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WHL MID-SEASON REVIEW: Western Conference

Dec 24, 2013 - 05:48 PST

Calgary, AB -- The 2013-14 Western Hockey League season is at the midway point with teams having played roughly half of their regular season schedules, and it's time to take a look at how the season has played out thus far.

The Kelowna Rockets have stormed their way to a big lead for first place in the B.C. Division, thanks to a deep attack and an airtight defence.  Meanwhile, the Portland Winterhawks’ lethal offense has propelled them to the top of the standings in the ultra-competitive U.S. Division.

Here’s a look at the WHL’s Eastern Conference teams through the 2013-14 season’s first half:

WHL WESTERN CONFERENCE

B.C. Division

Kamloops Blazers
2013-14 record: 36gp  9-23-2-2, 22pts (5th in Div., 10th in Conf.)  GF: 90  GA: 145
Top Scorers:
Cole Ully                       34gp-15-23a-38pts
Matt Needham               34gp-10g-20a-30pts
Josh Connolly               36gp-7g-21a-28pts

A Western Conference finalist last season, the Blazers have entered a rebuilding period this season, and now find themselves sitting in 10th place in the conference standings and 15 points out of a playoff spot at the halfway mark.  Losing their top three scorers to graduation, coupled with the trade of 36-goal man Tim Bozon to Kootenay, has led to offensive struggles this season.  Third-year forwards Cole Ully and Matt Needham have paced the attack, while Chase Souto, the team’s leader in goals, and Aspen Sterzer have also chipped in scoring for a Blazers’ team that has produced the fewest goals in the WHL. Defensively, the Blazers have given up the most goals in the Western Conference while their penalty killing unit ranks 19th in the League at the break.  Second-year defender Josh Connolly has emerged as a solid point-producer from the blue line.  Goaltenders Taran Kozun and Bolton Pouliot have faced plenty of rubber this season, with Kozun maintaining a .900 save percentage while facing an average of over 38 shots per 60 minutes.


Kelowna Rockets
2013-14 record: 33gp  28-3-0-2, 58pts (1st in Div., 1st in Conf.)  GF: 138  GA: 81
Top Scorers:
Tyson Baillie                 33gp-15g-23a-38pts
Myles Bell                     31gp-17g-15a-32pts
Ryan Olsen                   32gp-15g-17a-32pts

The defending B.C. Division champions are off to a remarkable start to the 2013-14 season, and have steamrolled their way to the top of the WHL standings with a combination of great depth in scoring, rock-solid defence, and terrific goaltending.  Tyson Baillie leads the Rockets in scoring, having built off his strong playoff performance last season, while hard-shooting Myles Bell, power forward Ryan Olsen and shifty forward Zach Franko have all enjoyed productive starts.  16-year-old Nick Merkley highlights the Rockets’ impressive offensive depth that includes plenty of contributions from their defencemen.  On the back end, the Rockets own the League’s top defensive record and the top penalty killing unit.  Madison Bowey and Damon Severson head up a defence corps that has produced 32 goals and boasts a combined +83 rating.  Veteran goalie Jordon Cooke boasts a 20-1-0-2 record this season while both Cooke and Jackson Whistle have save percentages of .920 or better.  Road dominance has also been a story with the Rockets.  The Club is 15-1 through 16 road games, and carries a franchise-record 13-game road win streak into the break.


Prince George Cougars
2013-14 record: 37gp  14-18-2-3, 28pts (4th in Div., 9th in Conf.)  GF: 110  GA: 140
Top Scorers:
Todd Fiddler                 31gp-15g-22a-37pts
Troy Bourke                  34gp-13g-21a-34pts
Chase Witala                 37gp-18g-13a-31pts

The Cougars find themselves within striking distance of the top eight in the Western Conference at the break as they seek to end a two-year playoff drought.  Up front, the Cougars have gotten consistent production out of veterans Troy Bourke and Chase Witala.  20-year-old Todd Fiddler has put up great numbers since joining the Cougars in November, netting 13 goals and 27 points in just 17 games for the team.  The Cougars will look for more production from their 22nd-ranked power play over the second half.  Defensively, only the Blazers have given up more goals than the Cougars.  Towering defender Marc McNulty leads all Cougars’ blue liners with six goals and 16 points along with a team-leading +5 rating.  17-year-old rookie goaltender Ty Edmonds has performed well in the Cougars’ net with sophomore Brett Zarowny currently sidelined, impressing with an 11-10-1-2 record with a pair of shutouts in 29 appearances this season.  Edmonds has emerged as a top goaltending prospect, and will appear in the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January.


Vancouver Giants
2013-14 record: 37gp  17-13-5-2, 41pts (3rd in Div., 7th in Conf.)  GF: 122  GA: 126
Top Scorers:
Carter Popoff                37gp-10g-31a-41pts
Brett Kulak                    37gp-13g-23a-36pts
Cain Franson                 33gp-13g-20a-33pts

The Giants have put together a strong first half, and appear to have put last season’s 22nd-place finish behind them.  The Giants have seen great improvement at both ends of the ice from where they were at this time last year, cutting down on their goals-against while also generating more offense.  18-year-old Carter Popoff has taken a big step forward in his second WHL campaign, leading the Giants in scoring, while veterans Cain Franson and Jackson Houck consistently chip in scoring.  Veteran defencemen Brett Kulak and Dalton Thrower have generated 23 goals and 64 points between them and have also helped tighten up the Giants’ penalty killing unit, which has improved to sixth in the WHL.  18-year-old rearguards Arvin Atwal, Tyler Morrison and Mason Geertsen have also contributed to the Giants’ defensive improvements.  Goaltender Payton Lee has 10 wins in 24 appearances this season while veteran Jared Rathjen has enjoyed a string of impressive performances of late, and boasts a decent .903 save percentage in his 14 games.


Victoria Royals
2013-14 record: 38gp  23-13-0-2, 48pts (2nd in Div., 4th in Conf.)  GF: 111  GA: 94
Top Scorers:
Logan Nelson                33gp-12g-20a-32pts
Brandon Magee             32gp-12g-17a-29pts
Austin Carroll                36gp-18g-10a-28pts

The Royals have enjoyed their most impressive first half in franchise history, and currently sit among the top four in the Western Conference and comfortably in a playoff position.  A balanced attack has benefitted the Royals, who have six forwards with 11 or more goals this season.  Veteran Austin Carroll leads the team with 18 goals and has also provided a strong physical presence, while Logan Nelson has put up 32 points in 33 games to lead the team in that category.  16-year-old rookie Tyler Soy has shown great promise, contributing nine goals and 17 points in 37 contests.  Defensively, the Royals have improved immensely, allowing the fourth fewest number of goals in the WHL.  Their third-ranked penalty killing unit has been a big reason for their defensive success.  Patrik Polivka and Coleman Vollrath have combined to form one of the best goaltending tandems in the WHL.  Polivka has 16 wins and a .918 save percentage through 27 games while Vollrath leads all WHL netminders with a 2.06 goals-against average and a stellar .937 save percentage in 15 contests.


U.S. Division

Everett Silvertips
2013-14 record: 36gp  22-10-4-0, 48pts (2nd in Div., 3rd in Conf.)  GF: 115  GA: 96
Top Scorers:
Josh Winquist               36gp-26g-33a-59pts
Matt Pufahl                   35gp-11g-20a-31pts
Ivan Nikolishin               36gp-10g-20a-30pts

The Silvertips have made significant strides forward this season, compared to where they were last year at the break, and currently find themselves in contention for the U.S. Division lead.  Offensively, the ‘Tips have improved greatly, having put up 115 goals through 36 games after scoring just 172 all of last season.  20-year-old Josh Winquist has found a new level in his game, and currently sits among the WHL’s scoring leaders.  Russian rookie Ivan Nikolishin has enjoyed a strong offensive start to his WHL career while Edmonton Oilers prospect Jujhar Khaira has provided a dominant presence up the middle.  Veteran rearguard Matt Pufahl anchors the WHL’s fifth-ranked defence while also providing nearly a point per game in offensive production.  Rookie rearguard Noah Juulsen leads all ‘Tips defencemen with a +14 rating as a 16-year-old.  Veteran netminder Austin Lotz has provided great goaltending, and ranks fifth among all WHL goalies with a 2.37 goals-against average.


Portland Winterhawks
2013-14 record: 35gp  23-8-2-2, 50pts (1st in Div., 2nd in Conf.)  GF: 165  GA: 117
Top Scorers:
Nicholas Petan              32gp-20g-46a-66pts
Oliver Bjorkstrand          32gp-25g-31a-56pts
Taylor Leier                   31gp-22g-21a-43pts

The defending WHL Champions remain among the League’s top teams through the first half of the 2013-14 season, and currently find themselves in first place in the competitive U.S. Division.  The key to Portland’s success this season has been their WHL-leading offense, which has produced 27 more goals than the next highest-scoring team.  Reigning WHL scoring champions Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic have picked up where they left off, with Petan sitting second in the League in points.  Oliver Bjorkstrand and Taylor Leier have also enjoyed outstanding first-half performances while Chase De Leo has stepped into a much larger role in the attack.  Defensively, the Hawks have fallen off from where they were last season.  However, when a team can score like Portland, defensive lapses become less damaging.  Derrick Pouliot remains one of the WHL’s top offensive threats on the blue line while the addition of strong two-way defender Garrett Haar has lessened the impact of losing names like Seth Jones and Troy Rutkowski.  Brendan Burke has been solid in his first season as the team’s starter, and is currently tied for second among WHL goaltenders with 20 wins.


Seattle Thunderbirds
2013-14 record: 35gp  21-10-1-3, 46pts (3rd in Div., 5th in Conf.)  GF: 131  GA: 121
Top Scorers:
Branden Troock             34gp-17g-23a-40pts
Shea Theodore              33gp-13g-27a-40pts
Alex Delnov                  34gp-16g-18a-34pts

The Thunderbirds find themselves well ahead of their pace from last season at this time, and entered the break within striking distance of first place in the U.S. Division, thanks to a 9-1-0 run over their last 10 games.  The T-Birds’ offense has improved greatly from last season, having scored the fourth-most goals in the WHL.  Veteran Branden Troock, Russian sophomore Alex Delnov and offensive defenceman Shea Theodore have all put up at least a point per game while Roberts Lipsbergs has already cracked the 20-goal mark.  16-year-old rookie Mathew Barzal, the first overall pick from the 2012 Bantam Draft, has emerged as a top offensive threat, ranking second on the team with 25 assists.  The T-Birds’ defence has also seen marginal improvements.  Theodore has gone from a -24 rating last season to a +9 rating at the break, while 16-year-old rookie Ethan Bear has enjoyed a strong start to his WHL career.  Goaltenders Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles have split playing time in the T-Birds’ cage.  Mumaugh boasts 11 wins and an impressive .916 save percentage in 21 appearances.


Spokane Chiefs
2013-14 record: 35gp  21-12-0-2, 44pts (4th in Div., 6th in Conf.)  GF: 127  GA: 105
Top Scorers:
Mitch Holmberg             35gp-37g-37a-74pts
Mike Aviani                   35gp-26g-24a-50pts
Reid Gow                      28gp-0g-33a-33pts           

The Spokane Chiefs are off to another solid WHL season, and currently sit in fourth place in the tough U.S. Division but just six points out of the division lead.  The Chiefs’ success can be credited in large part to the near-unstoppable contributions of 20-year-old veterans Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani, who have combined for 63 goals and 124 points in 35 games while helping the team own the WHL’s best power play.  Holmberg has enjoyed a dominant first half, posting a whopping 37 goals and 74 points in just 35 games.  Holmberg’s 37 goals are 11 more than his nearest competitors, one of which is line mate Aviani.  Aside from Adam Helewka’s 15 markers, no other Chief has more than six goals this season.  Defensively, the Chiefs rank fifth in the Western Conference in goals-against.  Reid Gow and Jason Fram have combined for 64 points and a +22 rating.  Veteran Eric Williams has again been strong for the Chiefs, posting 18 wins and a .918 save percentage in 27 contests.


Tri-City Americans
2013-14 record: 36gp  17-16-1-2, 36pts (5th in Div., 5th in Conf.)  GF: 94  GA: 102
Top Scorers:
Connor Rankin              36gp-12g-19a-31pts
Brian Williams               36gp-20g-10a-30pts
Phil Tot                         33gp-9g-11a-20pts

The Americans enter the break sitting in fifth place in the U.S. Division and holding down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.  Tri-City’s offense has struggled to produce goals this season, with the Club having scored the second-fewest number of goals in the WHL.  Connor Rankin and Brian Williams have been the most consistent forwards for the Ams with Williams already sitting at 20 goals at the halfway mark.  After Rankin and Williams, only Beau McCue has hit the 10-goal plateau.  18-year-old Parker Bowles has missed a large portion of the season due to injuries, but has put up 19 points in the 11 games he has played.  The Americans’ defence and goaltending have kept the team in the playoff race.  Veterans Mitch Topping and Justin Hamonic anchor an Ams’ defence that boasts the WHL’s fifth-ranked penalty killing unit while allowing the fourth fewest number of goals in the Western Conference.  Goaltender Eric Comrie has been steady and consistent for the Ams, and currently boasts the fourth-best save percentage of any goaltender in the League at .923.