The WHL is a factory for producing NHL defensemen and has been for 20 years. Duncan Keith, Dion Phaneuf, Brent Seabrook, Chris Phillips, Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Mike Green, Tyler Myers, Luke Schenn and Jay Bouwmeester are all products of the WHL's rigorous defensive production.
The feeling has always been that the Major Junior game is a little bigger, a little rougher and a little closer to the Show out west. That's why, as the defensemen got bigger, so did the forwards. The last five WHL forwards selected in the Top 10 have all been at least 6'1". They seem to just grow them a little bigger in the Canadian heartland.
So, what will dominate the top end of the WHL's draft eligible class this year? Will it be, as it has been in the last few years, bigger forwards? Or will the "Dub" return to it's usual form as a factory for the next generation of defensive stalwarts?
Tyler Wotherspoon: In Tyler Wotherspoon, what you're seeing is what you're getting. He's a steady, calm defensive defenseman. He has some puck poise, but he's not a rusher or a great outlet passer. He's a shutdown defenseman with a solid physical game. He's not going to put up a serious amount of points but he's likely a No. 4 or 5 defenseman at the pro level. He'll never be a defensive liability and will likely be a fixture on a team's Penalty Kill.
Marcel Noebels: (pictured) Noebels was passed over in last year's draft. That's unlikely to happen again this year. The big power forward from Tonisvorst, Germany was arguably his country's best player at the recent World Junior Championships. He's on pace for more than 25 goals and 50 points in his first season in North America after playing 33 games for Krefeld in the DEL last season.
Shane McColgan: Shane McColgan was seen as a first-round pick for this draft at this point last year. That he no longer is, is likely attributable as much to the rise of others as it is to McColgan's own game. McColgan is a smaller winger. What he does have is very strong hockey sense and a very evasive skating stride. Simply put, McColgan is a boom/bust prospect in a draft that's full of them. So, his size is going to cause him to slide down the draft board a little.
Adam Lowry: Lowry is a safe pick in a draft without them. He's got the frame to build on, but he's very lanky right now. He's a physical player who, when he grows into his body, will very likely be at least a checking or energy line forward in the NHL. The son of former NHLer Dave Lowry, Adam is on pace for more than 50 points and could produce at a higher rate next year. It's unlikely we'll ever talk about him as a top offensive power forward but he will be a serviceable third or fourth line player.
ISS Rank: Outside Top 30
Central Scouting Rank: 36th
WHL Team: Edmonton Oil Kings
NHL Comparable: Tim Connolly
Rundown: What you're getting with St. Croix is one of the most criminally underrated players in the draft. One of the reasons that NHL general managers can get kind of antsy with with size is because they've seen plenty of small players fail to translate their success to the pro level. Kids with great hands and great skating make their size totally negligible at the Major Junior level. But in the pros, where the defensemen skate just as well, they struggle to produce.
But St. Croix has a skill that does allow smaller players to succeed at the pro level. He's an intensely cerebral centre, possessed of some very high calibre hockey sense. How he wasn't invited to last week's CHL-NHL Top Prospects game boggles the mind. While St. Croix's hockey sense is certainly a prominent attribute, don't disregard an above average set of hands and evasive skating stride.
ISS Rank: Outside Top 30
Central Scouting Rank: 16th
WHL Team: Portland Winterhawks
NHL Comparable: Chris Phillips
Rundown: Morrow has more offensive upside than teammate Tyler Wotherspoon, which is part of the reason his stock is higher. He's also the second of four Portland Winterhawks on this list, which means a quick acknowledgment for Portland coach Mike Johnston is in order.
Morrow is the kind of defenseman who seems to be a prized commodity right now. He's physical, he's offensively capable, he lacks any mobility concerns and he's solid on the defensive side of the puck. In other words, he's a minute horse. He can play a lot of minutes without ever necessarily being a liability. He won't be a first unit powerplay asset at the next level but could certainly be utilized on the second unit. He'll ably skate an even strength shift in a shutdown role against top offensive forwards and be an asset on the Penalty Kill.
ISS Rank: 28th
Central Scouting Rank: 40th
WHL Team: Seattle Thunderbirds
NHL Comparable: Jason Arnott
Rundown: A lot of people came into the WHL season expecting Jacobs to put up 200+ penalty minutes this season. But one of Jacobs' offseason tasks was to rein in his edginess a little and learn to play on the edge instead of over it.
So far, he seems to have succeeded. On pace for just over 80 penalty minutes this season, the Texas native will have decreased his total from last season but is on pace for about thirty goals, meaning the big centre is showing some serious offensive upside. His size and physicality make him an imposing presence every time he's on the ice and aid in his puck protection which make him a valuable centre in puck possession systems where a big presence on the wall is necessary.
ISS Rank: 16th
Central Scouting Rank: 22nd
WHL Team: Prince Albert Raiders
NHL Comparable: Shane Doan
Rundown: There's a lot to like about McNeill. His size is the most obvious positive attribute and he's already playing in a pro body despite his age: He's not even 18 until the end of February. He's a solid skater, he's got great puck strength and some pro finish. He'll never pull you out of your seat with dazzling displays of offensive acumen.
He is a Shane Doan player—very aware of his strengths, smart enough to play to them and very reliable as an offensive producer. He's capable of asserting himself physically, which he demonstrated in the Prospects game on the forecheck against Team Orr's Stuart Percy in the second period and really throughout the game.
ISS Rank: 23rd
Central Scouting Rank: 37th
WHL Team: Regina Pats
NHL Comparable: Joe Corvo
Rundown: A lot of people are going to be in love with Bell at the Entry Draft. Offensive defensemen are a prized commodity in drafts because it's always cheaper to draft them than it is to trade for them. And given the prices that Pittsburgh paid for Michalek and Martin in free agency, it's also cheaper to draft them than to pay for them as free agents.
Bell moves well and won the Hardest Shot competition at the Top Prospects skill competition with the hardest two shots: one that came in just under 99 mph and another that rang in just over 97. The Corvo comparison is here almost as a precaution. Bell's game isn't complete. Teams will fall in love with his offence, but he may become a pure powerplay specialist who's a bit of an adventure at even strength.
ISS Rank: 13th
Central Scouting Rank: 26th
WHL Team: Vancouver Giants
NHL Comparable: Roman Hamrlik
Rundown: There's a lot to like about Musil. He's got almost ideal size for a defenseman, he moves very well and he's got great bloodlines. His father Frank played 14 seasons in the NHL for Minneapolis, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa. Musil is a very well-rounded defenseman. He's a physical beast who can play a rough and tumble game, and he's willing to stick up for his teammates.
Musil's hockey sense and offensive upside are truly intriguing. He's capable of playing on the powerplay without being a liability, and he'll absolutely eat minutes as a defenseman. At his best, he'll probably be a No. 2 pro defenseman but will safely be at least a No. 3 defender.
ISS Rank: 24th
Central Scouting Rank: 6th
WHL Team: Portland Winterhawks
NHL Comparable: Jussi Jokinen
Rundown: Bartschi has made the most of his opportunities since the start of the season. In fact, you could argue that since September, few prospects have done more for their draft stock than Bartschi has. He was one of Switzerland's best players at the World Junior, he was one of Team Orr's top offensive threats at all times during the Top Prospects game, and has been one of Portland's most consistent offensive threats all season.
Bartschi has a lot of what teams are looking for in offensive wingers. He's a great skater, he's got great finish and has the hands of a magician. In an era with the crackdown on obstruction and the prominence of the shootout, a player with Bartschi's skillset is definitely in high demand.
ISS Rank: 20th
Central Scouting Rank: 11th
WHL Team: Portland Winterhawks
NHL Comparable: Ray Whitney
Rundown: I'll start out by granting that I'm higher on Rattie than others are. But with his hockey sense and his fearlessness trying to skate through traffic, I think size concerns at the next level will be negligible. Rattie's hockey sense makes him a consistent offensive catalyst. He was, arguably, Team Cherry's best forward at the Top Prospects game.
It's unlikely that Rattie will ever be a 30-goal scorer at the NHL level. But as a playmaking winger with his hockey sense, he'll always be an asset to a team on the powerplay. His hockey sense and hands make him a valuable player both for teams who play quick-strike offence and for teams who play puck possession style offence, the way Ray Whitney has been for his entire career.
ISS Rank: Seventh
Central Scouting Rank: 14th
WHL Team: Saskatoon Blades
NHL Comparable: Brent Seabrook
Rundown: Siemens is the prototype for the WHL defender. He's big, he moves very well, he's rangy, he's physical and mean. One of the highlights of this year's Prospects Game was Siemens hurling Sven Bartschi into the endboards behind the Team Cherry goal before fighting David Musil when he stood up for his teammate.
It's not out of the question for Siemens to be a 30-point defender with great shutdown upside as one of the toughest, meanest defensive defenders in the league. If Siemens fills out a little more, he'll be a physical beast and his willingness to use that physicality could make him a high profile shutdown defenseman much the way Seabrook is now.
ISS Rank: Second
Central Scouting Rank: Third
WHL Team: Red Deer Rebels
NHL Comparable: Brad Richards
Rundown: Ken Hitchcock called him the "next Joe Sakic." Doug MacLean said that the centre from Red Deer reminds him of Brad Richards. It's easy to see a lot of general managers seeing a future star in the kid from Burnaby. He's an elite skater, his hockey sense is off the charts, and he's a supreme passer. He's the WHL's horse in the race for first overall. This kid has a lot of upside.
He's a pass-first player. That's both an exceptional positive and a slight concern. General managers and coaches want a first-class puck distributor in their No. 1 centre and Nugent-Hopkins certainly is that. He's got a great wrist shot, but doesn't use it as often as he should. That's the lingering question mark. Is he a pro level finisher? He has the ability to be one, certainly. But having the tools and having the instinct to use them are two different things entirely. For once, I'll actually agree with Doug MacLean.