Lighting It Up – February edition

By Glenn Gawronski

As we’ve all come to expect from the Western Hockey League, this year’s campaign is shaping up to be a real battle.  With just a couple of months remaining in the regular season, five clubs are separated by no more than a half-dozen points.  This group of five has gradually been creating some distance between themselves and the rest of the league.  But it hasn’t been easy.  And it’s only going to get more intense over the coming weeks.

You can take your pick form the likes of Everett, Vancouver, Kootenay, Kamloops, or even Medicine Hat.  One night, one of these clubs looks like the clear-cut best in the league.  The next night, the teams change positions.  And it’s likely to be this way for the rest of the year.

While there may not be a lot to separate the teams, the consensus No. 1 seems to be Everett.

Goalie Leland Irving has simply been terrific.  The Calgary draft pick has been consistent, steady and at times outstanding.  He is certainly capable of carrying this team all the way.  He has undoubtedly benefited from playing with a very good defense in a very well-structured system.  Opponents’ chances have been minimized, but when there is a breakdown, Irving is there.

Everett’s defense may not be dotted with a lot of future NHLers.  But at the junior level, they are a very formidable group.  Overagers Jason Fransoo and Jesse Zetariuk and recently acquired Dane Crowley (TB) get the most attention, but Jonathan Harty, Taylor Ellington and Graham Poteur (now on the injured list) have also contributed as well.  This group has a great blend of size, skill and smarts.

Up front, Peter Mueller (PHO) is a star in the making.  He’s getting progressively better in all phases of the game.  He has that rare ability to single-handedly take over a game.  Draft eligible Zach Hamill keeps putting points on the board, overage winger Moises Gutierrez is having a career year and Kyle Beech has served notice that he’ll be a real factor in the 2008 NHL draft.  There is definitely a lot of talent up front.

There’s also a lot to like about Vancouver.  And similar to what we see with Everett, a lot of it starts with goaltending.  Draft eligible Tyson Sexsmith has emerged as their No. 1 netminder and has responded very well to the challenge and the competition.  Playoff pressure can be a little different than the regular season however, so it’ll be interesting to see how Sexsmith holds up down the stretch.

On the blue line, the Giants are very solid.  Cody Franson (NAS) has been very good and has excellent upside.  I really like how he’s elevated his game this season.  Draft eligible Jonathan Blum has mobility and puck skills and is a potential top ten pick in June.  Among the forwards, Vancouver has excellent balance, with two scoring lines and above average special teams.  Boston prospect Milan Lucic is developing nicely while draft prospects Michal Repik and Spencer Machachek have potential.  Look for the two of them to be drafted relatively early in June.

Kootenay has been one of the steadiest teams in the league this year.  Goalie Taylor Dakers (SJ) has looked strong and has improved his technique and positioning over the last year or so.  He’s reliable and keeps the Ice in every game.  Leading scorer Steve DaSilva doesn’t get a lot of attention from scouts, but he’s a highly productive player who’s always around the action.  Montreal prospect Ben Maxwell gained some strength and more consistency, while improving his offensive numbers.  But he was knocked out of the lineup recently with an arm injury.  Overage defenseman Michael Busto has logged a ton of minutes and has really been effective in the transition game and on the power play.  Forwards Andrew Bailey and Ryan Russell (NYR) lack size but have good puck skills and offensive instincts.  There aren’t a lot of big-name players in Kootenay, but this group is stronger than the individual parts might suggest.

Relying upon the dangerous offensive trio of Brock Nixon, Juusso Puustinen (CAL) and Reed Jorgenson, Kamloops has been trying to run neck-and-neck with Vancouver in the B.C. Division.  The October acquisition of goalie Dustin Butler has proven to be a very good move, giving the Blazers real stability and some experience in net.  After struggling with consistency for the last season or so, Colorado draft pick Ray Macias has had a very good season so far.  He adds a very valuable offensive dimension to the club and his play away from the puck and in his own zone has certainly improved.  There’s nothing real fancy about Kamloops.  They’re simply a well-coached team that competes and knows how to win.

A pair of future Columbus Blue Jackets has been integral in Medicine Hat’s success this year. 

Defenseman Kris Russell runs the attack from the blueline, where his speed, puck-handling ability and vision make him especially dangerous.  He can quarterback a power play or lead the rush out of his own zone and transition smoothly from defense to offense and back again.  Russell’s lack of size and strength isn’t that much of an issue with me.  But in order to be successful at the next level, he must continue to improve his play in his own zone.  As talented as he is, Russell has to remember that he’s a defenseman first.

Fellow Columbus draft pick Derek Dorsett has played well and seems to be making strides in his overall game.  He too lacks ideal size, but he has some creativity and playmaking skills.  Diminutive center Tyler Ennis is a fun player to watch.  He has a very good skill level, but his lack of size is tough to compensate for him.  Regardless, keep an eye on him over the next year or so.

Matt Keetley (CAL) has been a workhorse in goal for the Tigers.  He’s an imposing figure in net, but like a lot of goalies his size, he sometimes struggles with technique and he needs to do a better job of getting back into position after making the first save.  Keetley is rarely mentioned when discussing the top goalies out west, but his numbers indicate he should be.  He may still be a project, but he does have some potential.

It’s tough to be disappointed with a first place team, but Brandon hasn’t met my expectations this year.  They’ve been good, but they could be better.  Offense has not been the problem for the Wheat Kings.  Codey Burki (COL) continues to progress nicely and looks better every time I see him play.  Overage winger Mark Derlago knows how to put the puck in the net, while Juraj Simek (VAN) and Ryan Reaves (STL) provide support.  Draft eligible winger Andrew Clark is forcing scouts to take a closer look at him.  I consider him to be a bit of a sleeper for this year’s draft.  Blueliner Dustin Kohn (NYI) has been solid on defense, but the rest of the defensemen have been a bit inconsistent.  So too has goalie Tyler Plante (FLA).  He is certainly capable of posting better numbers.  If they get hot at the right time, Brandon may scare some of the more highly regarded teams.

Former Phoenix first rounder Martin Hanzal has been a standout for Red Deer.  He has put up very impressive numbers offensively, ranking among the top scorers in the league.  He has also shown the ability to play well in all three zones.  That part of his game still needs some work, but the tools are there.  Hanzal has also shown signs that he’s learning to really use his size effectively.

Center Kirill Starkov (CLB) has shown a nice scoring touch, good hands and a bit of explosiveness, while Calgary prospect Brett Sutter has been solid, trying to prove he’s a better prospect than he’s been given credit for.  Center Brandon Sutter is an excellent NHL prospect and should be off the draft board by the middle of round one.  He has size, skill and a good work ethic.

Elsewhere around the league, Ryan White (MON) has emerged as a real go-to guy for Calgary.  He works hard, has pretty good skills and he’s playing in all game situations.  Things won’t come easy for him at the NHL level, but I like his chances.  On defense, future star Karl Alzner is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential.  He has the tools to be a legitimate No. 1 or 2 blueliner in the NHL.  He has a pretty good chance of going in the top ten in June.  Fellow draft prospect Alex Plante is an intriguing player with terrific size and surprisingly good puck skills.  It’s an especially strong year for defensemen from the Western League, so Plante has been pushed down the draft boards a little lower than he should be.  He may be a still be a work in progress, but he does have some long-term upside.

One of the few bright spots in Chilliwack this season has been the play of winger Oscar Moller.  He may have below average size, but he’s an offensively gifted player with a good shot.  I also like his instincts and anticipation and feel his hockey sense is very underrated.  Center Mark Santorelli has had a very good season and emerged as a team leader for the Bruins.  He’s been overlooked for the past couple of seasons and is slowly earning more respect.

It’s been a bit of a long year in Kelowna, but things should improve next year.  Luke Schenn and Tyler Myers are a pair of 2008 draft eligible defensemen who have seen a lot of ice time and generally responded pretty well.  You should definitely keep an eye on these two.  Forwards Evan Bloodoff and Brandon McMillan should also get some attention from the scouts next season.

Undersized pivot Zach Boychuk has quickly developed into a top-notch playmaker in Lethbridge.  Just a few short years ago, a player of his size would have a tough time winning over the scouts.  But now it may be a different story.  He’s eligible for the 2008 draft, and he will only get better.  Defensemen Ben Wright (CLB) and Tomas Kudelka (OTT) have played well at both ends of the ice.  It’s looking like they were real nice mid-round draft selections.

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