Silverbacks’ pair gains attention

By Matt MacInnis

In 2006, it was the BCHL’s Penticton Vees that produced two players selected in the NHL Entry Draft. When the 2007 Draft comes around in June, it appears that honor will go to that league’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks and their offensive stars, Ben Winnett and Riley Nash. But, while the Vees had TJ Miller (NJ) go in the fourth round and Justin Krueger (CAR) selected as the final player in the draft in the seventh round, both Winnett and Nash have the potential to be chosen before the conclusion of the fourth round.

The linemates have complemented and fed off one another all season. Nash, a BCHL rookie despite his playoff appearance last season with the Silverbacks, is a playmaking center who has created chances for his teammates, including Winnett, a quality finisher on the wing. That said, both players are multiple-threat offensive attackers who can create or finish.

"I’m a fast skating and offensive player who likes to shoot the puck but also likes to set up my teammates, and I have a bit of a physical side to me and like to play gritty and finish my checks when I can," said Winnett in describing his style of play.

Nash and Silverbacks Head Coach Ty Davidson tend to agree with his assessment and are both clearly big fans’ of Winnett.

"[Ben is] a pretty good player," says Nash of his teammate. "He buries almost everything he gets, every good opportunity at the net. All I know is I have to get him the puck and he’s going to put it in there".

"He’s a very good player. He’s got, I would say, NHL speed already," Coach Davidson said about Winnett. "He’s got a good hard, quick, shot. He’s a dependable guy defensively; he’s not one of those one-dimensional guys. The other good asset is that he plays with an edge. He’s very feisty, he’s not afraid to go into the corners or to the front of the net. Very competitive, like I said, dynamic is the best way to put it. He has almost European-type speed and skill."

In 30 games this season, Winnett has 22 goals and 26 assists, leading his team in both categories. Nash has appeared in 32 games, netting 19 goals and 24 assists and admits that things have been a bit backwards as of late.

"I’d describe [my style] as more of a playmaker," says Nash. "I like to set up my wingers more often than score, but lately it’s been a little bit different. I’ve been scoring more goals and not really setting my wingers up as much. Hopefully I can get things going again soon."

Likewise, his line mate and coach can’t heap enough praise on the two-way playmaking forward.

"Riley, I don’t have enough good things to say about him," admitted Winnett. "He’s a great player, he’s a big guy, strong, controls the puck, probably cycles as well as anyone in this league. He scores goals, puts up points, plays great defensively, he does it all. He’s a great player and fun to watch."

"Riley is very versatile," Coach Davidson summarized Nash. "He has maybe a few more dimensions than Ben does. He’s very versatile in all facets of the rink, every situation. He’s very elusive one-on-one. Ben tends to beat you with speed, while Riley brings good speed too but he beats you more with moves. He can roll off people, soft shoulder kind of things. He’s very elusive, especially down low. He’s good on the face-off, a very well rounded player."

Both players have the same challenge to overcome as they move on to the American collegiate ranks. With Winnett standing at 6’0, 173-pounds and Nash at 6’1, 175-pounds, both guys are on the lean side and are going to need to get bigger and stronger in order to be successful professional players. Coach Davidson says that he believes the Silverbacks organization does as much as any other team in Canadian Major Junior or Junior "A" to help their players develop bigger and stronger bodies.

Despite their apparent talent, coming into this season there was an aura of uncertainty surrounding the Silverbacks simply because of their youthfulness. Both Winnett and Nash feel that they have met or overcome this obstacle.

"You know, I set goals for myself. I started out the year exceeding them a little bit and the numbers have sort of plateaued a little bit so I’d like to get back to what I was doing the first couple weeks and that’s just shooting the puck more," acknowledged Winnett.

Winnett has been a little surprised at his own success in the BCHL so far.

"[I didn’t expect] this much success," stated the scoring winger. "I played a couple of games last year in the playoffs and one in the regular season and kind of knew what to expect from the league, but didn’t really expect to come in here and contribute so much offensively and be a go-to-guy so quickly. But it’s been nice; I’ve enjoyed it. I’m just trying to learn every situation I’m put in and get better each day."

Winnett is an impressive offensive force with great speed and skill. His coach describes him as "dynamic" and "lethal on the rush." He is an edgy player who isn’t afraid to mix it up in the corners or take punishment in high-traffic areas to make the play or finish a scoring chance. He’s not a liability in his own end, but Winnett is a pure scorer who is going to be most effective in a top-six role. He chose the BCHL and the Salmon Arm organization after discussing his options, options that included the Vancouver Giants, who own his WHL rights and did attempt to convince him to choose the major junior route. But Winnett chose to play in the BCHL after hearing from other players and their families, such as Travis Zajac (NJ) and Mark Santorelli, about their experiences with the Silverbacks organization. Winnett has committed to the University of Michigan, where he plans on taking general studies for the first two years before moving into the business program.

Despite the fact that he does need to get bigger, something that may happen naturally as Coach Davidson reports that the Nash’s mother, father and grandfather are all tall, Nash is deceptively strong and cycles the puck very well in the BCHL. He has good awareness and moves well without the puck. Nash’s hockey sense and instincts are strong assets, and the puck always seems to be on his stick. He’s a smooth skater with slick puck-handling skills that drives fearlessly to the net. While he is a talented playmaker, what makes Nash a special talent is the fact that he is incredibly versatile and is very effective in all parts of the rink. He makes sound, safe plays in his own zone, even when he is under pressure from the opposition. He is undoubtedly the most well-rounded draft-eligible player in the league. Nash does show signs of his frustration when his team is down, but tends to parlay that into feistiness on the ice instead of taking unnecessary penalties.

Nash chose the BCHL because of the experience of his brother, Brendon, who played for Salmon Arm in 04-05 and is currently at Cornell. This option gives Nash longer to develop while deciding which NCAA school he’ll attend. Nash has visited the Universities of Denver, North Dakota, North Hampshire and Cornell.

Nash told HF that he is often compared to New Jersey rookie Zajac, an opinion echoed and advanced by his coach.

"We really compare Riley Nash to Travis Zajac at the same age," agreed the Silverbacks’ bench boss. "And we see what Travis is doing these days and we really see a lot of parallels to those guys. The one thing I can say about Riley compared to Travis is that Riley has a little more bite, a little more edge at this age, and he’s a better skater. So, sky’s the limit with that boy I think. He’s a pretty special kid."

Both teenagers recently appeared in the 2006 CJAHL Prospects Game in Vernon, BC. Unfortunately for Winnett, who was playing on a line with Bennett Royer of the AJHL’s Calgary Canucks and the Vernon Vipers’ Scott Zurevinski, he was injured attempting to hit defenseman Brendan Smith from the OPJHL’s St. Michael’s Buzzers. The partially separated shoulder kept him out of the line-up for the third period and will keep him out of a Silverbacks’ jersey until sometime in early 2007.

The CJAHL Prospects Game was a coming out party for Nash, who had two points and earned strong praise from Coach Davidson.

"Obviously I’m biased, I’m his coach, but at the prospects game I thought he was without a doubt the best player on the ice, not even close," Davidson proudly stated. "He scored a goal, had an assist, but every time he had the puck he was dominant."

Winnett and Nash have both had great starts to their season and have attracted the attention of the scouting world. With equally strong second halves, the two will continue their rapid ascent up the rankings, particularly Nash who has recently been upgraded from a "B" designation to an "A" prospect by Central Scouting. Winnett likely has more upside as a scorer at hockey’s top level. But if a team wants to target a player who is very likely to make it to the show as a checker who may be successful offensively in a bigger role, Nash is their guy. Coach Davidson acknowledges that every NHL team evaluates talent differently, but says he’s hearing from some sources that his talented duo could creep into the top round.

"Central Scouting is one thing and the International Scouting Service is another," observed Davidson. "But every team has their own scouting network and everyone has their preference and everybody also has their needs. It’s very difficult to pinpoint where he’ll go. I think he could go as high as maybe ten, I’ve heard from sources. Also, I’ve heard from a number of guys, that our two guys have the potential to slip in to the top round if, depending on what the team’s needs are and depending on how they do in the second half here as well. We’re hearing, especially Riley, that his stock is going nowhere but up. He’s played very well for us the last little while. He is without a doubt one of the top guys."

At this point, both players appear guaranteed to be selected in the NHL Draft. The rest of the season will determine if they are second-round selections or hear their names called in the latter rounds of the draft.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.