Hockey Prospectus’ WHL analyst, Benoit Roy, brings us a preview of the upcoming first round of the WHL playoffs, set to start tonight (Mar. 26, 2015)
(E1) Brandon Wheat Kings vs. (WC2) Edmonton Oil Kings
This first round matchup pits the WHL’s third best defense (Edmonton) against the league’s best offense (Brandon) despite being at opposite ends of the Eastern Conference standings. Similarly the Oil Kings carry the league’s fourth best shot differential while the Wheat Kings sit in second – there’s not much that separates these two in that sense. While Edmonton boasts a strong possession game, they’re demise lies in their inability to score. They sit near the bottom of the league with 219 goals compared to Brandon’s league-best 339. Edmonton will rely on Memorial Cup-winning goaltender Tristan Jarry to play some of the best hockey of his young career if they expect to beat a high-scoring Brandon club. Despite the likely outcome, this should go down as an exciting first-round series.
Player to watch: Tim McGauley (C) Brandon. The undrafted 19 year-old free agent had a stand-out season as the league’s third leading scorer. A positionally smart and adaptive player, McGauley upped his offensive game tremendously and will be relied on to continue producing at a torrid pace throughout the playoffs.
Prediction: Brandon in 6
(E2) Regina Pats vs. (E3) Swift Current Broncos
Led by top-prospect Jake DeBrusk, Swift Current secured a playoff spot after defeating Moose Jaw in their final game of the regular season. Their lineup boasts some solid firepower on every line, while goaltender Landon Bow will man the pipes for the first time in the playoffs after posting the league’s fifth best save percentage in the regular season. Regina has the slight edge offensively (51.5% SF% versus Swift Current’s 48.5%) with 16 year-old rookie Sam Steel providing excellent secondary scoring throughout the season, among other potent forwards. Expect this to be a tight race, but Regina’s consistency throughout the season and superior rate of possession may prove to be the difference.
Player to watch: Jake DeBrusk (LW) Swift Current. The draft-eligible forward has made a tremendous case to be a sure-fire first rounder, leading his team in points as a 17 year-old. A calculating spark plug with good intelligence, expect him to ignite his team on the ice and on the score sheet.
Prediction: Regina in 7
(C1) Calgary Hitmen vs. (WC1) Kootenay Ice
Calgary is carrying a massive grudge against Kootenay who upset the Hitmen in last year’s first-round matchup. This time around, both lineups look very similar – consistent firepower throughout, a productive defensive corps, and goaltenders posting nearly identical numbers. From a prospect point of view, this series is littered with them. Virtanen, Sanheim and Reinhart were all taken in the first round last year, with Reinhart being the clear standout (currently posting 1.32 PPG to Virtanen’s 1.02 and Sanheim’s 0.97). This compelling matchup will likely come down to depth and goaltending, which favors Calgary slightly. Brendan Burke has excelled in Calgary since being traded from Portland and they have a serviceable backup in Mack Shields.
Player to watch: Sam Reinhart (C) Kootenay. It’s difficult to pin down the performance of a team on one player, but Reinhart has the ability to elevate his team in important situations – use his World Junior performance as a model of his skill and leadership. Reinhart is his team’s catalyst.
Prediction: Calgary in 6
(C2) Medicine Hat Tigers vs. (C3) Red Deer Rebels
This series will be a battle of attrition between two relatively equal teams. Medicine Hat has the lethal free-agent duo of Trevor Cox (who finished second in the WHL in points) and Cole Sanford (who finished second in goals). Although Red Deer has less firepower up front, they arguably have one of the most dynamic defensive corps in the league led by former first rounder, Haydn Fleury (albeit, he’s had an off year in production). As it stands, Medicine Hat is an incredibly strong possession team and claims the league-best shooting differential (56.7%); Red Deer, comparatively, sits in the middle of the pack (50.1%).
Players to watch: Trevor Cox (C) and Cole Sanford (RW) Medicine Hat. Again, this series rests in the hands of a team’s leading producers. After these two, Medicine Hat’s top scorers drop off significantly although at the trade deadline the club picked up Dryden Hunt and Kyle Burroughs which should relieve some pressure.
Prediction: Medicine Hat in 7
(BC1) Kelowna Rockets vs. (WC2) Tri-City Americans
Kelowna stocked up immensely at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Oilers prospect Leon Draisaitl and Jets pick Josh Morrissey (who will likely be out due to injury for the duration of the series). Finishing second in the league in points, Kelowna is the undisputed favorite in this series. Tri-City barely secured the final wild card spot in the Western Conference and finished with a regular season record of 31-38-0-3. Kelowna finished the season with a league-high PDO and shooting percentage, which means the streaky Eric Comrie will have to be Tri-City’s saving grace. Comrie posted the league’s fourth best save percentage on a very weak team, but even his best performance is unlikely to scathe a stacked Kelowna squad.
Player to watch: Draft-eligible Nick Merkley quietly led his club in scoring while his teammates were off at the World Juniors or playing pro. Although he has a solid support cast of scorers behind him, Merkley is an intriguing prospect and a candidate to increase his draft stock with a solid showing and high production in the playoffs.
Prediction: Kelowna in 4
(BC2) Victoria Royals vs. (BC3) Prince George Cougars
Two less-than-stellar possession teams, Victoria and Prince George will likely play the toughest playoff hockey of the first-round with Prince George sporting the league’s highest PIMs total by a significant margin. Prince George had some difficulties with goaltending throughout the season, boasting an abysmal 87.8% save percentage, among the worst in the league, which is certainly not enough to eclipse an objectively deeper Victoria squad. However, their toughness might take a chunk out of the Royals and potentially allow guns like Harkins to step in and steal one or two games. In the end, Dave Lowry’s club (led by success-story Joe Hicketts) should have no problem defeating Prince George down the stretch.
Player to watch: Joe Hicketts (D) Victoria. Hicketts is fresh off a solid outing at the World Juniors and has signed a three-year entry-level contract with Detroit as an undrafted free agent. The undrafted offensive defenseman is the undisputed leader on his club.
Prediction: Victoria in 5
(US1) Everett Silvertips vs. (WC1) Spokane Chiefs
Everett had a surprising season by all accounts and was led by former Saskatoon Blade Nikita Scherbak, who will get his first taste of playoff hockey this year. The Silvertips have slightly above-average possession stats as well as above average shooting and save percentages. By comparison, Spokane’s Estimated Fenwick Close mirrors Everett’s, but the club’s PDO is below average at around 98%. The season series between the two clubs was markedly close (Everett took four of seven games) which positions this series to be lengthy. Objectively, Everett has the slight edge in skill and stats, ultimately giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Player to watch: Nikita Scherbak (RW) Everett. The 18-year-old Russian has had a tremendous year. He led his team in production, possession and posted the most estimated minutes per game among forwards. Everett will be leaning on the veteran for a ton of support in this series and throughout the playoffs.
Prediction: Everett in 6
(US2) Portland Winterhawks vs. (US3) Seattle Thunderbirds
This series will undoubtedly be the best in the Western Conference which pits the WHL’s most recent dynasty against a team fresh off a successful rebuild. With Bjorkstrand, Petan, De Leo and Bittner, Portland has serious weapons up front, but they’re also incredibly top-heavy. These four players generated nearly 60% of Portland’s goals this season. Comparatively, Seattle has a cleaner distribution of producers lead by two draft eligible stars in Ryan Gropp and Mathew Barzal (arguably the WHL’s best prospect), and posted similar possession numbers. If Portland’s top-four heat up quickly and if their unproven goaltender handles the pressure, this series could end up a bit lopsided. But, as it stands, Seattle’s young guns seem poised and ready to make a statement – what better way than against the WHL’s best?
Player to watch: Oliver Bjorkstrand (C) Portland. Bjorkstrand is a man amongst boys. He’s NHL ready, fast in every conceivable way and has an astonishing scoring instinct. He’s the catalyst for his club and will be relied on to post big offensive numbers.
Prediction: Portland in 6
Stats via WHL.ca and CHLStats.com