Top 10 WHL prospects for 2010

By Glen Erickson

As the Christmas break approaches and hockey fans ready themselves for a myriad of international competitions, HF presents its Top 10 ranking of 2010 NHL Entry Draft eligible prospects playing in the Western Hockey League.

Our list contains a pair of defensemen, one goaltender and seven forwards. Six players are suiting up for Eastern Conference teams. Eight players on the list are Canadians, along with one American and one European. Only one of the top ten is likely to play in the upcoming WJC, that being Swiss-born Nino Neiderreiter of the Portland Winterhawks.

1. Mark Pysyk, Edmonton Oil Kings
ISS Ranking: 11th
CSS Ranking (WHL): 2nd

The 6’1, 180-pound native of Sherwood Park, Alberta has been a prominent contributor along the Edmonton Oil Kings blueline. During his rookie season, he played in 61 games, collecting five goals and 15 assists.

Since his arrival in the WHL, Pysyk has impressed with his mobility and puck movement. As he grows physically and acquires knowledge of opponents throughout the league, his potential to dominate in a shut-down role will increase. However, Pysyk does possess offensive skills as well, which will make his development in different roles even more interesting to observe. During the Subway Series, Pysyk played for Team WHL in both wins, 2-1 at Victoria and 4-2 at Kelowna.

Pysyk is being encouraged to more frequently jump into the play offensively by the coaching staff in Edmonton. Considered by head coach Steve Pleau as the team’s best defenseman last season and this season, Pysyk has five goals and added 12 assists in 26 games.

2. Brett Connolly, Prince George Cougars
ISS November Ranking: 6th
CSS Ranking (WHL): 1st

The current season has been immensely challenging for Connolly as he has battled a hip flexor injury suffered at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 Tournament in August. The 2008-09 WHL and CHL Rookie of the Year, Connolly elevated his game in Prince George after the Cougars lost veteran forward Dana Tyrell (TB) to a season-ending knee injury prior to the 2009 WJC. Connolly tallied 30 times and added 30 assists in what became an unanticipated leadership role for the lanky 16-year-old.

After seven games this season, Connolly was placed on the injured list after aggravating the hip against the Lethbridge Hurricanes. A pure goal scorer, the 6’2, 180-pounder is every bit a dynamic skater as well. He returned to the ice for the final game of the Subway Series where Team WHL defeated the Russians 4-2 in Kelowna. While rust was evident, Connolly appeared able to move with ease and comfort while playing alongside fellow 2010 prospect Quinton Howden of the Moose Jaw Warriors. And then, on Dec. 5, he re-aggravated the hip injury again after playing five more games with the Cougars. Through 12 games, Connolly has collected 13 points.

The native of Prince George has added some weight to his frame and looks to be a more physically able presence compared to his rookie season. Despite his inactivity in game situations in recent weeks, Connolly has maintained his position as the top WHL prospect in the current ISS rankings. However, any further prolonged absence will enable other prospects to surpass him. Connolly will have to prove himself both healthy and productive during the second half of the season.

3. Quinton Howden, Moose Jaw Warriors
ISS Ranking: 14th
CSS Ranking (WHL): 8th

At 6’3, 185 pounds, Howden is an imposing forward playing in his second full WHL season. The Moose Jaw Warriors made the Oakbank, Manitoba native their first round pick, first overall, in the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft. Howden covers the ice well with a big, almost effortless-looking stride. His preference is to serve as a playmaker, yet he is willing to play the body when he has to. A versatile, skilled forward, he can be effective in the faceoff circle.

In his rookie campaign, he collected 13 goals and 17 assists in 62 games. This season, he has matched those totals in only 31 games. He was also named to Team WHL for the Subway Series game in Kelowna. He played for Team West at the 2009 U-17 World Challenge and also won a gold medal at the 2009 World U-18 tournament.

On a very deep Warriors roster, Howden has played most of the current season alongside 20-year-old Jason Bast and hulking forward Thomas Frazee. Howden’s development will be aided this season in part due to the fact that he will play plenty of meaningful games this season in what appears to be the WHL’s most competitive division.

4. Calvin Pickard, Seattle Thunderbirds
ISS Ranking: N/R
CSS Ranking (WHL): 1st overall among Goaltenders

If the name sounds familiar, that might be due to the success of Chet Pickard (NAS) who toiled with the WHL’s Tri City Americans before his move to professional hockey this season. The smart money these days suggests the two brothers will meet again someday in the professional ranks.

In Seattle, Calvin Pickard has earned the starting job with consistent positional play and the ability to withstand plenty of shots on goal. In 26 appearances, he has posted a 2.81 goals against average and a save percentage of .919. The T-Birds have not advanced past the second round of the WHL playoffs in some time, yet the organization has produced some top talent like Thomas Hickey (LA), the fourth overall pick at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. This should hold true in Pickard’s situation, come June of 2010.

Overlooked this year by Hockey Canada for the WJC in favor of Martin Jones of the Calgary Hitmen, Pickard’s presence in the Seattle lineup through December and January bodes well for a hockey club that has played very good hockey in recent weeks. Among WHL goaltenders, Pickard is the top keeper according to the current CSS rankings.

5. Nino Niederreiter, Portland Winterhawks
ISS Ranking: 22nd
CSS Ranking (WHL): 6th

The 6’2, 203-pound forward from Chur, Switzerland has played an important role this season in the resurgence of the Winterhawks, contributing 19 goals and 17 assists through 33 games in his rookie season. He celebrated his 17th birthday on Sept. 8.

According to head coach Mike Johnston, Neiderreiter is big, well-developed physically and is a hungry hockey player. At the World U-18 Championship, Neiderreiter showed that he is very driven. He desperately wanted to come to North America to challenge himself in junior hockey. Johnston likes that he has a great personality for the current group in Portland.

Neiderreiter, the WHL scoring leader among rookies, has been summoned by Team Switzerland to attend their tryout camp for the WJC in Saskatchewan.

6. Emerson Etem, Medicine Hat Tigers
ISS Ranking: 23rd
CSS Ranking (WHL): 4th

Etem is another player who serves as confirmation that the WHL’s scouting activities into California are bearing fruit. Etem, who will celebrate his 18th birthday on June 12, is a native of Long Beach. The Tigers selected Etem in the sixth round of the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft.

Through 34 games this season, Etem has collected 21 goals and 10 assists. A key component on Tigers special teams, Etem has scored eight times on the power play and three times shorthanded. The offensive numbers this season come on the heels of a 45-point campaign in 50 games last year as a member U-17’s with the United States National Team Development Program.

At 6’, 194 pounds, Etem possesses the size to handle the rigors of the WHL physical play and lengthy regular season schedule.

7. Alex Petrovic, Red Deer Rebels
ISS Ranking: N/R
CSS Ranking: 3rd

If there has been a surprise across the WHL this season, it could be the emergence of Alex Petrovic on the Rebels blueline. The Edmonton, Alberta native has returned from an early-season injury and is considered by many to be the team’s top defenseman.

He’s big-body defender who plays an edgy style at both ends of the ice. At 6’4, 195 pounds, his long reach wreaks havoc for attacking forwards. Playing 25 to 30 minutes per game as a 17-year-old speaks volumes of Petrovic’s value in Red Deer. Comparable to Pysyk in many areas, Petrovic is perhaps a small step behind Pysyk offensively. Through 15 games this season, Petrovic has scored twice and chipped in with six assists.

8. Jordan Weal, Regina Pats
ISS Ranking: N/R
CSS Ranking (WHL): 10th

Weal took the WHL by storm last season in his rookie campaign, producing 16 goals and 54 assists in 65 games. He was an important contributor offensively for the Pats, a team that missed the scoring of Jordan Eberle and Colten Teubert from time to time due to their respective Hockey Canada commitments last season.

The 5’8 forward sees plenty of ice time alongside Eberle, another reason he has become a consistent offensive threat. Weal, a native of North Vancouver, B.C., checks in at 5’9 and 165 pounds. He is a right-handed shooting centerman. Through 34 games, he has scored 16 goals and added 33 assists.

Weal will see plenty of ice time through December and January with Eberle destined for a second stint with Team Canada at the WJC.

9. Ryan Johansen, Portland Winterhawks
ISS Ranking: 24th
CSS Ranking (WHL): 9th

The 6’3, 188-pound centerman has had a huge impact offensively during his rookie season with the Portland Winterhawks. Through 33 games, he has 10 goals and 19 assists to provide valuable secondary scoring for the resurgent Winterhawks.

Johansen, a native of Port Moody, B.C., is a big player who has yet to physically develop. He could probably add 20 pounds over the next couple of years but for now, he demonstrates the attributes of smart centerman with great puck skills and vision. He’s is considered a “pretty high-end player” by head coach Mike Johnston.

Johansen played junior hockey last season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League.

10. Curtis Hamilton, Saskatoon Blades
ISS Ranking: N/R
CSS Ranking (WHL): 12th

The beneficiary of what is often referred to as a ‘late birthday’(Dec. 4) coming up through the minor ranks, Hamilton has become a productive and reliable power forward through his two seasons in Saskatoon. At 6’3, 202 pounds, he is physically NHL-ready at 18 years of age. In 58 games last season, Hamilton scored 20 goals and 28 assists while compiling a plus-28 rating.

Hamilton, along with Connolly, was a member of Team Canada at the U-18 tournament in the Czech Republic. It is reasonable to expect that he will develop a mean streak, given the intensity with which his father Bruce played with when he was a member of the Blades from 1974-77. As his mobility continues to improve, expect the young winger to become an even more reliable scorer.

On Nov. 26, during the Subway Series final game in Kelowna against the Russians, Hamilton suited up for Team WHL. During the second period, he fell awkwardly into the boards and injured his shoulder. He will be out of the Blades lineup for four to six weeks. He was ranked 29th by ISS to start the season. Through 25 games, Hamilton has scored seven goals and nine assists.

Other notables: Kevin Sundher, Chilliwack Bruins; Brad Ross, Portland Winter Hawks; Troy Rutkowski, Portland; Matt MacKenzie, Calgary Hitmen; Austin Madaisky, Calgary; JT Barnett, Vancouver Giants; Brendan Gallagher, Vancouver; Antonin Honejsek, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors; Charles Inglis, Saskatoon Blades; Brendan Ranford, Kamloops Blazers; Ryan Harrison, Prince Albert Raiders; Taylor Makin, Prince George Cougars; Brock Hirsche, Prince George; Jordan Messier, Tri City Americans; Brendan Shinnimin, Tri City; Mark Stone, Brandon Wheat Kings; Kent Simpson, Everett Silvertips; Cam Lanigan, Edmonton Oil Kings.