U.S. Division cream of WHL crop
By Tim Pigulski
In Yahoo! Sports blogger Neate Sager’s weekly Dynamic Dozen post, the junior hockey pundit listed three U.S. Division teams in his top 12 and included one more in his list of honorable mentions. Keep in mind that the teams that crack the list are not selected just from the WHL, but from the entire CHL, meaning that teams from the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League are also included.
The rankings for each team are determined based on a series of calculations that take into account strength of schedule, opponents’ strength of schedule, and whether or not the team had home-ice advantage.
According to Rob Pettapiece, who crunches the numbers for Yahoo! Sports, RPI is broken down into the following three categories: 25 percent is based on a team’s record, 50 percent is the average of their opponents’ records (excluding their games against that team), and the final 25 percent is the average record of their opponents’ opponents.
With a trio teams making the list, the U.S. Division is equal with the Western Conference’s B.C. Division, but wins the tiebreaker with one team earning recognition in the “not as dynamic but still very distinguished dozen.”
As it is still very early in the season, “there are results that may not be sustainable, or [may] just seem ‘off’,” says Pettapiece.
While this holds true, the rankings at least provide a look into the strength of the U.S. Division, which appears to be one of the most competitive in the entire CHL this season.
Portland Winterhawks (third on Sager’s list; 13-3-1-0)
The highest ranked U.S. Division team on the list, Portland trails only the Kamloops Blazers (17-2-0-1) and Kelowna Rockets (10-6-1-1). It’s easy to see why Portland is able to continue its streak of greatness – just take a look at some of the names on their roster: Seth Jones, Derrick Pouliot, Ty Rattie, Nic Petan, Troy Rutkowski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brendan Leipsic, Mac Carruth, and the list goes on and on.
In their 17 games to date this season, the Winterhawks are averaging over four goals per game and have a goal differential that doubles that of their opponents – 71 goals for, 34 against.
After a bit of a slow start – what would be considered average under most circumstances – general manager and head coach Mike Johnston’s team is 9-0-1-0 in their past 10 games, putting them in sole possession of first place in the division.
Their 27 points also place them second in the WHL behind only Kamloops, whose torrid start came to an end last week as they fell to Kelowna.
Now that they appear to have found their chemistry, consistency in net with Carruth, and Seth Jones has become acclimated to Major Junior hockey, watch out for Portland to catch Kamloops before it’s all said and done.
Spokane Chiefs (fifth; 13-6-0-0)
The injury bug has seemed to find the Chiefs lately, as a number of players on the roster, including leading scorer Mitch Holmberg, will likely be missing from the lineup for significant periods of time.
However, in that time Spokane has already seen a few players step up and assume larger roles, including center Mike Aviani, whose 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points ranks him 17th in the WHL.
Nineteen-year-old goaltender Eric Williams has also picked some of the slack lately, making saves on 75 of 79 shots he saw for a 0.949 save percentage and a 1.42 goals against average in three games last week. His outstanding performance earned him a nomination for the WHL’s top goaltender of the week.
Without any surefire superstar, this Chiefs team has learned well from outstanding head coach Don Nauchbar and is getting contributions from all four lines. Players like Adam Helewka and Todd Fiddler, who haven’t really been offensive forces in the past, are making the most of their opportunities and increased playing time.
Once their upper-tier players return from injury and with their newfound depth, Spokane will continue to be a strong team and should challenge Tri-City for the second spot in the division.
Seattle Thunderbirds (sixth; 8-9-1-0)
Sager’s rankings came out prior to the Thunderbirds’ two games this week, both losses against rather pedestrian teams in Brandon and Regina. As a result, it’s likely that Seattle will drop significantly in the next edition of the “Dynamic Dozen.”
Despite their average record, the T-Birds have faced a very difficult schedule so far: Portland three times, Kamloops twice, and Spokane three times, which gave them a boost in the overall rankings.
“[Seattle’s high ranking] is mostly due to a very road-heavy schedule and a lot of games against Portland/Spokane/Kamloops – not necessarily because of anything they’ve done themselves,” says Pettapiece. “Those factors will eventually balance out over time.”
Inconsistency has plagued the Thunderbirds so far this season. Their record would indicate as much, but each game also acts as a microcosm of that fact – the Thunderbirds generally will play a strong game throughout, but in each of their losses a period of time ranging from about five to 15 minutes will doom them. Look no further than their loss at Swift Current last Friday, where they held the lead for the first two periods, then allowed three goals, including two shorthanded, in a span of about four minutes.
Such up-and-down play can likely be traced back to the youth of the team, which means it should become less of an issue as the year progresses. However, as 17-year-old defenseman Jared Hauf correctly stated last week, getting those extra points early in the season is vital and puts much less pressure on the players at the end of the year.
Tri-City will probably jump ahead the Thunderbirds in the standings by the end of the season, but Seattle should still make the playoffs, as they look like a much better team than Everett and Vancouver has already begun selling off much of their roster, including talented defenseman and Edmonton Oilers’ draftee David Musil. With eight of 10 teams making the playoffs in the Western Conference, there’s no way the Thunderbirds should miss out this year.
One positive note to take away from the team’s play thus far is the contribution being made by all four lines. Sixteen-year-olds Michal Holub and Daniel Wray, both questionable to make the roster at season’s beginning, are looking to be important players on the team. Additionally, eight players have four or more goals and nine have already registered 10 or more points.
Tri-City Americans (16th; 12-6-1-1)
After an ugly start, the Americans are back to winning games. Most of the praise this team receives should be directed at 17-year-old goalie Eric Comrie, who currently ranks fifth in the WHL in goals against average, ninth in save percentage, second in wins, and second in minutes played.
Comrie has separated himself from the rest of the league and looks like he’ll be the first goalie off the board in the 2013 NHL draft, possibly going in the first round.
Tri-City’s offense hasn’t been particularly impressive, as Justin Feser and Malte Strömwall are the only consistent scorers, but their defense has been impressive. Featuring Winnipeg Jets’ draftee Zachary Yuen, Mitch Topping, Michal Plutnar, and Drydn Dow in front of Comrie, it will be tough for opponents to generate a ton of offense against the Americans.
Early in the season the team has had to do some roster shuffling, dealing mainstays Jordan Messier and Sam Grist and losing Patrick Holland to the AHL. As the season wears on and chemistry improves, Tri-City should be able to challenge Spokane for number two in the division.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.