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Previewing the Western Canada Cup

Okay, I’ll admit it.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m still pretty much in disbelief that the Battlefords North Stars became the first team since the 1976 and 1982 Prince Albert Raiders to go out and run the table on their way to winning the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League championship.

Even though they dominated in the regular season, I still expected the North Stars to have some tough challenges when the playoffs rolled around, especially in the first round against a Weyburn Red Wings side that gave them a tough time earlier in the year and in the final with the Flin Flon Bombers.

Instead, other than a couple of close games late in those series, it was smooth sailing to the first league title for the North Stars since 2000 as they went on a 12-0 run that will be talked about for years to come.

However, there’s still a task at hand for the team as they head to Penticton, B.C. for the Western Canada Cup, in what appears on paper to be the best field the tournament has had in its five-year history.

Before we take a look at the other four teams that North Stars will be competing against in their quest to earn one of two berths at the RBC Cup in Cobourg, Ont. in a couple of weeks, let’s quickly discuss the two teams that did battle for the Canalta Cup and what lies ahead for them.

Flin Flon Bombers – 39-14-2-3 – 1st in Sherwood Division – Lost 4-0 to Battlefords in Final

After losing to the Melfort Mustangs in six games a year ago, the Bombers were able to work their way back to the dance this season with another strong campaign, which was highlighted by coming back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat their division rival Nipawin Hawks in a seven-game semifinal series.

While it was going to be tough to beat the North Stars, the Bombers were probably deserving of a better fate. After a sub-par pair of contests at the Civic Centre to start the series, the Bombers played well in the following two games at the Whitney Forum and could have very easily brought the series back here had they won Game 3 in overtime or had held off the North Stars impressive comeback a night later in the series decider.

Next year’s Bombers side will have a bit of a different look to it as they’ll be losing a few key players to graduation, with the most notable pieces moving on being SJHL co-player of the year Greyson Reitmeier and two-time defenceman of the year winner Eric Sinclair.

Despite those losses, top scorers Rylee Zimmer, Nick Shumlanski and Brandon Lesko can all return up front, while the defence will now be anchored by Vermont commit Cory Thomas. With Brenden Newton now taking over the full-time starting netminder duties from the departing Zac Robidoux, it might not take that long for the Bombers to gel their returning players with the new faces as they attempt to win their first title since 1993.

Battlefords North Stars – 48-9-1-0 – 1st in Olympic Buildings Division – 2017 Canalta Cup Champions

After the most dominant regular season and playoff run in franchise history, what can the North Stars do for an encore?

We will go over how they stack up against the best of the west in a little bit, but when it come to the 2017-18 season, you can expect the league champions to enter the campaign as the favourites.

Like it was this season, the defensive depth will be strong once again. Yes, they will lose captain Kendall Fransoo and trade deadline acquisition Zach Nedelec to graduation, but everyone else on the blueline is eligible to return. Connor Sych, Levi Kleiboer and Cody Spagrud will be the main trio on defence and they should all have excellent campaigns.

In goal, both Taryn Kotchorek and Joel Grzybowski can come back for another season. However, given his strong rookie campaign in the league, there could be a chance that Grzybowski makes the move up to the Western Hockey League. He is a signed prospect for the Saskatoon Blades, but there are a number of other clubs that could use a young netminder so I wouldn’t be surprised if his rights end up getting dealt somewhere along the way.

The offence for the North Stars will need some retooling though, as Coby Downs, Connor Logan, Reed Delainey, Keaton Holinaty, Jared Blaquiere and Logan Nachtegaele will all be moving on from the world of junior hockey. With that said, Layne Young and Ben Allen can both return and Owen Lamb should have a stellar sophomore season after a great playoff run.

It’ll be interesting to see how general manager and head coach Nate Bedford fills those holes on offence in the coming months, but the North Stars did lose a lot of firepower from their 2015-16 roster and everything turned out okay for them. Until they get knocked from their perch, this is still the team to beat.

Before we get to far ahead of ourselves, let’s now get to know the teams the North Stars have to deal with in the present, as they’ll have four talented squads to contend with at the Western Canada Cup.

Brooks Bandits (Alberta Junior Hockey League Champions – 51-5-2-2 in the regular season – 12-1 in the playoffs)

As the number one team in the final edition of the CJHL Top 20 rankings, the Bandits enter this tournament as the favourites and for good reason.

Simply put, and this comes from watching them quite a bit during the year, this team is beyond frightening with the speed at which they move around the ice and with how quickly they get rolling in the goal scoring department.

The headline attraction is highly-talented defenceman Cale Makar, who won the AJHL’s most valuable player, top defenceman and playoff most valuable awards this season. The UMass commit had 75 points in 54 regular season games and 18 points in 13 playoff contests, which has helped to build the buzz around him ahead of the NHL Draft in June where there’s a good chance he could be the first blueliner selected.

There’s a lot more to the Bandits besides Makar, however, as they possess a number of dangerous forwards such as Oliver Chau, Parker Foo, Ty Mappin and Josh McKechney. The blueline also features a talented rookie in Dennis Cesana and a former WHL player in veteran Kord Pankewicz.

In goal, Mitchel Benson is coming off of a sublime playoff run where he went 12-1 with a 1.21 goals against average, so he can be relied upon for the Bandits if their offensive weapons aren’t clicking.

Chilliwack Chiefs (British Columbia Hockey League Runner-Up – 41-11-6-0 in the regular season – 15-8 in the playoffs)

Despite losing in the league final for the second straight season, the Chiefs will have a chance to compete in the Western Canada Cup this year as the host Vees made their way to the championship series. This is a huge learning experience for the Chiefs, as they’ll be the hosts of next year’s RBC Cup and will have another strong team in the BCHL.

This year’s squad is headlined by North Dakota prospect Jordan Kawaguchi, who is the most dynamic forward at this tournament. After putting up 85 points in the regular season, Kawaguchi went on one of the most insane playoff runs in BCHL history as he had 43 points in 23 games. In recent years, those are number that have only been matched by Connor McDavid and Mitch Marner in the Ontario Hockey League.

In addition to Kawaguchi, forwards Kohen Olischefski and Jake Smith can also find the back of the net on a regular basis. The Chiefs also have a pretty solid netminder in veteran Mark Sinclair, who was a key part of their success during their run to the league final.

Penticton Vees (Tournament Hosts and British Columbia Hockey League Champions – 41-13-3-1 in the regular season – 12-9 in the playoffs)

The Vees are the first hosts in the history of the Western Canada Cup to enter the tournament having won their league championship. Prior to that, only the 2014 Dauphin Kings of the MJHL had made it to a league final, but they ended up losing to the Winnipeg Blues.

The Vees are certainly the most battle-tested group coming into the WCC, as all three of their playoff series went the full seven games. They also came through in the clutch in Game 7 of the BCHL final as former Brandon Wheat King Duncan Campbell scored the winning goal in overtime as they prevented the Chiefs from erasing a 3-1 series deficit.

While they don’t have the impressive firepower of last year’s squad that was headlined by Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro but fell in the quarter-finals to the eventual national champion West Kelowna Warriors, the Vees still have a number of talented players that can take a game over.

Their biggest impact player is netminder Mathew Robson, who didn’t play a single game last year at Clarkson University while sitting out due to a ruling by the NCAA over the fact that he had signed a contract with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes but never played a game for them (it’s a long story). The Toronto native showed no rust in his return to action as he put up a 1.94 goals against average in the regular season and kept up those strong performances in the playoffs. Plus, he’s now committed to the Minnesota Golden Gophers for next year (when he will be eligible to play college hockey) so things have worked out rather well for him.

Veteran forward Nicholas Jones and blueliner Gabe Bast are also key contributors, but one youngster to keep an eye on is rookie defenceman Jonny Tychonick, as he might be a name you hear a lot about ahead of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Portage Terriers (Manitoba Junior Hockey League Champions – 37-19-1-3 in regular season – 12-6 in playoffs)

This is the third year in a row that the Terriers have won it all in Manitoba, but this run was the most surprising of the trifecta as they finished the regular season in fifth place in the MJHL standings before knocking off three of the top teams in the league.

One of the key cogs in their success has been forward Jeremey Leipsic. The younger brother of former Portland Winterhawks star and current Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Brendan reached the 100-point plateau in the regular season and led the MJHL in playoff scoring with 19 points.

The Terriers had some solid depth during their run to the championship, as forward Ty Barnstable, Chase Brakel, Ty Enns and playoff MVP winner Josh Martin all cracked double digits on offence, as did blueliner Mackenzie Dwyer.

Another name to watch is netminder Kurtis Chapman, who took over the starting duties in the playoffs and compiled a 2.07 goals against average. The one-time Regina Pats prospect actually started the season with the Estevan Bruins and played in a couple of games before heading to Manitoba.

Western Canada Cup Predictions

Let’s face it, these will probably be way off given how strong the field is, but here’s how I see things shaking out in Penticton over the next week.

1.       Brooks Bandits

2.       Battlefords North Stars

3.       Penticton Vees

4.       Chilliwack Chiefs

5.       Portage Terriers

After I pencilled the Bandits in as the number one team, I hemmed and hawed over the rest of the order as you can make a case for any of those teams to earn one of the berths in the RBC Cup.

Although the Chiefs have the ever-dangerous Kawaguchi on their roster and the Terriers have loads of experience from their recent run of success, I’m not sure they have the overall depth that the North Stars and Vees do.  

Now is there a bit of bias towards the North Stars since I saw them on a nearly-nightly basis this winter? Of course. However, given how impressive they were in their run to the SJHL title, it’s hard to see them dropping off from that form in Penticton.

With all that said, this is a round-robin tournament with single-game elimination playoffs at the end of it. The unexpected can and more than likely will happen.

Western Canada Cup Schedule (All Times Saskatchewan)

Saturday April 29

-          3 p.m. – Brooks vs. Chilliwack

-          8 p.m. – Battlefords vs. Penticton

Sunday April 30

-          3 p.m. – Portage vs. Battlefords

-          8 p.m. – Penticton vs. Brooks

Monday May 1

-          8 p.m. – Chilliwack vs. Portage

Tuesday May 2

-          3 p.m. – Brooks vs. Battlefords

-          8 p.m. – Chilliwack vs. Penticton

Wednesday May 3

-          8 p.m. – Portage vs. Brooks

Thursday May 4

-          3 p.m. – Battlefords vs. Chilliwack

-          8 p.m. – Penticton vs. Portage

Saturday May 6

-          3 p.m. – 4th Place vs. 3rd Place

-          8 p.m. – 2nd Place vs. 1st Place (Winner advances to the RBC Cup)

Sunday May 7

-          5 p.m. – Winner of 4th Place/3rd Place game vs. Loser of 2nd place/1st place game (Winner advances to the RBC Cup)