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WHL preview: Cougars clawing upwards, but Kelowna fuel the B.C. Division

Big blueliner Madison Bowey was the 53rd overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft (CP Images)

With the season starting on Sept. 19, we will look at each division in the WHL and make 14 fun facts and fearless forecasts for the upcoming 2013-14 season.

After sweeping the Kelowna Rockets in the playoffs last season, the Kamloops Blazers cemented one final year of being the top team in the Canadian Hockey League's westernmost-division. It's their division to lose, particularly in a year with three rebuilding squads...

1. The Kelowna Rockets will win 50+ games again — It obviously depends how things shake out down south, but take a glance at the Rockets' roster, and they seem to be the ones best suited for a run this season. The Rockets won 52 games last season, and sent nine players to NHL camps this summer. Big man Madison Bowey anchors a tough and efficient defensive unit that allowed the third fewest goals in the 'dub last season, and last year's starter Jordon Cooke is returning for his overage year—his .912 career save percentage is an excellent mark. If the Rockets have a flaw, it's up front. Myles Bell is eligible to play professionally in the New Jersey Devils' organization and Colton Sissons has left, leaving Zach Franko, owner of 72 points last season, to pace the offence. 56-point getters Ryan Olson and Tyson Baillie will need to step up as the highest point-getting players other than Franko, and the Rockets didn't go out in the offseason to grab reinforcements up front. Baillie is already one of the top prospects for the 2014 draft.

2. Alex Forsberg will rebound in Prince George — It was a tumultuous 2012-2013 for the former No. 1 overall Bantam Draft pick. After failing to secure a trade from the Cougars, Forsberg walked out on the team and went to play Junior A in his home province of Saskatchewan.

Under new management—Dean Clark was replaced by Mark Hollick—Forsberg has returned. "I've changed a lot in the last year and the organization has changed a lot", said the one-time phenom. Forsberg has a short time in the WHL to prove himself to scouts. He scored 5 points in 4 preseason games.

3. This is the year for the Cougars to return to the playoffs — Okay, perhaps this prediction isn't entirely fearless, but it's been two years for the Cougars, and in a 10-team conference where 8 teams qualify for the postseason, that's an eternity. They're spurred by the return of Forsberg, but also St. Louis prospect Zach Pochiro and Colorado prospect Troy Bourke up front. The Cougars went 5-0 in the preseason and while they shouldn't be among the conference's elite, they ought to challenge in a weak division.

4. The B.C. Division will once again send just three teams to the postseason — This was the case last season. Kamloops has initiated a pretty significant turnaround, losing JC Lipon and Colin Smith to pro hockey, in all likelihood, as well as goaltender Cole Cheveldave. The Vancouver Giants are still stuck in rebuild mode with no significant additions outside of the Import Draft and the Victoria/Chilliwack franchise has yet to play a season wherein they win more games than they lose. Won't help their cause that they could be without Logan Nelson, a drafted 20-year-old that will probably play for the Rochester Americans.

The Royals and Giants were no strangers to fisticuffs last season (CP)5. Like fighting? Watch a lot of Victoria Royals games — Victoria is often regarded as the place old people go to visit their parents, and it is also where some old-school hockey thinking resides. The Royals led the WHL in fighting last season with 85 bouts, and return two of their top three scrappers in Keegan Kanzig and Austin Carroll. Kanzig is an immense, physical defenceman drafted by the Calgary Flames this past June.

6. Nobody will have a suspension quite as notable as Tim Traber's — Traber led the Royals in fights last season. He has joined the Vancouver Giants, but memories of his March 5 contest as a Royal remain:

"During a skirmish at 3:22 of the third period, a scrum occurred where both teams' benches meet. Traber was trying to entice Kamloops forward Kale Kessy to fight. Kessy, although seen chirping at the Victoria bench, showed no inclination to scrap. In the end, Kessy was knocked down into the entrance to the Royals' bench. Through it all, Traber was pulling on Kessy's sweater.

"He just came out and choked me," Kessy said after the game, an angry-looking red ring in evidence on his neck. "I kind of woke up on their bench.""

Tim Bozon can score in four different languages (CP)7. The Kamloops Blazers will miss head coach Guy Charron — Guy Charron took over for the Blazers back in November of 2009 and rebuilt the program into a playoff franchise after multiple years of not winning playoff games, let alone series'. Charron chose to step down as head coach in the summer, paving the way for associate coach Dave Hunchak to take over.

Hunchak, as mentioned, has a difficult job ahead. Not only must he build up a roster after the loss of three key forwards (Lipon, Smith, Brendan Ranford), three key defencemen (Marek Hrbas, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Hansen) a starting goaltender (Cheveldave), but he must do it without the team's top pick from the 2012 Bantam Draft Jaydon Halbgewachs, dealt to Moose Jaw last season for a half season of Edmundson.

8. …yet nobody should count the Blazers out just yetMatt Needham scored just 33 points last season after an invite to Team Canada's Ivan Hlinka camp last summer. The problem is that the Blazers were so steeped in veterans that guys like Needham, or Dallas Stars draftee Cole Ully, weren't able to get a chance to run an offence or get meaningful powerplay minutes. That should change this time around, and it shouldn't take much to get Tim Bozon scoring. The Montreal Canadiens 2012 pick has 173 points in 159 career WHL games, including playoffs.

9. The Vancouver Giants will again be desperate for offence — The Giants will get just five games out of phenom Tyler Benson this season. All signs point to Marek Tvrdon leaving for good, and they still have a hole between Cain Franson and Jackson Houck on the top line, and neither Franson nor Houck are top talents capable of carrying an offence.

10. Dmitry Osipov should be fun to watch, though — The Vancouver Giants are banking on a quick rebuild to strengthen their chances at hosting the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup. Without Benson, their hopes are on young defenceman Osipov, the first overall pick in the KHL junior draft as well as the CHL Import Draft. Luckily for the Giants, the team that drafted Osipov is Khabarovsk, which is not on the Kamchatka peninsula, but would be in the Kamchatkan territory if we were looking at a Risk board. They are a very remote team, and instead of playing thousands of miles East of his hometown of Moscow.

Side note: Risk is a terrible way to learn geography.

11. Patrik Polivka is set for a breakout year — Let's not pin too much importance on Polivka's impressive 5 goals against in 3 preseason games. He struggled behind a porous Royals defence last season, allowing a 3.24 goals against average with an .894 save percentage. That was as an 18-year-old rookie, and he was visually the best goaltender the Royals have seen in their short history. Behind a slightly older defensive corps, those numbers should stabilize and his save percentage should climb to the .905-.910 range.

12. Jensen Harkins will impress, but won't be Rookie of the Year — Though Harkins, who plays for the Cougars, has been impressive in the WHL preseason scoring 9 points in his 5 games, he's still quite a ways behind Mat Barzal of the Seattle Thunderbirds. We are looking at the potential "X-Factor" on a Prince George squad that has some opportunities to compete this season, despite being 21st in the WHL in goals last season, ahead of only the Everett Silvertips. A weak division could boost his numbers.

13. Tyson Baillie's stock will rise — Mentioned him above, but Baillie deserves his own little paragraph, having already overproduced his expectations after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2010 Bantam Draft. He has a selection of key advantages headed into the 2014 NHL Draft: He's taking over an offence that lost key members, and he has an early birthdate, meaning he's playing six months ahead of some other prospects in the 2014 class. With 56 points in 67 games last season, he's poised for a breakout in a system that will have to encourage offence to generate enough goals to keep up with Portland in the Western Conference.

14. Dalton Thrower will report to Vancouver, but get traded midseason — The Montreal Canadiens are in a pickle with their 20-year-old defenceman at Hamilton Bulldogs camp. As Steve Ewen points out in the Vancouver Province, Thrower has no contract, and the Habs are at their maximum limit, meaning that Thrower may have no choice but to report back to his junior club… but the Saskatoon Blades traded away his rights this past summer.

Fairly shrewd move by the Giants brass. They gave up a conditional second round pick, but the return for a defenceman of Thrower's calibre once he's back playing in the dub should be much higher, and net the Giants a key prospect or pick by the trade deadline.

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