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

Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. My last project was a review of the prospects of all thirty NHL teams. If you missed those you can find a complete listing of my them here. You can also find my extensive NHL Draft preview here.

This past weekend, hockey started across the CHL, and now that the new hockey season is upon us I will be given my thoughts on this coming season. I’ll be breaking it down league by league, and conference by conference. I’ve already gone through the OHL, and the QMJHL; and started yesterday in the WHL East Division; so today I move on to the WHL Central Division, home of the 2011-12 WHL Champion, Edmonton Oil Kings.

Top Contenders

Edmonton Oil Kings: It should come as no surprise that the Oil Kings are favorites to once again win not only this division, but also challenge for the WHL title.  With the exception of Mark Pysyk, the Oil Kings return most of the core of the team that had such a remarkable run down the stretch and through the WHL playoffs last season.  Championship team’s always start in goal, and with the returning Laurent Brossoit, the Oil Kings might have the best goalie in the league.  Don’t be fooled by Brossoit’s struggles in last year’s Memorial Cup, as he is an excellent goalie who led the club down the stretch and through the WHL playoffs.  I think that tournament was an aberration, and his struggles were amplified by a small sample size. I expect he bounces back.  On defence the club will be led by the 4th overall pick from this June’s NHL Entry Draft, Griffin Reinhart.  He will be joined in the top four by returning offensive wizard Martin Gernat, and by veterans Keegan Lowe, and Cody Corbett.  Upfront the team will score a ton of goals, and have a powerful attack.  The Oli Kings should again be led by Michael St. Croix, but he has a ton of offensive support in Dylan Wruck, T.J. Foster, Travis Ewanyk, Henrik Samuelsson, Mitch Moroz, and a 2013 NHL Draft top prospect in Curtis Lazar.  This team is stacked at every position, and is among the best squads in not just the WHL, but I think that right now they are the best team in the entire CHL.  They have some injury issues (especially on Defence) right now.  But this team will get healthy, and when they do, they will dominate.

Calgary Hitmen:  Could it be, the famous Edmonton-Calgary rivalry spilling over to the WHL?  Not really, the Oil Kings will dominate this division, but the Hitmen are a good bet to finish second.  In goal, the Senators took Chris Driedger in the third round last spring and after platooning last season, he’s ready to take on the starting role this year.  On the blueline the Hitmen return 5 regulars from last season’s squad and the depth and experience should certainly help the club.  Up front the club has Cody Sylvester, Brady Brassart, and Brooks Macek who provide plenty of experience, while many are intrigued to see how Jake Virtanen improves this season after scoring 3 goals and 4 points in his brief 9 game debut with the club last year.  The big wild card though is Victor Rask.  The talented centre is currently in Charlotte, trying out for the Checkers, the AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes.  If he makes it in the AHL, the Hitmen are weakened and the race for second in the division is wide open.  However, if returned to Calgary, he will lead the team’s offence and be a dynamic threat for the club; giving them the offence they need to nail down the number two spot.

Players to Watch:

Michael St. Croix, Centre, Edmonton Oil Kings: A talented forward who finished 8th in WHL scoring last season with 105 points in 72 games. The Oil Kings centre also tied for the team lead in playoff scoring as he led the club to their first ever WHL Championship and a birth in the Memorial Cup.  St. Croix has very good top end speed and acceleration. He has great agility and edgework, and his shifty and elusive moves make him a nightmare for defenders one on one. Blessed with great vision, and the ability to feather a pass through the tiniest of openings, St. Croix is a natural playmaker. He also has a tremendous wrist shot and a great release, and it was his willingness to be a little more selfish and use that wrist shot a little more instead of always looking to pass that led to his breakout season this year.  Expect much of the same this season as St. Croix should lead the Oil Kings offence.  If he stays  healthy he should again put up over 100 points and challenge for the WHL scoring title.

Griffin Reinhart, Defence, Edmonton Oil Kings:  Reinhart comes from good bloodlines as he is the son of former Calgary Flame Paul Reinhart.  At 6’4 and over 200 lbs, he is a physically intimidating presence in the defensive zone. Reinhart is a true shut down defenceman, with excellent positioning in the his own zone, and his big frame and long stick allow him to block shots and cut down passing lanes.  He also uses his great size and strength to keep the Oil Kings’ crease clear, and is effective in doing so.  He also has offensive skill, with a  booming slapshot and excellent wrist shot which he unleashes from the point.  Reinhart makes quality passes both as part of his team’s breakout, and in the offensive zone.  His excellent offensive instincts and hockey sense, allow Reinhart to quickly exploit gaps in the opponent’s defensive coverage and he often chooses the right moments to pinch in.  Expect Reinhart to become the leader on the Oil Kings defence this season as the club seeks back to back WHL titles, and feel they have unfinished business in the Memorial Cup.

Matthew Dumba, Defence, Red Deer Rebels: A very talented, but very raw defenceman who was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in last year’s draft.  Offensively talented, Dumba has great skating, a tremendous slapshot, smart offensive instincts, makes great passes, and is clearly not afraid to join the rush or take offensive chances. With 20 goals and 57 points last season, Dumba has shown that he can use these skills and translate them into being a huge  offensive weapon in the WHL.  Dumba is also known as a big hitter.  He loves to see a forward coming down his side of the ice with his head down, and will not hesitate to throw a hard, heavy hit, if he gets the opportunity.  He’s usually able to do so with great timing and deliver his big shots legally.  Dumba will look to work on being less of a “riverboat gambler” this season and choose his spots to go for the big hit or offensive chance.  He should lead the Red Deer Rebels; and is the key to their season.

Ty Rimmer, Goalie, Lethbridge Hurricanes: The Hurricanes acquired Rimmer in the offseason from the Tri-City Americans.  Rimmer was excellent for Tri-City last season and put up some of the best numbers in the WHL.  However, this year’s Lethbridge squad is not near as strong as last year’s Tri-City club so we should not be surprised if his numbers are not as good this season.  However he will be relied upon to keep a young Lethbridge club in games, and even to steal games if the Hurricanes want to stay in the playoff chase.  Don’t be surprised if the talented netminder is traded again at the WHL trade deadline, as he will be a prime candidate if any of the contenders is having goalie issues (either by way of injury or unexpected poor play by the teams starter).  A move could certainly accelerate the Lethbridge rebuild.

Top 2013 NHL Draft Picks To Watch:

Hunter Shinkaruk, Left Wing, Medicine Hat Tigers:  The talented winger has an outstanding shot and release leading to him scoring 49 goals last season.  He is a shifty player who is always moving his feet and looking for open space to receive a pass and let his shot go.   When carrying the puck, he protects it well and uses good vision and crisp passing skills to set up teammates with scoring opportunities. There is some question on how Shinkaruk will succeed as the go to guy in the Tigers offence this season, after the graduation of Emerson Etem.  However, I expect that he will not miss a beat this year and will put himself in contention to be a top 5 pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft.

Curtis Lazar, Centre/Wing, Edmonton Oil Kings: Lazar was a huge part of the Oil Kings winning the WHL title and advancing to the Memorial Cup last season.  Given time on a line with Henrik Samuelsson, Lazar scored 19 points in 20 playoff games.  Lazar has great quickness and outstanding acceleration.  He is able to use his quick and powerful stride to go wide on defence, and if he manages to get a step on them he puts it into another gear and drives the net hard.  His powerful skating and excellent balance make him difficult to handle down low and he cycles the puck very well.  He plays a rugged game and is willing to hit on the forecheck or battle along the boards.  Lazar also possesses an excellent shot and pro-level release which he used to score 8 goals in the WHL playoffs.  He will challenge Shinkaruk all year long as the top prospect in the division.

2014 Draft Pick to Watch:

Sam Reinhart, Centre, Kootenay Ice: It will be a long season in Kootenay, but Ice fans can look forward to watching Sam Reinhart each and every night.  Another son of Paul Reinhart, Sam will surely join brothers Max and Griffin as an NHL draftee in 2014. Its a little early to say exactly how high he will go, but right now he is considered amongst the very top prospects for 2014.  Sam Reinhart is blessed with size and outstanding skill.  As a 16 year old last season he had 28 goals and 62 points in 67 games.  Reinhart has great hockey sense and outstanding vision.  He slows the play down with the puck on his stick, buying time for teammates to get an opportunity.  However Reinhart’s biggest strength is as a goalscorer.  He has outstanding hands and puck control, as he is quite literally able to stick handle in a phone booth.  Reinhart has a hard and accurate wrist shot, and a lightning quick release.  There is a long way to go, but Reinhart could be the type of type of franchise centre who gets drafted 1st overall.

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