CHL Storylines: Blades join Cougars at the top of WHL Standings
While the eyes of the hockey world were fixed on the World Juniors in Sweden, the Canadian Hockey League season continued, and playoff races are now starting to heat up.
In the Western Hockey League, the Prince George Cougars have been at the top of the pack for much of the season.
Overage forward Zac Funk leads the league with 42 goals and 73 points in 40 games while Minnesota Wild prospect Riley Heidt is No.2 in league scoring with 22 goals and 71 points in 38 games.
Meanwhile, the team only lost one player to the World Juniors in Czechia forward Ondrej Belcher and went 6-4-0 in his absence.
The Cougars remain at the top of the standings with a 28-12-0 record, but they now have some company as the Saskatoon Blades are tied with them.
Like the Cougars, the Blades only had one player at the World Juniors in the form of Team Canada captain Fraser Minten. However, while the tournament was going on the Blades have been on fire, going 11-0-4 and haven’t lost in regulation since Nov. 22.
Captain Trevor Wong leads the way for the Blades with his 11 goals and 64 points and enters Tuesday tied for fifth in the WHL. During the Blades’ run, he has four goals and 28 points the team’s last 15 games.
Adding to the Blades’ offence has been the play of Anaheim Ducks draft pick Yegor Sidorov who is second behind Funk with 34 goals this season. The 6-foot winger has been on a tear, registering 14 goals and 22 points in the last 15 games.
Minten was acquired right at the start of the Blades’ run and has two goals and five points in six games since joining the team. After missing the team’s last eight games while playing at the World Juniors, Minten will finally have an opportunity to get his feet wet as a member of the Blades and act as a new acquisition to the team for the second time this season.
“Minten can have a similar-type impact that [Ottawa Senators prospect] Zack Ostapchuk had when he was traded to the Winnipeg Ice from the Vancouver Giants last year,” TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button said. “They’re big, strong competitive centres that makes you harder to play against.”
The team also acquired the rights to Russian sniper Alexander Suzdalev from the Regina Pats on New Years' Eve. The Washington Capitals prospect was playing in Sweden and is expected to join the team for the remainder of the season. Suzdalev had 38 goals and 86 points in 66 games with the Pats last year.
Right behind the Blades and Cougars are the Portland Winterhawks, who are on a five-game winning streak and have won 10 of their last 11 games.
Winterhawks captain Gabe Klassen and Florida Panthers prospect Josh Davies are both on 11-game point-streaks. Klassen leads the team with 19 goals and 65 points this season and has four goals and 21 points in his last 11 games.
Davies leads the team with 27 goals to go along with his 48 points this season and has eight goals and 17 points during his point-streak.
Portland will be getting defenceman Marek Alscher back in the lineup after winning a bronze medal at the World Juniors with Czechia. The 6-foot-3 defenceman recorded two assists at the World Juniors and has two goals and nine points in 26 games this season.
The Winterhawks have had some turmoil in net this season with netminder Jan Spunar going down with an injury on Nov. 19. To compensate, the Winterhawks acquired American-born goaltender Nick Avakyan from the Tri-City Americans at the beginning of December.
Since joining Portland, Avakyan has a 7-2-0 record with a .901 save percentage and 3.38 goals-against average in nine games.
Also making waves in the WHL are the Wenatchee Wild, who traded Canadian World Junior stars Conor Geekie and Matthew Savoie to the Swift Current Broncos and Moose Jaw Warriors respectively.
The Wild sit in third place in the Western Conference with a 24-13-3 record and are only five points back of the Cougars and Blades for top spot in the league.
Wenatchee, formerly the Winnipeg Ice, had made a number of blockbuster trades the last two seasons while trying to make a push for an Ed Chynoweth Cup and a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament.
“They’re looking at their team and they see [Buffalo Sabres forward Zach] Benson isn’t there and they lost other key players that helped them be really successful the last two years,” said Button. “They traded players, picks, and prospects last year to try to strengthen their group so now they’re trying to recoup that to get ready for a new cycle.”
Drummondville creeping up, questions in Halifax
Baie-Comeau Drakkar has had a healthy lead atop the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League throughout the season but steadily creeping behind them are the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
The Voltigeurs sit second in the Western Conference with a 26-9-5 record and 13-1-1 in their last 15 games.
Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Ethan Gauthier has been leading the way during this stretch with 14 goals and 20 points and is currently on a 10-game point streak. Gauthier leads the team with 24 goals this season to go along with his 43 points in 36 games.
Also contributing offensively are forwards Luke Woodworth and Peter Repcik. Woodworth leads the Voltigeurs in scoring with 17 goals and 44 points this season and has four goals and 14 points in the team’s last 15 games.
Repcik is on a nine-game point streak, recording five goals and 15 points and has 18 goals and 38 points on the season.
Netminder Riley Mercer is 8-2 during this stretch and has a 17-8-3 record overall. The 6-foot-2 goalie is eighth in the league with a 2.81 GAA and .905 save percentage.
Drummondville will be getting bruising defenceman Maveric Lamoureux back from Team Canada as the Voltigeurs make their stretch run. The 6-foot-7 defenceman is a prospect of the Arizona Coyotes and was on Canada’s top pairing, recording a goal and three points.
“Lamoureux coming back is going to be a big deal,” Button said. "I think his success at the World Juniors will translate into confidence. He was a really good player against the best players in the world in his age group and that’s really going to help Drummondville.”
Going in the other direction are the Halifax Mooseheads who went 4-3-2 while three of their core players were with Canada at the World Juniors.
The Mooseheads sit in second place in the Eastern Conference behind Baie-Comeau with a 25-11-5 record and have been without star goaltender Mathis Rousseau, forward Jordan Dumais, and defenceman Jake Furlong.
Rousseau played every game of the tournament for Canada, registering a 3-2 record with a .912 save percentage and 2.00 GAA before the team was knocked out by Czechia in the quarter-finals.
With Halifax, Rousseau has a 16-3-2 record and leads the league with a 2.07 GAA and .934 save percentage.
Rousseau hasn’t played a game with the Mooseheads since Dec. 2 and rookie Jack Milner came in during his absence. The 5-foot-10 netminder went 6-7 in his stretch of games, allowing 38 goals.
Dumais, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, registered 16 goals and 47 points in 21 games since he was returned to the QMJHL by his NHL club. At the World Juniors, Dumais struggled to get his offence going at the same level, only recording two points in five games.
After the tournament, Dumais returned to Columbus so he could be evaluated for a hip injury that could threaten the rest of his season.
“Dumais’ health is going to be a key determinant on how the Mooseheads do this season,” said Button. “He could be the difference of playing right to the end and falling out of it.”
Furlong recorded a goal in five games for Canada and skated with Victoriaville Tigres defenceman Noah Warren on the team’s second pairing. In Halifax, the San Jose Sharks draft pick has a goal and 20 points in 31 games this season and is plus-16.
While those three players were absent, forward Mathieu Cataford led the charge with seven goals and 16 points. He leads the team with 25 goals and 60 points along with a plus-38 rating.
He is in the middle of an 11-game point streak where he has 11 goals and 22 points and recently signed his entry-level contract with the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 31.
High Stakes in OHL’s Western Conference
The top of the Ontario Hockey League standings is turning into a three-team race between the Kitchener Rangers, Soo Greyhounds, and the London Knights.
This year’s Memorial Cup tournament will be hosted by a Saginaw Spirit team that has made blockbuster trades to acquire Owen Beck from the Peterborough Petes and Jorian Donovan from the Branford Bulldogs in order to jump into the mix.
In order for Kitchener, London, and the Soo to have a chance to reach the Memorial Cup, they will have to get past Saginaw in the Western Conference playoffs and win the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
“The Rangers, Knights, and Greyhounds are all up against each other,” said Button. “They have to ask themselves if they have enough to beat Saginaw [and each other] in order to reach the OHL final in order to have a chance to join the Spirit at the Memorial Cup.
“They’re all good teams and have good records, but it might not matter.”
The Rangers have been leading the league for most of the season and own a 27-11-2 record. They lead the OHL with 186 goals, which is 19 goals more than the Sudbury Wolves’ 167.
Kitchener sent forwards Carson Rehkopf and Filip Mesar to play at the World Juniors for Canada and Slovakia, respectively, and has gone 5-4-0 in their absence.
Vancouver Canucks prospect Hunter Brzustewicz leads the league in scoring with eight goals and 62 points while Rehkopf leads the OHL with 34 goals to go along with his 59 points.
The hottest team in the OHL during the World Junior tournament were the Knights, who went 9-1-0 since national camps opened. They have won 11 of their last 12 games despite not having forwards Kasper Halttunen, Easton Cowan, and defenceman Oliver Bonk available to them.
London sits tied for second place in the Western Conference with the Greyhounds with a 26-11-1 record and are three points behind the Rangers.
Denver Barkey, who was one of Canada’s last cuts, has stolen the show offensively with three goals and 15 points in his last eight games. He leads the Knights with 20 goals and 56 points in 36 games this season, which is good for sixth in the league.
The Greyhounds have a 25-11-3 record and are being led by Ottawa Senators prospect Jack Beck with 16 goals and 51 points in 39 games.
Salut Ste. Marie went 6-3-1 during the World Juniors and will be getting back Canadian Owen Allard and Finland’s Arttu Karki.
Allard provided some of Canada’s best highlights during his five games at the World Juniors, recording two goals and three points. The undrafted forward has 14 goals and 30 points in 29 games this season.
Karki leads all OHL defencemen with 16 goals to go along with his 30 points in 30 games this season. He helped Finland reach the bronze-medal game, registering three assists in seven games.
The Greyhounds began gearing up for the second half the season on Sunday when they acquired forward Gavin Hayes and Jacob Frasca from the Flint Firebirds and Barrie Colts, respectively.
Hayes was drafted 66th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2022 NHL Draft and has 19 goals and 36 points this season. Frasca has only appeared in 17 games this season due to injuries and has seven goals and 12 points.
The 6-foot-4 overage forward had a career-high 27 goals and 69 points in 68 games last season with the Colts.