A U.S.-born defenseman has been taken with the first pick of an NHL Draft twice in League history. It could happen for a third time next June.
Portland Winterhawks blueliner Seth Jones has lived up to all the expectations that have followed him this season, and he's an early candidate to join that very exclusive club.
But Jones isn't the only highly regarded draft prospect skating in the Western Hockey League.
NHL.com reached out to NHL Central Scouting's top WHL scouts, Peter Sullivan and B.J. MacDonald, for their opinions on a few of the players who could hear their names called early at June's selection process at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Presented in alphabetical order, here is a list of the top 10 prospects skating in the WHL, with expert opinion from Sullivan and MacDonald:
Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, Portland -- The 5-foot-10.5, 167-pound Danish forward has had little trouble adjusting in his first season in North America. He is tied for the lead among WHL rookies with five goals in 12 games, while his 10 points are third, two behind the league leader. He earned a B rating on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings of players to watch for this year's draft.
"This kid is playing really well," Sullivan told NHL.com. "He finds the holes and he does the little things well. He's always on the puck. As soon as the puck drops, he's got it and something's happening and you notice him. He's just playing really well. I was really impressed with him."
MacDonald said, "He's sort of one of those players that you might classify him as sneaky-good. His skating is a little odd but he always gets to the right spot. He's really tough on the puck, he really stays on the puck and he goes to the net. He has very quick hands, very good hands. He knows how to make a play. He can give and go. He's the type of player that the better players he plays with, the better level he'll go to."
Jones opted for the WHL rather than the University of North Dakota, and the early returns have been positive. He earned an A rating on Central Scouting's preliminary list and had a goal in the inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, a showcase for the top draft-eligible American-born players. He has two goals and four assists in 11 WHL games -- and while those numbers might be down from what some might have expected after he posted 26 points in 48 games for the USNTDP last season, scouts still have come away impressed.
"I like his ability to control the game," MacDonald said. "His puckhandling skills and his great awareness, that seems to be his strength. He's really aware of everything on the ice and where everyone is and where to move the puck -- and defensively [he's] the same way. I really like his overall awareness. His on-ice awareness is excellent."
Sullivan, who saw Jones last season, said he's noticed the intelligence in the youngster's play.
"This year he's playing smarter," Sullivan said. "He's not trying to be as explosive with his skating ability that he has. He's playing a smarter game. Every time you get the puck, don't take off. Make good plays with it -- and he is. He's playing really smart this year. Last year with the [USNTDP] he took off every time, trying to be Bobby Orr. This year he's playing it a lot smarter, playing very well defensively. I just think he's playing a smarter game this year than he did as an underage."
Morgan Klimchuk, LW, Regina -- Klimchuk isn't the kind of player who will blow a fan's hair back with his skill set, but he's one of the more well-rounded players in this year's class and very worthy of the A rating Central Scouting gave him in its preliminary rankings.
The 5-11.5, 180-pound forward has six goals and 10 points in 14 games after totaling 18 goals and 36 points in 67 games last season.
"He's a very intelligent hockey player," Sullivan said. "He doesn't have excellent hockey sense, he's just an intelligent hockey player. He's got quick hands, soft hands. He does a lot of the little things well from a coach's perspective. … He's one of the better players in the league right now."
Curtis Lazar, C, Edmonton -- Fans got an early look at the 5-11.75, 193-pound forward last season at the Memorial Cup, when he was one of the Oil Kings' best forwards. That capped a rookie WHL season that saw him score 31 points in 63 regular-season games, then lead all rookies in the WHL playoffs in goals (eight), assists (11) and points (19) in 20 games.
When you add five games midseason for Canada Pacific at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Lazar played 78 games -- and the fact he was still so strong at the Memorial Cup was impressive for a 17-year-old.
"I think what it tells you is that he's a good learner and he has the ability to improve every outing," MacDonald said. "When you see a player progress like that and get stronger at the end of the year, it shows he digests a lot of information and uses it. You've got to be a smart player to do it."
Lazar started this season well, with four goals and an assist in five games to help Canada win the gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He also has eight goals and three assists in his first 13 regular-season games. He earned an A rating from Central Scouting.
"I really like his speed; he has a real nose for the net," MacDonald said. "His skill set is good. I like to say about some of these players that are 'A' players: You watch them play and they get it. He gets it. He gets the game and knows how to filter through it all."
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This comes after he had three points in seven games to help Canada win the bronze medal at the 2012 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, then had a team-best eight assists to help Canada win gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
"This kid probably has as much hockey sense and sees the ice well as anybody," Sullivan said. "He's so smooth. He's always a step or two ahead of the play. … He can slow the game down, or if you want to speed it up he can speed it up. He's got a little bit of an edge to his game."
Mirco Mueller, D, Everett -- After playing in the top professional league in Switzerland last season as a 17-year-old, Muller decided to try the Silvertips and North American hockey. He's excelled early, with five points and a plus-4 rating in 13 games, most of which he's played alongside Ryan Murray, the second pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Mueller (6-3.25, 184 pounds) earned a B rating from Central Scouting, but Sullivan said, "For me he's an A player."
MacDonald said, "I like him. He does stuff that you don't see too many defensemen do.
"He's a first-year player playing on a different-size rink, different league. He has the ability to slow a game down and control it. I've seen him do it on numerous occasions. He's really, really intelligent, he can move the puck. He always makes the right play with the puck. I just think he's going to get better. I really like him, he's really smart … he's another one of those guys that gets it. He does all the little things right. He can formulate, he can see plays happening before they happen. His decisions are very good. He's not afraid to step up and challenge players and make good open-ice hits.
"He's almost so clever that you don't notice him sometimes, but he's always in control every shift."
Any player skating alongside Murray at the junior level is going to have his profile raised, but MacDonald said Muller would excel with or without Murray next to him.
"Playing with Murray helps, but he's got it on his own," MacDonald said. "I saw him in the preseason; he went on the ice and knew where to go, when to step up, how to dissect the plays. A lot of it is all him. He just gets it … his instincts are top-notch."
Ryan Pulock, D, Brandon -- Since the beginning of last season, only one WHL defenseman has scored more points than Pulock's 77, and none can match his plus-43 rating.
After finishing third among league defenseman with 60 points last season, he's second this season (and tied for 12th among all players) with 17 points in 14 games. His plus-10 is tied for second among defenseman after he was a plus-33 in 2011-12. That level of all-round skill is a big reason the 6-foot-0.5, 211-pound blueliner earned an A rating in Central Scouting's preliminary rankings.
"He does everything well," Sullivan said. "He's got the hardest shot I've seen in years. He's so smart. … The thing that's even more impressive is I've seen him take seven or eight super hits -- body checks and hip checks -- laying guys into the boards, and I look at his penalty minutes and he's got two.
"He's got all the tools to be a top pick."
Eric Roy, D, Brandon -- With so much attention focused on Pulock, Roy's play might slip past some scouts. But with seven assists and 10 points in 14 games, the 6-2.5, 187-pound blueliner definitely is one to watch.
Roy received a B rating from Central Scouting, but Sullivan said, "Sometimes he shows you an A."
"He does a lot of things well," Sullivan added. "The same as Pulock does, but Pulock has that little extra in him. But this kid is playing well too. … I want to see how the year finishes for him. But he's playing really well now."
Hunter Shinkaruk, C, Medicine Hat -- On a Medicine Hat team that finished with 90 points last season, Shinkaruk starred with 49 goals and 91 points, second-best on the club behind Emerson Etem's 61 goals and 107 points. With the team struggling this season, Shinkaruk's numbers have taken a bit of a hit -- 13 points in his first 14 games. However, the 5-10, 166-pound center is still well-deserving of the A grade he received from Central Scouting.
"Teams are really keying on him because he doesn't have the help he had last year," MacDonald said. "Teams are really keying on him. They're trying to eliminate him right out of the play. He's realizing that and he's got to learn to fight through it. But he's a talented kid. No one can give-and-go and go to the net better than he does. He's got a great understanding of the game. He's going to develop his character this year because every team they play against is going to key on him."
Sullivan said, "As soon as he touches the puck, people in the stands want to stand up and say, 'Here he goes.' … This kid is really exciting to watch. As soon as he touches the puck you go, 'Wow, this is great.'"
Shea Theodore, D, Seattle -- The Thunderbirds are off to a solid start, and Theodore, a 6-1.75, 182-pound blueliner, is one reason.
After posting 35 points in 69 games as a WHL rookie last season, he's upped his production with three goals and three assists in 10 games. After the minus-36 he turned in last season, he is a minus-4 in 2012-13.
He earned an A grade in Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list.
"Smooth as silk," MacDonald said. "He's a really nice player. He can lay down a pass just as good as anyone in the league, always on the tape. He's really heady and really smart, and he actually runs their power play. I like everything about him. Good size, good movement. His overall understanding of the game is excellent. As a younger defenseman, he by far anchors their defense. He leads their team back there. He shows good leadership qualities as well."
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