It looks like all the other teams in the U.S. Division again will be chasing the Seattle Thunderbirds as the regular season opens on Saturday.
Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur anointed the Thunderbirds the favorites again until someone can figure out how to beat them regularly. Seattle advanced all the way to the Western Hockey League finals last season before falling to the Brandon Wheat Kings.
“Seattle should be the cream of the crop based on how they made it to the league finals,” Nachbaur said. “But from that point, it’s pretty wide open.”
He noted that both the Portland Winterhawks and Everett Silvertips both lost key players, “but we know they are still going to be tough,” he said. “Tri-City will be vastly improved. I’m not sure where we fit in there.”
The Chiefs finished fourth in the U.S. Division before falling 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs to the Victoria Royals.
“I know that we will be the youngest team this year,” Nachbaur said. “We’ll be talented, but we’ll be young and talented. The key is always finding consistency.”
U.S. Division capsules (in predicted order of finish):
Last season: 45-23-4-0, won U.S. Division, lost in WHL Finals
Coach: Steve Konowalchuk (6th season as coach).
Key losses: Graduated D Jerret Smith; D Jared Hauf, G Landon Bow; LW Ryan Gropp to New York Rangers.
The 20-year-olds: C Scott Eansor; F Cavin Leth.
Key returnees: C Mathew Barzal (27G 61A) drafted 2015 by NY Islanders, 1st round; F Keegan Kolesar (30G 31A) drafted 2015 by Columbus in 3rd round; D Ethan Bear (19G 46A) drafted 2015 by Edmonton in 5th round; C Scott Eansor (12G 30A); G Logan Flodell (2.68 GAA, .904 SV).
New faces: C Elijah Brown, Seattle’s first round pick in 2015; Import Moilanen; F Luke Ormsby.
The prognosis: If Barzal is returned Seattle will be a contender to repeat as Western Conference Champions, without him, team will be competitive and could still win U.S. Division but rest of division will have made up ground.
Andrew Eide, 710 ESPN Seattle
Last season: 38-26-5-3, second in U.S. Division, lost to Seattle in five games in conference semifinals.
Coach: Kevin Constantine (fourth season).
Key losses: Overagers C Remi Laurencelle; LW Carson Stadnyk; D Cole MacDonald, 1996-born D Brycen Martin (pros); 1996-born RW Dawson Leedahl (traded to Regina); 1996-born D Tristen Pfeifer (retired due to concussions).
The 20-year-olds: D Lucas Skrumeda, F Graham Millar.
Key returnees: D Noah Juulsen (first round 2015 NHL draft-Montreal); G Carter Hart (second round 2016 NHL draft-Philadelphia); D Kevin Davis; RW Patrick Bajkov; C Matt Fonteyne.
New faces: RW Dawson Butt; LW Orrin Centazzo; RW Bryce Kindopp; C Brett Kemp; D Ian Walker; D Montana Onyebuchi; D Wyatte Wylie; D Gianni Fairbrother.
Prognosis: The Silvertips will once again be solid in net with Hart, but must develop some defensive depth to complement Juulsen, Davis and Skrumeda. The offense? Let’s just say get ready for a lot of 3-2, 2-1 and 1-0 games.
Jesse Geleynse, Everett Daily Herald
Last season: 33-30-5-4, fourth in the U.S. Division.
Coach: Don Nachbaur (7th season).
Key losses: Captain defenseman Jason Fram and forward Wyatt Johnson both graduated; goalie Tyson Verhelst quit hockey and the team traded backup goalie Lasse Petersen.
The 20-year-olds: F Dominic Zwerger (27 g, 28 a, 55 points); F Keanu Yamamoto (22 g, 32a, 54 points); F Markson Bechtold (17 g, 31 a, 48 points); Goalie Jayden Sittler (.903 saves percentage).
Key returnees: F Zwerger is the team’s leading goal scorer; F Kailer Yamamoto is the team’s leading overall scorer (19 g, 52 a, 71 points); F Keanu Yamamoto; F Hudson Elynuik (19 g, 25 a, 44 points), who was drafted in the third round by the Carolina Panthers; D Tyson Helgensen (3 g, 23 a, 26 points); D Evan Fiala (6 g, 12 a, 18 points). Both Helgensen and Fiala are big bodies who can move.
New faces: G Jayden Sittler (3.24 GAA); D Ty Smith, the former No. 1 pick will get a chance to play with the team full time.
The prognosis: Injuries and missing players forced the Chiefs to play several younger players in key points in the season. Management hopes that extra experience will help this team, which remains rather young, avoid the effort swings. Depending on how the team manages overages, the Chiefs will have some lethal scorers and big bodies on defense to challenge anyone.
Thomas Clouse, The Spokesman-Review
Last season: 34-31-6-1, third in U.S. Division, lost first round of playoffs.
Coach/general manager: Mike Johnston (seventh season, first since 2013-14)
Key losses: F Dominic Turgeon, F Paul Bittner and D Jack Dougherty will play pro hockey as 20-year-olds; G Adin Hill may move on to the AHL; F Rihards Bukarts, F Alex Schoenborn and D Blake Heinrich graduated.
The 20-year-olds: F Keegan Iverson is the only sure bet to be back; Hill could be returned by Arizona; Latvian F Rodrigo Abols.
Key returnees: D Caleb Jones is the leading returning scorer (55 pts); Sophomore F Cody Glass; F Skyler McKenzie; F Ryan Hughes; F Evan Weinger; D Keoni Texeira and D Brendan De Jong. Michael Bullion looks to be the new starting goaltender in Hill doesn’t return.
New faces: Rookie forwards Ty Kolle and Brad Ginnell;. Jackson Caller. Veteran goalie Cole Kehler came over in trade with Kamloops.
The prognosis: The Hawks are likely set to take a step backward as Johnston attempts to get the franchise back on track with a young roster. Expectations are low this year, but Johnston should make Portland fun to watch even if losses are frequent.
Scott Sepich, Portland-based freelance writer
Last season: 35-34-2-1, ninth in Western Conference.
Coach: Mike Williamson (3rd season).
Key losses: Leading scorer Parker Bowles; captain Beau McCue; and rugged F/D Mackenze Stewart. D Brandon Carlo has another year of eligibility, but has opted to join the Boston Bruins organization.
The 20-year-olds: F Tyler Sandhu (19g, 29a, 48 points), D Jeff Rayman (3g, 2a, 5 points), D Dalton Yorke (2g, 11a, 13 points).
Key returnees: F Jordan Topping (33g, 34a, 67 points) is the team’s leading returning scorer; D Parker Wotherspoon (11g, 45a, 56 points), the team’s second-leading returning scorer; F Michael Rasmussen (18g, 25a, 43 points) helped team Canada to a fifth-place finish at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Tournament; G Evan Sarthou (60 GP, 26-28-2-0, 3.46 GAA, .888 save percentage), who will be in his second year as the stater.
New faces: F Carson Focht is a proven scorer and should help out right away; F Keltie Jeri-Leone has shown promise in the preseason, as has C Riley Sawchuk.
The prognosis: While scoring is a need, consistency in goal is a must if Tri-City wants to get back to the top of the U.S. Division. Sarthou was a step below his stellar season the year before when he stepped in for the injured Eric Comrie. The Americans will be young once again, but second-year forwards Lukin, Morgan Geekie, Parker AuCoin, Jordan Roy and Nolan Yaremko should be ready for more responsibility this season.
Annie Fowler, Tri-City Herald
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.