September 23, 2011
With the Western Hockey League season getting into full swing this weekend, there is no lack of hot-button topics across the league.
Here's a look at ten burning questions circulating around the Dub.
1. Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins return to Red Deer?
Whoever made up the saying there's no I in team might have had to take it back after watching the eventual No. 1 NHL draft choice play with the Rebels last season. The 6-foot, 170-pound centre's play was so dominant it seemed he would have to break his stick for the other team to have a shot at touching the puck. Taking that into account, Nugent-Hopkins may not have anything left to prove in the WHL, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's ready for the pros.
The Edmonton Oilers proved with rushing Sam Gagner into NHL that they're not afraid to give a player a roster spot on a gut feeling or a string of impressive pre-season games. However, the difference between Gagner in 2007 and Nugent-Hopkins in 2011 is the Oilers don't seem to have an open roster spot in their top-six forwards this year. This lack of opportunity and Nugent-Hopkins' slim stature should give the Oilers enough reason to return him to junior for one more year. Although don't be surprised to see the 18-year-old give Rebels' fans a scare by starting the year with the Oilers.
2. Who will guard the net for the Moose Jaw Warriors?
Despite being pegged as one of the Dub's strongest teams, no one knows who will be the Warriors' go-to goalie. The departure of San Jose Sharks prospect Thomas Hemskerk has left the Warriors top goaltending position up for grabs. Deven Dubyk and Brandon Stone appear to be the front-runners, but there's a good possibility the Warriors might have to seek a trade if they can't find consistency between the pipes.
With it being uncertain whether Seattle Thunderbirds goaltender Calvin Pickard will return next year as an overager, it's possible the T-Birds would be willing to parlay the Colorado Avalanche prospect for a package of draft picks and players.
3. Will Nino Niederreiter and/or Ryan Johansen return to Portland?
The difference between Niederreiter and Johansen returning to the Winterhawks or staying with their respective NHL clubs is the difference between a MasterCard Memorial Cup contender and a good playoff team.
Considering Niederreiter nearly made the New York Islanders last year and there seems to be a spot for Johansen on the Columbus Blue Jackets' third line, they seem to have good odds on turning pro this year. With that being said, the Islanders and Blue Jackets might take into consideration that Brayden Schenn's extra year in junior did wonders for his development.
4. Who will emerge as the Dub's best blue-liner out of the 2012 draft class?
There is an elite group of five blue-liners that are sticking out as the WHL's best 2012 draft prospects. The Everett Silvertips' Ryan Murray is the most established. The Rebels' Mathew Dumba, Warriors' Morgan Reilly and Edmonton Oil Kings' Griffin Reinhart are toss ups in the middle, and Winterhawks' Derrick Pouliot is somewhat on the outside looking in.
It seems all five have enough potential to be top-15 picks in the upcoming NHL draft. Everyone can make their own argument on whose draft stock will rise and fall. But as I see it, Reinhart's 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame will give him an advantage over the other four defencemen who all roughly stand 6-feet.
5. Will 16-year-old Eric Comrie struggle or blossom in his rookie season between the pipes?
Comrie didn't ask the Tri-City Americans to trade their previous season's top two goaltenders, Drew Owsley and Chris Driedger, to make room for him, but they did anyways. And with those trades the Americans undoubtedly added a heap of pressure on the 6-foot, 175-pound goaltender's shoulders.
With Comrie being compared to former Americans goaltender Carey Price, some might expect him to have a similar rookie season to the Montreal Canadiens backstop. All Price did in his first season in the WHL was post a a 2.38 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 28 games. With that in mind, it is safe to say expectations are unfairly high for Comrie.
6. Will the Regina Pats trade Jordan Weal? If so, where to?
With the Pats in the process of a slow and gruelling rebuild, they likely regret holding on to Jordan Eberle in 2009-10. Given that history, it seems unlikely they'll make the same mistake twice within a three year period.
If the price of what the Kootenay Ice paid for Cody Eakin and the Saskatoon Blades paid for Brayden Schenn dictates this year's trade market, the Pats should fetch quite a bit for Los Angeles Kings prospect Jordan Weal.
Moose Jaw is definitely a team who could use Weal for a playoff run. The duo of Florida Panthers prospect Quinton Howden and Weal down the middle would make the Warriors one of the scariest teams in the CHL.
7. Will Brett Connolly return to Prince George?
Much like' the Winterhawks' situation with Johansen and Niederreiter, Brett Connolly's presence or absence will dictate how high the Cougars can climb.
After scoring 46 goals and 73 points in 59 games last season, Connolly seems to be ready for a new challenge. And with the Tampa Bay Lightning losing Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim to the Kings and Panthers through free agency, there seems to be an open roster spot available for Connolly.
However, with the likes of former WHLer Carter Ashton and James Wright also gunning for a spot on the Bolts roster, Connolly's odds of making the team are far from a lock.
8. Will Sam Reinhart emerge as the top forward out of the 2010 Bantam Draft?
Despite the top two picks from that year, Alex Forsberg and Curtis Lazar, absorbing most of the draft's hype, Reinhart could emerge as the draft's top talent. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound centre, who went 15th overall in the draft, lit up the British Columbia Major Midget League last season, scoring 38 goals and 78 points in 34 regular-season games with the Vancouver NW Giants. The consensus among several WHL scouts is Reinhart's past season was more impressive than anyone else in his bantam draft class.
9. Will Steffen Soberg return to Swift Current?
The odds of the Swift Current Broncos making the playoffs this season went down drastically after Soberg bought a one-way ticket back to Norway. The Broncos have not closed the door on the Washington Capitals draft pick having a change of heart. But with Soberg saying "I'm just not ready to move so far away" to Dagbladet.no, it seems he won't be playing in North America this season.
10. How good will the Edmonton Oil Kings be?
Whether an Oil Kings team that's better across the board will be a Memorial Cup contender is up for discussion. The play of Lazar and Calgary Flames goaltending prospect Laurent Brossoit will play a major factor in how good the Oil Kings become. If Lazar can notch 60-plus points as a rookie and Brossoit can emerge as one of the league's top puck-stoppers, don't be surprised to see the Oil Kings pace the Eastern Conference.
Kelly Friesen is a Western Hockey League writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on twitter @KellyFriesen