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.
2017-18 WHL East Division Preview
Top Three Contenders (In Order of Projected Finish)
The Pats have loaded up for a run at the Memorial Cup. They host the tournament this year. Returning is Sam Steel. The Anaheim Ducks draft pick led the league in scoring last year. They added Matt Bradley in an off-season trade and the overager should centre the second line, taking over from Adam Brooks. Nick Henry is a proven scorer on the wings. Jake Leschyshyn also takes on a bigger role. The defence will be led by Josh Mahura. Joining him are Johnathan Smart, and Liam Schioler to provide a big three. Goaltender Tyler Brown returns as an overager. As Memorial Cup hosts the Pats will not be afraid to trade future picks to improve the team.
Moose Jaw Warriors
The Moose Jaw Warriors return the core of their lineup from last season. Jayden Halbgewachs, Brayden Burke and Tanner Jeannot return as overagers, while Brett Howden, and Noah Gregor are also back. They were the top five leading scorers on the team last year. Add in 2018 draft eligible Luke Burzan playing a bigger role, and the Warriors can score goals. The Defence is also strong with Montreal Canadiens pick Josh Brook leading the way. He is joined by imports Oleg Sosunov and Dmitri Zaitsev, along with 2018 draft eligible Jett Woo. The main question is in goal where Brody Willms takes over for the departing Zach Sawchenko.
Brandon Wheat Kings
It is unlikely that Brandon will see Nolan Patrick return to the team this season. However, given his injury situation last year, its something that they have gotten used to. Stepping into Patrick’s spot is Stelio Mattheos, who did a solid job filling in a year ago. Tanner Kaspick will also have a key role. The team will look for Caiden Daley to step into the second line. The defence will have Kale Clague, one of the WHL’s top defenders along with import Daniel Bukac, overagers Kade Jensen and James Shearer. Overage goalie Logan Thompson should be strong in net. Dylan Myskiw will challenge for the starting job.
Players to Watch
Kale Clague, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings
A Los Angeles Kings prospect, Clague is an outstanding skater. He has great top-end speed and acceleration in both directions allowing him to be an effective two-way defender. Clague can join the rush or make pinches in the offensive zone and still get back quickly on defence. He has good stick handling ability and can use his agility to avoid forecheckers and create space to lead the rush. He can also start the transition game with a strong first pass out of the zone 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 slap shot is decent, but not overpowering.
Stelio Mattheos, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings
A Carolina Hurricanes pick, Mattheos is a very good skater. He has a powerful stride which generates speed. Mattheos scores goals in tight to the net. He has the quick hands to pounce on rebounds, and the quickness to beat goalies when he is driving to the net. Mattheos also has the hand-eye co-ordination to get deflections, as well as to quickly one time passes in close. From further out his wrist shot is heavy and features a quick release. Mattheos’ assists also mainly come out of his power game. He is not an overly creative player, but prefers to play a north-south type of game. He can win battles in the corners, dig out pucks, and get them to teammates.
Josh Brook, Defence, Moose Jaw Warriors
Josh Brook has a very good first step and strong acceleration. This helps him to retrieve loose pucks and to dart into openings. He is more quick than fast though. Brook transitions the puck from defence to offence quickly. He can stick handle and skate the puck out of danger. Brook also has good skills in making a first pass or controlling things at the blue line. He tends to be a bit of a risk taker though, and this can lead to some inopportune turnovers. It is an area of his game that he will need to refine going forward. Overall though he makes more good offensive plays than giveaways and helps his team maintain possession and drive play forward. He can also play the roll of power play quarterback, setting things up on the blue line.
Brett Howden, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors
A Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, Brett Howden has good size. He takes advantage, using leverage and working hard in the dirty areas of the ice. Howden creates 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. He uses his body, and long reach to shield defenders from the puck. Howden 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.
Ian Scott, Goaltender, Prince Albert Raiders
Scott was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. 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 has very good lateral movement as he gets side-to-side quickly without over sliding. He also shows a calmness and maturity that is rare in a 17-year-old goalie, especially when he was playing behind a weak Prince Albert team last season. Prince Albert will not be much better this year, so expect Scott to be peppered with shots.
Jake Leschyshyn, Centre, Regina Pats
Drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights, Leschyshyn plays a gritty style. He never stops moving his feet, chasing down loose pucks, battling in the corners and getting to the front of the net. Leschyshyn has the hand-eye co-ordination to make plays in tight to the net. He can score on rebounds, deflections, and by making a quick move to open up space on a goalie. Leschyshyn might be undersized, but he never shies away from a battle, and can often be found at the middle of an after the whistle scrum.
Josh Mahura, Defence, Regina Pats
An Anaheim Ducks prospect, Mahura’s offensive game took a big step forward last season. He harnessed his agility to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes. Coupled with good stick handling and poise with the puck, it helped Mahura become a real threat on the power play. Mahura’s shot is hard and accurate. He gets it on net, giving his teammates time to pounce on rebounds and get deflections. He is also a good passer, with the vision to find the open man and set up goal scoring opportunities. Mahura is also good defensively. He maintains good gap control, not allowing attackers to get by him very often. He is not a huge hitter, but is willing to be physical in the corners and in clearing the front of the net. Mahura uses his agility to stay in front of attackers and funnel them to the outside.
Sam Steel, Centre, Regina Pats
Another Ducks prospect, 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 is gone. Steel has outstanding stick handling ability and very soft hands. He weaves through traffic and creates plays off the rush. Steel also has a good wrist shot and quick release, allowing him to use defenders as a screen and fire it on net if they back off. Add in excellent vision and passing skills and Steel excels as a play maker. His play making ability is probably the biggest strength in his game right now. Steel 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.
Libor Hajek, Defence, Saskatoon Blades
A Lightning prospect, Hajek moves the puck well, 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. Hajek has shown good vision and passing ability, but could stand to work on his stick handling. 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 wide outside but does not go around chasing hits and getting himself caught out of position. His positioning in his own end is a real strong point.
Aleksi Heponiemi, Centre, Swift Current Broncos
Drafted by the Florida Panthers, Heponiemi is very fast, with an excellent first step and acceleration. Defenders must respect Heponiemi’s speed, as he can beat them to the outside, and cut back to the net. He changes speeds very well, which can fool a defender or catch them flat-footed. He is also very elusive in one-on-one situations. Heponiemi has outstanding hands. He can make dekes in a phone booth, and is extremely dangerous one-on-one. Heponiemi sees plays developing, and makes smart passes. He is an excellent play maker, making tape-to-tape passes through tight openings. He also uses his stickhandling and skating to extend plays, waiting for a teammate to get open. Heponiemi has an accurate wrist shot, with a good release. However, he must work on adding power.
Artyom Minulin, Defence, Swift Current Broncos
Surprisingly undrafted, Minulin had 50 points in 70 games last season. 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.
2018 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Caiden Daley, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings
Daley was the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 WHL Draft. He put up just 10 points in 60 games last year, but will be given a lot more ice-time and a much bigger role this season. Daley is a quick skater, and has shown offensive skill, particularly with his stick handling and play making. He must be better in his own zone, and more consistent in reading the play and helping on the back check to earn that increased ice time this year.
Luka Burzan, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors
Burzan had 14 goals and 27 points for the Warriors last season. He has excellent speed, and creates opportunities off the rush. He has an excellent wrist shot and a quick release. Burzan has also shown good vision and passing skills. A hard worker, Burzan gets in quickly on the forecheck, creating turnovers. He also goes to the net without the puck. Burzan has also shown a strong defensive game for a 16-year-old, but like most youngsters should improve with time and coaching.
Jett Woo, Defence, Moose Jaw Warriors
Woo had 22 points as a WHL Rookie and also captained Team Canada White at the Under 17 World Hockey Challenge. He is strong in both ends of the ice. Woo shows poise with the puck on his stick, keeping his head up and looking to make plays. He has a strong first pass out of the zone and has shown the ability to quarterback the power play. He also maintains good gap control at the defensive end, funneling attackers to the outside and keeping himself between the puck and the front of the net.
Cole Fonstad, Centre, Prince Albert Raiders
Fonstad put up 11 goals and 26 points for the Raiders last season. He is a bit undersized at 5’10” and 160 pounds. He makes up for that lack of size with good speed and skating ability. Fonstad has good edge work, and his quick cuts and ability to change speeds and directions can create problems for defenders. Fonstad controls the speed of the play, keeping the puck and waiting for a teammate to find an opening. He has the vision to spot them when they do, and the passing skills to make a crisp pass to create a chance.
2019 Draft Eligible Prospects
Rhett Rhinehart, Defence, Prince Albert Raiders
The 13th overall pick in the 2016 WHL Draft, Rhinehart is already 6’3″ and 196 lbs. He uses that size to play a physical defensive game. Attackers must keep their head up on his side of the ice or risk being laid out with a big hit. He also has good vision and passing ability and a big shot from the point.
Kirby Dach, Centre, Saskatoon Blades
The 2nd overall pick in the 2016 WHL Draft, Dach had 10 points in 19 games for the Blades last season. He shows every offensive skill that you would want in a young forward, with size, skating ability, soft hands, a quick shot and release, as well as excellent passing skills. Best of all is his hockey IQ. Even as a 15-year-old, he seemed to read the play extremely well and make smart plays with and without the puck. The sky is the limit for Dach, and he could have a very good rookie season. The fact that he already got in 19 games as an underager, and produced, just shows the type of potential that he has.
Logan Barlage, Centre, Swift Current Broncos
The 4th overall pick in the 2016 Bantam Draft, Barlage got in four regular season games and 13 playoff games for the Broncos last season, but was held pointless. In fairness, he got very limited ice time as he was eased into the lineup. Already 6’4″ Barlage has the frame to be a power forward, but will need to add some muscle. This isn’t surprising given his height and the fact he is just 15 years old. Add soft hands and a good shot to that frame, and he’s an intriguing prospect to watch.
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