The University of Calgary Dinos enter Canada West play this year looking to carry last years' second half surge forward into this campaign.
Complicating matters for the team is the loss of former NHLer and short-lived Canadian Interuniversity Sport superstar Jared Aulin and former all-star captain Ryan Annesley.
Together Aulin and Annesley combined for 25 goals and a whopping 72 points, pacing the team to a 16-8-4 record-- good for third in Canada West competition.
For the Dinos to succeed this season they will need new players to step up and fill the offensive void created by the departures of Aulin and Annesley, a problem head coach Scott Atkinson shouldn't have too much trouble solving.
Newcomers Brock Nixon-- most recently seen wearing Calgary Hitmen threads during the team's march to the Eastern Conference final in the WHL last season-- and hulking forward Andrew McBride should help to solidify a creative offensive attack led by Torrie Wheat, Brett O'Malley and newly-minted captain Aaron Richards.
On the back end, new recruits Ryan Gillen, Jerrid Sauer and Trevor Koverko should bolster a versatile puck-moving defence, which will be needed for the forwards to do their jobs.
In net, Jeff Weber enters the season as the incumbent after backstopping the Dinos down the stretch last year.
He will be pushed by newly-acquired WHL grad Dustin Butler. With the offensive firepower the Dinos possess Weber and Butler won't need to stand on their heads for this team to be a threat to win their first title in over a decade.
The University of Saskatchewan Huskies
Like many teams in Canada West, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies lost their fair share of key players during the off-season. The challenge for the Huskies will be to remain among the class of the conference while attempting to reload for another run at the University Cup.
The Huskies started last season off with a six-game winning streak and eventually capped the year with a mark of 17-5-6, good for second in the West. After beating an injury depleted U of C team in the Canada West conference semifinals, Saskatchewan fell to the University of Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West final and again at Nationals, where they finished fourth.
The current edition of the Huskies will feature several new faces, most notably Steve DaSilva of the WHL's Kootenay Ice and Chris Durand, another WHL alum. Both should provide considerable offensive spark and keep the Huskies near the top of all offensive categories during the 2008-09 season.
Perhaps the biggest question this season for the Huskies will be leadership. Gone is three year captain Brent Twordik, who head coach Dave Adolph labeled as the best captain he has ever seen in his coaching career. Stepping in to fill the void will be Trent Adamus, who was named the successor to Twordik's 'C' on Sept. 25. The Huskies should compete with the Golden Bears and Dinos for top spot in Canada West this season.
The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds
The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds enter the season as a wild card in Canada West play.
Finishing last year's campaign at 12-16, head coach Milan Dragicevic's squad will need to improve its offensive productions if it wants to compete with perennial contenders the University of Alebrta Golden Bears and the University of Sasktchewan Huskies. The team has overhauled much of its roster and could potentially ice as many as 14 new faces over the course of the season.
The T-Birds lost long time captain and defensive stalwart Brad Zanon to graduation, while up front Curtis Billsten, Marc Deloges and Lance Morrison have left the team as well. Replacing them will not be an easy task for Dragicevic, but the T-Birds should remain competitive thanks to strong, experienced goaltending and a defensive core that has the potential to be the best in the Canada West division.
In net, WHL grad Gerry Festa will return for his fourth year with the team, while Francois Thuot and rookie Joe Rodwell should also compete for time.
With a defence that boasts two players who attended NHL training camps this year, the back end appears to be a source of strength for the Thunderbirds, and will be relied on heavily.
Replacing all-star d-man Zanon will be all-rookie Craig Lineker, who will be complimented with NHL camp invitees John Flatters and Mike Wilson.
Look for the Thunderbirds to be competitive this season, although only time will tell if the netminding of Festa and the nucleus of new defencemen will be enough to take them to the promised land that is the Varsity Cup.
The University of Alberta Golden Bears
The University of Alberta Golden Bears will look to repeat as Canadian Interuniversity Sport national champions this year, but will have to rely heavily on fourth-year goalie Aaron Sorochan as three top scorers have left the team including captain Harlan Anderson.
Anderson won the Canada West MVP title and garnered Canada West defencemen of the year honours last season.
The Bears hope that former Tri-City American Ian McDonald will help put points on the board again this year as he comes off a six-points-in-four-games MVP performance in last year's CIS national tournament.
2006 New York Ranger draft choice Eric Hunter and monster six-foot-three Jesse Gimblett will man the wings with McDonald at centre.
Head coach Eric Thurston won't be able to rely on his offence like he did last year, so the defence will have to step up.
Sophomore blue-liner Jason Fransoo is at the head of the defence after coming banking 14 points in 24 games last year. Defencemen Kyle Fecho and Derek Price will also be used heavily in power-play situations.
The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns
The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns hockey program has seen erratic jumps in performance the last few years and this season's edition looks to be no different. Following a surprising 2006-07 campaign, which saw the 'Horns make the playoffs for the first time in several seasons, the team regressed and finished the year 9-18-1 and out of the playoffs under fourth-year head coach Greg Gatto.
The Pronghorns will rely heavily on returning netminder Scott Bowles, who posted a solid .905 save percentage while starting 23 of 28 games. Bowles strong rebound control and above average positioning will help alleviate pressure on a young defence that was shaky and struggled to move the puck up ice at times. The addition of former NHL draft pick Ryan Pottruff halfway through last season made an immediate impact on the team and should lead to even greater dividends this year.
Up front, the attack will be again spearheaded by Steve Zmudczynski, who led the team with 14 goals during the 2007-08 campaign. Zmudczynski will be joined by new recruit Judd Blackwater-- fresh off a WHL season where he scored 31 goals and capped the year with a Memorial Cup win with the Spokane Chiefs-- and returning forwards Jason Roberts and Mark Shefchyk. Bringing leadership and excellent two-way play to the team will be Austin Davenport, a second-year forward and a former captain of the AJHL Calgary Royals. If Pottruff able to steady the defence and the forwards find the back of the net like last season-- where they ranked second in offence in the conference-- the 'Horns have an outside chance to return to post season play.
The University of Manitoba Bisons
Losing to the University of Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West conference semi-final last year, the University of Manitoba Bisons will try and build on their 13-13-2 season, but will do so without four major assets to the team.
Defencemen and captain Rob Smith, along with forward Chris Falloon, have signed with a division two team in Germany. Goaltender Krister Toews will attend the Manitoba Moose's training camp in the AHL and Nick Cowan will join the Tulsa Oilers in the CHL.
Filling the void left by the departure of the four players, third-year head coach Don MacGillivary has recruited Lethbrdige Hurricane forward Nick Huston, who helped his team win the WHL's Western Championship last year.
Pierre-Paul Lamoureux and Terrance Delaronde also join the Bisons as WHL recruits.
Steve Christie will man the net again this year after being named an all-star and leading the Bisons to the Varsity Cup in a tournament last year.
The University of Regina Cougars
Having two goalies who are capable of filling top position is a good problem for a team to have and the University of Regina Cougars find themselves in that quandary as Brant Hilton and Adam Ward return for another season.
The Cougars locker room will be a familiar sight for several returning players including five of their top scorers.
Kyle Ross, Caine Pearpint, Dan Bohemier, Neil Kodman and Dillon Johnston will be looked to for the majority of scoring this year.
Secondary scoring will come from captain Shayne Emmons and his linemates Dustin Bru and Ryan Sawka.
Although the Cougars have solidarity in returning players-- two thirds of them are in their first or second year of eligibility-- the team did take a hit on the defensive side losing blue-line powerhouses Brennan Chapman, Kyle Deck, Josh Fauth and Clay Thoring.
Head coach Blaine Saunter will return for a third season behind the bench.