2015 NHL Draft: Thunderbirds’ Barzal leads WHL prospects at mid-season mark

By Glen Erickson
Mathew Barzal - Seattle Thunderbirds

Photo: Seattle Thunderbirds forward and 2015 prospect Mathew Barzal has missed time in the 2014-15 season due to injury, but should return to action in January (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)


Back in June, the Western Hockey League saw 37 of its players selected at the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, PA. With the NHL festivities set for Sunrise, FL in 2015, scouting personnel are busy perusing the current WHL talent pool.

Here’s our ranking of the Top 10 prospects from the WHL for the 2015 NHL Draft. This time around, our list sees the forwards outnumber the rearguards, which bucks the recent WHL trend that has seen a number of elite defensemen move on to jobs in professional hockey. It’s a near even split from each conference with six players from the West and the other four from the East.

There are two sets of teammates on our list, along with two American-born players and one import. The remainder are Canadians.

1. Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds
Round 1: 1st overall – 2012 WHL Bantam Draft

Many pundits see Barzal as the odds-on favorite to be the first WHL player selected at the 2015 NHL Draft. The skill set is undeniable, but an off-ice injury suffered while the Thunderbirds were touring the Eastern Division in November resulted in a cracked knee cap. Following surgery, it was announced that Barzal would be out of the Seattle line up until January.

Known among his teammates for his fascination with video as a learning tool, the 5’11”, 175-pound Barzal was effective last season as a 16-year-old, collecting 54 points in 59 games. This season, prior to the injury, Barzal scored seven goals and added 11 assists in 16 games.

2. Jansen Harkins, C/LW, Prince George Cougars
Round 1: 2nd overall – 2012 WHL Bantam Draft

Another versatile forward with offensive skills, Jansen Harkins posted a 34-point total last season as a 16-year-old. He is off to a fast start this year with 12 goals and 27 assists in 35 games. The numbers bear out that he is more prone to make a pass than take a shot, but Harkins is being lauded for his commitment in the defensive zone and his overall intensity.

Harkins is a leader, evidenced by his selection as captain for Team Pacific at the World U17 Hockey Challenge. In recent years, his skill set has enabled Harkins to often “play up” a level against older competition. The 6’1”, 177-pounder from North Vancouver is the son of former NHL player, Todd Harkins.

3. Nick Merkley, C/RW, Kelowna Rockets
Round 1: 9th overall – 2012 WHL Bantam Draft

Merkley established himself as a player to watch last season when he became a consistent and reliable offensive contributor in Kelowna as a 16-year-old. During the postseason, where the Rockets were defeated by the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Conference final, Merkley was the team’s leading scorer.

This season, he has picked up where he left off, skating alongside Rourke Chartier (SJS) and Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI) to form the most potent scoring trio in the WHL. Merkley, from Calgary, is an accurate passer of the puck, but is equally comfortable when the time comes to pull the trigger. Through 36 games, the 5’11”, 191-pounder has scored 10 times and added a league-leading 45 assists to lead the WHL scoring race with 55 points.

4. Ivan Provorov, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Round 1: 30th overall – 2014 CHL Import Draft

If there is a WHL team that appears to have hit the jackpot with its complement of import players, it’s probably the Brandon Wheat Kings. The 6’, 190-pounder from Yaroslavl, Russia has been a consistent contributor offensively in his rookie campaign, collecting 10 goals and 27 assists in 35 games so far.

A multi-dimensional defenseman, Provorov played last season for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL, acquiring important exposure and experience in North America. His quick emergence as a capable WHL defender made another import in Brandon, Richard Nejezchleb (NYR), expendable as he was dealt to the Everett Silvertips. On a personal note, Provorov stays with the same billet family in Brandon with teammate Ryan Pilon.

5. Paul Bittner, LW, Portland Winterhawks
Signed: April 9, 2012

The tall, lanky forward stirred some controversy when he opted for the WHL while still a member of his high school team in Crookston, MN. At present, he is one of 14 players with developmental hockey roots in the United States currently on the Winterhawks roster. The 6’4”, 202-pounder is physically ready for the next level right now, though he is likely to develop into a much more imposing power forward as his junior career progresses. As with all big-bodied juniors, foot speed and overall quickness are important attributes to improve upon.

Bittner participated in the 2014 All-American Top Prospects Game in late September. Through 30 games so far, he has scored 13 times and added 10 assists. Also of note for a young prospect; Bittner has already appeared in 40 WHL playoff games with Portland, which speaks to how a team’s success can fast-track the development of young players.

6. Brandon Carlo, D, Tri-City Americans
Round 10: 214th overall – 2011 WHL Bantam Draft

In an era where size, mobility, and that hard-to-find right-handed shot from the point carry great value, 6’5” and 196-pound Brandon Carlo certainly fits the bill. A graduate of the successful Colorado Thunderbirds program, Carlo proved to be durable last season, appearing in 71 regular season games, then five more in the playoffs.

With room on his frame for growth, Carlo’s ability to develop quickness will be closely watched. He plays an important role in the defensive zone, allowing elite goaltender Eric Comrie (WPG) to see incoming shots. Invited to Team USA’s selection camp for the 2015 WJC, Carlo possesses the attributes of a stay-at-home rearguard, one who can physically dominate in the defending zone. He is beginning to chip in offensively, with two goals and 13 assists in 33 games.

7. Ryan Gropp, LW, Seattle Thunderbirds
Round 1: 6th overall – 2011 WHL Bantam Draft

Part of a dynamic one-two punch in Seattle this season, Gropp is playing alongside Mathew Barzal as the duo continues to keep the attention of NHL scouts at WHL games. And, in addition to their roles with Seattle, Gropp and Barzal teamed up at the 2014 U18 World Championship as Canada collected a bronze medal.

A 6’2”, 185-pounder from Kamloops, Gropp actually gave up his NCAA scholarship to sign with the Thunderbirds early last season. His confidence has increased and he is gradually becoming more effective driving to the net in the attacking zone. Gropp has really begun to make his physical presence felt with more frequency. The left-hander is a versatile forward who has collected 72 points in 98 career WHL games. This season, he has scored 14 times and added 15 assists in 33 games.

8. Adam Musil, C, Red Deer Rebels
Round 1: 6th overall – 2012 WHL Bantam Draft

The name will be familiar to many in the hockey world, but Adam Musil has broken the family mold by plying his trade as a forward. Both his father Frank and brother David have had hockey success as defensemen.

Last season as a WHL rookie, the native of Burnaby, BC collected 29 points in 60 games. In 32 games this season, the 6’3”, 205-pound Musil has scored nine times and added 16 assists while proving he can be difficult to separate from the puck. With size down the middle always a sought after commodity, Musil is intriguing NHL scouts. While not as dominant to this point in his junior career, Musil conjures up images of a recent WHL graduate, Leon Draisaitl (EDM).

9. Ryan Pilon, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Round 1: 3rd overall – 2011 WHL Bantam Draft

Obtained by the Wheat Kings last season in a trade he demanded while still property of the team that drafted him, the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Ryan Pilon continues to display the skill set that preceded him into the WHL. Pilon is the nephew of former NHL defenseman, Rich Pilon.

Pilon checks in at an NHL-ready 6’2” and 210 pounds, the kind of big-bodied rearguards that NHL scouts appreciate. Born in Duck Lake, SK, Pilon has developed into an agile junior. He is capable in the attacking zone and moves the puck well. Through 31 games, he has scored six times and added 21 assists. A late ’96 birthday, Pilon will be well over the 200-game mark in his WHL career before his name is called at the 2015 NHL Draft.

10. Glenn Gawdin, C, Swift Current Broncos
Round 1: 5th overall – 2012 WHL Bantam Draft

A right-handed shooting forward who checks in at 6’1” and 185 pounds, Gawdin stepped right into the Broncos lineup last season, collecting 22 points in 66 games. Swift Current may eventually look to tap into Gawdin’s leadership qualities. His skill set enabled him to play three seasons of bantam hockey. From Richmond, BC, he is a former lacrosse player who is said to possess a bit of a mean streak.

His skating has improved immensely since his arrival in Swift Current, which enables the Broncos coaching staff to benefit from his tremendous versatility. A right-handed center, Gawdin is playing in all situations. He recently passed the 100-game plateau in the WHL. Gawdin has scored nine goals and added 22 assists in 35 games.

Other Notables (alphabetical):

Alec Baer, C, Vancouver Giants
Jared Bethune, C, Prince George Cougars
Jake DeBrusk, LW, Swift Current Broncos
Jesse Gabrielle, LW, Brandon Wheat Kings
Reid Gardiner, C/RW, Prince Albert Raiders
Noah Juulsen, D, Everett Silvertips
Pavel Karnaukhov, C, Calgary Hitmen
Keegan Kolesar, RW, Seattle Thunderbirds
Nick McBride, G, Prince Albert Raiders
Chaz Reddekopp, D, Victoria Royals
Parker Wotherspoon, D, Tri-City Americans
Zach Zborosky, C, Kootenay Ice

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