The days outside are getting longer, and time is getting shorter as the calendar heads into late February, and the Western Hockey League begins to approach its stretch drive towards the Ed Chynoweth Cup Playoffs.
The trade deadline is now firmly in the rear-view mirror, and each team has around 20 games remaining to secure their position in the first postseason in the WHL since the spring of 2019. In this two-part feature, we will look at each team in the BC. Division, examining the top story for each club at the moment and the outlook for each squad for the remainder of the regular season.
Part one will focus on the division-leading Kamloops Blazers, the promising but still supremely young Prince George Cougars, as well as the Victoria Royals.
The Blazers have been the class of the BC. Division for most of the season and have led virtually wire-to-wire. Entering play on February 19, Kamloops holds an 11-point lead in the division over the Kelowna Rockets, and sit in second in the Western Conference, five points back of the Everett Silvertips.
Kamloops made a splash at the trade deadline, acquiring 20-year-old winger Luke Toporowski from the Spokane Chiefs and forward Drew Englot from the Regina Pats. They also moved 19-year-old forward Josh Pillar (2021 Minnesota 4th round) to the Saskatoon Blades to be closer to his hometown of Warman, SK, as he recovered from an undisclosed health condition.
The story since those final maneuvers has unquestionably been the addition of Toporowski and the chemistry he quickly found playing on the top line with sniper Logan Stankoven. In his first 14 games in a Blazers’ sweater, Toporowski has piled up 15 goals, which has doubled his season total, with 25 points in that span.
Toporowski was placed on the top unit, centered by Stankoven (2021 Dallas 2nd round), who has played the best hockey of his career since uniting with his new linemate. Stankoven has 11 goals in 14 games with Toporowski and is working on an 18-game point streak (16-21-37).
The Blazers (34-13-1) have won 12 of their last 14 games, recapturing the dominant form they opened the season with before a slowdown coincided with the short World Junior period. It was a time that found them without Stankoven, star goaltender Dyland Garand (NY Rangers), and defenseman Marko Stacha.
Looking ahead, Kamloops will have to continue their winning ways if they plan to stay near the top of the heap in the west. Though they have a comfortable cushion atop the BC. Division, the top five teams in the conference, have each won at least eight of their last 10 games, including division rival Kelowna, who are making a charge up the standings. The Portland Winterhawks are two points behind the Blazers for second in the conference and are on a blistering tear, having won 24 of their past 28 games. They overtook Kamloops in the most recent Canadian Hockey League top-10 rankings, where the Blazers came in sixth.
One thing to monitor, at least in the short term, will be the health of Garand. The two-time Canadian WJC goaltender left the Kamloops 6-4 victory over Victoria on February 16 with a left leg injury. He missed Friday’s loss to Everett and is not expected back for Saturday’s tilt with Vancouver. However, head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston indicated that Garand escaped long-term injury.
PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS
It is a case of good news, bad news for the Prince George Cougars.
Currently third place in the BC Division and sixth in the conference, the good news is that the Cougars remain in a solid position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016-17. The bad news is that they will have little chance to improve their standing as they sit 17 points behind Kelowna for second in the division and fifth in the conference.
The young Cougars (19-26-2-1) have hit a tough patch in recent weeks, winning just twice in their last twelve contests at the same time as all five teams ahead of them in the conference have gotten hot, likely ending their chances to move up in the standings before season’s end.
Like the Blazers, Prince George also made a significant move at the trade deadline, as they shipped long-time goaltender Taylor Gauthier to Portland, anointing 18-year-old Tyler Brennan as their new starter in the process. The Cougars are 3-5-1 in Brennan’s starts since that time; the top-rated North American goaltender in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings has done his part, posting a .921 save percentage in those nine games.
Outside of the transition in net, the most significant development for the Cougars this season has likely been the maturation of their new wave of offensive talent, who have been given the keys to drive the bus. 17-year-old winger Koehn Ziemmer has 20 goals in his first full WHL campaign, and 16-year-old centre Riley Heidt has 13 goals and 37 points in 45 games, forming an exciting tandem that could lead the offence for multiple years.
Defenseman Ethan Samson (2021 Philadelphia 6th round) has added some punch from the blue line with 10 goals and 29 points thus far.
The question for Prince George is whether their former first-round WHL Draft picks will be able to find their second wind as they play a full WHL schedule for the first time. Both Ziemmer and Heidt have seen their production slow in recent weeks and will have to find their stride again if they plan to be a factor to not only qualify for the postseason but make some noise once they get there.
Prince George currently stands three points ahead of Vancouver for sixth in the conference and ten points up on Victoria and the Tri-City Americans, who are vying for the final playoff spot in the west. Spokane also sits just one point back of those teams in the race for the final playoff spot.
Assuming the Cougars wind up in the sixth or seventh position, they would draw one of the top Western Conference contenders in the first round. That would seem to make the chances of a playoff run somewhat unlikely for Prince George this spring, but an appearance would give their young core some valuable experience and seasoning moving forward as the Cougars look to win their first playoff series since 2006-07.
The 2021-22 season has been another arduous journey on Vancouver Island. The Royals recently snapped a 17-game losing streak with a 5-2 win in Vancouver on Friday. The most recent skid followed an 11-game losing streak in October and November. Ironically, it was the Blazers who handed Victoria their 11th loss of both slides.
The Royals (13-29-4-1) sit in the basement of the BC. Division, seven points below the Giants, and are in a battle with Tri-City and Spokane for the final postseason ticket in the Western Conference.
In contrast to Kamloops and Prince George, who each made important deadline deals, it was the trades that the Royals did not make that were notable. Victoria did not make a single trade at the trade deadline, electing to hold on to leading scorer Bailey Peach (27-34-61) in an effort to qualify for the playoffs.
A trade of Peach could have brought back future assets to the Royals as they try to rebuild and do not have a wealth of high draft picks after transactions made in recent years to acquire talent. Notably, the January 2020 pact with the Moose Jaw Warriors that sent a package of four draft picks, including their 2021 first and players to Moose Jaw for Anaheim Ducks prospect Brayden Tracey and goaltender Adam Evanoff. Tracey scored nine goals and 21 points in 22 games for the Royals before the season was shut down due to COVID-19.
Victoria also held on to 20-year-old captain Tarun Fizer, who was recovering from a lower-body injury as the deadline passed. Fizer, who attended Colorado Avalanche training camp prior to this season, was out from December 15 until February 5 but has played well in limited action this season with eight goals and 26 points in 18 games.
The most prominent building block the Royals have moving forward is 17-year-old center Brayden Schuurman, who has 25 goals in his first full WHL season. Defenseman Gannon Laroque (2021 San Jose 4th round) has provided offense from the back end, logging seven goals and 42 points.
Suppose they can put their recent losing streak behind them and regain some confidence. In that case, the Royals certainly have some top-end talent to help them try to make the franchise’s 10th straight playoff appearance, excluding the 2020-21 hub season that did not have a postseason, when they finished with just three wins in 22 games.
Next week, Kevin Olenick will round out the BC. Division update, with a look-in at the Kelowna Rockets and Vancouver Giants.