Mon Aug 27 10:30pm EDT
Looking into the crystal ball of the Western Hockey League's 2012-13 season, five clubs stand out as the cream of the crop.
The Edmonton Oil Kings are undoubtedly leading the five-horse race. All signs point to the Oil Kings winning back-to-back championships.
Actually, on paper, Edmonton may have a stronger team next year than last. They are set to lose all-star defenceman Mark Pysyk along with overagers Jordan Peddle, Tyler Maxwell, and Rhett Rachinski. But they are also poised to have Edmonton Oilers prospect Travis Ewanyk and Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder Henrik Samuelsson for a full season, Ewanyk only played 11 games last year due to injury and Samuelsson spent the first half of the season in the Swedish Elite League. Youngsters such as Curtis Lazar, Edmonton Oilers draft pick Mitchell Moroz, Cody Corbett, and Ashton Sautner appear to be on the verge of breakout seasons.
The Oil Kings don't have a hole in their roster. Their offense is strong down the middle and on the wing, led by New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix, who scored 105 points last year, Dylan Wruck, who scored 80 points and Lazar, who is regarded as a top talent of the 2013 draft. On the blueline, they have a big shutdown defenceman, New York Islanders first-rounder Griffin Reinhart, a slick puck-moving sniper, Oilers prospect Martin Gernat, and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Keegan Lowe, who proved to be a strong two-way player last year. Lastly, the Oil Kings are rock solid between the pipes. Calgary Flames prospect Laurent Brossoit stood tall last year, posting a 2.47 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.
Two uncertainties in Edmonton: if there isn't a NHL lockout, there is a slight chance Reinhart might make the Islanders. In the likely scenario where there is, the Oil Kings might be able to keep Oilers prospect Kristians Pelss for his overage season because Edmonton's AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, will be a tough team to crack.
The Portland Winterhawks are set to lose Flames first-rounder Sven Bartschi, Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Joe Morrow, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Brad Ross, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Marcel Noebels, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Gabriel, and Nashville Predators prospect Cam Reid to the pros. But no worries, Mike Johnston is driving this boat. Portland will be fine.
Johnston proved once again why he's quite likely the top general manager in the Dub by recruiting highly-regarded 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones beside the likes of Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot and Flames prospect Tyler Wotherspoon is the writing on the wall for one of the top bluelines in the CHL, let alone WHL.
The question isn't are the Winterhawks good enough to get to the finals - rather can they beat the Oil Kings? As it stands, not on paper, especially if Chicago Blackhawks prospect Mac Carruth doesn't return for his overage season in Portland's blue paint. Nonetheless, Portland's motivation should be higher than Edmonton's since the Winterhawks have lost out the past two years in the final round. Edmonton doesn't have near as much to prove with championship rings on their fingers.
Colorado Avalanche prospect Colin Smith down the middle, Montreal Canadiens prospect Tim Bozon and 92-point sniper Brendan Ranford on the wing — this could be one of the top lines in the WHL next year. This line alone is a good enough reason to throw the Kamloops Blazers in the mix of Ed Chynoweth Cup contenders.
Columbus Blue Jackets defensive prospect Austin Madaisky, 23-goal scorer Chase Schaber, and 29-goal scorer Brandon Herrod won't be back for Kamloops.
Nonetheless, the CHL is a revolving door. It's out with the old and in with the new. The new for Kamloops includes Jordan Thomson, the fourth pick of the 2011 bantam draft and 17-year-olds Matt Needham and Cole Ully, who will have greater roles after combining for 54 points.
Cole Cheveldave will be the big man in the crease next year. He succeeded in his rookie season last year as an 18-year-old, maintaining a 2.62 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. Cheveldave will just need to keep it simple next year. He won't be heavily counted to steal games, rather be counted on to make the easy saves and keep his team in the game when it is close.
The Blazers may not have a shiny first-round NHL draft pick in their lineup. But Guy Charron's team does have strong overall depth and enough elite goal scorers to make a loud rumble in the post-season for the second straight season.
The Calgary Hitmen broke back into the playoffs last year despite finishing dead last in 2010-11 the previous season. Even though they seemed to overachieve with their home-ice advantage playoff spot, Calgary appear to be on the upswing.
The Hitmen have added Jake Virtanen, the No. 1 pick of the 2011 bantam draft, and Pavlo Padakin, the 50th pick of the past import draft, on the wing. These two snipers will lessen the blow of losing overager Jimmy Bubnick, who led their team in points last year with 77.
It's not set in stone whether Carolina Hurricanes prospect Victor Rask will be back. Barring an NHL lockout, he could end up in The Show. There is a rumour amongst WHL circles that Rask would like to play pro hockey in Sweden next year rather than major junior if Carolina isn't an option. Nonetheless, Rask's boss, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, would prefer to have him in a Hitmen sweater. Moreover, his future boss should be able to twist his arm into sticking in Calgary.
If Rask does return and Padakin sticks, Russian sniper Alex Gogolev looks like the odd man out for imports. He is in Calgary. However, sources suggest there is a strong chance he will spend his overage season with a different club.
Since the Hitmen dealt puck-stopper Brandon Glover to the Seattle Thunderbirds, Ottawa Senators prospect Chris Driedger will be counted on heavily in the crease. The 6-foot-2, 186-pounder posted 24 wins in 44 games last year with a 2.80 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage. The best is definitely yet to come from Driedger, who played in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game last season. He seems to be poised to blossom into one of the Dub's top netminders.
On paper, the Saskatoon Blades look very promising. They have four 60-plus point scorers upfront - overagers Josh Nicholls, Brenden Walker, Dallas Stars prospect Matej Stransky, and Rangers prospect Shane McColgan. Their back end is stacked, consisting of Avalanche first-rounder Duncan Siemens and Canadiens prospects Dalton Thrower and Darren Deitz. And between the pipes Russian puck-stopper Andrey Makarov has proven to be an elite talent, single-handedly winning games on occasion.
What is on paper doesn't always translate into results, though. This was evident in the Blades first-round four-and-out debacle against the Medicine Hat Tigers last year and the same story the year before against the Kootenay Ice in the second round.
Nevertheless, the Blades have a free ride in a fancy car to the MasterCard Memorial Cup. That is when it becomes do or die for Lorne Molleken's Blades.
The Shawinigan Cataractes, who lost out in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, were a far cry from Memorial Cup material last year, but that didn't stop them from beating out the teams that earned their way to the tournament. It wouldn't be crazy for Saskatoon to follow the Cataractes' lead. After all, they will have the crowd behind them and quite possibly a longer break to rest than their opponents.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen.