From boys and girls minor hockey to even the most obscure men’s shinny leagues up and down the coast – September means hockey parents, fans and coaches from every nook and cranny of the Pacific Northwest prognosticate on the season’s most sensational players. Obviously, the Western Hockey League is no different.
As the 2011/12 season gets underway, my hype machine expects these 10 puck-slingers to sparkle a little more than the rest in WHL barns on a nightly basis. Taking into consideration that certain players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers), Ryan Johansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders) are near shoe-ins to make their parent NHL clubs, I’ve purposely excluded them from my list for that reason.
That being said, some on this list may even surprise NHL brass and stick it out a few regular season games – but I’ll take my chances these guys will be back in the ‘Dub soon enough.
Without any further preamble, here’s my Top 10 List for 2011/12:
Brenden Kichton, 19, Spokane Chiefs – Defenceman
(Drafted 5th round, 127th
(Drafted 5th round, 127th overall, by the New York Islanders in 2011)
Kichton enters his fourth year in a Spokane Chiefs uniform as their best offensive weapon. That says a lot, considering he’s going to be contributing on the blueline. But after tying for the lead in points for defencemen in 2010-11 with 81 (23 goals and 58 assists) – not to mention posting a mind-blowing plus-55 – the puck-wheeling Spruce Grove, Alberta native can score with the best of them. In the mold of Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green, Kichton relies on his superb hockey sense to jump into the rush at the right moment, and while he’ll be without goalscorers Tyler Johnson this season, don’t expect Kichton’s killer offensive numbers to take dramatic slide.
Kevin Sundher, 19, Victoria Royals – Centre (Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, by the Buffalo Sabres in 2010)
Sundher, an Indo-Canadian hockey player, from Surrey B.C., is now the offence catalyst for the Victoria Royals, a team that enters its first year in the WHL after coming over from Chilliwack in the summer. Drafted 7th overall in the Bantam Draft, Sundher has yet to fulfill all of his potential since entering the league. While his 24 goals and 76 points are nothing to scoff at the 6’0″ 190-pound centreman has a lot more in the coffer. Sundher’s strengths are his smooth skating and soft hands – at times he makes hockey seem effortless. But if he plays with more of a chip on his shoulder, Sundher could very well hit the 30-goal, 90-point mark in 2011-12.
Emerson Etem, 19, Medicine Hat Tigers, Winger (Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, by the Anaheim Ducks in 2010)
The Long Beach California-native wowed the WHL as a rookie scoring 37 goals, and deemed a steal in the 2010 Draft when he fell to Anaheim at 29th overall after Central Scouting Bureau predicted him going 8th. Etem is a powerful kid with a fluid skating stride and powerful shot. More of a goalscorer than point-getter, he followed up with a stellar sophomore campaign upping the anti to 45 goals and a plus-41 rating and lead the Tigers in playoff scoring with 21 points in 15 games. At his best, Etem is a dominating offensive force, who is hard to knock off the puck. The former roller hockey phenom is one of only a handful of players who could score upwards of 60 goals this season.
Sven Bartschi, 18, Portland Winterhawks, Winger (Drafted 1st round, 13h overall, by the Calgary Flames in 2011)
It’s tough to know how good Sven Bartschi really is. As a member of the Portland Winterhawks offensive machine, which hammered and included future NHL household names in Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, Bartschi is now under the media microscope after his lights-out rookie campaign: 34 goals, 51 assists for 85 points; 27 points in 21 playoff games. The Swiss forward boasts a stellar two-way game, and is not afraid to get his nose in traffic despite his 5’10″ 185-pound frame. Barring a statistical sophomore slump, Bartschi is a force to be reckoned with.
Brett Connolly, 19, Prince George Cougars, Winger (Drafted 1st round, 6th overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010)
One cannot dismiss the fact Brett Connolly was the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft. However, after being hobbled by a injury, Connelly missed almost the entire 2009-10 season. Last season, out to prove his worth, the hometown boy hammered 46 goals in 59 games for the Cougars.
Connolly is a cold-blooded sniper when it comes to shooting down opposing netminders, who not unlike Dany Heatley is deadly in the slot. Alongside former 2007 WHL fourth-overall pick Colin Inglis, a healthy Connolly should have a lights out season with the resurgent Prince George Cougars.
Jordan Weal, 19, Regina Pats, Centre (Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, by the Los Angeles Kings in 2010)
The crafty centreman from North Vancouver is small in stature, but makes up for it in a big way on the scoresheet. The 5’10″, 170-pound Weal has torched the WHL for a combined 198 points the past two seasons. Entering his 4th full season with the Pats, Weal will once again be the leader on offence and should easily hit the 100-point mark if he stays relatively healthy.
Calvin Pickard, 19, Seattle Thunderbirds, Goaltender (Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, by the Colorado Avalanche in 2010)
The hardest working goaltender in the WHL last year, Calvin Pickard proved that he’s the cream of the crop when it comes to stopping the puck. The 2668 shots Pickard faced were nearly 500 more than any other netminder (Second-place Lucas Gore of the Chilliwack Bruins saw 2185 shots zip in his direction).
With all that rubber, Pickard still managed to post a third-best .916 save percentage, to along with a 27 wins for a subpar Seattle squad. The postionally sound netminder from Winnipeg, is big, strong and has an excellent glove. After narrowly missing out on Canada’s 2011 World Junior team, Pickard should be a lock to make it this time around.
Quinton Howden, 19, Moose Jaw Warriors, Winger (Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, by the Florida Panthers in 2010)
With great size (6’3″, 185 lbs) and even better wheels, Quinton Howden dominated the Eastern Conference competition powering 40 goals and 79 points in 60 games for the Warriors in 2010-11. The Manitoban is a former first-round pick of the Florida Panthers and was a major contributor physically and offensively for Canada’s Gold Medal squad at the World Juniors last winter.
Ryan Murray, 17, Everett Silvertips, Defenceman (Eligible for the 2012 NHL entry draft)
A projected Top-5 pick in 2012 NHL entry draft, Murray has all the tools to become a star at the professional level. The 6-foot defenceman boasts an all-round game, which complements his exceptional maturity and great hockey sense. In second full season he managed to post 46 points and plus-18 in 70 games for the Everett. Taking on a bigger role as team Captain, the 17-year-old White City, Saskatchewan native will be the focal point for the ‘Tips in 2011/12.
Brendan Gallagher, 19, Vancouver Giants, Winger (Drafted 5th round, 147th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens in 2010)
The feisty, yet diminutive, winger – Gallagher stands a whooping 5’9″, 170 pounds – has done everything to silence his critiques after the Giants stole him in the 2007 Bantam Draft in the 9th round (195th pick).
The Delta boy has posted season point totals of 81 and 91 that includes back-to-back 40-goal campaigns. He’s typically the hardest working player on the ice who creates his own scoring chances through sheer tenacity.
Gallagher has a nose for the net to go along with incredibly soft-hands, and should take a legitimate run at the WHL scoring title.