NHL Draft Primer: WHL and QMJHL stars dominate 11-24 group of North American skaters

By David Hahn
Nick Merkley - Kelowna Rockets

Photo: Kelowna Rockets forward and 2015 prospect Nick Merkley led the WHL Champion Rockets in scoring during the 2014-15 regular season with 90 points in 72 games (courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)



Among North American skaters ranked 11 through 24 in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for the 2015 NHL Draft, the WHL and QMJHL claim a majority of them. It’s a deep group from the two leagues this year, with a pair of high-end competitors adding to this group from the OHL and USHL.

There is a blend of fiery forwards, slick puck-moving defensemen, and highly-skilled players who may very well find themselves within the top 10 picks during the first round of the draft.

23. Nick Merkley, Center, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
5’10”, 187 pounds, Calgary, AB

The Kelowna Rockets made a long run through the WHL playoffs and made their way to the Memorial Cup, where Nick Merkley had three goals and two assists, raising his draft stock significantly. Merkley created a number of opportunities for his teammates, finishing with a staggering 94 assists with Kelowna in all competitions.

Where Merkley really excels is when he is engaged against an opponent, displaying a fearless determination in driving to the net and digging pucks out. Merkley often appears to control the game and think one step ahead, invaluable traits that make him a desirable center.

20. Daniel Sprong, Right Wing, Charlottetown Islanders (QMJHL)
6’0”, 192 pounds, Amsterdam, NL

Daniel Sprong was the go-to guy this season for the Charlottetown Islanders. Often the only source of any offensive creativity, Sprong has drawn lofty comparisons to the type of game played by Patrick Kane. Certainly he’s not in that echelon yet, but Sprong’s ability to create something from nothing is noteworthy.

The Dutchman put up 99 points in 78 total games this season, and provides everything you could want from an offensive winger. Among QMJHL skaters, Sprong created more goals for his team than any other, surely from his vision and sharp, accurate shot release. Consistency in the defensive zone was a small concern, though not a major one that detracts from his overall ability.

19. Jake DeBrusk, Left Wing, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
6’0”, 176 pounds, Edmonton, AB

Jake DeBrusk’s father, Louie, carved out a successful professional career for himself thanks to his pugilist tendencies. It’s safe to say that Jake is geared towards using his hands for offense after notching 42 goals this season, earning a majority of those through a tireless work ethic.

A bevy of players made a living with less skill, merely from standing in front of the net and doing the dirty work. DeBrusk willingly does that, but it’s his level of competitiveness with and without the puck that really separates him from the rest of the pack.

17. Evgeny Svechnikov, Left Wing, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)
6’3”, 205 pounds, Neftegorsk, RUS

Whether it’s swinging his stick viciously, making his KHL debut at just 16, or tearing the QMJHL apart as a rookie, Evgeny Svechnikov has been on the minds of NHL teams for a while now. He broke Cape Breton’s rookie scoring records with his 32-goal, 46-assist season, and was a point-per-game player in the playoffs.

Perhaps a scary proposition, defenders going head-to-head against Svechnikov got back what they dished out. The talented Russian developed a reputation as a reckless and terrifying competitor that would do anything to help his team, this on top of his obvious offensive talents.

16. Thomas Chabot, Defenseman, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
6’2”, 179 pounds, Ste-Marie-de-Beauce, QC

In recent years, there has been a shift in evaluating defensemen, where the once favored brutes are falling out of favor thanks to intelligent, puck-moving rearguards. Enter Thomas Chabot, who profiles as a mobile, fleet-of-foot, quick-thinking defenseman.

Chabot’s interest in joining the rush is not without peril, but his mobility and overall intelligence on the ice has elevated his game into the upper echelon of the first group to come off the board. Chabot enjoyed a long point-scoring streak with Saint John, and finished with 12 goals and 29 assists this season.

14. Travis Konecny, Right Wing, Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
5’10”, 172 pounds, London, ON

One of the most versatile players in the draft, Travis Konecny’s ability to play down the middle or on the wing is only rivaled by his competitive drive. As Ottawa’s captain, Konecny certainly led by example and is a true three-zone forward, blending a willingness to grind with electrifying offensive talents.

As a former first overall pick in the OHL Priority Selection, Konecny is prepared for the onslaught of criticism and questions that the draft process provides. Despite his size, there are not many weaknesses to his game. Konecny earned a reputation as a ultra-competitive forward, and finished first in the OHL Coaches Poll as Best Skater and second in the Best Stickhandler category.

13. Kyle Connor, Center, Youngstown Phantoms (USHL)
6’1”, 183 pounds, Shelby Township, MI

Midway through the USHL season, Kyle Connor found himself fifth in overall scoring and then made a statement in the second half, finishing nine points clear of the second place Adam Johnson with a 34-goal, 46-assist season. Connor was named the USHL Player of the Year, blending an electric skating stride with skillful puck-handling abilities and a deceptive shot release.

Connor won USA Hockey’s Dave Tyler Award as the Player of the Year, which is given to the top American-born junior player. After finishing his USHL career with 195 points in 174 games, Connor will make the jump to the University of Michigan in the Fall.

11. Mathew Barzal, Center, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
6’0”, 181 pounds, Vancouver, BC

The Seattle Thunderbirds struggled some this season, but Mathew Barzal exceeded expectations despite missing nearly three months with a knee injury. When he returned, Barzal helped the Thunderbirds into the playoffs, finishing with the highest point-per-game ratio among WHL draft-eligible forwards.

His draft ranking may have fluctuated throughout the year, mostly due to his injury and consistency concerns. When he is on the ice, Barzal is a difference maker, exuding confidence with the game on the line and the puck on his stick.

The next NHL Draft Primer will focus on the top ten international skaters.

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