The WHL playoffs are set to begin Friday night as 16 teams vie for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Last year’s champions were the high-powered Edmonton Oil Kings who won’t be in position to defend, as they finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference this season and are looking to re-tool. The runners-up in 2022, Seattle Thunderbirds, return as the top seed in the Western Conference.
Much of the first-round focus, too, will be on Connor Bedard as he gets his first taste of WHL playoff action after scoring 71 goals and 143 points in 57 games. The Pats qualified as the sixth seed in their conference.
Here’s a look at all the first-round matchups:
Winnipeg Ice vs. Medicine Hat Tigers
Red Deer Rebels vs. Calgary Hitmen
Saskatoon Blades vs. Regina Pats
Moose Jaw Warriors vs. Lethbridge Hurricanes
Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Kelowna Rockets
Kamloops Blazers vs. Vancouver Giants
Portland Winterhawks vs. Everett Silvertips
Prince George Cougars vs. Tri-City Americans
The WHL champions have gone on to finish last in each of the past five Memorial Cups, and the league hasn’t won the top prize in Canadian major junior hockey since the Oil Kings in 2014.
Sam Cosentino gets you set for what’s ahead in the WHL playoffs, with one player to watch on each team.
Matthew Savoie, C, Winnipeg Ice: Selected by Buffalo with the ninth overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft, Savoie quietly put up 95 points and finished the season as the Ice’s second-leading scorer. Proving he could be more than just an offensive player, Savoie finished with a plus-57 rating while racking up eight shorthanded points, both top five amongst all WHL players. He heads into the playoffs on an 11-game heater in which he has put up 25 points.
Cayden Lindstrom, C, Medicine Hat Tigers: A third-round bantam pick in the 2021 WHL draft, Lindstrom got into 6 games as a 15-year-old last year and failed to record a point, finishing with a -7 rating. The 6’4, 204lb centre, was given a big role to start his first full season, where he finished ninth in league rookie scoring with 19 goals and 42 points in 61 games. He was particularly effective down the stretch with six points in his last seven games while winning over 50 per cent of his faceoffs. Lindstrom will be eligible for the 2024 NHL draft.
Kalan Lind, C, Red Deer Rebels: Back in the lineup for the last two regular season games, the Rebels centre is perfectly suited for playoff hockey. He’s similar to Matthew Tkachuk in that he will always try to get under the opponent’s skin, and when you try to retaliate, he’s skilled enough to score. Lind missed 35 games and even if he’s not at 100% he can be an effective player. He averaged one point and two PIM/game. Lind was at his best in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game where he went as the 23rd-ranked player on NHL Central Scouting’s North American list.
Riley Fiddler-Schultz, C, Calgary Hitmen: The leading scorer for the Hitmen played in 64 games during his final WHL season. He had 75 points, including 31 goals, five of which were scored in one game (four in the first period), in a 6-2 win over Prince Albert on October 23. He was one of the premier faceoff specialists in the game, averaging 57% in the dot. Fiddler-Schultz spent his entire five-year career in Calgary.
Austin Elliott, G, Saskatoon Blades: As an 18-year-old rookie netminder, Elliott found his grove in the second half, winning the starting job over Ethan Chadwick. While he hit a few speed bumps in his ascent to number one, Elliott still ended up third in the league with a 2.20 GAA, checking in behind the Seattle tandem of Scott Ratzlaff and Thomas Milic. Elliot was a 12th-round pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam draft.
Connor Bedard, C, Regina Pats: With Bedard, the Pats always have a chance. The draft-eligible phenom ended up with 71 goals and 143 points in just 57 games played during the regular season. Over the course of his career, he had as many goals as games played (137) and averaged over two points per game. Considering he’s never played a WHL playoff game, fans across the hockey world should be tuned in to see what the projected first-overall pick can do next. In five meetings against first-round opponent Saskatoon, Bedard scored five times for nine points.
Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw Warriors: Yager is the fifth-rated skater for the 2023 NHL Draft by NHL Central Scouting standards. Yager made his mark as a sniper in his 16-year-old season, finishing the season with 34 goals. In an attempt to round out his game, he focused on becoming more of a distributor, and that tactic worked this season as he had 50 assists for a 78-point total. Yager played in all situations, won more than 52 per cent of his faceoffs, and ended his season with seven game-winning goals.
Bryan Thomson, G, Lethbridge Hurricanes: It will be the last kick at the can for the overaged netminder, who missed most of the first half of the season recovering from off-season surgery. Thomson gives Lethbridge hope for an upset based on his 13-8-1, 2.64, .919 stat line. The former second-round bantam pick played in just 43 games in his first three seasons but has been the number-one goalie for Lethbridge when healthy, having played in 74 regular season games the last two seasons. Thomson had three shutouts in the 24 games he played.
Luca Cagnoni, D, Portland Winterhawks: One of the most underrated defencemen in the league, Cagnoni finished 10th in defenceman scoring with 64 points in 67 games played. He appeared in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game and played to his identity as a smooth skater with great awareness while making plays with pace. At 5’9, 180 lbs, he is not afraid to shoot the puck, having finished the season with 243 shots, second amongst all WHL defencemen.
The playoffs will play a big part in where Cagnoni ends up come June.
Jackson Berezowski, RW, Everett Silvertips: For the second straight season, Berezowski eclipsed the 45-goal mark with a franchise record 48-goal season. The Silvertips’ leading scorer and captain was named a U.S. Division First Team All-Star for the second straight season. He’s a second-round bantam pick who will wrap up his career with 273 games played, all in Everett.
Thomas Milic, G, Seattle Thunderbirds: Undrafted through his first two years of eligibility, Milic is in the middle of an amazing resume build. He lead Canada to a gold medal at the world juniors, with a 5-0, 1.76, .932 line. Splitting time with Scott Ratzlaff, the duo allowed a league-low 155 goals. For his part, Milic leads the league with a minuscule 2.08 GAA and a league-leading .928 save percentage.
Andrew Cristall, LW, Kelowna Rockets: A player who enjoys the thrill of a challenge, Cristall has rocketed up the draft rankings. Similar to his bestie, Connor Bedard, Cristall can take over a game with his offensive wizardry. Inside the blueline, he’s one of the most dangerous forwards in the league, having amassed 39 goals for 95 points in only 54 games played.
Olen Zellweger, D, Kamloops Blazers: Zellweger, an Anaheim Ducks prospect, filled the net to the tune of 32 goals split between Everett and Kamloops – by far the most goals scored by a defenceman in all the CHL. What’s most impressive is the shot total which ended at 345 attempts, just 15 shy of Bedard for second in the league. Zellweger’s continued success will be key for the number one powerplay in the CHL, which finished the season an Oilers-like 30.1 per cent.
Samuel Honzek, LW, Vancouver Giants: Injuries slowed his progress just as he started to find his way in the North American game. Was the WHL’s third rookie scorer with 23 goals and 56 points in 43 games played. Honzek, who wasn’t in consideration as a first-round pick a the start of the season, is now being projected as a top-15 pick for the 2023 NHL draft. He enters the playoffs with four goals and nine points in eight March games.
Koehn Ziemmer, RW, Prince George Cougars: With teammate Riley Heidt expected to go in the first round of the 2023 NHL draft, things are a little more uncertain for Ziemmer. Having said that, as a more traditional power forward, the playoffs should be perfectly suited for the 6’0, 204 lb winger. His hard, heavy shot is a deadly weapon, used to score 41 goals en route to an 89-point campaign. Ziemmer produced the second-longest point streak in the league this season, an 18-gamer that ended just before the calendar flipped to 2023.
Lukas Dragicevic, D, Tri-City Americans: Owner of the longest point streak by a defenceman in the CHL this season, Dragicevic netted 37 points over a 27-game stretch from mid-October to the end of December. All told, he finished fourth in defenceman scoring with a total of 75 points over a complete 68-game regular season. NHL Central Scouting has Dragicevic ranked 12th for the upcoming NHL Draft.