevin Davis (3G, 22A); G Carter Hart (2.29 GAA, .915 save percentage).
New faces: LW Brandon Ralph, acquired from Edmonton; C Connor Dewar, team’s fourth-round pick in 2014 bantam draft; D Jantzen Leslie, team’s first-round pick in 2014.
The prognosis: The Silvertips should be solid on defense and in goal. Where the goals will come from will be the primary concern as the season unfolds.
Jesse Geleynse, Everett Herald
Last season: 34-34-3-1, fourth in U.S. Division, lost in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Don Nachbaur (sixth season).
Key losses: LW Adam Helewka (44G, 43A), currently on the roster of the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda; LW Calder Brooks (23G, 35A) graduated; C Liam Stewart (25G, 28A) graduated; D Nick Charif (16A), chose to forego overage season to attend Western University in London, Ontario; D Tamas Laday, of Hungary, traded to Medicine Hat.
The 20-year-olds: D Jason Fram (9G, 53A); RW Riley Whittingham (19G, 14A); G Garret Hughson (2.80 GAA, .902 SAV).
Key returners: C Kailer Yamamoto (23G, 34A); D Evan Fiala (12A), invited to participate in the Florida Panthers’ development camp; RW Keanu Yamamoto (12G, 17A); LW Markson Bechtold (8G, 13A).
New faces: C Jaret Anderson-Dolan; D Jeff Faith, Jake Toporowski and Dalton Hamaliuk.
The prognosis: The Chiefs are still a step behind the league’s best, especially if Helewka doesn’t return. But they’re building toward what could be a superior team in two years, given the five picks they had during the first three rounds of the bantam draft.
Chris Derrick, The Spokesman-Review
Last season: 31-38-0-3, fifth in U.S. Division, lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Head coach: Mike Williamson (second season).
Key losses: Richard Nejezchleb (51 points), Lucas Nickles (24G, 22A) and D Justin Hamonic all graduated; G Eric Comrie is off to the pro ranks.
The 20-year-olds: F Brian Williams (17G, 25A), Parker Bowles (13G, 31A) and Beau McCue (26G, 25A); D Tyler Morrison (one must go).
Key returners: D Brandon Carlo; D Parker Wotherspoon (33A); G Evan Sarthou (7 shutouts); F Tyler Sandhu (16G, 18A).
New faces: F Parker AuCoin.
The prognosis: While the defense is solid, the Americans had the second-lowest goal count (190) last season. If they want to be in the thick of things, they have to find a way to score.
Annie Fowler, Tri-City Herald
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