March 18th marked the end of the Western Hockey League’s 2017-18 regular season, with some games providing a playoff preview. The Moose Jaw Warriors finished as the best team in the league, and the Tri-City Americans, Spokane Chiefs and Seattle Thunderbirds all finished strong over the weekend. The 2018 WHL Playoffs open on March 22 with a match-up between the Americans and the Kelowna Rockets, this year’s B.C. Division Champions.
2017-18 WHL Regular Season Finishes with a Bang
U.S. Division Champions: Everett Silvertips. Record: 47-20-2-3, 99 points. Everett also won the U.S. Division title in 2017.
B.C. Division Champions: Kelowna Rockets. Record: 43-22-5-2, 93 points. Dillon Dube was named the WHL’s Player of the Week for the week ending March 18.
Central Division Champions: Medicine Hat Tigers. Record: 36-28-8-0, 80 points.
East Division Champions: Moose Jaw Warriors. Record: 52-15-2-3, 109 points.
Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy for Best Season Record: Moose Jaw Warriors.
WHL Scoring Title: Jayden Halbgewachs, 70 goals, 59 assists, and 129 points. He’s the first Warrior to lead the league in scoring since Troy Brouwer did it in 2005-2006 with 102 points.
Coming and Going: Out of the WHL playoffs, this year in the Eastern Conference are the Saskatoon Blades, Kootenay ICE, Calgary Hitmen and the Edmonton Oil Kings. In the Western Conference, the Kamloops Blazers and Prince George Cougars are also finished for the season. Accordingly, it’s also time for the changing of the guard.
Immediately after their season ended, the Blades announced that they had relieved head coach Dean Brockman of his duties. In a statement, general manager Colin Priestner cited the team’s poor performance down the stretch and their failure to make playoffs as the reasons for Brockman’s immediate departure. This particular firing is notable since the Blades were one of the big players at the trade deadline. They made an eight-player deal with the Regina Pats that included four draft picks, and then turned around and made a deal for Medicine Hat Tigers goalie Max Gerlach. This is the fifth straight year the Blades have failed to make playoffs.
On March 19, the Prince George Cougars announced that the contract of general manager Todd Harkins would not be extended. The Cougars made an epic trade deadline deal with the Portland Winterhawks that sent Dennis Cholowski to the Rose City. The Cougars got a boatload of top prospects and picks in the deal. With a new general manager pending, the Prince George Cougars are in good position for a turnaround next season.
WHL 1st Round Playoff Preview
Vancouver Giants vs. Victoria Royals: This historic showdown marks the first time these two teams have played each other in the playoffs. Technically they have met before, but that was back in 2008 when the Royals were still the Chilliwack Bruins. But since the Bruins moved to Victoria in 2011, the Royals and the Giants have not met in playoffs.
Players to watch: Victoria boasts Anaheim Ducks prospect Tyler Soy and Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Phillips, who had 48 goals and 112 points this season. The Giants have Edmonton Oilers prospect Tyler Benson and recently signed New York Rangers prospect Ty Ronning, the first Giant to ever score 50 goals in a season. He ended the regular season with a career-high 61 goals.
Swift Current Broncos vs. Regina Pats: Team Canada’s World Junior hero Tyler Steenbergen won the Broncos Third Star of the Season and Fan’s Most Popular Player Awards. He also came up clutch in the Broncos season finale, a playoff preview with the Pats. He sniped the overtime winner, setting up a renewed showdown when playoffs open in Swift Current on March 23.
Regina is hosting this year’s Memorial Cup, which means they will receive an automatic berth in the tournament. The Pats finished the season at third place in the East Division, with a record of 40-25-6-1 and 87 points. Their captain is also the reigning WHL Player of the Year and the WHL Top Scorer, Sam Steel (Anaheim, 2016, 30th overall). Steel just won the Pats team award for Player of the Year for the second consecutive year.
We’re all on the same team: Sam Steel also played for Team Canada at the 2018 World Juniors, winning a gold medal alongside Steenbergen.
The final overall WHL standings aren’t a surprise. Most of the top teams — including U.S. Division Champions the Everett Silvertips — had been riding high for most of the season. But every year, one team beats the odds and makes a deep playoff run, sometimes even all the way to the Memorial Cup. In 2013, the Portland Winterhawks defied the league, the Western Conference and pretty much the whole world to make it all the way to the Memorial Cup finals. In 2017, the Seattle Thunderbirds won their first WHL championship in franchise history. Who will it be this year? In the Eastern Conference, I like what I see in the Lethbridge Hurricanes. It wasn’t that long ago they were circling the drain, but they’ve come a long way in a short time. In the Western Conference, I’d bet on the Victoria Royals or Michael Rasmussen and the Tri-City Americans.
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