Top 10 WHL Centers

By Glen Erickson
Photo: Mark McNeill (CHI) was one of the top centers playing in the WHL in 2011-12. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

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 centermen; 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.

1. Jordan Weal, Regina Pats
NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2010

Jordan Weal has clearly established himself as an elite WHL scorer over the course of his four-year WHL career. And, the diminutive centerman from North Vancouver has excelled in what is often referred to as a big man's game. In 70 games this season, Weal scored 41 times and added 75 assists for 116 points and a plus-31 rating. He has been named to the WHL's Eastern Conference First All-Star Team.

Over the past three years, Weal has proven his durability, missing only two regular season games. For his career, he has 385 points in 250 regular season games. Perhaps the biggest indicator of his success relates to the Pats earning a playoff spot this year, their first since the 2007-08 season. Last season, he joined the Manchester Monarchs for the AHL playoffs, after Regina failed to earn a post-season berth. This year, after the Pats bowed out to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the first round, Weal was again sent to Manchester.

Weal, who recently celebrated his 20th birthday, is a complete player who obviously shines on the offensive side. He sees the ice very well, which enables him to move aggressively toward the net while also staying out of harms way. With the Kings offensive woes being well-documented this season, Weal would appear to be an important prospect in Los Angeles, worthy of a serious look.

2. Brendan Shinnimin, Tri City Americans
NHL Rights: Phoenix Coyotes
Signed as Free Agent, March 2nd, 2012

While Shinnimin went undrafted twice, he continued to improve as a WHL veteran during his 19 and 20-year-old seasons. Regarded as an excellent skater throughout his junior career, he caught fire during the second half of the current campaign and dominated offensively through the final 30 games. In February alone, he collected 43 points in 14 games.

Shinnimin, from Winnipeg, won the WHL scoring race with 134 points on 58 goals and 76 assists in 69 games. His plus-45 rating was good for a share of the league lead with teammate Zach Yuen (WPG) and Mark Stone (OTT) of the Brandon Wheat Kings. He has tallied 337 points in 265 regular season games, all with the Tri City Americans. So far, with the Amerks battling the Spokane Chiefs in the second round of the WHL playoffs, Shinnimin is riding a 29-game scoring streak.

Shinnimin plays with Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland (MTL) a trio that all finished with over 100 points this season. They combined to become the highest scoring line in the WHL this year. Shinnimin, now 21, was signed by the Coyotes on March 2nd.

3. Max Reinhart, Kootenay Ice
NHL Rights: Calgary Flames
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2010

Returning to the WHL after a season culminating in a trip to the Memorial Cup made the current campaign one of high expectations for Reinhart and the Kootenay Ice. The veteran center from North Vancouver was an offensive catalyst last season and produced a similar effort in Cranbrook this year.

In 61 games this season, Reinhart tallied 28 goals and 50 assists to lead the team in scoring. He played his first NHL game in a Calgary Flames uniform during the pre-season. He received an invitation to Team Canada's selection camp for the WJC, but did not crack the final roster.

The 2011-12 season has been a family affair in some regards as Reinhart's younger brother Sam, 16, is also a member of the Ice. Sam Reinhart (2013) played alongside Max for much of the season and earned the WHL's Western Conference nomination for the Rookie of the Year award. And then, in the post season, Kootenay was swept in four games in the first round by the Edmonton Oil Kings where the other Reinhart brother, Griffin (2012) is one of the team's top defensemen.

Reinhart, along with teammate Joey Leach, were sent to the Abbottsford Heat of the AHL after Kootenay was eliminated from the WHL playoffs.

4. Victor Rask, Calgary Hitmen
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2011

Victor Rask was a very pleasant surprise for the Hitmen during his rookie WHL season. It is crucial for junior teams across the CHL to get consistent production from players occupying an import spot on the roster, and that is exactly what Rask provided in Calgary this season. The only questions are whether he did "just enough", or does he have more to give.

In 64 games, Rask scored 33 times and added 30 assists, along with a plus-seven rating and 21 penalty minutes. Unfortunately for both the player and the team, a leg injury kept Rask out of the lineup down the stretch and he did not play in the post-season. Calgary was eliminated by the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round of the playoffs.

Size is not an issue as Rask checks in at 6'1 and 195 pounds. He arrived in the WHL from Leksand in Sweden where he played parts of four seasons in the U-18 program. He also saw spot duty with the Leksand Junior and second pro division teams. He was signed by Carolina to an entry-level contract back in October. He was a member of the gold-medal winners, Team Sweden, at the 2012 WJC where the final game was played in Calgary.

5. Mark McNeill, Prince Albert Raiders
NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2010

 

There was a time midway during the WHL regular season when McNeill and his teammates went on a seven game winning streak that produced hope that a post-season berth might be attainable. McNeill was a huge part of the Raiders brief success, which was sandwiched around the centerman's trip to Calgary for Team Canada's WJC selection camp.

Unfortunately, McNeill was cut from Team Canada and the Raiders produced a disappointing second half that did not result in a playoff spot. McNeill, playing in his third full WHL campaign, collected 31 goals and 40 assists in 69 games. On January 2nd, he signed an entry level contract with Chicago.

McNeil checks in at 6'2 and 210 pounds. Intense on and off the ice, the Edmonton native had a season plagued by some early inconsistency. He potentially could play two more seasons in the WHL, but this is unlikely. Immediately after the Raiders regular schedule came to and end, McNeill was shipped to the Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL to continue his season.

6. Kevin Sundher, Brandon Wheat Kings
NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2010

When the Chilliwack Bruins became the Victoria Royals prior to the current WHL season, Kevin Sundher had already established himself as the organization's top offensive threat. He was quick out of the gate this season, leading the league in scoring briefly before being sidelined for a stretch with an injury.

Surprisingly to some, the Royals shipped Sundher to the Brandon Wheat Kings in a major deal at the WHL trade deadline. While the deal enabled the Royals to build for the future, Sundher's offense was sorely missed by the Royals, a team that gave up a league-high 325 goals during the regular season. For Sundher, it did take some time to find his way with the Wheaties, but the native of Surrey, B.C. finished the year with 26 goals and 49 assists in 58 games. He signed with Buffalo in December.

In Brandon, Sundher has become a valuable depth player, a veteran who provides secondary scoring behind the likes of Mark Stone (OTT) and Michael Ferland (CGY). The Wheat Kings have dispatched the Calgary Hitmen in five games in round one, while Victoria was wept by the Kamloops Blazers. Of note during his formative years in bantam hockey, Sundher was flanked by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) during a season where Sundher was recognized as the BC Hockey Now player of the year.

7. Travis Ewanyk, Edmonton Oil Kings
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2011

Ewanyk, from St. Albert, Alberta, has basically played his entire junior career in his hometown.

Ewanyk is a versatile forward and a tough customer though unfortunately, shoulder surgery prior to the regular season guaranteed him nothing but a four- to five-month stint on the sidelines. He was limited him to only 11 regular season games this year, beginning on February 24th. He played in all 72 games last season, scoring 16 goals and 11 assists while collecting 126 penalty minutes.

Ewanyk projects as a depth forward, not likely among a NHL team's top six. However, he is the type of player that can make his presence felt, in turn making life a little easier for his elite teammates. Even without his grit, the Oil Kings won the WHL pennant with 107 points. All told, including their current seven-game winning streak in the post-season, the Oil Kings have won 18 straight games.

With the 6'2, 190-pound Ewanyk in the mix for the post-season, an already very talented team has gotten much better. And much tougher.

8. Colin Jacobs, Seattle Thunderbirds

NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2011

The 2011-12 season was probably one to forget for Colin Jacobs, a native of Coppell, Texas. After experiencing the thrill of hearing his name called at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Jacobs suffered an upper body injury at the Sabres prospect camp, one that kept him out of the T-Birds lineup until December 9th. All this came after two seasons where he missed only four games in total.

By the time he returned to the ice, the team was already in tough against the upper echelon teams in the WHL's U.S. Division. The Thunderbirds would go on to post a 25-45-1-1 record and miss the post-season. In 44 games during the regular season, Jacobs scored nine goals and added 10 assists.

At 6'1 and 215 pounds, Jacobs has the size to be an effective power forward. At t his point in his WHL career, he really has no alternative but too focus on redeeming himself next season. With the shoulder surgery behind him and what should be a bad taste in his mouth after mediocre play in Seattle, Jacobs will have plenty to prove next year if he hopes to ink a contract with Buffalo.

 

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