WHL 2007-08 players to watch

By Glen Erickson

Just one week into the Western Hockey League season, it is apparent there are a number of potential blue-chip prospects.

A glance Team Canada’s roster during the Super Series against the Russians validates this in part as a total of 13 players have ties to WHL teams. Of the eight defensemen, six will play in the WHL this season, while six of the fifteen forwards skate for WHL teams. Leland Irving of the Everett Silvertips was on e of three goalies.

It’s conceivable these athletes will all play for Canada at the 2008 WJC. Eleven attended NHL training camps, while Luke Schenn and Zac Boychuk are eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Here’s a list of some top prospects along with a few players to keep an eye on this season.

Drafted juniors and free agents

Karl Alzner, D (WAS)
The leader on the backend for the Calgary Hitmen this season, Alzner has matured quickly in the WHL and will be a key contributor to what many feel could be a championship season for the Hitmen. Alzner is already a proficient skater and will continue to develop all facets of his game. He played regularly in the Super Series against the Russians and is a lock for a position with Team Canada at the 2008 WJC.

Last season with the Hitmen, Alzner scored eight goals and 39 assists in 63 regular season games. The 6’2, 210-pounder is from Burnaby, B.C.

John Blum, D (NAS)
Blum and the Vancouver Giants will wear a bulls eye every night out this season thanks to their Memorial Cup championship. With the departure of defensemen Cody Franson (NAS) and Brendan Mikkelson (ANA), the dependable rearguard will assume the leadership reigns among the blueline corps. Blum is a confident puck carrier and brings offensive skills to the Giant’s backend. As he continues to grow physically, the Predators will look for Blum to establish himself as a reliable performer in the defending zone.

Last season, Blum tallied eight goals and 43 assists in the full complement of 72 league games and led the WHL with a plus-37 ranking. He is a 6’1, 170-pound native of Rancho Santa Margarita, California.

Keaton Ellerby, D (FLA)
Ellerby has a huge opportunity to rebound from an inconsistent season last year as the Kamloops Blazers look to become an upper-echelon team in the WHL. With such high expectations, Ellerby will have to bring consistency to the mix to validate his status as a legitimate NHL first-rounder. A tough, rangy d-man who is proficient in fisticuffs, Ellerby hung in at Florida’s training camp long enough to play an exhibition game in Calgary against the Flames. Growing up just minutes south of Calgary in Okotoks, Alberta, Ellerby was a Flames’ fan.

Last season, the 6’4, 190-pound defenseman scored two goals and 23 assists in 69 games while collecting 120 penalty minutes. He will certainly get a look from Hockey Canada for the 2008 WJC.

T.J. Galiardi, F (COL)
Perhaps the major consideration for Galiardi when contemplating his departure from the NCAA was the opportunity to play at home with a definite Memorial Cup contender in the Calgary Hitmen. After one year at Dartmouth College, the Calgary native returns to a team ranked No. 2 in the CHL at the outset of the season. He is expected to provide offensive spark and should be a good complement up front with the likes of Ryan White (MTL).

Last season, the 6’2, 180-pound forward scored 14 goals and 17 assists in 33 NCAA games.

Colton Gillies, C (MIN)
Statistically, Gillies probably has to be considered an offensive under-achiever to date for the Saskatoon Blades. However, the current campaign provides an opportunity for the third-year forward to elevate his game. His background with Hockey Canada programs has earned Gillies a reputation as a fearless leader, an attribute the Blades will require this year. Gillies is a superb skater for a player his size and brings a definite mean streak to the ice.

Last season, the 6’4, 185-pound native of Surrey, B.C. scored 13 goals and 17 assists in 65 regular season games and collected 148 penalty minutes.

Zach Hamill, C (BOS)
A three-year WHL veteran, Hamill replaces Peter Mueller (PHX) as the Everett Silvertips go-to guy in all situations. It would seem that as Hamill goes, so will the Silvertips. Considered undersized early in his junior career, Hamill flourished under longtime ‘Tips head coach Kevin Constantine and has developed into a solid physical player. He has signed with Boston, played regularly in the Super Series against Russia and would seem to have punched his ticket to the 2008 WJC.

Hamill, from Port Coquitlam, B.C. checks in at 5’11 and 190 pounds. He led the WHL in scoring with 32 goals and 61 assists in 69 games.

Thomas Hickey, D (LA)
Chosen fourth overall at the NHL Entry Draft, Hickey is an intelligent defenseman with offensive skills that should improve with maturity and experience. His strong suit is his skating ability, which enabled him to excel early in the WHL. He played for the Seattle Thunderbirds as a 15-year-old and has improved his offensive play each season. Another product of the successful Hockey Canada programs, Hickey exudes confidence on and off the ice. A well-spoken player with great on-ice vision, Hickey will looked upon to be an important leader in Seattle. After the Super Series against the Russians, it would appear Hickey is also headed for the 2008 WJC.

Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, the 5’11, 185-pounder scored nine goals and 41 assists in 68 games.

Leland Irving (CGY)
In Everett this season, Irving will likely see more rubber than in past seasons, providing an opportunity for the third year veteran to establish himself as a top WHL goaler. A definite consideration for a spot with Team Canada at the 2008 WJC, Irving was given every opportunity to show Hockey Canada decision-makers his true form during the Super Series against the Russians. In Everett this year, on a club that has graduated some offensive talent, Irving will have to be at his best t help the ‘Tips win close, low-scoring games.

Last season, the native of Swan Hills, Alberta picked up 34 wins in 48 games, while posting a 1.86 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. He checks in at 6′, 170 pounds.

Scott Jackson (DET)
Drafted in 2005 by the St. Louis Blues, Jackson went unsigned this past June before landing an opportunity with the Detroit Red Wings. His return to the Seattle Thunderbirds improves an already solid team and should go a long way to elevate the T-Birds to upper echelon status in the WHL. His leadership has also rubbed off on frequent playing partner, Thomas Hickey (LA).

Last season, the 6’3, 214-pound native of Salmon Arm, B.C. scored four goals and 31 assists in 71 regular season games.

Milan Lucic (BOS)
While it is unclear if Milan Lucic will return to the Vancouver Giants this season, the hulking power forward made a huge impression on the Giants faithful during the team’s Memorial Cup triumph. A long with fellow Boston prospect Wacey Rabbit, Lucic was dominant during the national championship tournament. If he returns to Vancouver, he will arrive as one of the most feared physical players in the league, although opponents will not overlook his offensive skills.

Last season, Lucic scored 30 goals and 38 assists in 70 games while collecting 147 penalty minutes. He was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C.

Alex Plante, D (EDM)
Perhaps overshadowed in Calgary by Alzner, Plante has efficiently gone about developing into a competent, well-rounded defenseman. With the Hitmen pegged to go deep into the playoffs, Plante may further benefit from playing a key role in pressure games. If he can gradually increase his foot-speed, he will be able to more effectively impose his physical presence.

Last season, the Brandon, Manitoba native scored eight goals and 30 assists in 58 regular season games. He checks in at 6’5, 220 pounds.

Juuso Puustinen (CGY)
On a Kamloops Blazers team saddled with very high expectations, Juuso Puustinen will be depended upon to produce offensively, at least at the same level as last season. The flashy forward did not look out of place in the WHL last season in his rookie year. On a personal level, he was bitterly disappointed after being a late cut from Team Finland‘s entry at the 2007 WJC. In Kamloops this season, he will play on the power play and penalty kill for a club expected to produce consistently on offense. The Blazers are expected to challenge for the western conference title.

Last season, the native of Kuopio, Finland scored 32 goals and 39 assists in 64 games. He checks in at 6’3, 190 pounds.

Logan Pyett (DET)
The second last pick at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Logan Pyett will be the leader for the Regina Pats, both on and off the ice. He chipped in offensively for Team Canada during the Super Series and will be expected to make that type of contribution on a regular basis for the Pats.

Last season, the 5’11, 198-pound native of Balgonie, Saskatchewan scored 14 goals and 48 assists.

Matt Robertson (FA)
Seemingly an island in Prince Albert this season, the Raiders go as Robertson goes. While the offensively gifted forward went undrafted in June, he has not dropped off the NHL radar whatsoever. Potentially a free agent signing this season by an NHL team looking to stock the cupboard with offensive skills, Robertson can elevate his profile if he exceeds his 2006-07 production. He’s always been knocked regarding his physical stature, however, his consistent production will soon make a professional team take notice.

Last season, the 5’9, 160-pound native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan scored 37 goals and 27 assists in 69 games.

Nick Ross, D (PHX)
Ross is being looked upon to help elevate the performance of a serious contender for the Eastern Conference championship. The Regina Pats are deep on the blue line with Ross and Logan Pyett (DET). Ross brings versatility to the lineup, as he played forward for part of last season in an attempt by the coaching staff to improve the club’s offensive production. A player often accused for being too focused on making the ‘big hit’, Ross is known league-wide for his capability of being a punishing open-ice hitter.

Last season, the 6’1, 190-pound native of Lethbridge, Alberta scored seven goals and added 24 assists in 70 games.

Brandon Sutter, C (CAR)
The son of Brent Sutter, who has four Stanley Cup rings to his credit, Brandon Sutter distinguished himself during the Canada/ Russia Super Series this past off-season. He also looks to be a lock for a position with Team Canada at the 2008 WJC. In Red Deer this season, Sutter will be looked upon to provide offensive production and leadership for a team in the midst of retooling for the future. He’ll see plenty of ice time and will be given every opportunity to prove himself in all situations.

Last season, the 6’3, 175-pounder collected 20 goals and 37 assists in 71 games. As a rookie, the native of Huntington, New York led all 16-year-olds with 22 goals.

Dana Tyrell, C (TB)
Tyrell was likely the most consistent member of veteran-laden Cougars team that underachieved during the regular season and then proceeded to upset both the Kamloops Blazers and the Everett Silvertips in the WHL playoffs. The current season will be a rebuilding one in Prince George and Tyrell will be looked upon to play a leading role. He is an energetic skater and has become a capable physical presence. The challenge for Tyrell, a durable and gritty forward, will be developing the ability to excel while playing against his opponent’s top lines. He is a tireless worker away from the rink and has always been focused on scholastic achievement.

Last season, the 5’10, 185-pound native of Airdrie, Alberta scored 30 goals and 26 assists while playing a high-energy style in all 72 regular season games. His younger brother Corey is also currently on the Cougars roster.

Kris Westblom (F/A)
A late season knee injury ended an outstanding campaign for Westblom, whose exceptional play provided perhaps the only real hope the Kelowna Rockets had for securing a post-season berth. While backup goaltender Torrie Jung (TB) certainly gave the team a chance to win games down the stretch, Westblom was without question the team’s MVP and was arguably the best goaltender in the B.C. Division all year.

Technically sound with enough size to effectively shrink the goal, Westblom is also a very competent speaker and a mature representative of the Rockets in the community. He will backstop a young team this season and will most certainly face plenty of rubber each night out. Lending credence to the ever-present business side of hockey, it is anticipated the Rockets may in fact move one of their goaltenders this season, meaning Westblom could potentially find himself finishing his junior career elsewhere.

Ryan White (MTL)
Selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, White followed up his first professional camp with a successful offensive campaign. While conditioning was a concern early in his junior career, White has answered critics and become a dependable leader in Calgary. He has remained durable, as he has not missed a regular season game since the 2004-2005 season. He possesses a quick release and the ability to play through traffic in the attacking zone.

Last season, the 6′, 213-pounder from Brandon, Manitoba scored 34 goals and 55 assists for 89 points in 72 games. The numbers were good for fourth place in WHL scoring.

Ty Wishart (SJ)
A long season awaits in Prince George for the lanky defenseman who toiled with Team Canada during the Super Series against the Russians. The Cougars graduated the nucleus of an offensively gifted hockey team after last season, leaving gaping holes up front and an obvious rebuild in the works. For Wishart, he will spend plenty of time in the defending zone this season and should continue to improve his defensive play. Any offense he can muster will certainly benefit the Cougars as well. The rumor mill has already begun, suggesting it is unlikely Wishart will complete the season in Prince George, in favor of a potential trade to a contending team.

Last season, the 6’4, 213-pound native of Comox, B.C scored 11 goals and 38 assists in 62 games.

Top Prospects for 2008 Entry Draft

Kyle Beach (2008)
The 2006-07 WHL Rookie of the Year, Beach will be instrumental in the fortunes of the Silvertips as the club graduated some key performers this past off-season.

Zac Boychuk (2008)
Will be relied upon in Lethbridge for offense on a team that may have to resort to winning high scoring games. A likely 2008 WJC participant.

Tyler Ennis (2008)
Will shoulder much of the offensive responsibility in Medicine Hat on a club that has graduated most of a veteran-laden nucleus.

Luke Schenn (2008)
Took the WHL by storm in his rookie season and continued to develop during a woeful season last year for Kelowna. A likely 2008 WJC participant.

Tyler Shattock (2008)
An offensive leader throughout the preseason, Shattock will see plenty of ice time in Kamloops and should play on one of the club’s top two forward lines.

Colton Theubert (2008)
Should be a top four d-man this season on the deepest blueline corps in the WHL.

Mitch Wahl (2008)
Will emerge as a leader and consistent performer in Spokane as the Chiefs expect to build on their playoff appearance lasts season.

James Wright (2008)
Should see plenty of ice time in all situations as Vancouver looks to develop offensive contributors to replace departed prospects from Memorial Cup championship team.

Other notables

Brandon Wheat Kings: Andrew Clark (FA), Juraj Simek (VAN)
Calgary Hitmen: Keith Seabrook (WAS), Brett Sonne (STL), Paul Postma (ATL)
Chilliwack Bruins: Oscar Moller (LA), Mark Santorelli (NAS)
Edmonton Oil Kings: Cameron Cepek (MTL)
Everett Silvertips: Dan Gendur (VAN), Taylor Ellington (VAN)
Kamloops Blazers: Brock Nixon (F/A), C.J. Stretch (F/A)
Kelowna Rockets: Torrie Jung (TB), Cody Almond (MIN), Jamie Benn (DAL)
Kootenay Ice: Ben Maxwell (MTL), John Negrin (CGY), Kris Lazaruk (F/A), Steve DaSilva (F/A)
Lethbridge Hurricanes: Ben Wright (CBJ), Mitch Fadden (TB)
Medicine Hat Tigers: Jordan Bendfeld (PHX), Thomas Frazee (2008)
Moose Jaw Warriors: Riley Holzapfel (ATL), Jordan Knackstedt (BOS)
Portland Winter Hawks: Colton Sceviour (DAL)
Prince Albert Raiders: Jeff May (F/A)
Prince George Cougars: Patrik Magnussen (DET)
Regina Pats: Linden Rowat (LA)
Saskatoon Blades: Justin McCrae (CAR)
Seattle Thunderbirds: Riku Helenius (TB), Jim O’Brien (OTT)
Spokane Chiefs: Drayson Bowman (CAR)
Swift Current Broncos: Levi Nelson (BOS), Keegan Dansereau (F/A)
Tri City Americans: Taylor Procyshen (F/A)
Vancouver Giants: Spencer Machacek (ATL), Michal Repik (FLA), Tyson Sexsmith (SJ)

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