Cranbrook's Ben Betker returns to help lead the Everett Silvertips blueline in 2014-15.

Cranbrook's Ben Betker returns to help lead the Everett Silvertips blueline in 2014-15.

2014-15 WHL Regular Season Preview: U.S. Division

The puck drops on the WHL regular season Sept. 19. With help from reporters around the league, we take a look at what fans can expect.

The puck drops on the 2014 WHL regular season Friday, Sept. 19, with seven games on the slate across the league.

The Kootenay Ice kick-start their campaign at the ENMAX Centrium in Red Deer when they visit the Rebels at 7 p.m. Friday night.

The Townsman, with some help of beat reporters from around the league, takes a look at what fans can expect from the 2014 WHL season. We begin south of the border with the U.S. Division.

Portland Winterhawks

Scott Sepich

Last season: 54-13-2-3, 2nd in Western Conference, lost WHL final.

Head coach: Jamie Kompon (first season as coach).

Assistant coaches: Kyle Gustafson (11th season), Keith McKittrick (first season)

Key losses: LW Brendan Leipsic and LW Taylor Leier to the AHL; D Derrick Pouliot and D Mathew Dumba could play in the NHL; D Garrett Haar, C Adam Rossignol and G Corbin Boes graduated.

The 20-year-olds: Former Prince George Cougars D Josha Smith joins holdovers D Josh Hanson and C Adam DeChamplain.

The imports: Danish RW Oliver Bjorkstrand returns after scoring 50 goals last season, along with Swedish D Anton Cederholm.

Key returnees: C Nicolas Petan has 233 points over the last two seasons, and should play on a line with 2015 draft prospect LW Paul Bittner and Bjorkstrand. 2014 NHL draftees C Chase De Leo, RW Alex Schoenborn, C Keegan Iverson and C Dominic Turgeon are also back, along with D Keoni Texeira and D Layne Viveiros. G Brendan Burke willget another chance to be the clear No. 1 goaltender.

New faces: Minnesota-born defenseman Nick Heid and Blake Heinrich have left the NCAA track to come to the WHL. Forwards Alex Overhardt, Skyler McKenzie and Colton Veloso could also make an impact, along with backup G Adin Hill.

Watch for: Can the Winterhawks make another deep playoff run without an elite defenseman, or will they pull another rabbit out of a hat and land a first-round talent via trade?

Noteworthy: The Winterhawks are aiming to be the first team in WHL history to play in five consecutive league finals.

Did you know: Portland could have as many as 13 U.S.-born players play for them this season.

The prognosis: Mike Johnston is gone, but the Winterhawks should be dominant offensively yet again. The key is whether or not a defensive group lacking in star power and goalie Burke can keep the puck out of their own net.

Seattle ThunderbirdsAndrew EideESPN 710 Seattle

Last season: 41-25-2-4, 4th in Western Conference, lost in second round of playoffs.

Head coach: Steve Konowalchuk (fourth season as coach).

Assistant coaches: Matt O’Dette (two season), Tyler Alos (two season), Ian Gordon (goaltending, second season).

Key losses: RW Branden Troock signed with Dallas, LW Alex Delnov signed with KHL, LW Roberts Lipsbergs signed in Europe, LW Jaimen Yakubowski traded to Moose Jaw, RW Connor Honey to injury.

The 20-year-olds: Seattle is over the limit with five over-agers currently on their roster: RW Justin Hickman, G Taran Kozun, RW Sam McKechnie, D Evan Wardley, D Adam Henry.

The imports: C Alexander True (Denmark) and RW Florian Baltram (Austria) are entering their first seasons in the WHL.

Key returnees: D Shea Theodore (22G, 57A) led the team and WHL defenseman in scoring and was selected by Anaheim in the first round (26th) of 2013 NHL Draft. C Mathew Barzal (14G, 40A) is entering draft year and ranked in top ten by most NHL Draft experts. LW Ryan Gropp (18G, 24A) is also in his draft year and highly rated, should play on Barzal’s wing. D Ethan Bear (6G, 13A) is another highly rated draft prospect and should improve his offensive numbers.

New faces: G Logan Flodell is a 17-year-old goalie the team is very high on. D Sahvan Khaira is a big 6-foot-3, 215-pound 16-year-old and is the younger brother of former Everett Silvertip Jujhar Khaira. 2013 first round bantam pick Kaden Elder is a speedy centre who will be with the team this season along with 2013 second round pick Nolan Volcan.

Watch for: Can Seattle get secondary scoring outside of Barzal-Gropp line?

Noteworthy: The Thunderbirds have improved each year under Konowalchuk going from out of playoffs to seventh seed in 2012-2013 to fourth seed last season.

Did you know? Mathew Barzal has a chance to be the highest drafted Thunderbird since D Thomas Hickey was selected fourth overall in 2007.

The prognosis: Seattle will have an experienced defense but will be young, albeit talented, up front. Still should compete for top-four seed in Western Conference.

Everett SilvertipsNick PattersonEverett Herald

Last season: 39-23-7-3, fifth in Western Conference, lost in first round of playoffs.

Head coach: Kevin Constantine (second season).

Assistants: Mitch Love (fourth season), Brennan Sonne (first season), Shane Clifford (goaltending coach, second season).

Key losses: LW Joshua Winquist, D Matt Pufahl and C Manraj Hayer all graduated. C Jujhar Khaira is off to the professional ranks. That’s four of the team’s top five scorers.

The 20-year-olds: D Ben Betker is a lock, while C Kohl Bauml also appears safe. LW Zane Jones and LW Brayden Low will likely battle it out for the third spot.

The imports: Returning Swiss D Mirco Mueller is a question mark as it’s possible he will make the NHL’s San Jose Sharks as a 19-year-old. Russian C Ivan Nikolishin is the team’s leading returning scorer.

Key returnees: G Austin Lotz begins his third season as the team’s No. 1. D Kevin Davis and D Noah Juulsen are coming off impressive 16-year-old seasons, and along with Mueller and Betker give Everett a strong group on the blue line. The Tips will be looking for increased offensive production from Nikolishin, LW Carson Stadnyk and whichever overage forwards stick.

New faces: D Carter Cochrane joins the team full-time following an impressive season in the BCHL. RW Graham Millar arrived in an offseason trade with Saskatoon.

Watch for: Everett to be challenged to score goals now that Winquist, who was at the center of everything the Tips did offensively, is gone.

Noteworthy: Lotz shed 23 pounds during the offseason to prepare himself for a heavy workload this season.

Did you know? For the second straight season Everett has a guarantee out to season ticket holders. If the Tips don’t finish at least fourth in the Western Conference, season ticket holders get a $100 credit toward 2015-16.

The prognosis: Everett took a big leap forward last season, getting out of a rut of finishing eighth in the conference for three straight years. The foundation is there as the Tips are strong and experienced on defense and in goal. But will Everett be able to score goals? Without some offensive breakthroughs the Tips will be hard-pressed to finish higher than they did last season.

Spokane ChiefsChris DerrickThe Spokesman-Review

Last season: 40-26-3-3, sixth in Western Conference, swept by Victoria 4-0 in first round of playoffs.

Head coach: Don Nachbaur (fifth season)

Assistants: Scott Burt (second season); Todd Daniels (athletic trainer/conditioning coach, seventh season); Ryan Cyr (goaltending coach, fourth season).

Key losses: RW Mitch Holmberg (WHL scoring champion with 62 goals, 118 points), C Mike Aviani (38 goals, 81 points) and G Eric Williams (33-19-2-2) all graduated; captain D Reid Gow (56 assists), chose not to return; D Jeremy McIntosh chose not to return; LW Carter Proft signed with a German team; D Cole Wedman was traded to Moose Jaw; LW Adam Hascic returned to Slovakia.

The 20-year-olds: RW Connor Chartier (14 goals, 32 points); C Liam Stewart (seven goals, 21 assists in injury-plagued season); C Marcus Messier (31 total points), a late-season acquisition from Tri-City.

The imports: LW Dominic Zwerger of Austria (16 goals, 10 assists); D Tamas Laday (6-foot-7, 212 pounds) of Hungary was selected in the CHL Import Draft.

Key returnees: D Jason Fram (51 assists); LW Adam Helewka (23 goals, 50 points); RW Riley Whittingham (13 goals, 32 points); D Colton Bobyk.

New faces: G Alex Moodie was acquired from Saskatoon; C Kailer Yamamoto was signed to attempt to join his brother Keanu (11 goals, 25 points in rookie season).

Watch for: The goalie battle between Moodie and last year’s backup, Garret Hughson; the emergence of young defensemen; a favorable early schedule with nine of the first 14 games at home.

Noteworthy: Spokane dashed to a 10-2 record last year and finished 14-4 against the B.C. Division and 10-4-0-2 against the Eastern Conference.

Did you know? The Chiefs have lost 16 consecutive games to U.S. Division rival Portland.

The prognosis: This could be a long season for the Chiefs, who lost a big chunk of their offensive power, veteran leadership on defense and their top goaltender. New blood will have to rise to the challenge.

Tri-City AmericansAnnie FowlerTri-City Herald

Last season: 29-33-4-6, eighth in Western Conference. Lost in first round of playoffs to Kelowna in five games.

Head coach: Mike Williamson (first season).

Assistant coaches: Brian Pellerin (first season), Lyle Mast (goaltending coach, third season).

Key losses: Mitch Topping, last year’s captain and leader of the defense; Phil Tot (15 goals in 51 games) and Jessey Astles, who kept everyone in line.

The 20-year-olds: D Justin Hamonic, who was named team captain. Speedy F Lucas Nickles, who had four short-handed goals last year. F Jackson Playfair, acquired from Spokane at trade deadline. F Steven Hodges, acquired in an offseason trade with Victoria, is at Florida Panthers camp and likely will not return.

The imports: 17-year-old Russian forwards Vladislav Lukin and Semyon Krasheninnikov.

Key returnees: G Eric Comrie, who finished second in the WHL last year with a .925 save percentage. F Brian Williams, who led the team with 36 goals and 56 points. D Justin Hamonic, one of the top stay-at-home D-men in the Western Conference.

New faces: F Maxwell James, who can score and punish opponents. F Zach Andrusiak, who scored 36 goals with 52 assists last year with POE Prep.

Watch for: G Eric Comrie and the defense to keep the team in games until the scoring comes around. Justin Hamonic, Parker Wotherspoon, Brandon Carlo, Riley Hillis and Josh Thrower all return on the blue line.

Noteworthy: The Americans looked to have one of the top goaltending tandems in the league in Eric Comrie and Evan Sarthou, who played for the United States U-18 Select Team that finished third at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in August.

Did you know? Eric Comrie broke Aaron Baker’s single-season franchise save record with 1,849. Baker had 1,825 saves during the 1997-98 season.

The prognosis: New coach, new game plan, renewed energy throughout the team. Look for them to improve on last year’s eighth-place finish in the Western Conference and get past the first round in the playoffs for the first time since 2012.