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 U.S. Division Preview
Top 3 Contenders (In Order of How I Feel They Will Finish)
Seattle Thunderbirds: The team will feature a powerful offence led by Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp. Overager Jamal Watson; imports Alexander True and Gustav Olhaver; 19 year old returnee Scott Eansor, and draft eligible Nolan Volcan provide plenty of offensive support. The defence is led by Oilers prospect Ethan Bear, and overagers Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith; and should be solid. The question mark is in goal, but the Thunderbirds will go out and get a net minder if either of Taz Burman or Logan Floodell are not up to the job.
Portland Winterhawks: The Winterhawks have added Jack Dougherty and Caleb Jones on the blue line over the off-season. They join Blake Heinrich and Keoni Texeira in what will be the most formidable blue line in the division. Behind them, Adin Hill is back. He had a remarkable year last year, and led the WHL in save percentage. Even if he slips a little, he’ll be amongst the top goalies in the league. The Winterhawks offence might not be as formidable as Seattle though. Sure, Paul Bittner, Keegan Iverson, and Dominic Turgeon will score; and newcomer Rodrigo Abols will be expected to contribute, but the Winterhawks lack the scoring depth that Seattle has. This will be a close two horse race though.
Everett Silvertips: Noah Juulsen leads a strong defence that features Kevin Davis, Lucas Skrumeda and Tristen Pfeifer in support. Carter Hart may be young, but he’s a very capable starting goaltender. Just like last year, the Kevin Constantine coached club will defend their end of the ice extremely well. The question will be if they have the offence to hang with Seattle and Portland. Carson Stadnyk should be counted on for points, but they will need Patrick Bajkov, overager Remi Laurencelle and new import Yan Khomenko to step up and score goals.
Players to Watch
Noah Juulsen, Defence, Everett Silvertips: Taken 26th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, Juulsen is a strong skater, with a smooth and fluid stride. While he’s not an absolute speedster, he does have good speed and acceleration. Its in his edgework and agility though that he really shines. Juulsen pivots quickly and this allows him to cover large areas of the ice. He is able to use his agility to walk the line on the powerplay and open up shooting and passing lanes. The ability to quickly change directions, makes him tough to beat one-on-one and helps him to quickly explode into huge hits if a forwards tries to beat him to the outside. Juulsen has good offensive skills. He has very good hockey sense, making smart plays with it on his stick, and choosing good times to join the rush or pinch in at the blue line. He combines his strong skating with good stick handling and is able to join the rush. Juulsen has the poise necessary to control the play at the line and quarterback the play from the blue line. He also has very good vision, and makes strong passes both to start the transition out of the zone, long breakaway passes, off the rush, or controlling the play in the zone. Juulsen has a hard slap shot, and good one-timer, as well as a good release on his wrist shot. He gets the puck through to the net and creates deflection and rebound opportunities for his teammates. Juulsen plays a physical game in his own end. He is willing to throw big hits, and to battle for loose pucks in the corners. He also does a decent job clearing the crease.
Paul Bittner, Left Wing, Portland Winterhawks: Drafted in the second round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bittner has the size and skills to be a budding power forward, with the strength to get to the front of the net, and the soft hands to finish plays in tight. He also has a very powerful wrist shot and an excellent release. He doesn’t throw a lot of big hits, but still uses his size effectively. Bittner is not afraid to stand in front of the net and cause havoc for the opposing goaltender and is more than willing to battle for pucks in the corners, and take a hit to make a play. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and pressures defenders and forces turnovers. Bittner is very good at protecting the puck in the cycle and can make a good pass to keep the play going, though he is much more of a scorer than a playmaker. Bittner is a very good skater for a big man and is also very polished defensively
Jack Dougherty, Defence, Portland Winterhawks: Drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2014, Jack Dougherty is an incredibly intelligent two-way defenceman. Offensively he is poised with the puck on his stick and keeps his head up, making smart precise passes both on the breakout, and in his own end of the ice. He always seems to make the smart play. He also has a good idea of when to pinch, and when he should back off and remain in his position. Dougherty doesn’t often lead rushes, but he is effective as a trailer, joining late to unleash a strong wrist shot with a good release, or an excellent slap-shot and one-timer. He can also be very good on the point of the powerplay understanding that it is key to make sure he gets his shot through, and that he doesn’t always have to hit it with 100% power if he is losing accuracy. He understands that sometimes keeping it low for teammates to tip in or pounce on rebounds is something that can lead to more offensive opportunities for his team. Defensively, Dougherty is very strong positionally, and maintains excellent gap control. He loves to play physical and can throw his weight around with a big hit, or battling in front of the net or in the corners.
Dominic Turgeon, Centre, Portland Winterhawks: Drafted in the third round of the 2014 Draft by the Detroit Red Wings, Turgeon has seen limited ice-time in his WHL career due to the depth of the Portland team. As such he played third line minutes and only had 43 points last season. He is a very well-rounded player though, strong defensively and very good in the faceoff circle. Add in the good size, and some untapped offensive potential, with a good shot and vision, and he may be worth a flyer as he improves going forward. Is very strong with the puck on his stick and plays a strong forecheck and cycle game in the offensive zone. He also has soft hands to stickhandle effectively and a hard shot with a good release.
Mathew Barzal, Centre, Seattle Thunderbirds: Drafted 16th overall by the New York Islanders, Barzal is an outstanding skater, with top notch speed and great acceleration. His stride is smooth and extremely effective. He also has great agility, outstanding pivots and strong edge work which he uses to be incredibly elusive off the rush, or in the offensive zone. Barzal has good balance and a powerful stride to fight through checks and win board battles. Barzal also has incredibly soft hands and great stick handling. He protects the puck extremely well, and works well in the cycle game. He has very good hockey sense, and almost always makes the smart play. These skills alone would make him a dynamic offensive threat, but when you add in his great shot, quick release and excellent vision and play-making ability he is the total package as an offensive player. He does need to use that shot more, and would score more goals if he was a little more selfish. He has shown the willingness to play in the dirty areas of the ice, and shows flashes of adding a power game to his offensive finesse and skill after adding some weight this off-season. If he continues to grow and add that game, the sky is the limit for him. Barzal can be a good two way player. He shows the hockey sense and anticipation to break up plays, create turnovers, and start the transition game; but must be more consistent.
Ryan Gropp, Left Wing, Seattle Thunderbirds: A second round pick of the New York Rangers, Gropp has good size at 6’3″ and uses it to protect the puck and to battle in and around the net. Gropp is pure a sniper with the soft hands to finish plays in close, and an excellent wrist shot and release to score from further out. Many may see the size and think of Gropp as a potential power forward in the making and he does love to drive the net. There are times he can dominate the game physically getting in quickly on the force check and punishing defencemen, but there are other times where he appears disintrested in going to tough areas. He needs to get out of the habit of staying on the perimeter and relying solely on his powerful shot and release. He has the vision to make plays off the wing, and some solid passing skills, but he does prefer to shoot if given the choice. Gropp could do better in battles for loose pucks along the boards, and in establishing position in front of the net if he can add more lower body strength. This would also improve his cycle game. Ryan Gropp has very good speed and great acceleration that allow him to keep up with Barzal as the two form an excellent combination on the rush. He has the agility and the solid stickhandling to make plays with the puck at high speed and get around defenders.
Keegan Kolesar, Right Wing, Seattle Thunderbirds: A third round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kolesar is a potential powerforward who plays a very simple game. He is strong and powerful along the boards, and wins battles for position in front of the net. He does have a hard shot from further out, as well as the quick hands to score goals in close. He also loves to hit, and punishes defenders on the forecheck. The biggest concern here is skating, as he must get quicker, particularly in his first few steps.
Ethan Bear, Defence, Seattle Thunderbirds: A fifth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, he really distinguished himself in helping Team Canada to a bronze medal at the 2015 IIHF U18 World Championships. He was also part of the Canadian team that won gold at the Ivan Hlinka in the summer of 2014. He may not be the biggest defender out there but that doesn’t stop Bear from playing a very physical game, as he loves to hit, and is very good along the boards and in clearing the front of the net. Bear showed some offense last year, with 13 goals and 38 points in 69 games. His offensive game is very straightforward, he has a cannon of a shot and is not afraid to let it go from the blueline. With the puck on his stick, he is looking to make a quick pass up to the forwards, and then join the rush as a trailer. There is not a lot of flash here, but there is a smart, effective blue liner.
Jason Fram, Defence, Spokane Chiefs: Fram put up 9 goals and 53 assists for 62 points for the Chiefs last season and is back for an overage year. He shows decent mobility on the blueline, with good speed in both directions, and solid edgework and agility. Fram’s biggest asset though is his hockey sense, he seems to always make the right play, whether its his first pass, or deciding when to lead/join the rush, quarterbacking the powerplay or pinching in to keep the play alive. He also is very good at reading the play and can make key interceptions and then transitioning the puck up the ice. Fram could stand to have a better slapshot though, as it lacks power. He does have a knack of getting it through to the net though. He’s looking for one more big season to earn himself an NHL contract
Brandon Carlo, Defence, Tri-City Americans: Drafted by the Boston Bruins in the second round, considered primarily a defensive defenceman, Carlo took a big leap offensively last year. He has greatly improved his stickhandling, poise with the puck, and his passing skills. Carlo is now waiting an extra second with the puck on his stick and making the smart pass on the breakout or in the offensive zone, instead of looking to get it out of the zone by chipping off the glass, or dumping it into the corner when he has the puck in the neutral zone. He does have an excellent slap shot. His bread and butter is still his defensive game though. Carlo has very good mobility for a big man (6’5″), showing a good first step, solid acceleration, and a powerful skating stride. He has good speed for his size, but at the same time, will never be confused for a speedster out on the ice. He has good agility and lateral movement, making him tough to beat to the outside on the rush. Carlo could use some added lower body strength which would improve his balance, and make him even better in the corners and in front of the net, two areas he is already quite good. He is willing to play a physical game and finish his checks, but must add some serious muscle to play that game more effectively in the future. At 6’5″ and 185 lbs, he could easily add forty pounds to that frame,
Parker Wotherspoon, Defence, Tri-City Americans: Drafted by the New York Islanders, Parker Wotherspoon is the brother of Flames defence prospect Ty Wotherspoon, Parker is an outstanding skater. He shows the ability to skate the puck out of danger in his own zone, and to join the rush, while still getting back defensively. He is a good stickhandler, and has shown some ability to quarterback the powerplay with good vision and smart passes. He could stand to bulk up and work on having a harder shot. Wotherspoon has excellent size and uses a long stick to break up plays in the defensive zone.
2016 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Patrick Bajkov, Left Wing/Right Wing, Everett Silvertips: Bajkov is a pure sniper. He has a great shoot and a tremendous release. While he has flashed some passing skills from time to time, he looks to shoot the puck more often than note. Bajkov is also a good skater, with a quick first step and good acceleration. Defensively responsible, Bajkov was even used on the penalty kill last season.
Carter Hart, Goaltender, Everett Silvertips: Despite being just 16 years old, Hart gradually took over the starting role for the Silvertips last season, and ended up playing 30 regular season games and 11 playoff games. He comes in at just 6’1″ right now, but only turned 17 in August and could add another inch or two before the NHL combine. He has exceptionally fast reflexes, and gets in and out of the butterfly very quickly. He also is an aggressive goalie who takes full advantage of his ability to cut down angles.
Yan Khomenko, Left Wing, Everett Silvertips: Taken in the second round of the CHL Import Draft, Khomenko had an impressive pre-season for Everett and will be looked upon to provide offence for the team. Khomenko has soft hands, and a tremendous wrist shot and release. He has good hockey sense and finds soft spots to get open.
Nolan Volcan, Left Wing, Seattle Thunderbirds: A small winger at just 5’9″ tall, Volcan is not afraid to play a physical game. He is quick and goes around the ice like a pinball, hitting anything that moves, especially on the forecheck. At 194 pounds, Volcan has some thickiness to him, and that adds to the effectiveness of his hits. He has a strong shot and a good release, which could lead to more offense and a longer look come draft day.
Evan Sarthou, Goaltender, Tri-City Americans: Sarthou was the back up to Eric Comrie last year. Despite starting just 28 games, he put up 7 shutouts, enough to tie for the WHL lead. Sarthou also took over as the starting goalie for the US team at the U18s and won gold. He plays a hybrid style and has good puck tracking and lateral movement. His rebound control is exceptional for his age.
Juuso Välimäki, Defence, Tri-City Americans: Taken by Tri-City in the first round of the Import Draft, Valimaki plays a simple but effective game in both ends of the rink. He is a good skater and has good size. Defensively he has solid positioning and an active stick. Offensively he doesn’t lead the rush, but can start it with a good first pass and will get involved as a trailer. He has an excellent point shot that can be a real weapon on the powerplay.
2017 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Centre, Spokane Chiefs: The 14th overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Anderson-Dolan had a great preseason, and got the WHL campaign off to a tremendous start scoring a hat trick in his first game. He has excellent hockey sense, and makes smart plays with the puck. He has good hands and can slow the play down and allow his teammates to set up in the offensive zone, or make a quick step on a defender and get by them to create a scoring chance. Well rounded, Anderson-Dolan can finish plays, or set them up. He plays a two hundred foot game as well.
Kailer Yamamoto, Left Wing, Spokane Chiefs: As a 16 year old, Yamamoto put up a tremendous rookie year, with 23 goals and 57 points in 68 games. A late birthday, he is not eligible until the 2017 draft, when he will have just completed his third year in the WHL. Yamamoto has tremendous hands, he is a great stickhandler and can bury goals in tight to the goalie. He also is very quick to loose pucks with great acceleration and a really quick first step. Coming in at just 5’9″ tall, Yamamoto’s draft stock will raise significantly if he can grow an inch or two in the next couple years.