Kale Clague (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
Brandon was a unanimous No. 1 among WHL experts, but who will challenge the Wheat Kings for the crown? Check out our rankings, plus players to watch for on all 22 franchises.
The Western League celebrates its 50th season this year, with Moose Jaw and Regina kicking off the festivities Thursday night. Full action gets going the next day and it will be interesting to see how things shake out in the 'Dub.' For starters, the Brandon Wheat Kings are the best team by consensus, even with New York Islanders pick Ryan Pilon stepping away from hockey just months after he was drafted.
Nevertheless, based on the experts out West that I surveyed, this is Brandon's year. Below you'll find my league rankings, plus a couple NHL prospects to watch from each franchise.
1. Brandon Wheat Kings – Assuming Ivan Provorov doesn't make the Flyers, the D-man will be huge. Draft-eligible Kale Clague also patrols the blueline while center Jayce Hawryluk (Florida) will put up big points.
2. Seattle Thunderbirds – Cover your ears, Denis Potvin: Seattle will be an offensive force thanks to the combined efforts of Ryan Gropp (New York Rangers) and Matt Barzal (New York Islanders).
3. Kelowna Rockets – Arizona first-rounder Nick Merkley returns from the defending champs, while clone Dillon Dube (2016) will make a greater impact up front as a sophomore.
4. Red Deer Rebels – The Memorial Cup hosts look solid with Haydn Fleury (Carolina) on defense, Michael Spacek (Winnipeg) up front and Conner Bleackley (Colorado) leading.
5. Calgary Hitmen – Jake Bean is an exciting D-man to watch for the 2016 draft, while Travis Sanheim (Philadelphia) anchors the unit. Will Jake Virtanen make the NHL's Canucks?
6. Medicine Hat Tigers – Overager Trevor Cox was a scoring machine last year, while D-man Ty Stanton played for Detroit's Traverse City squad as a free agent invite.
7. Portland Winterhawks – Caleb Jones (Edmonton) follows in brother Seth's footsteps to PDX, while Dominic Turgeon (Detroit) and Paul Bittner (Columbus) go to work up front.
8. Everett Silvertips – Goaltender Carter Hart is a 2016 draft hopeful, while Noah Juulsen (Montreal) returns to the blueline – assuming he has recovered from a recent concussion.
9. Regina Pats – The quick and dynamic Sam Steel will be a hot 2016 draft commodity, while big, speedy left winger Austin Wagner (Los Angeles) continues his ascent.
10. Prince George Cougars – Workhorse center Jansen Harkins (Winnipeg) will handle the scoring, while physical Jesse Gabrielle (Boston) does the dirty work.
11. Victoria Royals – Joe Hicketts (Detroit) brings determination and scoring to the blueline, while goalie Evan Smith (Nashville) returns from a successful NAHL stint.
12. Edmonton Oil Kings – The halcyon Curtis Lazar days are gone, but Alec Dillon (Los Angeles) rides to the rescue in net while Brett Pollock (Dallas) is coming off 32 goals.
13. Prince Albert Raiders – The blueline is big and headlined by mobile Brendan Guhle (Buffalo) and sturdy Hunter Warner (Minnesota).
14. Moose Jaw Warriors – Look for Brayden Point (Tampa Bay) to challenge for the scoring crown and 2016 prospects Brett Howden and Zach Sawchenko to make noise.
15. Tri-City Americans – Hey, where's TC's elite goalie this year? Oh, there he is: draft-eligible Evan Sarthou. Brandon Carlo (Boston) will protect him on the back end.
16. Spokane Chiefs – Kailer Yamamoto's not up until the 2017 draft, but he'll be fun to watch, as will fellow '17 forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan.
17. Swift Current Broncos – Boston first-rounder Jake DeBrusk and faceoff ace Glenn Gawdin (St. Louis) will lead the attack for the Broncos.
18. Vancouver Giants – Top 2016 prospect Tyler Benson will start the year on the shelf (lower body), but return as the new captain. Radovan Bondra (Chicago) is an intriguing import.
19. Saskatoon Blades – The Blades have some nice defensemen in puckmoving Brycen Martin (Buffalo) and potential 2016 first-rounder Libor Hajek, a nasty shutdown guy.
20. Lethbridge Hurricanes – Silky scorer Giorgio Estephan (Buffalo) is on the rise, while Andrew Nielsen (Toronto) brings size and toughness back to the blueline.
21. Kamloops Blazers – Talented and competitive winger Deven Sideroff (Anaheim) is back, while big Ondrej Vala brings 2016 draft buzz to the back end.
22. Kootenay Ice – It's rebuild time in Kootenay, so the cupboard's kinda bare. That means pressure on vets such as Vancouver Canucks camp invite Jon Martin.