Back in June, the Western Hockey League saw 33 of its players selected at the NHL Draft in New Jersey. With the NHL festivities set for Philadelphia in 2014, scouting personnel are busy perusing the current WHL talent pool.
Among the top 10 in our ranking are three imports, Leon Draisaitl (Germany), Julius Honka (Finland) and Nikita Scherbak (Russia). Draisaitl served notice last year that he would be firmly on the NHL radar this season, while Honka and Scherback are thriving during their rookie campaigns in North America.
Of the five remaining forwards, four are Canadian and one is from the United States. The other two defensemen in our ranking are from Canada. All but one of the group is scheduled to play in the Top Prospects Game in Calgary next month.
Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice
Now playing in his third full WHL season, Reinhart is well-established as a prolific, offensively skilled forward. The Vancouver native, who celebrated his 18th birthday on November 6th, stirs the drink for the Ice in Cranbrook.
While the family bloodlines are well-documented – his father Paul played over 700 games in the NHL, brother Max is in the Calgary Flames system and bother Griffin is an Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman who has been signed by the New York Islanders – it is likely that Sam possesses the most pure talent among the siblings. At 6’1” and 183 pounds, he has proven to be a durable junior as he continues to grow physically.
He attended Team Canada’s selection camp for the 2014 WJC this past week, along with Griffin, and has traveled to Europe with the team for what is generally considered a 19-year-old tournament. A competent skater, it is his hockey sense, his anticipation, that sets him apart among his peers. Through 33 games this season, he has scored 16 goals and 34 assists for a Kootenay team that will battle all season long for a post-season berth.
Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert Raiders
Through 33 games this season, Draisaitl leads the Raiders in scoring with 18 goals and 33 assists, along with a +1 rating. This current production comes on the heels of a rookie campaign where the now 18-year-old import collected 58 points in 64 games with a +22 rating.
From Cologne, Germany, the 6’1” and 209-pounder is physically capable of handling the rigors of major junior hockey. He is a playmaker first, but has begun to establish some scoring polish in the attacking zone.
Draisaitl will play for Germany at the 2014 U20 WJC in Sweden, marking his second straight appearance at this tournament. With continued success and development in both the WHL and internationally, it is very likely he could unseat fellow countryman Marcel Goc (20th overall, 2001 NHL Draft) as the native German player chosen highest in the NHL Draft.
Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer Rebels
There is always a thirst among NHL teams to stock their cupboards with mobile, big-bodied defensemen, which makes Fleury a player to watch closely through the remainder of the current WHL season. The product from Carlyle, Saskatchewan, who will be 17 years of age when the 2014 NHL Draft is held in Philadelphia next June, checks in at 6’3” and 198 pounds.
The young Fleury developed in part during his minor hockey days at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. In the WHL, he already displays puck-carrying confidence, an attribute that contributes effectively to the offensive fortunes of a Red Deer team clearly in rebuilding mode. He is edgy, a player prepared for physical play when necessary. With his size, skills and determination, the left-handed shooting Fleury is undoubtedly an important piece of the Rebels reconstruction.
Fleury has scored 5 times and added 19 assists in 34 games this season after a rookie campaign last year that saw him collect 19 points in 66 games.
Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary Hitmen
Coming off a rookie year in the WHL where he collected 34 points in 62 games, Virtanen is looking to build from the success he achieved during the second half of last season. Through 33 games this season, he has scored 18 times and added 10 helpers for the Hitmen.
At first glance, Virtanen will impress onlookers with his high-end skating ability. He is explosive, which makes him an offensive threat and a valuable contributor on the back check. He is a prototypical power forward, a right-handed shooter who excels playing the off wing.
The 6’1, 210-pound native of British Columbia’s lower mainland was the first player selected at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. For those with linguistic curiosities, Virtanen is indeed of Finnish descent as his father is from Finland.
Chase De Leo, C, Portland Winterhawks
With the significant amount of team success the Winterhawks have experienced in recent years, the likes of Chase De Leo have been beneficiaries of deep playoff runs and the opportunities to play with many teammates already drafted by NHL teams. De Leo exemplifies persistence in his own right, rising to prominence in Portland after being selected in the ninth round, 192nd overall, at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft.
De Leo, from La Mirada, California, is now 18 years old and has patiently worked his way into a prominent role with Portland. Currently in his third full WHL season, he is already long on experience having appeared in a total of 183 games during his first two years in the WHL, including a Memorial Cup appearance with the Winterhawks. Coming off a 56-point performance last year, De Leo has scored 22 goals and 17 assists in 35 games this season.
The 5’7”, 175-pounder has developed into a savvy veteran forward with good acceleration and the fortitude to enter high traffic areas. Not at all short on compete level, De Leo has a very quick release, and plays a game very similar to teammate Nic Petan (WPG). De Leo was one of nine WHL players chosen to play in the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Pittsburgh in September.
Julius Honka, D, Swift Current Broncos
Perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise among import players in the WHL this season is Honka, a diminutive defenseman who managed to hit the ground running offensively this season and has not let up to date. By joining his friend goaltender Etu Laurikainen in Swift Current, the pair is providing the Broncos with perhaps the most productive import tandem in the league.
From Jyaskyla, Finland, Honka was selected in the first round, 34th overall, at the 2013 CHL Import Draft. He has scored 12 goals and added 24 assists in 35 games, while compiling a +9 rating and 32 penalty minutes. He was named the WHL Player of the Week during week one of the regular season and has remained a prominent producer through the first half of the regular season schedule.
Honka, who celebrated his 18th birthday on December 3rd, checks in at 5’11” and 175 pounds. A proficient playmaker, Honka thrives on opportunities to be creative in the attacking zone. He is at his best when handling the puck and dictating the pace of play. He should be a lock to skate with Team Finland at the 2014 WJC.
Brycen Martin, D, Swift Current Broncos
For scouts watching the Broncos this season, the two-for-one program among defensemen will create some measure of convenience. The 6’2”, 185-pound Martin is playing in his second full season in Speedy Creek, looking to improve upon the offensive skills he flashed last season.
Martin, who is only 17, has room to grow on a frame that will keep NHL teams interested. For a tall player, he moves with good speed and balance. His confidence as a puck carrier continues to grow. Martin, from Calgary, is capable of handling duties on the point when the Broncos have a man advantage.
Through 38 games, he has scored twice and added 20 assists, already eclipsing the 19-point campaign he produced last season in 67 games.
Nikita Scherbak, RW, Saskatoon Blades
In recent years, the Blades have received significant contributions from imports, including the likes of Andrey Makarov (BUF) in goal and Matej Stransky (DAL) up front. On a roster somewhat decimated by graduations after last season, the Blades were able to fill a big hole on offense with the addition of Russian import, Nikita Scherbak.
Scherbak, from Moscow, was a relatively late pick, selected in the second round, 109th overall, at the 2013 CHL Import Draft. A right-handed shooter, he checks in at 6’2” and 175 pounds and will celebrate his 18th birthday on December 30th. He produced 14 points this past season with his team in Russia, Kapitan Stupino, the team that objected to Scherbak’s desire to play in the CHL.
Scherback is currently the top rookie scorer in the WHL by 12 points with 20 goals and 28 assists in 37 games, along with a +9 rating on a Saskatoon team that is unlikely to make the playoffs. He joined Team Russia for one game, collecting an assist in a 3-2 victory over Team WHL at the Subway Super Series, but was not invited to his country’s selection camp for the WJC.
Conner Bleackley, C/RW, Red Deer Rebels
Heading into his draft year, Conner Bleackley already had 91 WHL games under his belt in Red Deer, the team that chose him 21st overall at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Expectations for a more significant contribution were high after an 18-point performance last year in 66 games.
At 6’1” and 195 pounds, Bleackley is strong enough at 17 years of age to impose himself on opponents. He is also blessed with a quick release, which has contributed in part to his 41 points in 35 games this season. Bleakley is from High River, Alberta.
At the World U-17 Hockey Challenge last year, Bleackley was an assistant captain for Team Pacific, which finished in fifth place at the tournament. In early November this year, he was named the Rebels team captain.
Brayden Point, C, Moose Jaw Warriors
WHL followers will remember what really may have been Brayden Point’s coming out party, a seven-goal performance over 14 games during the 2012 playoffs, which all came just a few weeks after his 16th birthday. Since then, the diminutive forward from Calgary has been a key offensive player for the Warriors.
Although only 5’9” and 160 pounds, Point appears fearless despite his smaller frame. He is tenacious, a gritty forward who makes his presence felt, especially in the attacking zone. During his first full WHL season, the durable center played in 67 games, collecting 24 goals and 34 assists. On a struggling Warriors team this season, he has produced 31 points in 37 games.
Others to watch:
Joe Hicketts, D, Victoria Royals
Ryan Pilon, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Keegan Iverson, W, Portland Winterhawks
Tyson Baillie, W, Kelowna Rockets
Rourke Chartier, C, Kelowna Rockets
Nelson Nogier, D, Saskatoon Blades
Colby Cave, C, Swift Current Broncos
Alex Forsberg, C, Prince George Cougars
Matt Needham, C, Kamloops Blazers
Connor Rankin, C, Tri City Americans
Ty Edmonds, G, Prince George Cougars
Ben Thomas, D, Calgary Hitmen
Alex Moodie, G, Saskatoon Blades
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51