WHL news: Prince George Cougars look like team to beat in B.C. Division

Plus: Winnipeg moving to Wenatchee gives B.C. fans more chances to see Chilliwack product Zach Benson

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Could this be the Prince George Cougars’ year?

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That hasn’t been a common refrain for many years, especially when you consider that last spring’s opening round playoff win for Prince George over the Tri-City Americans marked the franchise’s first trip out of the first round since 2006-07.

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They do feel like they’re hitting a sweet spot, though. They look like the favourites in the B.C. Division, at the very least.

Centre Riley Heidt was the No. 2 overall pick by Prince George in the 2020 WHL Draft, right after the Regina Pats took centre Connor Bedard. Heidt, 18, finished fifth in WHL scoring last season with 97 points, including 25 goals. He was a second second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in the NHL Draft last summer. 

Right-winger Koehn Ziemmer was the No. 4 overall pick by Prince George in the 2019 WHL Draft. Ziemmer, who turns 19 in December, finished ninth in league scoring last season with 89 points, including 41 goals. He was a third-round choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the off-season.

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Add defenceman Hudson Thornton, who had 23 goals and 74 points last season, and Prince George should have as potent a one-two-three punch as anyone in the WHL. Thornton turns 20 in November; he should be one of the league’s best overages.

The Cougars look strong in goal as well with Ty Young, 19, who was a 2022 fifth-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks. 

They did lose Chase Wheatcroft, who tallied 47 goals and 107 points last season, to graduation. And it looks like defenceman Ethan Samson will spend his 20-year-old season somewhere in the Philadelphia Flyers’ system rather than returning to Prince George to be an overage.

Prince George, who are coached by Mark Lamb, made a 28-point jump in the standings from two seasons ago (29-39-4-1) to last year (37-24-6-1).

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Prince George opens the regular season Friday, hosting the opener of a weekend doubleheader with the Tri-City Americans. No word on when the Cougars might see the likes of Heidt and Ziemmer back from NHL camps.

The Cougars are one of the storylines this season in the WHL. Here are some others.

Parity returns?

Last year felt like a three-way duel between the Seattle Thunderbirds, Kamloops Blazers and Winnipeg Ice for the top spots in the league. WHL onlookers are pegging this year to be more wind open.

If you’re looking for an early favourite for top spot, it’s likely the Portland Winterhawks. They’re the top WHL team in the CHL national rankings this week, coming in at No. 3 behind the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and OHL’s London Knights. The Moose Jaw Warriors start out at No. 5, the Saskatoon Blades No. 9.

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The 2024 Memorial Cup goes next spring in Saginaw, Mich., hosted by the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. Kamloops hosted last season.

Zach Benson
B.C. fans will get to see winger and Chilliwack product Zach Benson more often this season. Photo by Larry MacDougal /The Canadian Press Images

Wild about Wenatchee

One of the big switches in the WHL this time around is that the Ice were sold and moved to Wenatchee, Wash., to the group that had owned the BCHL’s Wenatchee Wild. The Ice took that team’s name and look as well, and shifted from the WHL’s Eastern to Western Conferences.

The BCHL Wenatchee franchise remains dormant.

The Ice move to the West and the U.S. Division means B.C. fans will get to see Wenatchee winger and Chilliwack product Zach Benson more often this season, with Wenatchee making two visits each to the Cougars, Blazers, Vancouver Giants, Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals. Winnipeg made a five-game trip through B.C. last season and wasn’t slated to come again until 2024-25 under the current WHL scheduling format.

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Benson, 18, is the top returning scorer in the WHL, his 98 points, featuring 36 goals, slotting him third in 2022-23 behind Bedard and Wheatcroft. Benson, who’s listed at only 5-foot-10 and 159 pounds, was the No. 13 overall pick in last summer’s NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres.

Wenatchee’s first B.C. game is Sept. 30 at the Rockets. They visit the Giants the following afternoon.

Talking swap

Seattle, Kamloops and Winnipeg all have strong players slated to return, but will it be tempting to become sellers this year considering how heavily all three spent last year on the trade market?

There were deals like we have never seen before and may not see again. Kamloops gave up 10 draft picks and four players to Everett for defenceman Olen Zellweger and forward Ryan Hofer. Winnipeg dealt four players and four draft picks, including three first rounders, to Vancouver for forward Zack Ostapchuk. 

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Last year for the Commish

This is the 24th and final year as WHL commissioner for Ron Robison. The league posted an open letter on its website from Robison this week.

“The future is very bright for the WHL,” it included. “After the great fortune of witnessing a generational talent the calibre of Connor Bedard, WHL fans everywhere can’t wait to see the next wave of WHL talent, which will be unveiled this season and in the years to come.”

No word yet on who will replace Robison.

sewen@postmedia.com


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