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 BC Division Preview
Top 3 Contenders (In Order of How I Feel They Will Finish)
Kelowna Rockets: Last year’s WHL Champs have lost some firepower, but should still be strong. Nick Merkley, Rourke Chartier and Dillon Dube should form a solid nucleus upfront. While overagers like Tyson Baillie and Gage Quinney provide plenty of support. In net, overager Jackson Whistle is back and will be the backbone of the team. The Kelowna blue line may not have the big names of previous years, but Joe Gatenby, Lucas Johansen and Devante Stephens form a good group. Overall their are 14 returnees from the team that finished one goal short of the Memorial Cup, and has that same goal in sight this year.
Prince George Cougars: The Cougars have been a weak team for a while, but this is the year they finally take a step forward. Jansen Harkins leads what should be one of the more prolific offences in the WHL. Brad Morrison, Chase Witula, and Jared Bethune return, while Jesse Gabrielle is a new edition acquired in an off-season trade with Regina. Sam Ruopp leads a blue line that will look for contributions from Joseph Carvalho, Tate Olson and Slovenian impor Luka Zorko. The blue line might be a weakness overall, but the Cougars should get solid goaltending with a one-two punch of Mack Shields and Ty Edmonds.
Victoria Royals: Joe Hicketts might be undersized, but he’s the best defenceman in the conference. Chaz Reddekopp, Ryan Gagnon and Jordan Wharrie support him to make up a solid blueline. The goaltending should also be good with Coleman Vollrath returning, and Predators prospect Evan Smith joining the team. The question with the Royals is if they will score enough goals. Alex Forsberg must finally reach his potential as an overager, with Dante Hannoun, Jack Walker or Tyler Soy hitting their stride in support. They will also look to get some offence out of Ethan Price who comes over from Portland. If all of those things, happen (and its a big if), they could challenge Prince George and Kelowna. More likely though, some of the scorers come through, some don’t and they take third in the division.
Players to Watch
Matt Needham, Centre, Kamloops Blazers: An overage centre who put up 76 points in 71 games last year, Needham will be counted on to lead the Blazers offense this year. The 5’9″ centre is a very good centre who plays a very straight forward game in both ends of the rink. He doesn’t have a lot of flashy moves, instead focusing on moving the puck to good areas, and generating scoring chances for teammates by getting them the puck in good areas of the ice. He’s more a passer than a shooter, but does have an accurate shot and good hands in tight.
Deven Sideroff, Right Wing, Kamloops Blazers: A third round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, Sideroff is an industrious forward who keeps his feet moving and has good speed. He forechecks well and works hard along the boards and in front of the net. Like Needham, he keeps the game simple, getting himself open for passes, and getting the puck to the net as often as possible. Sideroff plays a strong defensive game as well, understanding his responsibilities in his own zone.
Nick Merkley, Centre/Right Wing, Kelowna Rockets: A first round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, Merkley slipped to 30th overall due to concerns about the fact that he is just 5’10” tall. Despite the size, he isn’t afraid to go to the net, and to battle in the dirty areas of the ice. He is also willing to drive the net both with and without the puck. With his excellent balance, and good lower body strength, he is hard to knock off the puck. He’s got excellent offensive skills including superb vision and passing ability. Merkley sees the ice very well, and can thread a tape-to-tape pass through the smallest of openings. Merkley has high-end hockey IQ and almost always seems to make the smart play with the puck on his stick. He uses good stick handling and puck protection in the cycle game to extend plays and wait for his teammates to get open. While Merkley is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, he also has an accurate shot and good release. He could stand to shoot the puck more though, as he just doesn’t use that good shot enough. He could stand to add some upper body strength to make his shot harder though, as it is just a bit above average in that department. Nick Merkley is a very good skater with a solid stride, good speed, a low centre of gravity, and good lower body strength. He is also strong on the back check.
Rourke Chartier, Centre/Left Wing, Kelowna Rockets: A fifth round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2014, Rourke Chartier had a monster season with Kelowna, scoring 48 goals in 58 games in the regular season (good enough for third in the league) and added another 13 goals in 16 playoff games. Chartier is a very quick skater who never seems to stop moving his feet. He has very good top end speed and excellent acceleration. He is always first in on the forecheck and creating turnovers in the offensive zone. A quick first step helps him to win races to loose pucks all over the ice. He might be a little undersized, but is very strong on his skates and has excellent balance. Chartier is a pure goal scorer. When his teammates get the puck he seems to find the soft spots in the defence and gets open to set up a strong, hard shot and good release. He has the soft hands to finish in tight and the coordination and quickness to get tip-ins and pounce on rebounds. Through sheer hard work down low he is also able to create chances for teammates and picks up assists. He uses that effort level on the backcheck as well. He is willing to do whatever it takes to win, blocking shots, cutting down passing lanes, and taking a hit to make sure the puck gets out at the defensive blue line.
Jesse Gabrielle, Left Wing, Prince George Cougars: Acquired in an off-season trade, Gabrielle 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 is 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 was a fourth round pick of the Boston Bruins.
Jansen Harkins, Centre Prince George Cougars: A second round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, Harkins is a good skater, with solid acceleration and top end speed. He can be dangerous off the rush with the ability to take defenders wide, and the ability to change speeds which can really fool defenders. He has a good first step allowing him to get to loose pucks. Harkins has the agility, and edgework to make quick cuts and avoid defenders. He also has decent balance, and a low centre of gravity allowing him to protect the puck in the cycle game, but could stand to add some muscle and core strength going forward. This added muscle would help him to win more puck battles in the corners. Harkins has used vision and passing skills to be a top playmaker for the Cougars. With his strong puck protection, he extends plays waiting for a linemate to get open, and then making a quick tape to tape pass. He has the hockey sense to get open after moving the puck, and does well on give and goes. He has the soft hands, quick release and powerful shot to score goals. He needs to use that shot more though as he can sometimes pass up good shooting opportunities. Harkins is a versatile player who can create offense off the rush and in the cycle game, equally. He is willing to fight for loose pucks, but again more strength is needed. At 6’1″ he has the ideal size to play this style of game at the next level. Jansen Harkins also plays a solid defensive game, and is already strong in the faceoff circle.
Brad Morrison, Centre, Prince George Cougars: A fourth round pick of the New York Rangers, Morrison is a great skater with a long, fluid stride. He motors all over the ice. He controls the play with strong stick handling skills, and is very dangerous off the rush. He is another excellent passer. His shot could be stronger. Overall though at just 154 pounds he must add a lot of bulk to his frame.
Sam Ruopp, Defence, Prince George Cougars: A fifth round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ruopp is a huge defenceman coming in at 6’4″. He plays a physical game, as he’s not afraid to throw hits or battle in the corners or in front of the net. He positions himself well and has an active stick to cut down passing lanes. Ruopp has a hard point shot and is a good passer, but his offensive contributions are limited as he doesn’t have the skating skill in terms of lateral mobility to create a lot of offense. He’s a bit skinny right now and needs to add muscle.
Radovan Bondra, Left Wing/Right Wing, Vancouver Giants: A fifth round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks; Bondra was selected in the import draft and will join the Giants. He is huge at 6’5″ 220 lbs, and uses his size to protect the puck and extend plays on the cycle game. He creates offense by working down low and moving the puck to an open teammate before eventually taking it to the net. His long reach helps him to score in close to the net. He needs to work on making quicker decisions with the puck though. Bondra also uses his size to be an effective player in his own end of the rink.
Jackson Houck, Right Wing, Vancouver Giants: A fourth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2013 NHL Draft, Houck did not do enough in Edmonton’s eyes to earn an entry-level deal, and so is back with the Giants for an overage year. He led the Giants in points, but the total was just 51. Houck just loves to hit. He is a torpedo on the forecheck and makes life miserable for defencemen skating back to retrieve dump-ins. Houck is a physical player who goes to the dirty areas of the ice and is always willing to battle for the puck. He also has some offensive skill. His wrist shot has decent power, but he has a quick release which really helps make it a lot more effective. He also is willing to battle in front of the net and can score in close. He has good stickhandling and puck protection skills along with decent passing ability. Well the Giants don’t want their top scorer fighting often, he has shown that he can drop the gloves and will stick up for teammates when necessary. In terms of skating, he needs a better first step and to improve his acceleration, but his edgework, agility and balance are good.
Alex Forsberg, Centre, Victoria Royals: Sharing a famous surname, Forsberg is not related to either Peter or even Filip Forsberg. In fact, he’s not even Swedish, as he was born in Saskatchewan. Still Alex Forsberg was the 1st overall pick in the 2011 WHL Draft and much was expected. Problems off the ice, and failing to reach expectations on the ice have been the story of his career though. He was good for Victoria after joining them half way through last year though, and is hoping for a big overage season that could get him a shot in the NHL. When he is on his game, Forsberg is a very smart centre with a high hockey IQ. He 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. An all around offensive force, Forsberg also has a hard wrist shot and quick release. Now he needs to make his production match his tools.
Joe Hicketts, Defence, Victoria Royals: An impressive skater with great vision and passing ability, Hicketts went undrafted in 2014 due to concerns about his size. The Detroit Red Wings invited him to camp, and then gave him an entry level contract in what is currently looking like a real coup. Hicketss is very strong positionally, and uses a low centre of gravity to be strong on the puck and play effective defense. He is very good positionally, and moves the puck out of his own vone effectively. He is a natural on the powerplay, walking the line, opening up passing and shooting options, and generating points.
Chaz Reddekopp, Defence, Victoria Royals: A seventh round pick of the Los Angeles Kings, Reddekopp is a big, physical defensive defenceman. He has great size and loves to use it to throw thunderous checks, win battles on the boards, and clears the front of the net. He has very good straight line speed, but must work on his pivots and edgework. Overall the skills are there offensively, a good shot, and passing skills, but he is very raw and will need time to develop those skills into effective weapons.
2016 NHL Draft Players To Watch
Dillon Dube, Centre, Kelowna Rockets: Dube had 27 points in 45 regular season games, and 11 points in 18 playoff games during a solid rookie campaign for Kelowna. The undersized (5’10”) centre plays bigger than what he’s listed at, getting involved in the forecheck and battling for space in front of the net. He is a quick skater, and has the passing skill to be a playmaker, along with the quick release and soft hands to be a goal scorer. He’ll get a much bigger role on the Rockets in his sophomore season.
Lucas Johansen, Defence, Kelowna Rockets: The latest in the defence factory that the Kelowna Rockets continue to be, Johansen is the younger brother of Columbus Blue Jackets star Ryan Johansen. He has good size (6’2″) and plays a composed, two-way game. Johansen makes a good first pass out of the zone, and has the poise to quarterback things from the point on the power play. He is good in his own zone as well.
Josh Anderson, Defence, Prince George Cougars: The third overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Anderson has good size (6’03”) which he uses to his full advantage in the defensive zone. He plays a physical game, and is tough to beat in the corners or in front of the net. He also uses his long stick to poke check opponents or to intercept passes. Offensively he has a hard shot, but needs to gain more lateral agility to open up shooting lanes and get it on net.
Tyler Benson, Left Wing, Vancouver Giants: The first overall pick of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Benson has shown to be a strong skater who plays a very gritty and physical game. His speed helps him to get in quickly on the forecheck and force defenders to make plays quickly or be plastered into the boards. When the puck does get turned over, he gets himself into good position to let go a strong wrist shot or a blistering one-timer. He has a great first step, which helps him to get to loose pucks, or to transition quickly when a teammate creates a turnover in his own zone, creating breakaways and odd-man rushes. Benson’s defensive game was also ahead of the curve for a 16-year-old, last season.
2017 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Nolan Kneen, Defence, Kamloops Blazers: The third overall pick in the 2014 Bantam Draft, Kneen might be just 6’0″ but he loves to play physical and dish out punishing hits at the back end. Attackers must keep their heads up if coming down his side of the ice as he is always looking to make an impact. Kneen is a very good skater who can join or lead the rush and create offense from the back end.
Conner MacDonald, Defence, Kamloops Blazers: A second round pick in the 2014 Bantam Draft, MacDonald has good mobility and plays a solid game at both ends of the ice. Defensively he is good with his positioning and his anticipation. He gets back and retrieves pucks quickly, avoids forecheckers, and makes a strong first pass to start the transition game. In the offensive zone, he has shown poise and heads up play at the blue line.