2019-20 Season Preview: Sawchuk West

In News, Special Features on October 10, 2019 at 10:34 am

At last we come to our fourth and final season preview, now that the Plante East and West and Sawchuk East are out of the way. There’s real intrigue to be found in the Sawchuk West, with a couple of very strong teams and three others in various states of transition.

Delta Sturgeon

Last season: 51-23-8 (1st in conference; lost in Gump Cup final)

Draft picks: Calle Rosen (46), Max Veronneau (63), Adin Hill (71), Lawrence Pilut (77), C.J. Smith (78)

Additions: D Erik Gustafsson, G Adin Hill

Subtractions: F Rick Nash, F Jay Beagle, F Victor Ejdsell, D Alec Martinez, D Lawrence Pilut, D Dan Hamhuis

Analysis: It was a disappointing result for the emergin’ Sturgeon — a Gump Cup Final loss to Salem in 6. But this team is still just entering its prime, with an extremly deep roster headlined by superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Nikita Kucherov and top-flight goaltending from John Gibson. Last season’s acquisition of Jonathan Toews was shrewd, as the centre was a key defensive and faceoff presence all year and into the postseason, and could find himself contributing more on the scoresheet in ’19-’20. He’ll need to, if rumours of Taylor Hall’s injury problems are true. The team’s big acquisition this summer was Erik Gustafsson, believed by team management to have the potential to run the powerplay — an X factor sorely lacking on an otherwise very good blueline (Ekblad, Muzzin, Pulock, Lindell, Parayko). In any case, Delta remains in the upper echelons of Gump and should vie for a finals berth again.

Player to watch: Gustafsson is the big addition, but Nikita Kucherov‘s gamebreaking ability is the real storyline this season. He has more to give. Can he pull away from the scoring pack and keep Delta in elite company?

Outlook: Contender

Hamilton Ti-Cats

Last season: 33-45-4 (8th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Sam Steel (7), Michael Rasmussen (26), Jake Bean (46)

Additions: F Travis Konecny, F Michael Rasmussen, G Joonas Korpisalo

Subtractions: F Patrick Kane, F Henrik Zetterberg, D Gustav Olofsson, D Luke Schenn, D Chris Wideman

Analysis: It looked as though this once-contending team might have started the season in more or less the same position as last year. Then came the shocking news that Patrick Kane had been traded to Salem for Travis Konecny and picks. Is this the moment the Hamilton rebuild begins? The roster still boasts some high-end talent in Claude Giroux, Jeff Skinner, and Jakub Voracek, and the D group, led by Tyson Barrie and Roman Josi, is also quite strong. But much will be asked of Blake Coleman, Bryan Rust, Alex Iafallo, et al, while draftees Steel and Rasmussen develop. Most crucially, the team’s trio of goaltenders — Craig Anderson, Jason Reimer, and Joonas Korpisalo — is not likely strong enough to stop high-powered division mates Delta and Ice Harbor. Hamilton has too much vet talent to truly call “rebuild” at this stage, but it could be a different story come the trade deadline. A playoff berth isn’t impossible, but seems unlikely.

Player to watch: In light of the Kane trade, perhaps the biggest question is how this affects Claude Giroux‘s production. The two have been joined at the hip for years. Can he drive the offense without one of the league’s best point producers on his wing?

Outlook: Bubble

Ice Harbor Storm

Last season: 45-32-5 (3rd in conference; lost in 1st round)

Draft picks: Carter Hart (5), Juuso Valimaki (29), Michael Dipietro (64)

Additions: G Carter Hart

Subtractions: F Tyler Pitlick, D Erik Gudbranson, D Jay Bouwmeester

Analysis: Prior to the draft, the Ice Harbor Storm took their big swing — trading into the top five to draft goaltending phenom Carter Hart. The move addressed the Storm’s biggest need: a goalie to eventually take the starting job from Henrik Lundqvist. (And if he can’t, the team has 5 other goaltenders waiting in the wings!) But it’s doubtful that Hart will see enough action to make a huge impact this season. That said, the Storm have an extremely deep and well-balanced lineup, including three top-flight talents in Aleksander Barkov, Blake Wheeler, and Jonathan Huberdeau, supported by two young triggermen in Matthew Tkachuk and Alex DeBrincat. A healthy year for Kris Letang would give Ice Harbor a dangerous back end, too. On paper, this is a team on the cusp of contender status — and so we come back to goaltending and whether middle-of-the-road numbers will be enough to push the Storm past Delta or Boston and into the second round.

Player to watch: Even with Hart in the fold, Henrik Lundqvist will be getting the lion’s share of starts, yet his stats have suffered mightily with age. The Storm likely do have the scoring to win plenty of games by sheer force, but will still need Lundqvist to hold it together against top teams.

Outlook: Playoffs

Portland Winterhawks

Last season: 24-49-9 (10th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Andrei Svechnikov (6), Mackenzie Blackwood (24), Jonas Siegenthaler (56), Matt Luff (58)

Additions: F Andrei Svechnikov, F Zach Aston-Reese, D Erik Gudbranson, G Mackenzie Blackwood

Subtractions: F Tobias Rieder, F Riley Nash, F Spencer Foo, D Sebastian Aho, D Brandon Manning, G Keith Kinkaid

Analysis: It’s not like anyone thought this team was a contender, but last season was surprisingly ugly for the Winterhawks, as the team finished last in the conference. At least that translated into a couple of nice additions at the rookie draft in winger Andrei Svechnikov and goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Svechnikov should step right in and add some scoring from the middle six, bolstering a group that already features Brad Marchand, Phil Kessel, Artemi Panarin, David Krejci, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. The team may also be hoping Jaro Halak and Blackwood can soak up starts from Carter Hutton, who’s a bit of a question mark as a starter. The overall outlook would be much brighter if it wasn’t for the defense. When your top two blueliners are (on paper) Ryan Murray and Matt Niskanen, you’re in deep trouble. Portland will be lucky to get 30 points out of anyone on their blueline — they desperately need an impact defender or two.

Player to watch: No player is more important to this club’s fortunes than Brad Marchand. Without his scoring and two-way play, Portland would be completely sunk. If his supporting cast can help him to a career season, the Winterhawks should steal a few games.

Outlook: Rebuilding

Vancouver Night Train

Last season: 39-37-6 (5th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Jesper Kotkaniemi (12), Jordan Kyrou (18), Filip Hronek (19), Ryan Poehling (32), Cal Peterson (52), Joel L’Esperance (72)

Additions: F Jesper Kotkaniemi, D Filip Hronek, G Cal Peterson

Subtractions: F Andrew Cogliano, F David Kampf, F Denis Malgin, F Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, F Joel L’Esperance, D Chris Tanev

Analysis: The Night Train brass were surprised to find themselves in the playoff mix last season, though they didn’t ultimately make it to the show. The team has slowly but steadily parted ways with its veteran core — Toews, Rinne, Ekman-Larsson, Kessel, to name just four — over the last two seasons in the world’s slowest rebuild, but the expected high draft picks haven’t come, leaving the team in a sort of no man’s land. On paper, Vancouver is only average — some excellent veterans remain in Mark Stone and a possibly healthy Shea Weber, but the team is also one of the league’s youngest, and it shows. A monster year from Thomas Chabot or Mat Barzal or Anthony Mantha could net some Ws, as could some stellar play from Sergei Bobrovsky. But the Night Train lacks the top-end firepower or defensive depth to go far, and while 2019 draftees Kotkaniemi and Hronek have made the roster, they’ll likely be used sparingly. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to call Vancouver a rebuilding team when they always seem to be on the bubble.

Player to watch: Barzal’s point-per-game rookie season (tops among freshmen) was one highlight of last season. But to hedge against a sophomore slump, the team seems willing to try Elias Lindholm as the top centre — a role he’s never held before. Can he carry the load?

Outlook: Bubble


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