Part three of the “All About the WHL” feature moves us towards what everybody wants to talk about, the teams. I played against a variety of dominant teams in all of the years I was in the league as well as some spectacular players – Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl, Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman Morgan Reilly and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, to name a few.
Some of these teams were loaded with NHL talents (as exemplified above), but most possessed straight-up, quality WHLers, who might have not gone on to stardom, but lit up the league nonetheless. These players are the backbone of many junior hockey teams, and do not get the recognition that they quite deserve. I will be counting down the top five WHL teams I played against but in this article I will not be basing this merely off of the teams’ records: these teams will be judged solely on the roster, top to bottom, NHL prospects all the way down to the “steady-Eddies.” Without further ado, I present the list:
#5: 2015-16 Brandon Wheat Kings
This was an impressive Wheat Kings squad. They finished second overall in the league with 102 points and 48 wins, leading the WHL with a whopping 316 goals, an average of 4.39 per game. Both specialty units ranked in the top five of the league as well. From a roster standpoint its hard to deny their ranking on this list: six players finished with at least 60 points, with another amassing 59 points and this is with 2014-15 105 point scorer Tim McGauley registering only 49 points due to a spell of the injury bug. McGauley, along with defenseman Macoy Erkamps are the two players to note from this team. These are two of those solid WHLers, whom had great success in the league but may not ever turn out to be players in the NHL (although, they are currently working their way up through the minor league systems of the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators, respectively). This team also featured two top ten NHL draftees in Nolan Patrick (2017 #2 overall) and Ivan Provorov (2015 #7 overall). Provorov recorded an outlandish plus-minus rating of plus-64.
The Wheaties were WHL league champions and participated in the 2016 Memorial Cup tournament to top it off.
Scores versus Vancouver Giants in 2015-16: Brandon 8 Vancouver 3
#4: 2013-14 Portland Winterhawks
The first appearance for the Winterhawks in this countdown goes to their 2013-14 team. This might just be the all-absurd team: 14 NHL (14!!!!) Draft picks suited up for the ‘Hawks that year. Astonishingly, this squad finsihed 2nd in the Western Conference to the Kelowna Rockets, and lost in game seven in the WHL Championship to the Edmonton Oil Kings who went on to win the Memorial Cup. Portland had the top five playoff scoring leaders, all five recording over 25 points. In the regular season, they had six players record over 70 points, seven players record over 20 goals and five players record over 35 goals.
This is just to get everyone warmed up. The Winterhawks led the WHL in powerplay percentage (27.5%), registering an insane 92 powerplay goals. They were also fourth in penalty killing (81.9%), registering 17 shorthanded goals. From their roster, seven players have already played NHL games (Petan, Bjorkstrand, Leipsic, De Leo, Leier, Pouliot, Dumba). They scored a ridiculous 338 goals in 72 games, almost doubling the Lethbridge Hurricanes that year, who scored 171 goals. Ironically, they acquired goaltender Corbin Boes from the 12-win Hurricanes that year, and in his final 16 regular season games posted a 13-1-1 record. It’s safe to say they were pretty good.
Scores versus Vancouver Giants in 2013-14: Portland 5 Vancouver 4 (SO); Portland 5 Vancouver 2; Portland 7 Vancouver 4; Portland 4 Vancouver 1
Playoffs: Portland 4 Vancouver 3; Portland 3 Vancouver 0; Portland 6 Vancouver 3; Portland 6 Vancouver 1
#3: 2013-14 Kelowna Rockets
This Rockets team won an improbable 57 of 72 games in the 2013-14 season, claiming the regular season title. Though, with the phenomenal record, they went on to only make it to the Western Conference final (losing to Portland). Interestingly, the Rockets didn’t have one “star” lighting it up for them. Don’t get me wrong, they still had 10 NHL draft picks, but their leading scorer Myles Bell had 77 points (24th in the league) which was surprising, since they did rack up 310 goals. Instead, this team had a few of those notorious quality WHLers to bring balance and consistency from top to bottom. One of which was goaltender Jordan Cooke, who was the reason why Kelowna was one goal off of the league lead in goals against (182 goals against in 72 games). Arguably the best goaltender in the WHL for two seasons (2012-13 & 2013-14) Cooke posted a 39-7-4 record that season, with a 2.28 GAA and .922 SV% winning the league’s Top Goaltender Award. He also took home the CHL Goaltender of the Year. Cooke was listed at 5’10” (probably undesirable to the NHL scouts) yet continues to be a stud in the crease, nowadays for the University of Saskatchewan. Of their 10 NHL draftees, one was current New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson. They also had two other defenseman drafted (Bowey, Wheaton) and seven forwards (Bell, Olsen, Merkley, Chartier, Kirkland, Tvrdon, and Goulbourne). A tough lineup to face.
Scores versus Vancouver Giants: Kelowna 4 Vancouver 3 (OT); Kelowna 4 Vancouver 2; Vancouver 4 Kelowna 2; Kelowna 4 Vancouver 2; Kelowna 6 Vancouver 0; Kelowna 3 Vancouver 1; Kelowna 6 Vancouver 5; Kelowna 5 Vancouver 3
#2: 2012-13 Edmonton Oil Kings
The Oil Kings in 2012-13 epitomized what a dominant junior hockey team should be constructed of: they had a handful of skillful, quick forwards to go with a few two-way centerman, and a couple of bruisers. They also had a rock-solid defense group of big, mean, good-skating players and a terrific goaltending tandem. Edmonton won 51 games, good for 3rd overall in the WHL regular season and won them the Eastern Conference Championship. They ended up losing in six games in the WHL final to Portland. However, despite disappointment to end their campaign, they had a fantastic year. Edmonton boasted the best powerplay percentage by a whopping 5%. They also were 0.4% off of the best penalty kill percentage. Defensively they led the league in goals against, only being scored on 155 times in 72 games. Therefore it comes as no surprise that they had two of the top three goalies (according to GAA), Tristan Jarry and Laurent Brossoit. Going into today, the Oil Kings have had 14 of their players from that squad selected in the NHL draft.
In my opinion, the most crucial aspect of this team’s success was the way their management handled their 20-year old, overage player situation*. All three of them were not NHL draftees but were without doubt stars in the WHL. Dylan Wruck recorded 256 points in 259 career games, TJ Foster had 257 points in 338 games and Trevor Cheek, whom they acquired mid season, had 134 points in 195 games. All three have gone on to play professionally.
Scores versus Vancouver Giants: Edmonton 5 Vancouver 1; Edmonton 5 Vancouver 0
#1: 2012-13 Portland Winterhawks
This Winterhawks team deservedly comes in at the #1 spot. Portland was WHL regular season champions, as well as the playoff champions, and lost in the Memorial Cup final to Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and the Halifax Mooseheads. The WHL playoffs saw Portland carry three of the top four scorers, as well two of the top three Memorial Cup scorers. On top of that, Portland had the top three WHL regular season scorers, two of which finished with 120 points (Petan, Leipsic), while the other had 110 points (Rattie). As a team, Portland skated to 57 wins, tops in the league. They were one of two teams to score over 300 goals, netting 334 which was 25 goals more than any other team. The Winterhawks had the 2nd best powerplay unit, and the top penalty kill. Impressive numbers across the board.
Individually, Portland might have the best (or one of the best) rosters in the past twenty years in the WHL. To date, fifteen players (riduclous…) have been selected in the NHL draft. Of these fifteen, ten (yes, ten) were forwards on this Winterhawk team. Six of these ten have played NHL games (Petan, Rattie, Leipsic, Leier, De Leo, Bjorkstrand). On defense, three were drafted into the NHL, with two (Pouliot, Wotherspoon) playing NHL games. Much like most successful WHL teams, their 20-year old overage player group was solid as can be: defenseman Troy Rutkowski was the captain, scoring 20 goals. Forward Taylor Peters was a shutdown centreman, who still chipped in 42 points. And goaltender Mac Carruth won 30 of 39 games played, with a GAA just over two (2.06) and 7 shutouts. Pieces like these are what put teams over the top, which it clearly did for the 2012-13 Portland Winterhawks.
Scores versus Vancouver Giants: Portland 9 Vancouver 5; Portland 3 Vancouver 0; Portland 8 Vancouver 3; Portland 4 Vancouver 3 (OT)
*The WHL overage rule: WHL Clubs are allowed a maximum of three 20 year old players on their roster. Clubs having more than three overage players to start the season may continue to rotate them in and out of the lineup until a date determined annually in mid-October at which time they must declare the three that will remain on their roster. Other 20-year-olds become free agents and are made available to other teams in the WHL. Following that date, WHL Clubs may add an overage player, but if they already have three on their roster, then they must release one. January 10 of each year is the roster deadline and all players who are with a WHL Club on that date are there for the balance of the season. —— http://prospects.whl.ca/prospect-central-faqs/
Adam is a student at the University of Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @adam_m3318.
Carter is a hockey player, formerly in the WHL for the Vancouver Giants, currently at the University of British Columbia. You can follow him on Twitter @carter_popoff.
You can follow Hit the Cut on Twitter @hitthecutblog.