WHL Top 20 prospects, drafted and undrafted

By Glen Erickson

The quantity and quality of play in the Western Hockey League continues to ensure effective preparation for players with an eye on a career in professional hockey. Add to the mix the intensive travel requirements and the top juniors are guaranteed to arrive at professional training camps with a true understanding of commitment.

Among our Top 20 Prospects across all ages are 11 forwards, six defensemen and three goaltenders. Four undrafted players have also made our list this season. Beyond our Top 20, the pool of current WHLers who will likely play in the NHL is very deep.

Among NHL teams, our current WHL Top 20 includes two prospects each from the Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Atlanta Thrashers and Pittsburgh Penguins have one each. Three 2009 eligible prospects have made our list and for the first time, a 16-year-old has made our list.

1. Jonathan Blum, D (NAS, ‘08)

January 30, 1989
6’1, 170 pounds.
Vancouver Giants

Jon Blum has developed into the WHL’s premier defenseman this season, exhibiting consistent offensive contributions and effectively playing an important defensive role with the top team in the WHL’s western conference. He was selected in the first round, 23rd overall, at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

In recent years as a member of the Vancouver Giants, Blum has teamed with such stalwart prospects as Mark Fistric (DAL), Brett Festerling, Brendan Mikkelson (ANA), Paul Albers (MIN), Brent Regner (CBJ), Nick Ross (PHX) and Cody Franson (NAS). The demands on Blum have been increased and he has unquestionably answered the call. He was named captain of the Team USA entry at the 2009 WJC.

Last season, Blum tallied eight goals and 43 assists in the full complement of 72 league games and led the WHL with a plus-37 rating. A native of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the 6’1, 170-pound Blum has demonstrated outstanding mobility and often takes the initiative to carry the puck up ice.

A recent shoulder injury will keep Blum out of the Giants’ lineup until March. Through 45 games this season, he has scored 16 goals and 45 assists while posting a plus-52 rating and 24 penalty minutes.

2. Jamie  Benn, LW (DAL, ‘06)
July 18, 1989
6’2, 203 pounds.
Kelowna Rockets

Selected by the Dallas Stars in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft while a member of the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies, Jamie Benn has parlayed his jump to the WHL into confirmation of his outstanding offensive skills. A pure goal scorer and emerging power forward, Benn leads the Rockets in goal scoring and is an integral power play trigger man. During a game at the Stars rookie camp, the left-handed shooting forward scored five goals.

Benn is a native of Victoria, B.C. who has admitted that for a time he leaned more toward a baseball career as a teenager. Alas, choosing hockey has proved to be a rewarding choice to date, as Benn was a member of Team Canada at the 2009 WJC. 

Benn skates among a group of potent forwards in Kelowna that includes Colin Long (PHX), Mikael Backlund (CGY) Cody Almond (MIN), Ryley Grantham (CGY) and Brandon McMillan (ANA). Through 44 games this season, Benn has score 39 goals and 28 assists along with a plus-14 rating and 52 penalty minutes.

3. Kyle Beach C / LW (CHI, ‘08)
January 13, 1990
6’3, 210 pounds.
Lethbridge Hurricanes

A pre-trade deadline acquisition by the Lethbridge Hurricanes from the Everett Silvertips, Kyle Beach continues to confound junior hockey types with his combination of high-octane skill and questionable on-ice antics. But rest assured, Beach possesses the total power-forward package of skill, size and determination, and is destined to earn a job in the NHL.

Selected in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, 11th overall, Beach was a late return from the Blackhawks to the WHL at the beginning of the season. The eminently qualified Beach was overlooked by Hockey Canada when it selected 38 players to attend the December tryout camp prior to the 2009 WJC in Ottawa. The Kelowna, B.C. native has fit in well in Lethbridge and gives the “middle-of-the-pack” ‘Canes a realistic opportunity to inflict damage during the upcoming WHL playoffs.

Through 45 games this season, Beach has collected 21 goals and 31 assists while posting a plus-8 rating and 138 penalty minutes.

4. Thomas Hickey, D (LA, ‘07)
February 8, 1989
5,11, 182 pounds.
Seattle Thunderbirds

The epitome of character and intelligence, Thomas Hickey strong suit physically is his skating ability. His career in Seattle began as a 15-year-old and has evolved into a leadership role with the current edition of the Thunderbirds. Hickey was the captain for Team Canada at the 2009 WJC and also wears the ‘C’ in Seattle.

Always well spoken, Hickey epitomizes the term ‘professional’. The Kings have done a masterful job in recent years by acquiring high-end defensemen through the NHL Entry Draft. Hickey is certain to become an important contributor to the King’s fortunes.

Selected in the first round, fourth overall, at the 2007 Entry Draft, Hickey will be playing professional hockey next season. Through 45 games, Hickey has scored 15 goals and 27 assists while posing a plus-20 rating and 26 penalty minutes.

5. Drayson Bowman, C (CAR, ‘07)

March 8, 1989
6’1, 185 pounds.
Spokane Chiefs

Selected in the third round, 72nd overall, by the Carolina Hurricanes, Drayson Bowman has emerged as one of the top forwards in the WHL. His offensive output has increased every season in Spokane and his durability is unquestionable.

During his rookie season, he played in all 72 games, collecting 34 points. The next season, in 61 games, Bowman scored 24 goals and 19 assists for a Chiefs team that made its first playoff appearance in three years. The native of Littleton, Colorado has become a dependable teammate in Spokane and played an integral role in the Chiefs Memorial Cup win last season and was a member of Team USA at the 2009 WJC.

Earlier this season, Bowman squared-off with his younger brother Colin, a defenseman with the Kelowna Rockets. Colin is expected to join his older brother in the NHL and is virtually a lock to be selected at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

Through 48 games this season, Drayson Bowman has scored 35 goals and 31 assists with a plus-32 rating and 88 penalty minutes.

6. Zach Boychuk, C (CAR, ’08)

October 4, 1989
5’10, 180 pounds.
Lethbridge Hurricanes

Although Zach Boychuk is struggling through an injury-riddled season, the gutsy and offensively skilled forward has been a top WHL producer throughout his entire career. While the injuries have not been of the major variety, Boychuk has dealt with wrist and ankle ailments since training camp with the Carolina Hurricanes. Down the stretch in Lethbridge, the diminutive forward will be relied upon to frustrate opposing teams with is scoring prowess.

Born and raised in Airdrie, Alberta, Boychuk was selected in the first round, 14th overall at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He was also a member of the past two editions of Team Canada and possesses a pair of gold medals. He was named his team’s MVP at the 2008 Top Prospects Game in Edmonton and is playing his fourth full season in Lethbridge.

Through 31 games, Boychuk has collected 19 goals and 20 assists with a plus-16 rating and 16 penalty minutes.

7. Michael Backlund, C / LW (CGY, ‘07)

March 17, 1989
6’1, 194 pounds.
Kelowna Rockets

Swedish star Michael Backlund had little to cheer about during the first half of the season, which consisted of a disappointing stint in his hometown with Vasteras of Sweden’s second division elite league. While Backlund is effectively a short-term acquisition for the Kelowna Rockets, his immense skill set makes him an instant top prospect in the WHL.

His exuberant effort for Team Sweden at the 2009 WJC in Ottawa, where he lined up with highly ranked prospects Victor Hedman (2009) and Patrik Berglund (STL), was enough to earn a silver medal, his second in a row. During the tournament, the Calgary Flames and Kelowna Rockets agreed the 19-year-old’s immediate future would be best served playing in North America. After one game in a Flames’ jersey, Backlund was shuttled to the Rockets where his offensive skills are beginning to emerge.

Backlund was selected in the first round, 24th overall, at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Through 17 games this season in the WHL, Backlund has scored seven goals and added 11 assists.

8. Casey Pierro-Zabotel,  LW (PIT, ‘07)

November 8, 1988
6’2, 210 pounds.
Vancouver Giants

Casey Pierro-Zabotel (CBZ) is another current WHLer with ties to the BCHL. Played 173 games in the BCHL. Pierro-Zabotel was drafted by the Penguins while a member of the Merritt Centennials. He jumped to the Vancouver Giants midway through last season and has quickly become an elite offensive performer. He was named the WHL Player of the Month for January.

Alongside Evander Kane, Pierro-Zabotel has become part of the high-octane Vancouver Giants crew of forwards. A deft stickhandler with a nose for the net, Pierro-Zabotel relies on uncanny anticipation to locate open ice and scoring opportunities. His attention to defense is often overlooked.

Selected in the third round, 80th overall at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the left-handed shooting forward leads the WHL in scoring. Through 57 games, “CPZ” has scored 32 goals and 67 assists with a plus-55 rating and 34 penalty minutes.

(An off-ice note: Pierro-Zabotel was married during the Christmas holidays. The last married WHL player to win the WHL scoring title was Len Barrie of the Kamloops Blazers. Barrie is the current owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.)

9. Dustin Tokarski, G (TB, ‘08)

September 16, 1989
5’11, 185 pounds.
Spokane Chiefs

Since his days in midget hockey, Dustin Tokarski’s performances have served to define the term “winner”. Tokarski has been the goaltender of record in two Canadian and one world championship since the 2004-05 season. His resume includes a national midget title (Telus Cup) with the Prince Albert Mintos, a Memorial Cup title last season with the Spokane Chiefs and most recently, a gold medal with Team Canada this season at the WJC.

Selected in the fifth round, 122nd overall by the Lightning at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Tokarski has the potential to advance quickly as a professional among the Bolts list of goaltending prospects. This season in Spokane, Tokarski will be a workhorse down the stretch as the Chiefs look to defend their WHL championship.

Through 40 games, Tokarski has posted league bests with six shutouts, a sparkling 1.81 goals against average and a .942 save percentage. His record is 27-11-0-2.

10. Tyson Sexsmith, G (SJ, ‘07)

March 19, 1989
6’, 205 pounds.
Vancouver Giants

The current Canadian Junior Hockey leader in career shutouts, Sexsmith has quietly produced an outstanding career with the Vancouver Giants. Thrust into the starting role as a 17-year-old, Sexsmith led the club that season to a WHL championship and an appearance in the Memorial Cup. A season later, Sexsmith backstopped the Giants to the national title when Vancouver played host to the Memorial Cup tournament.

Balance is a strong suit for Sexsmith who relies on efficient positioning to take away shooting angles. Because he forces many pucks to simply make contact with him, the Priddis, Alberta native has become proficient in controlling rebounds.

Selected in the third round, 91st overall, at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks, Sexsmith backstops the stingy Vancouver Giants. Through 41 games, Sexsmith has posted five shutouts, a 2.09 goals against average and a .904 save percentage. His record is 33-5-1-2. Including the WHL playoffs, Sexsmith has collected 29 career shutouts.

11. Keith Aulie, D (CGY, 07)

June 11, 1989.
6’6, 222 pounds.
Brandon Wheat Kings

Keith Aulie is a big, physical, agile defenseman, a combination of attributes every NHL team is looking for. He has learned from and excelled in Brandon among a solid group of rearguards in recent years that includes Colby Robak (FLA), Chad Erb, Daryl Boyle, Theran Yeo and Dustin Kohn (NYI). The current edition of the Wheat Kings is among the leagues hottest teams of late and with the likes of Aulie on the back end, they are perhaps the most punishing, physical group in the WHL.

Aulie is a Rouleau, Saskatchewan native who has played over 250 games across four seasons with the Wheat Kings. He was a member of Team Canada at the 2009 WJC in Ottawa, where he picked up a gold medal. A fourth round selection, 116th overall, at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Aulie has been signed by the Flames.

Through 50 games this season, the left-handed shooting defenseman is having his best year offensively, collecting six goals and 224assists along with a plus-17 rating and 79 penalty minutes.

12. Chet Pickard, G (NAS, ‘08)

November 29, 1989
6’3, 216 pounds.
Tri City Americans

Early in his junior career, Chet Pickard was the under study to Carey Price with the Tri City Americans. Since Price’s graduation to the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL, Pickard has emerged as a blue chip goaltending prospect. Pickard credits Price with helping him to become a better goalie.

Selected in the first round, 18th overall, at the 2008 Entry Draft by the Predators, Pickard is certain emerge quickly among the collection of goaltending prospects in Nashville’s organization. Pickard is a big body who covers the net well. Like the top junior goalies in the Canadian Hockey League, Pickard plays under control, displaying good balance and the ability to reduce shooting angles. 

Through 43 games, Pickard has posted five shutouts, a 2.38 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. His record is 28-12-0-3.

13. Dana Tyrell, C / LW (TB, ‘07)

April 23, 1989
5’10, 190 pounds.
Prince George Cougars

The current campaign has been all about rebuilding in Prince George and Tyrell had been looked upon to play a leading role. And he did just that, leading the Cats in scoring during the first half of the season. Named to the Team Canada roster for the WJC in Ottawa, Tyrell was injured in a pre-tournament game against Sweden. The knee injury ended his season, one that likely would have been his final year in the WHL.

Selected in the second round, 47th overall by the Lightning, the Airdrie, Alberta native is committed to off-ice conditioning and scholastic achievement. At 5’10, 185 pounds, Tyrell is a tireless speedster whose work ethic will serve him well through his rehabilitation stint and during the off-season as he prepares for the Bolts training camp.

Through 30 regular season games, Tyrell scored 19 goals and 21 assists. His younger brother Cory is a forward on the Cougars roster.

14. Brett Sonne, C (STL, ’07)
May 16, 1989
6’, 185 pounds.
Calgary Hitmen

A veteran of over 270 WHL games, Brett Sonne has rebounded from a broken ankle last year that kept him out of 43 regular season games. Offensively gifted, Sonne is a left-handed shooting playmaker who exercises patience in the attacking zone.

A member of the gold-medal winning Team Canada at the 2009 WJC, Sonne skates on a forward unit with overage Kyle Bortis and Carson McMillan (MIN). The Maple Ridge, B.C. native has been on a tear offensively, posting 31 points since returning from the WJC. He has scored 26 goals in his last 24 games.

Selected in the third round, 85th overall, Sonne is second among WHL goal scorers to teammate Joel Broda (WAS). Through 53 games, Sonne has scored 42 goals and 47 assists and a plus-33 rating.

15. Brayden Schenn, C (2009 Eligible)
August 22, 1991
6’, 196 pounds.
Brandon Wheat Kings

The reigning WHL Rookie of the Year has undertaken an important leadership role in Brandon, on a team that will play host to the 2010 Memorial Cup. At 17, Schenn is capable of playing aggressively with the most physical of WHLers, a testimony to his toughness and ability to anticipate where to position himself while moving through heavy traffic. Schenn and his Wheat Kings linemates Scott Glennie (2009) and Matt Calvert (CBJ) were perhaps the WHL’s most consistently potent offensive threat last season. The trio is a huge part of the Wheaties future, although Glennie is currently on the shelf with a broken elbow.

A product of the successful Saskatoon Contacts midget hockey organization in central Saskatchewan, Schenn is surrounded by fellow Contacts throughout the WHL, including former linemates Jimmy Bubnick of the Kamloops Blazers and Carter Ashton of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Schenn is the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs rookie sensation, Luke Schenn.
Through 59 games, Schenn has collected 27 goals and 48 assists with a plus-24 rating and 62 penalty minutes.

16. Evander Kane, C (2009 Eligible)

August 2, 1991.
5’11, 160 pounds.
Vancouver Giants

Evander Kane has been a major contributor to the success of the Vancouver Giants this season. The third year forward burst out of the gate this season with a 21-game scoring streak, which was halted only by a tweaked knee in late November.

A veteran of Hockey Canada programs, Kane was a last minute replacement at the 2009 WJC when forward Dana Tyrell was injured in a pre-tournament game against Sweden. A smooth and agile skater, Kane has goal scoring instinct that have pro scouts paying special attention to his nose for the net.

Through 46 games, Kane has scored 36 goals and 39 assists along with a plus-40 rating and 62 penalty minutes.

17. Colten Teubert, D (LA, ‘08)
March 8, 1990
6’4, 185 pounds.
Regina Pats

The needle on Colten Teubert’s talent meter continues to twitch unpredictably as the Kings’ first pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft struggles through an inconsistent campaign with the Pats. In fairness, the entire Regina team has had a tough season, but it is Teubert who had been looked upon to anchor the Pats’ blueline brigade.

Teubert, born in White Rock, B.C., was a member of Team Canada at the 2009 WJC. At the 2009 Top Prospects Game in Edmonton, he was tremendous during the skills and skating testing portion of the event. With plenty of raw talent, Teubert exudes potential and also has the size to impose himself on opponents. He is a right-handed shot with the skills to be a force on specialty teams.

Selected in the first round, 13th overall, at the 2008 Draft, Teubert has scored ten goals and 18 assists while posting a plus-6 rating and 103 penalty minutes.

18. Paul Postma, D (ATL, ’07)

February 22, 1989
6’3, 185 pounds.
Calgary Hitmen

The WHL’s leading scorer among defensemen, Paul Postma is quickly making the Atlanta Thrashers take note of his offensive skills. Considered one of the best skaters in the league during his draft year, Postma has flourished in Calgary since being acquired from the Swift Current Broncos early in the 2007-08 season.

Postma, a Red Deer, Alberta native, plays with a veteran blueline brigade of drafted juniors that includes Alex Plante (EDM), Keith Seabrook (WAS) and Michael Stone (PHX).

Postma was selected in the seventh round, 205th overall, at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft following a 24-point season in Swift Current. A 42-point season ensued in Calgary, before Postma’s current point-scoring rampage this season. In his last 18 games through Feb. 18, Postma has accounted for 34 points. Through 61 games in total this season, Postma has scored 22 goals and 52 assists while posting a plus-60 rating and 20 penalty minutes.

19. Jared Cowen, D (2009 Eligible)

January 25, 1991
6’5, 218 pounds.
Spokane Chiefs

If there was any doubt a couple of years ago concerning Jared Cowen’s well-documented apprehensiveness to report to Spokane after being selected first overall in the 2006 WHL Bantam Draft, it would seem a Memorial Cup championship in his rookie season managed to soothe any supposed logistical concerns. However, a new challenge has recently surfaced for the 18-year-old native of Allan, Saskatchewan.

Cowen is a beast on the blueline and covers the ice well with is long reach and mobility. A right-handed shooting rearguard, Cowen’s offensive skills are still developing as he concerns himself primarily with keeping the puck out of his own team’s net. Ranked by International Scouting Services as the WHL’s top prospect for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and seventh overall among North American skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, Cowen’s season came to an abrupt end on January 30 when he was felled by a significant knee injury. His surgery to repair torn MCL and ACL ligaments was to take place in Minneapolis on Feb. 17.

Through 48 games, Cowen scored seven goals and 14 assists with a plus-15 rating and 45 penalty minutes.

20. Brett Connolly, C (2010 Eligible)
May 2, 1992
6’1, 162
Prince George Cougars

It is not often these days that a 16-year-old can impose his offensive skills across the WHL, but Brett Connolly has managed a point-per-game pace this season for a Prince George team that has languished among the WHL cellar dwellers for much of the current campaign.

Early on, Connolly played alongside Dana Tyrell (TB) and 18-year-old import forward Marek Viedensky of Slovakia. Many prognosticators attributed the rookie’s success to a plum assignment on the Cougars first line. However, some critics have been silenced since Tyrell’s season-ending knee injury at the 2009 WJC because Connolly has emerged as a leader in Prince George during the second half of the season and has continued his assault on WHL goaltenders. The Cougars have all but nailed down the final playoff spot in the WHL’s western conference.

Connolly, born and raised in Prince George, was a member of Team Pacific at the U17 World Championship in Port Alberni, B.C. during the holiday season. Through 54 games, Connolly has scored 27 goals and 27 assists with a minus-21 rating and 36 penalty minutes.

Colby Robak, D (FLA, ’07); Brent Regner, D, (CBJ, ’08); Braden Holtby, G, (WAS, ’08); Tyler Myers, D, (BUF,’08); Colin Long, C (PHX, ’08); Jyri Niemi, D (NYI, ’08); Mitch Fadden, C (TB,’07); John Negrin, D (CAL,’08); Mitch Wahl, RW (CGY, ’08); Jordan Eberle, C (EDM,’08); Nick Ross, D (PHX, ’07); Scott Glennie, RW (2009 Eligible); Brandon MacMillan, C (ANA, ’08); Dwight King, C (LA, ’07); Greg Scott, C (TOR, ’08); Jordan Weal, C (2010 Eligible); Greg Scott, LW (TOR, ’08 Free Agent signing); Stefan Elliott, D (2009 Eligible); James Wright, C (TB, ’08); Carson McMillan (MIN, ’07); Brandon Kozun, RW (FA); Taylor Procyshen, RW (FA), Alex Plante, D (EDM); Cameron Cepek, D (FA); Martin Jones, G (LA, ’08 Free Agent Signing); Curtis Hamilton, LW (2010 Eligible); Matt Tassone, C (DAL, 08); Matt Calvert, LW (CBJ); Tyler Johnson, C (FA); Tyler Ennis, C (BUF, ’08); Luca Sbisa, D (PHI, ’08).