Coach: Mike Johnston (sixth season)
Last season: 57-12-1-2, first in Western Conference, WHL champions.
Key losses: The Winterhawks took a big hit on defense as D Troy Rutkowski (20 goals, 46 assists) graduated, D Tyler Wotherspoon (seven goals, 30 assists) is off to the pro ranks, and D Seth Jones (14 goals, 42 assists) is likely to stick with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. RW Ty Rattie (48 goals, 62 assists) and G Mac Carruth (30-7-0-2, 2.06 goals against average, .929 save percentage) are also gone.
Key returners: Portland scored the most goals in the league last season, and the Winterhawks return almost all their offensive firepower, led by the dynamic duo of 19-year-old LW Brendan Leipsic (49 goals, 71 assists) and 18-year-old C Nicolas Petan (46 goals, 74 assists), who tied for the league scoring title. There’s plenty of returning support in 18-year-old RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (31 goals, 32 assists), 19-year-old LW Taylor Leier (27 goals, 35 assists) and 18-year-old C Chase De Leo (18 goals, 38 assists). 19-year-old D Derrick Pouliot (nine goals, 36 assists) adds plenty of creative flair at the blue line. 18-year-old G Brendan Burke (24-5-1-0, 2.65 goals against average, .908 save percentage) inherits the No. 1 position.
Key newcomers: Portland added a pair of impact overagers. 20-year-old RW Shane McColgan (19 goals, 47 assists) was acquired from Saskatoon. The rights to 20-year-old D Garrett Haar, who played at Western Michigan University last season, were acquired from Medicine Hat. 18-year-old Swedish D Anton Cederholm was picked up in the import draft.
Outlook: The defending league champs may have lost a ton on defense as well as their goaltender, but Portland has so much in attack it may not matter. Leipsic and Petan are electrifying in the offensive zone, and there’s plenty of depth up front. Portland also gets its coach back as Mike Johnston is back from a season-long suspension. The Winterhawks remain the team to beat in the Western Conference.
Coach: Steve Konowalchuk (third season)
Last season: 24-38-7-3, seventh in Western Conference, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Key losses: Workhorse No. 1 G Brandon Glover (22-28-5-2, 3.69 goals against average, .892 save percentage) graduated, as did the team’s captain, C Luke Lockhart (25 goals, 24 assists), and C Adam Kambeitz (14 goals, 25 assists).
Key returners: 18-year-old D Shea Theodore (19 goals, 31 assists) is a big weapon on the blue line. A trio of 19-year-olds, LW Roberts Lipsbergs (30 goals, 28 assists), RW Connor Honey (16 goals, 38 assists) and C Alexander Delnov (20 goals, 29 assists), formed a dangerous line last season. 19-year-old RW Branden Troock (five goals, six assists) is oft injured, but possesses gamebreaking ability. 20-year-old RW Seth Swenson (18 goals, 28 assists) and 19-year-old LW Riley Sheen (13 goals, 27 assists) provide further experienced depth up front. 20-year-old D Jesse Forsberg (five goals, 21 assists) marshals a defense that returns intact.
Key newcomers: Much is expected of 16-year-old C Mathew Barzal. The first-overall pick in the 2012 bantam draft is considered a generational talent, and the T-birds spent more than a year in a recruiting tug-of-war with the NCAA for the talented playmaker. 16-year-old RW Keegan Kolesar was also a first-round pick in the 2012 bantam draft.
Outlook: Seattle made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, then nearly upset second-seeded Kelowna in the first round before the Rockets overcame a 3-0 series deficit. Now the T-birds add Barzal to a deep and experienced group of forwards, and Seattle can field the same top-six defensemen as it had last season. The key for Seattle will be goaltending as the T-birds have no proven netminder. But even without a proven goaltender Seattle can expect a significant improvement in the standings.
Coach: Don Nachbaur (fourth season)
Last season: 44-26-2-0, fourth in Western Conference, eliminated in second round of playoffs.
Key losses: The Chiefs will sorely miss graduated D Brenden Kichton (22 goals, 63 assists), who was the Western Conference’s Defenseman of the Year each of the past two seasons. C Dylan Walchuk (20 goals, 40 assists) and RW Blake Gal (17 goals, 24 assists) also graduated, while LW Alessio Bertaggia (29 goals, 24 assists) is off to the pro ranks. Overage LW Todd Fiddler (42 goals, 35 assists) was traded to Moose Jaw in the offseason.
Key returners: 20-year-old RW Mitch Holmberg (39 goals, 41 assists) and 20-year-old C Mike Aviani (30 goals, 38 assists) give Spokane a pair of high-impact overage forwards. 18-year-old LW Adam Helewka (10 goals, 17 assists) will be expected to pick up some of the lost offensive production. 19-year-old D Reid Gow (seven goals, 44 assists) leads a defense that will be looking for more from the likes of 18-year-olds Tyler King (six goals, 13 assists) and Jason Fram (one goal, 14 assists). 20-year-old G Eric Williams (32-19-2-0, 3.14 goals against average, .897 save percentage) is the incumbent No. 1, though he’s being pushed by 18-year-old Garret Hughson (11-6-0-0, 3.20 goals against average, .891 save percentage).
Key newcomers: The Chiefs are hoping 17-year-old Austrian LW Dominic Zwerger can help replace some of the lost offensive production. Big 16-year-old D Evan Fiala was the team’s first-round pick in the 2012 bantam draft.
Outlook: Spokane is coming off another good season, but the Chiefs were a top-heavy team, and much of what Spokane did revolved around Kichton. With significant losses up front, along with some of the lower teams in the division expected to improve this season, the Chiefs will be hard-pressed to maintain their position.
Coach: Jim Hiller (fifth season)
Last season: 40-27-2-3, fifth in Western Conference, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Key losses: C Justin Feser (44 goals, 62 assists) was the latest in Tri-City’s long line of star overage forwards. RW Malte Stromwall (21 goals, 45 assists) departed to play professionally in his native Sweden. LW Jesse Mychan (19 goals, 22 assists) and D Drydn Dow (five goals, 28 assists) also graduated as overagers.
Key returners: In 18-year-old G Eric Comrie (20-14-1-2, 2.62 goals against average, .915 save percentage) the Americans have a difference maker in net. Tri-City is extremely deep and experienced on defense, led by overagers Zachary Yuen (nine goals, 36 assists) and Mitch Topping (13 goals, 26 assists), with 19-year-old Michal Plutnar (seven goals, 21 assists) also a key component. 19-year-old C Connor Rankin (32 goals, 26 assists) is Tri-City’s top offensive option, with 18-year-old C Parker Bowles (21 goals, 23 assists), 18-year-old C Brian Williams (20 goals, 16 assists) and 18-year-old RW Beau McCue (17 goals, 12 assists) poised for production increases.
Key newcomers: Promising 17-year-old LW Taylor Vickerman (four goals, five assists) was picked up after asking out of Vancouver. Two 16-year-old rookies who are expected to step in to the lineup are C Ty Comrie and D Parker Wotherspoon.
Outlook: Tri-City tied Kamloops’ league record for winning 40 games in seven straight seasons, but the Americans will be challenged to make it eight. Tri-City is extremely experienced on defense and has a top goaltender in Eric Comrie, so the Americans have a chance. But will Tri-City be able to score enough goals? Whether returning players can take another step forward offensively will determine whether the Americans can keep their streak alive.