Top 10 NHL draft-eligible WHL prospects for 2012

By Glen Erickson
Photo: Defenseman Matt Dumba is among the top-ranked draft-eligible prospects in the CHL. He projects as a solid, two-way defenseman who can play in all situations. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

When National Hockey League teams congregate next June for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, they will have done their homework once again across the Western Hockey League. Their results will clearly confirm that a bumper crop of defensemen is up for grabs.

At the last four NHL Entry Drafts, the first overall selection has been a Canadian-born player from the CHL. That list includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM), Taylor Hall (EDM), John Tavares (NYI) and Steven Stamkos (TB), who are all forwards. If a Canadian from the CHL is chosen first overall in 2012, the player will most certainly be one who has patrolled the blue line.

Our HF Top 10 ranking of WHL prospects contains seven defensemen and three forwards. Of these players, seven have been invited to skate at the 2012 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Kelowna on February 1st. One player, Ryan Murray, is among the group currently attending the 2012 WJC in Alberta as a member of Team Canada.

Our ranking also shows an even split across the WHL, with five players from each of the two conferences. All are Canadians, with four players from Saskatchewan, and three each from Alberta and British Columbia.

Murray and Morgan Rielly have missed significant time this year with injuries, appearing in 11 and 17 WHL games respectively. In fact, it is unlikely that Rielly will play again this season. Two players on our list, Murray and Colton Sissons, are 1993’s, with the remainder born in 1994. The youngest is Damon Severson, who is nearly 11 months younger than Murray.

1. Ryan Murray, D – Everett Silvertips
6’1, 195 pounds. September 27, 1993

Ryan Murray burst on to the WHL scene as a 16-year-old, collecting 27 points in 52 games on an Everett Silvertips team that, at the time, included a host of veterans. However, since his rookie season, the ‘Tips have moved toward a rebuilding phase of sorts, with Murray and his all around skill set as one of the key components.

While the team has not achieved consistent on-ice success in the past two years, Murray has progressed to become the top-rated defenseman in the WHL for the 2012 Entry Draft. The native of White City, Saskatchewan has also been prominent on Hockey Canada rosters and will participate in Alberta with Team Canada at the 2012 WJC. Murray has garnered high praise in the category of leadership, wearing the "C" in Everett and also with Team Canada at U17 and U18 competitions during the last couple of years.

Last season, Murray achieved career highs offensively with six goals and 40 assists in 70 games. This year, he suffered an early-season ankle injury on October 19th in a home game against the Brandon Wheat Kings, which has limited him to appearances in only 11 games. He has scored three goals and added four assists so far. At the midway point of the season, the International Scouting Service released its December rankings with Murray in the fourth position overall among prospects for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

2. Matt Dumba, D – Red Deer Rebels
6′, 175 pounds. July 25, 1994

When Matt Dumba returned home after the NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp in August, he had already made a sizeable impact on NHL scouts. A big reason for this was the frequency with which he made impact on opponents seeking open ice and scoring opportunities.

Dumba made himself very well-known across the WHL last season, collecting 15 goals, 11 assists and a plus-24 rating in 62 games, en route to earning Rookie of the Year honors. The Calgary native spent his final year of midget hockey at the Calgary Edge Academy before moving on to junior hockey and a spot on Hockey Canada’s radar for international competitions. There is depth this season on the Rebels backend with the likes of Alex Petrovic (FLA) and Justin Weller (PHX) in the mix. So far this season on a Red Deer team that has struggled over the past six weeks, Dumba has scored 10 goals and 14 assists in 33 games.

The knock on Dumba is that he may try to do too much, given his skill set at both ends of the rink. He is an accurate right-handed shooter and a very good mover of the puck. He patrols the blue line with confidence and has ensured that opponents make themselves very aware of his presence. In scouting vernacular, he plays bigger than his size. At the midway point of the season, the International Scouting Service has Dumba as their fifth ranked prospect.

3. Griffin Reinhart, D – Edmonton Oil Kings
6’4, 200 pounds. January 24, 1994

Already considered NHL-ready in terms of size, Griffen Reinhart may be in the best position among our Top 10 for a lengthy playoff run. His Edmonton Oil Kings are the hottest team in the WHL right now, having won 10 of their last 11 games heading into the Christmas break. Reinhart has chipped in with seven goals and 11 assists and a plus-10 rating in 27 games this season, and is well on his way to achieving career highs in each of these statistical categories.

Like many prospects who grow quickly at a young age, there are often personal physical battles that become challenging aspects associated with overall development, particularly balance, fatigue, coordination and mobility. Playing alongside Mark Pysyk (BUF) and Keegan Lowe (CAR) on the blue line in Edmonton will surely aid in fast-tracking his development. ISS has Reinhart pegged 12th in its December rankings, and fourth among WHL defensemen Should he remain healthy on an ever-improving Oil Kings team this season, his ranking will likely also improve.

Last season, Reinhart’s brothers Max, 19, and Sam, 16, were teammates in Cranbrook, British Columbia as the Kootenay Ice won the WHL Championship and attended the 2011 Memorial Cup. From West Vancouver, Reinhart is the son of prolific NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart, who played over 700 games during 11 seasons split between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks.

4. Morgan Rielly, D – Moose Jaw Warriors
6′,195 pounds. March 9, 1994

The highly-touted rearguard has seen the current regular season come to an abrupt conclusion, due to a serious knee injury suffered early on. He has had surgery and continues to recover at this home on British Columbia’s lower mainland.

Entering the season, the Warriors looked to possess the deepest and most-skilled blue line brigade in the WHL with Dylan McIlrath (NYR), Joel Edmundson (STL), Kendal McFaull (ATL), Dallas Erhardt and Rielly. Combine Edmundson suffering a high-ankle sprain at the Blues camp then Rielly’s season lasting only 17 games, and Moose Jaw never has iced its full complement of solid defensemen.

While in the lineup, Rielly collected three goals and 15 assists, scoring at a point-per-game clip. An effective puck-carrying skater with offensive skills, Rielly was certain to have earned a look as a 17-year-old at Hockey Canada’s WJC Selection Camp. It is unlikely he will play during the regular season, but a deep playoff run might enable the Warriors to slowly re-insert Rielly into the lineup. Despite his absence, ISS has listed Rielly ninth overall in its December ranking.

5. Derrick Pouliot, D – Portland Winterhawks
6′, 180 pounds. January 16, 1994

Early in his WHL career, Derrick Pouliot has been the beneficiary of performing on a successful, upper echelon junior team. As a rookie last season, Pouliot toiled with at least 10 drafted or signed teammates, a learning opportunity the Weyburn, Saskatchewan native took full advantage of.

Due in part to injuries along the ‘Hawks blue line, Pouliot garnered significant ice time down the stretch and played regularly throughout Portland’s run to the WHL Championship Final against the Kootenay Ice. With the likes of Joe Morrow (PIT), William Wrenn (SJ), Troy Rutkowski (COL) and Tyler Wotherspoon (CGY) on the blue line in the fold this season, Pouliot stands to continue his development with aid from competent veterans.

With the solid group in Portland, Pouliot has the latitude this season to take some chances associated with putting his offensive skills on display. He tallied five times and added 25 assists last season in 66 games and will eclipse those marks very shortly this year. Through 35 games he has scored five times and added 22 assists. ISS has Pouliot listed 20th in its December rankings.

6. Colton Sissons, F – Kelowna Rockets
6’1, 190 pounds. November 5, 1993

Colton Sissons began his first season of junior hockey at age 15, in the BCHL as a member of the Westside Warriors, a team based just ten minutes from the Kelowna Rockets home ice at Prospera Place. One might suggest both he and the Rockets kept studious tabs on each other that season when the North Vancouver native collected 24 points in 69 games. Sissons was acquired by the Rockets prior to last season in a trade with the Saskatooon Blades.

As a rookie in Kelowna last season, Sissons established himself as a reliable centerman with considerable offensive skills. He was particularly solid during the second half of the season as the Rockets rebounded from a dreadful early season start to capture the BC Division crown. Sissons scored 17 goals and 24 assists in 63 games, while compiling a plus-15 rating.

Sissons took part in the NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp in August and will appear in the 2012 Top Prospects Game in Kelowna. In a relatively short time, he has become a key leader with the Rockets, who are one of the youngest teams in the WHL this season. He has scored 20 times and added seven assists in 35 games. ISS has ranked Sissons 25th in its December rankings, the highest ranked among WHL forwards.

7. Mike Winther, F – Prince Albert Raiders
5’11, 175 pounds. January 9, 1994

Mike Winther was the Raiders first round pick, sixth overall, at the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, chosen based on his penchant to fill the opposition nets. He completed his second bantam season with the Airdie Xtreme, a team from a community north of Calgary that has seen the likes of Dana Tyrell (TB) and Ty Rattie (STL) emerge as sure-fire NHL prospects.

In 61 games last season, Winther scored nine times and added one assist on a Raiders team that scraped its way into the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. This season, through 37 games, Winther has parlayed a notable increase in ice time into 18 goals and 13 assists. He went ballistic in December, scoring 10 times and adding six assists in eight games as the lowly Raiders earned points in seven of eight games. PA is currently undefeated in five straight games at home. Winther was especially good as the Raiders earned a split against a pair of the top teams in the WHL, The Edmonton Oil Kings and Kamloops Blazers. He was recognized as the WHL Player of the Week for his efforts.

Winther is from Trochu, a small town in central Alberta. He is a thick-bodied forward, a smooth skater, and a tenacious forechecker. In Prince Albert, he plays in all situations, frequently alongside veteran forward Mark McNeill (CHI).

8. Damon Severson, D – Kelowna Rockets
6’2, 200 pounds. August 7, 1994

While Severson is not frequently mentioned among the top five d-men in the WHL, he is very definitely among the top 10 rearguards and can certainly push for more recognition with a solid second half of the season. Unfortunately, leading up to his appearance at the upcoming 2012 Top Prospects Game, Severson will miss most of the Rockets league play in January with a hand injury suffered in Brandon prior to Christmas.

Severson is one of the reasons that Prospera Place in Kelowna has been a regular stop for NHL scouts this season. A big, physical, mobile defenseman, Severson has employed a risk/reward approach so far this season as he looks to supply the team with an offensive contribution from the blue line. In recent years, the Rockets have been able to depend on the likes of Tyson Barrie (COL) and Tyler Myers (BUF) for sustained offense. However the current group in Kelowna does lack a high-octane rearguard.

As a 16-year-old last season, he played in 64 games, scoring four times and adding 13 assists with a plus-11 rating. The scoring numbers have increased this season as he has already tallied four times and added 16 assists in 32 games. Severson, from Melville, Saskatchewan, has been conspicuous this season in both winning and losing efforts. He is still learning the game as a young defenseman, with help from assistant coach Dan Lambert, the 1989 Memorial Cup MVP.

9. Chandler Stephenson, F – Regina Pats
5’11, 190 pounds. April 22, 1994

Chandler Stephenson will be an important contributor in Regina this season and moving forward as the organization looks to shed a streak that includes three straight seasons without a post-season berth.

During his rookie season last year, Stephenson scored seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points in 60 games. He established a unique claim to WHL fame when he scored the game winning goal against the Calgary Hitmen in the league’s first outdoor game on Canadian soil.

Stephenson came to the Pats with a proven track record of putting up huge offensive numbers in bantam and midget hockey. He was an important member of Team West at the World U17 Challenge last December, collecting six points in five games. The native of Saskatoon is a slick passer and knows how to finish around the opposition’s net. He has scored 14 goals and 13 assists in 33 games this season. He will play in the Top Prospects Game in Kelowna along with Pats teammate, Dominik Volek.

10. Brett Kulak, D – Vancouver Giants
6’1, 175 pounds. January 6, 1994

After three early season appearances last year with the Giants, Brett Kulak was sent back to Alberta where he played for the St. Albert Raiders of the AMHL. Named the Alberta Minor Midget Defenseman of the Year as a member of the PAC Saints during the 2009-10 season, Kulak has experienced a huge growth spurt over the past couple of seasons. When the Giants made him their ninth round selection at the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, Kulak checked in at 5’6 and 145 pounds.

Through 36 games this year, he has scored twice and added six assists while compiling a plus-21 rating. Kulak, from Stony Plain, Alberta, is effectively helping to keep pucks out of the Giants goal, a huge part of the team’s success in recent weeks. The Giants are ten games above .500 and sport seven wins in their last ten starts. Unlike the others among our Top 10, Kulak is primarily a stay-at-home d-man, although it is reasonable to expect increased offensive production as his confidence grows. He is generally matched against top opponents along with teammates David Musil (EDM), and veterans Neil Manning or Wes Vannieuwenhuizen.

As a WHL rookie in his draft year this season, Kulak can draw on the recent success of defenseman Joel Edmundson of the Moose Jaw Warriors. Edmondson played two season of midget hockey in Manitoba, then after his rookie year in the WHL, he was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the second round last June.

Other Notables:

Andrey Makarov, G; Saskatoon Blades
Troy Bourke, F; Prince George Cougars
Brandon Magee, F; Victoria Royals
Connor Rankin, F; Tri City Americans
Coda Gordon, F; Swift Current Broncos
Brandon Troock, F; Seattle Thunderbirds
Dalton Thrower, D; Saskatoon Blades
Chris Driedger, G; Calgary Hitmen
Tim Bozon, F; Kamloops Blazers
Nicholas Walters, D; Everett Silvertips