The 2013-2014 WHL season is here for the T-Birds as they host Portland on Saturday (photo Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski and Andrew Eide
Finally, hockey season is here. Summer is waning, training camps are over and it's time to play hockey that counts. The Western Hockey League season officially kicked off Thursday night as the Swift Current Broncos took out the Regina Pats by a score of 7-2. The rest of the league will get going this weekend with the T-Birds hosting the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday night at the ShoWare Center.
Every new season brings about excitement and anticipation and the T-Birds expect big things this year. After snapping their playoff drought last season they got a taste of success and are hoping to build off of that and go further. How will it all play out? Who will surprise us? Who will be the team leader? How will the rest of the league fare?
These are all good questions and Tim and Andrew are here to answer them for you. One quick disclaimer, if any of our bold predictions do not come to pass we will conveniently forget this post ever happened.
So here are our bold, and not so bold, predictions for the upcoming season. See you at the rink.
Where will the T-Birds finish in the standings?
Andrew: I think the U.S. Division is still Portland's to lose this year, but I do think that Seattle and Everett will leap frog over Tri City and Spokane to battle for second. Everett will be improved but I truly believe that Seattle is deeper at both ends of the ice and will end up in second place in the division and will get the fourth seed that they are after.
Tim: Seattle has expressed that the goal is to finish in the top four and gain home-ice advantage in the first round. This is a very legitimate possibility this season, but I'd expect them to finish around fifth or sixth in the Western Conference this season. Portland and Kelowna are at the top, and Everett, Tri-City, Spokane, Victoria, and Seattle will likely round out the top seven.
Who will be the T-Birds most valuable player?
Tim: I expect Connor Honey to be the T-Birds' most valuable player. He'll put up big points on offense, be a huge part of the power play, and is a leader in the locker room. Honey, 19, has shown tremendous growth since entering the league and looks ready to truly break out this season.
Andrew: With the depth that the T-Birds have there are many worthy candidates to be the team MVP. Roberts Lipsbergs should have a big year again this year as well as guys like Alex Delnov, Shea Theodore and a healthy Branden Troock. To me though, Connor Honey will end up being the team's MVP. Honey plays hard every shift, plays with a lot of emotion and is not afraid to throw his body around. He has a big cannon on the power play and will be the T-Birds on ice leader. When he was suspended in the playoffs the T-Bird really missed him which to me, was telling.
Who will lead the T-Birds in scoring?
Andrew: Again, with the depth up front for Seattle the team scoring lead could be a real dog fight. If Troock stays healthy he'll be in the mix, as will Connor Honey, Alex Delnov and rookie Mathew Barzal. I'm going to say it's a repeat of last year and that Roberts Lipsbergs will again lead the team in scoring. He scored 30 goals last year, has an elite NHL-caliber shot and will be skating with a top play-maker in Barzal. That could lead to a lot of Lipsbergs goals this year.
Tim: A number of players could earn this title, including Honey, Roberts Lipsbergs, or Branden Troock, but I'm going to guess that Alex Delnov leads the team in scoring. He's able to make plays by himself but is also very good at utilizing his teammates. He led the team in scoring during the preseason looks ready for a big season. He'll likely center both the top even strength and power play lines, putting him in a position to score a lot of points.
Who needs to step up?
Tim: Branden Troock will be the biggest T-Birds X-factor this season. The most talented wing Seattle on Seattle's roster, Troock's WHL career has been plagued by injuries. If he can stay healthy this year, he can push the T-Birds into the top four in the conference. He's had a very good preseason and looks poised for a big season, so long as he can stay on the ice.
Andrew: With inexperienced goalies in Justin Myles, Danny Mumaugh and Devon Fordyce the T-Birds defense will have to step up this year. They've gone from green rookies to three year guys who have gone through hard times and come out the other end. At the end of last season the defense was beginning to choke their opponents and they will need to keep that up this year. The best friend to a goalie is a defense that keeps shots down and to the outside -- the T-Birds will need to do just that as their young goalies grow.
Most important newcomer?
Andrew: Without a doubt its Mathew Barzal. There were nervous moments last year as the team worked on getting him to sign but he's in the fold now and looks every bit the star in the making we thought he was. So far in training camp he has displayed an extremely high and mature hockey IQ. He sees the ice, he creates on his own and finds the open space on the ice. He will be a joy to watch this season and will make everyone around him better. Go see him a lot over the next two seasons as that may be all Seattle has him for.
Tim: Mathew Barzal looks like he'll be centering the second line, putting pressure on the rookie to produce immediately. Playing with Roberts Lipsbergs and Justin Hickman, the team is hoping that Barzal's adjustment period is brief, as he'll be lined up next to two proven WHL players who are capable of putting up a good number of points. Barzal has looked ready during the preseason, but the 72-game regular season is an entirely different beast. Nothing has given us reason to think he’s not ready for the full schedule, and the expectation is that Barzal will be able to score right away.
Who will lead the WHL in scoring?
Tim: Brendan Leipsic of the Portland Winterhawks will lose Ty Rattie on his opposite wing, but still have Nic Petan as his center. Sam Reinhart may be the most talented player in the league, but he doesn't have the same supporting cast or experience that Leipsic does. The Portland wing put up huge numbers last year and will do so again this year for another solid Portland team.
Andrew: Portland returns Brandon Leipsic and Nic Petan who were the top two scorers last year. They will be in the race again this season as they looked like they hadn't missed a beat in the preseason. Leon Draisaitl from Prince Albert will also be in the mix this year as the German hopes to build on his stellar rookie season. Despite those guys I'm going to say that Kootenay's Sam Reinhart takes the league scoring title this year.
Who will win the two conferences? League title?
Andrew: I think both conferences will have interesting races and playoffs this year as there are not two clear cut winners as there were last season with Portland and Edmonton. This year I think that Kelowna will edge Portland in the playoffs and win the West. In the East I think the Prince Albert Raiders will win the conference over Calgary and end up in the finals. They've added a goaltender this year, their big weakness last year, and have the scoring. In the finals I think the Rockets will prevail and take home the cup.
Tim: Portland and Kelowna will fight for the top spot in the West, but I believe Portland will come out on top again. They were by far the best team in the conference last season, but lost a good amount of talent, especially on the blue line, which may make it a bit closer. However, with a talented roster and coaching staff, Portland looks ready to continue their run atop the Western Conference.
The East will be a bit different. Edmonton and Calgary were tops last season, and it looks like both will have a strong record once again. Calgary features Jake Virtanen, who could be a very high NHL draft pick, but Edmonton, despite losing a ton of talent, still has Curtis Lazar, Henrik Samuelsson, and Tristan Jarry in net. I'll pick Edmonton to take the East, meaning that they will meet Portland for the third consecutive season in a fight for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Which WHL player will be the first selected in the NHL Draft?
Tim: Sam Reinhart has the chance not only to be the top WHL player drafted, but also could be the first overall pick in the NHL draft next season. He's a gifted offensive player who was one of few bright spots on the Kootenay roster last season. If he had a more talented supporting cast, Reinhart would be an easy bet to put up well over one hundred points, but his ability is still widely recognized by NHL teams. There isn't really any doubt in my mind that Reinhart should be the first player from the WHL selected, and probably will go first overall period as well.
Andrew: Sam Rheinhart will not only be the first WHL player selected in the NHL draft but he just may be the first overall pick. Because of his late birthday Rheinhart is entering his draft year with two full WHL seasons under his belt. He already has potted 65 career goals and is one of the smartest players in the league.
Follow Tim and Andrew on twitter @tpigulski and @andyeide