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Nugent-Hopkins tops list of players to watch in WHL

by Adam Kimelman
The 2011 Entry Draft will mark 15 years since a player from the Western Hockey League was taken with the No. 1 pick. That year, the Ottawa Senators selected Prince Albert Raiders defenseman Chris Phillips.

To commemorate the event, another WHL player could earn the top spot when the NHL holds this year's draft in St. Paul, Minn., this June.

Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is near the top of every NHL team's watch list, and nothing he's done this season has changed anyone's mind.

Nugent-Hopkins, though, isn't the only top prospect skating in the WHL. examines a few of them:

Sven Bartschi -- The Portland Winterhawks hit the lottery when they chose Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter at the 2009 CHL Import Draft. With Bartschi, it looks like they hit the daily double with another star Swiss forward.

The 5-foot-10 1/2, 175-pound left wing doesn't have Niederreiter's size, but he's got explosive skills that have propelled him to the top of the league scoring list. His 20 points are tied for No. 8  in the league, and he leads all first-year players in points, goals (9), power-play goals (5), game-winning goals (2) and assists (11).

"Quick, skilled, very fast type of player," is how Portland coach Mike Johnston described Bartschi in an interview with "He's a little bit different than Nino and not nearly as big, but a pretty dynamic player."

Myles Bell -- The 6-foot, 209-pound defenseman already is well on his way to eclipsing the impressive numbers he put up last season as a WHL rookie with the Regina Pats.

After scoring 4 goals and 18 points in 61 games last season, he already has 5 goals and 11 points in 14 games this season. He's tied for second among all WHL defenseman in goals and fourth in points.

"I wouldn't put him in the same category, but he looks at times like a Drew Doughty, that type of style," NHL Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan told "He can skate well, he passes the puck like a pro, he can go end to end. ... He can hit as hard as anybody, he can skate as well as anybody."

Liam Liston -- The Brandon Wheat Kings goalie was one of four netminders invited to try out for Canada's Ivan Hlinka Tournament team, and while he didn't make that squad, he's certainly making the folks in Brandon happy.

Liston started the season competing with two other goalies for playing time, but recently he's emerged as the No. 1 goaltender. He entered the weekend on a two-game win streak, pushing his season totals to 4-4-0 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .900 save percentage in eight games.

Adam Lowry -- The big Swift Current left wing missed the first two weeks of the season recovering from a bout of mononucleosis, but scouts are sure he'll return to the form that allowed him to score 15 goals and 34 points in 61 games last season. In 10 games this season, he has 1 goal and 4 points.

"He's a big forward (6-3 1/2, 186) that can crash and bang, makes things happen for his linemates," said Sullivan. "He'll score goals for you. ... Just a big winger that can crash and bang, finishes checks well, goes to the net hard. A player that every NHL team would want."

Lowry's father, Dave Lowry, spent 19 seasons in the NHL, most notably with the 1995-96 Florida Panthers, when he led the team his 10 goals and 17 points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Shane McColgan -- The Kelowna Rockets right wing hasn't let his 5-8, 165-pound frame slow him down. Last season, his first in the WHL, he had 69 points, tied for second among all first-year players, and he had 25 goals.

He's got off to a bit of a slow start due to having his tonsils removed in early September, but despite playing just nine games, he leads the team with 12 points and remains very high on the scouts' lists.

"He's a very good little player," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told "He's a real good puckhandler, really skates. Loves to compete. ... He's got good energy, he's shifty and he's quick. He likes to handle the puck."

Mark McNeill -- After scoring 24 points with a minus-10 rating for the Prince Albert Raiders last season, McNeill has shot out of the gates in his second WHL season. The 6-1, 204-pound center has 5 goals and 15 points in his first 15 games, as well as a plus-1 rating.

"He's good at both ends of the rink," said MacDonald. "He comes down low and helps out defensively. He's an assistant captain, has leadership qualities."

"He's a centerman that has really deceiving speed," added Sullivan. "He's a guy that everyone in the NHL would want on their third line."

Joe Morrow -- The 6-foot, 196-pounder is fighting for playing time on a stacked Portland defense, which features three NHL-drafted players. He had a solid 31 points and plus-17 rating in 63 games last season, and despite being slowed by a groin strain, he has 5 assists in five games this season.

"He's playing very good this year," said MacDonald. "Really poised with the puck, has good, smart puck movement. He's played really well for Portland so far -- anchors their defense."

The NHL Draft is nothing new for the Morrow family -- Joe's father, Dave, was a 1977 fourth-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks, and his brother, Josh, was a seventh-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2002.

David Musil -- The Vancouver Giants defenseman made a nice impression in his first WHL season, scoring 32 points and posting a team-best plus-33 rating in 71 games. He's been just as good this season, with 10 points and a plus-8 rating in 16 games.

A workhorse, the 6-foot-3 1/2, 200-pounder, Musil now is learning how to use his size to his advantage.

"David is very good, very poised with the puck, and very reliable," said MacDonald. "He has very good composure. Moves the puck early -- which is good for a defenseman -- and safely. He's starting to use his size better. He's extremely reliable and he logs tons of minutes. He's out there on special teams. Just a real workhorse, their go-to defenseman. ... It's hard to find defensemen that make that right play, that right safe play, all the time and he does that."

Musil also has NHL bloodlines -- his father, Frantisek, was a 1983 second-round pick of the Minnesota North Stars who had 140 points and 1,240 penalty minutes in 797 games with the North Stars, Flames, Senators and Oilers from 1986-2001.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- The 6-foot, 170-pound center started his season in fine form, leading Canada in scoring with 7 points in six games at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, and the strong play has carried right into the WHL season. In 14 games, he's third in the league with 17 assists, and his 20 points are tied for eighth.

"This guy has very good puck-handling capabilities," said MacDonald. "His on-ice awareness is very good. He's just one of those guys that knows where everyone is and where they should be and where the puck should go."

Ty Rattie -- The Portland Winterhawks right wing was overshadowed a bit last season, but still managed to score 17 goals and 37 points in 61 games. This season, however, he's showing he can be a major contributor. His 23 points in 13 games is third in the league.

Despite the return of two-thirds of last season's heralded top line -- center Ryan Johansen, the No. 4 pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, and Brad Ross, a second-round pick -- Rattie figures to still see a significant amount of ice time.

"You can tell he's a year older, a little stronger, and he's playing with more confidence," said MacDonald. "Rattie and (Sven) Bartschi, they're on the same line and they anchor that second line and second power-play unit. The way he's playing, he'll have a lot of minutes."

Duncan Siemens -- In 2009-10, his first full WHL season, the 6-3, 197-pound Saskatoon defenseman led all Blades defensemen with 20 points. He also was a plus-11 in 57 games, which put him on the radar for NHL scouts.

His 2010-11 season started with a gold-medal performance for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, where he had a goal and 3 points, and his strong play has carried into the WHL season. He has 6 assists, 7 points and a plus-7 rating in 13 games and has made an impression on scouts.

"He's a guy that is really tough to play against," said Sullivan. "Sometimes I think he over-does it, tries to do too much, but he's got all the potential. He can carry the puck, he's a tough kid, he can fight. He's tough to play against. He's a presence on the ice -- you know when he's out there. He can work both ends, he plays both power play and penalty kill. He's just a solid, all-round defenseman."

Dylan Willick -- The speedy Kamloops right wing had 12 goals and 29 points in 71 games last season, and has continued with a strong start this season, scoring 3 goals and 6 points in 15 games. The only thing holding Willick back appears to be his size -- he's 5-9 1/2 and 184 pounds.

"He's got good outside speed and very good awareness," said MacDonald. "He's got good energy, hustles every shift. He's going to have to learn to be quick and get in and out of holes."

Tyler Wotherspoon -- The 6- 1 1/2, 200-pound defenseman responded well to a half-season opportunity with Portland, scoring 4 points and posting a plus-15 rating in 43 games last season.

Like Morrow, he's fighting for ice time with older players, but the talent is there. In 11 games this season, he has 3 assists and a plus-3 rating.

"He's a nice, big defenseman, physically strong," said Macdonald. "He's showing signs of good poise, mobility is pretty good. He's starting to establish himself with good physical play in his own zone. He clears guys out. On that Portland defense he's going to have to fight for ice time. ... The fact that he's even playing and getting minutes and working some special teams on the penalty kill (is good)."

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