Tight race for WHL Central
By Joe McFarland
We all do it. A new sports season fires up and everyone starts predicting how their favourite team will do, how the
division will look and who will make the playoffs. We all make predictions. Are any of us any good at it? Probably not.
Now think of it from the WHL standpoint. This is a league dominated by players between 17 and 20 and you just never know who will hit a growth spurt or what newcomer will light the league on fire, etc.
The central division is always a fun one to follow in that the regional rivalries have teams always trying to one-up the other. It’s like the NHL’s northwest, with the Flames, Oilers and Canucks vying for supremacy, just translated to a younger generation. The Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings have developed their own “battle of Alberta.” The Lethbridge Hurricanes and Medicine Hat Tigers have a long-standing rivalry that usually boils over to the point of fisticuffs and finger pointing and the Red Deer Rebels, and Kootenay Ice also provide interesting battles amongst the division rivals.
But this year, more so than in others in recent memory, we see all six teams going neck-and-neck.
Calgary Hitmen were good last year and have started off on fire again this year. They have standout goaltender Martin Jones back while Brandon Kozun has been lights out since returning from Los Angeles Kings’ camp. Last year’s league scoring champ, Joel Broda, is back and new head coach Mike Williamson should have a successful debut year with the Hitmen.
Kootenay Ice made a deal at the end of last year with Swift Current involving Flames prospect John Negrin that seemed to signal a “youth movement” in Cranbrook. The Ice ‘D’ is sound and their forwards, eight of whom are over six-feet tall, are anchored by Max Reinhart, the son of former NHLer Paul Reinhart.
Medicine Hat Tigers lost Tyler Ennis to the pros and many thought the Tigers offense would dry up. So far this year, they have scored 14 more goals than they did at this time last year. The issue has been keeping the puck out of their own net and they will be depending on Tyler Bunz, 17, to handle the lion’s share of the workload.
Edmonton Oil Kings may be the most improved team to this point. They’re building off last year’s playoff race in leaps and bounds. Goaltender Torrie Jung kept games against Calgary in the playoffs closer than they should have been and he looks very confident now.
Red Deer Rebels have a lot of focus on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 16. The kid is already being hailed as a potentially high NHL pick. He had six points in five games as a 15-year-old last year and at the time of writing was still over a point-a-game. The goaltending situation with Minnesota Wild prospect Darcy Kuemper might be key, as the defense looks pretty young featuring a couple of 17-year-olds.
Lethbridge Hurricanes seem to have turned a corner as a team. A month before training camp, they were without a coach and a general manager. Then Rich Preston was brought in to cover both jobs and he has made his mark on the team. They got rid of Kyle Beach, who is known more for his discipline problems than his solid skill set.
Stay tuned to see just what the WHL’s exciting season and players have in store for 09/10.
Joe McFarland is the arena host for the Medicine Hat Tigers and the News/Sports Director of 102.1 The Lounge in Medicine Hat.