NEW SEASON UNDERWAY, YUKON BEGINS TITLE DEFENSE AGAINST STIFF COMPETITION
We made it guys! Our pride and joy is finally back. Here's a look at each combatant as we dive into this three-month Battle Royale!
Altoona Angry Beavers
Joe Dahms returns with high hopes for an improved sophomore season. Rinne, Ryan, P.Kane, Phaneuf, and Skinner are the known quantities in Altoona, however, rebound performances from Bryzgalov and Duchene would be critical in taking "Beaver Fever" to the next level. Another key for success will be the continued ascension of 23-year-old Lars Eller. Dahms was incredibly active on the trade market last year, but time will tell if wheeling and dealing was a means to an end, or an ongoing strategy.
Beantown Ball Busters
Since finishing 3rd in 2008-09, Nate Asdourian's Ball Busters have dipped in each successive season. This year, Beantown looks to leverage a strong draft and a robust nucleus of talent into a return to the upper echelon. Getzlaf and Perry remain one of the NHL's most prolific duos, and Lucic and Ott will provide a valuable mix of goals n' grit. Asdourian's season could swing on two things: whether or not Jimmy Howard can thrive in a post-Lidstrom world, and whether or not Braden Holtby has truly arrived.
Like his Beantown rival, the Beernuts are entering their 5th WHL campaign. Joe Mastrangelo made an ultra-aggressive run last year, but fell just short in the Final against Lokomotiv Yukon. This year appears to be mostly about regrouping for the future, unless Joe gets bored and decides to get trade happy again. DiPietro and Mason in net leave much to be desired (as in, a goalie), but Boston is overflowing with young talent. Pietrangelo, Schenn, Smith and Hamilton will patrol the blue line this season, while blue chippers Filip Forsberg, Ryan Strome and others wait in the wings.
Mike Zecca's gang has been an important part of the WHL since the beginning. In fact, MVB, WTF, WPB, and TTR would not be in the league today if Mike hadn't decided to wander into our quirky club back in 2007. On the ice, Brooklyn has averaged a 13th place finish since nabbing 3rd in our inaugural season, but the future is looking brighter. Tavares, Ryan O'Reilly (when he returns), Goligoski, and Fowler remain at the core, joined by a strong supporting cast that includes Weiss, Ribeiro, Michalek, and Jeff Carter. Brooklyn appears to have it's goalie of the future in Anders Lindback, with old schoolers Brodeur and Nabokov as insurance.
This will be season number 4 for Paul Zeman and the Kwijibos, who figure to once again challenge for the crown. Miikka Kiprusoff returns for a fourth consecutive season and Jaroslav Halak for his third, continuing California's tradition of elite goaltending. As for skaters, each baby Kwijibo seems to have a veteran counterpart. Tarasenko-Cole. Hanzal-Lecavalier. Nikitin-Markov. Speaking of Tarasenko....what a debut effort from the rook. Two (beautiful) goals, five shots, and a hit!
Canadiens de Montreal
Tyler Ladd's Montreal franchise (Maine Habs, Montreal 100's, now the fully Frenchified "Canadiens de Montreal") has averaged a 10th place finish since 2007, but now looks ready to rise to the top half of the league where they belong. This "Original Six" team has all the makings of a winning WHL formula: elite snipers (Neal, D.Sedin), consistent supporting cast (Elias, Stastny, Erat, Stafford, Streit), budding youngsters (Carlson, Anisimov, S.Kostitsyn), solid goaltending (Anderson, Varlmaov), and to top it off, buckets of cap space for the future. Patience should pay off soon for Ladd. Ole!
Another Original Six team on the rise. Moscow placed in the top 5 in each of its first three seasons before going into rebuild mode in 2010. After two years in the basement, Nathan Fournier appears ready to rebound. Datsyuk-Couture-RNH is easily one of the top center trios in the league, and Karlsson, Suter, and AHL sensation Justin Schultz anchor the back end. Add Pavelec, Brian Elliott and top Finnish prospect Mikael Granlund to the mix, and it's plain to see that Fournier has much to be excited about.
With Malkin, Parise, Letang, Miller and Hiller all returning, there is little reason to suspect a regression from the defending champs. Entering his 4th season, Darryl Schnarr did well to surround his foundation via draft and trade with the likes of Dennis Seidenberg, Viktor Stalberg, Jarome Iginla, and Devan Dubnyk. As if that isn't enough firepower, Peter Mueller and Joni Pitkanen look poised to chip in that extra production which so often gives great teams that X-factor.
Mount Vernon Blades
There probably isn't a team that is hungrier for redemption than Chet Merola's Mount Vernon Blades. The #1 seed heading into last season's playoffs, Merola endured a particularly untimely injury to his starting goalie at the time (Lundqvist), and went on to lose to the #8 seed Beernuts. MVB certainly has the goods to make another run this season. Fleury and Theodore take over in net, and Backes, Callahan, and newcomer Marty St. Louis will pace the attack. Merola also has some intriguing youngsters on board, most notably Chris Kreider and Ryan Ellis.
NJ Wall Flowers
Mario Zecca's Wall Flowers have struggled since entering the league in 2009, but Zecca has also steadily built up a respectable collection of players. A realistic chance is there for Jersey to best their club-record 10th place finish (09-10). For that to happen though, Zecca will need Sergei Bobrovsky and JVR to exceed expectations, in addition to nothing less than elite production from Claude Giroux, Zdeno Chara, and Keith Yandle.
Newcomer Bill Fyler takes over for the former Rhode Island Redcoats franchise which couldn't finish higher than 11th over the past three seasons. Fyler has his work cut out for him to fully right the ship, but a group of defenseman that includes keeper gold like Tyler Myers, Michael Del Zotto, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tobias Enstrom, and Ryan McDonagh is one hell of a start. Niklas Backstrom should be serviceable in net, and Eric Staal, Spezza, Vanek, Vrbata and Ennis are expected to drive the lion's share of Porter's offense.
The Pints have been on Lord Stanley's doorstep in each of the last five seasons. Colin Smith's crew has finished as high as 2nd (2009-10) and never lower than 8th. This year, Smith is gunning for 1st, and it's hard to bet against any team with a healthy Sidney Crosby at its heart. Sid will be backed up by an impressive bouquet of talent on the wings that includes Kovalchuk, Eriksson, Brown, and Pavelski, and a band of brawny defenders anchored by Wisniewski, Giordano, Hedman and Hamonic. Oh, and Kari Lehtonen is in net. Not bad.
Tom Lusty and the Spirit have been on a roller coaster ride since winning it all in 2009, finishing 11th, 4th, and 12th in subsequent years. If that pattern is to continue, then it's time for an upward swing! The most compelling reason to believe in a Saginaw resurgence is in goal, where Cam Ward, Tuukka Rask, and Roberto Luongo will handle puck stopping duties. One of Lusty's calling cards has always seemed to be choosing a full slate of good-to-very good players in lieu of a small number of "stars." This year is no different, with Bergeron, Stepan, Steen, Lupul, Semin, Stewart, Clutterbuck, Shattenkirk, and Byfuglien all set to do their part.
Unlike other teams that have faltered a bit since beginning their WHL careers on a promising note, Josh Deitell's Stuttgart Scorpions posted a franchise-best 6th place finish last season after spending two years in the teens. A modest regression may be in the cards as Stuttgart continues to stockpile young talent and position itself for a cup run in the near future, but the skill is there to surprise. Veterans Rick Nash and Mike Richards join a promising nucleus that already boasts Seguin, Hall, Wilson, and Doughty.
Tayutic Team Rasta
Rich Abbondante's team looks much improved on paper compared to his debut ensemble in 2012. With Antti Niemi in net, Shea Weber on the point, and Marian Gaborik, Jonathan Toews, Brad Richards, and Patrick Marleau up front, a top 10 finish looks doable for TTR. The key for Rasta will be whether or not Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, and Ray Whitney can capitalize on their new NHL surroundings and provide a crucial second wave of fantasy output.
West Palm Beach Rangers
After locking up key players Max Pacioretty and Alex Edler last season, and claiming the 1st overall pick in the 2012 draft, Bob Guarascio has put together a solid team for 2013. It's no secret what Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Henrik Sedin can do, but Carl Hagelin and Teddy Purcell look ready to turn some heads. There are obviously worse problems to have, but I still don't envy Bob for having to pick one of Lundqvist, Smith or Price to sit when all three starters are rolling.
Mike Greeley, the other new kid on the block for 2013, begins his tenure as a WHL GM with no pressure, and plenty to look forward to. Alex Ovechkin, Scott Hartnell, David Krejci and Mike Green can produce now, but it remains unclear which of them (if any) will fit into Wolfsburg's long-term plans. One guy who likely won't be going anywhere: rookie sensation Nail Yakupov.