It’s no secret that the Thunderbirds will look much different next season. In addition to a large number of veterans who won’t return, new faces will be scattered throughout the lineup on Sept. 19, when the T-Birds head down to Portland for their opener against the rival Winterhawks.
The inevitable turnover has led to some speculation that Seattle may be in trouble next season. After all, the U.S. Division sent each of its five teams to the playoffs and was the toughest in the WHL last year.
However, Seattle won’t be the only team forced to make wholesale changes, as each of the division’s other four clubs will need to answer some questions and replace star players – and in some cases, coaches – to maintain their stature.
The Winterhawks are guaranteed to lose their three overagers from last year in forward Adam Rossignol, defenseman Garrett Haar, and goalie Corbin Boes. While Rossignol served mostly as a lower-line sparkplug, Haar contributed 45 points from the blue line, and Boes went 13-1-0-1 in his 16 regular-season games with Portland.
More importantly for the Winterhawks, they’re also likely to lose a combined 264 points in Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier, Mathew Dumba, and Derrick Pouliot, who should all be playing in the AHL next season. Each was a top line-quality player during his time in the WHL and will be difficult for Portland to replace. When the Winterhawks graduated stars like Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, and Seth Jones to the NHL, they were more than able to make up for their production without missing a step with the players they’ll be losing this offseason. However, with the WHL’s sanctions for impermissible player benefits forcing Portland to sacrifice a number of high draft picks, keeping the cupboard fully stocked won’t come quite as easily over the next few years.
Of course, the biggest loss for the Winterhawks may be the absence of head coach and general manager Mike Johnston, who took the head coaching job with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Johnston took over a dismal Portland team that had missed the playoffs three years in a row, winning just 47 games during that span, and turned it into a powerhouse that played in four consecutive WHL Championships and nearly took home the 2013 Memorial Cup (as part of the sanctions, Johnston was suspended for most of the 2013 season and playoffs, but it was still widely considered his team).
The Chiefs won’t be losing the same quantity of players that the Winterhawks will, but they’ll still have a number of questions to answer when training camp begins. Mitch Holmberg, the WHL’s leading scorer during the 2013-14 season, is graduating. Mike Aviani, who had 81 points and 116 penalty minutes, also concludes his WHL career. Eric Williams was a 20-year-old goaltender who played in 58 games, winning 33, and posted a .906 save percentage.
Behind Holmberg and Aviani, the team’s top scoring forward was Adam Helewka, who had 50 points in 62 games. For the Chiefs to make the playoffs, players such as Connor Chartier and Riley Whittingham will need to take huge steps forward. Spokane returns a couple of defensemen who have shown they can score in Reid Gow and Jason Fram, but it remains to be seen how many of the Chiefs’ points were the result of Holmberg’s and Aviani’s offensive prowess. Of the 119 points that Gow and Fram combined for, 107 were assists.
Everett also loses its top scorer in Josh Winquist, who concluded his 20-year-old season last year with 93 points in just 67 games. Winquist made a huge jump during his final campaign after scoring 51 points in 51 games as a 19-year-old. Also gone are Manraj Hayer, a talented forward when he was in the lineup, and Matt Pufahl, the Silvertips’ captain last year who tallied 50 points in 62 games from the Everett blue line.
Jujhar Khaira, who came to the ‘Tips shortly before last season began, moves on to the AHL as a 20-year-old after scoring 43 points in 59 games in his lone WHL season. Khaira, whose younger brother Sahvan signed with the T-Birds a few weeks ago, showed that he could be a dominant power forward at times and has an NHL future ahead of him.
It’s also beginning to look like Mirco Mueller may figure into the San Jose Sharks’ plans for next season, which would be a critical loss for the Silvertips. The Sharks let two of their top six defensemen in Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart move on this offseason. With Brent Burns moving back to defense, there’s still a spot open on the San Jose blue line, and Mueller has impressed in his tryouts with the Sharks. With a team that’s fallen short of expectations for the past few seasons, San Jose will transition to a younger roster, which will be beneficial for Mueller, who has bulked up this offseason in an effort to better prepare him for NHL opponents.
Tri-City perhaps loses the least of any U.S. Division team, but the Americans also finished a distant fifth in the division, 18 points behind fourth-place Spokane.
Gone will be forwards Phil Tot and Jessey Astles, who combined for 58 points in 101 games, as well as defenseman Mitch Topping, who had 24 points in 50 games and was a minus-9 during the regular season.
The Americans are thin on high-level talent, but will at least be able to remain competitive with Eric Comrie in net, and players like Brian Williams, Parker Bowles, Beau McCue, and Brandon Carlo scattered throughout the roster.
They’ll also see a change behind the bench, as former Calgary head coach Mike Williamson will now be calling the shots after being fired by the Hitmen despite posting a 48-17-0-7 record last season. He’ll replace Jim Hiller, who was fired by the Americans after five seasons.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski