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Kamloops Blazers handle heat as unfamiliar favourites: WHL B.C. Division preview

Kamloops Blazer F Brendan RanfordLast season, the Kamloops Blazers were the only B.C. Division team to escape the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. It marked the ending of a perpetual rebuild in the Tournament Capital, led by second-year coach Guy Charron.

But the Blazers also finished the regular season in somewhat surprising fashion, at the top of the B.C. Division table, ahead of perennial powerhouses Vancouver Giants and Kelowna Rockets, who had finished 1-2 in the division every year dating back to 2008.

This season, it ought to be the same three teams competing, but the Blazers are the likely favourites.

Kamloops Blazers

In 2011-12 — 47-20-2-3, 99 points, second in Western Conference. Won 4-0 over Victoria in Western Conference quarterfinal. Lost 4-3 to Portland in Western Conference semifinal.

Drafted — F Tim Bozon (third round, Montreal Canadiens), F Colin Smith (seventh round, Colorado Avalanche).

Draft Watch — F Matt Needham showed up at Canada's Ivan Hlinka camp in August. F Cole Ully is a darkhorse, while D Josh Connolly was the fourth overall pick in the 2011 bantam draft.

The organizational move made this offseason that best helped the Blazers wasn't even made by a WHL club: the Philadelphia Flyers chose not to sign petulant pest Brendan Ranford for whatever reason, and he'll return to Kamloops as an overage player who can be effective in both ends of the rink and in the faceoff circle.

All eyes, meanwhile, will be on Tim Bozon, and whether he can improve on his 36 goals in 71 games scoring rate in 2012-13. He'll be flanked by the same linemates, Colin Smith and J.C. Lipon, all a year older, so the team should be just as good if not better on offence.

The real pressing issue is on defence. The team lost top defenceman Austin Madaiskyto the AHL's Springfield Falcons, which opens up a spot for younger, smaller defencemen, who hopefully don't take any penalties. The focus could be on Cole Cheveldave, the goaltender who was injured in the playoffs, to carry this team past the second round this season.

Wes VannieuwenhuizenVancouver Giants

In 2011-12 — 40-26-2-4, 86 points, fourth in Western Conference. Lost 4-2 to the Spokane Chiefs in first round.

Drafted — F Jordan Martinook (second round, Phoenix Coyotes), D Brett Kulak (fourth, Calgary Flames), From 2011, D David Musil (Edmonton) F Marek Tvrdon (Detroit)

Draft Watch — This is a very veteran team. F Anthony Ast is the squad's best shot.

The club lost both Brendan Gallagher and Martinook to the pros. For the first time it what seems like forever, there isn't that elite forward on the Giants and they'll have to go scoring-by-committee. Marek Tvrdon returns as an import and he'll be sharing the scoring duties along with Cain Franson.

This appears to be a team built for the present rather than the future, but Don Hay is a capable coach who knows how to use his ressources. There's a lot of depth up front and their defence is exceptional on paper. They have five returnees, including big defencemanWes "Ctrl+V" Vannieuwenhuizen and draftee Brett Kulak who should provide some offensive punch when activated. The third overage spot is given to John Neibrandt, formerly with Kootenay and he played on their WHL Championship team two seasons ago.

Kelowna Rockets

In 2011-12 — 31-31-4-6, 72 points, sixth in Western Conference. Lost 4-0 to the Portland Winterhawks.

Drafted — Colton Sissons (second round, Nashville Predators), D Damon Severson (second round, New Jersey Devils), F Ryan Olsen (sixth round, Winnipeg). From 2011 D Dylan McKinlay (Minnesota).

Draft Watch — Defensive factory Kelowna has another big man in D Mitch Wheaton, who will "undoubtedly have a large following of scouts". D Madison Bowey is also on the radar.

Well, who is going to score? With Brett Bulmer leaving for the pros and Shane McColgan being traded to Saskatoon, the Rockets have some holes to fill, but a lot of talent to do it with. Colton Sissons, captain, defensive specialist, all that, will provide some of the discrepancy by improving with his age.

One of the problems I see on this club is that the three overage spots given to J.T. Barnett, Dylen McKinlay and Mitchell Chapman, are known more for accruing penalty minutes than goals, making it more difficult to find those free 25-goal scorers.

The team added Mitch Wheaton, who is 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. Along with NHL-select Damon Severson (6-2, 198) and Chapman (6-3, 230), the average height and weight of the average Rocket defenceman is 6-1 and 196 pounds. A pretty easy corps to pick out of a police lineup, and coach Ryan Huska will be looking on them to protect the relatively inexperienced Jordon Cooke and Jackson Whistle goaltending tandem.

Logan NelsonVictoria Royals

In 2011-12 — 24-41-3-4, 55 points, seventh in Western Conference. Lost 4-0 to the Kamloops Blazers.

Drafted — F Steven Hodges (third round, Florida Panthers), F Logan Nelson (fifth round, Buffalo Sabres). From 2011 D Jordan Fransoo (Ottawa).

Draft Watch — D Keegan Kanzig is the favourite. He's a big defenceman who, if nothing else, can win you a few games of Scrabble.

Dave Lowry takes over a team that was undermanned last season and shouldn't have made the playoffs in any reasonable universe. But they are poised to score a few goals this year. Jamie Crooks is in for a big overage season, Alex Gogolev is worthwhile enough to take up the rare "overage import" slot, and they had two NHL draftees, Logan Nelson and Steven Hodges, who were 2nd and 3rd on the team in scoring last season.

But scoring wasn't their problem last year; it was defence and goaltending. Jared Rathjen had just an .837 save percentage last season and he would otherwise be the team's starter. Cameron Hope looked to the import draft to stop the bleeding, selecting Czech Patrik Polivka who put up a respectable, if not overly dominant, .917 in the Czech U-20 league last season. If the team is looking to make waves on defence, it comes in the form of three 96-born rearguards on the roster, headlined by 12th overall selection in the 2011 bantam draft Joe Hicketts. The team brought in Brandon veteran Jordan Fransoo to make up for the loss of Hayden Rintoul and stop some of the bleeding at the back end.

Prince George Cougars

In 2011-12 — 24-46-0-2, 50 points, 10th in Western Conference.

Drafted — F Troy Bourke (third round, Colorado). From 2011 F Colin Jacobs (Buffalo)

Draft Watch — F Alex Forsberg was the top pick in the 2010 bantam draft and scored 15 goals in 59 games last season. They have five '95-born defencemen, D Raymond Grewal, D Michael Mylchreest, D Joseph Carvalho, D Tanner Lishchynsky and their big man, D Mark McNulty. One is bound to take on big minutes and impress the scouts.

There's no greater crime for a hockey writer than to cover a team that is not only bad, but also uninteresting. The Cougars are in a prolonged slump, missing the playoffs three out of the last five years and not finishing higher than seventh in the conference since 2006. They traded top scorer Charlie Inglis last season due to character concerns despite having zero offensive punch in reserve. Troy Bourke and Alex Forsberg, 17 and 16 respectively, led the team in scoring.

Their overage group, D Daniel Gibb D Dallas Ehrhardt and F Brock Hirsche, played in a combined 130 games last season, scoring six times. While two are defencemen, you may as well use up a scorer on one of those spots. Thing is, you need the two defencemen since the team does have five '95-born defencemen and while they're big, 17-year olds aren't necessarily your best option on defence, especially since your only goalie with experience, Devon Fordyce, had a .875 save percentage last season.

This will be another rebuilding season in Prince George.

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