Brier 2015: Contenders, challengers and long shots

Last year's champs. If Kevin Koe (L) is to repeat as a Brier winning skip, he'll have to do it with a new team in 2015. (Michael Burns/CCA)

The 2015 Brier gets underway this weekend, with a field that is jam-packed with a slew of evenly matched teams vying for four playoff positions and, ultimately, a shot at hoisting the venerable tankard on Sunday night, March 8th. Splitting this field up into three groups is not easy. “It’s a pretty hefty field this year," notes Team Canada lead Nolan Thiessen. "There’s a lot of good teams. There’s going to be good teams that go 5 and 6 at this thing.” Indeed, while the Scotties seemed a little more cut and dried, the 2015 Brier holds possibilities for many more teams.

NOTE: Team rankings come from the World Curling tour's Order of Merit (Year-to-Date) standings.

CONTENDERS

In this group, three teams stand out as most likely to secure a playoff spot at the end of the round robin. They are: Alberta (skipped by Kevin Koe), Newfoundland & Labrador (Brad Gushue) and Northern Ontario (Brad Jacobs).

Team Alberta is basically an all-star team, formed at the end of the 2013-14 season, when Koe decided to leave his Brier champion teammates to form a new squad with Ben Hebert, Marc Kennedy and Brent Laing. A rink that's filled with talent, the foursome got off to a decent start despite their unfamiliarity. Getting used to each other on the ice takes some time and their task was made even greater when they decided to put Laing in the house to call line on Koe's shots. As a longtime second for Glenn Howard - and a lead for John Morris before that - Laing was new to that task. Despite needing time to work out the kinks, Koe's team won the DHD Fall Classic, in October, against a strong field. They also won the Karuizawa International, in Japan, in December, and were just about untouchable at the Alberta provincial championship earlier this month. Ranked 6th in the world (and in Canada, as the top eight teams in the Order of Merit standings are Canadian), Alberta's team is approaching the top of its game as the Brier draws near.

Northern Ontario is represented by the 2014 Olympic (and 2013 Brier) champions, who also happen to be the number two ranked team in the world. Like their female Olympic champion counterparts, Team Jennifer Jones, they have stayed hungry and dangerous despite coming off a dream season. Jacobs, Ryan and E.J. Harnden and Ryan Fry won the Skins Game, in January, and were part of Canada's win at the Continental Cup. Their biggest win on the tour came back in September. They were beaten twice by Mike McEwen in finals this season; at The National and the Canada Cup. This team raised the standard for hard work and physical fitness over the last few seasons and they will not be bested in those areas at this event. They set the bar and the rest have been chasing. Problem for Jacobs and company is that, while they are still top drawer in every aspect of the game, the pack behind them has been gaining, doing what they can to mimic their success.

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Brad Gushue is making his 12th appearance at the Brier, an event he has never won. This might well be his best shot yet and the return of an old friend and teammate seems to be the catalyst that has brought him here. Gushue and Mark Nichols were together for Olympic gold in 2006, but parted in 2011. With Nichols returning this season to play vice, the crew from St. John's has been sensational, winning two Grand Slam events; The Masters and The Canadian Open. As well, they headed overseas to win The Perth Masters, in Scotland. Ranked 3rd on the planet, some are making them their pick to win Newfoundland & Labrador's first Brier title since 1976. Sportsnet analyst Mike Harris is one of them. "I think (they've) been the most consistent team this year," he wrote in an email. "With Nichols back on the team they are as good top to bottom as any team in the world. And they're due..."

 CHALLENGERS

Holy hammer, we've got an excellent, excellent group of challengers in this event. You can make a good case for any of them as playoff teams. If any of the top three rinks have a bad week, two of these could easily get in. 

Team Canada is the reigning champ, but with a very big difference. Pat Simmons, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen return, but the skip who led them to the 2014 title - Koe - is up there in the "contenders" category with his new team. With John Morris in as skip, they are just fine top to bottom. While the first half of their season was a struggle, they played well at the Continental Cup and Skins Game. Thiessen believes they have ironed out their wrinkles and you can read more about that here. They're currently ranked 31st in the world but don't let that fool you. They've played fewer events, generally speaking, than the top-ranked squads.

The challengers from Saskatchewan have had a splendid year, and come into The Brier as the 5th-ranked team in the world. Skipped by Steve Laycock, they lost to Koe in the final of the DHD Fall Classic, last October, and then suffered two quarter-final losses to McEwen at Grand Slam events. At their third Slam, The Canadian Open, they got the silver, losing only when champion Brad Gushue made a fantastic draw to win it in the final end. Laycock returns with the same team that went to the Brier a year ago, where they finished with a 6 and 5 record and just out of the playoffs.

They missed those playoffs because Quebec was slightly better, finishing with a 7 and 4 record. Jean-Michel Ménard, like Laycock, returns to this year's Brier with the same team he skipped a year ago. Ranked 19th in the world, Ménard - the 2006 Brier champion -  is as sharp a shooter as there is and he feels that a change in team strategy might be the ticket to get him back to the top this year. This team won't be quite so slow to hit the bail-out button in any given end. You can read more about Quebec's change in strategy here.

Some see team Manitoba as a long shot in this field, simply because Reid Carruthers is a first time skip, with a newly formed team. But all of them have previous Brier experience and how can you underestimate a group that knocked off McEwen's number-one ranked team twice on the same weekend to win the provincial championship? Beyond that, they've been steady all season, ranked 4th in the world. They won an October event in Oakville, Ontario, in a good field, but failed to get past the quarter-finals in both The National and The Canadian Open.

Jim Cotter's B.C. rink has three members left over from last year's loss in the Brier final. John Morris is gone after playing one year with them and Cotter goes back to being the skip, with new vice Ryan Kuhn jumping in. Three of B.C.'s first four games come against Alberta, Northern Ontario and Newfoundland & Labrador. If Cotter is hot and B.C. gets through that stretch in good shape, they're a serious challenger. Another team that plays a relatively light schedule, they are ranked 27th in the world. Their best finish in a Grand Slam event, this season, was a quarter-final loss to Laycock at the Canadian Open.

LONG SHOTS

Ontario, skipped by Mark Kean, is a young and talented team but with not a lot of Brier experience. Lead Scott Howard has appeared at two Briers, as an alternate for his father, Glenn. Their time may well come. Northwest Territories, with Jamie Koe at skip, has lots of Brier mileage under their belts. However, in this field they'll be hard pressed to duplicate the one playoff appearance they made, in 2012. New Brunswick, skipped by Jeremy Mallais falls into this group as well.

Prince Edward Island (Adam Casey), Nova Scotia (Glen MacLeod) and Yukon (Bob Smallwood) will battle for the final Brier berth when they meet in the qualifying round-robin just ahead of the main event. Of the teams in the 'long shots' category, the most likely to jump up and prove they didn't really belong down here, is Casey's P.E.I. rink. The former Gushue second has skipped his team to 13th place in the WCT's year-to-date standings. They missed the playoffs at The National, but beat Brad Jacobs in a round robin game at that event.

THE OVERVIEW

This could shape up as the most competitive Brier we've seen in years. If it plays to form, the top three will get their playoff spots while a mad scramble for the fourth position ensues. If one of those big three falters, we could be in for a boatload of tiebreakers at the end of the week.

TO SEE AN INTERACTIVE MAP WITH ALL BRIER TEAMS AND THEIR CLUB LOCATIONS, CLICK HERE

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