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. All three leagues are kicking off this week. With that in mind we will start our division previews today and make our way around the country.
You can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2016-17 WHL East Division Preview
Top Three Contenders (In Order of Projected Finish)
Note: The top two contenders in this division both have huge questions marks. Regina’s Adam Brooks is at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp (and is an overager who could go to the AHL), while Brandon’s Ivan Provorov is at Flyers camp. The teams are very close assuming neither player returns. If one of the two returns, his team instantly becomes the favorite. If both return, Brandon likely wins the division.
Even if they don’t get Adam Brooks back, the Pats have a strong offence including Austin Wagner, Sam Steel, Dawson Leedahl, Lane Zablocki, and import draftee Filip Ahl. The Pats also added Nick Henry, he was a top prospect for Everett but did not want to play there. The defence has depth and experience with Connor Hobbs, Chase Harrison, Sergey Zborovskiy, and Jared Freadrich leading the way. Tyler Brown and Jordan Hollett are a strong one-two punch in net.
Brandon Wheat Kings
As a late birthday, Nolan Patrick will be playing his third WHL season. He should dominate given his size, skill and experience, and could be the first overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Fellow 2017 eligible centre Stelio Mattheos could take over the second line role. The wings. If Reid Duke returns as an overager, they are very strong down the middle. Tanner Kaspick could be in line for a big year as well. The defence could be the best in the league if Provorov returns. Even without him it is very strong with Kale Clague, Daniel Bukac, and Schael Higson leading the way. In net, Jordan Papirny is back, giving them an experienced and talented goalie.
Moose Jaw Warriors
This team is young and talented, but there is some question if it will be enough to change the division into a three-horse race. They lost a ton of talent, but youth could fill the holes to keep them competitive. Nikita Popugaev is looking to improve on his 48 point rookie season and be selected high in the NHL draft. Noah Gregor and Brett Howden give them two excellent centres. Add in Jayden Halbgewachs, and Tanner Jeannot, and this team should score. Dmitri Zaitsev was selected in the import draft and adds to a defence featuring Matt Sozanski, Josh Thrower, and Josh Brook.
Players to Watch
Kale Clague, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings
Clague is an outstanding skater and moves the puck well. He has good stick handling ability and can use his agility to avoid forecheckers and create space on the rush. He also starts the transition game with a strong first pass and often follows that pass to continue the attack. A natural power play quarterback, Clague can walk the line, throws strong, crisp passes, and has excellent vision. His slapshot is good, but can be improved by adding some muscle to his frame. Its already gotten better over the course of this season, but there is room to improve it even more. He already understands how to keep it low and on net, and how to get his shot through traffic. Clague also has a strong wrist shot which he uses to get the puck on net when facing pressure at the blue line.
Ivan Provorov, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings
Provorov will head to Philadelphia Flyers training camp, and has a very good chance to make the team. If he does return to Brandon he changes the team’s dynamic from contender to favorite. However, it seems unlikely that he will return.
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. 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 adept at avoiding fore checkers and makes a great first pass.
Brett Howden, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors
Howden is skilled in all three zones. He is blessed with good size, and takes advantage of it, using leverage and working hard in the dirty areas of the ice. Howden is skilled at creating offence by winning battles along the boards, as well as establishing position and getting tip-ins and rebounds in front of the net. He also has a strong wrist shot and good release. Howden protects the puck well in the cycle game, extending plays, and keeping the puck down low in the offensive zone to create for teammates. Howden uses his body, and long reach to shield defenders from the puck. He has excellent vision and hockey IQ, finding teammates for good scoring opportunities, and finding openings in the defence to get himself open for a pass.
Not usually one to try for a high risk play, Howden plays a simple straight line game. However, this is very effective, as he has a non-stop motor that puts pressure on opposing defenders, and he has the skills to produce offensively when opportunities are created as a result of the hard work. He also brings this work ethic to the defensive end of the ice, where he is often used against other team’s top lines and to kill penalties.
Noah Gregor, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors
Gregor has decent size and plays a strong all-around game, as he shows ability in all three zones. He is a good skater. Gregor shows good skill in the offensive zone. He has a heavy wrist shot, with good accuracy and a quick release. He also shows a good arsenal of shots, with a strong snap shot, and one-timer. Gregor has excellent vision and sees openings to thread the needle to create a scoring chance for a teammate. He has a knack for throwing a saucer pass over an opponents stick and landing it in time to hit his teammate’s blade. His hockey sense is high, as he often makes the right play, and does not turn the puck over a lot. Gregor is tenacious and willing to battle along the boards, and works hard in his own end as well.
Brendan Guhle, Defence, Prince Albert Raiders
Guhle nearly made the Buffalo Sabres out of training camp last year, and is trying to do so again this year. He may not return to the Raiders. His return does seem to be a bit more likely than Provorov’s though.
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. Guhle has a good array of shooting skills that make him dangerous in this position, or at the point on the power play. He has a very hard slap shot 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. Guhle can control the play and quarterback things from the point.
Simon Stransky, Left Wing, Prince Albert Raiders
Surprisingly undrafted, Stransky will look to have a big year and be taken as a re-entry. The strength of his game is his playmaking. He is a very good stickhandler, protecting the puck from opponents and making nifty moves to avoid defenders. He can speed up the play, or slow it down. This gives his linemates the opportunity to get open before hitting them with a tape-to-tape pass. Stransky has very good vision and hockey sense.
He also has a decent wrist shot and a good release, often using his shot from the half boards. His slap shot also shows some power, and very good accuracy. Stransky is a bit of a perimeter player though, he needs to get stronger and go to the dirty areas of the ice more often. He can also improve his ability to battle on the boards, and be stronger on the puck. Skating and defensive play are works in progress.
Adam Brooks, Centre, Regina Pats
Brooks put up 120 points last year and led the WHL in points. In his third trip through the NHL draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs made him a third round pick. He heads to Leafs camp trying to earn a contract and a spot on the Marlies. Normally, after Brooks’ season, there would be little chance he would be back in the WHL. However, given the Leafs strong group of prospects right now, they may opt to send him back for an overage season rather than playing for the Marlies. If he returns to Regina, he makes them a favorite for the WHL title.
Brooks is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer. He is a little undersized, but uses good skating to create space. He is poised with the puck, and protects it well down low. Brooks has excllent vision and makes accurate passes through small openings. His wrist shot is accurate and has a quick release, but could stand to be a little more powerful.
Sam Steel, Centre, Regina Pats
Sam Steel is an outstanding skater with strong speed and great acceleration. He is smooth on his skates and also shows outstanding edge work and agility. Once he gets a step on a defender, he’s gone. Steel takes advantage of this on the rush where he can take defenders wide and cut to the front of the net. He can also make a quick cut and take the inside route to get there. Steel has a powerful stride, with good balance and the ability to fight through checks. It could even improve with a little more leg strength as he matures.
Steel has outstanding stick-handling ability and very soft hands. He combines this with the skating to weave through traffic and create plays off the rush. Sam Steel also has a good wrist shot and a quick release, allowing him to use defenders as a screen and fire it on net if they back off too much. Add in excellent vision and passing skills and Steel excels as a play maker.
Austin Wagner, Left Wing, Regina Pats
A fourth round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2015, Wagner’s production increased last year, but there is still room to do more. 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 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.
Libor Hajek, Defence, Saskatoon Blades
Hajek shown the ability to move the puck, transitioning quickly out of his own end and making a strong first pass. He is not a huge producer at the blue line on the power play, but he has shown some ability to make plays from there. Hajek has shown good vision and passing ability, but could stand to work on his stick handling. If he was a bit more confident, he could walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes or work to make a better play with the puck. His slap shot is decent, but could use some work on his power and accuracy going forward.
Hajek is also a strong defensive defender. He is difficult to beat off the rush, and forces attackers to the outside. He has good gap control, and can land a big hit if an opponent tries to beat him to the outside but does not go around chasing hits and getting himself caught out of position. In fact, his positioning in his own end is a real strong point. Hajek uses his size and long stick to cut down passing lanes.
Glenn Gawdin, Centre/Right Wing, Swift Current Broncos
A fourth round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2015, Gawdin is an excellent playmaker. He has good 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.
2017 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Stelio Mattheos, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings
The first overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Mattheos scored 30 points in 50 games as a WHL rookie, in limited minutes on Brandon’s deep club last year. He should get more minutes this year. Mattheos has good size and uses his body well to protect the puck and make plays in the cycle. He has excellent power in his stride and can fight through checks and get to the net. He is also a very good passer, and has excellent vision. The Winnipeg native also has a pretty good wrist shot and release.
Nolan Patrick, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings
Teams around the NHL are looking for the big franchise centre. 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 game is incredibly mature for his age, he has high end hockey IQ and always seems to make the right play both with and without the puck. Patrick has excellent vision and passing skills.
He can play both the power and the finesse game. Patrick works well down low, using his big body to shield the puck and to make plays in the cycle game. He also plays a strong two-way game, and is even used to kill penalties. His uncle is James Patrick, a defenceman who spent many years in the NHL. Patrick had 41 goals and 102 points in 71 games for the Wheat Kings last season.
Josh Brook, Defence, Moose Jaw Warriors
Brook carved out a role on the Moose Jaw blue line last year, with 10 points in 30 games. This year he will get bigger minutes. Brook is an very good skater. His acceleration and speed in both directions are major assets and help him to play a two way game. He keeps his head up and makes good passes in transition and at the point. Brook also has a decent slap shot, and a very good wrist shot with a quick release.
Nikita Popugaev, Left Wing, Moose Jaw Warriors
Popugaev has outstanding size, already measuring in at 6’4″. He combines this with excellent stickhandling to be very tough to defend one on one. Add in good hockey sense and a strong wrist shot, and Popugaev could be a top 10 pick. The skating is holding him back though, he needs work on being quicker in his acceleration and improving his top end speed and agility.
Ian Scott, Goalie, Prince Albert Raiders
Scott got significant playing time as a 16-year-old and put up an .892 save percentage over 26 games for the Raiders. He should take over as the starter this year. At 6’3″ he has the type of size that NHL teams look for. He also has quick legs that take away the bottom of the net. Scott tracks the puck well for his age. He also shows a calmness and maturity that is rare in a 16-year-old goalie.
Lane Zablocki, Right Wing, Regina Pats
Zablocki had 18 goals and 37 points as a WHL rookie. He is a very good skater, who gets in quickly on the forecheck, and puts pressure on opposing defenders. Willing to play a gritty game, Zablocki battles for pucks on the boards and gets to the front of the net. Once there he can score goals in tight with his soft hands.
Nick Henry, Right Wing, Regina Pats
Henry was committed to go to Western Michigan University until his rights were acquired by Regina. Being given a big role on the Pats and playing for John Paddock reportedly changed his mind. Henry has a very good shot and release. He also has good size which he uses to protect the puck down below the hashmarks. He can make passes to open teammates and makes smart plays off the cycle game.
Mark Rubinchik, Defence, Saskatoon Blades
The Russian defenceman was taken in the 2016 CHL Import Draft. Blades general manager Colin Priestner says, “He was the assistant captain as an underage player at the World U18 this spring for Team Russia and played prominent roles on the powerplay, penalty kill and even strength. He’s very physical and has a great one-timer. After he adds some weight to his frame, some expect he’ll be an early round NHL draft pick next year.”
Aleksi Heponiemi, Centre, Swift Current Broncos
Heponiemi was also taken in the CHL Import Draft. In five pre-season games he scored five goals and seven assists. He has shown off an excellent shot as well as a lightning quick release. Heponiemi has the speed and agility to make moves off the rush and open up passing and shooting lanes.
Artem Minulin, Defence, Swift Current Broncos
Minulin had 33 points in 72 games as a rookie for the Broncos last year. He starts the transition game by skating the puck out of dangerous areas and then making a good first pass in the transition game. He is particularly good with the “home run” pass, catching a streaking forward behind the defence. Minulin is willing to play a physical game in his own end as well.