Back in June, the Western Hockey League saw 35 of its players selected at the 2015 NHL Draft in Sunrise, Florida. With the 2016 edition set for Buffalo, New York, scouting personnel are busy perusing the current WHL talent pool.
This time around, our list sees the forwards outnumber the rearguards, which bucks the recent WHL trend. We’ve also included a pair of goaltenders, somewhat of a rarity of late for the WHL. There are seven players from the Eastern Conference among our top 10. There are three teammates on our list, a total of nine Canadian-born players, along with one import.
There is significant talent available to NHL teams this year from prospect pools internationally and across the CHL. The WHL will again supply plenty of talent at the NHL Draft, but even the WHL’s top draft-eligible players might be hard pressed to crack the top 15 in Buffalo.
Each of the players on our ranking was invited to the 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game that took place in Vancouver on January 28th. Only one was unable to suit up.
Here’s our ranking of the Top 10 prospects from the WHL, just past the 50-game mark of the regular season schedule.
1. Jake Bean (D), Calgary Hitmen
Undrafted, was eligible for the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
At 6’1” and 170 pounds, Jake Bean remains slight of build, but handles the rigors well with the help of quick feet, great vision and hockey IQ. However, like each of the top four on our ranking, Bean has also been bitten by the injury bug during his short WHL career. He suffered a broken wrist in late February of his rookie season during a game in Kelowna.
Bean progressed quickly last season, due in part to the benefit of partnering with Travis Sanheim (PHI) on the Hitmen’s blueline. His development has continued this season as he has been atop or near the top of scoring among WHL defensemen almost since day one. Through 54 games he has scored 21 goals and added 29 assists for 50 points, which exceeds his total output from a 51-game campaign last season.
Of note this season is the quality of Bean’s play while Sanheim was briefly out of the lineup with an injury, then again when the veteran rearguard was away at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. Bean basically took over as the offensive catalyst on the back end and as the power play quarterback. While he may have been overlooked by all 21 WHL teams at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, he can certainly count on hearing his name called early on at the 2016 NHL Draft.
2. Tyler Benson (LW), Vancouver Giants
First round, first overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
Tyler Benson arrived in the WHL as a highly-touted forward, but he has certainly endured some frustrations during his junior career so far.
He was shut down in mid-March during his rookie season due to an MCL sprain that would require about a month to rehab. Then this season, Benson missed the Giants first 10 games after surgery to remove a cyst from his tailbone. Between his health related adventures of 2015, Benson played for Canada’s U18 entry at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August where he recorded the game-winning goal in the gold medal game against Sweden.
Despite the myriad of challenges, along with the responsibility that comes with being named the Giants team captain this year, the 6’, 196-pounder from Edmonton has been offensively productive when in the lineup. With eight goals and 18 assists in 28 games, he remains among the Giants scoring leaders. This comes after he collected 45 points in 62 games last season.
The Giants own the sixth-best power play unit in the WHL, one that is far more dangerous with Benson in the mix. Benson is currently out of the Giants lineup, listed as week-to-week. He was named captain for Team Cherry at the Top Prospects Game in Vancouver, but was unable to participate.
3. Kale Clague (D), Brandon Wheat Kings
First round, sixth overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
Another in the long line of elite defenseman that have honed their skills in Brandon of late, Kale Clague has all the tools. At 6’ and 178 pounds, Clague will likely need to add weight and muscle in the coming years to handle defensive zone battles in pro hockey.
From Lloydminster, Alberta, Clague was limited to 20 games as a rookie during the regular season, but he was able to make 12 appearances during the Wheaties march to the WHL Championship series against the Kelowna Rockets. Clague is highly regarded for his hockey sense and, although he has not yet shown consistent production offensively as a rearguard in the WHL, he is becoming a steady and reliable defender.
He collected 13 points last season which he has already surpassed in 2015-16. Through 55 games, he has scored three times and added 21 assists on a Wheat Kings team that, as a group, has yet to meet its high pre-season expectations.
4. Sam Steel (C), Regina Pats
First round, second overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
Steel arrived in the WHL to some degree in the large shadow cast by Benson. Both players ran roughshod over opponents throughout central Alberta during their bantam draft year, dominating the score sheets. It appears their junior careers will parallel each other as well.
Steel is probably the most purely skilled forward among those in our ranking. As a gifted offensive-minded player, establishing consistency is crucial. The Sherwood Park, Alberta native is crafty and creative. He has handled the tough going well at times, but needs to demonstrate a willingness to consistently force his way into high traffic areas in the attacking zone.
At 5’11” and 175 pounds, Steel is not as physically imposing as Benson. He has scored 19 goals and 33 assists in 54 games this season, coming off a 54-point campaign in 61 games as a rookie. He missed the playoffs last year, as the Pats shut him down after he suffered a late-season ankle injury
5. Carter Hart (G), Everett Silvertips
Eighth round, 158th overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
Carter Hart pretty much took over as the number one goalie for the Everett Silvertips for the second half of last season and the playoffs at the tender age of 16. He has continued his outstanding play this season, shouldering the load by appearing in 52 of Everett’s 56 games so far.
Under head coach Kevin Constantine, the Silvertips are frequently recognized as one of the best defensive teams in the WHL. But it is not as if Hart isn’t seeing plenty of rubber. He leads the league in minutes played with 2,726, compiling a 28-15-1-2 record along with a .925 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average. Hart, from Sherwood Park, Alberta, has proven to be a consistent and reliable netminder. At 6’1” and 170 pounds, he doesn’t stand out physically, but he uses his frame smartly, has very good balance and is gaining confidence as a puckhandler.
6. Brett Howden (C), Moose Jaw Warriors
First round, fifth overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
Brett Howden is physically the biggest player in our ranking, checking in at 6’3” and 190 pounds. He skates very well for a big forward and brings physical play to the mix for the Warriors. He is following in the footsteps of his older brother, Quinton Howden of the Florida Panthers, who also played his junior hockey in Moose Jaw.
From Oakbank, Manitoba, Howden showed promise last season as a rookie when he collected 46 points in 68 games on a Warriors team that missed the playoffs. Like many of the up-and-coming forwards in Moose Jaw, he is fortunate to play alongside Brayden Point (TBL) on occasion. But he also proved to be a pivotal contributor when Point was injured in mid-November, then absent while at the WJC in Finland. This season, Howden has scored 19 goals and added 31 assists in 53 games.
7. Libor Hajek (D), Saskatoon Blades
First round, second overall, in the 2015 CHL Import Draft
Libor Hajek arrived in Canada after a season with HC Kometa Brno in the Czech Extraliga, where he played 17 games as a 16-year-old. He was one of 33 players selected at the CHL Import Draft who are eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft. At the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial, Hajek served notice that he is fully capable against elite competition in his age group.
At 6’1” and 198 pounds, he is strong on the puck and doesn’t shy away from physical play. From Smrcek, Czech Republic, Hajek has tallied three goals and 14 assists in 54 games for the Blades. He is becoming familiar with the English language, the different WHL buildings and opponents, but overall Hajek has responded favorably to the pace and rigors so far. Hajek gave a very good account of himself at the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver, a steady performance that should help to keep him trending upward in the draft rankings.
8. Dillon Dube (C), Kelowna Rockets
First round, 21st overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
At 5’10” and 180 pounds, Dillon Dube is a thick, speedy forward with very good vision and puck skills. From Cochrane, Alberta, Dube has responded well this season to higher expectations.
He was prominent among 16-year-olds last season, collecting 27 points in 45 games. Through 50 games this season, Dube has scored 22 goals, including four game winners, along with 31 assists. His scoring exploits have been vital in Kelowna, as the league-leading Rockets have spent much of this season without Rourke Chartier (SJS) in the lineup.
9. Zach Sawchenko (G), Moose Jaw Warriors
Second round, 33rd overall, at the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft
Sawchenko, now in his third WHL season, celebrated his 18th birthday back on December 30th. For the resurgent Warriors this season, Sawchenko has compiled a 21-11-4-1 record, a 2.95 goals-against average and a save percentage of .916 in 39 appearances. A goaltender who plays his angles well, he checks in at 6’1” and 178 pounds.
Sawchenko is carving out an impressive international resume through Hockey Canada programs, having played in the 2015 U18 World Championship (bronze) and the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial (gold), where he was the goalie of record in both medal-winning games. He also played in the 2015 CHL Canada Russia Series for Team WHL.
10. Noah Gregor (C), Moose Jaw Warriors
Third round, 55th overall, at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft
Noah Gregor has put forth a consistent performance for the Warriors this season, contributing efficiently in both the defending and attacking zones. Listed at 6’ and 173 pounds, Gregor is from Beaumont, Alberta.
With 22 goals and 34 assists in 57 games, Gregor has played an important role offensively, though most of his scoring came early on this season. While Brayden Point’s absence due to injury and the 2016 WJC had an impact on the entire team, the Warriors remain solidly in the playoff hunt. Gregor’s stock will rise if he can produce consistently during the second half while opposing teams begin to game plan for his presence. Where he has also been invaluable in Moose Jaw is on the power play, where he has scored 10 times, good for fourth place in the WHL.
Simon Stransky (LW), Prince Albert Raiders
Ty Ronning (RW), Vancouver Giants
Max Lajoie (D), Swift Current Broncos
Lucas Johansen (D), Kelowna Rockets
Egor Babenko (RW), Lethbridge Hurricanes
Matt Phillips (C), Victoria Cougars
Josh Mahura (D), Red Deer Rebels
Patrick Bajkov (RW), Everett Silvertips
Evan Sarthou (G), Tri City Americans
Josh Anderson (D). Prince George Cougars
David Quenneville (D), Medicine Hat Tigers
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