Ten games is not a long time from which to make any firm judgements about a Western Hockey League team.
After all, if you look at the standings from one year ago, the Brandon Wheat Kings were fighting for top spot in the East Division and three of the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff teams were on the outside looking in.
Still, some trends do begin to emerge that give us insight into the coming season, some of them rather unexpected. Here are a few teams that have had the most eye-catching starts to the season:
•Vintage Thunderbirds — A cumulative 64 games below .500 the past four seasons, Seattle is off to a remarkable 8-2 start and tied for first overall in the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs. The Thunderbirds recently won all four games in a road swing through British Columbia and Alberta, including victories over contenders such as the Medicine Hat Tigers and Kelowna Rockets. Mathew Barzal has been as good as advertised, with 14 points in 10 games as a 16-year-old rookie, while Ryan Gropp, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 WHL bantam draft, has agreed to join the T-Birds, suggesting brighter days are on the way in Seattle.
•Terrific Tigers — They’re not really a surprise, since Medicine Hat was expected to be a Central contender, but so far the Tigers (7-1-1-0) have dominated what was projected to be a tight division. The Tigers have only lost one game in regulation and that was before star player Hunter Shinkaruk returned from the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.
• Battling Blades — Remember how the Saskatoon Blades loaded up on veterans for the Memorial Cup last year and were supposed to slide to the bottom this season with most of those players gone? That lasted all of five games as the Blades have bounced back to go 5-0-0-1 after a season-opening five-game losing streak and are three points ahead of their performance at this time last year. It’s doubtful that Saskatoon can remain a .500 team, but if first-year head coach Dave Struch can keep his players committed and working hard, they’ll be a more formidable opponent than anyone expected.
•Tropical Depression — With much of their lineup back, the Lethbridge Hurricanes traded down in the first round of the WHL draft to land overage goalie Corbin Boes with the intent of pushing for a playoff spot. Instead, the ’Canes are a woeful 1-8-0-1 and Brandon turned Lethbridge’s sixth overall choice into defenceman Kale Clague, who looks like a star in waiting.
OVERAGE DEADLINE: Tuesday’s overage deadline wasn’t completely quiet after all. Although no one needed to make any cuts to get down to the limit of three, the Regina Pats made an addition, claiming 20-year-old goalie Mac Engel off waivers from the Prince George Cougars. Engel, who has career marks of a 2.91 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage, replaces Teagan Sacher, a 19-year-old who will leave the WHL and study at the University of Winnipeg.
CALVERT OUT, CRAIG IN: With former Brandon Wheat Kings captain Matt Calvert out the next six weeks after undergoing abdominal surgery, the Columbus Blue Jackets have found another former Brandon captain to replace him for the time being. Longtime pro Ryan Craig was called up by Columbus and checked into the lineup Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings for his first National Hockey League game since Feb. 21, 2011.
AROUND THE WHL: Kamloops D Landon Cross, a Brandonite, earned his first two points of the season Monday. Cross had a goal and an assist to help the Blazers beat the Hurricanes 7-1 … Everett D Matt Pufahl is the WHL player of the week after notching four goals and two assists in four games … Two Wheat Kings prospects have been named to Alberta’s provincial U-16 team for the Western Canada Challenge Cup, beginning on Halloween in Calgary. D Kale Clague, who appeared in two games for Brandon at the start of this season, made the Alberta team along with D T.J. Brown, who was drafted by the Wheat Kings in the fourth round.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 16, 2013