Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Portland Winterhawks lead the way in a look at the WHL’s contendersAt first glance of the upcoming WHL season, the odds are in favour of the Portland Winterhawks to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup for the second straight year.

The Winterhawks not only have strength at every position and a handful of major junior stars, but they also will have extra motivation to repeat with GM-head coach Mike Johnston back behind the bench after his lengthy suspension for player-benefit violations last year.

Even though the Winterhawks lost St. Louis Blues second-rounder Ty Rattie to the pros, their offense is rock solid barring any unexpected jumps to the NHL. Nashville Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic and Winnipeg Jets second-rounder Nicolas Petan, who both scored 120 points last year, will lead their offense. Past the CHL’s 2012-13 leading scorers, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Taylor Leier, 20-year-old Shane McColgan, and Chase De Leo will make up the rest of their top six. All four forwards have the potential to score 70-plus points and will be expected to with the possible exception of McColgan.

Portland’s back end took a hit in talent over the summer with Predators fourth-overall pick Seth Jones not expected to return and Calgary Flames prospect Tyler Wotherspoon AHL bound. However, since Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot will likely return for his 19-year-old season and they landed Vancouver Canucks prospect Anton Cederholm through the import draft, they still have a lot of skill on the blueline. Not to mention, rookie Keoni Texeira and 20-year-old Garrett Haar, who was released by Western Michigan University, will give them depth.

The Winterhawks’ only uncertainty sits between the pipes. Brendan Burke hasn’t proven he is an above-average puck stopper. But to be fair, the Phoenix Coyotes prospect hasn’t had the opportunity to with Mac Carruth as their No. 1 goalie in his first two seasons.

Despite losing last year’s captain Colton Sissons, who turns 20 in November, to the Predators organization, the Kelowna Rockets seem to be second in line in the Western Conference.

The Rockets are in solid shape from top to bottom. They have a strong offensive trio made up of 2014 draft prospect Tyson Baillie, overager Zach Franko and Jets prospect Ryan Olsen. There is also a chance their offense could get even better if the New Jersey Devils send Myles Bell back to junior. On the back end, Devils prospect Damon Severson and Washington Capitals second round pick Madison Bowey is as strong as a 1-2 punch the league has to offer. Lastly, the duo of 18-year-old Jackson Whistle and overager Jordon Cooke should give them above-average goaltending.

The Seattle Thunderbirds are the conference’s wild card. On one hand the likes of top 2012 bantam pick Matthew Barzal, imports Roberts Lipsbergs and Alexander Delnov, and Anaheim Ducks defensive prospect Shea Theodore will give them their share of scoring power, but on the hand goaltending could ultimately sink them in the playoffs. None of their three goalies, Justin Myles, Devon Fordyce and Danny Mumaugh, currently with the team has proven to be a capable starter. Therefore, unless that changes, it will be very tough for Seattle to compete against Portland and Kelowna.

Out East

In the Eastern Conference, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut frontrunner, but the Calgary Hitmen, Prince Albert Raiders, Red Deer Rebels and Edmonton Oil Kings all have the tools to make an appearance in the finals if some pieces fall into place.

Ottawa Senators puck-stopping prospect Chris Driedger makes the Hitmen the safest bet of the quartet to win the conference. He will give Calgary top-notch goaltending throughout the regular-season and into the playoffs.

The Hitmen have some concerns outside of the crease, though. They are banking on a handful of forwards such as top 2011 bantam pick Jake Virtanen and Edmonton Oilers prospect Greg Chase to elevate their games with the offseason losses of Carolina Hurricanes prospect Victor Rask and overagers Brooks Macek and Cody Sylvester. In addition, unless Alex Roach returns from the Los Angeles Kings for his 20-year-old season, their back end will look thin.

The Raiders shouldn’t have much trouble walking away with first place in the East Division. That, however, is partially because they are playing in the weakest division in the league.

Prince Albert general manager Bruno Campese took care of his team’s biggest concern in the offseason by acquiring 20-year-old goaltender Cole Cheveldave from the Kamloops Blazers. This move should ultimately put the Raiders past the first round of the second season. From there on, it seems up in the air, though. The Raiders need forwards past German sensation Leon Draisaitl and Dallas Stars prospect Mike Winther to step up. It’s the same story on the back end. They need more blueliners besides Jets first-rounder Josh Morrissey and overager Dylan Busenius to make a consistent impact.

Anything is possible in Red Deer with Los Angeles Kings prospect Patrik Bartosak between the pipes. The Czech Republic native showed in last year’s playoffs, where he maintained a 1.97 average and .941 save percentage in nine contests, that he can singlehandedly win a game.

The Rebels should have more scoring power up front because of younger players expected to step up and the acquisition of Jets prospect Lukas Sutter, even though he had an off year last season, from the Saskatoon Blades. But this team will ultimately live and die by their defence. They are designed to win low-scoring games. That said, they need Matthew Dumba to return from the Minnesota Wild to have a strong enough blueline to take a serious run at a championship.

The Oil Kings’ odds of returning to the finals were low to begin with, but have dropped some more with Stephane Leggault’s decision to opt out of his overage season to start his secondary education at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Nonetheless, Pitsburgh Penguins prospect Tristan Jarry between the pipes and Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder Henrik Samuelsson and Senators first-rounder Curtis Lazar up front will make the Oil Kings a tough team to play against. They will be a group capable of running up the scoreboard and it won’t be easy to light their lamp.

Whether Griffin Reinhart returns for his 19-year-old season from the New York Islanders will ultimately make or break Edmonton. With the 6-foot-4, 202-pound rearguard, the Oil Kings could win their conference. But without him, their thin back end should keep them from passing the second round.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen.

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