Prince George Cougars 25th anniversary logo | Prince George Cougars/Handout photo

There are no expectations of a pennant but there are expectations of significant improvement for the Prince George Cougars.

After six months away from a real game, the Cougars along with 15 other WHL teams open the curtain tonight on the 2018-19 regular season.

The Cats first seven games in their celebrated 25th anniversary season are against teams in the BC Division.

They play the Royals tonight and Saturday in Victoria, visit the Kelowna Rockets on Wednesday, entertain the Rockets on September 28th (home opener) and 29th and welcome the Vancouver Giants to the CN Centre on October 5th and 6th.

The Cougars won’t face Kamloops, the other BC Division team, until November 17th when they host the Blazers in the first of their nine meetings.

The general consensus among insiders seems to be that the Rockets and Royals will see their winning percentage decrease while the Giants, Blazers, and Cougars head upwards.

In 2017-18 over 72 games, Kelowna finished first with 93 points followed by Victoria with 84, Vancouver with 81, Kamloops with 65, and Prince George with 58 (24-38-5-5).

The Rockets, who were swept in the opening round of the playoffs, have lost their top-four scorers.

The Royals are in a bit of transition after carrying a roster of ten 19-year-olds.

They will rely heavily on 20-year-old goalie and former Cariboo Cougar Griffen Outhouse.

The Cougars, under new and well-respected GM Mark Lamb, start the season with a roster of 25, including 17 returning players.

Josh Maser had a breakout season as an 18-year-old (28 goals and 49 points in 71 games) after notching just four points (three goals) in 23 games in limited ice time as a 17-year-old.

The Cougars have a number of players that are capable of sky rocketing their totals with increased ice time and responsibility including Jackson Leppard, Max Kryski, Ethan Browne, Ilijah Colina, and import Vladislav Mikhalchuk.

Their other European is Matej Toman (17), who played for his home country of the Czech Republic at this summer’s Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.

None of their returnees was close to a point per game last season but the added experience and a more balanced division could set the tone for much bigger offensive numbers.

Last season’s overage forwards Jared Bethune (team high 69 points), Brogan O’Brien (41 points), and Aaron Boyd (38 points) left the WHL with 53 goals among them, or nearly 25% of the team’s goal production.

The Cougars don’t have a big name all-star on defence but they have much more experience than a year ago led by a 20-year-old (Joel Lakusta), three 19-year-olds (Ryan Schottler, Austin Crossley and Cam MacPhee), a pair of 18-year-old vets (Cole Moberg and Jack Sander), and a 17-year-old returnee (Rhett Rhinehart).

Lakusta is one of three 20-year-olds along with dependable 5-foot-11 forward Josh Curtis and mammoth forward Mike MacLean.

The six-foot-seven, 234 pound MacLean arrived in Prince George after he was a victim of the numbers game in Seattle.

On the other end, the opening day roster includes a pair of 16 year-olds; defenceman Tyson Phare, a converted forward and centre Mitch Kohner.

They also have seven 17-year-olds, seven 18 year olds, and six 19-year-olds making them one of the league’s youngest teams.

Taylor Gauthier, who often makes highlight reel saves, appears ready to take on the lion’s share in goal with Isaiah DiLaura the backup.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gauthier, an under-18 gold medalist at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in Edmonton, play in 50 of the team’s 68 games.

That is right, each team plays four less games, which could mean more competitive races down the stretch.

The Cougars have just five players left (Leppard, Lakusta, Schoettler, Curtis and Maser) who played on the 2016-17 first place team in Prince George.

The Cats were hopeful of a playoff spot in 2017-18 but knew they tossed out their chance when they sold at the January deadline (moving Dennis Cholowski, Josh Anderson and Kody McDonald).

The Vancouver Giants, on paper, appear to be the top team in the division.

Although the Royals may falter a bit, they are the next best bet to finish second.

The US Division appears strong again with at least three projected solid teams; Spokane, ranked sixth in the CHL pre-season poll this week, Portland at number-seven (#7) in that same poll, and defending Western Conference-champion Everett.

It’s a big assumption, but if Vancouver, Victoria, Spokane, Portland and Everett take five of the eight Conference playoff berths, this leaves the other five, Kelowna, Kamloops, Prince George, Tri-City and Seattle battling for the other three spots.

Today all 22 WHL teams are full of optimism tied for first at 0-0.

Each season produces many surprises as rosters change, key injuries occur and some players come out of near obscurity to provide an impact.

The Cougars welcome and embrace an underdog role.

The fun, the journey, the highs and lows are about to begin.

All that’s left … is to drop the puck!


 

FROM THE QUOTE RACK:

Buffalo Bills CB Vontae Davis retired at halftime during Sunday’s loss to the LA Chargers, saying “I shouldn’t be out there anymore.” Uh, with all due respect, that could be said about the Bills.

*Comedy writer Janice Hough of Palo Alto, California www.leftcoastsportsbabe.com

 

Bills cornerback Vontae Davis says his halftime retirement was “therapeutic.” In other words, it felt good finally being put out of his misery.

*Comedy writer Jim Barach http://jokesbyjim.blogspot.ca/

 

Expectations that Cleveland Browns fans had for Johnny Manziel were met on Thursday night. Unfortunately for Johnny, they were met by Baker Mayfield.

*Contributor Bill Littlejohn of South Lake Tahoe, California

 

King’s Walk Golf Course in Grand Forks, N.D., is using drones to deliver food and drinks that players order via app. Chips, links and mulligan stew, we assume, are popular menu items.

*Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times http://www.seattletimes.com/author/dwight-perry/ 

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Ex-race-car driver Danica Patrick is dating Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After years with NASCAR, this is the closest she has been to the leader of the Pack.

*Comedy writer RJ Currie www.Sportsdeke.com

 

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Hartley Miller is the sports director and morning news anchor for 94.3 the GOAT.
He also is the 94.3 radio colour commentator for P.G. Cougars home games.
His column appears Fridays on myprincegeorgenow.com.
Send along a quote, note, or anecdote to hmiller@thegoatrocks.ca.
Follow him on Twitter: @Hartley_Miller