The CIS season is just days away from being upon us, and the Canada West conference is set to be as competitive as ever. Last year the fourth and seventh place teams were separated by just four points, and this year may turn out to be just as tight.
1. Saskatchewan Huskies: 2015-16, 22-6-0 (44 pts)
Team Strengths: They have a brick wall in the net named Jordon Cooke. Daniel Wapple is a nice acquisition in the backup role as well and makes the Saskatchewan Huskies crease air-tight before the start of the regular season. This Huskies team may also be the deepest they've had in recent years, with an excellent recruit class joining a number of returning veterans who know this league well. Leaders such as Kendall McFaull, Jordan Fransoo, and John Lawrence among others really stabilize this lineup and make them one of the best on paper in the entire country.
Team Concerns: Tough to find one on this roster, but if anything, some inexperience may come into play. With such a large recruit class, especially up front, the Huskies will have to rely on some youngsters who will inevitably go through a transition period in this league. It's certainly possible that Saskatchewan hits a wall at some point this season as their young guns adjust to CIS hockey, but as evidenced by the first line of Kohl Bauml, Andrew Johnson, and Levi Cable last season, experience doesn't always trump talent in this league.
Recruit Class: Certainly one of the best in the country. Colby Harmsworth and Tanner Lishchynski both offer short-term assistance and provide great potential to be leaders deep into their CIS careers. Anytime you get a 90+ point scorer from the CHL, you're going to be extremely happy. The Huskies get exactly that with Alex Forsberg, but also bring in proven WHLers Connor Gay, Wyatt Johnson, Jordan Tkatch, Carson Stadnyk, and now having Lukas Sutter on the roster gives coach Dave Adolph another option.
Verdict: The Huskies are a fantastic team on paper, but perhaps what will separate them from everyone else in Canada West is how they went out of the University Cup a season ago. Their veterans will want it more than ever now, and after finding a way to beat Alberta in the Canada West final last season, they have the confidence to beat anyone in this league on any given night. This team contains a number of excellent leaders, and it could be those key veterans that allow the youngsters on this team to really shine. If that happens, the Huskies will be at the top of the standings all year long.
2. Alberta Golden Bears: 2015-16, 19-7-2 (40 pts)
Team Strengths: Talent, talent, and more talent. When it comes to CIS hockey, there's a definite disparity in talent between this league and junior hockey with the top junior players going to pro. But the Alberta Golden Bears always seem to find a way to reel in some extremely talented players, and even with a large roster turnover, still possess one of the league's most talented rosters. Tyson Baillie, Jamie Crooks, Trevor Cox, Stephane Legault, and Luke Philp headline Alberta's offensive cast. There's certainly no shortage of offensive potential or creativity this year, and once they settle into their own game, Alberta will be as dangerous as ever.
Team Concerns: It's been the talk of Canada West all offseason; the huge roster turnover for the Alberta Golden Bears. It doesn't seem to matter which team and what players they get, there are always questions about the transition period for rookies in the league, and Alberta is no exception to that this season. Relatively inexperienced at forward, defence, and goaltending up in the air too, the Golden Bears certainly need to get their rookies adjusted to CIS as quick as they can. It's not hard to imagine Alberta hitting a few bumps in the road this season, and how they bounce back will define their season in 2016-17.
Recruit Class: The Golden Bears took total advantage of a fantastic WHL overage group which was the deepest of any junior hockey league this season. Jason Fram, and Ryan Rehill were both top five d-men available to CIS teams this offseason. Ben Carroll provides stability, and Graeme Craig could emerge as a go-to defenceman early this season. Up front, Tyson Baillie is an A-list recruit, as is Trevor Cox and Luke Philp. Cole Linaker is a great piece, and Taylor Cooper adds some depth up front too. Todd Fiddler may turn out to be the biggest X-factor if he can return to his 50 goal season form, but needs to recover from the pro-hangover first. In net, Brendan Burke and Kenny Cameron will challenge Luke Siemens, but are they Canada West championship goalies? Time will tell.
Verdict: As always, the Golden Bears will be in the mix for another Canada West title, but this year may provide more challenges and obstacles than they've ever had before. Regardless of how the Golden Bears finish their regular season, watching them duke it out with the Saskatchewan Huskies all year will be a blast to watch, as Canada West's battle of the titans has never been more competitive.
3. Mount Royal Cougars: 2015-16, 17-8-3 (37 pts)
Team Strengths: Lead behind the bench by two-time Canada West coach of the year, Bert Gilling, the Mount Royal Cougars are one of the best examples of a well run program still relatively new to the league. Now with Wyatt Hoflin joining Colin Cooper and Cam Lanigan in the crease, goaltending should not be a problem this season at all. Even after losing Jordan McNaughton and MacKenzie Johnston on defence, they still have a fairly deep group on the back-end. Brett Zarazun and Grant Baker both return on defence after full seasons, but it's the new faces MRU brought into the program that make the biggest difference. They don't have the offence on paper that Alberta or Saskatchewan has, but a deep defence and strong goaltending will keep them in the picture all year long.
Team Concerns: No more Tyler Fiddler at Mount Royal, and they haven't exactly brought in many recruits who immediately jump off the page as someone who can immediately fill that void. Having the point-per-game version of Devin Gannon this season would be nice, but who knows where his game is at after taking a year off from hockey. Inexperience on defence may come into question too, but overall shouldn't be a huge concern. Mount Royal is a solidly built team all-around, but the lack of star power may be what holds them back from the top of the standings.
Recruit Class: As mentioned, the defensive group brought in looks great on paper, with Jesse Lees and Colton Waltz coming in as seasoned WHLers, and Dominic Thom, Maddison Smiley, and Taylor Green bringing in more reliability. Devin Gannon is a bit of a wild-card who could turn out to be great after sitting out a year, and the same applies to NCAA transfer Luke Simpson. Jamal Watson is the most accomplished forward coming into the program, and as a former captain of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, could add some valuable leadership down the road. Finally, Wyatt Hoflin is a decent acquisition in net, but if Colin Cooper continues to get better, Hoflin may have to wait to get the coveted starts.
Verdict: All-around a very solid roster. Certainly don't have the flair that Saskatchewan and Alberta have, but they don't need to have it in order to beat them. Bert Gilling knows his team well, and it's clear he's assembled this team around his own gameplan to knock off the top seeds in Canada West. Even without Tyler Fiddler, the Mount Royal Cougars can absolutely contend for the top spot again in 2016-17.
4. Manitoba Bisons: 2015-16, 13-13-2 (28 pts)
Team Strengths: Lots of returning talent this year for the Bisons who retain their top five scorers from a season ago. Obviously Jordan DePape headlines this group as one of the most talented goal scorers in the CIS, and will pack a definite punch again this season for Manitoba. Plenty of returning talent on defence as well for the Bisons who get Lee Christensen back for a fifth season, Channing Bresciani and Rene Hunter return, and Adam Henry is expected to take a step forward as well. The Bisons don't have an abundance of offensive talent, but much like Mount Royal, don't need it in order to win.
Team Concerns: It could very well be the goaltending that makes or breaks the Manitoba Bisons this season. Just like the defence and forwards, the crease has a wealth of CIS experience. Experience is great, but it means nothing if the goalies don't play well, and although the Bisons have a very solid defensive group, their goaltending will be relied upon in games against the best teams in the league. Justin Paulic is the public favourite to carry the workload this season, and rightfully so, as he played well in a number of games for Manitoba last year. But if things get shaken up, Byron Spriggs will need to step up, which could be a tall task against the powerhouses of Canada West.
Recruit Class: Despite not bringing in a haul of WHL talent like Saskatchewan and Alberta did this offseason, coach Mike Sirant will be happy with his recruit class. With so many returnees, there wasn't a gaping need anyways, but players like Nick Zajac, Remi Laurencelle, and Hudson Friesen can all make this team better right away. Quintin Lisoway and both Shawn and Brad Bowles could turn out to be interesting experiments. Defensively, Garrett Johnston rounds out a solid defence, but if Blake Heinrich indeed ends up with the Bisons, he'll be their most notable recruit this season. A Manitoba defence with Heinrich in the lineup in addition to all their experience certainly takes them to another level.
Verdict: Another really solid all-around roster here. The Bisons have the potential to nose their way into the top three if the goaltending shines for them this season, but it's hard to picture them as a top two team in this league by season's end. All the Bisons need is a decent regular season, and with a full roster in the playoffs, will certainly make some noise.
5.Lethbridge Pronghorns: 2015-16, 11-15-2 (24 pts)
Team Strengths: There's a lot of optimism around a Lethbridge team coming off of one of it's most successful recruit classes in recent years. Not only is there an injection of WHL talent coming into this program, but eight of their top ten point-getters are returning for 2016-17. Lethbridge narrowly missed out on the playoffs last year in a season that came right down to the wire, and guys like Mitch Maxwell and Brandon Clowes won't forget that anytime soon. Another example of a strong defensive squad in Canada West, Ayrton Nikkel and Evan Wardley continue to add to a stable and experienced defensive group in Lethbridge, which will be their biggest strength this season.
Team Concerns: The leading scorer on the 2015-16 Lethbridge Pronghorns was defenceman Tim Campbell. His 12 goals aren't anything to scoff at, but ideally you'd like to get more production out of your forwards, and coach Spiros Anastas will be pushing for that this season. We know Maxwell and Clowes can put pucks in the net, but can a guy like Connor Sanvido come over from STU and make an impact on the scoresheet? If it comes down to the wire again this season, it could very well be as little as one goal that separates a team from the postseason. In net, Garret Hughson provides promise after a stellar playoff run in the AJHL, but needs to prove himself at the CIS level too. Both Damien Ketlo and Warren Shymko will also need to step up their game if they get called on.
Recruit Class: As mentioned, very nice class for a program who has been fighting to stay out of the basement of the league for a number of years now. Ayrton Nikkel and Evan Wardley are prized possessions on defence, and Clint Filbrandt adds flexibility too. Forward-wise, Russell Maxwell has scored before, but we'll see how much of an effect a couple of seasons away from the game has on him. Connor Sanvido holds potential, and both Torrin White and Ryan Chynoweth will both be project players. Corey Millette is their most reputable forward acquisition and can make a difference in this league right away. Netminder Garret Hughson could prove to be one heck of a steal, but we'll have to wait and see for sure.
Verdict: Another step in the right direction for Lethbridge, and after being right in the midst of the playoff race last year, will be right back there again this season. They're still steps behind the best teams in this league, so it'll be extra crucial for Lethbridge to win their games against teams like UBC and Calgary.
6. Calgary Dinos: 2015-16, 12-12-4 (28 pts)
Team Strengths: Elgin Pearce, Chris Collins, and Cain Franson all return to the Dinos this year. A combined 31 goals between them last year equated to 36% of the team's entire offensive output from 2015-16. Those three players will be relied on heavily for the Dinos, and all having CIS experience on their resume suggests they're safe bets to play well. Goaltending has also been a point of discussion with Calgary in the preseason, as their crease consists of CIS veteran Steven Stanford, RBC Cup champion Matt Greenfield, and highly valued WHL starter Coleman Vollrath. Stanford's numbers last year were well off the mark for what he's capable of, so if he's unable to recover his old form, Vollrath and Greenfield provide great insurance policies.
Team Concerns: There were times last season when a lack of offensive depth was noticeable with Calgary, and that may show now more than ever with some good teams getting even deeper in Canada West. Both Kevin King and Spencer Edwards are not returning for Calgary this year, so they'll need to find somebody to produce secondary scoring as they did last season. Max Ross and Alex Dzielski's absence from the blue-line leaves a couple holes that Calgary has the material to patch back up, but it could take some time. Time could very well be what hinders Calgary the most this season, as the short regular seasons don't leave much time for the Dinos to settle into a comfort zone with their roster.
Recruit Class: 13 recruits make Calgary's class the largest in the CIS (apart from Ottawa). In a year with great WHL talent available, Jared Hauf, Luke Harrison, Logan Fisher, and Coleman Vollrath are good pickups, but you can't help but think Calgary wanted a little more out of the WHL given what some of the other teams came away with. Taylor Dumonceaux and Brayden Sherbinin are a pair of NCAA transfers who hope to fit in with the Dinos, and the rest of Calgary's recruit class consists of some successful junior players from tier II. It's a large class containing some decent talent, but also leaves many questions to be answered.
Verdict: Last year was a step back for Calgary after 20 wins in the 2014-15 season. This year will likely act as another step towards recovering their old form. They're not quite there yet, but Calgary's large recruit class shows they're willing to try anything at the moment to find what sticks.
7. UBC Thunderbirds: 2015-16, 11-13-4 (26 pts)
Team Strengths: After an off-year for recruiting in 2014-15, UBC comes back with a much better recruit class this year and hope to stay as healthy as possible all season long. Last year it was the injuries that hurt them down the stretch, and it's very believable that UBC could have had a few more wins if given a healthy roster all season. This year they come back with an even deeper defensive corps including Kyle Becker, Josh Connolly, Brandon Underwood and new recruits Joseph Carvalho and Tanner Faith. Their back-end depth will make them a difficult team to beat all season long.
Team Concerns: Injuries last year exploited a few depth issues, and the Thunderbirds hope to be better off in that regard this year. Luke Lockhart, Austin Vetterl, and Anthony Bardaro will lead this team again offensively, but if they want to take the next step forward, UBC will need to find more scoring deep into their lineup. Rookie head coach Sven Butenschon will be put to the test this year and will have a chance to prove to himself and everyone else he deserves to have the reins at UBC. No matter how his season goes, it's inevitable Butenschon will learn a lot by the year's end.
Recruit Class: UBC definitely got in on the wealth of talent from the WHL this year by grabbing Carvahlo, Faith, Jerret Smith, and Carter Popoff. Faith is a big defenceman who can be a big-time player if he stays healthy, and can be one of the best defenceman in his conference. Jake Lebrun comes in as a forward from the BCHL, and UBC brings along three NCAA transfers in forward Michael Stenerson, goalie Derek Dun, and forward Justin Rai. Finally, Kyler Nachtigall, originally committed to NCAA, will come into UBC's program and has impressed in the preseason.
Verdict: Even though I don't have UBC marked down as a playoff team here, they absolutely can be. If Lethbridge or even Calgary run into injury issues or UBC simply outplays them, they're every bit as much of a playoff team. Much like last year, the separation between seventh and sixth is going to be very, very close.
8. Regina Cougars: 2015-16, 7-21-0 (14 pts)
Team Strength: The popular strategy to beat the top offensive teams in Canada West these days seems to start with building a strong defensive group, and Regina is no exception to that. As evidenced by the four defenceman brought into the program this year, the Regina Cougars are aiming to be a tough, rugged team to play against. There's good reason to believe they'll be just that with a defence featuring Carter Hanson, Tyler King, Isaac Schacher, Landon Peel, and Tyler Bell among others. Regina's toughness and grit will be what makes this team capable of upsets on any given night in the CIS.
Team Concern: Scoring at Regina right now is certainly not their strongest attribute. Ian McNulty and Miguel Pereira have both found ways to score goals, but overall Regina is not a deadly offensive team. Their 73 goals for last season wasn't horrible, but given the fact they allowed 134, most in Canada West, that's not a formula for success. Goaltending needs to be better for Regina this year too. A strong defence will help, but it doesn't matter if it's Andy Desautels, Mitch Kilgore, or Dawson MacAuley, one of them needs to step up to the plate this year and play well. MacAuley in particular has shown some promising signs, but it's now or never for the three Regina goalies to prove they belong as starters in this league.
Recruit Class: The Cougars will definitely be happy with who they brought in on defence. They don't all have flashy numbers, but Regina is simply looking for guys who'll get the job done. Offensively, it's clear that due to their 11 player recruit class, the Cougars are willing to try some new things and give players an opportunity to prove themselves as capable scorers. Players like Brandon Halbgewachs, and Tristan Frei have succeeded well in their respective levels of junior hockey, but will need to take a big step forward to compete in this league. Tyson Predinchuk is another meat and potatoes type player who fits into the system, and Colton Sparrow, Corey Kosloski, Logan Harland, and Gray Marr will also get chances up front.
Verdict: Regina should be harder to score goals against this year, which is how they are going to win games. They'll have to work very hard and get solid goaltending to be in the playoff conversation, but the Cougars shouldn't be considered a doormat in this league. They possess upset potential.