Top Shelf Prospects: 2012-13 WHL Preview, US Division

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Updated: September 30, 2012

Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. Previously I reviewed the prospects of all thirty NHL teams, and we are now reaching the end of our CHL previews. If you missed any of my previous articles you can find a complete listing of my them here. You can also find my extensive 2012 NHL Draft preview here.

We are one week into the new hockey season in the CHL, and I have been giving my thought on this season on a division by division basis.  We only have two articles left, on the two WHL Western Conference divisions, so today I move on to the WHL U.S. Division, home to the 2nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and top one to the most highly touted prospects for the 2013 Draft.

Top Contenders

Portland Winterhawks: The Winterhawks made it to the WHL final last year, however its been an offseason of change for the club.  Gone are Sven Bartschi, Joe Morrow, Brad Ross, and Mac Carruth.  This was a major blow to the Winterhawks, but instead of rebuilding the team reloaded instead.  The Winterhawks big move was a late season trade last year that brought them the rights to defenceman Seth Jones.  They then convinced the USNTDP sensation to skip out on college and play his draft year in the WHL.  They have also added highly touted Danish import Oliver Bjorkstrand to pick up some slack up front.  Add those two young players to a lineup that sees stars Derrick Pouliot, and Ty Rattie return.  And a good group of veterans with Tyler Wotherspoon, Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier, and Troy Rutkowski, and the Winterhawks are still the favorites in the U.S. Divison.  The only question is in goal where 17 year old Brendan Burke is expected to be the starter.

Spokane Chiefs: This pick is based on the assumption that Brendan Kichton will be returning for his overage year.  The New York Islanders draft pick has a chance to play for the club’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, but I think we’ll see him spend one more year in Spokane.  He’s dynamic offensively and has scored a total of 154 points in the last two seasons.  Last season Kichton was named the Western Conference’s best defenceman.  If Kichton is there, the Chiefs have a formidable veteran group of defenders on the blueline with Davis Vandane, Tanner Mort, and Reid Gow. Up front the Chiefs are lacking an elite go-to forward, but Mitch Holmberg, Marek Kalus, Blake Gal, Dylan Walchuk, and Liam Stewart should give the team a very balanced group.  In goal, the Chiefs have Eric Williams and Mac Engel as two veteran returnees who split duties last season.  However 17 year old Garret Hughson is looking for a spot (and seen as next in line for the starter job when the vets leave).  As such don’t be surprised to see one of the goalies moved to give room for Hughson to be the backup.

Players to Watch:

Ryan Murray, Defence, Everett Silvertips:  The Silvertips are lucky to have Murray around this season.  He is NHL ready, and if it wasn’t for the lockout, he’d probably be playing for Columbus this year.  If the lockout ends, expect to see him up in the NHL, but in the meantime he’ll be a great help for Everett. Murray is a superb skating two-way defenceman with a ton of positives to his game.  He’s a really smart defender and is a great top pairing shutdown player in thw WHL.  He clears the zone quickly with a smart first pass, and his excellent skating. He has the ability, size, physicality, and willingness to handle big physical forwards and play against strong forwards. Murray also has extremely good hockey sense and seems to always make smart decisions with the puck.  Murray hasn’t put up the offensive numbers that some of the other top prospect defencemen in the WHL have managed, but the reality is that has less to do with Murray and more to do with the lack of scoring forwards that Everett has iced the last two seasons.  The team is a little bit better this year so we can expect Murray’s numbers to improve somewhat.  Still I think it will be a bit surprising if Murray finishes the year in Everett.  The team isn’t a contender, and even if the NHL doesn’t come calling for him, I think he may become trade bait come the deadline.

Derrick Pouliot, Defence, Portland Winterhawks: Pouliot is a dynamic offensive defencemen.  The 8th overall pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2012 NHL Draft, Pouliot is a smooth skater who is also very skilled with the puck.  He loves to rush the puck and can create scoring chances by doing so.  Pouliot’s shot doesn’t have the power of some of the other top offensive defencemen, but he has a good release and his wrist shots are very accurate. He’s able to keep his slap shot low and get it on net, which is essential for any power play quarterback.  He does need some work at the defensive end of the ice as he needs to add muscle to his frame in order to be able to handle the bigger stronger forwards at the next level.

Ty Rattie, Wing, Portland Winterhawks: Ty Rattie’s offensive production exploded last season as his 57 goals were the 2nd most in the WHL, and his 121 points had him finish third. He continued to be a productive player in the WHL playoffs, helping the Portland Winterhawks to the WHL final. This skill set was noticed by the brass at Hockey Canada who had Rattie on the top line at the recent Canada/Russia challenge. He would impress in the four game tournament, and it looks like he will have a good chance to be a key player for Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships.  Rattie is a talented offensive player, and pure sniper off the wing.  He has very good hockey sense and a knack for finding open ice in the offensive zone.  He seems to elude defenders and find free patches of ice from which he can unleash a deadly accurate wrist shot.  His release is deceptively quick and eludes goaltenders and he has a great one timer.  Rattie is also not afraid to go to the front of the net despite his size and works to score rebounds tip ins and deflections.  More than just a one trick pony though, Rattie is also talented playmaker and good in his own zone.  He’ll be the key cog for the Winterhawks and might challenge for the WHL scoring title and MVP.

Brendan Kichton, Defence, Spokane Chiefs: Kichton is an absolute star in Spokane.  He was the only defencemen in the entire league to lead his team in points last year, as Kichton put up 74.  This was down from 2010-11 when he put up 80 points.  He’s a dynamic offensive forcer on the blueline with his outstanding vision, and great passing ability. He controls the puck well, eluding defenders with his strong skating and good stickhandling, and his ability to extend offensive plays creates opportunities for team mate.  Kichton also has very good shot.  His wrister is quick and accurate, and he also has a very good slapshot and one timer.  Many will look at the stats and think that Kichton is a defensive liability.  He isn’t, in fact he’s also very good in his own zone.  He may not be the most physical defender but he has good positioning, hockey sense and anticipation which alllows him to create turnovers and start the transition game for the Chiefs.  In particular Kichton is very good at stick checking, and poke checking opponents.  Kichton is great in the WHL, but may need to improve his strength before graduating to the pro game in order to handle bigger and stronger forwards.

Top 2013 NHL Draft Prospects:

Seth Jones, Defence, Portland Winterhawks: Jones is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. He is an outstanding skater who glides all over the ice. This skating ability allows him to join the rush or to play shut down defence. Already 6’4″ at the age of 17, and with his pedigree, he may end up an absolute monster on the back end. Offensively talented he is cool and calm with the puck on his stick and makes smart passes leading to a strong breakout. His passing and huge shot also make him a natural in the offensive zone and on the PP. Jones will be highly sought after, and we may have ourselves a very close race between him and Nathan MacKinnon to be the #1 pick in the NHL draft. Jones is a good defender due to his strong skating and good positional play, but he could really take another step forward if he developed a mean streak.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Right Wing, Portland Winterhawks:  A highly touted Danish import, Bjorkstrand was Portland’s first round selection in the CHL import draft, and he takes one of the import slots vacated by Sven Bartschi moving up to the AHL level. He came in and had a great preseason for the Winterhawks leading the team in scoring, and has already put up 3 goals and 5 points in his first 4 regular season games. Bjorkstrand may be undersized, but he is a quick skater, and a shifty playmaker who has great skill with the puck on his stick. He is very elusive in the offensive zone and when he gets the opportunity he can unleash a heavy wrister. Expect to see Bjorkstrand rise up draft boards if he continues to put up points at this pace all season.

Eric Comrie, Goalie, Tri-City Americans: Comrie faced trial by fire as a 16 year old, starting 31 games for the Tri-City Americans last year.  Tri-City had such faith in Comrie that they traded away veteran starter Ty Rimmer, in order to give him the goal.  Things have started out well for Comrie this season as he was part of Team Canada’s Gold Medal winning squad at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament splitting time with Zachary Fucale in the net.  Comrie plays an agressive style and comes out far to cut down angles and take away net from shooters.  He has very good lateral movement and his quick legs do a great job of taking away the bottom of the net.  Comrie is the son of “The Brick” founder Bill Comrie, and the brother of former NHLer Mike Comrie.

Shea Theodore, Defence, Seattle Thunderbirds: Theodore scored 35 points last season as a 16 year old for Seattle.  In August, he joined Comrie on Team Canada’s Ivan Hlinka roster and also brought home a gold medal.  He is an excellent skater who loves to rush the puck and has great puck protection and stickhandling ability.  He also has great vision and passing abilities and is a natural power play quarterback, and will play that key role for Seattle this season.  At 6’2″ and 180 lbs, Theodore has plenty of size, but he needs to learn how to use it in his own end of the rink.  He needs to be more assertive in winning board battles and clearing the front of the Seattle net.  Theodore could be a first rounder if he can work on his defensive game this season.  Bulking up and adding some more muscle to his frame would also help.  The offense, size and skating ability are certainly all there, and we know that NHL teams just love defencemen who can move the puck the way Theodore can.

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