WHL preview: Portland Winterhawks expect push from ‘Tips, T-Birds in U.S. Division

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With the Dub's season getting underway on Wednesday, we will look at each division in the WHL and make 14 fun facts and fearless forecasts for the upcoming 2013-14 season.

The Portland Winterhawks are seeking a fourth consecutive trip to the WHL final, but a couple of new challengers have risen in the U.S. Division. Earlier Wednesday, Cam Charron teed up the B.C. Division; now here's a prospectus for its conference counterpart south of the 49th parallel.

1. Portland probably isn’t going anywhere — Those who are tired of the Winterhawks dominating the U.S. Division aren’t likely to get any relief this season. Despite losing a half-dozen key guys, like Ty Rattie, Seth Jones, Tyler Wotherspoon and Mac Carruth, the Hawks return a ton of scoring punch. Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan could battle for the league scoring title again, and guys like Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase De Leo and Paul Bittner could explode offensively. The Winterhawks will score a ton, but the team will only go as far as new starting goalie Brendan Burke and a rebuilt defensive corps can take them. That still likely means another U.S. Division banner.

2. Matt Barzal could be the start of something big for Seattle — The Thunderbirds have languished in the standings for a handful of seasons, but landing No. 1 bantam draft pick Barzal after he looked into other options could be a sign of brighter times ahead in Kent. The Birds are more talented all-around than they’ve been in five seasons, and won’t be happy with another first round playoff loss. Roberts Lipsbergs, Connor Honey and Alex Delnov should have big offensive seasons.

3. Eric Comrie is back to 100 per cent — The Tri-City goalie started 37 games last season before being shut down in January to undergo surgery to alleviate pain in his hip. The procedure was a success, and Comrie isn’t expected to be affected at all going forward.

4. Spokane will be overly reliant on Mike Aviani and Mitch Holmberg — Aviani and Holmberg combined to scored 69 goals last season. The rest of the current Chiefs roster combined to score 67 WHL goals last year. The overage duo will have to put up at least that many again to keep the Chiefs afloat.

5. Everett’s Austin Lotz might be the most underrated goalie in the league — The numbers aren’t eye-popping (3.37 GAA, .907 save pct.), but Lotz stole his share of games for a Silvertips team that was often overmatched last season, including two stellar performances in upset wins over Portland in the first round of the playoffs. With a better team in front of him this season, Lotz could elevate the Tips to the top half of the conference.

6. Seth Swenson and Branden Troock are X-factors for Seattle — Swenson’s an overager in his fifth WHL season who showed a little bit of scoring touch when he came over from Portland during the 2011-12 campaign. He had 18 goals and 46 points last season, and 20-25 goals this season could be a huge lift for the Birds given that they aren’t overly reliant on his production. Troock, meanwhile, has been unlucky with injuries and looks to regain the form of a promising 17-year-old season, when he scored 14 goals in 58 games.

7. Connor Rankin is now the man in Tri-City — With Justin Feser and Malte Strömwall gone, Rankin (32 goals, 58 points) is the Ams’ returning scoring leader. There are a few other faces who could emerge as reliable scorers, like Brian Williams and Beau McCue, but Rankin is the one forward on the team who’s proven he can be a big-time goal scorer.

8. Paul Bittner will have a breakout season in Portland — Bittner is already 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds and doesn’t turn 17 until November. The Minnesotan showed signs of being a future star last season when he filled in for Ty Rattie on Portland’s top line while Rattie was at the world junior tournament, and put up 10 points in a five-game stretch. He then played big minutes in the WHL playoffs and Memorial Cup, and is already considered a top-20 prospect in the 2015 NHL draft.

9. Tri-City’s Brandon Carlo is the rookie defenseman to watch — Like Bittner, Carlo is a late-’96 birthday who will not be NHL draft-eligible until 2015. The 6-foot-4 D-man from Colorado Springs debuted with the Ams in the playoffs and will augment an already strong defensive corps in Kennewick.

10. Kevin Constantine might have to turn his team loose — The public explanation for Everett GM Garry Davidson’s firing of Mark Ferner in the middle of last season was that Davidson wanted his team to play a more uptempo, attacking style. Constantine, who’s back for his second stint as Silvertips coach, is known for anything BUT an uptempo, attacking style. The Tips outscored opponents 37-22 in going 7-0 in the preseason, so perhaps Constantine is exactly what Davidson is looking for.

11. Liam Stewart will finally score some goals — After putting up 25 total goals in his first two WHL seasons, Rockin' Rod’s son is ready to assume a bigger scoring load in his third season, which will include a trip to Scotland in December to play for Great Britain in Division 1B at the world junior championship.

12. Brendan Burke is ready to take over in net in Portland — Mac Carruth was one of the most divisive players in the WHL the last four seasons, but he leaves the Winterhawks as the league’s all-time leader in playoff wins. Burke struggled in a backup role as a 16-year-old and started slow last season before settling in and posting decent numbers in 33 games. The 18-year-old Phoenix Coyotes draftee doesn’t have Carruth’s in-your-face swagger, but he’s confident in his abilities to take the reins.

13. All five teams in the division will make the playoffs — Everett and Seattle held off Prince George for the eighth postseason spot last season, ensuring that all five U.S. teams qualified. This year should be the same, as Everett and Seattle look to be improved while Spokane and Tri-City should still be good enough to finish in the top eight. Prince George will probably be on the outside looking in, but Vancouver will be knocking on the door of a playoff spot after being the worst team in the league last season.

14. WHL bus drivers will continue to be overlooked — While a lot is being made about player safety on the ice these days, nobody’s more important to the safety of WHL teams off the ice than the drivers who transport the teams thousands of miles a year, often through poor weather and rugged terrain. Though there will be a deluge of tweets from players this year lamenting the frustrations of #buslife, the folks who are about to embark on another season of driving incredibly long hours at all hours of the night deserve a stick tap.

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