WHL Season Previews
New city, new rink and new jerseys – not to mention a new team makeover for the 2011-12 Royals.
The Western Hockey League is back in Victoria, a city which hasn’t enjoyed major junior action since the Cougars moved to Prince George in 1994.
The Royals, having relocated to the provincial capital from Chilliwack this past summer, will look quite different from the Bruins club that finished sixth in the Western Conference last season.
The most notable departure is one-man offensive machine Ryan Howse. The 19-year-old will undoubtedly make the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat, meaning his 51 goals (2nd in the WHL in 2010-11) will be sorely missed. Second-leading scorer and import standout Roman Horak, also takes his goal-scoring prowess (25 goals, 78 points) to the Calgary Flames affiliate.
Topping the losses, the Royals graduate No. 1 defenceman Brandon Manning (AHL’s ) and starting goaltender Lucas Gore.
But with any new beginning, there is hope. That hope rests on the shoulders of Kevin Sundher who returns to his family roots – Sundher’s great grandfather moved to Vancouver Island over a 100 years ago from India – and is now the Royals go-to guy up front. Sundher, drafted 75th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2010 NHL entry draft, boasts potent offensive instincts and strong skating abilities.
The Surrey native finished third in team scoring with 24 goals and 76 points in 70 games.
Look for import winger Robin Soudek (25 goals, 57 points in 61 games) and undersized (5’8″) sophomore centreman Brandon Magee (team-high plus-15) to help Sundher fill the offensive void. 19-year-old centre Jamie Crooks, averaged 20 goals over the past two seasons, also provides some goalscoring glue.
Positionally, defence appears to be the weakest link in the Royals’ piecemeal reconstruction. Head coach Marc Habscheid’s son, Zach, returns to the blueline for his third season but is more of the stay-at-home variety. Hayden Rintoul comes over from 2011 WHL Champion Kootenay Ice and has notched 93 points in 188 games, and will provide some much-needed experience.
An intriguing addition is Jesse Pauls who notched 14 points in 21 games and could be the key to the Royal’s power play success if he can continue scoring at that near point-per-game clip.
16-year-old Parksville native Kade Pilton has been terrific in preseason (2 goal and 2 assists in 5 games) and might buoy the backline with his size (6’5″, 186 lbs) if he can crack the lineup.
In goal, the battle is between Gore’s backup from last season, Braden Gamble, and newcomer Keith Hamilton who came over from the Portland Winterhawks in the offseason. On paper Hamilton has the advantage (.914 save percentage, 2.91 GAA and 17 wins in 28 games) over Gamble, who posted pedestrian numbers in comparison (.886 save-percentage, 3.86 GAA and 2 wins in 19 games).
Head coach Habscheid might seesaw his goaltenders until one catches fire.
The Victoria Royals begin their 2011-12 season September 23rd on the road against the Vancouver Giants.
Puck drops at 7:30 p.m.