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WHL East 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 East Division Preview

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

Brandon Wheat KingsTopShelfProspects: Despite the fact that team MVP Ryan Pulock has graduated, all indications are that the East Division is right there for the taking for the Wheat Kings this season. Led up front by John Quenneville, Jayce Hawryluk, Peter Quenneville, Rihards Bukarts and Tim McGauley the Wheat Kings feature forwards who can put the puck in the net and play a responsible two-way game.  Meanwhile, youngsters Jesse Gabrielle, Braylon Shmyr and Nolan Patrick should provide some offensive impact as well.  On the blueline, Ryan Pilon looks to take over much of Pulock’s responsibilities and while he won’t completely fill those shoes, he’s more than capable of being a decent first pairing defender.  Overager Eric Roy could be back to provide experience and also play big minutes.  Kale Clague was a high pick in the 2013 WHL draft, and joins the squad this year, while Ivan Provorov joins the defence as an import. Jordan Papirny comes back for his second season in goal.  Overall the team has all the pieces in place to make a run at the WHL title, but are still extremely young.  The next couple years will be exciting in Brandon.

Swift Current Broncos:  The Broncos may have the best defence in the entire WHL.  They feature NHL prospects in Dillon Heatherington, Brett Lernout, and Brycen Martin.  The big question mark though is Julius Honka.  The 13th overall pick in the NHL Draft, there are reports that Honka may return to his native Finland instead of the WHL if he doesn’t make the Dallas Stars this season. Upfront Colby Cave and Coda Gordon are overagers who will lead the offence.  Sophomores Jake DeBrusk and Glenn Gawdin should take on bigger roles in their second season with the club.  The big question for the Broncos is in goal where Landon Bow moves from the backup to starter position.

Regina Pats:  The Regina Pats offence will run through 2013 Calgary Flames first rounder Morgan Klimchuk who is an elite WHL sniper.  He’ll be helped out by overagers Logan McVeigh and Braden Christoffer, while Dryden Hunt and Connor Gay provide secondary scoring. 16-year-old Sam Steel was the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 WHL draft and is expected to contribute right away. Colby Williams and Kyle Burroughs return on the blueline while Daniel Wapple starts in goal again.  They’ve lost some talent from the club that won the division last season, but there is still enough here to be a solid playoff team this season.


Players to Watch

Jayce Hawryluk, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings: Drafted 32nd overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2014 NHL Draft, Hawryluk is an undersized, but extremely skilled forward. Hawryluk has good speed and very good acceleration, which complements his strong edgework and agility. Still his best assets are his core strength and balance as he is very hard to knock off the puck, forechecks hard, wins board battles, and plays a strong 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 himself in front of the net.  Hawryluk doesn’t allow his size to be a factor in his game, playing quite a gritty style. At 190 pounds, he also has packed a lot of muscle onto that 5’10” frame already, though there may be the opportunity to be leaner and even stronger going forward. Hawryluk has extremely good hockey sense. He uses strong stickhandling, and poise with the puck, to slow the game down and he makes smart plays. He has good vision and passing skills. Hawryluk is able to find openings in the defence without the puck, setting himself up as an outlet in the cycle or for a one-timer. His wrist shot has decent power and is extremely accurate, and the release is quick.  He is also well developed defensively.

John Quenneville, Left Wing/Centre Brandon Wheat Kings: Drafted 30th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2014 NHL Draft, Quenneville is a solid two-way forward with the versatility to play both left wing and centre.  He really improved last year in all three zones and looks to take another step forward this season. Offensively, Quenneville is at his best controlling the puck down low on the cycle game and setting up teammates with good vision, and very high hockey IQ.  He can drive the net when given the opportunity and has the soft hands to finish in close.  Quenneville is strong on the puck and his long reach and good puck skills really help him to protect the puck down low. He’s not afraid to battle in the corners and in front of the net, and should only get better at this as he adds some bulk to what is currently a somewhat slender frame. Quenneville also has a strong and accurate shot, allowing him to score from further out. He has good speed, but needs some work on his first step and acceleration going forward.  Defensively, Quenneville is very strong and well developed.  He offers great support to his defenceman both in back pressure on the rush, and in defending the cycle game down low.  He is decent in the face-off circle and should only get better with experience.  Quenneville can also be a real pest to the other team’s top players.

Brayden Point, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors: A third round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Point scored 91 points last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, he will be looking to take a run at putting up 100 points this year. Point is a player who seemingly has it all, except for one thing, size. At 5’9″ 160 lbs, major questions exist if he will be able to endure the rigours of professional hockey. While he can’t do much about that height, he really will need to bulk up to make his NHL dream into a reality.  For now though he’s a dominant junior player.  Point is a very good skater, with good speed, very good acceleration and a quick first step. His agility and edgework are both very good, and his balance and strength on the puck is surprising for a player his size. He is very tough to knock off the puck, and he can be gritty and win board battles due to his good balance. Point is an excellent playmaker. His hockey sense, vision, passing skills and decision making are all at a very high level. His stickhandling is also good. He has the ability to control the puck and the poise to slow the play down and wait for a teammate to get open. Point also has a very good scoring touch in close to the net where he tips in shots or pounces on rebounds, he also has the soft hands to make a move and fool a goaltender in tight. Brayden Point could stand to have more power on his wrist shot, but it is accurate and features a good release. Added bulk should improve that. Point plays the game hard in all three zones. He is gritty on the back check and willing to battle against bigger players in his own end of the rink.

Josh Morrissey, Defence, Prince Albert Raiders: Drafted 13th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2013 NHL Draft, Morrissey is amongst the best skaters in all of junior hockey.  His skating is outstanding by nearly any measure and defines his game at both ends of the rink.  Morrissey is very slick offensively as he put up 73 points in 59 games last year. He combines very good stickhandling with his great skating to carry the puck through the neutral zone and lead the rush at times for Prince Albert. If not leading the rush, he can effectively join the play as a trailer, and has good instincts for jumping up. He also has great vision, and pin point passing skills with his first pass, or in quarterbacking the play in the offensive zone. Morrissey has developed his slap shot over the past year, and it seems to be harder than it was in his draft year. He also knows how to keep his shot low shot low at key times and to get it on net despite the traffic in front, allowing teammates to get screens, rebounds, and tips. Morrissey also has a really good wrist shot, and an excellent release which he can use off the rush or if he can’t get the time to get his slapshot off. His hockey sense is top notch, and he almost always makes the right decision in the offensive zone. Morrissey has all the tools to be a high level offensive contributor from the blue line and a future powerplay quarterback if he continues on this path. In his own zone, Morrissey just keeps improving. He plays an effective positional game, always keeping the opponent in front of him, and doing a good job to take away time and space. He doesn’t run around looking for hits, but has shown that when the opportunity presents itself he can be extremely physical, and throw a big check.

Morgan Klimchuk, Right Wing, Regina Pats: 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 if very good and he fights through checks well and is strong on the puck.

Alex Forsberg, Centre, Saskatoon Blades: The former first overall pick in the WHL draft, Alex Forsberg’s time with the Prince George Cougars was rocky at best as he never seemed to be on the same page with team management.  Acquired by the Blades as a buy-low trade this off-season it remains to be seen if playing closer to home for the Saskatchwan native can finally allow Forsberg to show off his offensive skills on a consistent basis. Forsberg not only has to be far more consistent than he has been to date in his WHL career, he also has to rehabilitate his reputation if he wants a shot at pro hockey after his WHL career is done. At his best, Forsberg is extremely talented with the puck on his stick and has a wide array of nifty moves and dangles to help him beat opponents one on one.  He also has excellent vision and the ability to thread the puck through the eye of a needle.  Forsberg also has a hard wrist shot and quick release. He has all the tools necessary to succeed, but just can’t seem to put it together. He needs to work in all three zones this year.

Nelson Nogier, Defence, Saskatoon Blades: Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 4th round of the 2o14 Draft. 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.

Nikita Scherbak, Right Wing, Saskatoon Blades: The elephant in the room in Saskatoon.  The Montreal Canadiens’ first round pick is extremely talented and his 78 points led the rebuilding Blades by a large margin last year.  However, the Blades don’t project to be a contender this year, and as a late 96 birthdate, this is likely Scherbak’s last year of junior hockey. They also have three imports on the roster right now (and can only keep two) so there is plenty of speculation that they will move Scherbak for younger players and draft picks to accelerate their rebuild, once Scherbak returns from Montreal Canadiens’ training camp.

So what will the Blades or this new team get? Nikita Scherbak is an excellent skater.  His stride may not be textbook, but he has great speed and acceleration despite this. His first step is particularly fast and allows him to be first on many loose pucks.  Scherbak also has very good edgework and agility.  The acceleration and the edgework makes him very elusive off the rush with his quick cuts, and his ability to generate speed quickly to take advantage of any opening those cuts can create.  He has decent balance and is strong on the puck, especially given his frame.  This is one area where he can only improve as he adds muscle going forward. Scherbak is a very good stickhandler who is able to make a wide variety of moves at top speed.  Combined with his skating he is extremely elusive on the rush.  He also has outstanding vision and great passing skills.  Scherbak is also able to utilize these passing skills in the cycle game and works well down low.  He will become even more effective when he adds that muscle to his frame which will make even better at protecting the puck.  Scherbak is not afraid to battle in the corners or in front of the net though, and plays a gritty style.  He also has a very good wrist shot and release which helps him to score goals.  Add to this high end hockey IQ and ability to read the game, and you have a dynamic offensive player.

Julius Honka, Defence, Swift Current Broncos:  The elephant in the room in Swift Current.  Honka is currently at Dallas Stars training camp and trying to make the team, after being the Stars first round pick, 14th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.  Even if he doesn’t make the team there is a chance Honka could end up in his native Finland, spending the year playing professional hockey against men, rather than in the WHL.

Julius Honka projects as an offensive defenceman. He is a great skater who can both lead the rush or join in as a trailer.  He has excellent speed and very good acceleration.  He has good edgework, and excellent agility.  In the offensive zone Honka is able to walk the line and open up shooting and passing lanes to create offence.   He Has great mobility, has very good pivots and is also extremely quick skating backwards.  This and a quick stick help him to defend against the rush.  Offensively Honka, has good stickhandling ability, excellent vision and passing skill.  Honka is excellent in the role of powerplay quarterback and can create a ton of chances when he is given time and space.  He has a booming slapshot and very good one-timer from the point.  Has the knack to get this shot through and on net around the defenders that defend high to try and prevent it.  He also has effective wrist and snaps shots and a very good release on both. Honka has good offensive hockey sense and can pick the right time to pinch in for an offensive chance.  Even when he makes a poor decision his quick skating can often help him to recover.  Defensively, he has a good stick and good anticipation, but must overcome a lack of size and strength.

Dillon Heatherington, Defence, Swift Current Broncos: A second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013, 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.

Brycen Martin, Defence, Swift Current Broncos: Selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2014 NHL Draft. Martin is a very good skater with solid speed in both directions and good acceleration. His pivots are merely average, and could use some work going forward though. Martin does have the edge work, agility and lateral mobility necessary to be extremely mobile at the back-end if he can improve on those pivots. Offensively Martin makes strong passes on the breakout and on the power play at times. He isn’t likely to lead the rush but can be effect as a trailer and makes smart pinches in the offensive zone. Martin is poised with the puck on his stick and keeps his head up and finds the smart play. He also has a decent wrist shot, and a good slap shot/one-timer from the point. Defensively, Martin is a smart player who is good positionally and works hard in battles along the boards and in front of the net.  He shows a willingness to take a hit in order to make a good breakout pass in his own zone. He’s not a huge hitter but is willing to play physical when necessary.  Being consistent has been an issue.


Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Ryan Pilon, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings: A late 96 Birthday, Pilon is going into his third year in the WHL.  He is 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.  Pilon has a good shot and one-timer from the point as well.  He put up 7 goals and 36 points last year in 66 games split between Brandon and Lethbridge and I expect he’ll up his offence this season.  With his strong skating, he could really move up on draft boards, and currently projects as a 2nd or 3rd round pick.  Pilon is the nephew of former NHLer Rich Pilon.  He was also part of Team Canada at the U18s last spring and won a Bronze medal.

Jesse Gabrielle, Left Wing, Brandon Wheat Kings: Gabrielle may be 5’11, but already over 200 pounds he plays a power forwards game.  He loves to hit, and causes a lot of turnovers by putting pressure on the defence on the forecheck.  He also wins a ton of board battles, and more than holds his own getting to the front of the net, and being an effective finisher in close.  Gabrielle had 10 fights last season, showing that he’s not afraid to drop the gloves when necessary.  His skating is good, but not great as he could work on a better first step and better acceleration.  That said, he gets where he’s going and is aided by the fact that he just never stops moving his feet.  Hardworking and gritty in all three zones, he’s already attracted the attention of KHL scouts as he was drafted in their annual draft, and the NHL scouts will be watching closely this season.

Zach Sawchenko, Goaltender, Moose Jaw Warriors: One thing that stands out for such a young goaltender is Sawchenko’s rebound control.  Its not perfect, but was very good considering his age.  Sawchenko plays a strong butterfly technique and has extremely good reflexes.  He also gets post to post quickly and tracks the puck well.  One area he can improve is coming out further and playing his angles better as Sawchenko has a tendency to sit too deep in his crease.  He’s already behind the eight-ball as he’s just 6’0 which puts him on the smaller side of highly drafted goaltenders in recent years, and so he will need to come out and cut down on his angles to maximize the size he does have.  Growing an inch or two before the NHL combine also wouldn’t hurt.

Matteo Gennaro, Centre/Left Wing, Prince Albert Raiders: Gennauro has good size as he’s already listed at 6’1″, and has a longstride that really helps him to generate power. It also helps him to fight through checks and drive the net.  Gennaro has the soft hands to finish in tight, as well as the balance to win battles in front of the net and gain position in key areas of the ice.  Gennaro has a powerful wrist shot, and quick release giving him the ability to score goals from further out as well. He also protects the puck extremely well and is very strong in the cycle game. Gennaro could use a bit more speed in his skating though.


2016 Draft Eligible Player to Watch

Sam Steel, Centre, Regina Pats:  Sam Steel struggled, not recording a single point in five regular season games and two playoff games with the Pats last year.  However, with 6 goals and 10 assists in 4 pre-season games, the 2013 WHL Draft’s second overall pick announced that he was ready for WHL hockey.  Steel is an outstanding skater with strong speed, great acceleration, and outstanding agility.  Once he gets a step on a defender, he’s gone.  He has outstanding stickhandling ability and very soft hands.  Steel also has a good wrist shot, a quick release, and the vision and passing skills to be an offensive dynamo.  Being a 16-year old in any major junior league is tough, but Steel should get plenty of top 6 opportunities in Regina, and is definitely one to watch for 2016.


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