Oil Kings’ Lazar, Samuelsson top center prospects competing in WHL

By Glen Erickson

Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic - Portland Winterhawks

Photo: Winnipeg Jets prospect Nic Petan (#19) and Nashville Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic (#28) of the Portland Winterhawks have much to smile about as they will be competing in their fourth straight WHL Championship series (courtesy of Ben Nelms/Getty Images)

The defensemen, goaltenders and wingers have all been covered, so it is time to take a look at the top centers prospects that competed in the WHL during the 2013-14 season.

The criteria remain the same as our ranking of goaltenders, wingers and defensemen. All players ranked have been drafted or signed by NHL teams. There are many different kinds of centers, including those who primarily excel offensively and those who contribute in other ways to the success of their respective teams.

One of the biggest challenges across major junior hockey is taking into consideration the versatility of many top forwards. It is not uncommon for the best players down the middle to take a few turns on the wing in all situations.

Four of our ranked centers will face off in the WHL Championship series as the Portland Winterhawks meet the Edmonton Oil Kings for the third straight year.

Curtis Lazar, Edmonton Oil Kings

It just seems customary of late for Curtis Lazar to be playing meaningful hockey games deep into April and May each year. Once again, the Vernon, BC native finds himself destined for another WHL Championship series. That achievement confirms it’s been three consecutive seasons on a deep playoff run for Lazar as a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings.

What might make the current campaign slightly different than the previous two is the reality that Lazar is now in fact the team leader in Edmonton. After a lengthy stay with the Senators through training camp, which included a few appearances in pre-season games, Lazar returned to the WHL as a go-to-guy in all situations for the Oil Kings.

Selected by the Ottawa Senators in the first round, 17th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft, Lazar was, by many accounts, the most complete player on the Team Canada roster at the 2014 WJC in Sweden. He signed an entry level contract in September of 2013.

Henrik Samuelsson, Edmonton Oil Kings

Now in his second full WHL season, Samuelsson has successfully assumed a prominent role among the leadership group in Edmonton. The Oil Kings are poised for another run at a league title this season.

Samuelsson, the son of former NHL defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, was born in Scottsdale, AZ and arrived in the WHL midway through the 2011-2012 campaign. A fierce, physical forward with a deft scoring touch, it would appear Samuelsson is destined for a top-six role in the Phoenix Coyotes organization. He was selected in the first round, 27th overall, by the Coyotes at the 2012 NHL Draft and was signed in March of 2013.

After an 80-point season last year, the 6’3”, 208-pound Samuelsson collected 35 goals and 65 assists this season, while compiling a +35 rating. In some quarters, his release from Team USA's entry at the 2014 WJC was a surprise, though the Oil Kings certainly were the beneficiary of his presence in 65 games. In just over two seasons in the WHL, Samuelsson has already played in 53 (and counting) playoff games, including the 2013 Memorial Cup.

Brendan Leipsic, Portland Winterhawks

Due to the tremendous on-ice success of the Portland Winterhawks in recent years, Leipsic has actually played the equivalent of five seasons worth of hockey over the course of his four years in the WHL.

He led the league in scoring last year, albeit in a tie with teammate Nic Petan (WPG), prompting an agreement with the Nashville Predators on an entry-level deal back in May of 2013. He was selected in the third round, 89th overall, at the 2012 draft by the Predators. He is tremendously versatile, capable of playing all forward positions. Leipsic knows the WHL well and as such, he has elevated his physical play this season. His confidence and maturity are consistently evident.

After a sluggish start to the current campaign, Leipsic provided another explosive offensive contribution in Portland, winding up the regular season with 39 goals and 52 assists in 60 games. He missed a total of 10 regular season games due to a pair of suspensions and, after taking a spearing major against the Kelowna Rockets in late April, he will miss the first game of the WHL Championship series due to another suspension. Targeted every night out, Leipsec picked up 111 penalty minutes while fending off aggressive opponents on a nightly basis.

It should be noted that Leipsec was also included in our ranking of the WHL's top wingers, a tribute to his tremendous versatility.

Nic Petan, Portland Winterhawks

The diminutive center from Delta, BC is perhaps the most dynamic handler of the puck in the WHL. Generously listed at 5’9” and 173 pounds, Nic Petan has always played big as a smaller player. A sharp passer with quick hands and a quick release, Petan is part of an offensively gifted core group with the Portland Winterhawks.

As he has matured in the WHL, Petan has become more efficient at picking spots in high traffic areas. This skill has kept him safe and healthy during his junior career, one that has spanned over 260 games. He has been the beneficiary of late by spending time on the Winterhawks' prolific power play with the likes of Leipsic (NSH), Derek Pouliot (PIT), Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ), Taylor Leier (PHI), and Mathew Dumba (MIN).

Last season, he led the WHL in scoring, tied in fact with Leipsec with 120 points. This year, Petan collected 35 goals and 78 assists in 63 games during a season that included a trip to Sweden as a member of Team Canada’s entry at the 2014 World Junior Championship. Selected in the second round, 43rd overall, by the Winnipeg Jets, Petan signed an entry-level contract with that club in December.

Ryan Olsen, Kelowna Rockets

The 2013-14 season was enormous for Olsen as he was, in effect, playing for a professional contract. His hard work early on paid off when the Tsawwassen, BC native signed an entry-level deal with the Winnipeg Jets in December.

The contract wasn’t a slam dunk for Olsen, who was selected in the sixth round, 160th overall, by the Jets at the 2012 NHL Draft. Shortly after his selection, he was dealt by the Saskatoon Blades to the Kelowna Rockets. While in Kelowna, he has developed into a team leader for the Rockets and has provided consistent offensive production along the way. This past season, Olsen tallied 30 times and added 34 assists in 71 games, while compiling a +37 rating. He is a veteran of more that 300 WHL career games.

At 6’2” and 194 pounds, the 20-year-old Olsen can ramp up the physical play when required. He does not appear to possess explosive acceleration, but with his almost effortless stride, he covers the ice efficiently, reminiscent of a young Jason Arnott. How the Jets choose to utilize his skill set remains to be seen, but he does not project as a dynamic offensive contributor. His work ethic, however, is certainly a key strength.

Chandler Stephenson, Regina Pats

An important part of the Regina Pats’ East Division-winning group this season, Stephenson is a thick and intense speedster from Saskatoon, SK who signed with the Washington Capitals last month.

Selected by the Caps in the third round, 77th overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft, Stephenson scored 30 times and added 59 assists in 69 games while compiling a career-best +27 rating. A veteran of 239 WHL games, he spent his entire junior career with the Pats.

Now 20, the 5’11” and 200-pound Stephenson made his presence felt at the 2012 Top Prospects Game in Kelowna. He is now skating with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.

Brady Brassart, Calgary Hitmen

A final season in the WHL as a 20-year-old paid off handsomely for Brassart as the undrafted Vernon, BC native was able to earn an entry-level contract with the Minnesota Wild. The pact was signed in March. Brassart had a taste of a pro training camp with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but had not been able to stick with that club.

At 6’2” and 195 pounds, Brassart is physically ready for the rigors of the NHL, but is likely to spend some time developing in the AHL. He is a veteran of 367 WHL games, the final 233 played with the Hitmen during three seasons after coming over from the Spokane Chiefs. This year, he scored 35 goals and added 50 assists in 70 games.

Brassart, who will celebrate his 21st birthday in June, is now skating with the Iowa Wild in the AHL, alongside a pair of recent Hitmen grads, Kris Foucault and Carson MacMillan.

Graham Black, Swift Current Broncos

Based on his outstanding performance this year with the Swift Current Broncos, Graham Black earned an entry-level contract with the New Jersey Devils, a pact signed just a couple of weeks ago. Black led the Broncos with 34 goals and 63 assists for 97 points to go along with a +14 rating in 69 games.

Black’s achievements are a tremendous success story as the native of Regina, SK has battled and overcome illness during his junior career to earn a legitimate NHL opportunity. The effects of Graves Disease have hampered Black at times, but his persistence resulted in some dominating offensive efforts this past season. He appeared in 225 games during his WHL career.

Selected in the fifth round, 135th overall, by the Devils at the 2012 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old Black has been skating with the AHL’s Albany Devils since the Broncos’ exit from the WHL playoffs.

Troy Bourke, Prince George Cougars

The development of Troy Bourke has been a journey that one might easily categorize as trying. Playing in a WHL outpost like Prince George, where there has been little success of late and even less fan support, can make for some difficult nights for any junior hockey player.

Despite the many challenges, Troy Bourke has appeared in 280 games over four full seasons for the Cougars, only four of which were played during the postseason. He is a disciplined forward with some scoring touch, evidenced by his career-high 85 points this year. With 29 goals and 56 assists along with a -4 rating, the 20-year-old Bourke was a reliable, consistent producer.

The 5’11”, 176-pounder from Onoway, AB was selected in the third round, 72nd overall, by the Colorado Avalanche at the 2012 NHL Draft. He has quick feet and a quick release. He was a member of Team Canada at the 2012 U18 World Championship.

Jujhar Khaira, Everett Silvertips

If the Edmonton Oilers are sincere about adding significant size to their corps of forwards, Jujhar Khaira is certain to get a long look. Listed at 6’4” and 215 pounds, the lanky center was prominent this season in an Everett Silvertips uniform.

For the native of Surrey, BC, the road to the NCAA traveled through Prince George where he spent two seasons with the BCHL’s Spruce Kings. Selected in the third round, 63rd overall, by the Oilers at the 2012 NHL Draft, Khaira actually caught the team’s attention as a member of the NCAA’s Michigan Tech Huskies.

A tall, lanky, seemingly effortless skater who can rag the puck with efficiency, Khaira played in all situations under Silvertips' bench boss Kevin Constantine this past season. He scored 16 goals and added 27 assists for 43 points in 59 games during his first and only WHL campaign. Now 19, Khaira signed an entry-level deal with the Oilers in August of 2013. Last season, and most recently, he has skated with the Oklahoma City Barons during the AHL’s postseason.

Other notables

Zach Pochiro (STL)
Adam Tambellini (NYR)
Greg Chase (EDM)
Mike Winther (DAL)
Steven Hodges (FLA) 
Logan Nelson (BUF)
Lukas Sutter (WPG)

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