Like in years past, this was scheduled to be a 'top 10' players to watch. But, I started the list and couldn't cut it down any, so I decided to make it a list of 25 players. Safe to say that proves how excited I am for the start of the season, which kicks off tonight as Edmonton plays host to Kootenay.
Basically, this list is a grouping of 25 players I can't wait to watch this WHL season. They range from forwards, to defenceman, to goalies and also include players who have been drafted and players eligible for future NHL drafts. The WHL is a great league with a ton of talent, so take a look at my list of some players to keep a close eye on this season.
1. Chris Driedger - The Calgary Hitmen can definitely be considered a contender as we enter the 2012-13 season. They were solid last year, have a ton of returning players and have the distinction of having one of the top goaltenders in the league in Driedger. The Sens 2012 NHL Draft pick is poised to put up a solid season after winning the starters role throughout the year last year. I fully expect him to finish in the top 5-7 in wins this season as well as posting solid peripheral numbers.
2. Curtis Lazar - The Edmonton Oil Kings have a future star on their hands in Curtis Lazar. He came on strong in the second half last year and was fantastic in the WHL playoffs. He's in the running as a top 10 pick in the 2013 NHL draft and could end up as the WHL's highest drafted forward when next June roles around. He definitely sits near the top of this list of 25 in regards to my overall interest level.
3. Colin Smith - The Kamloops Blazers are set to torch the Western Conference in 2012-13. They're hard working, have depth at every position and have veteran leadership. Smith fills a number of different roles after translating a strong 2011-12 season into being drafted by the Colorado Avalanche. Watch for Smith to end up near the top of the WHL's scoring heap come next spring.
4. Ryan Pulock - This 18 year old was just named captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings and he's ready for a massive year. He might be considered the best offensive defender for the 2013 NHL Draft and I will definitely be looking for him to post around 60+ points in 2012-13, while still maintaining his calm play with and without the puck. He's got a level head on his shoulders and it's safe to say every NHL team would want this kid as one of their own.
5. Jamal Watson - The Lethbridge Hurricanes are an up and coming squad in the WHL and one of the guys driving their core forward is Jamal Watson. He's lightning fast, plays physical and has some interesting offensive skills. As a 2013 NHL Draft eligible player, he doesn't get enough attention. I'm expecting a solid year from this underrated, well-rounded package of a player.
6. Mackenzie Skapski - The Kootenay Ice are in an interesting spot entering the year. They have a ton of young talent, but their inexperience might end up being their downfall. If they're going to be a successful team, much of that pressure falls on the shoulders of new starting goalie Mackenzie Skapski. The 1994 takes over for Nathan Lieuwen and I think he's fully capable of a solid year. Now it's up to him to prove it.
7. Hunter Shinkaruk - Many have the newly named Medicine Hat Tigers captain penciled in as the top forward prospect the WHL has to offer for the 2013 NHL Draft. At this point, that's pretty tough to argue considering his point totals the last couple of years. He's a fantastic player and could be in the running as a top scorer for the 2012-13 season. But, he also faces some pressure as the Tigers roster lost a ton of talent after last year including Emerson Etem and Tyler Bunz. This is now Hunter's team.
8. Matej Stransky - The Dallas Stars draft pick led the Blades in scoring last year and is now scheduled to start the year with the Blades two top acquisitions from the summer, Brenden Walker and Shane McColgan. The chances of Stransky scoring 40 goals this year are high, but those expectations also come with pressure. Can he repeat his 2011-12 success during such a pressure-filled year? Time will tell, but I can't wait to see how Stransky handles it.
9. Sam Reinhart - I already touched on the growing pains potentially ahead for the Ice and for them to counter that, Sam Reinhart will need to continue his upward swing. The kid has been lighting the WHL on fire ever since he first played full time with the Ice during the playoffs in 2010-11. He's not eligible for the NHL draft until 2014, so he still has a ton of time to dazzle people with well rounded play. I can't wait to see him play live several times this season. A truly unique talent.
10. Patrik Bartosak - The Red Deer Rebels are poised to be one of those middle-ground teams in the WHL's East in 2012-13. One guy that could elevate them above that is their goaltender Patrik Bartosak. He entered the WHL as a rookie last year and had a fantastic first half of the season before tweaking his knee and missing the rest of the year. He's a big, talented goaltender who is one of those many European wild cards the WHL seems to offer this season, especially in goal.
11. Morgan Klimchuk - The Regina Pats will be driven forward this year by a 20 year old goaltender, atleast one solid veteran on the blueline and a group of talented young forwards. The showcase talent is definitely Morgan Klimchuk. He's got wheels, great hands and could end up leading the team in scoring, along with Chandler Stephenson. He's draft eligible and will be in the mix for the 1st round in 2013. Keep your eyes on this kid.
12. Ty Rattie - Predictions are abound for who will win the WHL scoring title in 2012-13. For my money, Ty Rattie of the Portland Winterhawks is the best bet. The St. Louis Blues prospect comes in the year bigger, stronger and with another year of experience under his belt. Him and Michael St. Croix will likely go punch for punch all season and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top of the scoring race.
13. Victor Rask - The Swedish import now has a full WHL year under his belt and it's time to use that experience to his advantage. He's a big talented kid that can take over a game when he wants. Calgary has some depth up front so Rask is poised to put up massive numbers. The Hurricanes will be watching closely as he could even jump straight to the NHL in 2013-14.
14. Brendan Leipsic - The diminutive forward had a strong playoff and turned that into a nice slot at the NHL draft, getting picked by Nashville. With the Winterhawks losing some players from last year, the pressure is on Leipsic to up the ante and provide more offence. He's capable and could end up being considered a steal of the 2012 draft if he keeps up his hard work.
15. Seth Jones - As mentioned, this list varies in interest level for myself. But it's safe to say Seth Jones sits at the top of it. He's made the jump to the WHL and is a likely top 2 pick for the 2013 NHL Draft. He had a strong pre-season with Portland and is poised for a 40+ rookie campaign. He's my top choice for WHL rookie of the year this year as he's an impressive mix of size and skill. I can't wait to see him on the ice, especially when I get to see him live in October.
16. Michael St. Croix - The kid can flat out score. He proved that last year. That will definitely continue this year as the Oil Kings are poised for another run at the Memorial Cup after winning the WHL title last season. St. Croix is the offensive motor behind the team and could be one guy that has the ability to challenge Ty Rattie for the WHL scoring title.
17. Jake Virtanen - If someone is going to challenge Jones for rookie of the year, I would predict it would be this kid. The Calgary Hitmen rookie does a little bit of everything and is poised for a strong rookie season after being the 1st overall pick in the WHL bantam draft in 2011. He's surrounded by talent and will definitely catch your eye when you watch him. I've seen him play a few times and am very excited to see more of him, especially live.
18. Morgan Rielly - Nobody got a great look at Morgan Rielly last year, due to his early season knee injury. Luckily, I had the chance to see him a ton as a 16 year old and a few times before and after his injury last season. He's a fantastic talent, a Leafs prospect and will need to be stellar this season for the Moose Jaw Warriors to get back into the playoffs. It's actually kid of funny to say to watch for this kid, because when he's on the ice you can't miss him. Expect him to be near the top of the league in scoring for WHL blueliners in 2012-13.
19. Eric Comrie - Comrie is still considered one of the top goalie prospects to come through the WHL in recent years and the Tri-City Americans are among those sharing that mind frame. He's their go-to guy as a 17 year old and he's a talented kid. The pressure is on, but he's a hard worker and has a solid team in front of him. Don't be shocked if he ends up as a top 20 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft.
20. Leon Draisatl - The Prince Albert Raiders were lucky enough to pick this kid 2nd overall in the 2012 CHL Import Draft. He had a solid pre-season and was very impressive in the two live viewings of him I had in exhibition play. He's big, he goes to the net and he has finish. He's a darkhorse for the rookie of the year running and will definitely be a kid to keep an eye on for the 2014 NHL Draft.
21. Shane McColgan - The Saskatoon Blades paid a decent price to bring in McColgan and Jessey Astles last spring and they're going to give him every chance to succeed in 2012-13. He's going to get top line minutes, likely quarterback a powerplay and will be counted on as a leader. He's also been considered by some to be arguably the most dynamic and skillful player the Blades have had in the last decade. These roles come with pressure and it will be interesting to see how he handles it in a Memorial Cup year.
22. Adam Lowry - I had such high hopes for this Jets draft pick in 2011-12. But a wrist injury slowed his development and forced him to miss time for the Swift Current Broncos. The Broncos appear to be on the upswing and if that's to continue, Lowry will need to be the driving force as captain. He's a big body, is physical and has some true offensive talent. He's one of my favourite players in the league to watch and I look forward to seeing him fully healthy this year.
23. Marek Tvrdon - There is no doubting that this big Slovak is one of the most talented players in the league. He's coming off a 30+ goal season and I wouldn't be shocked to see him increase that total up near 50. Vancouver is a darkhorse out West in my mind and he is an offensive leader for them. He's also very fun to watch.
24. Josh Morrissey - I've been high on Morrissey since I first saw him live a couple seasons ago. A couple years later and he's in his NHL Draft year and poised to take on a huge role with the Prince Albert Raiders. He's talented offensively, plays with grit and isn't afraid to be a leader on and off the ice. Watch for him to quarterback the Raiders PP and put up a great offensive season along with being a top 20 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.
25. Brenden Kichton - Kichton is arguably the best offensive defender the WHL has to offer. He was 2nd in scoring for blueliners two years ago and 1st in scoring for defenders last year. I expect him to do that again. Will it be with the Spokane Chiefs or does he get dealt to a different squad? That's yet to be determined, but one thing is for sure, this kid is poised to be an elite scorer again in 2012-13.