In these pages a couple of weeks ago, Brandon Sun sports editor James Shewaga looked at 10 questions to be answered over the rest of the Brandon Wheat Kings season.
Here are a handful of other issues around the Western Hockey League to keep an eye on over the course of the last quarter of the regular season:
1) Can the Portland Winterhawks hang on to first place in the overall standings? The Kelowna Rockets and Edmonton Oil Kings are both charging hard, but it’s hard to imagine anyone topping the Winterhawks, who haven’t skipped a beat since being hit with heavy sanctions — including the suspension of coach Mike Johnston — earlier this season over recruiting violations. The Winterhawks are on pace for 121 points, which would be the third-most in WHL history and the highest total since the Calgary Hitmen posted 122 in 2008-09. Even the 1978-79 Wheat Kings’ all-time record of 125 points isn’t safe, although it would take an 18-1 finish by the Winterhawks just to tie it.
2) What teams are ticketed for the WHL Bantam Draft lottery? The six non-playoff teams are entered in the lottery and any one of the bottom three has a chance at the first overall pick (last year the Seattle Thunderbirds finished third-last overall but won the lottery to secure the top pick). Sitting 13 points behind anyone else, the Vancouver Giants are almost a lock to finish in last place and get the most balls in the lottery, but beyond that the ‘race’ is wide open with six teams — the Prince George Cougars, Wheat Kings, Thunderbirds, Regina Pats, Moose Jaw Warriors and Everett Silvertips — separated by only eight points. With Edmonton sensation Tyler Benson having shattered Ty Rattie’s Alberta bantam scoring record and more blue-chip talent behind him, a lottery pick could prove to be a jackpot this season.
3) Where will the Saskatoon Blades finish in the standings? The Memorial Cup hosts have shown some signs of gelling after loading up at the trade deadline, and the East Division pennant isn’t out of the picture. Still, somewhere between sixth and 12th overall appears most likely. Among the interested observers will be the Wheat Kings, who own the Blades’ first-round bantam pick this year from the Mike Ferland trade.
4) Can Nic Petan win the scoring title? Petan’s bid is particularly interesting because the 17-year-old Portland star would become the WHL’s youngest scoring champion since Calgary sniper Pavel Brendl way back in 1998-99. With 93 points in 53 games, Petan has a three-point advantage on teammate Brendan Leipsic and a seven-point edge on Colin Smith of the Kamloops Blazers.
5) Can Tristan Jarry threaten Kelly Guard’s record for goals-against average? Probably not. Jarry has a 1.62 GAA for the Oil Kings, which is within striking distance of the former Rocket’s record of 1.56. The rub is that a goalie needs to play 40 per cent of his team’s minutes to qualify, meaning Jarry — Edmonton’s backup — would need to play at least 10 or 11 more games to get in enough minutes, while actually improving that glittering GAA.
AROUND THE WHL: Former Wheat King Ferland celebrated his 200th WHL game in style on Saturday, notching three goals and an assist as the Blades beat the Swift Current Broncos 4-1 … Petan was named the WHL player of the month on Tuesday after amassing 26 points in 13 January games … Edmonton’s Laurent Brossoit was goalie of the month, with 1.35 GAA and a .957 save percentage … Smith is the WHL’s player of the week, having tallied 10 points in four games for the Blazers last week.