Top 10 wingers in WHL

By Glen Erickson

Photo: Islanders prospect Nino Niederreiter is among the top wingers in the WHL. He will be expected to step right into the NHL for the 2011-12 season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

1. Nino Niederreiter, LW, Portland Winterhawks (NYI)

Upon his return to Portland from a season-opening nine-game stint with the New York Islanders, Nino Neiderreiter continued to demonstrate the compete level he has shown since arriving on the North American hockey scene last season.

Selected in the first round, fifth overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Niederreiter has scored 41 goals and 29 assists in 55 games with Portland this season. The Winterhawks won 50 games and are close to advancing past the injury-plagued Everett Silvertips in the first round of the WHL western conference playoffs.

Neiderreiter has played alongside forwards Ryan Johansen (CBJ) and Brad Ross (TOR) for most of his WHL career, forming one of the most effective offensive forward lines in the league.

Niederreiter has also played an important role in the comfort level achieved by fellow Swiss-born prospect Sven Bartschi, who is eligible for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Bartschi has played 66 games in Portland this season, collecting 85 points and is the western conference nominee for the WHL Rookie of the Year award.

2. Carter Ashton, LW, Tri City Americans (TB)

A huge power forward, Carter Ashton has become an integral veteran producer since being acquired by the Americans near the WHL trade deadline.

Selected in the first round, 29th overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Ashton is playing with his third WHL team. After stints with the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Regina Pats, he has a legitimate opportunity this season to play for a WHL Championship. During his rookie campaign, where he missed over 30 games with an early-season shoulder injury, the Hurricanes advanced to the WHL Final Series where they were dispatched in four games by the Spokane Chiefs.

In 33 games with the Amerks since arriving from the Regina, he has scored 17 goals and 27 assists. Ashton was also a member of Team Canada at the 2011 WJC.

3. Curtis Hamilton, LW, Saskatoon Blades (EDM)

A true power forward, Curtis Hamilton has begun to showcase an offensive skill set late in his junior career. The native of Kelowna, BC has tallied 26 times and added 52 assists and a plus-48 rating in 62 regular season games.

Selected in the second round, 48th overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Hamilton has been a major contributor in Saskatoon this season as the Blades compiled 56 wins and ran away with top spot in the WHL standings. He has responded greatly during 2010-2011 after a challenging campaign last year where he suffered three shoulder injuries. As a member of Team Canada at the 2011 WJC, Hamilton did not look out of place at all, providing valuable scoring depth.

At 6’3 and 205 pounds, Hamilton is a much-needed prospect in Edmonton given his size and skills. In recent years, the cupboard has been stocked with a number of under-sized forwards, players who have battled consistency and the injury bug.

4. Quinton Howden, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors (FLA)

While he is listed as a winger, Quinton Howden is also considered by some as one of the top face-off men in the WHL. Indeed, versatility and elite skating ability have made the Oakbank, Manitoba native a much-sought-after NHL prospect.

Selected in the first round, 25th overall, by the Florida Panthers, Howden has also achieved success on the international scene as a member of Team Canada at the 2011 WJC. Howden scored 40 goals and 39 assists during the regular season, both career highs during his third full season in Moose Jaw.

5. Brett Connolly, RW, Prince George Cougars (TB)

Amid so much promise, Brett Connolly‘s junior career will probably leave many wanting more. The Prince George native burst on to the hockey scene as the WHL Rookie of the Year and CHL Rookie of the Year two seasons ago. Since then, the injury bug has had its way with Connolly.

Selected in the first round, sixth overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Connolly’s WHL career likely came to an abrupt end on March 25 when he was driven into the end boards by Mitch Callahan (DET) of the Kelowna Rockets just six minutes into game one of the western conference playoffs. Connolly suffered a separated shoulder and is done for the season.

Loaded with offensive skills, Connolly led the Cougars in scoring with 73 points this season. A healthy Connolly will give the Lightning an heir apparent to the likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. The Bolts have long been blessed with high octane talent up front and Connolly, it is hoped, will develop into another productive scoring threat.

6. Ryan Howse, LW, Chilliwack Bruins (CGY)

If Ryan Howse dons a Calgary Flames jersey in the near future, it will be due primarily to his ability to keep goal judges busy. Howse is one of only two WHLers to tally 50 goals this season, the other being Tyler Johnson (TB) of the Spokane Chiefs.

Selected in the third round, 74th overall, by the Flames at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Howse has demonstrated consistency on offense during four WHL seasons, leading the team in goals for three straight years. The Prince George, BC native is gritty enough to create loose pucks and he possesses tremendous anticipation. Howse scored 51 times and added 32 assists in 70 games during the regular season.

7. Mark Stone, RW, Brandon Wheat Kings (OTT)

One year after a Memorial Cup appearance, Mark Stone produced a breakout season with 106 points in 71 games.

Selected in the sixth round, 178th overall, by the Ottawa Senators at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Stone had an enormous second half of the regular season schedule in Brandon. Shortly after the Wheat Kings shipped Brayden Schenn (LA) to the Saskatoon Blades at the WHL trade deadline, Stone caught fire and imposed himself on the league’s scoring race.

His brother Michael Stone (PHX) is a prospect in the Coyotes system, currently playing with the San Antonio Rampage.

8. Emerson Etem, RW, Medicine Hat Tigers (ANA)

There is no mistaking the high end skill set Emerson Etem brings to the ice. A durable forward with good acceleration and balance, he scored 45 goals and 35 assists in 65 games this year, improving on his 65-point rookie season.

Selected in the first round, 29th overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Etem is likely to become an important part of the Ducks marketing scheme as he is, in effect, a hometown boy. Etem grew up in the Long Beach, California area. He was a member of Team USA at the 2011 WJC.

9. Levko Koper, LW, Spokane Chiefs (ATL)

Perhaps the most versatile forward on a high-scoring Spokane Chiefs roster, Levko Koper has had a breakout season offensively this year. The durable Edmonton, Alberta native appeared in all 72 games, posting 32 goals and 50 assists, both career highs.

Selected in the seventh round, 185th overall, by the Atlanta Thrashers at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Koper has yet to be signed. However, he has been a leading force in Spokane this season and has done everything one would expect from a drafted junior vying for a professional contract.

Combined with 20-year-old forward Tyler Johnson (TB), Koper has been a dynamic special teams contributor this season.

10. Mitchell Callahan, RW, Kelowna Rockets (DET)

Originally a pugilistic forward in the WHL, Callahan is perhaps the most improved forward among our top 10 ranking.

Selected in the sixth round, 180th overall, by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Callahan has been a prominent contributor in Kelowna this season both on the scoresheet and as an energy forward with a penchant for physical play. This season, Callahan has scored 23 goals and 31 assists, both career highs, while cutting his penalty minute totals from the previous two seasons in half.

His disciplined, productive play and leadership has contributed to improved performances in Kelowna by 2011 eligible forward prospects Shane McColgan and Zach Franko.

Callahan, from Whittier, California, was one of two WHL players named to Team USA at the 2011 WJC, where he scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Switzerland during the playoff round.

Other Notables (Signed)

Spencer Bennett, LW, Vancouver Giants (CGY
Kellan Tochkin, RW, Medicine Hat Tigers (VAN)
Curt Gogol, LW, Chilliwack Bruins (SJ)
Oliver Gabriel, LW, Portland Winterhawks (CBJ)
Garrett Mitchell, RW, Regina Pats (WSH)

Other Notable (Drafted & Unsigned)

Brendan Gallagher, RW, Vancouver Giants (MTL)
Brendan Ranford, RW, Kamloops Blazers (PHI)
Brad Ross, LW, Portland Winterhawks (TOR)
Brett Bulmer, LW, Kelowna Rockets (MIN)
Roman Horak, LW, Chilliwack Bruins (NYR)
Cameron Abney, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings (EDM)
Taylor Stefishen, LW, Prince George Cougars (NAS)
Josh Nicholls, RW, Saskatoon Blades (TOR)
Tyler Pitlick, RW, Medicine Hat Tigers (EDM)
Kristopher Foucault, LW, Calgary Hitmen (MIN)
Patrick Holland, RW, Tri City Americans (CGY)