2016-17 WHL U.S. Division Preview

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.

2016-17 WHL U.S. Division Preview

Top Three Contenders (In Order of Projected Finish)

Seattle Thunderbirds

The big question for Seattle is the status of Mathew Barzal, who is at the New York Islanders training camp. If returned, he will be one of the best players in the league.  If not the Thunderbirds will be in a battle to win the division. Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Alex True add scoring punch. Ethan Bear leads a strong defence group that also includes Turner Ottenbreit, Bryan Allbee, and Brandon Schuldhaus. Overage goaltender Rylan Toth was acquired from Red Deer to handle the duties in the crease.

Everett Silvertips

Kevin Constantine‘s club is known for its suffocating defence and this year should be no different. It all starts at the backend where goaltender Carter Hart is the foundation that the team is built on. They are strong on defence, with 2015 Montreal Canadiens first round pick Noah Juulsen leading the way. Kevin Davis, Lucas Skrumeda, Dwyer Mackenzie and Jake Christiansen all return. Everett lacked scoring last year and hope that new import Eetu Tuulola will help in this regard. Connor Dewar will also be asked to do more in his second year in the league. Matt Fonteyne and Patrick Bajkov also need to step up.

Spokane Chiefs

Kailer Yamamoto lit up the league, and the Under 18s last year, and is looking to do the same this year. There will be plenty of attention on the undersized winger as he looks to be a first round pick. He is joined up front by older brother Keagan Yamamoto, Hudson Elynuik, Markson Bechtold, and new imports Pavel Kousal and Ondrej Najman. Defence is a bit of a question mark beyond Tyson Helgesen and Evan Fiala. The Chiefs will hope that rookie, and 2015 first overall pick Ty Smith develops quickly. Behind them goaltender Jayden Sittler joins the team after a solid season in Lethbridge.

 

Players to Watch

Carter Hart, Goaltender, Everett Silvertips

Hart makes up for his lack of size with his exceptionally fast reflexes. He gets in and out of the butterfly very quickly, and takes away the bottom of the net with very quick legs. He also is an aggressive goalie who makes himself seem bigger by taking full advantage of his ability to come out of the net and cut down angles. Strong skating, being able to move out and back quickly, as well as a good push and the ability to go side-to-side with ease allow Hart to fully take advantage of a style that sees him really challenge shooters and aggressively play the angles. He also has a quick glove hand.

Carter Hart is extremely athletic in the crease.  While his technique is solid, and he is almost always square to the shooter, whether it be on a first shot or rebound, when he does get beaten he can make some incredible recoveries and reflex based stops. While most young goalies struggle with rebound control this is a strength of Hart’s game, as he often swallows up pucks or directs them into the corners, minimizing the number of second chance opportunities that he will face. Hart keeps a cool and calm demeanour in the net. If he does give up a soft goal, which is rare, he does not get rattled and comes back ready to make the next stop.

Noah Juulsen, Defence, Everett Silvertips

Juulsen is a strong skater, with a smooth and fluid stride. While he’s not an absolute speedster, he does have good speed and acceleration. Its in his edge work and agility though that he really shines. Juulsen pivots quickly and this allows him to cover large areas of the ice. He is able to use his agility to walk the line on the power play and open up shooting and passing lanes. The ability to quickly change directions, makes him tough to beat one-on-one and helps him to quickly explode into huge hits if a forwards tries to beat him to the outside. Juulsen has very good hockey sense, making smart plays with it on his stick, and choosing good times to join the rush or pinch in at the blue line. He combines his strong skating with good stick handling and is able to join the rush.

Juulsen has the poise necessary to control the play at the line and quarterback the play from the blue line. He also has very good vision, and makes strong passes both to start the transition out of the zone, long breakaway passes, off the rush, or controlling the play in the zone.  Juulsen has a hard slap shot, and good one-timer, as well as a good release on his wrist shot. He gets the puck through to the net and creates deflection and rebound opportunities for his teammates. Juulsen plays a physical game in his own end.  He is willing to throw big hits, and to battle for loose pucks in the corners.  He also does a decent job clearing the crease.

Caleb Jones, Defence, Portland Winterhawks

The brother of Seth Jones was a fourth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2015. He is blessed with the excellent size that comes with being the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. Jones put up 10 goals and 55 points last season. He shows off a powerful slap shot, and excellent one-timer. He also has a good wrist shot and quick release. Jones knows how to get his shot off and through traffic to the net. He also has very good vision and passing skills. He is a pretty good skater and that helps him in both ends of the ice.

Keegan Iverson, Center/Right Wing, Portland Winterhawks

Drafted by the New York Rangers, but not signed, Iverson could be back for an overage season.  Iverson has a very nice skating stride, leading to good top end speed and strong acceleration. He uses this to get in quickly on the forecheck, and to absolutely hammer defencemen going back and picking up loose pucks.

Iverson plays a very straight ahead, simple game. He creates turnovers. With the puck on his stick, don’t expect a lot of elusive moves, he’d rather just drive straight at the net, or pass to an outlet and head to the net. His vision is decent and passes crisp and accurate. Iverson’s shot has good power and accuracy, but he needs a better release. He grinds well in the corners, and plays an effective cycle game. Iverson is not afraid to battle in the dirty areas of the ice or fight for position in front of the net.

Mathew Barzal, Centre, Seattle Thunderbirds

Barzal is an outstanding skater, with top notch speed and great acceleration. His stride is smooth and extremely effective. He also has great agility, outstanding pivots and strong edge work which he uses to be incredibly elusive off the rush, or in the offensive zone. Barzal shows good lower-body strength for his age, giving him the good balance and powerful stride to fight through checks and win board battles. Like most junior aged players, he will still need to add a little more strength going forward though.

Barzal also has incredibly soft hands and great stick handling. He protects the puck extremely well, and works well in the cycle game. He has very good hockey sense, and almost always makes the smart play. These skills alone would make him a dynamic offensive threat, but when you add in his great shot, quick release and excellent vision and play-making ability he is the total package as an offensive player. He does need to use that shot more, and would score more goals if he was a little more selfish. He has shown the willingness to play in the dirty areas of the ice, and shows flashes of adding a power game to his offensive finesse and skill after adding some weight this off-season. If he continues to grow and add that game, the sky is the limit for him both in the WHL and eventually the NHL.

Ethan Bear, Defence, Seattle Thunderbirds

A fifth round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2015, he may not be the biggest defender out there but that doesn’t stop Bear from playing a very physical game, as he loves to hit, and is very good along the boards and in clearing the front of the net. Bear broke out offensively last year, with 19 goals and 65 points in 69 games.

His offensive game is very straight forward, he has a cannon of a shot and is not afraid to let it go from the blue line. With the puck on his stick, he is looking to make a quick pass up to the forwards, and then join the rush as a trailer. What really elevated his game last year was the poise to handle the puck a little longer and the lateral agility to make plays at the blue line and open up passing and shooting lanes.

Keegan Kolesar, Right Wing, Seattle Thunderbirds

A 2015 third round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kolesar is a potential power forward who plays a very simple game. He is strong and powerful along the boards, and wins battles for position in front of the net. Kolesar has a hard shot from further out, as well as the quick hands to score goals in close. He also loves to hit, and punishes defenders on the forecheck. The biggest concern here is skating, as he must get quicker, particularly in his first few steps.

Hudson Elynuik, Centre, Spokane Chiefs

Elynuik is considerably taller than his father, Pat Elyniuk. At 6’5″ he is an intriguing NHL prospect. His wrist shot is heavy and accurate, and features a very good release. Elynuik gets himself open in the offensive zone in order to set up that shot. He also has a powerful one-timer. Elynuik has the soft hands to finish plays in tight to the net, and battles for position. He bangs in rebounds, gets tip-ins, and causes havoc down low. He is not a huge hitter, but uses his size to win board battles; to establish position in front of the net; and protect the puck in the cycle and create plays for teammates. He is not the most creative playmaker, but does have the passing skills to make the safe and simple plays.

Elynuik is a good skater for his size. While he’s not a speedster, he certainly does not fall behind the play, and keeps up well with his teammates. Elynuik also has good first step quickness and acceleration for a big man. He has a strong lower body which helps him to have balance in battles along the boards and in front of the net. Adding more muscle to what is a bit of a skinny frame would go a long way to making this aspect of his game even better. Elynuik can also work on his agility and edge work, as he could stand to maneuver better through tight spaces and high traffic areas.

 

2017 Draft Eligible Players to Watch

Cody Glass, Centre, Portland Winterhawks

Glass picked up 27 points in 65 games as a WHL Rookie, but a lot more will be expected this year. While he played very limited minutes last year, he should be able to earn a lot more on a rebuilding Portland club. Glass showed flashes last year, but took some time to adjust to the speed of the WHL game. He has good hands, and the passing skills and vision to put up points. Expect to see a big jump in his numbers this year.

Henri Jokiharju, Defence, Portland Winterhawks

Drafted in the 2016 Import draft, Jokiharju represented Finland as an underage player at the Under 18s last year. He is a bit undersized, but makes up for it with excellent skating ability. He is also an excellent passer, as he can make plays on the point of the power play, or in starting the breakout game. Jokiharju walks the line to create openings. His shot is good, but not great.

Sami Moilanen, Right Wing, Seattle Thunderbirds

Selected by Seattle in this year’s import draft, Moilanen is described as a sniper with a hard wrist show and excellent release. He is a bit on the small side, but is not afraid to go to the front of the net. Once there he has the tenacity to maintain position, and the soft hands to score goals in tight to the net. Moilanen is also a very quick skater.

Kailer Yamamoto, Right Wing, Spokane Chiefs

As a 16-year-old, Yamamoto put up a tremendous rookie year, with 23 goals and 57 points in 68 games. He topped that in his second year, putting up 19 goals and 71 points in just 57 games. The 71 points led the Chiefs in Scoring. Yamamoto was invited to play for Team USA at the IIHF U18s. He scored seven goals and 13 points in just seven games in the tournament. A late birthday, he is not eligible until the 2017 draft, when he will have just completed his third year in the WHL.

Yamamoto has tremendous hands, he is a great stickhandler and can bury goals in tight to the goalie.  He also is very quick to loose pucks with great acceleration and a really quick first step. More a play maker than a goal scorer, he uses his quickness and stickhandling to open up passing lanes. Yamamoto can feather passes tape-to-tape to his linemates and has outstanding vision. Coming in at just 5’9″ tall, Yamamoto’s draft stock will raise significantly if he can grow an inch or two in the next year.

Michael Rasmussen, Centre, Tri-City Americans

Rasmussen is a towering 6’5″ centre who put up 18 goals and 43 points in 63 games last year. With that size, he gets plenty of attention. Rasmussen is a pretty good skater for his size. While he is not the biggest hitter, but he can use his size to win board battles and protect the puck on the cycle. His long reach makes it very hard to get the puck off of him, and he has the slick hands to control it in tight areas. Rasmussen makes good passes to teammates and has a decent shot. He can also score in tight to the net.

Juuso Valimaki, Defence, Tri-City Americans

Valimaki plays a simple but effective game in both ends of the rink. He is a good skater and has good size. Defensively he has solid positioning and an active stick. Offensively he doesn’t lead the rush, but can start it with a good first pass and will get involved as a trailer.  He has an excellent point shot that can be a real weapon on the power play. He is not the flashiest player, but he does a lot really good things out there.

 

2018 Draft Eligible Prospects

Ty Smith, Defence, Spokane Chiefs

Smith is a terrific skater, and is expected to be a puck mover on the Chiefs blue line. The first overall pick in the 2015 WHL draft, Smith is known for his ability in the transition game. He can rush the puck up the ice himself, or can make a strong first pass to a teammate. Scott May, the director of hockey operations for Smith’s Bantam team in Delta spoke to Rogers Sportstnet about the youngster last year.  “Mentally he’s a couple plays ahead of everybody,” May says. “It would be hard to bet against him. Obviously there’s challenges he’ll face as he moves on. I think that’s where his hockey IQ and smarts will help.”

 

East Division Preview

Central Division Preview

B.C. Division Preview

 

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