WHL Top 20 prospects

By Glen Erickson

The Western Hockey League talent pool for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft is very deep – but depth is the operative word as well when assessing the quality of players already drafted. Our Top 20 ranking includes players across all years of birth who are currently playing in the WHL.

1. Peter Mueller, C (PHO)
Height: 6’2. Weight: 205lbs. DOB: August 14, 1988

Acquired in the first round, eighth overall by the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Peter Mueller continues to provide offensive leadership for the Everett Silvertips. The native of Bloomington, Minnesota has scored 14 goals and 49 assists in 38 games.

Mueller has been a mainstay on special teams since his arrival in Everett, currently ranked as the top team in the entire CHL. He has played for Team USA at the WJC the last two years and has progressed through USA Hockey programs over the years. A patient puckhandler with a heavy shot, Mueller attracts constant attention from opponents and is accumulating his scoring statistics while often playing against the opponent’s top defensive pairing.

2. Cody Franson, D (NAS)
Height: 6’5. Weight: 215lbs. DOB: August 8, 1987

Acquired by the Predators in the third round, 79th overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Cody Franson has remained among the WHL‘s top scoring defenseman over the past two seasons with the Vancouver Giants. The native of Sicamous, B.C. has scored 12 goals and 30 assists in 46 games.

Franson played among a veteran blue line corps with the Giants last season and has evolved into a veteran leader this year. He played in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge in November and then with Team Canada at the WJC in Sweden. His absence from the Vancouver lineup coincides with a stretch of mediocre play by the Giants, an occupational hazard for major junior teams with all-star talent. Franson moves the puck with authority and understands how to create shooting lanes in the offensive zone. He could use a mean streak, but is nonetheless a confident junior with an exciting future as a pro.

3. Carey Price, G (MON)
Height: 6’2. Weight: 175lbs. DOB: August 16, 1987

Acquired by the Canadiens in the first round, fifth overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Carey Price has been a consistent performer for the Tri City Americans. The native of Williams Lake, B.C., has appeared in 30 games this season, posting a 2.53 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. His won-loss record is 19-10-0-0.

Price endeared himself to the Canadian hockey fans with an outstanding performance at the recent WJC where he backstopped the team to its third consecutive gold medal. Last season, Price was the final goaltender cut from Team Canada. Prior to the current WHL season, Price played 63 and 55 regular season games respectively in 2004-05 and 2005-06. He is a calm and durable goaltender, whose size enables him to employ a butterfly style. Observers will notice that pucks often find Price’s body, due to his excellent positional play. Rumored to be traded to a top contender at the WHL trade deadline, Price was not moved and would appear destined to finish his career with the Americans.

4. Kris Russell, D (CBJ)
Height: 5’10. Weight: 180lbs. DOB: May 2, 1987

Acquired by the Blue Jackets in the third round, 67th overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Kris Russell has become a prominent offensive threat in the WHL. The native of Caroline, Alberta has scored 25 goals and 28 assists in 45 games this season with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Under-sized in comparison to many WHL prospects on defense, Russell has developed the ability to establish efficient body and stick position. He chooses physical battles wisely. He is aggressive offensively, a part of his game he will have to continue improving to convince Columbus he can withstand the rigors in the NHL. A member of Team Canada’s last two gold-medal winners at the WJC, Russell has made scouts and NHL general managers take notice through his ability to make big plays in big games. Underrated defensively, Russell is a complete hockey player.

5. Martin Hanzal, LW (PHO)
Height: 6’5. Weight: 205lbs. DOB: February 20, 1987

Acquired by the Coyotes in the first round, 17th overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Martin Hanzal is enjoying a breakout season as a rookie with the Red Deer Rebels. The native of Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic has scored with 20 goals and 47 assists in 46 games.

Hanzal is proof that import players can make a significant impact in the CHL. The lengthy schedule and travel in the WHL will help prepare Hanzal for the rigors of pro hockey. Foot speed and quickness are important attributes in the new NHL and Hanzal is proving effective in both areas this season. Hanzal was a member of the Czech team at the 2007 WJC. With Hanzal and Mueller, the Coyotes boast two of the top offensively-gifted prospects in the WHL.

6. Leland Irving, G (CGY)
Height: 6’0. Weight: 175lbs. DOB: November 4, 1988

Acquired by the Flames in the first round, 26th overall at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Leland Irving continues to build on an outstanding season as a 17-year-old starter with the Everett Silvertips. The native of Swan Hills, Alberta has played in 33 games this season, posting a 1.71 goals against average, a .935 save percentage and a 26-5-0-2 record.

Irving uses great balance and positioning to protect the goal. A technical goaltender, Irving is strong mentally as he plays behind a defensive-minded team in Everett that does not give up many shots on goal. Irving was the backup goalie for Team Canada at the WJC, where he did not play. However, his opportunity is likely to come next year.

7. Darren Helm, LW (DET)
Height: 6’0. Weight: 185lbs. DOB: January 21, 1987

Acquired by the Red Wings in the fifth round, 132nd overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Darren Helm has established himself this season as top WHL prospect with the Medicine Hat Tigers. The native of St. Andrews, Manitoba has scored 20 goals and 33 assists in 47 games.

Helm has put on some weight and grown to become a feared offensive threat in the WHL. His explosive first stride and acceleration make him a handful for even the top defensemen in the league. He played in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge and was a valuable energy player for Team Canada at the WJC in Sweden.

8. Ty Wishart, D (SJ)
Height: 6’5. Weight: 205lbs. DOB: May 19, 1988

Acquired by the Sharks in the first round, 16th overall at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Ty Wishart is looked upon as a leader among defensemen along the Prince George Cougars blue line. The native of Comox, B.C. has scored eight goals and 23 assists in 44 games.

Wishart has battled injuries all season while toiling on an underachieving Cougars’ team. A concussion in the early going slowed the rangy rearguard and he has played through a nagging groin injury for most of the season. He played well in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge games but was not invited to Team Canada’s national junior selection camp. The Cougars will need a healthy Wishart providing more consistent offense during the second half to turn around what has been a surprisingly bleak season so far.

9. Karl Alzner, D (2007 eligible)
Height: 6’2. Weight: 210lbs. DOB: September 24, 1988

Eligible for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, Karl Alzner has been ranked among the top skaters by ISS for the entire first half of the season. The native of Burnaby, B.C. has scored six goals and 28 assists in 44 games for the Calgary Hitmen.

Alzner prides himself in being a mobile, physical defenseman. He has successfully moved up the ranks in Hockey Canada programs, culminating in a gold medal at the recent WJC in Sweden. Although he did not log a lot of ice time with Team Canada, he was likely being groomed to return as a valuable leader next season. Mature for his age, Alzner has developed into a reliable puckhandler who makes wise first passes from the defending zone. He plays along side Alex Plante (2007 eligible).

10. Ryan White, C (MON)
Height: 6’0. Weight: 200lbs. DOB: March 17, 1988

Acquired in the third round, 66th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Ryan White leads the Calgary Hitmen in scoring and is second in league scoring. The native of Brandon, Manitoba has scored 24 goals and 44 assists in 54 games.

White is regarded as one of the WHL’s top battlers, seldom losing in one-on-one situations. He has made a concerted effort this season to improve his conditioning. White played for Team WHL in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge in November. He can play with success in tough games and also brings finesse into the attacking zone.

11. Codey Burki, C (COL)
Height: 6’1. Weight: 195lbs. DOB: November 17, 1987

Acquired in the second round, 59th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Codey Burki has become a consistent offensive threat on a veteran-laden Brandon Wheat Kings team that should challenge for an Eastern Conference title this year. The native of Winnipeg, Manitoba has scored 26 goals and 37 assists in 52 games.

Burki has seen his number increase every season in the WHL. Now in his fourth full campaign, Burki has shouldered leadership responsibilities in Brandon after the club graduated its vaunted "Fab Five" after the 2004-05 season. When the likes of Ryan Stone (PIT), Eric Fehr (WAS), Tim Konsorda CBJ), Lance Monych (PHX) and Steven Later left the Wheaties, Burki was looked upon to heighten his overall contribution to the success of the franchise. A lanky, smooth-skating forward, Burki has been among the WHL scoring leaders all season, though his intensity has been questioned on occasion. He participated in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge, but was unable to secure a spot on Canada’s national junior team.

12. Kenndal McArdle, (FLA)
Height: 5’11. Weight: 200lbs. DOB: January 4, 1987

Acquired in the first round, 20th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Kenndal McArdle is experiencing a dream season in his fourth full year in the WHL. The native of Burnaby, B.C. has scored 13 goals and 17 assists through 45 games, split between the Moose Jaw Warriors and the Vancouver Giants.

After a disappointing loss to the Giants in the WHL championship last season, McArdle was said to be a big part of the Warriors scheme for this season. When the club started slowly this season and began to build for the future, McArdle became expendable in favor of some solid younger talent. While playing in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge in November, McArdle was traded to Vancouver and will finish his junior career close to home in Burnaby. Following the ADT games. McArdle earned a spot on the gold-medal winning Team Canada at the WJC and upon his return from Sweden is looking forward to a Memorial Cup berth.

13. Victor Bartley, D (Free Agent)
Height: 6’0. Weight: 195lbs. DOB: February 17, 1987

Victor Bartley went undrafted last summer, a notion that has had many a WHL prognosticator shaking their head. The Maple Ridge, B.C. native has scored four goals and 34 assists in 48 games for the Kamloops Blazers.

A pivotal contributor to the strong backend in Kamloops this season, Bartley has maintained the same high level of intensity he brought to the ice during his draft year. With the Blazers among the top teams in the country this season, compared to last year when the club missed the playoffs for the first time in decades, Bartley is certain to get a better look from NHL scouts. He brings leadership and poise to the Blazers and has been a steadying influence for young prospects like Keaton Ellerby and Ryan Bender, who are both 2007 eligible.

14. Aaron Gagnon, (Free Agent)
Height: 5’11. Weight: 190lbs. DOB: April 24, 1986

Drafted in the eighth round, 240th overall by Phoenix at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Gagnon was unable to secure a contract with the Coyotes. The native of Armstrong, B.C. has scored 26 goals and 29 assists in 42 games during this, his fifth full season with the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Had the Coyotes chosen to sign Gagnon, the organization would find itself with three of this season’s top WHL offensive players, including Mueller and Hanzal. Gagnon has been an offensive leader in Seattle throughout his career in the league, which spans over five seasons. Any NHL team looking for a mature forward with huge upside offensively could do a lot worse than Aaron Gagnon.

15. Michael Grabner, (VAN)
Height: 6’1. Weight: 180lbs. DOB: October 5, 1987

Acquired by the Canucks in the first round, 14th overall at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Michael Grabner has rebounded from an early season hip injury to spearhead the Spokane Chiefs drive for their first playoff berth in three years. The native of Villach, Austria has scored 26 goals and 11 assists in 40 games.

Grabner is considered a prototypical ‘speed-merchant.’ In the era of the new NHL, his skating ability is his biggest asset. Add to this his propensity to light the lamp and the offensive upside the Canucks are hoping for becomes glaringly evident. The Chiefs look to be a lock for a playoff spot this season, which will enable Grabner to play some post-season hockey where a higher level of intensity will be required.

16. Devin Setoguchi, (SJ)
Height: 6’0. Weight: 195lbs. DOB: January 1, 1987

Acquired by the Sharks in the first round, eighth overall at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Devin Setoguchi has battled a nagging knee injury since throughout the current campaign. The native of Taber, Alberta has scored 20 goals and 16 assists in 37 games with the Prince George Cougars.

Among the drafted juniors suiting up for the Cougars this season, Setoguchi has done little to establish himself as an elite WHLer. His offensive skills are apparent, especially on the power play. Setoguchi played in both games for Team WHL during the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge, which was a microcosm of his season to date. He was very good in the first game, demonstrating an explosive stride and good acceleration. The next night, he was much less noticeable. Perhaps the injuries are more serious than made public, which would explain the season-long inconsistency. There are also rumors he is unhappy in Prince George, although the club downplays this notion. In any event, Setoguchi has about 30 games remaining to deliver something of substance this season to justify the promise of a first round draft pick.

17. Dustin Kohn, D (NYI)
Height: 6’1. Weight: 195lbs. DOB: February 2, 1987

Acquired by the Islanders in the second round, 46th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Dustin Kohn has become a valuable veteran defenseman on the Brandon Wheat Kings blueline. The native of Edmonton, Alberta has scored two goals and 36 assists in 44 games.

Drafted while a member of the Calgary Hitmen, Kohn was traded to Brandon midway through last season. He is a responsible defenseman and has the ability to control the puck to slow the play down in his own end. He sees plenty of power-play time on a formidable first unit in Brandon with the likes of Codey Burki (COL), Juraj Simek (VAN) and Mark Derlago. Kohn was unsuccessful in his second attempt to crack Team Canada’s national junior team roster.

18. Wacey Rabbit, (BOS)
Height: 5’9. Weight: 185lbs. DOB: November 6, 1986

Acquired by the Bruins in the fifth round, 154th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Wacey Rabbit has had new life breathed into him by landing a spot with the Memorial Cup bound Vancouver Giants. The native of Lethbridge, Alberta has appeared in only 12 WHL games this season, scoring three goals and nine assists.

Rabbit spent the first half of the hockey season in Providence after making a favorable impression on the Bruins at training camp. He was unable to make a consistent contribution in the AHL and was returned to the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, who dealt the forward to the Vancouver Giants. Rabbit can certainly improve his stock as a member of the Giants if he can recapture his offensive skill set. The Bruins were hopeful Rabbit would find a way to play with a contender in the WHL and should be pleased Rabbit is destined for the Memorial Cup. His Giants teammate Milan Lucic was drafted by the Bruins last summer.

19. Riley Holzapfel, (ATL)
Height: 5’11. Weight: 175lbs. DOB: August 18, 1988

Acquired by the Thrashers in the second round, 43rd overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Riley Holzapfel has endured a challenging season with the struggling Moose Jaw Warriors. The native of White City, Saskatchewan has scored 30 goals and 28 assists in 51 games this season.

Throughout his career, Holzapfel has made a habit over-achieving by outworking his teammates and opponents. It is this trait that endeared him to the Warriors, who acquired him as a listed player. With the departure of Blair Jones (TB), Troy Brouwer (CHI) and Dustin Boyd (CAL) to professional hockey, along with the Kenndal McArdle (FLA) trade, Holzapfel is the lone elite holdover from the Warriors trip to the WHL championship series last season.

20. David Schlemko, D (2007 Eligible)
Height: 6’1. Weight: 200lbs. DOB: May 7, 1987

Finally emerging from the lengthy shadows of outstanding defensemen with the Medicine Hat Tigers, David Schlemko has begun to flourish offensively in the WHL. The native of Edmonton, Alberta has scored five goals and 43 assists in 51 games.

With the departure of Cam Barker (CHI) to professional hockey, a host of defensemen in Medicine Hat have risen to the challenge to lead a solid backend group. Kris Russell (CBJ), who was at the WJC last year with Barker, was absent from the Tigers lineup again this year at the WJC in Sweden. Schlemko has provided the Tigers with depth, maturity and reliability in the absence of the clubs high-end players. This season, Schlemko has taken full advantage of increased ice time and play on special teams to put together the best offensive numbers of his career.

Other notables

Tyler Plante (FLA), Juuso Puustinen (CGY), Tyson Sexsmith (2007), Juraj Simek (VAN), Ryan Russell (NYR), Brodie Dupont (NYR), Eric Hunter (NYR), Jesse Dudas (CBJ), James Reimer (TOR), Kyle Bailey (MIN), Kristofer Westblom (MIN), Ray Macias (COL), Scott Jackson (STL), Nicholas Drazenovic (STL), Milan Lucic (BOS), Brendan Mikkelson (ANA), Kirill Starkov (CBJ), Vladimir Mihalik (TB), Dane Crowley (TB), Adam Hobson (CHI), Logan Pyett (DET), Ben Wright (CBJ), Ben Maxwell (MON), Taylor Dakers (SJ), Matt Keetley (CAL), Gord Baldwin (CAL), Jordan Bendfeld (PHO), Bud Holloway (LA), Brady Calla (FLA), Ondrej Fiala (MIN), J.D. Watt (CAL), Michael Sauer (NYR), Mike Gauthier (STL), Bretton Stamler (DET), Myles Stoesz (ATL).