GWMHL

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

2019-20 Season Preview: Sawchuk East

In News, Special Features on October 9, 2019 at 9:35 am

Now that we’ve looked at both the Plante East and Plante West — home to eight straight league titles, by the way — it’s time to preview the Sawchuk Conference, beginning with the Sawchuk West.

Adirondack Aces

Last season: 32-38-12 (7th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Roope Hintz (8), Henri Jokiharju (27), Dennis Cholowski (47), Karson Kuhlman (67)

Additions: F Roope Hintz, D Henri Jokiharju, D Dennis Cholowski

Subtractions: F Henrik Sedin, F Patrick Eaves, D Stephen Johns, D Ian McCoshen, D Michael Del Zotto

Analysis: The Aces should have much more to show than what we’ve seen the last couple of years. A deep forward group, led by a couple of players with truly elite skill sets in Johnny Gaudreau and Patrice Bergeron, plus an increasingly solid blueline and good-if-not-elite goaltending should add up to more than a lottery pick. First rounder Roope Hintz is a future contributor, and will eventually help offset the loss of Henrik Sedin to retirement, but draftees Henri Jokiharju and Dennis Cholowski in particular will likely get good looks on a D corps that lacks offense after Drew Doughty and Zach Werenski. If one of Devan Dubnyk or Semyon Varlamov can turn in a good season, this team should have playoff aspirations.

Player to watch: To compete in this league, scoring from the bottom six is a must. The lines are tough to call, but assuming he’s on the third line, the Aces will be relying on a breakout year from Alex Tuch to provide that sneaky offense.

Outlook: Playoffs

Boston Banshees

Last season: 48-27-7 (2nd in conference; lost in 2nd round)

Draft picks: Dante Fabbro (23), Alex Nedeljkovic (42), Oliver Kylington (44), Connor Clifton (48)

Additions: F Mikhail Vorobyev, D Oliver Kylington, G Ben Bishop, G Casey DeSmith, G Cory Schneider

Subtractions: F Micheal Ferland, F Patric Hornqvist, F Jean-Gabriel Pageau, F J.T. Compher, F Nick Merkley, G Matt Murray, G Ryan Miller, G Curtis McElhinney

Analysis: As usual, the Banshees made a lot of adjustments over the offseason, including acquiring goalie Curtis McElhinney from Parry Sound, then trading him right back in a later deal. Boston shed a ton of players overall, with the biggest additions coming between the pipes in the form of brand-new tandem Ben Bishop and Casey DeSmith. Outside of Connor Clifton, none of Boston’s 2019 draftees are expected to make the club in any meaningful capacity, but that shouldn’t matter — the Banshees’ real strength is down the middle, where Sean Couturier, Mika Zibanejad, and Max Domi are all slated to play. That’s a top 3 that’s near the top of the league if all three put together good seasons, and it won’t hurt that they’ve got top-flight snipers like Brock Boeser and Joe Pavelski riding shotgun. On D, Mark Giordano still has it, too.

Player to watch: With few glaring weaknesses up and down the lineup, all eyes are on Ben Bishop. His play will dictate the Banshees’ fortunes. He’s eligible to play all playoff games, so if he’s hot come postseason time — look out!

Outlook: Contender

Farmington Fighting Saints

Last season: 40-33-9 (4th in conference; lost in 1st round)

Draft picks: Drake Batherson (14), Devon Toews (33), Conor Garland (54), Josh Mahura (74)

Additions: D Devon Toews, F Conor Garland

Subtractions: F Daniel O’Regan, D Christian Djoos, D Greg Pateryn, G Thomas Greiss

Analysis: Change has been slow to come for the Fighting Saints, and from afar it looks as though this past spring’s playoff appearance may be the last one for a little while. Its core isn’t getting any younger, and its younger prospects are a year or two out. For every Mikko Rantanen emerging as a star, there’s a Tyler Toffoli, slumping into middle-six production just as the team needs secondary scoring more than ever. The Saints have also struggled to keep their formidable centre group (Ryan Johansen, Mikko Koivu, Vincent Trocheck, Paul Stastny) all healthy at the same time. There’s hope — Devon Toews joins a nice D corps, along with 2018 draftee Vince Dunn behind John Carlson and Dustin Byfuglien — but it seems that Farmington’s at least a season away from reloading and getting back into the playoff mix.

Player to watch: If there’s one wild card this year for Farmington, it’s netminder Robin Lehner. If he can take the reins from injury-plagued Corey Crawford and put together a really solid season, it could keep the Saints in the middle of the pack. The team had the confidence to deal Thomas Greiss away, pointing to Lehner being given every chance to succeed.

Outlook: Bubble

San Jose Hosers

Last season: 29-49-4 (9th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Max Comtois (10), Taro Hirose (25), Radim Simek (65)

Additions: F Steven Stamkos, D Radim Simek, G Collin Delia

Subtractions: F Patrick Maroon, F Nic Petan, F Ty Rattie, D Derrick Pouliot, G Cam Talbot

Analysis: The Hosers’ ongoing struggles are a mystery wrapped in an engima. The team has come together nicely in its rebuilding years, yet remains stuck on the launch pad (or the launch pad’s sub-basement). The splashy acquisition of Steven Stamkos will make a huge difference — with him, John Tavares, and Jack Eichel, that’s a formidable trio of centres. Or maybe Stamkos plugs in on the wing, where he’ll join emerging star Mitch Marner as bonafide offensive weapons on the right side. The defense, too, looks good, if defensively a little suspect — at least the team should be able to count on John Klingberg, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Mikhail Sergachev for some points. Alas, things fall apart with a rough group in goal. Is Martin Jones the guy? Jimmy Howard? If either flounders — and the outlook isn’t so good — it will leave the Hosers once again in the trade market and struggling to get into the playoff picture. Still, even without big saves, San Jose should light the lamp more than often enough to be entertaining.

Player to watch: If Gabriel Landeskog can join Tavares and Stamkos as one of the team’s go-to triggermen, it would give San Jose one of the league’s most intriguing top sixes and cement the team’s bubble status.

Outlook: Bubble

West Virginia River Rats

Last season: 36-35-11 (6th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Robert Thomas (11), Alexandre Texier (31)

Additions: F Robert Thomas, D Radko Gudas, D Jordan Oesterle

Subtractions: F Sam Gagner, D Jan Rutta, G Joonas Korpisalo

Analysis: With Sebastian Aho, Leon Draisatl, and Jake Guentzel, the River Rats have the makings of one of the league’s most dynamic young top lines. And they can chase that with Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and veteran T.J. Oshie. That’s a great foundation for any club. But questions still abound, namely: Can Brock Nelson centre the second line on a playoff team? If Matt Dumba is hurt, as is rumoured, does the team have enough depth on defense? We know Dougie Hamilton can be a powerplay performer, but can he anchor the top pairing and eat big minutes with Jaccob Slavin? (The team’s signings of Radko Gudas and Jordan Oesterle suggests management has similar concerns.) And finally, is Jacob Markstrom a capable GWMHL starter? It seems safe to suggest that the team can probably expect middle-of-the-pack goaltending and production from its blueline, at least. Combine that with its near-elite group of forwards and the playoffs seem like a good bet.

Player to watch: Much will depend on the top line, in particular Sebastian Aho. Used at wing in previous seasons, if he can adapt to playing centre, the rest should fall into place.

Outlook: Playoffs

2019-20 Season Preview: Plante West

In News, Special Features on October 8, 2019 at 10:00 am

Yesterday we looked at the Plante East. Today, it’s part two of our annual season previews, including two rebuilding clubs and three teams that seem ready to make some real noise in ’19-’20.

Baltimore Crab

Last season: 37-33-12 (4th in conference; lost in 1st round)

Draft picks: Filip Zadina (13), Philippe Myers (38)

Additions: F Jay Beagle, F Antti Suomela, D Lawrence Pilut, G Mikko Koskinen, G Pheonix Copley

Subtractions: F Frans Nielsen, F A.J. Greer, D Kevin Connauton, D Karl Alzner, G Roberto Luongo, G Kari Lehtonen

Analysis: Not much has changed for the one-time contenders, outside of swapping aging and declining Roberto Luongo for European import Mikko Koskinen in goal. The team still has a flat-out great top 6, headlined by Sidney Crosby, Mark Scheifele, Filip Forsberg, and Vladimir Tarasenko, and a deadly top defense pairing in Ryan McDonagh and Brent Burns. But the team’s depth is something of a question mark, especially on the blueline. After Hampus Lindholm, the team will be relying a lot on the likes of young Tony DeAngelo and aging Johnny Boychuk, among others. If they flop, the Crab could be in the market for a D-man before the deadline.

Player to watch: Mikko Koskinen is a total unknown. Can he take the reins from Luongo and lead Baltimore back into contention? He’ll have to, since backup Philipp Grubauer isn’t eligible to play in all postseason games.

Outlook: Playoffs

Charleston Chiefs

Last season: 38-38-6 (5th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Miro Heiskanen (2), Rudolfs Balcers (50), Mason Appleton (66), Jakub Zboril (70), Trevor Moore (73)

Additions: D Miro Heiskanen, F Rudolfs Balcers, F Mason Appleton

Subtractions: F Steven Stamkos, F David Backes, F Ryan Hartman, D Andreas Borgman, D Mirco Mueller

Analysis: Rebuilds are painful. After a disappointing season that nevertheless saw them within a few points of a playoff berth, the Chiefs traded up in the draft in the hopes of nabbing Rasmus Dahlin, only to watch him go first overall. At number 2, they picked up Miro Heiskanen, who will immediately slot in on the team’s first pairing with Morgan Rielly. That’s good. Unfortunately, it meant losing Steven Stamkos and a lot of offensive punch beyond Brayden Point and Viktor Arvidsson. There’s William Nylander, but a contract dispute may keep him out for part of the season. The team is looking thin at both left wing and centre, where Casey Mittelstadt will likely be thrown to the wolves in a key role, and the defense features no real game-breakers after the first pair. Oh, and Jonathan Quick has seen better days. It could be a long season.

Player to watch: Josh Anderson isn’t exactly heralded, but he’s slowly emerged as a top-six talent. Much will be expected of him this year to partially make up for the loss of Stamkos and, potentially, Nylander.

Outlook: Rebuilding

El Dorado Lynx

Last season: 48-24-10 (3rd in conference; lost in 1st round)

Draft picks: Erik Brannstrom (17), Carl Grundstrom (36), Vitaly Abramov (57), Nathan Bastian (80)

Additions: none

Subtractions: F Patrik Berglund, D Niklas Kronwall, F Vitaly Abramov, F Nathan Bastian

Analysis: After a first-round loss to Parry Sound, the Lynx had a quiet offseason, and highly-touted Erik Brannstrom isn’t ready for prime time. Yet any team featuring Alex Ovechkin and Ryan O’Reilly is going to be in the mix. The team has an extremly deep group on both wings — some of the best depth in the league, in fact — which it hopes will offset the lack of quality after O’Reilly down the middle. The steep decline of Ryan Kesler’s play has left the likes of Valteri Filppula (or possibly Mikael Granlund shifted from wing) as the second-line centre. In brighter news, the improvements El Dorado made to its blueline last year with the acquisitions of Alex Edler and Jonas Brodin have made for the team’s most balanced defense corps in years. If Mattias Ekholm and Jeff Petry can play like top-pairing d-men, they’ll have a shot at a long playoff run.

Player to watch: The team has been riding the coattails of the Carey Price/Tuukka Rask tandem for years, and this season will be no different. If Price in particular can play to his talent level, it will make a world of difference for the Lynx.

Outlook: Contender

Great Lakes Pilots

Last season: 17-56-9 (10th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Rasmus Dahlin (1), Evan Bouchard (21), Victor Olofsson (35), Isac Lundestrom (41), Urho Vaakanainen (54), Dylan Gambrell (61)

Additions: F Ilya Kovalchuk, D Rasmus Dahlin

Subtractions: F Markus Granlund, F Jason Pominville, F Riley Sheahan, F Ryan Spooner, D Madison Bowey, D Nick Jensen, D Julius Honka

Analysis: The rebuilding Pilots had a great draft, nabbing Rasmus Dahlin first overall, and following it with two second rounders who could be ready for regular action in 2020 in Evan Bouchard and Victor Olofsson. But it’ll be a rocky year as the team pins its hopes on the continuing development of Jonathan Drouin, Nolan Patrick, and Colin White. Outside of those three, Tomas Hertl is the team’s only potential scoring threat up front, though the team hopes last year’s acquisition of Alexander Wennberg will pay dividends eventually. Things look bright on the back end, though, as the Pilots now have an excellent¬† top-6 headlined by Dahlin, Jacob Trouba, Jake Gardiner, and Danny DeKeyser, backstopped by one of the league’s best starters in Andrei Vasilevskiy. That group will put a few notches in the W column for sure.

Player to watch: Purely out of necessity, Tomas Hertl is the straw that stirs the drink for the Pilots. The question is, how much offense can he create on his own, with the likes of Alex Chiasson possibly riding shotgun?

Outlook: Rebuilding

Parry Sound Orrsmen

Last season: 52-18-12 (2nd in conference; lost in 2nd round)

Draft picks: Max Jones (39)

Additions: F Micheal Ferland, F Patric Hornqvist,G Thomas Greiss

Subtractions: F Colton Sceviour, F Daniel Sedin, F Maxim Mamin, F Mikhail Vorobyev, F Tyler Motte, D Thomas Hickey, G Casey DeSmith

Analysis: After a second-straight year of postseason disappointment, the Parry Sound Orrsmen are once again looking to claim a title in 2019-20. The team made a few significant, if not earth-shattering, changes during the offseason, most notably in acquiring goaltender Thomas Greiss from Farmington. Should Pekka Rinne stumble, Greiss will be waiting. The team also added wingers Micheal Ferland and Patric Hornqvist, both of whom should help shore up the team’s shaky-looking bottom six. At the end of the day, the team is more or less where it was last year — a good-but-not-great blueline (bolstered by the trade deadline acquisition of Oliver Ekman-Larsson), and a truly stellar, high-powered top six up front, led by Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Evgeni Kuznetsov. If that engine is running on all cylinders, look out.

Player to watch: David Pastrnak has the talent to be a game-breaker, and will once again have a world-class centre (no matter how the lines shuffle) feeding him the puck. A monster year from him could be coming.

Outlook: Contender