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2016-17 WHL season preview: Can T-Birds repeat in the US Division?

Ethan Bear had two goals and three assists in Wednesday night’s Game 3 win. (Thunderbirds photo)

By Tim Pigulski and Andy Eide

With the 2016-2017 WHL season finally here, we give you our fifth annual prediction piece.

This is your guide to everything that will happen with the T-Birds and the league in general. Who’s going to win? How will Seattle fare in the U.S. Division? Who will the first player to get drafted? We have it all for you here.

Here’s how it will all play out.

Can Seattle win the U.S. Division?

Tim Pigulski: Once again, expectations are high for Seattle, and anything less than a second consecutive U.S. Division crown should be seen as a disappointment. Mathew Barzal’s questionable return is a factor, but even without him, Seattle should still have the talent and experience to beat out the rest of the division. Everett is a team that consistently finishes near the top of the division with Kevin Constantine behind their bench, and Portland should trend upwards with Mike Johnston back in town. Spokane is perhaps a year away from all of its elite young talent gelling, and Tri-City should be much better than it was last year. Even considering all of these factors, no one should be ready to surpass Seattle this season.

Andy Eide: The defending division champs should be considered the favorites to repeat this year, with or without Barzal in the fold. If the Islanders return Barzal, the T-Birds could end up winning the division with some cushion. If not, they will be in a dog fight, but they still have a pretty good amount of depth with guys like Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar and Scott Eansor. Picking up Rylan Toth solidifies their situation in goal and that might just be enough to push them over in a Barzal-less situation. Spokane is a team on the rise and is loaded with young talent and could give Seattle the biggest push in the division. Don’t sleep on the Tri City Americans either. If they can get Evan Sarthou back to form, they can score enough to make some noise.

Who will lead the T-Birds in scoring?

AE: If Barzal were to play a full season in Seattle there wouldn’t be much question here. Even if he does return, he will miss a significant amount of games so that could take him out of the running. Kolesar will be back and looking to improve on his 30-goal season last year. But the leading scorer may come from the blue line in defenseman Bear. The Edmonton Oilers prospect was as good as any defenseman in the WHL last year, setting career highs with 19 goals and 65 points. He’ll be back and may have a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed by the Canadian World Junior team this past summer. Shea Theodore lead the team in scoring a couple of seasons ago, and this year we may see another as Bear will have another strong season.

TP: Even if Barzal only comes back after the break, he could very well end up leading the team in scoring despite playing in so few games. He’s that good of a player. In 58 games last year he had 88 points, and that number should likely grow even if he plays in fewer contests. If Barzal doesn’t come back, Kolesar is in for a huge season. He averaged nearly a point per game last season and could be in for 70-80 this year as one of Seattle’s top offensive threats. He should spend the entire season on Seattle’s top line, which will open up tons of opportunities for him.

Most important newcomer?

TP: This is a toss-up between Sami Moilanen and Toth. Toth, as goaltender, is always going to be watched closely, and you absolutely need good goaltending to succeed. However, Toth has proven himself over multiple years and Seattle should know what it’s getting out of him. Moilanen, on the other hand, is a bigger question mark. Seattle will hope that he can produce offensively after the departure of Ryan Gropp and potential loss of Barzal. Moilanen has shown so far that he’s ready to contribute immediately, and his effectiveness will be necessary for Seattle to do well.

AE: The team picked up Toth and he’ll get the majority of the starts in the Seattle net. The T-Birds saw last year how important having a solid guy in net can be as Landon Bow led them through the Western Conference playoffs. With the uncertainty of Barzal’s return and the loss of Gropp, having a stingy net-minder will be important. But Seattle needs someone to help score goals with what it is losing up front. Import Moilanen could be a guy who steps in and provides some offense. He’s looked good in the preseason and scored three goals in the last two games against Everett. He’s quick, plays bigger than his build and looks to have a pretty high hockey sense. If Seattle can get some decent production from him it could be OK up front.

Who will be the T-Birds MVP?

AE: Not to be a broken record but this is another category that comes with the Barzal caveat. If he’s back, he’ll be the key player for Seattle. After Barzal there are a number of key guys. Eansor was named captain earlier this week and will be counted on to cause havoc again this season. Toth in net will be a big asset as will guys up front like Kolesar. But the MVP will be Bear. He may end up leading the team in scoring and will be the key in Seattle’s top defensive pairing. We saw how he can step up in big games after he scored twice and added an assist in Seattle’s Game 7 win over Kelowna and then went on to be one of Seattle’s best players in the finals. That will carry over and the T-Birds will rely on Bear to lead them again this season.

TP: Barzal may miss a good chunk of the season, but will still be the most valuable player on the team if he returns. His presence changes the entire game plan for both teams and opens up opportunities for the entire lineup. Aside from Barzal, Bear will be critical to Seattle’s success. He was their leading scorer among defensemen last season and, now playing on the first line, will be matched up against the opposition’s best forwards. He’ll play on the top power play and penalty kill and will see a ton of minutes.

Who is the sleeper in each conference?

AE: In the East, the Moose Jaw Warriors should be considered a sleeper. The Brandon Wheat Kings, Lethbridge Hurricanes and Regina Pats are all the top dogs and should be in the mix to win it all, but don’t sleep on former Seattle Breaker Tim Hunter’s squad. The Warriors lose some real firepower up front with Braydon Point and Dryden Hunt moving on, but they still have an explosive club coming back. Noah Gregor and Brett Howden will lead a strong offensive group. In net they have a promising goalie in Zach Sawchenko, who will need to have a big year. The big question with this group is whether or not they can limit chances and goals against. That was their weakness last season and playing in a conference that plays a wide open style, they will need to step it up on defense. In the West, watch out for the Kamloops Blazers. Don Hay’s team started slow last year but caught fire late. You could argue that they have the conference’s best goalie in Connor Ingram and up front they can score with guys like Collin Shirley and Matt Revel. The B.C. Division as a whole is deep and those teams could end up bludgeoning each other all season long, so the Blazers have their work cut out for them.

TP: In the West, Spokane is my candidate for biggest sleeper. The Chiefs have lots of young talent, but the expectation is that they will need some time to come together before they can become a top team. There have been multiple occasions where teams have made the jump earlier than expected, and the Chiefs seem to be the most likely to make that leap this year. In the East, Lethbridge was a huge sleeper last season in finishing second in the East. It was an enormous jump from second to last in the WHL the year before. This year, despite losing two of the league’s best in Brayden Point and Dryden Hunt, Moose Jaw could surprise with Noah Gregor, Brett Howden and Nikita Popugaev still on the roster. Sawchenko also returns in net and could steal a few games for the Warriors.

Who wins each conference and the league?

AE: In the East, the Wheat Kings will be tough again this year, especially if they get Ivan Provorov back from the Philadelphia Flyers. It was assumed that the defenseman would be gone this year but he was in camp with Brandon and there are some whispers that he may be back for one more year. Despite losing some good players, the Wheat Kings still have Nolan Patrick and an experienced goalie in Jordan Papirny and will be in the mix either way. In the end though, they just may lose out to the Regina Pats. The Pats were a tear in the second half of the season and pushed Red Deer to the limit in the second round of the playoffs. They should get back last season’s leading scorer in Adam Brooks who, along with Sam Steel, will give them as good a top line as you’ll find. Look for Regina to get to the finals for the first time since 1984. The Victoria Royals were less than a second away from facing Seattle in the Western Conference finals last season. After dropping a heartbreaker to Kelowna, they will be back for more this season. They have the goaltending in Griffen Outhouse, and while they lose Joe Hicketts on defense, they are loaded with speed up front. Matthew Phillips, Tyler Soy and Dante Hannoun are all fast and loaded with skill. Seattle could challenge them in the playoffs but look for Victoria to get past the T-Birds and advance to their first appearance in the WHL Finals.

TP: They won’t be as dominant as last year after losing a ton of talent, but the Brandon Wheat Kings are still the slight favorite in the East. Patrick is back as the presumed first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and can take over games on his own. Stelio Mattheos and Kale Clague are in for big jumps this year and could help offset some of what was lost. Papirny is back for his 20-year-old season and should be one of the conference’s better goaltenders. In the West, Victoria should be the best, but Barzal’s potential return could vault Seattle above the Royals in the standings. The Royals were seconds away from facing the T-Birds in the Western Conference finals last year and will certainly be looking to avenge their disappointing loss to Kelowna. Whoever wins the West seems like the favorite to represent the WHL in the Memorial Cup.

Who leads the WHL in scoring?

TP: The aforementioned Patrick seems like the clear-cut choice to lead the WHL in points this year. He had 102 points in 72 games last year and, with his late birthday, has yet to get drafted, meaning he’ll spend most of the season in Brandon. He was a stud in the regular season last year and only improved during the postseason. Even more of the Wheat Kings’ offense will run through Patrick, giving him every opportunity to put up eye-popping offensive numbers.

AE: Regina 20 year old Adam Brooks comes back as the reigning scoring champ, and there’s no reason to think he won’t again. He’s got skill around him which will help and after scoring 120 points last year he likely will get there again this season. Patrick will be in the mix but he will most likely miss games over the holidays to play in the World Junior Championship which will cost him in the race.

Who will be the first WHL player selected in the NHL Draft?

AE: Brandon’s Patrick will not only be the first WHL player drafted but he should go first overall. He’s topping almost every draft ranking out and after watching him play during last year’s playoffs and final you can see why. He’s big, strong and can skate and handle like a smaller player. That’s a deadly combination, and with being a late birthday, he has a leg up on the development. The U.S. Division has two players who may push to be selected in the first round after Patrick: Spokane’s Kailer Yamamoto and Tri City’s Michael Rasmussen.

TP: This question is obvious as Patrick is the early favorite to not only be the first WHL player drafted but the first player drafted period. He’s an elite talent who averaged over a point per game as a 16 year old and then improved on those numbers last year. He’s a complete player who didn’t shy away on the big stage, winning Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. Whichever NHL team wins the draft lottery should be pleased with the player they’ll be getting in Patrick.

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