Bjorkstrand, Virtanen the top NHL-drafted wingers in the WHL

By Glen Erickson
Oliver Bjorkstrand - Portland Winterhawks

Photo: Portland Winterhawks forward and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand had a late-season, 5-game scoring streak totaling 15 points that helped to the 2014-15 WHL scoring crown (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

Many of the WHL’s top players achieve success due in part to their versatility, as most forwards will take a spin from time to time at the center position.

The following ranking includes wingers that are currently property of a National Hockey League team. A total of eight are signed NHL entry-level contracts. Our ranking consists of five Canadians, one American and four imports with six currently toiling in the WHL’s Western Conference. Additionally, our ranking contains a couple pairs of potential NHL teammates.

1. Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) RW, Portland Winterhawks

Last year, Oliver Bjorkstrand erased any doubt concerning his offensive skills as the native of Denmark finished the regular season as one of only three players in the WHL to collect 50 goals. This season, Bjorkstrand sat at 48 goals in 49 games before exploding with four tallies in his 50th game, which at the time amounted to a 12-game goal scoring streak. Bjorkstrand has since gone on to take the WHL scoring title this season, posting 63 goals and 55 assists for 118 points in 59 games.

Bjorsktrand was selected in the third round, 89th overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2013 NHL Draft. He has grown physically during his three seasons in the WHL, but still checks in at a thick and trim 6’ and 170 pounds. He continues to play aggressively in the attacking zone, appears fearless in high traffic areas, and has developed perhaps the quickest release in the WHL.

Bjorkstrand, who was outstanding for Denmark at the 2015 WJC, was signed by the Blue Jackets on December 27th, 2013. Columbus has looked favorably at the WHL’s Pacific Northwest teams in recent years during the early rounds at the NHL Draft, selecting the likes of Ryan Murray from the Everett Silvertips (2012) and Ryan Johansen (2010) of the Portland Winterhawks.

2. Jake Virtanen (VAN) LW, Calgary Hitmen

Prior to the 2014 NHL Draft, Jake Virtanen had established himself among the top power forwards in the WHL. A late-season shoulder injury hampered him down the stretch and prevented him from participating at the NHL Combine in Toronto. Despite the setback, Virtanen had done plenty on the developmental side to rank among the top picks, including a 45-goal regular season performance. The Canucks signed Virtanen a month after the NHL Draft, on July 27th, 2014.

Selected in the first round, sixth overall, by the Vancouver Canucks, the native of Abbottsford, BC appears poised to play a future role as a hometown favorite. Surgery on his shoulder kept the 6’1, 207-pounder on the sidelines during the Canucks training camps and the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton. When he returned to the Calgary Hitmen lineup, he parlayed his size, speed and skill into an invitation to Hockey Canada’s selection camp for the 2015 World Junior Championship. Virtanen went on to earn a gold medal with Team Canada.

This season, Virtanen scored 21 times and added 31 assists in 50 games as an integral part of a Hitmen team that finished atop the WHL’s Central Division.

3. Morgan Klimchuk (CGY) LW, Brandon Wheat Kings

Morgan Klimchuk just completed his third consecutive 30-goal season in the WHL, although most of the damage had been done while he was a member of the Regina Pats.

Now 20, Klimchuk established himself early on in the WHL with his offensive skill set. Klimchuk was a trigger man in Regina for two seasons before the Wheat Kings acquired him from the Pats just 27 games into the current campaign. Klimchuk has provided a veteran presence and consistent production in Brandon, the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Over the course of his WHL career, Klimchuk has collected 268 points in 268 games. The 6’, 185-pounder from Calgary was selected in the first round, 28th overall, by the Calgary Flames at the 2013 NHL Draft. He was signed by the Flames on December 17th, 2013.

4. Nikita Scherbak (MTL) RW, Everett Silvertips

A savvy import forward, Nikita Scherbak had an outstanding rookie season in the WHL as a member of the Saskatoon Blades. On a team that won a paltry 16 games, Scherbak, from Moscow, led the league in rookie scoring by a wide margin with 28 goals and 50 assists in 65 games.

During the off-season, the Blades moved Scherbak to the Everett Silvertips where he has not missed a beat offensively. In 65 games this season, Scherbak tallied 27 times and added 55 assists to surpass his output from last season. He has also compiled at +33 rating.

The lanky, 6’2 and 195-pound Scherbak played at the 2014 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Calgary, along with fellow countryman Nikolay Goldobin (SJS). The two forwards were called to the podium consecutively in the first round at the 2014 NHL Draft, with Scherbak being called first, 26th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs signed Scherbak on July 21st, 2014.

5. Cole Ully (DAL) LW, Kamloops Blazers

Cole Ully has battled adversity throughout his WHL career and along the way, he’s earned the ultimate recognition in the form of an NHL entry-level contract.

As a 16-year-old, Ully was a depth forward among an elite group of offensively talented veterans in Kamloops as the Blazers made a spirited run for the WHL Championship. It was during his rookie campaign that Cole’s father, Mark, was diagnosed with cancer. As a 17-year-old, Ully commanded notice with a 50-point campaign.

Fast forward three seasons and with his father healthy and firmly in his son’s corner, Cole is now the offensive catalyst in Kamloops on a team that finished ninth in the Western Conference standings. Considered undersized early in his junior career, he has bulked up to 5’11” and 180 pounds, rising above any concerns of the physical variety. He is a proven offensive threat, providing consistent offensive production on a team that tends to struggle in the goal scoring department. For his career in the WHL, he has collected 242 points in 274 games.

Ully was selected in the fifth round, 131st overall, by the Dallas Stars at the 2013 NHL Draft. Now 20 years of age, he signed with Dallas on December 19th, 2014.

6. Austin Carroll (CGY) LW, Victoria Royals

The emergence of Austin Carroll this season has solidified the Royals effectiveness in the attacking zone. A big, fierce, physical forward, Carroll has imposed his will in the WHL while also becoming a reliable scorer.

Carroll burst out of the gate this season with points in 13 of Victoria’s first 14 games. He collected 38 goals and 39 assists in 69 games this season, along with a healthy total of 124 penalty minutes. Carroll will celebrate his 21st birthday later this month, which means he will graduate from the WHL at the end of the current campaign. He led the Royals in scoring while finishing in the 22nd spot league-wide, and seventh among penalty minute leaders.

Selected in the seventh round, 184th overall, by the Calgary Flames, Carroll was chosen as a 20-year-old at the 2014 NHL Draft. From Scottsdale, AZ, Carroll is a load physically at 6’3 and 215 pounds. One of the tougher customers in the league, Carroll has not yet been signed.

7. Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI) LW, Kelowna Rockets

Tyrell Goulbourne has successfully softened many of 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, by the Philadelphia Flyers. He was signed earlier this month.

Playing alongside Rourke Chartier (SJS) and Nick Merkley (2015) in Kelowna, Goulbourne is part of perhaps the WHL’s top forward unit. The 6’ and 185-pounder from Edmonton plays with a chip on his shoulder but can also produce offense, scoring 22 goals and added 23 assists for 45 points in 62 games this season.

8. Tim Bozon (MTL) LW, Kootenay Ice

Now in his fourth full season in the WHL, Tim Bozon has been a consistent 30-goal scorer throughout his career. The 6’1”, 199-pound Bozon, from Lugano, Switzerland, has split his junior hockey between the Kamloops Blazers and Kootenay Ice.

Aside from his offensive skill set, Bozon is perhaps most recognized due to an unfortunate health issue that surfaced last season. He was hospitalized for some time in Saskatoon, diagnosed with Neisseria Meningitis, which led doctors to place him into a coma to aid the healing process.

Bozon returned to the WHL this season and in 57 games scored 35 goals and added 28 assists. For his career, he has collected nearly 300 points. Selected in the third round, 64th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens at the 2012 NHL Draft. He was signed by the Canadiens on May 30th, 2013.

9. Alex Blomqvist (WPG) LW, Moose Jaw Warriors

As he winds down his WHL career, Axel Blomqvist is continuing to establish himself as one of the most productive big men in recent memory. At 6’6” and 212 pounds, the import forward is among the most recognizable players in the league.

The Warriors are his third WHL team. While a member of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, he attended the Winnipeg Jets development camp prior to the 2013-14 season. Undrafted, he was signed by the Jets on Oct. 1st, 2013. Just 19 games into that WHL schedule, the Hurricanes dealt the native of Osby, Sweden to the Victoria Royals, where he progressed under the watchful eye of head coach Dave Lowry. This season, the Royals traded Blomqvist to Moose Jaw.

Blomqvist is comfortable playing a physical style. Opponents are challenged by his frame and his persistence in the attacking zone. Blomqvist has collected 148 points in 185 WHL games, including 59 points in 61 games in 2014-15. He is eligible to return to the WHL as a 20-year-old next season.

10. Jackson Houck (EDM), RW, Vancouver Giants

When Jackson Houck is at his best, crashing, banging and scoring as a power forward, he becomes the type of player the Edmonton Oilers are yearning for. Yet consistency continues to be the biggest challenge facing the 6’1”, 195-pounder from North Vancouver, B.C.

Houck has demonstrated scoring ability in the WHL, albeit of the streaky variety. And during the current campaign around the Christmas break, amid one of those impressive goal-scoring streaks, he was bitten by the injury bug which briefly derailed his form. Houck scored 22 goals and added 29 assists in 65 games this season for a Giants team that missed the playoffs.

Selected in the fourth round, 94th overall, by the Oilers at he 2013 NHL Draft, Houck remains eligible for one more season in the WHL as a 20-year-old. That eventuality would likely result in Houck achieving a career total of well over 350 WHL games played.

Other notables

Peter Quenneville (CBJ) RW, Brandon Wheat Kings

Radel Fazleev (PHI) LW, Calgary Hitmen

Edgars Kulda (ARI) LW, Edmonton Oil Kings

Alex Schoenborn (SJS) RW, Portland Winterhawks

Richard Nejezchleb (NYR) RW, Tri-City Americans

Chase Lang (MIN) RW, Calgary Hitmen

Jaedon Descheneau (STL), RW, Kootenay Ice

Justin Kirkland (NSH) LW, Kelowna Rockets

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