At the 2012 NHL Draft in Minneapolis, it was well-known in advance that the Western Hockey League contingent consisted of five top defensemen.
This season, the script remains eerily similar from a WHL perspective. In terms of draft eligible rearguards, the ‘Dub appears to be top heavy again. Indeed, there are a trio of forwards in the mix, but defensemen will certainly rule the day early on during proceedings when the NHL convenes in New Jersey next June for the 2013 NHL Draft. There are also some notable prospects making big noise in the WHL this season after having been passed over once by NHL teams.
Most WHL teams are very close to reaching the halfway point of their respective 72-game schedules. Our current Top 10 includes a host of players that already have achieved international success during their young junior careers.
Seth Jones, D, Portland Winterhawks
All of the tools seem to be in place as Jones has solidly settled into the ebb and flow of the junior game as the regular season schedule approaches the midway mark. Jones came over to the WHL this season after spending last year with the U.S. National Team Development Program U-18 squad.
Already physically gifted at 6’3” and 208 pounds, attributes that opposing forwards are being forced to contend with, Jones has begun to add offense to the mix in Portland of late. Through 31 games, the Plano, Texas native has tallied eight times and added 20 assists, to go along with an eye-popping plus-27 rating.
Jones has appeared in a glitter game of sorts this season, namely the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game held in Buffalo in September. More importantly, Jones is now competing for Team USA at the 2013 WJC in Russia. He will also play at the 2013 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
A confident mover of the puck and already a very good skater, Jones has good reach and has adjusted well to the speed of the game in major junior hockey. The real tell-tale signs associated with the maturing process and physical durability will come during the second half of the season when Jones will experience the true impact of a 72-game schedule, plus the intensity of the post-season.
Ryan Pulock, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Now in his third full season, it was his rookie campaign that actually forced the entire WHL to take notice as Ryan Pulock burst onto the scene with a 42-point season as a 16-year-old. Then last season, he appeared in 71 regular season games, putting up 60 points in the process, along with a healthy plus-33 rating.
On the ice, Pulock is conspicuous in part because of his posture, as he is very tall on his skates. But it is primarily the 6’1”, 210-pounder’s hockey sense that sets him apart. Pulock moves the puck with efficiency, and possesses a heavy shot. A real key is his ability to get pucks through traffic in the attacking zone. Brandon uses Pulock, a right-handed shooter, in all situations.
Pulock, from Grandview, Manitoba, led the Wheaties in scoring out of the gate this season, but was sidelined for about three weeks due to the misfortune of being struck in the face by a puck in mid-November. Prior to the injury, he played one game for Team WHL against Team Russia in the Subway Super Series. He is now back in the lineup, looking to continue adding to his point-per-game scoring pace. In January, Pulock will play in the Top Prospects Game.
Hunter Shinkaruk, C, Medicine Hat Tigers
Also in his third full season in the WHL, Shinkaruk was a prominent offensive contributor with the Tigers as a 16-year-old, posting 42 points in 63 games. Last season, while playing alongside Emerson Etem (ANA), Shinkaruk scored 49 goals and added 42 assists in 66 games.
While offensive prowess is definitely Shinkaruk’s calling card, he is capable of committing to the defensive side of the game. He has demonstrated durability in major junior hockey so far, even though he does not dominate physically and tends to be a targeted forward every night out. Persistence can be considered a strong suit, as Shinkaruk actually resurrected his career after bouncing back from a very seriously broken leg during his final season in minor hockey.
With some high octane skill departing from Medicine Hat after last season, the 5’10”, 181-pound Shinkaruk finds himself on center stage in the Gas City as a go-to-guy. The Tigers are in tough this season, mired in the middle of the pack among WHL Eastern Conference teams. With 45 points in 33 games so far, he is off to another fast start offensively. Shinkaruk played for Team WHL in the Subway Series, and for Team Canada during the Super Series back in August. He has been invited to participate in the Top Prospects Game.
Madison Bowey, D, Kelowna Rockets
When Bowey arrived in Kelowna last season for his rookie year, his presence was blatantly obvious given his sizable frame as a 16-year-old. For the current campaign, he has certainly added muscle, making him a sturdy, physical rearguard on the Rockets huge back-end.
During an inconsistent season last year, the Rockets played many of their youngest beyond game minutes they might normally expect. While this resulted in some challenging nights, there appears to have been a positive long-term benefit as the group finds itself among the WHL’s upper echelon heading into the Christmas break.
Bowey, who checks in at 6’1” and 200 pounds, has been a consistent contributor to the team’s success, primarily notable as an efficient mover of the puck. He has also become a confident puck carrier, particularly exiting the defensive zone. When the Rockets find themselves hemmed in, Bowey is a physical battler in front of his own net.
Bowey has represented the country in Hockey Canada programs, earning a gold medal with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial. He will also appear in the Top Prospects Game.
Curtis Lazar, C, Edmonton Oil Kings
Lazar’s development was fast-tracked last year to some degree, as he was a member of the WHL champions at the 2012 Memorial Cup. The Oil Kings are a top contender again this season.
During his rookie campaign, the rambunctious Lazar was able to make his physical presence felt, imposing his frame on opponents with regularity. At 6’2” and 198 pounds this season, he has added weight and muscle. He continues to play a power forward role in Edmonton, where he has tallied 15 times and added 11 assists in 37 games. Lazar is not touted as a point-producing machine at this point, though he will benefit from the opportunity to play with some experienced, high-end offensive contributors in Edmonton.
Lazar, who is from Vernon, B.C., graduated from the Okanagan Hockey Academy program in B.C.’s interior region. He played at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial and with Team WHL at the 2012 Subway Series. He is also likely to make his presence felt in Halifax at the 2013 CHL/NHL Home Hardware Top Prospects Game.
Morgan Klimchuk, LW, Regina Pats
Klimchuk has made huge strides this season, due in part to an off-season focus on further developing his already terrific skating ability. The added quickness this year has enabled the Calgary native to establish himself as an offensive threat.
Following in the wake of Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers and Jordan Weal (LAK), a pair of recent Pats grads, Klimchuk is being looked upon as an offensive catalyst. A contributing factor to his frequent presence on the score sheet has been the improvement in his defensive zone play. Now in his second full season, Klimchuk has scored 19 goals and added 27 assists in 40 games so far, coming off a 36-point campaign last season.
The 5’11”, 180-pound Klimchuk is a mature, composed 18-year-old, destined for a host of international opportunities through Hockey Canada programs. He collected a gold medal with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial and will play in the Top Prospects Game.
Josh Morrisey, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Similar in many ways to Shea Theodore of the Seattle Thunderbirds, Josh Morrisey has been a pillar of strength on the blueline this season for a much-improved team in Prince Albert. The Raiders have been among the Eastern Conference leaders from day one.
Morrisey, from Calgary, checks in at 6’ and 185 pounds. Another of the WHL’s top-notch, puck-moving rearguards, he continues to impress as a setup man on the power-play. Morrisey also provides the Raiders with a competent puck carrier on the back-end when opponents successfully plug passing lanes in the defensive zone. He shoots the puck accurately, with a knack for getting pucks to the net.
Coming off a 38-point rookie season, Morrisey has scored eight goals and added 17 assists in 37 games so far this year. He was a member of Team Canada’s gold medal-winning entry at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in August. He is also slated to attend the Top Prospects Game in January.
Shea Theodore, D, Seattle Thunderbirds
Another in the line of major junior players developing through the Yale Academy in Abbottsford, BC, Theodore burst onto the WHL scene by leading a woeful T-Birds group in assists during his rookie campaign. But this season, in his draft year, Theodore and his mates have their sights firmly focused on making a post-season run after missing the playoffs during the past three years. That said, Theordore is off to a fast start with seven goals and 18 assists in 37 games.
Oddly, the sturdy, 6’2”, 185-pound Theodore is one of the smaller rearguards in Seattle this season, playing amongst a monstrous group that at the beginning of the season boasted four skaters that checked in at over 6’4. In fact, Jerod Hauf (6’6”) and Taylor Green (6’7”) are among the tallest skaters in the entire WHL. Yet it is Theodore who has established himself as an offensive catalyst, the likes of which Seattle has not enjoyed since the days of Thomas Hickey, the Los Angeles Kings' first round selection, fourth overall, at the 2007 NHL Draft.
Theodore, now 17, is skilled with the puck and continues to demonstrate great mobility and acceleration. Scouts like his presence with the puck as there is little or no panic under pressure. As he matures in the WHL, his defensive zone coverage is bound to improve. But for now, given the size of the T-Birds blueline brigade, Theodore is able to take advantage of the space created by his teammates. He is leaned on in Seattle to be productive in all situations, particularly on the power-play. He was a member of Team Canada, the gold medalists at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial, in August and will skate at the Top Prospects Game.
Eric Roy, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Roy is beginning to emerge from the shadow being cast by Pulock in Brandon, evolving into a reliable rearguard and enabling the Wheaties to ice a productive pair of elite players for the foreseeable future. In fact, Roy, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Oct. 24, is playing in his third full WHL season.
Roy began last season with a point-per-game run through November that ultimately resulted in 11 goals and 42 assists in 69 games. The 6’3”, 190-pound Roy is off to a slightly slower start this season, due in part to the team’s on-ice struggles overall. Through 38 games this year, Roy has scored seven times and added 16 assists.
Roy’s biggest attribute among WHL blueliners for now could be his size, although he has room to add more weight and muscle. He is a disciplined defenseman with good balance and lateral movement. Like all young prospects, mastering the defensive side of the game continues to be a priority. Roy, from Beauval, Saskatchewan, is also making headway in the WHL as an Aboriginal role model.
Dillon Hetherington, D, Swift Current Broncos
Another of the current WHL blueliners who benefits from a sizable wing-span, Heatherington can make life very difficult for opponents in the defensive zone. He is a strong skater for a big man and possesses deceptive speed.
At 6’3”, 195 pounds, the Calgary product is still only 17 years old. As he continues to grow, his commitment to physical play will increase. In 57 games last season, he collected 10 points. So far this season, he has scored twice and added 12 assists in 39 games. Curiously, Heatherington has not been invited to the 2013 Top Prospects Game, although if circumstances evolve similarly to the 2012 edition, one would think his phone might ring should an injury open up a spot for the tilt in Halifax.
While he has yet to play in 100 WHL games, Heatherington plays plenty of minutes for the Broncos, often against top opponents. A basic, stay-at-home defenseman at this point, he does have potential to provide offense.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, Portland Winterhawks
Colby Cave, C, Swift Current Broncos
Eric Comrie, G, Tri City Americans
Alex Forsberg, C, Prince George Cougars
Mason Geertsen, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Jackson Houck, RW, Vancouver Giants
JC Lipon, RW, Kamloops Blazers
Mirco Muller, D, Everett Silvertips
Matt Needham, C, Kamloops Blazers
Nic Petan, C, Portland Winterhawks
Connor Rankin, C, Tri City Americans