After the World Junior Championships, I decided to take a step back for a few extra weeks to get a better feel for the draft eligibles in the WHL as they get back into the full swing of things. Starting things off, Sam Reinhart seems to have not skipped a beat, coming back to a Kootenay Ice team that has loaded up for the stretch run and a shot at WHL supremacy. Reinhart has exploded for 15 goals and 19 assists, scoring at least one point in all 14 games – and multiple points in 10 – since coming back from the tournament. While Reinhart’s WJC play may have left something to be desired, his play in the WHL has gone a long way towards re-assuring his status as a potential franchise center for whichever NHL team finds itself in a position to draft him next summer.
Over in Prince Albert, Leon Draisaitl continues to keep up a hugely impressive pace, with seven goals and 17 assists in 17 games since returning to the Raiders, including perhaps his best performance of the season on February 2nd, as he netted a hat trick and added an assist against Swift Current. Draisaitl currently leads the Raiders in scoring by an impressive 19 points, and will have to be at the top of his game down the stretch, if the team is going to make a run at the playoffs. Either way, the big German winger is a near lock to hear his name called in the top 10 this June.
Holding steady on my list, in spite of a somewhat shaky last few weeks, is Red Deer defender Haydn Fleury. Though his offensive numbers won’t blow anyone away, it’s his two-way game that continues to impress me, as the 17-year-old is often tasked with skating against the top players in the league on a nightly basis. Most impressive is the fact that he’s a +12 player for the Rebels, leading the team in that category. Fleury’s teammate, team captain Conner Bleackley, sits second on the team with a +9 rating. Bleackley’s offensive game had taken off at the time of our last update, but has since come down to a more expected pace. A heart and soul type of leader, Bleackley will do whatever it takes to help his team win, and is exactly the type of player that coaches love to have. Even if he isn’t dominating the scoresheet, he’s an immensely valuable player for the Rebels, and should be a safe bet to be selected in the first round this summer.
Just up the road in Calgary, Jake Virtanen is now showing the potential that I’ve expected since he came into the league. Since the new year, Virtanen has exploded – nearly doubling his goal totals for the season with 17 in just 22 games. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Virtanen has NHL size, can skate, and has a lethal shot. He’s found a way to put it all together consistently, and is quickly becoming one of the more dangerous goal scorers in the entire league. With the way he’s playing, Virtanen’s draft stock could go through the roof. The Saskatoon Blades boast a similar type of player in Nikita Scherbak; in that he’s big, strong, and can put points on the board. More of a playmaker than Virtanen, Scherbak has consistently kept up a steady scoring pace throughout the year, even once the team dealt away some of their other top offensive players. Scherbak sits 16 points ahead of the next closest Blade in scoring, and looks to be the team’s building block offensively for the next few years.
Moving over to Swift Current, two Broncos defensemen continue to catch attention as potential puck moving NHLers. Julius Honka represented team Finland at the World Juniors, and has come back to Swift Current without much of a beat, keeping up his near point-per-game pace for the year and being a go-to guy on the top powerplay unit. Though he can be a bit of a defensive zone liability, Honka’s value lies mainly in his ability to get the puck up the ice and create offense, with a sneaky shot, great vision, and smooth skating. Teammate Brycen Martin hasn’t had as much success as Honka, but is a similar type of player. Martin can skate, has a good shot, and will also be at his best in offensive situations. Martin’s defensive zone play has hampered the team at times, but occasional glaring mistake aside, it’s easy to see Martin as a potential second pair NHL defenseman, who can step into the powerplay if need be.
After an impressive start to the season, Tyson Baillie’s offensive numbers have levelled off to a roughly point-per-game average for the Kelowna Rockets. Baillie has been a go-to guy for the top team in the CHL thus far this season, currently sitting second on the team in scoring. Baillie’s all-around game has continued to improve, and like Conner Bleackley, is the type of player that coaches love to put on the ice in any situation. It’s easy to compare Baillie with another smallish center playing for a dominant team – Chase de Leo of the Portland Winterhawks is scoring at a slightly higher pace, and has similar statistics across the board. More of a skill guy than Baillie, de Leo relies more on his hands and timing to put points on the board. Both guys have above average vision and can be difference makers for their respective teams offensively, and should hear their names called in roughly the same range at the draft.
February, 2014 WHL Top-10 (last month’s ranking):
1. (1) Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice
2. (2) Leon Draisaitl, F, Prince Albert Raiders
3. (3) Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer Rebels
4. (8) Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary Hitmen
5. (4) Conner Bleackley, C, Red Deer Rebels
6. (5) Julius Honka, D, Swift Current Broncos
7. (6) Tyson Baillie, C, Kelowna Rockets
8. (NR) Nikita Scherbak, F, Saskatoon Blades
9. (7) Brycen Martin, D, Swift Current Broncos
10. (10) Chase de Leo, C, Portland Winterhawks
Ryan Rehill, D, Kamloops Blazers
It’s often easy to overlook players who don’t get much exposure, but it’s time people started taking notice of Ryan Rehill of the Kamloops Blazers. While 3 goals and 13 assists through 59 games may not seem like big time numbers, Rehill is the type of player that hasn’t gotten enough attention from me this year – a hard-nosed, stay at home, no-nonsense type of defenseman. At 6’3” and nearly 215 pounds, the 18 year old still has some growing to do, though his 153 penalty minutes say he doesn’t need to (one minute back of teammate Sam Grist for 1st in the league). Most impressive , and the main reason Rehill demands mention, is the +6 rating he’s carrying, while playing for a team whose goal differential is -97. Rehill keeps the opposition forwards honest, does the dirty work in the hard areas that are so important to any team’s success, and is more than just a guy throwing fists – he can actually play the game.
Aaron Irving, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Another player that deserves more attention on the backend is the Edmonton Oil Kings’ Aaron Irving. Buried on the depth chart as a 16 year old, Irving has emerged as a steady player for the Oil Kings this year, with 9 goals, 21 assists, and a +25 rating in 53 games. Standing 6’1” and at 190 pounds, Irving projects as a two-way defenseman who can do a little bit of everything, be it chipping in offensively, playing a physical game, or coming up with a big shot block late in the game. While he doesn’t particularly stand out on a nightly basis, Irving is the potential second/third pairing guy that every great NHL team seems to have; a two-way guy who can be put onto the ice in any situation, against any line, and be effective.
Really difficult to come up with a list of guys who are falling this month, because so many guys are stepping into larger, more important roles for their teams down the stretch. There are guys like Chase de Leo, who are at risk of being overtaken on the list, mainly because other guys project better at the next level. Due to reasons like that, it’s hard to place him on this part of the list, because he continues to play up to his potential. In truth, it’s great to not put anyone on this part of the list – things are tightening up among draft eligible, which should make for an exciting draft day!
Tags: Sam Reinhart | Leon Draisaitl | Hayden Fleury | Jake Virtanen | Conner Bleackley | Julius Honka | Tyson Baillie | Nikita Scherbak | Brycen Martin | Chase de Leo | 2014 nhl draft | 2014 nhl draft prospects |
|1. C Sam Reinhart
|2. D Aaron Ekblad
|3. C Michael Dal Colle
|4. C Leon Draisaitl
|Prince Albert Raiders
|5. C William Nylander
|6. LW Nick Ritchie
|7. D Haydn Fleury
|Red Deer Rebels
|8. D Roland McKeown
|9. LW Sam Bennett
|10. C Jared McCann