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. The QMJHL kicked off their new season on September 10th, while things are set to start on September 24th in the OHL and WHL. With that in mind we will start our division previews out east and work our way across the country this year.
In any event, you can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2015-16 WHL EAST DIVISION PREVIEW
THE TOP 3 CONTENDERS (IN ORDER OF HOW I FEEL THEY WILL FINISH)
Brandon Wheat Kings: The Wheat Kings come into the season as one of the top contenders for both the WHL title and the Memorial Cup. Tim McGauley, Jayce Hawryluk John Quenneville and potential 2017 NHL Draft first overall pick Nolan Patrick, give this team plenty of scoring up front. The blue line with Ivan Provorov, Colton Waltz, and Kale Klague, is still strong, even if Ryan Pilon has taken his leave from the team. In goal Jordan Papirny will again get the majority of the starts. This team is well managed and coached by Kelly McCrimmon and with the talent he already has at his disposal he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal that could make them even better down the stretch and put the Wheat Kings over the top. There is a lot of anticipation in Brandon.
Regina Pats: The Pats are built around their strong defence corps. Colby Williams should be back as an overager, and lead a group that also includes Connor Hobbs, James Hilsendager, and Sergei Zborovskiy. Behind them is goaltenders Daniel Wapple and Tyler Brown who form a solid tandem. The Pats will need to get more production out of Kings prospect Austin Wagner if they are going to challenge for the division crown. He has the skills, but hasn’t yet scored points. In his third year, a breakout could happen. Sam Steel and Jesse Gabriel should also be big parts of the attack.
Swift Current Broncos: Matteo Gennaro, Reid Gardiner, and Simon Stransky are back to lead the Broncos offense. Meanwhile Sabres prospect Brendan Guhle leads on the blue line, and newcomer Vojtech Budik has a lot of potential. Nick McBride and Ryan Parenteau are a strong goaltending duo. Add in solid overage players like Craig Leverton and Jordan Tkatch and you have a team that should stay competitive in the division, but still seems a step below our top two.
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.
Ivan Provorov, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings: Provorov is a very good skater. He has good speed and acceleration in both directions. He combines this with his solid stick handling to both lead and join the rush. With that speed he can sometimes recover defensively even when he makes a mistake. However, Provorov will need to learn to pick his spots better, as it sometimes seems he tries to go end-to-end every time he touches the puck, or join the rush. He will need to learn to pick his spots better. Provorov is a very good stick handler who protects the puck extremely well. He has the poise to control the puck at the blue line, and be the powerplay quarterback. He has good passing skills and vision, as he can make crisp tape-to-tape passes. Provorov has both a very good wrist shot, with a quick release as well as a strong slap shot from the point. Provorov is extremely good at moving laterally to open up passing and shooting lanes. He is a smart player who seems to always make a good play with the puck on his stick. In his own zone, he is extremely adapt at avoiding forecheckers and makes a great first pass. Provorov shows outstanding defensive skill as well, and if you take away the times he gets caught up the ice, has the potential to be a really good two-way defenceman.
John Quenneville, Centre/Left Wing, 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. Offensively, Quenneville is at his best controlling the puck down low on the cycle game and setting up teammates with good vision, and 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 in 2014, Point scored 87 points in just 60 games last season. He also won a world junior gold medal with Team Canada and will look to repeat that feat. 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.
Brendan Guhle, Defence, Prince Albert Raiders: A second round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2015, Guhle had 32 points for the Raiders last season. Guhle is a very strong skater. He has excellent speed and acceleration in both directions. This allows him to pinch down low, or to join the rush, and still be able to get back defensively. He also has very good pivots and edgework, allowing him to maintain good gap control, and making him hard to beat to the outside. If there is a criticism to his skating, it is that he lacks lower body strength which takes away from his balance and power. He loses battles along the boards and is not strong enough on the puck right now. Guhle is a strong offensive defenceman. His strong skating is combined with good puck handling skills making him someone who can lead the rush. He is also willing to join as a trailer, and a good array of shooting skills make him dangerous in this position, or at the point on the powerplay. He has a very hard slapshot and an excellent one-timer. He also utilizes a good wrist shot and snap shot, both of which feature a quick release. His ability to vary his shots, where he shoots from, and a willingness to go to both sides of the net and high or low all make him difficult to defend. He uses his agility to open up passing and shooting lanes, and can control the play and quarterback things from the point. Defensively he can be up and down. He has the skills to be very good in his own end, but must learn to avoid lapses and inconsistency.
Austin Wagner, Left Wing/Centre, Regina Pats: A fourth round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2015, Wagner’s production hasn’t yet caught up to the tools he possesses. Wagner is one of the fastest skaters in the league, and has elite level first step quickness and acceleration to go along with it. He flies through the neutral zone. On the rush he can go wide on a defender, drop his shoulder, and cut to the net quickly. His speed has created numerous odd man rushes and breakaways for the Regina winger. He can also use it to get in quickly on the forecheck and pressure defenders in the offensive zone. He’s thrown some absolutely crushing hits. Wagner’s skating skill also effects defensive aspects of his game, as he gets back quickly on the backcheck, supporting defenders down low. Wagner has good edgework and agility, and is able to make the quick cuts that get him past a defender and allow him to use that elite speed. He has good lower body strength which gives him balance in board battles and allows him to fight through checks. Wagner has an excellent wrist shot. It is hard and accurate, and he gets it off quickly. He also knows how to use defenders as a screen when firing that wrist shot off the rush, and does so when they have to back off to respect his speed and ability to go wide. He is also willing to drive the net hard, and get into the dirty areas, whether its in front of the net, or competing on the boards for loose pucks. Wagner is extremely effective at finding open ice and using his quickness to dart into good areas to take a pass and fire it on net. He could work to be a little bit quicker with his hands in front of the net, in getting off a shot on a rebound or getting a deflection.
Brycen Martin, Defence, Saskatoon Blades: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.
Jake DeBrusk, Left Wing, Swift Current Broncos: A first round pick of the Boston Bruins, Debrusk is strong on the puck, and has excellent balance on his skates. As a result he’s able to work the cycle game effectively, protecting and controlling the puck down low, fighting through checks and winning battles along the boards. He is also very good at fighting for space and establishing position in front of the net. Debrusk shows good acceleration, and the ability to make quick cuts that can help him to be elusive in the cycle. While he won’t be confused for a speedster, Debrusk does have decent top end speed. However its his first step quickness and his good acceleration that are the real assets here as they help Debrusk to win a lot of short races to loose pucks. Over the last year and a half Debrusk has become a goal scorer. He shows good hands in tight, to pounce on rebounds and get deflections as well as the willingness to get to those tough areas of the ice. Debrusk has an excellent arsenal of shots with good releases on his wrist shot, snap shot, and backhand. He could use a bit more power on those shots though, and a little added muscle would help in this area. Debrusk is able to create for teammates through his work in the cycle game, and in puck protection. Debrusk has decent passing skills and vision, and has the hockey IQ to make the right play. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and loves to throw the body, pressuring defenders to move the puck quickly and creating turnovers. While he plays a physical game, he is not the fighter that his father was. He’s had a few fights, but nowhere near what we would see out of his father Louie Debrusk.
Glenn Gawdin, Centre, Swift Current Broncos: A fourth round pick of the St. Louis Blues, Gawdin is an excellent playmaker. He has great vision and the ability to feather passes through tight openings. He has good size and the stickhandling skill to extend plays on the cycle and wait for his teammates to get open. Aggressive on the forecheck and in battles along the boards, Gawdin can create turnovers and then quickly move the puck to a teammate. He could score more goals, and round out his game if he was a little more selfish and willing to shoot the puck a bit more.
2016 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Kale Clague, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings: Clague is an outstanding skater. He has great top end speed and acceleration in both directions, and pairs this with good agility, pivots, and balance. This allows him to play a strong two-way game covering a huge amount of ice. He skates the puck up the ice well or can start the transition game with a strong first pass. A natural power play quarterback, Clague can walk the line, throws strong, crisp passes, and has an excellent slap shot. He already understands how to keep it low and on net, and how to get it through traffic. Needs to work on his defensive gap control and on being more physical in his own end, but that can come with increased strength.
Brett Howden, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors: Skilled in all three zones. He works hard in the dirty areas of the ice, creating offence by winning battles along the boards, and getting tips and rebounds in front of the net. He also has a strong shot and good release. Howden protects the puck well extending plays, and keeping the puck down low in the offensive zone to create for teammates. He has excellent balance and is tough to knock off the puck. Extremely hardworking, Howden back checks hard and does the little things that will make him a coaches favorite in his own end of the ice.
Zachary 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 6’1″ tall 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.
Simon Stransky, Left Wing, Prince Albert Raiders: The Czech born winger had 42 points as a WHL rookie last season. He is the younger brother of Matej Stransky who played for the Saskatoon Blades and is now a Dallas Prospect. Stransky has strong hockey sense and good passing skills. He plays the playmaker role off the wing, with good vision and smart plays. He also has a good wrist shot that he just doesn’t use enough.
Sam Steel, Centre, Regina Pats: 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 stick handling 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. He has outstanding hockey IQ, and thinks the game a step ahead of others. He seems to always make the smart play with the puck on his stick. Steel is also a very hard worker, who constantly keeps his feet moving and is involved in every aspect of the play. Has a bit of peskiness to go along with that high end skill.
Libor Hajek, Defence, Saskatoon Blades: A Czech defenceman, Hajek has very good skating skill. His agility, pivots and edgework are excellent and he has decent speed in both directions. Hajek is more a defensive defenceman than a puck mover though, as he is strong along the boards, plays physical, and clears the crease. He has strong positioning and uses a long and active stick to cut down shooting an passing lanes.
Maxime Lajoie, Defence, Swift Current Broncos: Lajoie is a great skater with excellent offensive instincts. He uses his agility and edgework to walk the line in the offensive zone and open up passing and shooting lanes. He has a good wrist shot and strong slap shot, and recognizes that the most important thing on the powerplay is getting his shot through traffic and on net. He will use the wrister if pressured at the point, and he keeps both shots low to create opportunities of tip ins, rebounds, and screens. Lajoie also plays a heads up game.
2017 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Stelio Mattheos, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings: The first overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Mattheos is a strong skater, with good size, a strong shot, and top notch hockey sense. It will be interesting to see how much ice time this 16 year old can get on a stacked Brandon team.
Nolan Patrick, Centre/Right Wing, Brandon Wheat Kings: As a rookie, Patrick put up 30 goals and 56 points in 55 games last season and won the WHL rookie of the year award. This summer he helped Team Canada to a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament. A late 1998 birthday, he will have to wait until the 2017 draft to hear his name called. Already 6’3″ tall, Patrick has excellent size and a strong and powerful skating stride. A natural sniper, he has a tremendous wrist shot and quick release, as well as the quick, soft hands to bury chances in close to the net. His uncle is James Patrick, a defenceman who spent many years in the NHL.