2014 NHL Draft Preview: Forward trio led by Reinhart tops WHL prospects

By Glen Erickson

Sam Reinhart - Kootenay Ice

Photo: Kootenay Ice forward and 2014 prospect Sam Reinhart is among a trio of CHL players being viewed as a potential first overall selection for the 2014 NHL Draft (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Here’s a look at our top 10 prospects from the Western Hockey League for the 2014 NHL Draft, with the consensus top five rather apparent. Beyond the first five players, things do indeed get interesting.

It also remains to be seen how some of the supporting cast on the roster of the Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings improved their individual stock in the eyes of NHL scouting staffs.

Our current top 10 has one coincidental commonality. That is, each of the players suited up for an Eastern Conference team this past season.

There is a definite Canadian presence in our ranking, although imports from Germany, Finland and Russia have certainly made their presence felt this past season.

Over the last five NHL Drafts, the WHL has seen 30 players selected in the first round for an average of six first-round picks per season.  As far as round one goes later weekend in Philadelphia, the class of 2014 may be hard-pressed to reach or exceed that average. Overall, however, the class does possess significant depth.

1. Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice

Now playing in his third full WHL season, Reinhart is well established as a prolific, offensively skilled forward. The Vancouver native, who celebrated his 18th birthday last November 6th, put in a consistent, productive campaign during his third full-season with the Kootenay Ice.

Reinhart scored 36 goals and added 69 assists in 60 regular season games, then tallied six goals and 17 assists for 23 points in 13 playoff games. At 6’1” and 183 pounds, he has proven to be a durable junior as he continues to grow physically. He toiled with Team Canada at the 2014 WJC in Sweden and journeyed to Calgary for the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Reinhart was named both the WHL Player of the Year and Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year, then also collected the CHL's Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year award during Memorial Cup week in London, ON.

Reinhart is an efficient skater, while his hockey sense enables he and his linemates to dominate in the attacking zone. Anticipation is also a strong suit, an ability to create and locate open ice. His puck skills and patience are top notch, making him perhaps the most creative offensive player available among current CHL draft-eligible juniors.

2. Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert Raiders

Among the top prospects in the WHL since the beginning of the past season, Draisaitl has ridden a roller coaster of sorts during a very busy year. He finished the regular season with 38 goals and 67 assists in 64 games for the Prince Albert Raiders, who were quickly swept in the first round of the postseason by the eventual Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings.

A member of Team Germany at the 2014 WJC in Sweden, Draisaitl was less than stellar at the tournament, then struggled through January upon his return to Prince Albert after the Top Prospects Game. It was during this time that pundits began to question his high profile among 2014 draft eligibles.

Through February and March, a stretch that included 21 games, Draisaitl caught fire and chipped in with 45 points. It was an important contribution that enabled the Raiders to sneak into the final playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.

From Cologne, Germany, the 6’1” and 209-pounder has aptly handled the physical rigors and taxing travel associated with the WHL. He is a crafty playmaker who has begun to show more confidence shooting the puck. He would appear destined to unseat fellow countryman Marcel Goc (20th overall, 2001 NHL Draft) as the German chosen the highest in the NHL Draft.

3. Jake Virtanen, RW, Calgary Hitmen

There is ample chatter leading up to the NHL Draft that Virtanen could unseat Draisaitl as the top WHL forward selected. While an untimely shoulder injury hampered his effectiveness during the Calgary Hitmen’s abbreviated playoff run, it is his recent surgery that will keep Virtanen on the shelf for about six months, rendering him unable to take part in testing at the last month's NHL Combine.

Despite the setback, Virtanen has been on the radar since his rookie campaign in the WHL when he arrived as the first overall pick at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. In fact, he may be the most powerful skater among draft-eligible WHL forwards. This skill alone makes him an elite prospect, but he is truly a versatile player who can be effective on either wing. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he checks in at 6’1” and 210 pounds.

In 71 games this past season, Virtanen scored 45 times and added 26 assists to go along with a +25 rating and 100 penalty minutes. He played in the Top Prospects Game in January and also earned a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

4. Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer Rebels

Depending upon any position jockeying by NHL teams at the NHL Draft, Fleury may jump ahead of Jake Virtanen if an NHL team is seeking a NHL-sized rearguard for their prospect pool. There is always some thirst among NHL teams to stock their systems with mobile, big-bodied defensemen. At 6’3” and 198 pounds, Fleury would seem to fit the bill.

Some have questioned Fleury’s consistency on the defensive side, though the past season presented some interesting challenges for the native of Carlyle, Saskatchewan. He is an offensively capable defenseman and in Red Deer, the Rebels struggled as a team to score, collecting 214 goals to sit among the bottom six teams in that category in the entire WHL. Fleury certainly took chances this past season in an effort to contribute up ice, but this would seem as more of a necessity for the Rebels, rather than a conscious effort to ignore defensive zone responsibilities.

Fleury scored eight goals and added 38 assists, while compiling a +15 rating in 70 games on a Rebels team that did not qualify for the postseason. He developed in part during his minor hockey days at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. Through his second full WHL season, he has emerged as a somewhat edgy player who is certainly prepared for physical play when necessary.

5. Julius Honka, D, Swift Current Broncos

Honka arrives at the NHL Draft after a busy season that saw his main highlight come in the form of a gold medal at the 2014 WJC with Team Finland. Though not capable of being a dominant physical defenseman, Honka established himself as a premier offensive producer from the backend among WHL rearguards.

A quick start on the score sheets early in the season in Swift Current resulted in Player of the Week honors for Honka in September. Checking in at 5’11” and 175 pounds, Honka assumed an important role on the power play with the Broncos as a rookie. In some quarters, he is considered the best skater among draft-eligible WHL defensemen. A gritty import, he played in the Top Prospects Game, where he left the tilt after being bloodied by a violent high stick.

There may have been some level of comfort with the Broncos early on as Honka joined compatriot goaltender Etu Laurikainen in Speedy Creek. From Jyaskyla, Finland, Honka was selected in the first round, 34th overall, at the 2013 CHL Import Draft. He scored 16 goals and added 40 assists in 62 games while compiling a +10 rating and 52 penalty minutes.

6. Nikita Scherbak, RW, Saskatoon Blades

The 18-year-old Russian import successfully kept a recent trend rolling in Saskatoon by emerging as a blue-chip contributor for the Blades. Of late in Saskatoon, the likes of Andrey Makarov (BUF) in goal and Matej Stransky (DAL) up front have been very productive imports.

Scherbak, from Moscow, was selected by the Blades in the second round, 109th overall, of the 2013 CHL Import Draft. A right-handed shooter, he checks in at 6’2” and 175 pounds. Scherbak was far and away the top scorer among WHL rookies with 28 goals and 50 assists for 78 points in 65 games. This was good for a 21-point margin over the next highest scoring rookie, Ivan Nikolishin of the Everett Silvertips. Scherbak skates well and thrives in the attacking zone.

Questions annually loom over how committed young Russian stars are to playing in the NHL, what with big money seemingly available in the KHL. However, it was his club team at home, Kapitan Stupino, that vehemently objected to his departure for North America before this past WHL season. If NHL teams are able to ascertain firmly what Scherbak’s intentions are, his skill set alone should result in his name being called during the first round.

7. John Quenneville, C, Brandon Wheat Kings

John Quenneville is quickly becoming a top power forward in Brandon, on a team that is slowly rebuilding after hosting the Memorial Cup in 2010. The 18-year-old native of Edmonton scored 25 goals and added 33 assists in 61 games this past season after a 19-point campaign as a rookie. In nine post-season games, he rose to the occasion with 13 points for the Wheaties.

Quenneville, who checks in at 6’1” and 186 pounds, has become a tenacious forechecker. Known around the WHL primarily for his offensive skills, he has great vision in the attacking zone and moves the puck smartly.

He is no stranger to high profile events, staying firmly on the Hockey Canada radar for the future, as he has played in the U16 Challenge Cup, the 2012 U17 Hockey Challenge and the 2014 U18 World Championship.

8. Conner Bleackley, C/RW, Red Deer Rebels

An important leader in Red Deer this past season and for the future, Bleackley is perhaps the most complete player among the current crop of forwards eligible for the NHL Draft. Already the team captain, the 18-year-old High River, AB native is a thick, strong power forward.

At the World U-17 Challenge last year, Bleackley was an assistant captain for Team Pacific, which finished in fifth place at the tournament. He checks in at 6’1” and 195 pounds, a frame that makes him difficult to move off of the puck. He can be a relentless battler in the attacking zone, but maintains his responsibilities defensively. As he matures in the WHL, look for his already solid offensive numbers to increase significantly.

In 71 games this past season, the versatile Bleackley scored 29 times and added 39 assists for 68 points on a Rebels team that struggled to score consistently and missed the playoffs.

9. Travis Sanheim, D, Calgary Hitmen

The native of Elkhorn, MB checks in at 6’3” and 181 pounds. With room to add weight onto a big frame, Sanheim is a prospect that NHL teams may be prepared to be patient with.

In 67 games this season, Sanheim scored five times and added 24 assists while compiling a +25 rating for the Calgary Hitmen. The 18-year-old followed up his rookie campaign with a trip to the 2014 U18 World Championship where he collected a bronze medal as a member of Team Canada.

Sanheim could be regarded as opportunistic, given that he took full advantage of the extra ice time that came his way near mid-season when the Hitmen defensive corps suffered some key injuries, The rangy defenseman put the coaching staff in a position where they could not keep him out of the lineup. Sanheim, whose twin brother Taylor played in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League this past season, is an excellent skater with good pucks skills and offensive instincts.

10. Brayden Point, C, Moose Jaw Warriors

If there are any questions about his commitment or durability, Point would seem to have answered any questions by appearing in all 72 regular season games. He is an offensive-minded forward that has shown consistent improvement since his coming out party, a seven-goal performance over 14 games during the 2012 playoffs that came just a few weeks after his 16th birthday.

In recent memory, Point compares to Tyler Ennis of the Buffalo Sabres or Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens. The diminutive forward checks in at 5’9” and 160 pounds. Point is confident in heavy traffic. He is tenacious, a gritty forward who makes his presence felt especially in the attacking zone.

During his first full WHL season, the Calgary native played in 67 games, collecting 24 goals and 34 assists. On a struggling Warriors team that did not make the playoffs this past season, he scored 36 goals and added 55 assists for 91 points. He was a member of Team Canada's bronze medal winners at the U18 World Championship in April.

Total number of WHL players selected at the NHL Draft:
2013: 33. (1st Rd: 8)
2012: 32. (1st Rd: 6)
2011: 33. (1st Rd: 6)
2010: 33. (1st Rd: 5)
2009: 31. (1st Rd: 5)
2008: 37. (1st Rd: 9)
2007: 37. (1st Rd: 9)
2006: 24. (1st Rd: 4)

Other notables:
Brett Pollock, Edmonton Oil Kings
Brycen Martin, Swift Current Broncos
Aaron Irving, Edmonton Oil Kings
Ben Thomas, Calgary Hitmen
Edgars Kulda, Edmonton Oil Kings
Mads Eller, Edmonton Oil Kings
Keegan Iverson, Portland Winterhawks
Reid Gardiner, Prince Albert Raiders
Jayce Hawryluk, Brandon Wheat Kings
Richard Nejezchleb, Brandon Wheat Kings
Brett Lernout, Swift Current Broncos
Justin Kirkland, Kelowna Rockets
Ty Edmonds, G, Prince George Cougars
Adam Helewka, Spokane Chiefs
Ryan Rehill, Kamloops Blazers
Alex Schoenborn, Portland Winterhawks
Luke Philp, Kootenay Ice
Dysin Mayo, Edmonton Oil Kings
Rinat Valiev, Kootenay Ice
Jaedon Descheneau, Kootenay Ice
Dominic Turgeon, Portland Wiinterhawks
Riley Stadel, Kelowna Rockets
Radel Fazleev, Calgary Hitmen
Sam Ruopp, Prince George Cougars
Joe Hicketts, D, Victoria Royals
Ryan Pilon, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Tyson Baillie, W, Kelowna Rockets
Rourke Chartier, C, Kelowna Rockets
Nelson Nogier, D, Saskatoon Blades
Colby Cave, C, Swift Current Broncos
Alex Forsberg, C, Prince George Cougars
Matt Needham, C, Kamloops Blazers
Connor Rankin, C, Tri-City Americans
Alex Moodie, G, Saskatoon Blades

Mitch Holmberg, Spokane Chiefs
Todd Fiddler, Prince George Cougars

Previously drafted but not qualified by NHL teams:
Lukas Sutter, Red Deer Rebels (WPG)
Coda Gordon, Swift Current Broncos (CGY)
Nick Walters, Lethbridge Hurricanes (STL)
Mike Winther, Calgary Hitmen (DAL)
Travis Brown, Victoria Royals (CHI)
Logan Nelson, Victoria Royals (BUF)
Alex Delnov, Seattle Thunderbirds (FLA)

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51