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WHL Central 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 Central Division Preview

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

CTopShelfProspectsalgary Hitmen: The Hitmen return another strong team in 2014-15, and while its been said that “this is their year” before, and they have fallen short, this could be Calgary’s last kick at the can with this core group to win the WHL title.  With players like Jake Virtanen, Greg Chase, Adam Tambellini, and Mike Winther leading the offensive charge they should definetely have the offence to do it.  The defensive end of the ice isn’t quite as good as last year as Defenders Jaynen Rissling and Alex Roach are gone.  However Travis Sanheim really stepped up late last year and is prepared to take over as the number one defenceman.  Ben Thomas provides a capable number two and their is plenty of supporting depth behind them.  The biggest question mark is in goal where Chris Dreidger is now part of the Ottawa Senators organization (likely to be in Binghamton) and will be replaced by Mack Shields.  If he can provide solid goaltending, the Hitmen can be a very scary team this season.

Edmonton Oil Kings:  The Oil Kings have spent three years in the upper echelons of the WHL, winning the league title in 2012, going to the league final in 2013, and winning the title and adding the Memorial Cup last year.  However losses of Henrik Samuelsson, Griffin Reinhart, Cody Corbett, and Mitch Moroz hurt.  If Edgars Kulda makes the jump to the AHL in Phoenix’s system, and Curtis Lazar cracks the Senators lineup, they will be down most of the core of that Championship squad.  Its very much wait and see on those two.  Back with the team for sure are Brett Pollack who should lead the offence, Brandon Baddock who could be on the top line, and Mads Eller who should be able to improve on a disappointing 2013-14 season.  The defence will feature Dyson Mayo and Aaron Irving leading the way.  Edmonton’s greatest strength though, comes in goal where Tristan Jarry is one of the CHL’s best.

Red Deer Rebels: This young team is on the way up.  Haydn Fleury is already a stud on the blue line and was taken 7th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes.  Conner Bleackley is a solid two-way centre, and was also a first round pick, this time by the Colorado Avalanche.  Brett Cote comes in from Victoria to help Fleury on the back end and Devan Fafard is another returnee who brings a tough defensive presence.  Brooks Maxwell will likely join Bleackley on the first line and should be able to add to his goal scoring totals.  Grayson Pawlenchuk and Adam Musil are youngsters who could be high picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. The big question for the Rebels is in goal, where they lack an experienced netminder.  If the Rebels are contending they can really upgrade this area with a trade deadline deal.


Players to Watch:

Travis Sanheim, Defence, Calgary Hitmen:  A first round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, Sanheim really came on in the second half last season.   He is an excellent skater with very good top end speed in both directions, strong acceleration, and an excellent first step.  His pivots and edgework are extremely good for a man his size, and it gives him strong mobility in all directions. Defensively, Sanheim is very difficult to beat one-on-one.  His excellent mobility and strong footwork keeps attacking forwards to the outside and makes him very hard to beat off the rush. Sanheim uses his long stick to cut down passing and shooting lanes and take away options when opponents are set up in the zone.  He isn’t afraid to use his big frame to block shots and does so effectively. Offensively, Sanheim is more likely to join the rush as a trailer than to lead it. However he does have the stickhandling and the skating skills to move the puck out of danger in his own zone.  He makes a smart first pass and can be key to starting the transition game. He is also a very good passer from the blueline, making smart offensive reads and heads up plays to create scoring opportunities. His point shot is good, but not elite. However, his ability to get it through to the net effectively by walking the line and opening up shooting lanes, and also by utilizing a quick wrister at times to keep defences off balance really adds to its effectiveness.

Ben Thomas, Defence, Calgary Hitmen: A fourth round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, Thomas has good size (6’2″) and solid mobility on the blue line. He has good speed and acceleration going forward but could use some work on his speed going backwards.  He makes up for it though with excellent agility, and strong edgework and pivots. Thomas is able to use that lateral agility in the offensive zone as well, walking the line extremely well and opening up passing and shooting lanes from the point.   He has very good vision and excellent passing skill.  He is patient with the puck on his stick and willing to wait for a play to open up rather than force things and create giveaways. Thomas has a good shot, but best of all understands how to get it through traffic and on net.  Does a good job of keeping his shot low for tip-ins and rebound opportunities for teammates.  Defensively Thomas struggled in September and October last season but really improved as the season went on, with a better physical game being key to clearing the crease and winning battles. He could stand to be better at using his stick though to create turnovers, as he doesn’t utilitze his reach to cut down passing lanes as well as he could.  A little bit better positioning and anticipation would really help Thomas become a truly stout defender.  Its not that he is a bad defender now, its just that this would make him even more effective.

Jake Virtanen, Right Wing, Calgary Hitmen: The 6th overall pick of the Vancouver Canucks, Virtanen is a power forward prospect who never hesitates to get involved physically. He loves to hit, and be involved in board battles. Virtanen takes the puck to the net at every opportunity, and has has the creative stickhandling and agility to beat a defender with slick moves, but is also willing to go through them if necessary. Virtanen is a pure goal scorer who scores in tight with soft hands, and also has an excellent shot with big time power, great accuracy and a tremendously quick release. Virtanen started to take his game to another level late last year as he showed flashes of true dominance. While Virtanen is more of a goal scorer than a playmaker, he does have decent passing skills and vision as well. An outstanding skater, Virtanen was the fastest skater at the CHL top prospects game skills competition in both forwards and backwards skating.  He has great acceleration, and his long and powerful stride gives him good balance and allows him to fight through checks.  He also is good defensively as he backchecks hard, and is willing to be physical in all three zones. Virtanen may miss the start of the season recovering through off-season shoulder surgery.

Tristan Jarry, Goaltender, Edmonton Oil Kings: A second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013, Jarry plays a very athletic, butterfly style. His technique is good and he gets in and out of the butterfly very quickly and does not leave large gaps between his legs or between his arms and body. Jarry has quick legs throwing out his pads to take away the bottom of the net. His glove hand is excellent and takes away the top corner. He moves around the crease well, with good puck tracking and the ability to go post-to-post with ease. His backwards skating is also solid which allows him to challenge shooters. While having solid technique, Jarry is also very instinctive and more than just a “puck blocker” as he has great reflexes and can make the odd diving save that you wouldn’t expect him to be able to get to. Jarry likes to leave the crease and play the puck. He often acts like a third defenceman and is successful at easing the pressure on his defence, making a long breakout pass when the other team gets caught on a change. One of the best goalies in junior hockey, he will compete for a spot on Canada’s National Junior team with incumbent Zach Fucale, Eric Comrie and others.

Curtis Lazar, Centre, Edmonton Oil Kings: A first round pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2013, Lazar is a huge question mark for the Oil Kings, as he could make the team and not return to junior hockey.  He is the heart and soul of the Oil Kings and losing him would be a massive blow.  With Lazar, the Oil Kings would put up a battle with the Hitmen for first in this division, but if he’s gone they will battle to stay ahead of Red Deer and Medicine Hat, he’s that important to the team.

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. 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 effectively fights through checks and protects the puck. Lazar is a pure goal scorer. He has an outstanding wrist shot and pro-level release. He also has an excellent slap shot. Add to this arsenal, the soft hands to finish plays in close and the quick hand eye co-ordination to make delections and pounce on rebounds. Lazar also plays a rugged game and is willing to hit on the forecheck or battle along the boards, or in the cycle. He’s not afraid to play in the dirty areas of the ice. Lazar could be a bit more of a playmaker, as he does show good vision and passing skill at times, but doesn’t do it often enough. Defensively, Lazar is amongst the best checking forwards in junior.  His two-way game is excellent, as are his face-off 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 back check. He helps out down low and contains his man to the outside, cutting down shooting and passing lanes. Lazar has a quick stick and intercepts a lot of passes, and is willing to block shots for his team.

Brett Pollock, Centre/Left Wing, Edmonton Oil Kings: While Pollock was used mostly on the wing last year, he should see more time at centre this season.  A second round pick of the Dallas Stars, Pollock looks the part of a power forward.  He has great size (though he could add muscle before going pro game) and the powerful skating stride ideal for a power forward. He has very good top-end speed, and the acceleration to go wide on a defender and take him to the net. The best thing about Pollock’s skating though is the power and balance. He can fight through checks and is perfectly willing to bowl over a defender on his way to the net. Once he gets to the front of the net, Pollock has the soft hands to score in tight, and the quick reflexes to tip in shots, or pounce on rebounds. He can also score goals from further out with a good wrist shot and release and excellent one timer.  His passing game is solid, and he works it well both off the rush, or in the cycle game.  Pollock is quick to get on defencemen on the forecheck and loves to use his body to create pressure and turnovers. He also wins his fair share of board battles. He’s shown a mean streak and a willingness to drop the gloves to protect teammates when necessary. Pollock has also shown that he is decent defensively, though the top assignments on the Oil Kings went to Lazar previously, and he faced mostly second lines.  If Lazar isn’t back, the competition will be a step up.

Dysin Mayo, Defence, Edmonton Oil Kings: A fifth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, Mayo is a solid skater with a smooth stride and good speed.  He has good lateral agility allowing him to keep opponents in front of him on the rush, and to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone.   Mayo is a solid puckhandler.  He protects the puck very well, and combines this with his skating skill to roll off checks, avoid forecheckers and skate the puck out of danger in his own zone.  He can both lead the rush and join in as a trailer, while recovering defensively.  Mayo has good vision and passing skills making a strong first pass out of his zone or quarterbacking things on the powerplay.  His wrist shot shows a good release and his slap shot and wrist shot are both accurate and he knows how to get them on net through traffic.  However, he could use more power in his shot as it is just average. He is also  a solid defender who keeps the play in front of him and is tough to beat one-on-on with a good stick and a quick poke check to knock pucks away from attackers.  He is willing to play physical preferring to throw old-school hip checks when he gets the opportunity.

Jaedon Descheneau, Right Wing/Centre, Kootenay Ice: Passed over in the 2013 Draft, Descheneau was taken in the 5th round of the 2014 draft by the St. Louis Blues after he put up 44 goals and 98 points last season.  He was riding shotgun for Sam Reinhart last season, and the big question is if he can put up similar numbers without the second overall pick in the NHL Draft on his line.  Personally, we expect another good season, as Descheneau has the skill to shine at the junior level. Descheneau is a very good skater with good acceleration and top end speed.  It is his agility and edgework though that are his best assets, as he is extremely shifty and avoids defenders in the offensive zone.  He has good stickhandling and can make plays while moving at top speed. Deschenau has a great wrist shot and release, and adds good passing skills to that to be a dual threat offensively. His biggest issue is the fact he’s 5’9″ and teams are unsure if his game will translate at the pro level, but it definitely works in the WHL. If Kootenay looks to rebuild, he’ll fetch a good price at the deadline.

Luke Philp, Centre/Right Wing, Kootenay Ice: Philp put up 77 points in 71 games for the Ice last season, and will be expected to provide that and more if he’s going to help fill the offensive void left by Sam Reinhart likely playing for the Sabres this season. Undrafted despite putting up over a point-per-game in his draft year, its once again an issue of size as Philp also measures 5’9″. He also spent time on Reinhart’s wing last season, but should be playing centre this year.  Philp has exceptional hockey sense as he always seems to make the right play with the puck, and has an uncanny ability to find openings in the defense while in the offensive zone.  He has a hard wrist shot with a good release and a very good one-timer.  Philp is not afraid to play in the dirty areas despite his size.  He has good but not great speed, and that is also an issue for his pro chances (while it doesn’t hurt him in the WHL).  He really must become a superb skater to succeed at the next level given his lack of size.

Reid Duke, Centre, Lethbridge Hurricanes: A Minnesota Wild draftee, Duke Scored 15 goals and 40 points in 62 games for Lethbridge last season. He was a solid two-way player, who showed hard work, grit and physical play in all three zones, and defensive responsibility.  A good skater, with solid speed, decent acceleration and good edgework and agility. Duke could stand to work on core strength and balance though. Offensively he is a very good playmaker with strong vision and passing skills.  His shot is underrated and he needs to use it more often.  Will be a key player for the Hurricanes this season, and you can expect to see his point totals increase dramatically.

Tommy Vannelli, Defence, Medicine Hat Tigers:  A 2013 St. Louis Blues draftee, Vanelli will lead the Tigers blueline this season.  He has great mobility including very good top end speed moving both forwards and backwards.  His acceleration is also very good, and he has excellent first step quickness. Vanelli also has great lateral mobility. This aids him in all aspects of his game, as he closes down gaps on defenders, and is hard to beat one-on-one. Offensively it allows him to walk the line in the offensive zone to open up passing and shooting lanes, or to be elusive when carrying the puck out of the defensive zone or through the neutral zone on the rush. He has very good edgework and pivots as well, and is thus able to cover a lot of ice. Vanelli is an excellent stickhandler. He protects the puck very well and can lead the rush from the backend. He is a good passer whether it be a crisp, smooth outlet pass, or in running the point on the powerplay. His vision, and patience allow him to be a future powerplay quarterback. Vanelli’s slap shot is decent, but not overpowering.  He could stand to add some muscle to his frame and it may improve as that happens. His wrist shot is accurate and features a good release.

Conner Bleackley, Centre, Red Deer Rebels: A first round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, Bleackley uses his size and speed to get in quickly on the forecheck and play physically. He has a very good wrist shot and a quick release. Bleackley shows the ability to drive hard to the net, and has good balance and strength on his skates to fight through checks and battle in the dirty areas of the ice, in front of the net and in the corners. Its not always pretty, but it is effective. He’s as likely to bull rush through a defenceman to get to the net, as he is to go around them. He excels in getting to the dirty areas of the ice, and playing a high contact, gritty style of game. He has the quick hands to pounce on rebounds and put them in the back of the net in tight, or to make a quick move on the goaltender as he cuts to the net. Bleackley is very good in the cycle game, and his hockey IQ helps him to make quick, smart passes and wait for openings. He understands that a shift can be effective if his line controls the puck down low, even if they don’t get a goal or scoring chance, especially when playing against the other team’s best players. Bleackley is well developped defensively for an 18-year old. He’s good in the face-off circle, and while the WHL doesn’t keep stats, seems to win a good number of his draws. He also backchecks hard, and is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win, whether it be block shots, or play against the other teams’s top lines, and kill penalties.

Haydn Fleury, Defence, Red Deer Rebels: The 7th overall pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, Fleury is a sold defender, with long reach, and the ability to cut down passing lanes. Over the last two years he has continually gotten stronger and better in board battles. Fleury was given key minutes in all situations for the Rebels last season and will get more of the same this year. His ability to read the play, his positioning, and overall defensive fundamentals have taken a huge step forward, and he has become a shut-down defender at the WHL level.  He is equally good at defending against the rush and defending in the zone, as he has great gap control and is tough to beat to the outside. Offensively he also has decent puck handling skill and good vision and passing ability. He makes strong first passes to start the transition game, and also has the poise to quarterback the power play from the blue line. While not having a huge point shot, it isn’t bad either, and he understands how to get it through the shooting lanes without being blocked. His wrist shot is remarkably effective, showing big power and a great release.  The quick release often makes it a better option for him from the point. He’s shown offensive production that just wasn’t there in his rookie year and given the skill set its not that surprising. His point totals will grow as the forwards on Red Deer improve, and his own game develops.


Draft Eligible Players to Watch:

Giorgio Estephan, Centre Lethbridge Hurricanes: The 4th overall pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Estephan is a talented centre with decent size.  He is a very good stick handler with the soft hands to finish plays in close to the net, and the vision and passing skills to set up teammates. He has a strong shot, and a good release, and can score from further out as well.  Estephan is willing to play a physical game, and gets to the dirty areas of the ice in the offensive zone.  Defensively he must be more consistent on the back check and more responsible in order to improve his draft stock.

Connor Hobbs, Defence, Medicine Hat Tigers: While Hobbs didn’t play many games with the Tigers last season, he did play a role on Canada’s 2014 Ivan Hlinka Team which came home with gold.  He showed to be a good stickhandler, who is poised with the puck on his stick, and makes strong passes in both the offensive zone, and in the breakout.  Hobbs also showed good mobility, and the willingness to be physical in the defensive zone.  If he can put together a full season of what he did at the Hlinka, he could be taken in the top two rounds of the NHL draft.

Grayson Pawlenchuk, Left Wing, Red Deer Rebels:  An excellent two-way player, Pawlenchuk earned big minutes on the penalty kill, and tough defensive zone assignments as a 16-year-old under Brent Sutter last season.  Offensively he plays a simple but effective game.  He gets in quickly on the forecheck and creates turnovers with his speed. Pawlenchuk is very good at protecting the puck in the cycle game, and is a strong passer.  He could be a second or third round pick.  If his offense really takes off, could go even higher.

Adam Musil, Centre, Red Deer Rebels: The son of Frank Musil, Adam is a potential power forward, who played for Team Canada and won a gold medal at the summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament.  At 6’3″ he is a very good stickhandler, and he uses his long reach and good size to protect the puck down low on the cycle.  He also has a strong and powerful stride, which gives him the speed to go wide on the rush and the power to fight through checks and get to the front of the net.  Musil is a very good passer, who has excellent vision.  If he can improve the power on his shot and his release, he can really jump up draft boards this year.


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