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Spokane Chiefs, Portland Winterhawks 1-2 in season’s first BTN Dynamic Dozen; QMJHL’s best play in the West

Mitch Holmberg, Spokane's overage forward, leads the WHL with 37 points (Larry MacDougal, The Canadian Press)

The Dynamic Dozen kicks off with a rare feat — a team with the highest RPI that has also played the toughest schedule.

The Portland Winterhawks have the headliners and the eight-game win streak, yet the Spokane Chiefs and Western League scoring leader Mitch Holmberg open at No. 1 in BTN's unique nationwide ranking. Consider a gauntlet thrown down for the entire season. Or at least one hopes so since it could be awfully repetitive if the three-time WHL Western Conference champion Winterhawks assume top spot and never give it back.

Portland and Spokane go head-to-head on Saturday.

1. Spokane Chiefs, WHL (.612 RPI, +2.1 SRS, —) — That would be Spokane which has flourished while having the most daunting S-o-S. The question of how long the Chiefs can keep this up mostly centres around goalie Eric Williams. The overage had averages in the 3.00-plus range over his first three seasons, but has been dialled in with a 1.89 and .931 save percentage. League scoring leader Mitch Holmberg has also factored into 65 per cent of their scoring plays, which is also tough to sustain over the long haul. Still, they have done an impressive job through the first quarter of staving off an inevitable Portland rise to the WHL Western Conference lead.

Will that game vs. the Winterhawks on Saturday feel like a road tilt for each team? Spokane will have to travel overnight from Vancouver after playing their Friday, whereas the Winterhawks 'only' have to journey from Seattle.

2. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (.612 RPI, +2.3 SRS, +3) — No rebuild, just a reload. The Winterhawks, at least as it appears from this vantage point, have just decided to outscore everyone in the wake of losing Seth Jones, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon off the blueline, along with faceoff man extraordinaire Taylor Peters. That win over Spokane last weekend that vaulted them into the conference lead, though, was proof they can handle the heavy going.

Oliver Bjorkstrand's breakout (30 points in 15 games) was more or less foretold last spring, when the dashing Dane had a strong playoff while apprenticing to replace Ty Rattie as a first-line wing. Portland, with the likes of Nic Petan, Chase De Leo, Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier also producing early, already seems close to running on all eight cylinders.

3. Guelph Storm, OHL (.600 RPI, +2.5 SRS, —) — Something to ponder is to what extent — maybe none, I could be talking out the wrong end — Guelph got a boost from having the band back together earlier than the typical veteran team. All of their front-liners with NHL draft slots in between No. 30 and 70 overall, such as Tyler Bertuzzi, Jason Dickinson, Scott Kosmachuk, Brock McGinn and No. 1 defencemen Matt Finn and Ben Harpur, were back from NHL camps in time for the season opener.

Time will tell if those draft slots were on the money; the OHL is light-years off from the pro game. Yet the Storm have a group of above-average prospects who are thriving in major junior. That leaves one to wonder if that will be applied to judging their best prospect up for the 2014 draft, centre Robby Fabbri, who has 19 points and is plus-11 over 15 games. Clearly, Guelph has done something right at getting young players to put all the tools together. You would think that would prompt a team to gamble earlier than expected on a Storm player.

4. Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, QMJHL (.593 RPI, +1.6 SRS, —) — The Armada have home-and-homes over the next two weeks with the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Chicoutimi Saguenéens, two perfectly cromulent squads, so chances are they might get stuck with a second regulation loss before the 20-game mark.

By the way, who says a team's back end must be beefy? The Armada does not have a defenceman who weighs more than team plus/minus leader Aaron Hoyles, a Newfoundlander who checks in a 5-10 and 199 pounds. Yet their goalies' average is a league-best 1.92. Two Ontario natives, defenceman
Nathanael Halbert and wing Marcus Hinds, have also been two-way forces.

5. Kelowna Rockets, WHL (.586 RPI, +2.2 SRS, -3) — Over the weekend, Rockets radio voice Regan Bartel pondered whether Jordon Cooke — his parents knew he'd be a goalie, hence the second Ois the best goalie the franchise has ever drafted. A piggyback question is how many teams hang on to a goalie who does not become a No. 1 before his 19-year-old season? A common impression is a lot of goalies get passed around the league before they get a foothold. Kelowna set up a line of succession by having Cooke back up Adam Brown for two seasons before he took the reins last fall. He's off to a great start with an 1.85 average and .939 save percentage, both tops in the Dub.

6. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL (.575 RPI, +1.6 SRS, —) — The 'Hounds, with an OHL-best .857 point percentage through 14 games, have had luck be the residue of design thus far. The imports, Carolina Hurricanes signing Sergey Tolchinsky and Norwegian newcomer Jorgen Karterud, have combined for a solid 38 points. The overage forward trio of Andrew Fritsch, Tyler Gaudet and hometowner Patrick Watling have also been prolific with a combined 51. It is rare to have all three overages work out so well.

The Soo's week ahead includes a potentially intriguing Matt Murray-Jake Paterson goalie matchup on Saturday in Saginaw. Murray's leading the OHL in average and save percentage, while Paterson, who played a season of Junior A in the Soo area, is a Team Canada incumbent.

7. Erie Otters, OHL (.568 RPI, +1.8 SRS, +7) — Erie's strength of schedule, 46th among 60 teams, is the lowest among the top dozen teams. Connor McDavid and Co. are fully here on merit, having won 10 in a row while having a healthy lead over the next-best power play and penalty-killing units.

How much has Erie's all-around improvement eased the burden on goalie Oscar Dansk (2.00 average, .922 save pct.)? The Columbus Blue Jackets second-rounder has gone from seeing 36.6 shots per game to 25.7.

8. Kingston Frontenacs, OHL (.556 RPI, +1.2 SRS, -1) — Something almost newsy in the Double-D! The Fronts' attempt to reverse their recent sag involves shaking up the top two lines, putting 18-year-old whippet Corey Pawley alongside precocious playmaker Sam Bennett and Finnish national junior team hopeful Henri (Hank) Ikonen. Sophomore sniper Spencer Watson is shuffling to New Jersey Devils-drafted centre Ryan Kujawinski's line.

Kingston played two top-24 teams last week, Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay, and will be tested further with two more such matchups this week (North Bay, again, and at Oshawa). The positives are that it has a plus-20 goal differential at even strength, so if it ever gets some the power-play firing, it'll be halfway dangerous.

9. Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL (.547 RPI, +0.8 SRS, +2) — Only three pairs of teammates in the Q have taken more faceoffs than Gatineau's Taylor Burke and Simon Tardif-Richard. Respectively, Burke is winning 59.1 per cent of his draws and Tardif-Richard, a hometown overage, is winning 58%. That's probably below-the-radar reason for why the 'Piques, in characteristic Benoît Groulx team fashion, are grinding out wins and staying in range of the Armada in their very tough division‎.

Nineteen-year-old Los Angeles Kings pick Martin Reway also seems to be good for a highlight play every few games or so.

10. Tri-City Americans, WHL (.545 RPI, +0.7 SRS, +7) — The Ams' ranking is somewhat of a strength-of-sked creation, since they have had the second-toughest docket nationally after Spokane. To Jim Hiller's club's credit, batting .500 with a young crew in the U.S. Division isn't a garden-variety feat. Tri-City, with Winnipeg Jets-drafted 'tender Eric Comrie riding a .934 save percentage in his 10 October starts, believed it got some just desserts by sweeping its homestand last week. Proof of whether the good vibes travel will come during a Medicine Hat-Lethbridge-Kootenay roadie, where Comrie will face scoring aces Hunter Shinkaruk and Sam Reinhart.

11. Everett Silvertips, WHL (.545 RPI, +1.1 SRS, +4) — The 'Tips have been buoyed by the great start from their overage trio — Josh Winquist is the Dub's reigning player of the week, one-time Saskatoon Blades castoff Matt Pufahl is chipping in a point per game from the back end and Manraj Hayer shares the team lead in goals.

Everett likely doesn't need a note that it might wish to avoid getting in more scorefests with the B.C. Division's lesser lights, Kamloops and Vancouver. Those games were a fun side trip since they won each of them.

12. Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL (.545 RPI, +0.8 SRS, +4) — For sake of shallow, pointless comparisons, Mathew Barzal (three goals, 20 points) has more points through his first 15 games than 2011 NHL first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins did in his first 15 in 2009 with the Red Deer Rebels. The Nuge also had the benefit of getting his feet wet as a midget call-up, whereas Barzal didn't since he was uncommitted to Seattle.

The T-Birds face a measuring-stick weekend, playing Portland and Everett back-to-back. The last time they faced the Winterhawks, they allowed 10 goals.

The not as dynamic but still very distinguished dozen — 13. Drummondville Voltigeurs, QMJHL (.543, -3); 14. Calgary Hitmen, WHL (.534, -2); 15. Charlottetown Islanders, QMJHL (.533, -7); 16. Baie-Comeau Drakkar, QMJHL (.532, +3); 17. Oshawa Generals, OHL (.530, -4); 18. London Knights, OHL (.529, —); 19. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL (.524, +6); 20. Val-d'Or Foreurs, QMJHL (.523, -11); 21. Québec Remparts, QMJHL (.519, +5); 22. Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, QMJHL (.516, -1); 23. Swift Current Broncos, WHL (.513, -3); 24. North Bay Battalion, OHL (.510, +3).

Hot team — Rimouski Océanic, up 10 (37th to 27th).

Cold team — Kitchener Rangers, down 14 (29th to 43rd).

Nowhere to go but up — Shawinigan Cataractes (.401).

An explanation on rankings — Buzzing The Net uses Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) with a recency factor. RPI combines a team's record with the strength of its opponents to produce an overall rating. Our method also gives more weight to recently played games. Shootout wins and losses are classified as ties, for philosophical and practical reasons. Simple Ranking System (SRS), a ranking which combines goal differential and strength of schedule, is used as a complement. All three CHL leagues are considered equivalent in quality.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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