2010 prospects: WHL top 15 draft-eligibles

By Glen Erickson

Below are the top prospects from the Western Hockey League eligible for the 2010 NHL entry draft. Also included are the final rankings from the NHL’s Central Scouting, and the player’s standing among WHLers on that listing.

All of the top 15 were invited to attend the NHL Scouting Combine, May 24 through 29, where interviews and physical testing enables teams to add to their informational resources prior to the NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles on June 25 and 26.

1. Brett Connolly, C

Prince George Cougars
6’2, 190 pounds
Prince George, BC
CS Ranking: 3rd among CHL skaters (WHL: 1)

Loaded with offensive skill, Connolly battled hip flexor difficulties all season after suffering the injury at the 2009 Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 Tournament in August. He appeared in only 16 games this past season, collecting 19 points. He scored once while suiting up in four games for Team Canada at the World U18 Championship in Belarus.

The 2009 WHL and CHL Rookie of the Year, Connolly managed to remain prominent among scouts despite the inactivity. Assuming his health issues stabilize, Connolly is definitely the best of the current bunch. However, there is obvious risk here for an NHL team spending its first-round pick on Connolly. His performance at the NHL Combine should go a long way to determining how high he goes at the NHL Entry Draft in June.

Connolly, who insists that he is now healthy, has already spoken with a number of NHL teams. It is also likely that Connolly is being summoned to a number of NHL cities for additional testing by teams wanting their own medical staff to verify the status of his hips. The native of Prince George added some weight to his frame this past season and does look to be capable of being more physically dominant than in the past. Time will tell.

2. Nino Niederreiter, LW

Portland Winterhawks
6’2, 203 pounds
Chur, Switzerland
CS Ranking: 12th among CHL skaters (WHL: 5)

The 6’2, 203-pound import forward played an important role this season in the resurgence of the Winterhawks, contributing 36 goals and 24 assists in 65 games during his rookie season. During the playoffs, he scored eight goals and added eight assists in 13 games.

Niederreiter is well developed physically and excels in big games. At the WJC in Saskatoon, his coming-out party of sorts, he was dominant in the playoff round for Team Switzerland. Certain to be a first-round selection, Niederreiter may fall behind some of the centermen in the WHL draft class. However, if NHL teams feel he has the ability to play effectively on either wing, his stock could rise. He will rate very high on sheer skill, determination and personality.

For the majority of the past season, Niederreiter played in Portland alongside Ryan Johansen and Brad Ross, who are also likely to be selected at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The rookie import also suited up for Switzerland at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Germany.

3. Calvin Pickard, G

Seattle Thunderbirds
6’, 205 pounds
Winnipeg, MB
CS Ranking: 1st among CHL goaltenders (WHL: 1)

The smart money continues to suggest that the CHL’s top-ranked goaltender appears destined to cross paths with his older brother Chet Pickard (NAS) in the professional ranks.

In Seattle this past season, Calvin Pickard faced a league-high 2,207 shots as the Thunderbirds failed to qualify for postseason play. In 62 games, he posted a 3.09 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. He also posted three shutouts.

Pickard is fundamentally sound with very quick reflexes. He handles the puck efficiently and covers the net very well due to excellent balance. Passed over in favor of Martin Jones (LA) for one of two spots with Team Canada’s entry at the 2010 WJC, Pickard remains on the Hockey Canada radar and will get a serious look for the 2011 edition. At the recently completed World U18 Championship in Belarus, Pickard played the majority of the time for Team Canada, compiling a 2.87 goals against average and a .894 save percentage. He appeared in all six games and allowed 15 goals on 141 shots.

4. Ryan Johansen, C
Portland Winterhawks
6’3, 190 pounds
Port Moody, BC
CS Ranking: 10th among CHL skaters (WHL: 4)

Another of the Winterhawks key young forwards, Johansen simply played better and better hockey as the season progressed. There is little question that the opportunity to play last season with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL enabled him to prepare for the rigors of the 72-game WHL schedule.

Including two playoff rounds, Johansen scored 31 goals and 56 assists in 84 games this season as a WHL rookie. Scouts are keen on his puck skills and vision. He also had the opportunity to excel this season as a linemate with Niederreiter and Brad Ross, both of whom will also be drafted in June. Indeed, the short-term future looks great in Portland.

Johansen is a skilled mover of the puck and possesses the size to become an effective power forward. He is versatile and his touch around the net will set him apart from the muckers and grinders.

5. Mark Pysyk, D
Edmonton Oil Kings
6’2, 180 pounds
Sherwood Park, AB
CS Ranking: 7th among CHL skaters (WHL: 2)

Pysyk spent much of the first half of the regular season basking in the glow of well-earned high rankings by both the International Scouting Service and Central Scouting. He has been impressive over two seasons in the WHL as a mobile, puck-moving defenseman with some offensive polish.

With the Oil Kings floundering for much of the campaign, a season in which they failed to qualify for the postseason, Pysyk was guilty of some uninspired play at times. The team had difficulty keeping pucks out of their net, due in part to inconsistent play on the back end. Moving forward, he will be an instrumental player in Edmonton as the team strives to establish perennial playoff contender status.

As Pysyk continues to grow physically and becomes a veteran WHLer, his knowledge of opponents will grow and his effectiveness at both ends of the ice will increase. A very good skater with a quick release, Pysyk is likely to be a first rounder at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Pysyk scored seven times and added 17 assists in 47 games this past season.

6. Quinton Howden, C

Moose Jaw Warriors
6’3, 185 pounds
Oakbank, MB
CS Ranking: 19th among CHL skaters (WHL: 7)

The Moose Jaw Warriors made the Oakbank, Manitoba native their first-round pick, first overall, in the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft. Howden covers the ice well with an almost effortless-looking stride. A versatile, skilled forward, he can be effective in the faceoff circle. On a deep Warriors roster, Howden played most of last season alongside 20-year-old Jason Bast and Thomas Frazee.

In his rookie campaign, he collected 13 goals and 17 assists in 62 games. This year, he appeared in 67 games, collecting 28 goals and 39 assists. He was also named to Team WHL for the Subway Series game in Kelowna. Howden played for Team West at the 2009 U-17 World Challenge and also won a gold medal at the 2009 World U-18 tournament.

Perhaps the best skater among 2010 NHL draft-eligible forwards from the ‘Dub, Howden seriously injured his shoulder late in the regular season, but was able to return late in the first round of the Warriors seven-game playoff loss to the Calgary Hitmen. Then, at the 2010 World U18 Championship, Howden scored four goals and two assists in six games for Team Canada.

7. Dylan McIlrath, D

Moose Jaw Warriors
6’5, 215 pounds
Winnipeg, MB
CS Ranking: 17th among CHL skaters. (WHL: 6)

For NHL teams looking to stock the cupboard with a hulking, physical defensemen, Dylan McIlrath will fit the bill. McIlrath covers the ice well for a big player, but will have to continue to improve his mobility. His long reach can keep attackers at bay and his penchant for nastiness in his own end can help goaltenders to see the puck well. A different type of player compared to Pysyk and Alex Petrovic, McIlrath may be the toughest rearguard in the WHL.

When long-time Warriors rearguard Travis Hamonic (NYI) was traded to the Brandon Wheat Kings near the WHL trade deadline in January, McIlrath’s role instantly changed and his playing time increased. In fact, for all intents and purposes, Hamonic actually played his last game in a Moose Jaw uniform in early December, as commitments to Team Canada for the 2010 WJC kept him away from the Warriors for almost the entire month. McIlrath was instantly a beneficiary in Hamonic’s absence.

In 65 regular-season games, he scored seven goals and added 17 assists, while collecting 169 penalty minutes. Perhaps the biggest single statistical improvement McIlrath experienced in his second full season in Moose Jaw was his plus/minus rating. In 2008-09, he finished at minus-22. This past season, his rating was plus-20.

8. Emerson Etem, C
Medicine Hat Tigers
6’, 195 pounds
Long Beach, CA
CS Ranking: 8th among CHL skaters (WHL: 3)

Etem’s emergence this season as a bona fide scorer in the WHL confirms the league’s foray into the western United States continues to unearth solid hockey talent. And for Etem, a native of southern California, the 2010 NHL Entry Draft will take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, within an hour of his hometown.

Medicine Hat drafted Etem in the sixth round of the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft. Through a total of 84 games, Etem collected 44 goals and 31 assists. A disciplined player, Etem spent only 26 minutes in the penalty box this season. This season, the Tigers were eliminated in the second round of the WHL playoffs by the Calgary Hitmen.

His consistent offensive output as a WHL rookie comes on the heels of a 45-point campaign in 50 games last season while a member U-17’s with the United States National Team Development Program.

9. Alexander Petrovic, D

Red Deer Rebels
6’4, 195 pounds
Edmonton, AB
CS Ranking: 29th among CHL skaters (WHL: 8)

The emergence of Petrovic on the Rebels blue line is one of the reasons the team managed a playoff berth this season after three years of spending the spring on the outside looking in. There is young talent in Red Deer now, and Petrovic will be leaned on to produce at both ends of the ice.

Petrovic overcame an early-season injury and quickly became what many considered to be the club’s top rearguard. He is physically dominant when he chooses to be and can bring an edginess to the ice. While not considered as gifted with the puck as Pysyk, he frequently played between 25 to 30 minutes per game as a 17-year-old. Petrovic scored eight goals and added 19 assists in 57 games this season.

10. Jordan Weal, C

Regina Pats
5’9, 165 pounds
North Vancouver, BC
CS Ranking: 30th among CHL skaters (WHL: 9)

Weal served notice of his offensive skills during the 2008-09 season, his rookie campaign, by producing 16 goals and 54 assists in 65 games. This year, he played in all 72 regular-season games, scoring 35 goals and adding 67 assists for 102 points. He was an important contributor offensively for the Pats, a team that missed the scoring of Jordan Eberle (EDM) and Colten Teubert (LA) from time to time due to their Hockey Canada commitments last season.

The diminutive forward sees plenty of ice time alongside Eberle, another reason he has become a consistent offensive threat. Weal, a right-handed shooting centerman, is revered for his tenacity on the forecheck and for creating turnovers in the offensive zone.
Weal led Team Canada in scoring at the World U18 Championship in Belarus, collecting three goals and six assists in six games. The group finished in seventh place with three wins and three losses, including a pair of wins in the relegation round over Latvia and Slovakia.

11. Brad Ross, RW

Portland Winterhawks
6’1, 175 pounds
Lethbridge, AB
CS Ranking: 59th among CHL skaters (WHL: 14)

The younger brother of Nick Ross (PHX), Brad played much of the past season with Niederreiter and Johansen, a forward unit who could conceivably play together in Portland for another two seasons. Comparisons are already being made to the Brayden Schenn (LA), Scott Glennie (DAL), Matt Calvert (CBJ) trio with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Ross brings energy and grit to the mix, which sometimes makes it easy for his offensive prowess to be overlooked. An in-your-face forward, his presence helps create open ice for his ultra-skilled linemates. NHL scouts recognize Ross’s contribution to the overall success of the forward unit, alluding to his combination of 20-plus goals and 200-plus penalty minutes. He thrives in the role and should continue to frustrate opponents.

A commitment to improving his acceleration will be important, a developmental reality he can achieve under the tutelage of head coach Mike Johnston. This past season, Ross played in 84 regular season and playoff games, collecting 29 goals, 48 assists and 239 penalty minutes.

12. Kent Simpson, G

Everett Silvertips
6’2, 185 pounds
Edmonton, AB
CS Ranking: 3rd among CHL goaltenders (WHL: 2)

Simpson shared goaltending duties in Everett this season with Thomas Heemskerk (SJ). The pair combined to post impressive numbers, establishing themselves as the top tandem in the WHL.

For his part, Simpson played in 34 games during the 2009-10 season, his second full campaign with the ‘Tips. He compiled a 2.26 goals against average and a save percentage of .925. He posted a 22-9-1 record and collected one shutout. In five playoff appearances against the Kelowna Rockets during a seven-game first-round defeat, Simpson posted a 2.62 goals against average, a .905 save percentage and one shutout.

At the World U18 Championship in Belarus, Simpson was used sparingly by Team Canada, in favor of Pickard. Simpson saw 44 minutes of action over six games, allowing three goals on 21 shots.

13. Curtis Hamilton, LW

Saskatoon Blades
6’2, 211 pounds
Kelowna, BC
CS Ranking: 42nd among CHL skaters (WHL: 10)

Ranking Hamilton in the 13th position is perhaps reflective of his bad-luck 2009-10 season. The injury bug hovered around the Blades forward through the entire winter, limiting his opportunity to build on an already impressive WHL career.

On the ice, Hamilton has offensive skills, but thrives in a power-forward role. Like all in this draft-eligible group, a continued commitment to building power and acceleration will be an important developmental task through the remainder of his junior career. The tale of the tape confirms he is physically NHL-ready at 18 years of age. In 58 games during the 2008-09 season, Hamilton scored 20 goals and 28 assists while compiling a plus-28 rating. In limited action this past season, Hamilton tallied nine times and added 10 assists in 31 games.

If intangibles are considered, Hamilton’s bloodlines cannot be overlooked. His father Bruce, the owner of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, was a tenacious forward selected in the 1977 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues. While he did not embark on a lengthy NHL career as a player, his work ethic and hockey business acumen have translated into junior hockey success for much of the past two decades. If the younger Hamilton has been attentive, his own commitment to hard work will ensure future opportunities materialize.

14. Troy Rutkowski, D

Portland Winterhawks
6’1, 205 pounds
Edmonton, AB
CS Ranking: 44th among CHL skaters (WHL: 11)

The short-term future in Portland looks very bright with the likes of Troy Rutkowski joining an elite group of young forwards.

In his second full season with the Winterhawks, Rutkowski established himself as an offensive force among defensemen in the WHL. Through the regular season and playoffs this season, Rutkowski appeared in 84 games, scoring 16 goals and 34 assists. Projected as a mid-round selection at the NHL Entry Draft, Rutkowski is solid on his skates and protects the puck well. He continues to build confidence in his defensive game, although he always appears to have the green light to jump into the play when opportunities arise.

Rutkowski is not alone on the back end, as Brett Ponich (STL), Joe Morrow and Taylor Aronson are due back next season. There is experience and depth in place and Rutkowski is a player the organization will look to as a provider of leadership.

15. Austin Madaisky, D

Kamloops Blazers
6’2, 185 pounds
Burnaby, BC
CS Ranking: 57th among CHL skaters (WHL 13)

Although the trade between the Calgary Hitmen and the Kamloops Blazers saw Madaisky leave a contender for a team struggling to build playoff success, the move should create tremendous opportunity for the lanky rearguard to see a huge increase in playing time and responsibility.

He became more confident with the puck during the second half of the season, crediting head coach Guy Charron for his mentoring skills. A very well-spoken individual, Madaisky is also very committed to fitness. He has room to add 15 to 20 pounds, weight and muscle that should make him more of a factor in front of his own goal.

In terms of his development as a WHLer, Madaisky is also quick to credit his time in Calgary and the opportunity to play, practice and learn from Alex Plante (EDM), Michael Stone (PHX), Keith Seabrook (CAL).

Other notables

Taylor Aronson, Portland Winterhawks
JT Barnett, Vancouver Giants
Brett Bulmer, Kelowna Rockets
Tyler Bunz, Medicine Hat Tigers
Mitchell Chapman, Kelowna Rockets
Antoine Corbin, Kelowna Rockets
Craig Cunningham, Vancouver Giants
Brandon Davidson, Lethbridge Hurricanes
Justin Dowling, Swift Current Broncos
Michael Ferland, Brandon Wheat Kings
Justin Feser, Tri City Americans
Brendan Gallagher, Vancouver Giants
Ryan Harrison, Prince Albert Raiders
Brandon Herrod, Prince Albert Raiders
Brock Hirsche, Prince George Cougars
Antonin Honejsek, Moose Jaw Warriors
Charles Inglis, Saskatoon Blades
Cam Lanigan, Edmonton Oil Kings
Joey Leach, Kootenay Ice
Taylor Makin, Prince George Cougars
Matt MacKenzie, Calgary Hitmen
Kendall McFaull, Moose Jaw Warriors
Dylan McKinlay, Chilliwack Bruins
Jordan Messier, Tri City Americans
Brock Montgomery, Kootenay Ice
Josh Nicholls, Saskatoon Blades
Brendan Ranford, Kamloops Blazers
Max Reinhart, Kootenay Ice
Brooks Macek, Tri City Americans
Brendan Shinnimin, Tri City Americans
Tyler Stahl, Chilliwack Bruins
Mark Stone, Brandon Wheat Kings
Kevin Sundher, Chilliwack Bruins
Brody Sutter, Lethbridge Hurricanes
Cody Sylvester, Calgary Hitmen
Alex Theriault, Everett Silvertips