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 Central Division Preview
Top 3 Contenders (In Order of How I Feel They Will Finish)
Red Deer Rebels: Our 2016 Memorial Cup Hosts come into the season with a strong team. Up front they will be looking for 2014 Colorado Avalanche first round pick Conner Bleackley to improve upon last year’s numbers. Blues draftee Adam Musil will give the team a strong one-two punch at centre. Wyatt Johnson is back and should be a top winger. Jets prospect Michael Spacek was taken in the import draft, and Lane Pederson was acquired in an off-season trade. These two new comers can add to the offense. The defence features Haydn Fleury who had a bit of a rough year last year, but should be a lot better this season. He’s joined by Nelson Nogier and Kayle Doetzel to form a big three on the blueline. Rylan Toth should man the crease. As with most Memorial Cup hosts, look for the Rebels to make moves to strengthen the team throughout the season.
Calgary Hitmen: The big question in Calgary is whether or not Jake Virtanen will return to the WHL. The Canucks 2014 first rounder didn’t have a huge season last year, but it does seem like he has a chance to take a spot in Vancouver. If he does, he’ll add some much needed offence for the Hitmen. The team will also look to Chase Lang, Radel Fazleev, and Pavel Karnaukhov to provide offence. The blueline is very strong with Travis Sanheim, Ben Thomas, and Jake Bean. If Keegan Kanzig returns as an overager, it could be the best defence in the WHL. Brendan Burke should be the main man between the pipes. They could challenge Red Deer if things fall the Hitmen’s way in terms of getting players back from NHL clubs. Without Kanzig and Virtanen, they will be competitive, but likely not a contender for the division or league title.
Medicine Hat Tigers: Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford are overagers who will compete for the WHL scoring title. With added offence from Steven Owre, Chad Butcher, and Montreal Canadiens prospect Matthew Bradley, this team will score plenty of goals. Nick Schneider will be the main man between the pipes. Ty Schultz and Ty Stanton will lead the way on the blue line, while David Quenneville will look to take a big step forward in his draft year. The overall quality of the defense and goaltending are the question marks here though.
Players to watch
Travis Sanheim, Defence, Calgary Hitmen: A first round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014, Sanheim 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 stick handling 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.
Jake Virtanen, Right Wing, Calgary Hitmen: A fourth round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014, 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 has developed 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 utilize 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 in 2014, its not yet clear if Virtanen will spend the year with the Canucks or be back in the WHL. 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’s 2014-15 season was a little disappointing with just 52 points in 50 games, and he would need to really take things up a notch this year. An outstanding skater, Virtanen has great acceleration and tremendous speed. He has a long and powerful stride that 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.
Brett Pollock, Left Wing, Edmonton Oil Kings: A second round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2014, 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.
Dysin Mayo, Defence, Edmonton Oil Kings: A fifth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in 2014, 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, Kootenay Ice: Undrafted in 2013, Descheneau was picked by the St. Louis Blues in the fifth round of the 2014 Draft. He is eligble to go to the AHL, but has not yet signed a contract and could be back for an overage 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 could fetch a good price at the deadline.
Luke Philp, Centre, Kootenay Ice: Philp will be expected to be the Ice’s biggest offensive weapon and help fill the offensive void left by Sam Reinhart, Tim Bozon, and Rinat Valiev. Undrafted despite putting up over a point-per-game in his draft year and better than that last season, 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.
Andrew Nielsen, Defence, Lethbridge Hurricanes: A third round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nielsen has good size at 6’3″ and good skating. He has good speed and acceleration both forwards and backwards. Nielsen has shown the ability to make a good first pass out of the zone, and is a decent passer in the offensive zone, but he does not join the rush often, or pinch in at the line. His conservative instincts limit his overall offensive contributions. He is very good defensively though, with excellent gap control, and strong positioning. He’s willing to be physical along the boards.
Giorgio Estephan, Centre Lethbridge Hurricanes: Drafted in the sixth round of the NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres, 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.
Trevor Cox, Left Wing, Medicine Hat Tigers: Cox had 29 goals and 80 assists for 109 points last season. He led the WHL in assists. He has excellent hands, and the ability to control the puck and extend plays. This allows his teammates the time to get open. He can saucer passes over sticks, or feather them through the tightest openings and put it tape-to-tape. Cox’s biggest issue is size, as he’s just 5’9″ and that has likely scared NHL teams off of drafting him. Despite that he plays a fiesty game on the forecheck and in board battles. If he is going to succeed past the WHL level he must improve his skating. It is good, but not quite at the level that will see him be able to overcome the size disadvantage at higher levels.
Matthew Bradley, Centre, Medicine Hat Tigers: Taken by the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Bradley is a good skater, with a quick first step and excellent acceleration that help him win races to loose pucks. He has a high hockey IQ which he uses to find open space in the offensive zone, and read the play and cause turnovers in the defensive zone. He is good on faceoffs and relentless on the forecheck, forcing turnovers and creating offense. Bradley protects the puck well on the cycle. He has a decent shot with a good release.
Cole Sanford, Right Wing, Medicine Hat Tigers: Sanford scored 50 goals and 95 points for the Tigers last season. Sanford has a great array of shots, whether it be a strong wrist shot, excellent snap shot, or deadly one-timer. He has an excellent release on his shots, as he gets them off quickly which fools goaltenders. He has good hockey sense and finds the gaps in the defence to get open for the pass. Sanford’s biggest issue is also his height as he is just 5’8″ tall.
Conner Bleakley, 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. 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. He needs to put all the skills together though, and put up more than the 49 points in 51 games he got last year, if he is going to justify his first round selection and Red Deer is going to reach their full potential.
Haydn Fleury, Defence, Red Deer Rebels: The 7th overall pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2014, 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’ll be expected to have a huge season with Red Deer hosting the Memorial Cup.
Adam Musil, Centre, Red Deer Rebels: A fourth round pick of the St. Louis Blues, the son of Frantisek Musil, and brother of Oilers prospect David Musil, Adam breaks with family tradition and is a centre instead of a defenceman. He has excellent size, and plays a strong two-way game. The Rebels used him as a checking line centre last year and he took key minutes against top opposition. His best asset is his ability to control the puck down low on the cycle, he has very good stickhandling and puck protection skills, and the ability to grind plays out along the wall. Musil can also finish in close to goal with soft hands, or further out with a hard shot. The big concern here is his skating ability. He must get a lot faster before going pro.
2016 NHL Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Jake Bean, Defence, Calgary Hitmen: Its rare to see 16-year-olds play big minutes, and in all situations, but that was Bean last year. He played on the powerplay, on the penalty kill, and took a top four role at even strength. Bean showed outstanding skating, with good speed, but outstanding edgework and agility. He has great puck control and combined that with his skating skill to elude forecheckers, move the puck into good areas and start the rush. He walks the line well in the offensive zone opening up passing and shooting lanes. His shot can be harder, and he can play a more physical game if he can add some muscle this year. He’s got good height, but needs to add strength.
Davis Koch, Centre, Edmonton Oil Kings: Koch had 25 points as a 16 year old rookie in Edmonton, but is expected to get a much bigger role this season. He is a good skater, with soft hands, and an array of moves that can make him tough to stop off the rush. Koch is a good play maker, and can also shoot the puck with a heavy wrist shot and quick release.
Jaeger White, Centre, Lethbridge Hurricanes: White only played 40 games for the Hurricanes last year, but put up 16 points as a WHL rookie. White is a very good skater. He has tremendous acceleration and his ability to change speeds helps him to beat defenders wide and take the puck to the net. He also has a heavy wrist shot to be a scorer, and the vision and passing skill to make plays.
2017 NHL Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Stuart Skinner, Goaltender, Lethbridge Hurricanes: Skinner took the reigns for the Hurricanes as a 16-year-old, and had one of the most impressive seasons for a goalie that age since Carey Price was in Tri-City, despite not having much help in front of him. At 6’4″ tall, he has great size, and takes full advantage coming well out to cut down his angles. He also has solid technique for such a young goalie, taking away the bottom of the net with his quick legs.
Jordy Bellerive, Centre, Lethbridge Hurricanes: The 2nd overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Bellerive is a lightning quick skater, who has the soft hands to take advantage of that speed on the rush. He also has great vision, and a hard shot with a quick release. While Skinner will be the team’s top goalie, Bellerive will be the offensive force in the Hurricanes rebuild. Things may not get better in the wins column right away, but the team at least has the talent to get on the right track once they mature.
Main Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images