Wheat Kings, Rockets, Rebels each place two players on list of top NHL properties at center in WHL

By Glen Erickson
Mathew Barzal - Seattle Thunderbird

Photo: Seattle Thunderbirds forward and New York Islanders prospect Mathew Barzal had his best offensive season in his WHL career in 2015-16, posting 27 goals and 88 points in 58 games (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

 

There are many different kinds of centers; 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 on a regular basis.

Our current ranking of the top NHL-drafted or signed WHL centers includes two CHL imports, one American and seven Canadians. Two of the 10 have deep hockey roots as their respective fathers each toiled in the NHL. All have been signed to entry-level contracts. Six have appeared in the Memorial Cup during their WHL careers, four of them this season.

1. Mathew Barzal, Seattle Thunderbirds (NYI)

Clearly the top center in the WHL’s Western Conference, Mathew Barzal continued to thrive amongst the ever-improving group of forwards in Seattle. The Thunderbirds advanced to the WHL Championship round this season for only the second time in franchise history. Although they were dispatched in five games by the Brandon Wheat Kings, Barzal and his mates enjoyed an historic season in Seattle.

Selected by the New York Islanders in the first round, 16th overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft, Barzal was signed by the Islanders in September, just prior to the beginning of the WHL season. A high-end skater and near fanatical student of video tape, Barzal scored 27 times and added 61 assists in 58 games this season.

Also of note this past season, Barzal was pegged originally as the 13th forward for Team Canada at the 2016 World Junior Championship, but parlayed limited opportunities into a full time role and was eventually named one of Canada’s top players at the tournament.

2. Brayden Point, Moose Jaw Warriors (TBL)

Signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 26th, 2015, Brayden Point was able to benefit from consecutive appearances with Team Canada at the 2015 and 2016 World Junior Championships.

Point was selected in the third round, 79th overall, by Tampa Bay at the 2014 NHL Draft.

With some growth physically, specifically upper body strength, and increased acceleration, Point will possess all of the attributes of a top-six forward, potentially a second line center capable of playing in all situations. During his junior career in Moose Jaw, Point has been a prolific, dynamic forward and a quiet, effective leader. He played much of the current campaign while dealing with a shoulder injury.

Oddly, Point played 14 games as a 16-year-old during the 2012 playoffs after his midget team completed play, yet he managed only 12 more post-season appearances during the remainder of his WHL career. In 252 career regular season games, all with the Warriors, he collected 324 points.

3. Jayce Hawryluk, Brandon Wheat Kings (FLA)

Gritty and determined, Roblin, Manitoba native Jayce Hawryluk produced his finest WHL campaign this season, playing a lead role in the team’s fifth Memorial Cup appearance. By the time the national championship tournament ended, Hawryluk played in over 275 career games as a member of the Wheat Kings.

Hawryluk was selected in the second round, 32nd overall, by the Florida Panthers at the 2014 NHL Draft. He was signed to an entry-level deal by the Panthers in March. Hawryluk led the Wheaties with 47 goals this past season, and also added 59 assists.

A late cut from Team Canada for the WJC, Hawryluk was a force during Brandon’s second half run to the Eastern Division title and second place overall in the league standings.

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4. Rourke Chartier, Kelowna Rockets (SJS)

Rourke Chartier was a prominent member of the Kelowna Rockets again, although the script written was full of highs and lows for the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native.

Chartier was injured early in the season and returned shortly before Team Canada’s selection camp for the 2016 WJC. A late cut last season, he made the team this time around, but played sparingly as the tournament progressed. Upon his return to the Rockets for the second half of the season, the team experimented with a number of linemates. Eventually, after a season-ending injury to Nick Merkley (ARI), Chartier found himself between the Rockets two big, productive, physical import forwards, Tomas Soustal and Calvin Thurkauf. The trio would find some chemistry as Kelowna advanced to the Western Conference final before bowing out to Seattle in four games.

Chartier tallied 25 goals and 21 assists in 42 games this season. Over four full seasons, he played over 280 WHL games as a member of the Rockets.

Selected in the fifth round, 149th overall, by the San Jose Sharks at the 2014 NHL Draft, Chartier signed with the Sharks on December 31, 2014.

5. John Quenneville, Brandon Wheat Kings (NJD)

John Quenneville has made an impact in the WHL with his speed and vision. At 6’1 and 205 pounds, he is able to impose himself on opponents and create space for his linemates.

Offensively, he has been a consistent producer throughout his junior career. This past season, he tallied 31 goals and 42 assists in 57 games, but it was during the postseason where Quenneville elevated his game en route to the Wheaties claiming the WHL championship. In 21 playoff games, Quenneville chipped in with 27 points.

Selected in first round, 30th overall, by the New Jersey Devils at the 2014 NHL Draft, he signed an entry-level deal with the Devils last summer on July 15th. Quenneville is well respected in hockey circles, one of a trio of brothers from the Edmonton area with recent ties to the WHL. Peter (CBJ) was also a member of the Brandon Wheat Kings, while David (2016) is a defenseman with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

6. Dominic Turgeon, Portland Winterhawks (DET)

Through much of his career in the WHL, Dominic Turgeon played behind a core group of prolific scorers on one of the WHL’s offensive juggernauts. As the veterans graduated, more and more responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Cherry Hills, Colorado native, and he responded in fine fashion.

Often referred to by scouts as already “pro ready”, Turgeon proved to be among the most durable Winterhawks this past season, appearing in all 72 regular season games. And, he upped his offensive production, scoring 36 goals and adding 34 assists after a 43-point campaign the previous season. He continued to provide value through veteran smarts and physical presence. Tremendously disciplined, the 6’2”, 200-pounder is a versatile forward who seems to be at home both along the walls and down the middle.

Selected in the third round, 63rd overall, by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2014 NHL Draft, Turgeon was signed on May 9th, 2015. His father, Pierre Turgeon, played over 1,400 NHL games.

7. Adam Musil, Red Deer Rebels (STL)

Adam Musil is a big, rangy, right-handed shooting center who has played his entire junior career with the Rebels. The 6’3”, 205-pounder has the attributes of a power forward, a willingness to play hard on opponents and impose his will.

With a father (Frantisek Musil) having played over 800 NHL games, his mother (Andrea Holikova) a former tennis professional, and uncle (Bobby Holik) who was another veteran NHL performer, the bloodlines here are rife with athletic ability. A dual citizen, Musil has been eligible to play on the international stage for either the Czech Republic or Canada. He elected to play for Canada, made its U18 team and earned a gold medal at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial.

Selected in the fourth round, 94th overall, by the St. Louis Blues at the 2015 NHL Draft, Musil is the younger brother of David (EDM), a defenseman. He was signed by the Blues on March 30th.

8. Radel Fazleev, Calgary Hitmen (PHI)

Radel Fazleev has been a pleasant surprise for the Hitmen, who acquired the native of Kazan, Russia with the 52nd pick at the 2013 CHL Import Draft. He appeared in 38 games during his rookie year in the WHL, then was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers.

During his second season in Calgary and first full WHL campaign, he collected 51 points in 71 games. He was able to improve on that total this past season, scoring 19 times and adding 52 assists in 59 games. The 6’1”, 195-pounder was selected in the sixth round, 168th overall, by the Flyers at the 2014 NHL Draft, Fazleev signed an entry-level deal on May 28th, 2015.

During his time in Calgary with the Hitmen, Fazleev has played alongside another future Flyers prospect, defenseman Travis Sanheim, Philadelphia’s first round pick in 2014.

9. Michael Spacek, Red Deer Rebels (WPG)

Selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the fourth round after splitting nearly 70 games between a number of teams in the Czech Republic, Michael Spacek landed with the Red Deer Rebels via the CHL Import Draft. The Rebels selected Spacek in the first round, 47th overall.

Spacek responded well to the rigors of his first season in the WHL, demonstrating an offensive skill set that netted the 5’11”, 185-pounder a total of 54 points in 61 games. His playoff run through the Eastern Conference final was also productive as he contributed 13 points in 17 games.

The experience at the 2016 Memorial Cup will no doubt enhance Spacek’s development through exposure to some of the top talent from across the CHL. The Winnipeg Jets have a system stocked with effective, WHL-developed forwards, which will create plenty of inner competition for Spacek at future training camps.

 

10. Nick Merkley, Kelowna Rockets (ARI)

Although the past season was full of personal challenges for Nick Merkley, there is no doubting his skill set and intestinal fortitude. He was limited to 43 games this season due to a collarbone injury suffered at the Arizona Coyotes training camp, and then a season-ending knee injury suffered during the second half of the WHL campaign.

In between injuries, he attended the selection camp for Canada’s entry at the 2016 WJC, but was among the final four cuts. He managed 48 points this past season after a 90-point performance during his draft year. A swift and determined skater, the 5’10”, 185-pounder is a versatile forward who is not shy about initiating contact.

Selected by the Coyotes in the first round, 30th overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft, Merkley was signed on September 3rd, 2015.

Other notables

Brandon Baddock, Edmonton Oil Kings (NJD)
Giorgio Estephan, Lethbridge Hurricanes (BUF)
Pavel Karnaukhov, Calgary Hitmen (CGY)
Brad Morrison, Prince George Cougars (NYR)
Jansen Harkins, Prince George Cougars (WPG)
Glenn Gawdin, Swift Current Broncos (STL)
Reid Duke, Brandon Wheat Kings (MIN)
Connor Bleakley, Red Deer Rebels (ARI)

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51