2013-14 WHL Preview: U.S. Division

Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. We continue previewing the CHL for the 2013-14 season, going East to West across the country. We finish with the US Division today.  I apologize for the delay as I moved and have been without internet for the past week.  As always you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

Top Contenders

TopShelfProspectsPortland Winterhawks: Despite losing key pieces like Ty Rattie, Ty Wotherspoon, Troy Rutkowski, Seth Jones, and Mac Carruth the Winterhawks remain the class of the division. Predators prospect Brandon Leipsic and Winnipeg Jets draftee Nic Petan will again lead the top line.  The two ended up tied atop the WHL (and CHL) scoring race last season and should provide offence again this year. Shane McColgan was brought in from Saskatoon, and will team with Columbus draftee Oliver Bjorkstrand to provide secondary scoring, while youngsters like Chase De Leo, Keegan Iverson, and Dominic Turgeon will be asked to take steps forward.  On defence, the losses have added up with Jones, Rutkowski and Wotherspoon, but in Derrick Pouliot, the team still has a true number one who can add give a big jump start to the team’s offence and play a ton of minutes.  He’ll be supported by returnees Layne Vivieiros and Shaun MacPherson along with new additions Anton Cederholm and Garrett Haar.  In goal the Winterhawks will look for Phoenix draftee Brendan Burke, son of Sean, to take the reigns from Carruth.  He was a good backup last year and should take the next step this year.

Seattle Thunderbirds:  The Thunderbirds certainly have the forwards and defence to compete, but have a big question mark in net.  Up front look for 2012 first overall WHL draft pick Matt Barzal to show off his skills.  Seattle also have Dallas prospect Brandon Trook, Justin Hickman, Robert Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov to support the star youngster. Eric Benoit brings overage scoring and a ton of playoff and big game experience with Kootenay and Saskatoon. On defence the Thunderbirds are led by Ducks first rounder Shea Theodore.  He’s supported by Jesse Forsberg, Jerret Smith, Jared Hauf and Griffin Foulk. Overall the group can be characterized as being big and physical.  In net Danny Mumaugh, Devon Fordyce, and Justin Miles battle for starts


Top Players to Watch

Derrick Pouliot, Defence, Portland Winterhawks: Pouliot was taken 8th overall by the Penguins last year with a pick acquired when Pittsburgh traded Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. Pouliot is a skilled offensive defenceman. He has excellent skating and is very fast in both directions and has great acceleration. He also has excellent balance and agility. Pouliot uses his edges extremely well and has good pivots and is able to change directions quickly. The outstanding mobility helps him in all aspects, whether it be creating offense off the rush, walking the line in the offensive zone and opening up shooting and passing lanes or containing  opponents defensively. Pouliot is very skilled with the puck on his stick capable of making deceptive moves around opponents. He makes tape-to-tape passes both in starting the breakout and in setting up his teammates with excellent chances in the offensive zone. Pouliot’s shot doesn’t have the power of some other top offensive defence prospects but he makes up for that with a lightning quick release on his wrist shot and deadly accuracy. He’s able to keep his slap shot low and get it on net, which is essential for any power play quarterback as it creates good opportunities for teammates to tip in shots or pounce on rebounds. Pouliot however is very much a work in progress in the defensive end of the ice. He needs to add serious muscle to his frame and gain strength. He can be overpowered by bigger, stronger opponents. Pouliot’s defensive positioning also needs some serious work. He often makes errors in coverage and misses his assignments leading to quality scoring chances against. He has improved over the last year, but there is still some work for him to do going forward.

Nic Petan, Centre, Portland Winterhawks:  A second round pick of the Winnipeg Jets Petan was an offensive dynamo last year. He may be undersized, but Petan makes up for it with his skating which is well above average.  While his top end speed is merely good, it is the rest of his skating ability that really stands out.  He has a very good first step, and great acceleration.  Petan’s ability to change pace quickly and good agility allows him to confuse defenders and beat them to the outside before driving the net.  His great agility, and tight turns allow him to weave through traffic both with and without the puck.  He is not afraid to go into those high traffic areas, and his skating ability helps him to fight through checks despite his size. In the offensive zone, Petan has shown to be a multi-dimensional threat coupling great vision and playmaking skills with a good wrist shot and quick release. He creates scoring chances for linemates, but can also be a finisher. He has a very high hockey IQ and always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and to make smart plays with the puck on his stick. Petan works hard in the corners and the front of the net and shows a lot of fight and grit despite his size. Petan has also shown to be a reliable defensive player and often contributes on the penalty kill. He anticipates well and causes turnovers.  His good hockey IQ allows him to steal pucks and transition quickly form defence to offence.

Shea Theodore, Defence, Seattle Thunderbirds:  Taken in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2013 NHL Draft, Theodore’s skating is at an elite level and defines his game.  He has excellent speed and acceleration, and can lead the rush, or join as a trailer and then get back to the defensive responsibilities in his own end. He has great agility, and good edgework, and pivots which really allows him to cover a lot of ice.  He could stand to improve his balance and strength though as he can sometimes get knocked off the puck, or pushed around in board battles. Theodore is an excellent offensive player. In addition to his skating, he has great stickhandling and excellent poise. Couple this with good vision and passing abilities and Theodore is a key playmaker.  He can set up teammates both off the rush, and when quarterbacking the powerplay. On top of it all Theodore has developped an excellent slap shot and one-timer, and used it to score 19 goals last season. Theodore has plenty of size, but he needs to learn how to use it more effectively in his own end.  He needs to be more assertive in winning board battles and clearing the front of the net. There is still more room for improvement and bulking up and adding muscle to his frame would help. He has a tendency to be a bit of a gambler offensively as well which can get him caught at the defensive end.

Eric Comrie, Goaltender, Tri-City Americans: The son of “The Brick” founder Bill Comrie, and the half-brother of former NHLer Mike Comrie (aka Mr. Hillary Duff), Eric Comrie was a second round pick of the Winnipeg Jets. He has decent size and good technique as a hybrid goalie. He has very good lateral movement and gets side to side quickly and efficiently.  Comrie reads the play well and shows excellent puck tracking as he is rarely caught out of position.  His quick legs do a great job of taking away the bottom of the net.  He also has a very quick glove hand which helps him to take away the top portions. Comrie plays a very aggressive style and comes out far to cut down angles and take away net from shooters. He has excellent backwards skating which allows him to do this and recover if a forward tries to deke him to the net.  Like many young goalies, he does need work on his rebound control and this is the biggest issue in his game today.  He does show the ability to recover quickly and square up to rebounds which does help him recover quickly, however the rebound control must also still improve.

Mike Aviani, Centre, Spokane Chiefs: The Chiefs have lost a ton of scoring talent this year, with the departures of their super scoring defenceman Brenden Kichton, along with veteran forwards Todd Fiddler, Dylan Walchuk, Blake Gal and Alessio Bertaggia.  With this in mind the offence will have to flow through two of their best remaining forwards, overagers Mike Aviani, and Mitch Holmberg.  Aviani is a hard working gritty forward who forechecks at every opportunity and gets his nose dirty to score his points.  He’s got offensive talent, and can put up the numbers, but he’s also got the non-stop motor and great drive that would have many label him as an “energy player”.  Mostly known for his playmaking, Aviani is typically the set-up guy with Holmberg as the finisher. However you can’t sleep on his goal scoring ability as he has a good release on his wrist shot and soft hands in tight. If defenders and goalies overplay him to pass, he can definitely burn them with a goal. He is very important to the Chiefs who use him in all situations, in tough matchups, and even on the penalty kill, where he already has a short handed goal this season.  The Chiefs have surprised many, me included with a hot start to the season, but if Spokane is going to make the playoffs this year, it will be on the backs of Aviani and Holmberg who will need to provide a lot of the punch for this rebuilding club.

Mirco Mueller, Defence, Everett Silvertips: A first round pick of the San Jose Sharks, Mueller is a smooth skating, mobile defenceman.  His lateral agility is very good, especially given his size.  His crossovers, pivots, and edgework are also very solid, giving him the ability to cover a lot of ice defensively, or to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes offensively. His first step quickness and acceleration are also very good but he could use some work on his top end speed, as it is merely average. Mueller shows good offensive ability. He keeps his head up and makes a good first pass most of the time. He also shows solid vision and playmaking skill from the point on the powerplay. Mueller has a hard shot which he keeps low and on net.  He has good stickhandling ability and combined with his good skating he is able to both lead the rush and join it as a trailer. At 6’04″ Mueller has great size.   However at just 185 lbs, he has plenty of work to do in filling out his frame.  He will need to add a lot of muscle over the next couple years in order to stand up to the rigors of pro hockey.  However this is a common problem for many 18 year olds and shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Defensively Mueller shows good positioning and high hockey IQ.  He diagnoses the play well, maintains good gap control, and keeps his man to the outside.  He is not afraid to block shots, and he cuts down passing lanes well.  He gets involved in board battles and works hard to clear the crease.  However he could stand to use his size more effectively and this can come with the added muscle mass.


2015 NHL Draft Eligible to Watch

Mathew Barzal, Centre, Seattle Thunderbirds: If it wasn’t for the presence of Wonderkid Connor McDavid, we’d be talking about Barzal as the possible first overall pick in the 2014 draft. However as it stands it looks like the first overall pick of the 2012 WHL Draft will be competing for the #2 spot and thats not too shabby given the level of competition in that draft. Barzal is a phenom in his own right. Barzal is an outstanding skater, with top notch speed, great acceleration and outstanding pivots and edge work. He also has incredibly soft hands, great stickhandling, and incredible hockey sense and intelligence. These skills alone would make him a dynamic offensive threat, but when you add in his great shot and excellent vision and play-making ability he is the total package as an offensive player. He is currently 5’11” and 176 lbs, but at just 16 years old he’s still growing. He’s shown the willingness to play in the dirty areas of the ice, and shows flashes of adding a power game to his offensive finesse and skill; and if he continues to grow and add that game, the sky is the limit for him both in the WHL and eventually the NHL. He’s the rare 16-year-old who will have a big impact in the WHL right now, already putting up 11 points in his first eight WHL games.


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