Michael Funk, D – Portland Winter Hawks (WHL)
Height: 6’4, Weight: 208 lbs., DOB: 8/15/86
With Braydon Coburn graduating to the professional ranks, Brendan Mikkelson being dealt to Vancouver, and Michael Sauer feeling the effects of offseason hip surgeries and an early season shoulder ding, the smooth-skating Funk has been expected to take the reins as the go-to guy on the Winter Hawks blue line. The results have been mixed thus far, as the lanky defender is progressing in some areas, but remains a bit inconsistent in others.
As the ‘Hawks top defenseman and power play quarterback, Funk is playing with more confidence this season. He is regularly joining the rush, pinching more often, being more aggressive with his hard shots from the point, and is on pace to post career highs offensively. His visible improvements are leading to strong, sometimes brilliant individual shifts, yet errors in decision-making and general puck control have resulted in turnovers, and a few short-handed goals against.
Funk has been selected to represent the WHL in the final game of the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge held in Saskatoon on November 30, and will also be considered for the Canadian entry in the 2006 World Junior Championships.
Andrej Sekera, D – Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 200 lbs., DOB: 6/8/86
Returning to Owen Sound for his second season, Andrej Sekera seems to have a good handle on the North American game. He is playing solid defensively, marked by his willingness to play the physical style. Offensively, he has emerged as a key creative component to the Attack’s power play. While Bobby Ryan gets many of the accolades for Owen Sound’s special teams prowess, 12 of Sekera’s 16 points have come with the man advantage.
Sekera scored his first career hat trick on October 30th in a 6-5 loss to Plymouth. An excellent puck mover, he is consistently showing the ability to be cool under pressure by making smart decisions in both ends. Overall, the stocky Slovakian is clearly playing with a higher level of confidence and leadership that is inspiring the rest of the team.
In a group that includes names like Jakub Kindl, Boris Valabik, and Jakub Vojta, Sekera is widely regarded as the top import defenseman in the OHL this season. He is expected to return in a leadership role for Team Slovakia in the 2006 World Junior Championships.
Michael Card, D – Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 200 lbs., DOB: 2/18/86
As the Kelowna Rockets have jumped out of the gate strong in 2005-06, so too has their steady fourth-year defenseman, Mike Card. Not flashy, but very effective nonetheless, Card is currently second only to teammate Alexander Edler for the scoring lead among WHL defensemen with 18 points. His seven-point effort over three games during the week of Oct. 3 – 9 earned him WHL Greyhound Player of the Week honors, the first of his career. His impressive stretch was capped off with a pair of two-goal, one-assist outings in back-to-back road games in Regina and Brandon.
On the defensive side of things, the 19-year-old Penticton, British Columbia native continues to display great vision and awareness, as well as a sound positional game. While lacking top-end speed, Card has rarely gotten beat by opposing forwards. At press time, Card is out of the lineup with an undisclosed injury. There is no question that the Sabres organization has been pleasantly surprised by their 2004 eighth-round pick thus far.
Marc-Andre Gragnani, D – Prince Edward Island Rocket (QMJHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 192 lbs., DOB: 3/11/87
Buffalo’s 2005 third-round gem with the effortless stride has looked solid in limited action for the 2005-06 edition of the Rocket. After missing the first game of the season due to his participation in the Sabres training camp, the Quebec native missed an additional seven games due to an ambiguous hand injury. Initially deemed a tweaked ankle by team officials, it was later revealed that Gragnani suffered a deep hand laceration while horsing around with teammate Slava Trukhno. Gragnani was off to a productive start before the setback, notching six points in four games. He hasn’t skipped a beat since re-entering the line-up, registering seven points in four contests.
His team’s top rearguard, Gragnani logs the lion’s share of minutes for the Rocket, putting forth 100 percent effort on every shift. Not known as an overly physical defender coming into his draft year, he has stepped up that aspect of his game thanks to ten added pounds of muscle from the offseason. In turn, his point shot is noticeably heavier.
Prior to the season in August, Gragnani gained valuable experience by being invited to Canada’s Developmental Camp in preparation for 2006 IIHF World Junior Championships. Recently, he was named to Team QMJHL for the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge to be played in November.
Marek Zagrapan, C – Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 200 lbs., DOB: 12/6/86
The 13th pick in the 2005 draft, Marek Zagrapan has continued to show off his great vision and playmaking acumen this season with the offensive-minded Sagueneens, who boast four the QMJHL’s top-25 scorers. Developing as an elite passer, the majority of his feeds have resulted in goals from Maxime Boisclair and Stanislav Lascek, currently No. 1 and No. 3 in QMJHL scoring respectively. The crafty center can also finish plays, with three of his nine goals coming in a 9-1 win over Quebec on October 15.
While shooting more often and winning a greater percentage of his faceoffs, the skilled pivot is likely step up his point production as the season progresses. With his spot on the first power play unit and the quality of forwards surrounding him, going from lukewarm to hot shouldn’t be too difficult a task. He’ll be shooting for more success on the international stage as a top line forward for Slovakia in the World Junior Championships this winter.
Patrick Kaleta, RW – Peterborough Petes (OHL)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 200 lbs., DOB: 6/8/86
The pesky Petes disturber has cooled a bit after a quick start that saw him score six goals and 12 points through the first seven games of the season. Part of an explosive line with Daniel Ryder and Liam Reddox, the Angola, NY native should have little trouble posting career highs in all offensive categories this season despite his recent goal-scoring drought.
Known to the Peterborough faithful as “Krunch”, the grinding winger was true to his name during his first NHL training camp this past September. He was an agitating presence during intra-squad scrimmages, flattening a few of the top club’s regulars and drawing cheers from the bench. He has carried his raucous, “crash and bang” style back into his fourth OHL season for the league’s top team, already picking off a few targets with his clean, aggressive body checks. It seems that all he has to do is smile at the opposition to get them off their game, and he is doing plenty of that.
Adam Dennis, G – London Knights (OHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 175, DOB: 2/8/85
The London Knights started the season winless in their first four games. Enter Adam Dennis, who was off showing his goods at the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans training camps. The Toronto native grabbed the goaltending duties by the horns, backstopping the defending Memorial Cup champs to an eight-game winning streak in October. Dennis will get plenty of work this season, as coach Dale Hunter will likely give him the nod 90 percent of the time. While much of the Knights resurgence can also be attributed to the returns of Dylan Hunter and Rob Schremp, the veteran presence of Dennis has gone a long way in their early season turnaround.
Dylan Hunter, LW – London Knights (OHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 196 lbs., DOB: 5/21/85
Dylan Hunter returns to the Knights wearing the “C” in his fifth season of major-junior hockey. After missing the team’s first four games, he has come out firing at a clip of nearly three points per contest including back-to-back five point outings to close the month of October. Along with fellow returnees David Bolland and Rob Schremp, Hunter forms one of the most potent power play units in the CHL. The OHL playing field is more level this season, so Hunter and company will need to maintain their torrid pace to keep the Knights in the thick of things.
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