Klimchuk heads talented group of winger prospects in the WHL

By Glen Erickson

Oliver Bjorkstrand - Portland Winterhawks

Photo: Portland Winterhawks forward and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand was one of just three WHL players to hit the 50-goal mark in the 2013-14 regular season (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

In the 2013-14 season regular season, the WHL featured a talented variety of wingers that are currently NHL prospects. The focus of this article is on the those WHL wingers that are currently property of a National Hockey League team, six of whom have signed NHL contracts. Our ranking consists of seven Canadians and three imports. Seven toiled in the WHL’s Western Conference, and our ranking contains a couple sets of teammates.

Morgan Klimchuk (CGY), LW, Regina Pats

Prior to the 2012-13 season, Klimchuk made a point to emphasize improvement in his skating. It would seem that effort paid off handsomely as the 5’11”, 185-pounder from Calgary was selected in the first round, 28th overall, by the Calgary Flames at the 2013 NHL Draft. Klimchuk was the third of three first round picks by Calgary last June.

Known for his offensive skill set, Klimchuk is a trigger man in Regina on a much improved Pats team. He struggled early on this season with nagging injuries, starting with an abdominal injury that kept him from attending the Flames training camp. Then a hip injury suffered during the Subway Super Series in November came as another setback. Despite his absence, Klimchuk was signed in December during a break in the WHL schedule near Christmas.

Klimchuk, now 19, scored 30 goals and 44 assists while compiling a +27 rating in 57 games during the regular-season. Along with Chandler Stephenson (WSH), Klimchuk has been a challenging forward for opponents to defend as the East Division champion Pats rode a successful second half of the regular season to earn the number two seeding in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Hunter Shinkaruk (VAN), LW, Medicine Hat Tigers

Another winger who found himself in a personal battle due to injury this season, Shinkaruk is a young prospect who knows a thing or two about responding after significant ailments.

In bantam hockey, Shinkaruk suffered a badly broken leg that required a lengthy and painstaking recovery period. He responded with vigor and established himself as a premier WHL forward. In January this season, surgery to repair an ailing hip resulted in an end to his 2013-14 season.

Now 19, he was selected in the first round, 24th overall, by the Vancouver Canucks at the 2013 NHL Draft, and was signed in August. After an extended stay through training camp with the Canucks, the 5’11”, 180-pounder from Calgary managed only five goals and 11 assists in 18 games during his injury-shortened campaign.

An offensively gifted forward, Shinkaruk played much of the first half of the WHL season at much less than 100% capability, yet still earned an invitation by Hockey Canada to the selection camp for the 2014 WJC. Although he did not make the team, the opportunity is sure to rank as a highlight during a difficult season.

Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ), RW, Portland Winterhawks

If there was any doubt at all about Bjorkstrand’s offensive skills heading into the current campaign, they were completely put to rest as the native of Denmark became one of only three players in the WHL to tally 50 goals this season.

Now 18, Bjorsktrand was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the third round, 89th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft. He has grown during his two seasons in the WHL and now checks in at 6’ and 170 pounds. He is aggressive in the attacking zone, a forward who plays bigger than his frame in high traffic areas. He was recently named to the WHL Western Conference First All-Star Team.

Bjorkstrand was signed in December by the Blue Jackets, a team that has looked favourably at the WHL’s pacific northwest teams in recent years during the early rounds of the NHL Draft. Of late, Columbus has chosen Ryan Murray from the Everett Silvertips (2012) and Ryan Johansen (2010) of the Portland Winterhawks.

Mitch Moroz (EDM), LW, Edmonton Oil Kings

Both Moroz and the Oilers have been beneficiaries of familiarity based in part on the Oil Kings prominence in the Edmonton market. The Oilers have been able to keep close tabs on Moroz as he thrives in the WHL.

The Edmonton Oilers selected Moroz in the second round, 32nd overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft. At the time, some prognosticators suggested he was a surprise pick by the Oilers, but Moroz has evolved to near blue-chip status in an organization yearning for a combination of size and skill up front. The 19-year-old is full of grit and is an eminently capable pugilist. However, over the course of his playing career in the WHL, Moroz has also become a consistent contributor in all situations and also a reliable offensive player.

At 6’3” and 214 pounds, the Calgary native scored 35 goals and added 28 assists for 63 points in 70 games in this, his third full season with the Oil Kings. He has averaged 142 penalty minutes over the course of his three years in the WHL. He was signed by the Oilers in December.

Taylor Leier (PHI), LW, Portland Winterhawks

The 5’11” and 177-pound forward from Saskatoon has been a versatile and valuable performer in Portland. He has completed his third full regular season with Portland and has improved his offensive numbers each year. This season, Leier collected 35 goals and 42 assists in 61 games while compiling a +46 rating.

Leier was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the fourth round, 117th overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft. Leier, now 20, played for Team Canada at the 2014 WJC in Sweden. He was signed by the Flyers in September.

At the Memorial Cup last year in Saskatoon, Leier was injured during an open-ice collision with Dalton Thrower (MTL), a hit that earned Thrower an immediate suspension for the remainder of the tournament. Leier was not able to return to play after the check and watched his mates from the sidelines throughout the playoff round of the national championship.

Tim Bozon (MTL), LW, Kootenay Ice

Now in his third full season in the WHL, Bozon was able to play with some high-octane forwards as a member of the Kamloops Blazers for two seasons. He was dealt to the Ice early this season and took some time to adjust and elevate his game before pouring it on during the second half of the season. With Kootenay, he scored 30 goals and 32 assists in 50 games

The 6’1”, 199-pound Bozon is from Lugano, Switzerland. He has had many opportunities to profile his skill set in the WHL, including an appearance in the 2012 Top Prospects Game. At that event, in an interview with Hockey’s Future, Bozon confirmed he speaks four languages, which is perhaps a league-high.

Selected in the third round, 64th overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadiens, Bozon was signed by the Canadiens on May 30, 2013.

Tragically, Bozon fell ill while the Ice were on the road in Saskatoon and was hospitalized on March 1st. He was diagnosed with neisseria meningitis, which led doctors to place him into a coma to aid the healing process. Bozon is now awake and out of intensive care, but is still in recovery mode. Assuming he makes a full recovery, Bozon’s hockey skills and development ensure his placement on this list is well-deserved.

Myles Bell (NJD), RW, Kelowna Rockets

Another overage winger who managed to park some personal issues during his WHL career, Bell has become a versatile “go-to-guy” in Kelowna on the top CHL team in the entire country.

Passed over at the 2011 and 2012 drafts, he was selected in the sixth round, 160th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils. Bell is a thick, heavy forward who possesses the hardest shot in the WHL. He arrived in Kelowna through a trade with the Regina Pats after his first two full seasons in the WHL. He is now a veteran of more than 340 WHL games over five years, although he has only appeared in 16 playoff games.

Now 20 years of age, Bell checks in at 6’1” and 215 pounds. The Calgary native scored a team-high 42 goals and added 35 assists for 77 points in 69 games as the Rockets collected a team record 118 points during the regular season. He has yet to sign with New Jersey.

Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI), LW, Kelowna Rockets

Much like Moroz, Goulbourne has done the work during his WHL career to soften the edges on any grey areas that might have affected his development and long-term potential.

Initially viewed as a tough guy with a load of grit and hostility, Goulbourne is known league-wide as an exceptional skater with speed and acceleration that often surprises even the top defensemen in the WHL. Goulbourne was selected in the third round, 72nd overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. He has yet to sign.

Following the NHL Draft, the Flyers and Goulbourne were ripped by some East Coast pundits who obviously had not seen him play. As if the 6’ and 185-pounder from Edmonton needed more reason to play with a chip on his shoulder, Goulbourne went on to score 17 goals and added 20 assists for 37 points and a +26 rating in 68 games this season.

Cole Ully (DAL), LW, Kamloops Blazers

Ully is a tremendously talented forward who has almost every important tool required to play professional hockey. The only challenge, and it’s not new to the Calgary, Alberta native, is his size. Ully checks in at 5’11” and 170 pounds, a frame that makes it difficult to consistently excel among many of hockey’s huge defenseman.

Despite this supposed disadvantage, Ully has progressed favorably in the WHL from a youngster among veterans to the current season where he was a key leader on a young, struggling team. He scored 30 goals and added 42 assists for 72 points in 69 games this season, all career highs. On a team that won a paltry 14 games, Ully managed a more than respectable -7 rating while leading the team in scoring.

Ully was selected in the fifth round, 131st overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. Now 19 years of age, he has not yet signed with Dallas.

Marek Tvrdon (DET), LW, Kelowna Rockets

A latecomer to the WHL this season, Tvrdon was acquired by the Rockets at the trade deadline from the Vancouver Giants. He was selected in the fourth round, 115th overall, of the 2011 NHL Draft by the Detroit Red Wings.

Tvrdon never did play for the Giants this season, as he auditioned for the Red Wings in both the East Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League.

A big winger from Slovakia who is now 21 years of age, Tvrdon checks in at 6’2” and 214 pounds. Tvrdon missed much of last season due to injury. While in Kelowna this season, he has collected 11 goals and 15 assists in 29 games. The Rockets gave up popular overager Zach Franko (FA) to the Kootenay Ice to make room for Tvrdon, an import who arrived in Kelowna carrying the baggage associated with some attitude concerns.

Whether this is fair or not, the bottom line is that Tvrdon alone has the ability to make the best of a situation that has him primed for a deep playoff run. In an effort to earn a professional contract, one has to wonder if Tvrdon feels he won the lottery at the trade deadline.

Other notables

Peter Quenneville (CBJ) RW, Brandon Wheat Kings
Brandon Troock (DAL) RW, Seattle Thunderbirds
Coda Gordon (CGY) LW, Swift Current Broncos
Jackson Houck (EDM) RW, Vancouver Giants

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