Goaltender Garret Hughson (#30) returns as the backbone of the Spokane Chiefs in 2015-16.

Goaltender Garret Hughson (#30) returns as the backbone of the Spokane Chiefs in 2015-16.

WHL Season Preview: Part IV – U.S. Division

With the help of beat reporters around the league, the Townsman provides a look in at the WHL's 50th anniversary season

The 50th anniversary season of the Western Hockey League opens Thursday night when the Moose Jaw Warriors host the Regina Pats.

With the help of beat reporters from around the league, the Townsman takes a look in on what to expect from each team heading into the WHL’s special campaign.

In Part IV, we move on to a breakdown of the U.S. Division.

Everett Silvertips

Jesse GeleynseEverett Herald

Last season: 43-20-3-6, first in U.S. Division, eliminated in second round of playoffs.

Head coach: Kevin Constantine (third season).

Assistant coaches: Mitch Love (fifth season), Brennan Sonne (second season).

Key losses: Nikita Scherbak, 20-year-old Russian RW led the ‘Tips in points last year (27G, 55A) and is a Montreal Canadiens draftee who will play professionally this year… 19-year-old C Ivan Nikolishin (16G, 46A) was traded to Red Deer and C Kohl Bauml (30G, 30A) aged out of the league..

The 20-year-olds: G Austin Lotz, C Remi Laurencelle, RW Carson Stadnyk, D Cole MacDonald. ‘Tips can obviously only keep three, so one will have to go by the deadline.

The imports: 17-year-old Russian RW Yan Khomenko, 17-year-old Russian D Alexander Scherbakov… Khomenko has looked good on offense, particularly the power play… Scherbakov suffered a season-ending shoulder injury Sept. 6.

Key returnees: 18-year-old D Noah Juulsen (9G, 43A), Stadnyk (27G, 42A), Laurencelle (23G, 18A), 18-year-old RW Patrick Bajkov (23G, 22A), MacDonald (10G, 26A), 18-year-old D Kevin Davis (3G, 22A), 17-year-old G Carter Hart (18-5-2-3, 2.29 GAA, .915 save percentage), 19-year-old LW Dawson Leedahl (14G, 19A)… Juulsen was Montreal’s first round pick in the NHL draft… Stadnyk, Laurencelle and Bajkov will look to fill the offensive void left by Scherbak and Bauml… Hart is a projected 2016 NHL pick who started the final third of the season and in the playoffs as a 16-year-old last season.

New faces: 19-year-old Brandon Ralph was recently acquired from Edmonton to provide LW depth… 16-year-old C Connor Dewar was Everett’s fourth-round pick in the 2014 bantam draft… 16-year-old D Jantzen Leslie was Everett’s first-round pick in 2014 and had an assist in six games with the ‘Tips last season as a 15-year-old… 18-year-old Mario Petit was signed as a non-drafted listed player and could provide a solid backup to Hart… 18-year-old D Mackenzie Dwyer was acquired as a non-drafted, listed player after spending the past  two years with Saskatoon.

Watch for: The Silvertips were successful in scoring-by-committee as they set a franchise record with 242 goals. That will have to be the case again as they weren’t able to sign Auston Matthews or any of their top offensive prospects.

Noteworthy: Constantine is in his second stint as Everett’s head coach and is the only coach to win a playoff series as coach of the ‘Tips. Last year’s U.S. Division title and playoff series win over Spokane were firsts for Everett since the 2006-07 season.

Did you know: Juulsen (2015) and Scherbak (2014) were each taken No. 26 overall by the Canadiens.

The prognosis: The Silvertips should be solid on defense and in the goal. Where the goals will come from, however, will be the primary concern as the season unfolds.

Portland Winterhawks

Scott Sepich

Last season: 43-23-2-4, second in U.S. Division. Lost Western Conference final.

Head coach/general manager: Jamie Kompon (second season)

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

Key losses: WHL MVP RW Oliver Bjorkstrand is off to pro hockey, as are C Nic Petan, C Chase De Leo and D Anton Cederholm. Forward Miles Koules and defencemen Adam Henry and Josh Hanson graduated.

The 20-year-olds: For now, just D Blake Heinrich and RW Alex Schoenborn. With no other 1995-born players in camp, they’ll likely fill the third slot via a trade.

The imports: Latvian C Rodrigo Abols and Swedish C Carl Ericson are WHL rookies at age 19 and will be expected to make significant offensive contributions.

Key returnees: Second-round NHL pick LW Paul Bittner is the leading returning scorer, and is expected to lead the team offensively along with C Dominic Turgeon and RW Keegan Iverson. Sophomore C Alex Overhardt had a good preseason. D Keoni Texeira enters his third season, and second-year D Brendan De Jong could take a big step forward. G Adin Hill is back after leading the league in save percentage last season.

New faces: D Caleb Jones, brother of ex-Hawk Seth Jones, and D Jack Dougherty are experienced newcomers, and give the team a formidable presence on the blue line. C Cody Glass could be a breakout star as a 16-year-old.

Watch for: The Winterhawks have developed a run-and-gun reputation over the last five years, but they appear to be a team built around defense and goaltending this season.

Noteworthy: Abols appeared in 14 games last season for Dinamo Riga of the KHL, a team coached by his father, Artis Abols. Rodrigo also played for Latvia in the IIHF World Championships.

Did you know: Portland has played 102 WHL playoff games over the past five seasons, the most in the league.

The prognosis: The Hawks may not be the elite powerhouse they’ve been in recent years, but there’s enough talent — new and returning — to reasonably make a run at a sixth consecutive Western Conference final appearance.

Seattle Thunderbirds

Andy EideESPN 710/Sportsnet.ca

Last season: 38-25-4-5, 4th in Western Conference, lost in 1st roundof playoffs.

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

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

Key losses: D Shea Theodore signed with Anaheim, RW Justin Hickman signed with Boston, LW Roberts Lipsbergs graduated, G Taran Kozun graduated, D Evan Wardley graduated.

The 20-year-olds: Seattle has three over-agers on their roster: RWJamal Watson (acquired from Lethbridge), D Jerret Smith, and D Jared Hauf.

The imports: C Alexander True (Denmark, second season) and RW Gustav Olhaver (Sweden, first season) drafted in seventh round by Colorado Avalanche.

Key returnees: C Mathew Barzal (12G, 45A) drafted 16th overall by New York Islanders. LW Ryan Gropp (30G, 28A) drafted 41st overall by New York Rangers. RW Keegan Kolesar (19G, 19A) drafted 69th overall by Columbus Blue Jackets and D Ethan Bear (13G, 25A) drafted 124th overall by Edmonton Oilers. C Scott Eansor (14G, 23A) invited to USA World Junior Camp in summer.

New faces: G Taz Burman was acquired from Red Deer Rebels in exchange for Lane Pederson and will compete for starting spot with returning G Logan Flodell. D Jarret Tyszka was team’s first pick in 2014 Bantam Draft. LW Matthew Wedman was second pick in 2014 Bantam Draft.

Watch for: 17-year-old LW Nolan Volcan could have a break out season.

Noteworthy: The Thunderbirds had four players drafted in this pastJune’s NHL Draft which is the most they’ve had selected since 2003. With the addition of Olhaver in the Import Draft the team has five NHL drafted players on its roster.

Did you know: LW Nolan Volcan’s father, Marty, played defense for the Seattle Breakers in 1984-85.

The prognosis: Seattle will have a high-end group of forwards up front and a strong defensive group. The question will be how good can their inexperienced goaltending be? If it holds up they could be the favorites in the U.S. Division.

Spokane Chiefs

Chris DerrickThe (Spokane, Washington) Spokesman-Review

Last season: 34-34-3-1, fourth in U.S. Division, sixth in Western Conference. Lost to Everett 4-2 in first round of playoffs.

Head coach: Don Nachbaur (sixth season)

Assistant coaches: Scott Burt (third season); Todd Daniels (athletic trainer/conditioning coach, eighth season); Ryan Cyr (goaltending coach, fifth season).

Key losses: LW Calder Brooks (23G, 35A); C Liam Stewart (25G, 28A); RW Jackson Playfair (12G, 11A); D Nick Charif (16A), chose to forego overage season to attend Western University in London, Ont.; D Tamas Laday, of Hungary, traded to Medicine Hat.

The 20-year-olds: LW Adam Helewka (44G, 43A); D Jason Fram (9G, 53A); RW Riley Whittingham (19G, 14A); G Garret Hughson (2.80 GAA, .902 SAV).

The imports: LW Dominic Zwerger of Austria (17G, 21A); LW Nik Andersen of Denmark, selected 26th overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft.

Key returnees: Helewka; Fram; Hughson; Whittingham; C Kailer Yamamoto (23G, 34A); D Evan Fiala (12A), invited to participate in the Florida Panthers’ development camp; RW Keanu Yamamoto (12G, 17A); LW Markson Bechtold (8G, 13A).

New faces: C Jaret Anderson-Dolan, 16, was the talk of training camp. D Jeff Faith, Jake Toporowski and Dalton Hamaliuk, all 17, are building a strong force for the future.

Watch for: The goalie battle between Hughson and 18-year-old Tyson Verhelst. Matthew Berlin, 17, was right there with both during camp.

Noteworthy: D Ty Smith, the No. 1 overall pick during May’s WHL bantam draft, turned heads with his skating and passing during camp. The Chiefs also had the No. 9 overall pick, F Koby Morrisseau.

Did you know: The Chiefs were the prototypical .500 team last year. They were 17-17-2-0 at home; 17-17-1-1 on the road; 27-26-2-1 against the Western Conference; 7-8-1-0 against the Eastern Conference; and 18-17-2-1 against the U.S. Division.

The prognosis: The general consensus is that the Chiefs are still a step behind the league’s best teams but are building toward what could be a superior team in two years, especially given the five picks they had during the first three rounds of the bantam draft.

Tri-City Americans

Annie FowlerTri-City Herald

Last season: 31-38-0-3 (65 points), eighth in the Western Conference. Lost in the first round of the playoffs to Kelowna.

Head coach: Mike Williamson (second season).

Assistant coach: Brian Pellerin (second season).

Key losses: Leading scorer Richard Nejezchleb (51 points in 49 games), Lucas Nickles (24 goals, 46 points) and defenseman  Justin Hamonic  graduated, while goalie Eric Comrie is off to the pro ranks.

The 20-year-olds: Three forwards — Brian Williams, Parker Bowles and Beau McCue — and defenseman Tyler Morrison. All have value, so look for one to move before the deadline.

The imports: Russian forward Vladislav Lukin, 18, and Finnish defenseman  Juuso Välimäki, 17. Välimäki, captain of Finland’s Ivan Hlinka team, is a big two-way threat with a scoring touch.

Key returnees: Leading scorer Beau McCue (26 goals, 51 points). Defensemen Brandon Carlo (second-round pick of Boston Bruins) and Parker Wotherspoon (fourth-round pick of New York Islanders, led team with 33 assists). Goalie Evan Sarthou, who had seven shutouts last season. Forwards Parker Bowles (13G, 31A), Brian Williams (17G, 25A), Tyler Sandhu (16G, 18A) and hard-working Taylor Vickerman.

New faces: The Americans still have 18 forwards, 10 defensemen and three goalies in camp. Forward Parker AuCoin has shown promise in the preseason

Watch for: Beck Warm, 16, and Nick Sanders, 17, are vying for the backup goalie job behind Sarthou. Both have similar stats during the preseason, which will make the decision all the more difficult. … D-man Brendan O’Reilly, who attended the Dallas Stars development camp in July, has put on 20 pounds and could be a force on the back end.

Noteworthy: The Americans have made the playoffs 12 years in a row — the last two by grabbing the final spot in the Western Conference. … Tri-City had five players at NHL camps: Carlo, Wotherspoon, Ty Comrie (L.A. Kings), and Maxwell James and Austyn Playfair (Arizona).

The prognosis: While the defense is solid, the Americans had the second-lowest goal count (190) last season. If they want to be in the thick of things, they have to find a way to score.