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2013 WHL Preview: Central 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 starting with the WHL East Division, we move on to the Central As always you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

The WHL Central Division has been the playground of the Edmonton Oil Kings in each of the last two years. They have easily won the regular season crown in both years, with huge margins.  In 2012 they won the WHL Championship, and in 2013 they won the conference, but lost in the WHL Final to the Portland Winterhawks.  The Oil Kings should be strong again with a number of key pieces returning.  However this year it seems to be a three team race, with the Calgary Hitmen (who took the Oil Kings to seven games in the playoffs last year), and the Red Deer Rebels looking like strong contenders to win this year’s division title and possibly even the WHL Championship.

The division also features the potential first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft in Sam Reinhart as well as other potential high first rounders in Jake Virtanen and Haydn Fleury.


Top Contenders

Edmonton Oil Kings:  The Oil Kings return first round picks Curtis Lazar (Ottawa) and Henrik Samuelsson (Phoenix) up front to lead a deep offensive group. 2012 Oiler second rounder Mitch Moroz, will be asked to step up his offence into a top six role.  Edgars Kulda and Brandon Baddock are also expected to step up this season. Mads Eller joins the team as an import. On defence the Oil Kings will hope for the return of Islanders prospect and 2012 4th overall draft pick Griffin Reinhart to lead the team. If he doesn’t come back they four of their best defencemen from last year with David Musil, Martin Gernat, and Keegan Lowe graduating.  Cody Corbett is an overager who really stepped up when the Oil Kings had injury issues last year.  He’ll be expected to play even more this year as will Ashton Saultner.  Youngsters Dysin Mayo and Aaron Irving will be asked to develop quickly.  Behind them all they should have strong goaltending as Pittsburgh second rounder Tristan Jarry takes over the starting job.

Calgary Hitmen:  The Hitmen lost a lot of offence with Cody Sylvester, Brooks Macek, and Victor Rask all graduating.  Former WHL first overall pick Jake Virtanen will be asked to lead the offence this season and his improvement on a 16 goal, 34 point season will be essential for the Hitmen to have success.  Brady Brassart returns with his 35 goals, along with veteran Greg Chase, an Oilers 7th rounder, and Zane Jones to provide additional scoring punch.  Pavel Padakin, Radel Fazleev, Chase Clayton and Calder Brooks provide depth.  The Hitmen defenders are an experienced group.  Led by overager Jaynen Rissling and supported by fellow veterans Jesse Zgraggen and Kenton Helgesen defensive hockey is the strength of the team. Draft eligible defender Josh Thrower should take on a bigger role, as will Colby Harmsworth. Ottawa prospect Chris Driedger should be a solid goaltender.  The Hitmen are a young team that will only get better in the coming years, it would appear their peak will be 2014-15, but they may just have enough to give the Oil Kings another run this year.

Red Deer Rebels:  The Rebels will again be built around goaltending and defence.  Patrik Bartosak, the reigning CHL Goaltender of the year returns between the pipes.  In front of him the defence is led by 2012 Minnesota Wild first rounder Mathew Dumba.  Brady Gaudet should also log big minutes, and potential high first round pick Haydn Fleury gives the team a “big 3” on defence.  Up front the Rebels had some issues scoring goals last year, but another year of experience for most of their top guns is expected to lead to better results. Look for  Rhyse Dieno, Brooks Maxwell and Dominik Volek, to provide veteran presence up front, while Conner Bleackley will look for better results in his second year in the league.  The Rebels added Winnipeg Jets draft pick Lukas Sutter in a trade with Saskatoon and are counting on him to have a bigger year.


Players to Watch

Hunter Shinkaruk, Left Wing, Medicine Hat Tigers: The 24th overall pick of the Vancouver Canuck, Shinkaruk is a quick and shifty skater.  He has very good edgework, and strong lateral agility making him very shifty.  He is able to use this skill to beat defenders off the rush, or attack the net when he has the puck in the offensive zone. He can also use his ability to shift gears quickly to attack defenders or to pull up opening space for him to be able to get off his wrist shot.  Shinkaruk’s stride can sometimes be choppy, and while he is still fast, some refinement to his technique could make him even more dangerous. Shinkaruk has  a tremendous wrist shot and excellent release, particularly when coming in off the left wing. His shot is very accurate, and heavy, and the release fools goalies leading to the puck being behind them before they know what happened.  He also has a knack for finding the open areas of the ice and taking an excellent one-timer.  Not a one-trick pony, Shinkaruk also has very good playmaking skill and vision which makes him very difficult to defend. He is an excellent stickhandler and can make defenders look silly one-on-one. Shinkaruk isn’t a big hitter, but is not afraid to battle on the boards or in front of the net. He is more than willing to go to dirty areas of the ice to make plays, and is good in the cycle game. Shinkaruk’s two way game is decent, but he could use some more work on intensity in the defensive end of the ice.  He does read the play well, and gets back, he just sometimes can have a tendency to puck watch a little bit and lose his man.  He also will probably need to bulk up before he can reach his full potential at the next level.

Griffin Reinhart, Defence, Edmonton Oil Kings: The 4th overall pick of the New York Islanders in the 2012 Draft.  Reinhart comes from good bloodlines as he is the son of former Calgary Flames Defenceman Paul Reinhart. Reinhart is already 6’4 and over 200 lbs, he is a huge presence in the defensive zone. However while he sometimes throws big hits, he really doesn’t play that physical game as consistently as he could, and I’d like to see him be more physically punishing to opposition forwards. Despite this, Reinhart is still 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 effectively cut down passing lanes. He also uses his great size and strength to keep the Oil Kings’ crease clear and to win board battles in the corners. Reinhart has also displayed some offensive potential. He has a booming slapshot and excellent wrist shot. Reinhart makes quality passes both as part of his team’s breakout, and in the offensive zone. Reinhart also has excellent offensive instincts and hockey sense, as he is quick to exploit gaps in opponent’s teams defensive coverage and chooses the right moments to pinch in. Reinhart could use some work on his stickhandling and puck control. Overall he looks like more of a powerplay trigger man than a quarterback. Reinhart is improving as a skater. He has lengthened his choppy stride and improved his top end speed and acceleration.

Curtis Lazar, Centre, Edmonton Oil Kings: A first round pick of the Ottawa Senators, 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. Lazar also uses his ability to change gears quickly to confuse defenders and coupled with very good agility, he is extremely dangerous off the rush.  Lazar has good balance on his skates and fights through checks and protects the puck, making him dangerous off the cycle. Lazar is a pure goal scorer. He has an outstanding wrist shot and pro-level release which he uses to beat goalies. He also has an excellent slap shot. Add to this arsenal, soft hands to finish plays in close and the quick hand-eye co-ordination to make delections and pounce on rebounds and you can see why he scores so many goals. Lazar also plays a rugged game and is willing to hit on the forecheck, battle on the boards, or in the cycle. He’s not afraid to play in dirty areas. He could stand to be a little bit stronger and add upper body mass in order to continue to play his style in the pros. Lazar also could be a bit more of a playmaker, as he does show good vision and passing skill, but doesn’t do it often enough. Defensively, Lazar is amongst the best checking forwards in the WHL. His two-way game is excellent, as are his faceoff skills. He plays his rugged game in all three zones, and uses his quick feet to keep himself in position and be hard on the backcheck.  He helps out defenders down low and contains his man to the outside well, cutting down the shooting and passing lanes.  He has a quick stick and intercepts a lot of passes, and is willing to block shots.

Henrik Samuelsson, Centre/Right Wing, Edmonton Oil Kings: A 2012 First Round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, Samuelsson is a big bodied, power forward prospect. He’s versatile as he’s been used at both Centre and Right Wing. Samuelsson uses his size and strength to battle opponents for loose pucks on the boards and to plant himself in front of the net. He has soft hands and a knack for banging in rebounds and tipping shots in close. His huge frame is also an effective screen for opposing goalies.  Henrik has a good wrist shot and release, and he’s also good on one-timers.  Samuelsson has also shown a creative playmaking side, utilizing great vision, and great tape to tape passing skills to rack up the assists in Edmonton. Henrik doesn’t shy away from traffic or from playing a physical game, and has been known to throw a big hit at times.  He’s also shown a bit of his father’s legendary mean streak. Defensively Samuelsson is a conscientious back checker and strong positionally.  He is willing to use his size to be physical and again is often involved in battles for loose pucks.  Samuelsson is willing to block shots and understands how to cut down on the passing lanes. As the son of a defensive defenceman, its no surprise that Henrik has that aspect to his game. Skating wise, Samuelsson has good top end speed for a big man and is very strong and balanced on his skates.  He could however use some work on his first step quickness, on his acceleration and on his agility.  This is one area of his game that is a work in progress.  Samuelsson is also a bit of a liability to take undisciplined penalties, once again proving the old adage of like father, like son.

Mathew Dumba, Defence, Red Deer Rebels: A 2012 first round pick, seventh overall of the Minnesota Wild; Matt Dumba is a very talented, but very raw defence prospect. 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. Over his time in Red Deer, Dumba has shown that he can use these skills and translate them into being an offensive weapon. While his numbers were slightly down in 2012-13 vs his draft year, this is due in large part to some improvements that have been made in Dumba’s defensive game. While he has a ways to go, he’s become less of a gambler, and more willing to pick his spots and play defensive hockey as the year progressed. This lead to an improvement from -6 in 2011-12 to +10 in 2012-13. Dumba is also 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 has certainly improved his defensive work, but still has a ways to go in his own end of the ice. He sometimes takes too many offensive chances or gets himself out of position looking for that big hit and his defensive game can sometimes suffer as a result. He also needs to bulk up. He’s got decent enough height, but he certainly needs to add muscle to that frame if he expects to be able to continue to throw those type of big hits against the bigger stronger opponents he will face in the pro game. More size and strength will also help him to contain bigger forwards. Some might say I’m being too harsh on Dumba, but he has the mobility and the athleticism to be an elite defender and so with that potential I hope to see him continue to work on his fundamentals.


Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Sam Reinhart, Centre, Kootenay Ice: The third member of the Reinhart brothers might be the best of the bunch.  Father Paul played for the Calgary Flames in the 1980s.  Brother Max is a centre currently making his way through the Flames system, while brother Griffin is profiled above. Sam Reinhart was a big time point producer for Kootenay last season, with 85 points in 72 games.  He was also Canada’s top line center, and team captain in leading the team to the IIHF Under 18 Gold Medal.  In 2011-12, as a 16 year old he had 62 points in 67 games and tied his brother Max for the team goal scoring lead with 28.  Reinhart has excellent hockey sense and vision.  He seems to know where the puck is going before it gets there and finds the openings in the defence.  He has excellent stickhandling and puck protection skills, which when coupled with his good vision and passing make him an excellent playmaker.  His shot could be a little harder and should get there as he gains muscle, but he is deadly accurate and has a great release.  Expect him to be a threat to score nearly every shift this season for Kootenay, he could be poised for a very big season and the potential first overall pick in 2014.

Jake Virtanen, Right Wing, Calgary Hitmen: A power forward prospect who never hesitates to get involved physically.  Loves to hit, and be involved in battles along the boards.  Takes the puck to the net at every opportuntiy.  Has the creative stickhandling and good agility to beat a defender with slick creative moves, but is also willing to go right through them.  Really impressive at the World Under 17 Challenge where he scored 5 goals in 5 games for Team Pacific.  The first overall pick in the 2011 WHL Draft.  A pure goal scorer who can score in tight, but also has an excellent shot with great accuracy and a tremendously quick release that fools goaltenders.

Haydn Fleury, Defence, Red Deer Rebels: A solid two way defender with good size at 6’3″, and impressive skating. He has good edgework, and solid mobility.   His smooth skating stride lets him generate good speed.  He is a sold defensive defender, with long reach, and the ability to cut down passing lanes.  As his rookie season wore on, he seemed to get stronger and better in board battles as the year went on.  He does have decent puck handling skill and good vision and passing ability and I would expect his offence to rise this year with his increased experience in the NHL.

Reid Duke, Centre, Lethbridge Hurricanes:  Duke has good skating, excellent edgework and the soft hands necessary to be an excellent stickhandler.  He is extremely dangersous leading the rush, as he can speed by defenders on the outside on the rush and cut to the net, or can use his shifty moves to beat them on the inside as well.  He has good vision and passing skills, and a decent amount of grit.  He was inconsistent though as a rookie, and will need to bring that willingness to play physical every night in order to impress the scouts for the 2014 draft.

Ryan Pilon, Defence, Lethbridge Hurricanes: A strong two way defender with good size at 6’2″. He can play a robust physical game, doling out big hits and battling in corners and in front of the net.  He also has good vision and passing skills and can start the rush from his own end or play on the powerplay as I expect he’ll up his offence this season.  With his strong skating, he could really move up on draft boards.



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