Training camps for the 2016/17 are just over two months away. What will the rosters of the five U.S. Division teams look like and who is the early favorite on paper?
Today we begin a series that explores just that, starting with the Tri-City Americans.
2016/17 U.S. Division Early Preview Part Five: Tri-City:
-The Americans were wildly inconsistent last season, especially in net with Evan Sarthou's draft stock taking a huge hit as the season went on. They won only six of their first 18 games and then played mostly .500 hockey, before going on a late run and winning 18 of their last 30 games nearly getting into the playoffs.
-Parker Bowles had a 96-point season, good for sixth in the entire WHL last season. He aged out and is gone and so there is a lot of scoring to replace. Beau McCue, who had 50 points is also gone, along with Vancouver Canucks' draft pick Mackenzie Stewart. Another big loss will be Brandon Carlo, who as a drafted and signed 1996 born player, will almost certainly play in the Boston Bruins' organization. Forward Taylor Vickerman and defenseman Riley Hillis both retired from hockey after multiple injuries derailed both of their last two seasons.
-1999 born players Riley Sawchuk (forward), Brett Leason (forward) and Landon Fuller (defense), along with 2000 born players Carson Focht (forward), Seth Bafaro (defense) and Liam Belcourt (defense) all got a taste of WHL action last season and should all get a chance to stick this season. Focht was the seventh overall bantam draft pick in 2015.
-With Carlo, Vickerman and Hillis out of the mix, it gets a lot less complicated. Forward Tyler Sandhu and d--man Jeff Rayman are left as the only returning, overage players. The Americans would then be in the market for any overage player, likely a forward, that is made available by another team.
-The Americans will likely not make a pick in June 28th's CHL import draft. With 1997 born forward Vladislav Lukin breaking out last year with 48 points and Finnish d-man Juuso Valimaki looking like a potential star in the league, it would be hard to improve upon their imports.
Three Big Questions:
1)Which Evan Sarthou Will the Americans Get?
-The Sarthou that started the season looked to be struggling under the pressure of being a top 2016 NHL draft prospect. He gave quite a number of poor goals that cost his team games that they looked to have a great chance of winning. Then as the 2016 calendar year rolled around, the Sarthou that we expected to have all season came back and gave his team shot to win most of the games he played in. The Americans' chances of getting back to the playoffs rely heavily upon him being the latter Sarthou and not the former. If he falters again to start the season, I would expect Tri-City to replace him with 1998 born backup goalie Nicholas Sanders. The backup actually had a better GAA and save percentage than Sarthou did.
2)How Long Will Michael Rasmussen Continue to Fly Under the Radar?
-Seventh overall bantam draft selection in 2014, 6'5" tall and 200 lbs and he dropped 43 points in his 16-year-old season and yet not many people outside of the Pacific Northwest seem to be talking about him. In the very early 2017 NHL draft rankings, Rasmussen is not projected to be a first round pick. With scouts coming to watch Valimaki, who is 2017 eligible, expect them to start falling in love with Rasmussen's game. Not since Evander Kane played for the Vancouver Giants, have I seen a player this young physically dominate the way Rasmussen did, at times, last season. One thing is for sure, between Kaikler Yamaoto, Valimaki and Rasmussen, far more scouts will be watching games in Central and Eastern Washington than they have in years past.
3)Will the Americans Get a New Building?
-Between the leaks in the building and dungeon-like locker rooms, it's not surprising that co-owner and general manager Bob Tory is pleading with the city of Kennewick to replace the 28-year-old arena. While the city keeps saying it's in the plans, there have been no commitments and Tri-City continues to twist in the wind, despite having strong attendance numbers for the 5,700 seat arena. Not having a facility that can compare with rivals like Seattle, Everett and Portland, can't be helping recruit players to commit to playing in Kennewick.
-On paper, the Americans look ready to compete this year. If young players like Valimaki, Rasmussen, Kyle Olson and co. take a big step forward, they may find themselves in the playoff mix and not just as a wild card.
U.S. Division Outlook:
-Overall, the division looks to be as ultra-competitive as it has been for years and while Seattle appears to be the early favorite, they still have nearly as many weaknesses as the other contenders. We will know far more in the coming months as the season gets nearer.