WHL Top 10 defensemen

By Glen Erickson

A list of Top Prospects among defensemen in the Western Hockey League would not be complete without mention of two players likely to be selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. They are Mark Pysyk of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Alex Petrovic of the Red Deer Rebels.

However, for purposes of this list, the criteria were that only the already drafted blueliners currently playing in the WHL were included.

1. Travis Hamonic, Brandon Wheat Kings

Hamonic may very well be the most complete defenseman in the WHL, with shutdown capabilities and underrated offensive skills. Utilized by Team Canada at the 2010 WJC in both roles, Hamonic’s mobility and was sorely missed during the gold medal game against the USA. The 6’2, 215-pounder from St. Malo, Manitoba was injured in the semi-final against Sweden, suffering a severe shoulder injury that will keep him out of WHL play until some time in February.

Shortly after the WJC, Hamonic was traded to the Wheat Kings by the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he had played 177 games over four seasons. While with the Warriors, he was selected by the New York Islanders in the second round, 53rd overall, at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

With Brandon playing host to the 2010 Memorial Cup, Hamonic will be looked upon to provide leadership, stability in the defending zone, and offense from the blueline. He is capable of doing it all, possessing a heavy, accurate shot and the ability to move the puck quickly out of his own zone. Hamonic’s presence provides additional depth and strengthens Brandon’s already solid group of rearguards.

Prior to the WJC, Hamonic scored 10 goals and 29 assists in 31 games for Moose Jaw.

2. Kevin Connauton, Vancouver Giants

Connauton has already set a team record for goals by a defenseman, surpassing former Giants rearguard Jon Blum (NAS). Through 46 games, Connauton has scored 20 goals and 32 assists, leading the WHL in scoring among defensemen. The 6’1, 195-pounder from Edmonton is a 19-year-old WHL rookie who shoots the puck accurately and quarterbacks the power play.

Connauton’s path to success in the WHL has been an interesting one, to say the least. He played one season with the Spruce Grove Saints in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, earning a NCAA scholarship at Western Michigan halfway through the season. When an injury created an opening at Western Michigan, Connauton was summoned and by the Broncos a year ahead of schedule and then earned a spot on the team. After one season in the NCAA, he was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the third round, 83th overall, at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

The decision was then made to play the current campaign with the Giants, where the WHL schedule would more closely mirror the NHL schedule. He is now playing right in Vancouver where the Canucks can closely watch his development.

3. Stefan Elliott, Saskatoon Blades

Elliott is viewed as a complete defenseman, a player who consistently performs with efficiency at both ends of the rink. As a drafted junior this season, there is an expectation that the fourth-year WHLer will elevate his performance and produce the leadership that can help the Blades to a deep playoff run.

In addition to 17 goals and 26 assists in 46 games so far this season, Elliott has also compiled a +34 rating with the league-leading Blades. Elliott, from North Vancouver, B.C., was honored by the CHL as the Scholastic Player of the Year for the 2008-09 season. Work ethic, both on and off the ice, are obvious attributes.

In Elliott, the Avalanche acquired an upper-echelon WHLer when they chose him in the second round, 49th overall, at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. While he will not dominate games physically, there remains plenty of room in professional hockey for cerebral defensemen who can contribute offensively.

4. Colby Robak, Brandon Wheat Kings

An important part of the Wheat Kings power play, Robak has already surpassed his previous season high in points with nine goals and 36 assists in 47 games. He is also among the league leaders with a +33 rating. Since his 17-year-old season, Robak has been used in Brandon on the power play and penalty-killing units.

The 6’3, 207-pounder was selected in the second round, 46th overall, by the Florida Panthers at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Robak is a native of Gilbert Plains, Manitoba. He has benefited from playing with the likes of Keith Aulie (CGY) while in Brandon, an organization that will host the 2010 Memorial Cup. He is a veteran leader with the Wheaties.

With the Memorial Cup set for Brandon in May, Robak will be given every opportunity to play a leadership role for the host team. He has played over 240 games for the Wheat Kings over four seasons.

5. Tyson Barrie, Kelowna Rockets

Barrie has had the benefit over the past two seasons of being paired first with Luke Schenn (TOR), and then last season with Tyler Myers (BUF). Playing with dominant shutdown partners enabled Barrie to play aggressively as a defenseman, focusing on the offensive side of the game.

This season, his third year in Kelowna, Barrie has basically been on his own on many nights and has responded very well. The native of Victoria, B.C. has become more efficient defensively, but his offensive skill set remains his most polished attribute. Questions about size and speed will dog Barrie until he gets it done as a professional, however, there is no questioning his ample hockey IQ. He has already become the Rockets career leader in scoring among defenseman and earlier this season he put together a 21-game point scoring streak. Through 38 games, he has scored eight goals and added 39 assists.

Last season, on an explosive Rockets team the lost to the Windsor Spitfires in the Memorial Cup final, Barrie scored the WHL title-clinching goal in overtime. Among the WHLers of note that Barrie may join in the Avalanche’s system is former Kelowna Rockets defenseman Kyle Cumiskey.

6. Colten Teubert, Regina Pats

Teubert may reach the 300-games-played mark later this season with the Regina Pats, where he has played his entire WHL career. The native of White Rock, B.C. will be looked upon to play an important leadership role for the rest of the season as the Pats work to climb back in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Teubert, the Pats team captain, has played for Team Canada at the past two WJC’s, collecting a gold and silver medal. He is a stubborn, grating defenseman who can bring an obvious nastiness to the rink. The key is to deliver this all on a consistent basis.

Selected in the first round, 13th overall, by the Los Angeles Kings at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Teubert has collected 7 goals and 21 assists in 36 games this season. Teubert joins a group of recent WHL grads in the Kings system, including Thomas Hickey, Oscar Moller and Brayden Schenn.

7. Brayden McNabb, Kootenay Ice

McNabb and the Ice are currently riding a 13-game winning streak in the WHL, with no losses since Dec. 13. McNabb, who has played 189 career games in Cranbrook, is a calming, veteran influence along the blueline.

Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the third round, 66th overall, at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, McNabb excels on the defensive side. However, like many rearguards who spend the early parts of their junior careers honing defensive skills, McNabb has begun to influence results with his offensive output. Through 39 games, he has scored 13 goals and added 30 assists.

At 6’4, 210 pounds, McNabb controls the front of his goal with his strength and reach. He was born in Davidson, Saskatchewan, also the home of current Calgary Flames defenseman Cory Sarich.

8. Jared Cowen, Spokane Chiefs

Cowen’s size works well in the WHL where he effectively handles the demanding schedule and physical rigors. Selected by the Ottawa Senators in the first round, ninth overall, at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Cowen has already won a Memorial Cup championship during his junior career.

If there is a knock at this point on Cowen, it is his mobility, something that was exploited at the 2010 WJC. While Cowen has likely fully recovered from a knee injury that ended his 2008-09 season in January, developing the ability to move more quickly will be his biggest challenge as he moves on to the professional game.

Born in Allan, Saskatchewan, just east of Saskatoon, the 6’5, 220-pounder is physically NHL-ready. Cowen possesses the long reach that can frustrate oncoming forwards and handles the area in front of his team’s net with authority. He has been paired for much of his WHL career in Spokane with Jared Spurgeon (NYI).

9. Brett Ponich, Portland Winterhawks

An original bantam draft pick by Portland, Ponich has developed in the Winterhawks system to the point where he was named team captain this season. His size and strength are his strong suit, possessing a commanding physical package that attracted the attention of the St. Louis Blues when they selected him in the second round, 42nd overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

At 6’7, 220 pounds, Ponich has NHL size, but will have to continue working diligently to improve his mobility and foot speed. Ponich has identified the growth spurt he experienced during his 15- and 16-year-old years as most challenging, a time in his young life where he battled through fatigue and coordination. Like many players with similar physical attributes, Ponich may find that his best hockey is a few seasons away.

A native of Beaumont, Alberta near Edmonton, Ponich has become a more confident puck moving defenseman this season, adding to an improved Portland team that is quick on the transition from defense to offense. He has also begun to develop a nasty side, making him an even more imposing defender.

10. Michael Stone, Calgary Hitmen

Coming off a career high of 61 points last season, Stone has collected 15 goals and 25 assists in 46 games this season. At 6’3, 200 pounds, Stone is mobile and very capable physically. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he was chosen in the third round, 63rd overall, by the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Last season, Stone was a top four defenseman on a Hitmen team that advanced to the WHL Championship Final before bowing out to the Kelowna Rockets in six games. His experience and leadership are important in Calgary this season as the Hitmen appear to be contenders again for an Eastern Conference title.

Stone will very likely surpass the 300-game plateau in February, having already played 290 games for the Hitmen, including 49 playoff games over three seasons.