Saskatoon Blades sit out in front: WHL East Division preview
Laying out the Western Hockey League's East Division, the Saskatoon Blades clearly sit out in front of their division rivals, on paper anyways. It is easy to pick out the leader in the pack, but not so much to construct the pecking order of how it will play out behind the MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts.
Goals may come sparingly in the East Division this year. The six-team division lost a handful of elite snipers in the offseason, such as, Brandon's Mark Stone, Kevin Sundher and Michael Ferland, Moose Jaw's Quinton Howden, Prince Albert's Justin Maylan, and Regina's Jordan Weal.
Goaltenders and defencemen will be counted on heavily. If a team's puck-stopper comes up big, it could mean a home-ice-advantage playoff spot. But at the other end of the spectrum, if a netminder struggles, it could very well mean no second season for his squad.
Here is a look at a preview of the Dub's East Division.
In 2011-12 — 40-29-1-2, 83 points, fifth in Eastern Conference. Swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round.
Drafted — D Duncan Siemens (Colorado Avalanche, first round), D Dalton Thrower (Montreal Canadiens, second), C Lukas Sutter (Winnipeg Jets, second), D Darren Dietz (Montreal Canadiens, fifth), W Shane McColgan (New York Rangers, fifth), W Matej Stransky (Dallas Stars sixth)
Draft Watch — W Nik Zajac played strong in an energy role last year. G Alex Moodie turned some heads during a call-up stint last year while No. 1 goalie Andrey Makarov was out of the lineup.
Frankly, the division should be somewhat of a cakewalk for coach-GM Lorne Molleken's Blades.
Their test will come in the post-season and of course the MasterCard Memorial Cup. It is do-or-die year for Molleken's Blades. This will be their last kick at the can to finally win their first championship in the near future because a rebuild will inevitably follow this year.
With the offseason additions of McColgan and overage Brenden Walker, Saskatoon's offense is shaping up nicely. They are, however, missing a first-line centre. One assumes that Molleken will look to improve their talent down the middle through a trade.
It seems Saskatoon's latter end of the year will come down to the play of Makarov, who recently signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He proved at the world juniors for Russia that he can stand on his head when it is all on the line. Nonetheless, he looked like a far cry from his world junior form for Saskatoon at times last year. His concussion can be partially blamed for his inconsistent play. But it also seems he was somewhat fatigued down the road, lacking endurance.
Prince Albert Raiders
In 2011-12 — 21-45-3-3, 48 points, last in Eastern Conference.
Drafted — C Mark McNeill (Chicago Blackhawks, first round), C Mike Winther (Dallas Stars, second), D Harrison Ruopp (Phoenix Coyotes, third).
Draft Watch — D Josh Morrissey has the potential to be selected with a top 10 pick.
Prince Albert undoubtedly has the scariest offense in their division. They have McNeill, Winther, 36-goal scorer Anthony Bardaro, and German sensation Leon Draisaitl up front. Morrissey, who scored 10 goals and 38 points as a 16-year-old rookie last year, will anchor their back end.
Goaltending was a major issue for the Raiders last year. They weren't happy with Eric Williams between the pipes. So they dealt him to the Spokane Chiefs in a deal for Luke Lee-Knight, who is now with the Tri-City Americans. This year they are hoping overager Luke Siemens, whom they acquired from the Moose Jaw Warriors in the offseason, will give them consistency in the blue paint. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder posted a .907 save percentage and a .256 average throughout 55 games for the Warriors last year. He did, however, struggle in the playoffs, posting a .883 average. Therefore, it does seem he is an upgrade for the Raiders, but he isn't exactly the answer as a No. 1 goaltender.
Swift Current Broncos
In 2011-12 — 27-37-2-6, 62 points, 10th in Eastern Conference.
Drafted — W Adam Lowry (Winnipeg Jets, third round), C Graham Black (New Jersey Devils, fifth), W Coda Gordon (Calgary Flames, sixth), D Reece Scarlett (New Jersey Devils, sixth), D Richard Nedomlel (Detroit Red Wings, sixth).
Draft Watch — C Colby Cave could fit in behind Black as the Broncos' second-line centre. C Tanner Lesann scored four points in six pre-season games. D Dillion Heatherington has an appealing 6-foot-2 frame and plays with an edge.
Having lost significant coin in 2009-10, 2010-11, and possibly last year, the Broncos desperately need to get back into the playoffs for financial reasons. Some post-season revenue would quite likely get them back into the black.
Swift Current's squad is finally shaping up. Lowry, Black, Scarelett, and Nedomlel are headed into their 19-year-old seasons. Brycen Martin, who was the second pick in the 2010 bantam draft, is about to make the jump. In addition, they think they finally have a top goaltender after drafting Eetu Laurikainen in June.
The bottom line with the Broncos will come down to goaltending. Stopping pucks has been their Achilles heel over recent years. They need Laurikainen to change that to help them get back into the playoffs. The Czech Republic native has been so far so good, posting a 1.91 average and .923 save percentage throughout three pre-season games.
Moose Jaw Warriors
In 2011-12 — 45-19-6-2, 98 points, second in Eastern Conference. Lost out in the East final to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Drafted — D Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs, first round), D Joel Edmundson (St. Louis Blues, third), D Travis Brown (Chicago Blackhawks, fifth).
Draft watch — W Carter Hansen played strong in a limited role last year, posting 18 points in 52 games. C Nikita Zagryadskiy is a 6-foot-3 Russian who will receive plenty of opportunity to excel in Moose Jaw.
The Warriors' time to shine was last year. This year Moose Jaw won't be in the running for the Ed Chynoweth Cup but scraping and scuffling just to make the playoffs.
Moose Jaw bid adieu to Florida Panthers first-rounder Quinton Howden, New York Rangers first-rounder Dylan McIlrath, hulking winger and St. Louis Blues prospect Cody Beach and overagers James Henry and Cam Braes.
The Warriors will heavily depend on 16-year-old Brayden Point to light the lamp and 16-year-old Justin Paulic to guard the crease. Point impressed during his stint with the club in the post-season, notching seven goals and 10 points in 14 games. Paulic suited up for two playoff games, maintaining a 2.57 average and .906 save percentage.
In 2011-12 — 37-27-6-2, 82 points, seventh in Eastern Conference. Lost out in the first round to the Warriors in five games.
Drafted — W Chandler Stephenson (Washington Capitals, third round).
Draft Watch — W Morgan Klimchuk appears to be poised to be a top-60 pick.
Don't count out a strongly coached team. That's why one can't count out Pat Conacher's Pats.
Having lost their top goal-scorer Jordan Weal to the Los Angeles Kings organization and their top two blueliners Brandon Davidson and Martin Marincin to the Edmonton Oilers system, the Pats definitely need a handful of players to step up this year.
Regina's offense needs rookie Adam Brooks and 17-year-old Klimchuk to soften the blow of losing Weal. The Pats would love to see Brooks post 40 points and Klimchuk to score north of 60 as a sophomore.
The Queen City kids will need overage goalie Matt Hewitt to be on top of his game. The 5-foot-11, 155-pound goaltender has to be their best player for the Pats to get back in the playoffs for the second straight season.
Brandon Wheat Kings
In 2011-12 — 39-28-1-4, 83 points, sixth in Eastern Conference. Swept by the Oil Kings in the second round.
Drafted — C Tyrel Seaman (St. Louis Blues, seventh round)
Draft Watch — D Ryan Pulock was ranked as a top 10 prospect in BTN's 2013 draft ranking. D Eric Roy could join Pulock as a first-round draft pick.
Having made the playoffs the past 12 consecutive seasons, it is hard to imagine the Wheat Kings out of the post-season. Nevertheless, this season could be unlucky 13.
The Wheat Kings lost five of their top six forwards in the offseason. Two-time 100-point scorer Mark Stone headed up the graduates and GM Kelly McCrimmon dealt 80-point winger Brenden Walker to the Blades for draft picks.
Brandon will need to play very strong defensively to finish in the top eight. Essentially meaning, 19-year-old Corbin Boes will need to come up big. The Saskatoon native was strong between the pipes last year, but he will need to be even better this year.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen