2013-14 WHL Preview: East Division

Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. We continue previewing the CHL for the 2013-14 season, going East to West across the country. After finishing the QMJHL earlier in the week, and the OHL yesterday, we move on to the WHL where we start with the East Division. As always you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

This year the cream of the WHL East Division would appear to be the Prince Albert Raiders.  On paper, they are the clear favorites, with the battle seemingly being for second place.  But thats the funny thing about hockey, the games aren’t won and lost on paper, so everyone is hoping that they can be the team to surprise.

There is certainly a lot of talent in the division, especially on defence.  We could a couple a former Top Ten NHL Draft selections sent back to their junior clubs, plus a few more who were taken in the teens.  To top it all off we might have a couple more top ten picks in the 2014 draft to keep our eye on.


Top Contenders

Prince Albert Raiders:  The Raiders come into the season clear favorites in the division.  With Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Josh Morrissey back on defence, they have a strong two-way leader on the blue line.  Add in Evan Morden and Dylan Busenius as strong veteran presences and they give Brendan Guhle, the third overall pick in the WHL draft, a good example to learn from.  Up front they feature potential top 10 NHL pick Leon Draisaitl and sniper Mike Winther, who is looking for a bounce-back year and could score 40 or more goals.  Dakota Conroy and Jayden Hart are proven veteran depth, and Reid Gardiner will be looking for a breakout year.  However, the Raiders biggest acquisition may be in goal where they acquired Cole Chevaldave from the Kamloops Blazers, and he’s been a top-notch WHL goalie for some time now.  The team is well-rounded and should be the class of the division.  The question for the Raiders may be how they compete against tougher teams in the Central for the conference crown, rather than the division deal.

Everyone Else (With one Exception): In most divisions I provided a top two (and sometimes three) teams to look out for.  However in this division, things are really wide open.  We can write off the Saskatoon Blades, as they should have a very tough season after going “all in” last year in chasing the Memorial Cup.  But past that, every team has strengths and weaknesses.  The Moose Jaw Warriors could have the best player in the division in Morgan Rielly should the Leafs do the expected and return the young blue liner.  But the team around him is very average, and they could also trade him to speed up their rebuild if things don’t go well.  The Brandon Wheat Kings feature a strong defence in Ryan Pulock and Eric Roy, but the forward talent is very young and leaves questions as to how much they will be able to step up for the club.  The Swift Current Broncos have a strong back-end with Dillon Heatherington, Brycen Martin, Bobby Zinkan and Julius Honka on defence, and goalie Etu Laurikainen minding the fort.  However, the offence has some questions after the graduation of Adam Lowry.  The Regina Pats should have plenty of points coming from Morgan Klimchuk and Chandler Stephenson but lack depth behind those two.  The blue line is young but has potential.  Overall, there isn’t a lot to separate the four teams, but if you force me to make a pick for 2nd in the division, I’ll take Swift Current.


Players to Watch

Morgan Rielly, Defence, Moose Jaw Warriors: Taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the 5th overall pick in 2012, Rielly is without question an elite skater. His speed is off the charts, he uses his edges effectively, he has a great first step and quick acceleration, and his pivots and changes of direction are quick and crisp. He loves to carry the puck and to lead his team’s rushes from the back-end. He’s great with the puck on his stick, and has good vision and passing ability. He also has both a great wrist and slap shot and he utilizes these along with his vision, and ability to make crisp tape to tape passes and to be an elite PP Quarterback.  Defensively, Rielly does sometimes make mistakes and has a habit of sometimes being a gambler, and making a bad giveaway due to his desire to always push the offence. He also needs to continue to bulk up and become stronger before he will be able to take on bigger forwards in the defensive zone. Rielly’s puck skills do help him defensively as he’s able to quickly move the puck up the ice – most of the time. Rielly has the potential to be an elite two-way defender at the next level. In order to reach that potential he will need to bulk up, and learn when to take chances and when to dial it down. However, these are common problems for young, offensive defencemen and I think that Rielly will make these two changes as he matures.

Morgan Klimchuk, Right Wing, Regina Pats: A first round pick of the Calgary Flames, Klimchuk is a natural sniper, gifted with a great wrist shot and an excellent one-timer. His outstanding release fools and confuses goaltenders as he seems to have the puck in the back of the net before they know he’s even shot it. Klimchuk has good hockey sense and is able to find openings in the defence where he can set up to unleash that deadly shot. More than just a one-trick pony though, Klimchuk works hard in the corners, often winning board battles despite the fact he is merely average size. He also does extremely well in the cycle game protecting the puck with his soft hands and excellent balance on his skates.  Klimchuk gets to the front of the net and can use his soft hands to tip in shots, or to bury rebounds.  He also has good vision and ability. Klimchuk has decent top-end speed, but it is his excellent first step quickness and acceleration that really defines his skating.  He also has very good agility. He ends up being one of those players who is more quick than fast, as he pounces on loose pucks, and darts through openings with ease, however he doesn’t have that pull-away gear that makes him a real breakaway threat.  His balance is very good and he fights through checks well and is strong on the puck.

Ryan Pulock, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings: A first round pick of the New York Islanders, Pulock’s biggest asset is an absolute rocket of a slapshot and fantastic one-timer, which make him an extremely feared shooter on the Powerplay. His shot was measured at 101 MPH in a skills competition last season.  Other teams are certainly shading their PK to try to minimize Pulock’s shot at this point, but despite that and a wrist injury that limited his effectiveness in the second half, he scored 14 goals last season. A natural PP Quarterback, Pulock makes smart crisp passes and sees the ice extremely well. He also understands the importance of getting the puck on net, and is able to utilize a good wrist shot and quick release when teams try to take away his bomb.  On the rush, he has decent stickhandling and can be the lead man with the puck or can join the attack as the trailer, ready to unleash his rocket slapper or that very good wrist shot. Pulock is an above average skater with good mobility on the blue line. He has a very good skating stride and good top-end speed, both forwards and backwards.  His edgework, pivots and agility are excellent, allowing him to easily cover a lot of ice, and quickly change directions to react and keep the play in front of him.  He has solid balance and is difficult to knock off the puck. Defensively, Pulock uses his good hockey sense and strong positioning and has really improved his defensive game over the last two years.  He keeps his opponent to the outside off the rush and is rarely beaten one-on-one.  In the defensive zone he cuts down passing and shooting lanes.  Pulock does play physically willing to throw hits in open ice or if an opponent tries to get by him along the boards. Pulock’s first pass is excellent, and he helps his team start their transition game by moving the puck quickly out of the zone.

Josh Morrissey, Defence, Prince Albert Raiders: A first round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, the key to Morrissey’s games is outstanding skating ability. His stride is fluid, and he has excellent top speed both backwards and forward. His first step is quick, and he accelerates well. His agility, edgework, and pivots are strong and fluid, giving him excellent mobility in all aspects of the game. Morrissey is very slick offensively. He combines very good stickhandling with his great skating to carry the puck through the neutral zone and lead the rush.  If not leading the rush, he can join as a trailer, and has good instincts for jumping into the play. He also has great vision, and pinpoint passing skill either on the rush or or in quarterbacking the play. Morrissey has a decent slap shot, but is not overpowering. Instead he knows to keep his shot low and on net. He does have a really good wrist shot, and excellent release. Morrissey has all the tools to be a high level offensive defenceman. In his own zone, Morrissey just keeps improving.  He plays an effective positional game, always keeping opponents in front of him, and taking away time and space. He doesn’t run around looking for hits, but has shown that when the opportunity arises he can be extremely physical.  However most of the time, Morrissey is content not to gamble. Instead he plays smart positional defence; he cuts off passing and shooting lanes, and eventually forces his opponent into a turnover, and quick transition.

Dillon Heatherington, Defence, Swift Current Broncos: A second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Heatherington has a wide and powerful skating stride. He generates good speed and good acceleration in both backwards and forwards skating. He has decent pivots and is very mobile, but will need to get better in his edgework and turns. Heatherington has good balance and agility, making him hard to knock off the puck and good in board battles. At 6’3″, he has ideal size to be a strong defensive defender. Heatherington plays a very physical game and just loves to throw big hits or battle along the boards or in front of the net. He is a mean and nasty shutdown defender. He uses his mobility to maintain good gap control, and is hard to beat off the rush. Heatherington has good hockey sense, and anticipates plays well. He uses his long stick and big frame to cut down passing and shooting lanes. He’s even show the willingness to drop the gloves on occasion. Heatherington has started to show some offence last season. He makes a strong, crisp, and smart breakout pass, and gets the transition game started. With his speed he’s started to join the rush on occasion as he is able to get back and cover his end. Heatherington has become more poised with the puck, and makes smart passes in the offensive zone, waiting for openings to make plays. He has a decent slap shot which he keeps low and on target.


Top Draft Eligible Players To Watch

Leon Draisaitl, Centre, Prince Albert Raiders: The 2nd overall pick in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, Draisaitl looks to be the highest ever drafted German hockey player.  A big centre with excellent reach and stickhandling ability, Draisaitl protects the puck very well, and then finds an open teammate with a quick and accurate pass.  He also has a strong and accurate wrist shot, with a very good release, leading to goal scoring ability.  Draisaitl is not afraid to take the puck to the net, and has the soft hands to finish when he gets there.  Draisaitl has greatly improved his skating since coming to North America, but he will need to continue to work on his first step quickness and his acceleration going forward.  He will take over top line centre duties in Prince Albert this season and looks to improve on his 58 points in 64 games performance from last season.

Brycen Martin, Defence, Swift Current Broncos: At 6’2″ already this 17-year-old has ideal NHL size.  He is a solid two-way player, who does good work in both ends of the ice.  He is a very good skater with speed in both directions and has the pivots and edgework necessary to be extremely mobile at the back-end.  He makes strong passes on the breakout and on the power play, and has a decent point shot.  Defensively, he’s a smart player who is good positionally and works hard in battles along the boards and in front of the net.

Julius Honka, Defence, Swift Current Broncos: A bit undersized at just 5’11”, this Finnish defender was selected in the first round of the 2013 CHL Import Draft.  Early reports indicate that he is a strong skater and passer who can add a dynamic offensive game from the blue line.  NHL Central Scouting has Honka as an “A” level prospect.  The Broncos are churning out defencemen lately and Honka will get every opportunity to build on that promise.  He was part of Finland’s team in the 2013 Under-18s and led the team’s defence with 4 points in 7 games and picked up a bronze medal in the process.

Brayden Point, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors: A bit undersized at just 5’9″ right now, Point will need a bit of a growth spurt this season to secure a place in the first round.  He is a good skater who works hard on the forecheck and pouncing on loose pucks in all areas of the ice.  He is much more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer, showing excellent vision and passing skills.  He needs to work on generating more power on his shot, but he does have a good release.  He is solid in his own end and has even been used on the penalty kill at times.

Jayce Hawryluk, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings: Another undersized (5’10”) forward with good skating skill.  He has good speed, but his best assets are his strength and balance as he is hard to knock off the puck and plays a good cycle game despite his size.  He has the power to fight through checks and go to the net or to battle for pucks in the corners or position in front of the net.  He has good hockey sense and is able to find openings in the defence when he doesn’t have the puck. His shot is good, and the release is quick.

Nelson Nogier, Defence, Saskatoon Blades: A 6’2″ defender who plays a purely defensive game at this point.  He is a good skater, and has good mobility.  His defensive game is based on always keeping himself between his opponent and the net.  He has excellent gap control and great hockey sense.  He shows really good anticipation intercepting passes, and plenty of courage being willing to block shots.  Will need to work on his offensive game this year.

Matt Revel, Centre, Saskatoon Blades: Didn’t get a lot of ice-time on a veteran laden team last year, but now that Saskatoon is rebuilding, he will get every opportunity to play big minutes.  Passed over by all 22 teams in the 2011 Bantam Draft, Revel impressed for the Blades when he got time last year, showing strong skating and good passing skills.  He is at his most dangerous off the rush, where he can use his strong changes of pace to fool defenders and create space for himself and teammates.  Look for him to have a strong year on a bad team, and don’t expect his bantam draft experience to repeat itself at the NHL draft, as it is unlikely he’ll be completely overlooked again.