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WHL U.S. Division Preview

Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects.  It’s that time again–major junior hockey is back and we’re here to preview the new season for you.  While teams have already played their first game in the QMJHL, things are set to start on September 19th in the WHL and on September 24th in the OHL.  With that in mind, we will start our division previews out east, then go west, and finally finish in Ontario this year. You can check out our previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.


WHL U.S. Division Preview

The Contenders (In order of how I predict they will finish)

Portland Winterhawks:  They always seem to be on top, or close to it.  In Portland, they don’t rebuild, they reload, and they do it year after year.  The team has advanced to the WHL final in four straight seasons and are looking to make it five this year.  They have lost talent in forwards Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier; defencemen Mathew Dumba, Derrick Pouliot, and Garrett Haar, and goalie Corbin Boes amongst others.  The biggest loss though might be head coach Mike Johnston.  That said, they still have a lot of talent.  This is especially true of the forwards where Nicolas Petan should centre an elite first line with Paul Bittner and Oliver Bjorkstrand.  Meanwhile Keagan Iverson, Chase De Leo, Dominic Turgeon, and Alex Schoenborn should provide the foundation of the team’s solid secondary scoring.  In net Brendan Burke will be the undisputed number one goalie, and he’s more than capable of handling the job.  Its on defence where there are question marks for the first time in years.  The Winterhawks have had Seth Jones, Joe Morrow, Pouliot, and Dumba in recent years, but there is no clear top defenceman this season.  The group has depth with two overagers in newcomer Joshua Smith and returnee Josh Hanson. The team features other returnees in import and Vancouver prospect Anton Cederholm, Keoni Texeira and Layne Viveiros. Washington draft pick Blake Heinrich and 2014 draft eligible Nick Heid also join the group this year.  The question will be whether that depth can replace the need for a true number one defenceman.  Don’t count out the Winterhawks willingness to wheel and deal and get that game changer on the backend at the deadline though, this franchise wants a Memorial Cup and will do whatever is necessary to get one.

Seattle Thunderbirds: The Thunderbirds are the best bet to challenge Portland’s dominance in the division.  They are led by Ducks 2013 first rounder Shea Theodore who was their highest scoring player, and was the highest scoring defenceman in the WHL last year.  The Thunderbirds return all seven of their defencemen from last year with puck mover Adam Henry and defensive defenceman Evan Wardley being the key men behind Theodore.  Also back are Jerret Smith, Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith, and 2015 draft eligible defenceman Ethan Bear.  Overalll, the team’s strength should be on the blueline.  Up front the Thunderbirds are young but talented.  You can expect a big year from Mathew Barzal who is a highly rated 2015 NHL Draft prospect.  He is joined by fellow potential 2015 first rounder Ryan Gropp on his wing. Justin Hickman is back and should round out the first line.  From there though the offence is a bit of a question mark.  The Thunderbirds have brought in imports Alexander True and Florian Baltram in the hopes that they can provide the nucleus of a second line, while Kaden Elder and Nolan Volcan are highly touted 16-year-olds who will also be asked to provide some offensive depth.  The rest of the returning veterans didn’t really provide a lot of offence last year, but someone could emerge with more ice-time and opportunity. Taran Kozun was very good in goal for the team last year and should be back as an overager, and the team’s starter.

Tri-City Americans: Its really a two-horse race in this division, that said, Tri-City is likely the best of the rest.  They are a team that is built from the back out, with one of the best goalies in the league in Eric Comrie leading the way.  The defence is also solid featuring overager Justin Hamonic as the team captain, who plays the role of shutdown defender.  Josh Thrower is another solid defensive defenceman while 2015 draft eligible players Parker Wotherspoon and Brandon Carlo round out the top four.  Upfront the team features Brian Williams who had 36 goals and 56 points last season, a pair of 17-year-old Russians in Vladislav Lukin and Semyon Krasheninnikov, 17-year-old Ty Comrie who is expected to take a big step forward from a tough roookie season in the WHL.  Beau McCue, Parker Bowles, Lucas Nickles and Justin Gutierrez also return to provide depth.

Key Players to Watch

Mirco Mueller, Defence, Everett Silvertips:  A 2013 first round pick, Mueller is currently attending San Jose Sharks camp, and there are a few out there who believe he won’t be back with Everett this season.  Personally I think he may get a 9-game tryout in San Jose but ultimately does find himself back in the WHL, and the Silvertips will be the big beneficiaries as they will be getting back one of the league’s best defenceman.  Mueller is a smooth skating, mobile defenceman, whose game is based on this ability. 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 started to develop his offensive ability last season putting up 5 goals and 27 points in 60 games. 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 and has added weight over the last two summers, and this has made him an even better defender, adding to his ability to win battles and clear the crease.  He also 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 I talked about above.   If Mueller does return to the WHL he is definitely a candidate to be traded if Everett is not a contender, and he could return a plethora of picks and prospects back to the Silvertips.

Ivan Nikolishin, Left Wing/Centre, Everett Silvertips: Nikolishin put up 18 goals and 59 points in 72 games for the Silvertips last season, and with all the losses they have suffered up front, will be expected to be a key contributor for the team this year. He also played for Team Russia at the U18 World Championships and put up 5 points in 5 games. The son of former NHLer Andrei Nikolishin, this Russian forward shows a lot of the same skills that made his father famous.   He’s a bit undersized at just 5’8″ and that is probably the reason he didn’t get drafted in the 2014 NHL draft.  Nikolishin has good skating skill though, with excellent speed and strong agility.  He also shows a willingness to play a gritty game as he’s not afraid to give or take a hit, and to battle in key areas of the ice.  Nikolishin has good vision and passing skills, and compliments that with an excellent release on his wrist shot.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Right Wing, Portland Winterhawks: A second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013, Bjorkstrand put up 50 goals last season, and will be looking for more this year. Bjorkstrand is a natural sniper who has very heavy wrist and snap shots, along with an excellent one-timer. His shooting arsenal features an excellent release which he uses to fool goaltenders when he is coming down the wing on a rush, or after setting up in the offensive zone. He has a real knack for getting open either by trailing slightly behind on rush, or by finding the soft spot in the defence to unleash his vast shooting arsenal.  A tad undersized, has outstanding stickhandling and is tough to knock off the puck.  He is very shifty and is able to avoid checks and buy time for his teammates to get open.  He is an underrated playmaker with very good vision and passing skills.  Bjorkstrand attempts to go to the key areas, and shows no lack of intensity in battling for pucks along the boards.

Chase De Leo, Centre, Portland Winterhawks: A fourth round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, many will knock Chase De Leo’s size as he is listed at just 5’10 and 175 lbs. He does have the type of skill set that one usually sees in the type of player who succeeds despite size concerns. De Leo is a very good skater. He doesn’t have blazing top end speed, but is still above average. He’s more quick than fast though, showing a great first step, excellent acceleration, and the ability to quickly change speeds. He also has extremely good edgework and agility.  This allows him to get to a lot of loose pucks, and to avoid defenders. Offensively, De Leo has very good hands and is able to get past defenders or score goals in tight. He protects the puck well and is able to extend plays to find an opening to unleash a strong wrist shot, or snapshot, and has a good release on both. De Leo has excellent vision, good passing skills and high end hockey sense, which helps him to be a strong playmaker. He is gritty and willing to battle in all areas of the ice, but his size is a concern and his strength will need to be improved to win those battles at the next level. De Leo is also a strong two way player. He is good in the face-off circle, has good positioning in all three zones. He is a relentless checker who supports well on the backcheck and supports defenders down low.  He’s likely to centre the Winterhawks second line this year.

Nicolas Petan, Centre, Portland Winterhawks:  A second round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2013, the team has made Portland a virtual farm club up the middle with Petan the first line centre ahead of De Leo. Petan had another monster year in Portland last year, leading the WHL in assists for the second straight year.  He’s another small player, but again he has the skating ability that allows him to overcome that size with his great first step and 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 when they set him up. 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. He is not intimidated to go up against bigger and stronger opponents. Petan has also shown to be a reliable defensive player and often contributes on Portland’s penalty kill unit. Petan should once again be a contender in the WHL scoring race.

Shea Theodore, Defence, Seattle Thunderbirds: A first round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2013, Theodore put up 79 points in 70 games for the Thunderbirds last season, leading his team in scoring, and leading the WHL in scoring by a defenceman. Theodore’s skating is at an elite level and defines his game. He has excellent speed and acceleration, and this allows him to lead the rush, or to 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 developing into an excellent offensive producer. In addition to his skating ability, he has great stickhandling and excellent poise. Couple this with very 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 can score from the point on the power play.

Jason Fram, Defence, Spokane Chiefs:  Fram put up 6 goals and 51 assists for 57 points for the Chiefs last season.  He shows decent mobility on the blueline, with good speed in both directions, and solid edgework and agility.  Fram’s biggest asset though is his hockey sense, he seems to always make the right play, whether its his first pass, or deciding when to lead/join the rush, quarterbacking the powerplay or pinching in to keep the play alive.  He also is very good at reading the play and can make key interceptions and then transitioning the puck up the ice. Fram could stand to have a better slapshot though, as it lacks power.  He does have a knack of getting it through to the net though. He is currently at Calgary Flames training camp, trying to earn an entry-level contract with the team (but even if he gets one, he’d still likely be sent back to the Chiefs).

Adam Helewka, Left Wing, Spokane Chiefs: Helewka is Spokane’s highest returning scorer amongst the forwards as the winger put up 23 goals and 50 points last season.  He will be expected to lead the offence this year after the departures of Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani.  He has a very good shot and release, and has the hockey sense to find holes in the defence to unleash it.  Helewka plays a smart and simple game. He doesn’t try a lot of fancy things, but instead uses his 6’1″ frame to protect the puck down low, work the cycle, find an open teammate and then attack the net.  He battles well in the corners and supports the defence in the back check.  Helewka could bring some experience and some offence to a contender at the trade deadline, as its likely to be a rough year for the Chiefs, and moving vets for picks and prospects will be a key task for the team come late December.

Eric Comrie, Goalie, 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 can still improve.  He should be one of the best goalies in the league and will be heavily relied upon in Tri-City.

Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Paul Bittner, Left Wing, Portland Winterhawks:  The big winger (6’4″) will be part of the Winterhawks first line this season and after 22 goals and 49 points last season, he has the chance to really take a step forward this season.  He has the size and skills to be a budding power forward, with the strong, powerful stride to fight through checks, and the soft hands to finish plays in tight.  He also has a very powerful wrist shot and an excellent release.  Bittner is not afraid to stand in front of the net and cause havoc for the opposing goaltender and is more than willing to battle for pucks in the corners, and to throw or take a big hit.  He’s also very polished defensively for a draft eligible player.  A good season would solidify this late-96 birthdate as a first round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Matthew Barzal, Centre, Seattle Thunderbirds: The first overall pick in the 2012 WHL Draft, Barzal showed why he was taken so high in his rookie season in the WHL (54 points in 59 games), and helping Canada to a Bronze medal at the Under 18s, and gold at the Ivan Hlinka. Barzal is an outstanding skater, with top notch speed, great acceleration and outstanding pivots and edge work. He also has incredibly soft hands, great stick handling, 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 does need to use that shot more, and would score more goals if he was a little more selfish. He has 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.  If he can go out and have a huge season in Seattle he could push himself into the conversation for top 5 in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Ryan Gropp, Left Wing, Seattle Thunderbirds:  One day too young for the 2014 NHL Draft, Gropp joins linemate Barzal as a potential first rounder in the 2015 NHL Draft.  He has good size at 6’3″ and is willing to use it to protect the puck and to battle in and around the net.  He has tremendous speed and great acceleration that allow him to keep up with Barzal as the two form an excellent combination on the rush.  Gropp is a sniper with the soft hands to finish plays in close, and an excellent wrist shot and release to score from further out. A potential power forward in the making he loves to drive the net. He also has the vision to make plays off the wing.  Gropp is another potential first rounder going into the season, but his play this year, and developing consistency will be key for him to be taken that high.

Brandon Carlo, Defence, Tri-City Americans: At 6’5″ Carlo has the size that NHL teams covet on the blue line.  While he doesn’t have much in terms of an offensive game, he is a shutdown defensive defenceman.  Carlo has very good mobility for a big man, showing a good first step, solid acceleration, and a powerful skating stride. He is willing to play a physical game and finish his checks, but must add some muscle to play that game more effectively.  At this point wear likely looking at a second round pick, but some offensive development could see him taken higher.

Parker Wotherspoon, Defence, Tri-City Americans: The brother of Flames defence prospect Ty Wotherspoon, Parker is an outstanding skater.  He shows the ability to skate the puck out of danger in his own zone, and to join the rush, while still getting back defensively.  He is a good stickhandler, and has shown some ability to quarterback the powerplay with good vision and smart passes.  He could stand to bulk up and work on having a harder shot. Wotherspoon has excellent size and uses a long stick to break up plays in the defensive zone.  Should improve on his 18 point rookie season this year, and its looking like he could be taken in the second round or third round of the NHL draft at this point.


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