Coach: Jamie Kompon (1st season)
Last season: 54-13-2-3, second in Western Conference, eliminated in WHL finals.
Key losses: Derrick Pouliot (17 goals, 53 assists), the WHL’s reigning Defenseman of the Year, has moved onto the professional ranks, where he’s joined by fellow defenseman Mathew Dumba (8 G, 16 A), scorer/pest Brendan Leipsic (39 G, 52 A) and captain Taylor Leier (37 G, 42 A). The biggest loss may be general manager/head coach Mike Johnston, as the man who turned Portland into a dynasty was hired to coach the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Key returners: Despite the losses, the Winterhawks are still stacked on offense, led by the dynamic duo of 19-year-old center Nicolas Petan (35 goals, 78 assists) and 19-year-old right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand (50 G, 59 A), who finished second and third, respectively, in the league’s scoring race. 19-year-old center Chase De Leo (39 G, 42 A), gives the Winterhawks a dynamite foundation for a second line. With heavy losses on defense, much will be expected from 19-year-old defenseman Anton Cederholm (4 G, 12 A). 19-year-old goaltender Brendan Burke (34-10-2-2, 2.75 goals against average, .911 save percentage) is back to carry the mail in net.
Key newcomers: Jamie Kompon takes over the general manager and head-coaching duties after being an assistant coach with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. 19-year-old defenseman Blake Heinrich, a fifth-round NHL draft pick by the Washington Capitals, arrives after forgoing an NCAA scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. 17-year-old defenseman Nick Heid is another highly regarded American defenseman to join the Winterhawks.
Outlook: Portland was decimated on defense, but the Winterhawks have so much going on offensively it might not matter. Not only does Portland have elite offensive talents in place, the Winterhawks also have plenty of supporting cast that should be able to make up for lost offensive production. It remains to be seen how successful the transition goes from Johnston to Kompon, but the pieces are in place for Portland to make a run at a fifth straight Western Conference title.
Coach: Steve Konowalchuk (4th season)
Last season: 41-25-2-4, fourth in Western Conference, eliminated in second round of playoffs.
Key losses: Seattle ended last season with 11 19-year-olds, so eight of those will be gone this season. Among those who won’t be back are three of the team’s top five scorers in center Alexander Delnov (29 goals, 34 assists), right wing Branden Troock (24 G, 34 A) and left wing Roberts Lipsbergs (33 G, 19 A), who are all playing professionally. Center Russell Maxwell (15 G, 22 A) decided to begin his Mormon mission, while left wing Jaimen Yakubowski (158 penalty minutes) was traded to Moose Jaw.
Key returners: Seattle has perhaps the best offensive defenseman in the league in 19-year-old Shea Theodore (22 goals, 57 assists). The T-birds have two players expected to be high picks in the 2015 NHL draft in 17-year-old center Mathew Barzal (14 G, 40 A) and 18-year-old left wing Ryan Gropp (18 G, 24 A). The team’s captain, 20-year-old right wing Justin Hickman (22 G, 24 A) provides both scoring and toughness. 20-year-old goaltender Taran Kozun (14-9-0-1, 2.40 goals against average, .928 save percentage) solidified the T-birds in net after arriving at the trade deadline.
Key newcomers: Seattle brought in a pair of European forwards in 17-year-old Danish center Alexander True and 17-year-old Austrian center Florian Baltram. 17-year-old Lane Pederson leads the domestic influx of young forwards who have to make up the numbers following the large losses up front.
Outlook: Seattle took a big step forward last season following four consecutive losing seasons. The T-birds lost a lot of experience in having to pare down those 11 19-year-olds from last season. However, Seattle returns nearly intact on defense and in goal, and the T-birds still have high-end ability up front in Barzal and Gropp. If a team is positioned to challenge Portland, it may be Seattle.
Coach: Don Nachbaur (5th season)
Last season: 40-26-3-3, sixth in Western Conference, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Key losses: Spokane was heavily reliant last season on its three overagers — league scoring champion Mitch Holmberg (62 goals, 56 assists), his running mate Mike Aviani (38 G, 43 A), and goaltender Eric Williams (33-19-2-2, 2.67 goals against average, .906 save percentage) — who have graduated. Defenseman Reid Gow (6 G, 56 A), the best of the rest, elected not to return for his overage season.
Key returners: With Gow not returning, 19-year-old Jason Fram (6 goals, 51 assists) inherits the No. 1 defensemen position. 19-year-old left wing Adam Helewka (23 G, 27 A) is the one returning player who has an established track record of being able to score at the WHL level. 20-year-old center Liam Stewart (7 goals, 21 A), the son of rocker Rod Stewart, is hoping for an injury-free season. More will be expected from 18-year-old Austrian left wing Dominic Zwerger (16 G, 10 A).
Key newcomers: 19-year-old goaltender Alex Moodie, who played last season for Saskatoon, was brought in to compete for a spot. Towering 18-year-old Hungarian defenseman Tamas Laday was acquired in the import draft. 17-year-old defenseman Evan Fiala was the team’s first-round pick in the 2012 bantam draft and will be among a number of newcomers on defense trying to fill the void.
Outlook: Spokane has posted winning records in eight straight seasons. This looks like the season where that string comes to an end. The Chiefs were extremely top heavy last season, and the overagers who carried the team are gone. In addition, Spokane was unexpectedly hit on defense when Gow and Jeremy McIntosh both decided to end their WHL careers prematurely, this after the Chiefs traded Cole Wedman to Moose Jaw. (Wedman also decided to end his WHL career). The losses leave Spokane in a position where it will have to fight just to make the playoffs.
Coach: Mike Williamson (1st season)
Last season: 29-33-4-6, eighth in Western Conference, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Key losses: Tri-City’s captain and defensive leader Mitch Topping (7 goals, 17 assists), graduated as an overager, as did left wings Philip Tot (15 G, 23 A) and Jessey Astles (11 G, 9 A). Veteran defenseman Michal Plutnar (3 G, 9 A) is not back for his overage season.
Key returners: The Americans have arguably the best goaltender in the Western Conference in 19-year-old Eric Comrie (26-25-4-5, 2.57 goals against average, .924 save percentage). A trio of 19-year-olds in center Brian Williams (36 G, 20 A), center Parker Bowles (15 G, 25 A) and right wing Beau McCue (20 G, 20 A) should give Tri-City a good starting point on offense. 20-year-old defenseman Justin Hamonic (1 G, 14 A) is a steadying presence, while 17-year-old defenseman Parker Wotherspoon (2 G, 16 A) has great potential.
Key newcomers: Former Portland and Calgary coach Mike Williamson takes over behind the bench after Jim Hiller’s contract wasn’t renewed. Williamson also saw his contract not renewed by Calgary over the offseason. The Americans acquired 20-year-old center Steven Hodges (21 goals, 26 assists) from Victoria during the offseason, though Hodges is still a candidate to play professionally. The Americans mined Russia for a pair of forwards at the import draft, bringing in 17-year-olds Semyon Krasheninnikov and Vladislav Lukin.
Outlook: Tri-City saw its WHL record-tying streak of seven consecutive 40-win seasons come to an end last season. The Americans should be improved this season, especially if Hodges is sent back, as Tri-City didn’t lose much in the way of impact players. In Comrie, the Americans have the great equalizer. Williamson returns to the U.S. Division after a stint with Calgary that included the 2010 WHL championship, and he should make the Americans more competitive, if not in a position to unseat Portland.