Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. It’s that time again, major junior hockey is back and we’re here to preview the new season for you. All three leagues are kicking off this week. With that in mind we will start our division previews today and make our way around the country.
You can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2017-18 WHL B.C. Division Preview
Top Three Contenders (In Order of Projected Finish)
With an offence powered by Dillon Dube, Kole Lind, Kyle Topping, import Marek Skvrne, and 2019 Top Prospect Nolan Foote; along with a defence that features Tampa Bay Lightning first rounder Cal Foote, Braydyn Chizen, and import Liobr Zabransky, the Rockets are poised to be one of the best team’s in the WHL. There may have a question mark in goal where Brodan Salmond and James Porter will attempt to win the starting job. If they can’t get it done, the Rockets will not be afraid to trade draft picks for a goalie who will.
Prince George Cougars
New Jersey Devils prospect Nikita Popugaev returns to lead the offence. He was a big time scorer with Moose Jaw last season, but could not replicate that success after being traded to Prince George. The Cougars will expect a lot more from him this year. He will get support up front from Radovan Bondra, and Ethan O’Rourke. The defence will be led by Detroit Red Wings prospect Dennis Cholowski. He leaves the NCAA to join the team this year. Josh Anderson, Ryan Schoettler and Joel Lakusta provide defensive depth. 16-year-old Taylor Gauthier battles Tavin Grant for the starting goaltending job.
The Royals could be an extremely strong team, but there are a number of question marks. With Montreal Canadiens draftee Scott Walford leading the way, the Royals have one of the better defences in the division. Ralph Jarratt also returns, while Jared Freadrich arrives via trade. If Chaz Reddekopp returns as an overage, it will become an outstanding top four. They play in front of goaltender Griffen Outhouse, who is likely the top goalie in the division. The forward group is what holds them back, but if 2018 draft eligible Eric Florchuk takes a big step forward, they could challenge for the division crown. There is no question that Matthew Phillips can score and will lead the offence again. The return of Tyler Soy would really help them be a strong team.
Players To Watch
Garrett Pilon, Centre, Kamloops Blazers
Pilon is an undersized centre who has excellent hockey IQ. He makes smart plays with the puck, and finds openings without out. Pilon has outstanding vision, as well as the ability to make passes through tight areas. He also has an excellent wrist shot, which features a quick release. Pilon is a threat at even strength, and also plays the point on the Blazers power play.
Dillon Dube, Centre, Kelowna Rockets
Dube is an undersized centre who plays bigger than what his listed height says, getting involved in the forecheck and battling for space in front of the net. He is not afraid to take on bigger opponents, and plays with a non-stop motor. After the whistle, he can be found in the middle of scrums, often working to agitate opponents and get them off their game. Dube isn’t afraid to go to the net, and to battle in the dirty areas of the ice; fighting for pucks in the corners or battling in the front of the net. He is also willing to drive the net both with and without the puck. Offensively, Dube has the instincts, vision, and passing skill to be a playmaker. Dube also has a heavy shot and quick release.
Cal Foote, Defence, Kelowna Rockets
Foote is an excellent skater. He skates well in both directions, with good speed and acceleration. He also has solid pivots and edge work which allow him to cover a lot of ice, as well as to transition quickly from offense to defence, and vice-versa. His lateral agility allows him to walk the line, and to open up passing and shooting lanes. Foote is strong on his skates, with good balance and a strong lower body. This helps him in battling for pucks in the corners and in clearing the front of the net. Foote has a good slap shot which he keeps low and puts on net.
Kole Lind, Right Wing, Kelowna Rockets
A Vancouver Canucks draftee, Lind is equally adept at both scoring goals and setting them up. He has an excellent wrist shot. It is accurate and powerful, and he has a quick release. He also has an outstanding slap shot and one-timer. Lind has a knack for finding the soft spot in the defensive coverage and ripping his slap shot by the goaltender. He also has the soft hands to finish plays in close to the goal line. Solid stick handling and good puck protection skills allow Lind to extend plays and helps his teammates get open. When he gets an opening, Lind is able to feather a pass through a tight opening and land it on an linemates tape.
Radovan Bondra, Left Wing, Prince George Cougars
A fifth round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks; Bondra is huge at 6’5″ 220 lbs, and uses his size to protect the puck and extend plays on the cycle game. He creates offense by working down low and moving the puck to an open teammate before eventually taking it to the net. His long reach helps him to score in close to the net. He needs to work on making quicker decisions with the puck though. Bondra also uses his size to be an effective player in his own end of the rink.
Dennis Cholowski, Defence, Prince George Cougars
Cholowski moves the puck very well. He has a strong first pass out of the zone, starting the transition game. At the offensive blue line, he is poised with the puck on his stick, and willing to hold onto it and move laterally in order to create passing and shooting lanes. He has good vision and can make tape-to-tape passes through small openings. Due to high-end hockey sense and IQ, Cholowski often makes the right play with the puck on his stick. Cholowski does not have a cannon from the point, but it has decent power. More importantly he keeps it low and gets it on net through traffic. He stick handles well. Cholowski has the skill to also get involved in leading the rush, or carry the puck through the neutral zone.
Nikita Popugaev, Right Wing, Prince George Cougars
Popugaev has outstanding size, already measuring in at 6’6″. He combines this with excellent stick handling to be very tough to defend one-on-one. Add in good hockey sense and a strong wrist shot, and Popugaev has many of the attributes that teams will be looking for in a power forward prospect. He is particularly adept on the power play, where the Warriors seemed to run everything through him, but is not getting the same looks on a stronger Prince George team. Popugaev had proven that he has the vision and passing skills to set up others in these situations.
Popugaev is mainly a goal scorer. He is very good at playing down low, hanging out around the opponents crease, where his big size provides an excellent screen. He has the soft hands to pounce on rebounds, work on deflections and tip-ins, and to one time passes into the back of the net. Popugaev also has a very good wrist shot. It is very heavy and he has good accuracy. He also gets it off quickly, with a deceptive release that avoids a quick wind-up. Consistency is an issue though.
Tyler Benson, Left Wing, Vancouver Giants,
A natural goal scorer, Benson can hurt the opposition in a variety of ways. He has a hard and accurate wrist shot with a good release. Benson also has a very good one-timer. He is also willing to stand in front of the net and take punishment to get tip ins and rebounds. Benson does well in protecting the puck in the cycle game. His excellent lower body strength gives him good balance, and he has the frame to protect the puck in battles. He has the stick handling ability to take the puck off the wall, and get around a defender to create a play, but is not one to make a huge number of fancy moves in transition. Benson does have the ability to be a play maker as well, with strong tape-to-tape passes and good vision. He needs to stay healthy.
Ty Ronning, Right Wing, Vancouver Giants
The son of Cliff Ronning, Ty Ronning also lacks size. Despite that, he uses his excellent skating ability to create offensive chances. Ronning has the speed to take a defender wide and then cut to the net. He also has an outstanding wrist shot and lighting quick release. If defenders back off the New York Rangers prospect, he can use them as a screen and unleash that shot. Ronning also has very good vision and passing skills.
Matthew Phillips, Centre, Victoria Royals
A sixth round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2016, Phillips scored 50 goals and 90 points for the Royals last season. Another undersized player, Phillips is listed at just 5’6″ and 141 pounds. He overcomes that lack of size with very good skating ability. What is even more impressive though is his ability to handle the puck and make plays while skating at top speed. His soft hands and stick handling ability allow him to create space to unleash his quick shot, or to create offensive plays for teammates. He can finish chances in tight to the goal, and also create opportunities from further out.
Scott Walford, Defence, Victoria Royals
Walford creates offence from the back end, with excellent passing ability. He uses his skating to create space in transition, and makes a strong first pass to his teammates when that space opens up. He also has the ability to make plays at the blue line, quarterbacking the power play and setting up teammates. Walford also has a decent slap shot from the point. He is a solid two-way player, who maintains good gap control and has the strong positioning to cut down passing and shooting lanes. Walford is also not afraid to battle in his own end of the rink, both in front of the net and in the corners.
2018 Draft Eligible Prospects To Watch
Jackson Shepard, Left Wing, Kamloops Blazers
Shepard is an undersized forward who played for Team Canada at this summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament, helping them to a gold medal. He also played for Canada red at the Under 17 last year, and had 12 points in 41 games during his 16-year-old season in Kamloops. The Blazers are looking for more from Shepard in his draft year. Jackson doesn’t let his lack of size hold him back from playing a gritty game. He is always involved in battles in the corners.
Tyler Popowich, Centre, Vancouver Giants
The third overall pick in the 2015 WHL Draft, Popowich has excellent size. He is already listed at 6’4″ tall and over 200 pounds. Popowich had just seven goals and nine points as a WHL rookie last season. Popowich has the frame to play a power forward game. He also has the skill to produce at the WHL level. He will need to be more consistent at both ends of the ice to earn his coach’s trust and get the opportunity and ice time needed to put up big production in his draft year.
Eric Florchuk, Centre, Victoria Royals
The 13th overall pick in the 2015 WHL Draft, Florchuk had just nine points in 51 games, playing limited time in his rookie campaign. He also played for Team Canada White at the Under 17 Hockey Challenge, winning a silver medal. Florchuk is another quick skater who should be able to create more offence in the transition game this year. His speed should be an effective weapon opening up passing and shooting lanes. Once he creates the space, Florchuk must make decisions a little quicker in order to take advantage of it. He has the shooting and passing skills to make an impact.
2019 Draft Eligible Prospects To Watch
Nolan Foote, Centre, Kelowna Rockets
Unlike his brother, and his father, Nolan Foote is a forward. He has very good size (already 6’3″) and plays a game that is a blend of skill and power. Foote has good stickhandling and puck protection ability. He scored 19 goals and 35 points as a WHL rookie last season. Foote has an excellent wrist shot, and a very quick release. When teammates have the puck, he finds open areas to get that shot off. When the other team has the puck, he is quick to get in on the forecheck, causing pressure and creating turnovers. Foote also is a good play maker with puck protection and passing skills.
KELOWNA, CANADA – JANUARY 21: Cal Foote #25 of the Kelowna Rockets passes the puck against the Portland Winterhawks on January 21, 2017 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)