The WHL season begins this weekend, and with that comes another year of prospect projections, discussions and the inevitable arguments in advance of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
However, unlike last season, the emphasis in the WHL this season is on its group of forwards, not its defense. Of the 22 'A' 'B' or 'C' players on Central Scouting's preliminary list, 15 are forwards and none are goaltenders. By comparison, in 2008, three of the first four WHL skaters selected were defensemen, and seven of the first 13 selected were blueliners.
With such a defense-heavy prospect list, it should be no wonder that the 16- and 17-year old WHL skaters took a little extra time to develop. But those young forwards, who spent last season learning the ropes, are now ready to take center stage in 2008-09.
Blair MacDonald, a former NHL player who now scouts the WHL and the western provincial leagues for NHL Central Scouting Services, believes that with an increased workload, more ice and heavier expectations, those forwards will begin to shine in 2008-09.
"The juniors so much are focused on special teams, and if you're on the power-play or penalty-killing units, then you get a lot of experience and a lot more exposure," MacDonald said.
Here are some of the skaters in the WHL who should take the next step into becoming dominant players for their respective teams in 2008-09, along with some insights into their abilities from MacDonald.
Brayden Schenn, F (Brandon Wheat Kings) -- Nobody on this list had a closer view of draft-year pressure than Schenn, whose brother Luke dealt with it all last season en route to his No. 5 selection by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brayden will use the experience of a full WHL season under his belt -- in which he took home the Rookie of the Year honors for the league -- and a host of international experience (bronze with Team West at the U17, gold with Team Canada at the U18 in 2007-08 and gold with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in 2008) to take the next step in 2008-09. Of all the forwards in the WHL this season, Schenn may be the best.
"He's a real good little center who controls the puck well, who knows when to dump it to open areas and how to make things happen," MacDonald said.
Evander Kane, C (Vancouver Giants) -- A player MacDonald characterizes as "a goal scorer who plays with a lot of confidence," Kane, 17, scored 24 goals in his first full WHL season, and that total should only increase with more ice time. At 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, Kane uses his smarts and skills to baffle opposing defenders, and he has the added bonus of playing with a maturity beyond his years. The Giants will be looking to him as a leader this season, but MacDonald believes that kind of added responsibility will only help the young center.
"They'll be looking to him, and I think anytime you're regarded as one of the go-to guys, you learn that the team expects a lot out of you and it helps," MacDonald said. "We look at a lot of factors as scouts, and your importance to the team is one of those facets. I think he's the type of character that he'll take that responsibility on, and that will only help his development."
Tyson Barrie, D (Kelowna Rockets) -- The first defenseman on our list is a member of an NHL bloodline -- father Len Barrie not only played in the League, but recently acquired a part interest in the Tampa Bay Lightning along with fellow primary owner Oren Koules. The pair would do well to acquire the services of the younger Barrie, who is a slick, puck-moving defenseman who contributes offensively as well as defensively, and who should begin to thrive in his second full season in the WHL.
"He's a real smart, heady player," MacDonald said. "He's smart with the puck, with good on-ice awareness, and I think he'll just get better because he'll have another year under his belt."
Barrie plays on arguably the best defensive corps in the WHL this season, arguably one of the top assembled groups in the past few seasons. Barrie plays along with Collin Bowman, another 'A' prospect on CSS' list, and the pair plays behind Luke Schenn and the No. 11 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, Buffalo's Tyler Myers. With that group, one wonders if the Rockets' goaltenders will see any shots at all.
Collin Bowman, D (Kelowna Rockets) -- Bowman, Barrie's D-partner, is the younger brother of Spokane Chiefs forward Drayson, who won the WHL Championship and Memorial Cup in 2008 and who was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2007 draft. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound defenseman focuses his game on keeping pucks out of his own net. Another year plus the benefit of watching Schenn and Myers for a full season should push Bowman's game even further in 2008-09.
MacDonald describes Bowman as a player with "good size and a physical edge, who moves the puck really well." Bowman also complements his defensive partner well since Bowman thinks defense while Barrie thinks offense, and that chemistry should only help the two young blueliners in their shared goal of getting drafted into the NHL.
"(Kelowna) should have the best D in the league," MacDonald said. "And I think that helped them because they see what has to be done."
Landon Ferraro, C (Red Deer Rebels) -- Landon is the son of "Chicken Parm" Ray Ferraro, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. Landon is an offensive forward, like his father, who plays with an edge and isn't afraid of the tough areas on the ice. He finished with 13 goals and 24 points in 2007-08, and 65 penalty minutes in only 54 games, and with a full year of WHL experience and a better team in 2008-09 (the Rebels finished dead last in the WHL last season), Ferraro should be able to increase all of his statistical totals in the new season.
Scott Glennie, C (Brandon Wheat Kings) -- "He's great along the boards, and handles the puck really well," said MacDonald, who believes Glennie and Schenn, who skate on the same line in Brandon, could make up two-thirds of the WHL's top line in 2007-08. The third member? Matt Calvert, who was selected by the Blue Jackets in the fifth round in 2008. The chemistry they developed last year should start the trio off on a good footing, and give the two undrafted members of the line a great chance at climbing up the rankings all season.
"I think that line as a group was one of the best lines in the WHL, and this year it could be the best," MacDonald said. "Last year they were 16-year-olds ... and they were still one of the best lines in the league. They all complement each other really well, and it's Glennie who goes to the net, so he could have a real big year."
Jared Cowen, D (Spokane Chiefs) -- As experience goes, no player on this list earned more of it last season than Chiefs forward Jared Cowen. He was able to watch the likes of Drayson Bowman (CAR, '07) and Mitch Wahl (CGY, '08) handle both the pressure of expectations and the increased scrutiny in a draft-eligible season. In addition, he was the member of a WHL Championship and a Memorial Cup Championship team, and that experience, coupled with his own innate abilities, will make him one of the WHL's most interesting prospects in 2008-09.
"He's going to be a top-dog," MacDonald said. "He's a player, he does everything. He's big, he's physical, he can skate and he moves the puck well, and he plays with confidence. He's going to be a top player in the WHL."
Tomas Vincour, C (Edmonton Oil Kings) -- Czech-born Vincour was the first skater selected in the CHL's 2007 Import Draft, and he didn't disappoint the expansion Oil Kings by tying for the team-lead in points. The only problem was, it didn't take a whole lot of points to lead the Kings in scoring. He finished with 16 goals and 39 points in 65 games last season, which were good numbers for a 16-year-old, especially for a first-year team. He didn't have a whole lot of help, but with a year of development for both Vincour and his teammates, his confidence, statistics and performance should all receive a healthy bump in 2008-09.