Usually, a regular season is a marathon rather than a sprint, but with COVID protocols forcing the WHL to go with a shortened 24-game schedule this year, that notion got flipped on its head. And just to be safe, the league abstained from holding a playoff tournament, so technically no team won the ‘Dub’ crown. But the cream still rose to the top.
Winnipeg Ice center and captain Peyton Krebs tallied 43 points in 24 games, earning him the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as league MVP. He led all players in scoring and helped Winnipeg to a second-place finish (one point behind the Brandon Wheat Kings) in the Hub Centre division, composed of teams from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Due to the pandemic, the WHL sequestered into cohorts with no crossover. The other three groups were divisions in Alberta, British Columbia and the United States.
For Krebs, a 2019 first-round pick of Vegas, this was all old hat. He was already well acquainted with unusual playing conditions, having been in last year’s NHL playoff bubble with the Golden Knights and then the 2021 World Junior Championship bubble with Team Canada. “I had a lot of fun,” Krebs said. “Winnipeg did a great job, giving us all the resources we needed during the pandemic and during the bubble. Being my third bubble, I knew what to expect. It is a mental grind for sure, but once you get on the ice, it’s great.”
For many WHLers, the abbreviated season – which began in late February – was their first action since March 2020. Krebs, however, got to skate in Canada’s extended world-junior camp starting in November and then the tournament itself in late December and early January. The gritty and skilled center helped Canada earn a silver in Edmonton, notching eight points in seven games. That tied him for second on the team with Washington prospect Connor McMichael; Buffalo’s Dylan Cozens led the squad with 16 points.
From there, Krebs headed to Nevada to join the Henderson Silver Knights, Vegas’ AHL affiliate, for five games. Henderson is down the road from Las Vegas, but the team spent this season right off The Strip, in Paradise, Nev. Days removed from his 20th birthday, Krebs found success in the AHL, scoring five points in five games before returning to Winnipeg.
Interestingly, he found playing against men easier than gearing back down to junior. Krebs said the speed of the world juniors was comparable to the AHL’s pace, but going back to the ‘Dub’ initially presented a challenge. “Actually,
going down a level from the AHL to the WHL was the hardest for me,” he said. “It’s easier to speed up, and it’s harder to slow down, you have slower and younger guys in the WHL. So, it was easier for me to go up a level than down a level, which was an interesting takeaway for me. But once I got used to the WHL again, I was sailing.”
No kidding. Krebs had the same linemates in Winnipeg as he did last season, in Philadelphia Flyers prospect Connor McClennon and big left winger Owen Pederson – and they finished 1-2-3 in Ice scoring.
Krebs wasn’t the only marquee star who lived up to his billing. For the second straight season, Everett’s Dustin Wolf was named WHL goalie of the year, marking the fifth time in six seasons the Del Wilson Memorial Trophy has gone to a Silvertips netminder (Carter Hart won it three times). Wolf, a Calgary Flames prospect, went 18-3-0 with a .940 save percentage and 1.80 goals-against average for Everett, as the team won the U.S. Division.
And, of course, there was Connor Bedard, the phenom center with the Regina Pats. Bedard, the first player granted exceptional status to join the WHL a year early, ran wild, posting 28 points in 15 games before leaving for Canada’s world under-18 team (where he was named to the tournament’s all-star team and helped Canada win gold). Had Bedard not departed for international duty, he would have challenged Krebs for MVP honors.
Perhaps most impressive about Bedard’s offensive output is how much he created by himself. The Pats are still rebuilding, and many of the rookie’s goals came on sublime individual efforts where he weaved through – or blew past – opponents.
In terms of team success, nobody could touch the Edmonton Oil Kings. They breezed to a 20-2-1 record with two top 2021 draft prospects showing the way: goalie Sebastian Cossa led the league with a .941 save percentage, while Dylan Guenther averaged two points a game before leaving for Canada’s under-18 camp. St. Louis Blues first-rounder Jake Neighbours led the Oil Kings in total scoring, with 33 points in 19 games.
The WHL plans on returning to a normal schedule for 2021-22.
Note: This article originally appeared in The Hockey News’ Champions issue.