Every season, dozens of soon-to-be 18-year-olds vie for the attention of scouts and fans alike as they prepare for the annual NHL Entry Draft. However, we’ve narrowed things down to 20 potential draft-eligible standouts for hockey onlookers to keep their eyes on throughout the coming winter. Note that these aren’t the only potential stars this year, just 20 (spread throughout 18 WHL clubs) to watch.
F Kohl Bauml – Everett Silvertips
After two strong years with his hometown Saskatoon Contacts, Bauml made the jump to the WHL last season with the Silvertips – who drafted him in third round of the 2009 Bantam Draft. He put up 34 points in 71 games with Everett. With a pretty young Silvertips club seeing most of its core return, Bauml could be poised for a break-out.
D Madison Bowey – Kelowna Rockets
A Winnipeg native, the offensively-oriented Bowey was strong for the Rockets, putting up 21 points in 57 games as a WHL rookie. With a handful of older players graduating from the WHL, Bowie will be given more minutes and responsibilities to grow into with Kelowna. He’ll be part of Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August.
F Greg Chase – Calgary Hitmen
As Chase gained experience with Calgary, he’s also gained confidence. After a 5-game cup of coffee with the club two seasons ago, Chase joined the Hitmen full-time last year and didn’t look out of place. Moreover, Chase was relied upon more and more by his team as the season wore on. Despite some uneven production – he had months where he always put up points and some where he went dry – Chase showed a great deal of promise. A little consistency is the only thing he needs to become a key contributor.
G Eric Comrie – Tri-City Americans
The WHL isn’t known as a great league for staunch defensive play, so it’s noteworthy when a netminder puts up good numbers. It’s even more interesting when he does it as a 17-year-old. Comrie, playing behind Americans starter Ty Rimmer last season, still saw action in 31 games and won 19 of them. Despite seeing only sporadic spot duty, Comrie pulled some key wins together. He was even better when given a string of games to start in a row. Now likely pegged as the starter in Tri-City, he’ll hope to continue his great play over a longer stretch, starting when he plays for Team Canada at Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August.
F Alex Forsberg – Prince George Cougars
After a short stint with the Cougars in 2010-11, Forsberg made a sizable impact for the club last season, amassing an impressive 40 points in 51 appearances. With the weight of his WHL debut season off his shoulders, and the Cougars with a lot of 1991 and 1992 born players who will be leaving, so Forsberg will get a lot of ice-time and the chance to improve on those offensive totals.
F Jayden Hart – Medicine Hat Tigers
If teammate Hunter Shinkaruk played anywhere else, Hart may have enjoyed a bit more attention than he is. A late 1994 birthday, Hart quietly put up 32 points in 67 games for the Tigers last year and he’ll likely enjoy a bigger role on the club with the departure of some older players. With most of the spotlight on Shinkaruk, expect Hart to surprise a lot of people and put up strong numbers.
D Dillon Heatherington – Swift Current Broncos
At first glance, a defensive prospect on a team that routinely got out-shot and out-scored isn’t all that tantalizing. But Heatherington was a plus-2 on a club that was out-scored by 60 goals on the season. Also putting up decent offensive numbers (10 points in 57 games), Heatherington could quietly develop into a strong two-way defender.
D Seth Jones – Portland Winterhawks
A lot of hype has preceded the WHL debut of Seth Jones, son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, and the standout captain of the U.S. National Development Team. A skilled two-way player, good with the puck and without, Jones could be the centerpiece of a very good Winterhawks offense. Or he could wilt under the pressure of being the subject of so much hype. Then again, he’s dealt with it well enough thus far.
F Morgan Klimchuk – Regina Pats
The fifth overall pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, Klimchuk joined the Pats last season and put up strong numbers for a WHL freshman – 36 points in 67 games. This year, the training wheels will come off and he’ll be expected to help lead the team’s offense. He showed flashes of the ability to do so last year, so if consistency can be found, he’ll be hard to stop.
F Curtis Lazar – Edmonton Oil Kings
Lazar led the Oil Kings in scoring in the playoffs (19 points in 20 games) after a solid 31 point regular season effort. With a handful of Oil Kings graduating after the playoff run, Lazar will be given every opportunity to continue his exceptional playoff performance. He’ll be part of Team Canada at the annual Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
F Jay Merkley – Lethbridge Hurricanes
While his two-way play could use a bit of work (he was minus-17 last year), Merkley put up decent scoring figures last year with 23 points in 58 games. The Hurricanes hope he can step up production a bit and help the team turn things around this season.
F Cory Millette – Red Deer Rebels
The Rebels missed the playoffs and were routinely out-scored, but one of the bright spots was the emergence of Millette as a valuable asset. He scored 21 points in 56 games and had a respectable minus-4 figure. With any luck, he can continue his growth.
D Josh Morrissey – Prince Albert Raiders
A very good player on the WHL’s worst team last season, Morrissey was only minus-2 on a club that was out-scored by almost 100 goals on the year. Moreover, he had 38 points in 68 games, out-scoring all but three forwards on his team. He’ll continue his growth this year, starting with a stint with Team Canada at the annual Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
F Matt Needham – Kamloops Blazers
The son of 86-game NHL veteran Mike Needham (now a coach with Kamloops), Matt Needham played 13 games with the Blazers as a 16-year-old and maintained steady production as a 17-year-old, putting up 41 points over 74 combined games. But Needham found another gear during the playoffs, improving his production to 7 points in 11 games. An offensive powerhouse in bantam, Needham will hopefully continue to unlock that potential at the major junior level this season.
F Nicolas Petan – Portland Winterhawks
Playing behind a lot of talented players last season, Nic Petan put up a respectable 35 points in 61 games. He’ll likely operate in the shadow of anticipated top NHL draft pick (and teammate) Seth Jones. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as several Winterhawks players have developed efficiently and quietly in coach Mike Johnston’s system. Petan will be on Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
D Ryan Pulock – Brandon Wheat Kings
A few weeks too young for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Pulock has already amassed 102 points in 134 WHL regular season contests. In short – he’s got a knack for creating offensive opportunities for his team. The Wheaties will be missing several older players, so it’ll be up to Pulock (and equally impressive defender Eric Roy) to anchor Brandon’s attack.
F Hunter Shinkaruk – Medicine Hat Tigers
Born a mere month after the cut-off for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Shinkaruk has already had two strong seasons in the WHL: 42 points in 2010-11 and a whopping 91 points in 2011-12. A talent offensive player with an underrated defensive side to his game, Shinkaruk is the crux of the Tigers offense now that Emerson Etem has exited and will be a top pick in the 2013 Draft. How high he goes depends on how impressive his season ends up being.
D Shea Theodore – Seattle Thunderbirds
If you’re a minus-36 defender, some people may say you lack purpose. But when you put up 35 points in 39 games, as a 17-year-old defender, some people may just say you have a bit of a hole in your game to fill out. That said, the Thunderbirds were very porous defensively, and Theodore’s plus/minus is merely a result of that team-wide problem. His offensive numbers, though, will attract some attention. He’ll represent Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
F Torrin White – Moose Jaw Warriors
A skilled offensive talent in bantam and midget, White joined the Warriors and showcased a surprisingly adept ability at two-way play. If he can maintain his discipline and add in a little more offense, he’ll be a tremendous asset to the Warriors.