2015 NHL Draft Preview: Provorov, Barzal lead solid group of WHL prospects

By Glen Erickson
Ivan Provorov - Brandon Wheat Kings

Photo: Brandon Wheat Kings defenseman and 2015 prospect Ivan Provorov turned in a strong 2014-15 season in the WHL, and further helped his draft stock with good showings at the 2015 World Junior Championship and 2015 CHL Top Prospects Game (courtesy of Aaron Bell/CHL Images)



Here’s a look at our top 10 prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft from the Western Hockey League, with the consensus top four rather apparent.

Our list contains six forwards and four defensemen. A total of six players toiled in the Western Conference. Only the Brandon Wheat Kings managed two players in our ranking. There is a definite Canadian presence in our ranking, with seven canucks on the list. Two Americans and one Russian round out the ranking. All 10 were invited to the NHL Combine.

Our ranking includes the WHL’s leading scorer among rookies, two players who represented their respective countries at the 2015 World Junior Championship, and three players with distinct family ties to the NHL.

Since 2006, the highest number of players chosen from the WHL at the NHL Draft is 37, which has occurred three times, including last year when nine players were selected in the first round. The current class will be hard pressed to equal that number, but there is plenty of depth among 2015 WHL draft-eligibles.

1. Ivan Provorov, D, Brandon Wheat Kings

Perhaps the top performing import defenseman in the WHL this past season, the 6-foot, 200-pound Ivan Provorov from Yaroslaval, Russia was a consistent contributor offensively in his rookie campaign, collecting 15 goals and 46 assists in 61 games to lead all freshmen.

Provorov demonstrates composure at both ends of the ice. He can find teammates effectively with outlet passes, but is confident and capable when carrying the puck out of his own end. He is physically capable of delivering punishment, but often tends to use smarts and positioning to separate opponents from the puck. Much has been made of his effective use of an active stick, which is said to be extended three to four inches in length. He has derived confidence from playing on the Wheat Kings top defensive pairing with Ryan Pilon (2015), a late birthday draft-eligible with loads of WHL experience. In fact, Provorov also stays with the same billet family in Brandon as Pilon.

A multi-dimensional defenseman, Provorov played last season for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL, acquiring important exposure and experience in North America.

2. Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds

Many pundits see Mathew Barzal as the odds-on favourite to be the first WHL player selected at the 2015 NHL Draft, but that may depend on specific team needs in the early going on Draft Day.

His skill set is undeniable, with great vision and game-breaking offensive ability. A full-season sample size would have gleaned more information, particularly with respect to durability, but an off-ice injury suffered while the Thunderbirds were touring the Eastern Division in November resulted in a cracked knee cap. Despite the setback, Barzal collected 12 goals and 45 assists in 44 games. Similar in some ways to Nick Merkley (2015), Barzal could stand to shoot the puck more often.

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, serving notice while collecting 54 points in 59 games.

3. Nick Merkley, C, Kelowna Rockets

There is little doubt that Nick Merkley’s stock rose during this postseason, and his performance at the Memorial Cup was outstanding. He had 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 playoffs last season, Merkley was the team’s leading scorer.

This season, he 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. He will need to work on exercising shot selection as he develops for pro hockey. Merkley is a rambunctious forechecker, unafraid of engaging physically.

Merkley is a very strong skater who maintains speed while moving laterally. The 5’11”, 191-pounder scored 20 times and added 70 assists while playing in all 72 regular season games.


4. Jansen Harkins, C, Prince George Cougars

Another versatile player with offensive skills, Jansen Harkins is perhaps the most complete forward available from the WHL. His skill set has enabled him to often “play up” a level against older competition. The 6’1”, 180-pounder from North Vancouver is the son of former NHL player Todd Harkins.

Harkins scored 20 goals and added 59 assists in 70 games this season, a 45-point improvement over his rookie campaign. Statistically, his numbers bear out that he more often prefers to dish off the puck, but the real uniqueness here lies in Harkins frequently lauded commitment in the defensive zone. High praise for defensive consistency is heady stuff for young players.

Harkins is a leader, evidenced by his selection as captain for Team Pacific at the World U17 Hockey Challenge. Look for Harkins to assume a similar leadership role in Prince George as his junior career progresses.

5. Brandon Carlo, D, Tri-City Americans

Size and mobility, along with that often sought after right-handed shot from the point, aptly describes what Brandon Carlo brings to the ice. A 6’5”, 196-pound graduate of the successful Colorado Thunderbirds program, Carlo continued to prove his durability with the Amerks this season, appearing in 63 games despite a brief hiatus to play for Team USA at the 2015 WJC.

Carlo possesses the attributes of a stay-at-home rearguard, one who can physically dominate in the defending zone. He is a vital physical presence in the Americans lineup, using his long reach to disrupt opposition flow. He is beginning to chip in offensively, scoring four times and adding 21 assists this season. With room on his frame for further growth, Carlo will provide value to a NHL team seeking depth along its blueline. He moves well in all directions for a big bodied defender.

6. Paul Bittner, LW, Portland Winterhawks

The 6’4”, 202-pound Paul Bittner is physically ready for the rigors at 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, acceleration and overall quickness are important attributes to improve upon. His size makes him a force at both ends of the rink, but he can be especially effective in the defensive zone as his reach can shrink passing lanes and disrupt puck movement. A healthy dose of grit on a consistent basis would make Bittner an almost over-powering forechecker.

Bittner stirred some controversy when he opted for the WHL while still a member of his high school team in Crookston, Minnesota. During the past season, where he scored 34 goals and added 37 assists in 66 games, he was one of 14 players on the Winterhawks roster with developmental hockey roots in the United States.

7. Jake DeBrusk, LW, Swift Current Broncos

Jake DeBrusk, son of former NHL player Louie DeBrusk, had a breakout season of sorts in Swift Current, where he established himself as a consistent, reliable scorer. His hockey sense is the key – particularly his anticipation – as is his ability to find open spaces on offense.

DeBrusk is a versatile forward, capable of playing all three positions. He worked well with linemate Glenn Gawdin (2015) this past season, which bodes well for the Broncos moving forward. DeBrusk led the Broncos with 42 goals and 39 assists while playing in all 72 regular season games. He also appeared in all 72 games last season. Only five WHL players scored more goals than the durable, 6’, 175-pounder from Edmonton.


8. Ryan Pilon, D, Brandon Wheat Kings

A load on defense in Brandon this past season, Ryan Pilon checks in at an NHL-ready 6’2” and 205 pounds. Pilon is a mobile, big-bodied rearguard with good reach. He is capable in the attacking zone and moves the puck well, but starred as a perfect complement alongside the uber-offensively skilled Ivan Provorov (2015). He played on the Wheat Kings’ top pairing for most of the season with the Russian import.

Pilon is likely to return to Brandon next season, where he will be asked to up his effort and take on an important leadership role on a team already pegged to challenge for the league title. Born in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, he is the nephew of former NHL player Rich Pilon. In 68 games, he scored 11 times and added 41 assists. Born in October, he is a “late birthday” prospect who has already appeared in over 220 WHL games.

9. Noah Juulsen, D, Everett Silvertips

On a team that is frequently viewed as completely focused on defensive hockey, Noah Juulsen was able to meet those expectations on the backend while adding valuable offensive push. After a 10-point rookie campaign, he responded this past season with a whopping 52 points, including 43 assists.

Juulsen, from Abbottsford, BC, skates with excellent balance and is able to maintain speed moving laterally. He moves the puck with confidence at both ends of the ice, making him an important contributor on the power play. He appears intense, and is able to handle physical rigors. When he is committed to playing physical hockey, the 6’1”, 175-pounder becomes an aggravating defender who is successful in forcing the opposition to make mistakes.

10. Austin Wagner, LW, Regina Pats

The obvious strong suit is his skating ability, as Austin Wagner possesses a strong stride and good acceleration. He is versatile, as well, able to play on either side of his center. Already checking in at 6’2” and 180 pounds, he has room to add weight and muscle. Wagner already shoots the puck hard and in time, as his release and accuracy improve, he will become increasingly dangerous in the attacking zone.

Wagner, from Calgary, scored 20 goals and added 39 assists this season as his ice time gradually increased. His future role with the Pats will undoubtedly include big minutes on specialty teams. He isn’t shy of physical play. There may be a few players in the WHL ahead of Wagner with a more refined skill set, but he will certainly provide a NHL team with valuable depth among its prospects.

Total number of WHL players selected at the NHL Draft

2014: 37. (1st Rd: 9)
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

Glenn Gawdin, C (Swift Current Broncos)
Adam Musil, C (Red Deer Rebels)
Ryan Gropp, C (Seattle Thunderbirds)
Parker Wotherspoon, D (Tri City Americans)
Jesse Gabrielle, LW (Regina Pats)
Andrew Neilsen, D (Lethbridge Hurricanes)
Brendan Guhle, D (Prince Albert Raiders)
Austin Strand, D (Red Deer Rebels)
Keegan Kolesar, RW (Seattle Thunderbirds)
Connor Hobbs, D (Regina Pats)
Pavel Karnaukhov, LW (Calgary Hitmen)
Chaz Reddekopp, D (Victoria Royals)
Luke Philp, C (Kootenay Ice)
Tyler Soy, C (Victoria Royals)
Sergey Zborovskiy, D (Regina Pats)
Ethan Bear, D, (Seattle Thunderbirds)
Devante Stephens, D (Kelowna Rockets)
Tate Olson, D (Prince George Cougars)
Devin Sideroff, RW (Kamloops Blazers)

Previously Undrafted

Reid Gardiner, Prince Albert Raiders
Dryden Hunt, Medicine Hat Tigers
Ty Edmonds, Prince George Cougars
Adam Helewka, Spokane Chiefs
Riley Stadel, Kelowna Rockets
Tyson Baillie, Kelowna Rockets
Alex Forsberg, Victoria Royals
Matt Needham, Kamloops Blazers
Connor Rankin, Calgary Hitmen
Alex Moodie, Brandon Wheat Kings

Previously drafted but not qualified by NHL teams

Jackson Houck, Vancouver Giants (EDM, 2013)
Eric Roy, Brandon Wheat Kings (CGY, 2013)
Blake Heinrich, Portland Winterhawks (WSH, 2013)
Brendan Burke, Calgary Hitmen (ARI, 2013)

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