After another conference championship last season, the Alberta Golden Bears will be looking to repeat as champs and secure the conference's sole berth to the University Cup in Fredericton come March. With the conference returning to a six-team playoff format this season in anticipation of Mount Royal joining Canada West for 2011-12, there won't be as much intrigue in who will be playoff bound this time around, but just where the teams finish will be as intriguing as ever.
Our 2011-12 season previews continue with a look at the conference that spans all the way from Vancouver to Winnipeg, Canada West.
ALBERTA GOLDEN BEARS (2-0-0)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 19-6-3 (1st)
- Playoffs: 4-2. Swept Manitoba in CW semis; swept Calgary in CWF; lost both games at the University Cup.
- Power play: 22.1% (1st in CW)
- Penalty kill: 86.5% (3rd in CW)
- Last Season: It was another successful regular season and conference playoffs last season for the Bears, who waltzed through the Canada West playoffs in four straight games to take home their 10th conference title in 11 years. The University Cup was a different story where Alberta dropped both their games, losing 3-1 to St. FX before a 6-3 loss to McGill. Derek Ryan and Chad Klassen led the way last season for Alberta, with 47 and 46 points respectively to lead the conference, with both having graduated from the team.
- Key departures: F Derek Ryan, F Chad Klassen, F Eric Hunter, D Kyle Fecho.
- Key arrivals: F Jordan Hickmott, F Levko Koper, F Kruise Reddick, D Thomas Carr, D Jordan Rowley
- Coach: Stan Marple
- Key Player: Rookie Levko Koper comes to the Bears after a great junior career that included a Memorial Cup title with the Spokane Chiefs in 2008. Koper, who attended Winnipeg Jets rookie camp back in September, will be relied on to provide Alberta with some offence as a top six forward. The Edmonton native certainly provided that in junior, where he 32 goals last season to go along with 50 assists.
- 2011-12 Outlook: This will be another very good Bears team, and in many ways will be deeper than last season's squad which relied too heavily on Ryan and Klassen to score. Their top two lines will be more balanced, making life tougher on the opposition than in 2010-11. Overall this will be a more skilled group than last season, but with the youngest team in the conference, a new coach in Stan Marple, and an improved top end of the conference it won't be as smooth sailing this season. That may not be a bad thing for a team that has lots of potential, but will need to put it all together in a team oriented package in order to win
- Projected conference finish: 1st place
CALGARY DINOS (1-3-0)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 17-8-3 (2nd)
- Playoffs: 2-5. Beat Saskatchewan in 3 games in CW semis; swept by Alberta in CWF; lost both games at the University Cup.
- Power play: 18.3% (2nd in CW)
- Penalty kill: 88% (2nd in CW)
- Last Season: Head coach Mark Howell seemed to change the culture last season in Calgary where he helped lift the Dinos to their first University Cup appearance since 2000 in Saskatoon. Calgary was led by the country's top goaltender in Dustin Butler who took home CIS Goalie of the Year honours after leading the conference in both GAA (2.12) and SV% (.926). Reid Jorgenson's 33 points were good for third in the conference, helping Calgary to what was an impressive step forward for a program that hadn't been a factor on the national scene in a very long time.
- Key departures: F Aaron Richards, F Torrie Wheat
- Key arrivals: F Taylor Stefishen, F Dylan Hood, D Teigan Zahn, G Jacob DeSerres
- Coach: Mark Howell
- Key Player: Reid Jorgenson has been a workhorse for Calgary over the last several seasons, logging big ice time, and putting up big offensive number along the way. As a fifth-year veteran who has seen the highs of a University Cup berth, and a last place conference finish, expect another very good season out of this senior presence for the Dinos. He will certainly have pro opportunities after this year if he wants them, meaning this highly skilled player should be motivated to make another run at the University Cup.
- 2011-12 Outlook: Calgary, on paper, is a very good team again this season. Some key additions with the likes of Zahn on defence and Stefishen up front, position this team to do some damage again this season. A rough start to the season has thrown a wrench into things for the Dinos, but don't write this team off, they're simply too good to under perform for much longer. In the long run this team will be just fine, although the have put themselves behind the eight ball which means their work will be cut out for them. Something tells me a matchup against Alberta next weekend will be just what the doctor ordered though.
- Projected conference finish: 2nd place
LETHBRIDGE PRONGHORNS (0-1-0)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 13-10-5 (5th)
- Playoffs: Didn't qualify
- Power play: 12.3% (7th in CW)
- Penalty kill: 80.9% (6th in CW)
- Last Season: Leave it to Lethbridge to come on in the second half and make things interesting. After an abysmal start to the season that saw the 'Horns go 2-4-2 during their first eight weekends without starting goalie Scott Bowles in the lineup, Lethbridge played much better with Bowles in the lineup finishing the season only one point back of Manitoba for the fourth and final playoff spot.
- Key departures: F Aaron Richards, F Torrie Wheat
- Key arrivals: F Andrew Courtney, D Andrew Marshall
- Coach: Greg Gatto
- Key Player: Lethbridge will live and die based on the play of Scott Bowles in goal. The fifth-year netminder has been the key to the 'Horns success over the years. He's one of the busiest goalies in the leagues, facing well over 30 shots per game last season. Again this season he will face a lot of rubber behind a defence core that has some holes.
- 2011-12 Outlook: Lethbridge isn't only looking for their first wins of the regular season this weekend when they host UBC, they're also in search of their first win of any kind this fall. The Pronghorns didn't win a game during the preseason, taking their slow starter status to a new level. This team will get better, and be far more competitive than they have been — that's been the defining trait of this time over the last several seasons. With six teams making it to the playoffs, they'll certainly be a playoff team, but it won't be inside the top four.
- Projected conference finish: 5th place
MANITOBA BISONS (2-0-0)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 13-9-6 (4th)
- Playoffs: Swept by Alberta in CW semis
- Power play: 14.2% (4th in CW)
- Penalty kill: 89.4% (1st in CW)
- Last Season: The Bisons just barely made the playoffs last season, finishing in fourth over Lethbridge by the narrowest of margins. Veteran goalie Steve Christie led the way in goal making 26 appearances, but was unable to rekindle his playoff magic from a season earlier, as Manitoba fell to Alberta in two games in the Canada West semis. Specialty teams were a strength, with a very good penalty kill and a decent power play comparatively speaking. Blair Macaulay led the way offensively with 33 points, and will be back again this season to lead the Herd.
- Key departures: F Kyle Howarth, F Greg Beller, G Steve Christie
- Key arrivals: F Matt Lowry, D Tyler Schmidt, G Mark Friesen
- Coach: Mike Sirant
- Key Player: Blair Macaulay is back for another season with Manitoba. On a team that had the worst goal differential of the four playoff teams, scoring a few more goals this season — especially on the PP — will be a big part of their success, meaning Macaulay will once again be looked to for offensive production. The Bisons will be hoping he can boost his PP stats from a season ago, improving on his four PP markers.
- 2011-12 Outlook: This is going to be an interesting season in Winnipeg, with a team that many are picking to be the darkhorse out west. While Manitoba has the capabilities to be a top two team, it seems a little too early to crown a team that barely made the playoffs as better than Saskatchewan, Calgary and Alberta who all are going to be just as a good as last year. It wouldn't surprise me if the Bisons finished anywhere from 4th to 1st, in what will be a tight race atop the standings.
- Projected conference finish: 4th place
REGINA COUGARS (0-2-0)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 8-18-2 (7th)
- Playoffs: Didn't qualify
- Power play: 13.3% (5th in CW)
- Penalty kill: 81.5% (5th in CW)
- Last Season: Goals were more than hard to come by last season for Regina. The Cougars netted a Canada West low 54 goals, the lowest per game total in the west since the 1972-73 Victoria Vikes — who went 0-24-0 that season. The 54 goals the Cougars scored were the lowest in school history, meaning every night was a battle to put the puck in the back of the net. Dillon Johnstone was Regina's leading scorer with 17 points — good for 31st in the conference.
- Key departures: F Dillon Johnstone, D Cody Thoring, G Adam Ward
- Key arrivals: D Mark Schneider, G Lucas Gore
- Coach: Blaine Sautner
- Key Player: Matt Strueby, who joined Regina last season after a successful junior career, will be looked to for some more offence this season. Strueby was a 30 goal scorer in the WHL, and had a disappointing campaign a year ago when he finished with only nine points. That total will have to improve if Regina has any hope of a playoff spot given the lack of scoring added via recruiting in the offseason.
- 2011-12 Outlook: They're going to get solid goaltending from returnee A.J. Whiffen and rookie Lucas Gore, the defence will be frustrating to play against yet penetrable, and the offence will be nearly non-existent. It could be a long season in the Queen City given the lack of scoring, but if the Cougars can find some players who provide some semi-regular offence this team could pull out a surprising win, or two. Regardless, there aren't enough goals in this team's future, meaning the postseason will have to wait.
- Projected conference finish: 7th place
SASKATCHEWAN HUSKIES (1-0-0)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 17-11-0 (3rd)
- Playoffs: Lost to Calgary in the CW semis
- Power play: 17.4% (3rd in CW)
- Penalty kill: 84.6% (4th in CW)
- Last Season: Saskatchewan had high hopes heading into last season with some very good recruits, solid returning players, and some key mid-sesaon additions. When the dust had settled, it was a disappointing season in Saskatoon. There were some very good performances along the way from the likes of Kyle Bortis, but in the end the Huskies couldn't skate past a Calgary team in the playoffs that was just better, and more hungry.
- Key departures: F Steven DaSilva, F Steven Gillen, D Zach Sim
- Key arrivals: D Chad Suer, D Zak Stebner, D Kyle Aschim
- Coach: Dave Adolph
- Key Player: After joining the Huskies at the midway point last season, former Saskatoon Blade standout Derek Hulak had an injury plagued introduction to Canada West. Hulak struggled through various injury problems finishing with six points in 11 games. He's now healthy, and ready to perform at a high level from the start of the season. Expect him to have a great year, and put up big offensive numbers.
- 2011-12 Outlook: Saskatchewan will be better this season thanks to Hulak, returnees Bosch, Andrew Bailey and Kyle Ross among others. Goaltender David Reekie has emerged as a solid option in goal, and without the emotional drain of watching Steven DaSilva and his lack of drive, the Huskies will be an improved bunch. Perhaps some lowered expectations are just what this team needed, but in the end they'll be right where they always are, near the top of the standings and a threat in the playoffs.
- Projected conference finish: 3rd place
UBC THUNDERBIRDS (1-0-1)
- 2010-11 Regular season record: 11-12-4 (6th)
- Playoffs: Didn't qualify
- Power play: 12.7% (6th in CW)
- Penalty kill: 80.6% (7th in CW)
- Last Season: UBC made strides last season, improving 10 points in the standings from the year prior. The T-Birds were in the thick of the playoff hunt until the final few games of the regular season, meaning last year should be considered a step in the right direction. Rookie defenceman Ben Schmidt was a pleasant surprise finishing second in Canada West d-man scoring with 17 points. All told, UBC in many ways did better than expected, making some positive steps forward.
- Key departures: F Matt Schneider, D Craig Lineker
- Key arrivals: F Mike Wilgosh, G Steve Stanford
- Coach: Milan Dragicevic
- Key Player: Justin McCrae led the Thunderbirds in scoring last season with 23 points, including 10 goals. He will once again need to perform offensively for a team that had the second fewest goals in the conference last season. His point total jumped by 10 from his rookie campaign, so we'll see if he can keep that progression going as a third-year.
- 2011-12 Outlook: UBC had a good showing this past weekend at home against Calgary, but it's too early to set this team up as a top four contender. They'll battle with Lethbridge for fifth in the conference, but they're still too offensively challenged to beat the big boys in track meets. This team will certainly be competitive, and give them credit, they don't seem to checkout early even in games they seem to be out of. This season should be looked to as another year to get better for UBC, and if the T-Birds can make the playoffs, a first round win wouldn't be shocking in what will be a tight conference.
- Projected conference finish: 6th place.