Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. It’s that time again, major junior hockey is back and we’re here to preview the new season for you. All three leagues are kicking off this week. With that in mind, we continue our division previews today as we make our way around the country.
You can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2018-19 WHL East Division
Top Three Contenders in Projected Order of Finish
Prince Albert Raiders
Prince Albert has a strong returning class. They are backstopped by Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott. He could contend for the WHL Goaltender of the Year Award. Upfront, the offence is led by Montreal Canadiens draftee Cole Fonstad. He gets support from veterans Parker Kelly, Brett Leason, Sean Montgomery, and Kody MacDonald. Rookie Kaiden Guhle joins an experienced blueline that returns five of the team’s top six defensemen from last season.
Brandon Wheat Kings
Stelio Mattheos returns and is the clear offensive leader. He will get support from Luka Burzan, Connor Gutenberg, Cole Reinhardt, and Linden McCorrister. On defence, Schael Higson will play as an overage player and is the key cog for the group. His leadership will be key in bringing along Braden Schneider in his second season in the league. Chase Hartje and Zach Wytinck provide support. In goal, Jiri Patera and Dylan Myskiw will battle for the net.
All eyes in Saskatoon will be on 2019 NHL Draft eligible centre Kirby Dach. He is supported up front by Max Gerlach, Eric Florchuk, Chase Wouters, Josh Paterson, and newly arrived import, Kristian Roykas Marthinsen. The defence corps is led by overage player Dawson Davidson. Veteran support comes from Jackson Caller and Jake Kustra. In net, Nolan Meier stole the top job a year ago. Expect him to keep his hold on the position.
Players to Watch
Stelio Mattheos, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings
A Carolina Hurricanes pick, Mattheos is a very good skater. He has a powerful stride which generates speed. Mattheos scores goals in tight to the net. He has the quick hands to pounce on rebounds, and the quickness to beat goalies when he is driving to the net. Mattheos also has the hand-eye coordination to get deflections, as well as to quickly one time passes in close. From further out his wrist shot is heavy and features a quick release. Mattheos’ assists also mainly come out of his power game. He is not an overly creative player but prefers to play a north-south type of game. He can win battles in the corners, dig out pucks, and get them to teammates.
Justin Almeida, Centre/Left Wing, Moose Jaw Warriors
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Almeida is a slick skater who put up 43 goals and 98 points in 72 games. He has very good hands and combines his stickhandling with his speed to create space. This opens up passing and shooting lanes which he can take advantage of. Almeida has a very good release on his wrist shot. The biggest issue is that he is undersized and needs to bulk up.
Josh Brook, Right Defence, Moose Jaw Warriors
A Montreal Canadiens prospect, Brook transitions the puck from defence to offence quickly. He can stickhandle and skate the puck out of danger. Brook also has good skills in making the first pass or controlling things at the blue line. He tends to be a bit of a risk taker though, and this can lead to some inopportune turnovers. It is an area of his game that he will need to refine going forward. Overall though he makes many more good offensive plays than giveaways and helps his team maintain possession and drive play forward. Brook has even been known to take the puck end-to-end to create an offensive chance. He can also play the role of power play quarterback, setting things up on the blue line.
Brook also has a decent shot. His slap shot is accurate and he keeps it low and on the net. He also has a very good wrist shot and will pinch in from the point to get it off. His strong lateral agility allows Brook to walk the line, and to open up passing and shooting lanes. Brook’s bread and better is his defensive game. He maintains very good gap control and can be very hard to beat one-on-one. He also clears the front of the net effectively and battles hard in the corners.
Jett Woo, Right Defence, Moose Jaw Warriors
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, Woo shows poise with the puck on his stick, keeping his head up and looking to make plays. He has a strong first pass out of the zone and has shown the ability to quarterback the power play. Woo increased his offence this season by joining the rush more and pinching at the blue line. He is not reckless though and picks his spots well. Woo is rarely caught out of position. While he is taking more chances than he did in previous years, he is still generally seen as a conservative defenceman.
Woo has good power on his slap shot and one-timer. He keeps his point shots low and on the net, encouraging teammates to get deflections and tips. He also has a good wrist shot, with a quick release. Woo is a smart player. He anticipates the play well and makes good decisions with the puck. Woo could work on holding onto the puck a bit longer, allowing plays to develop and creating more offence that way. He is also very strong in his own zone.
Cole Fonstad, Left Wing/Centre, Prince Albert Raiders
Fonstad is an excellent playmaker. He slows plays down and has the patience to wait for plays to develop. Fonstad has excellent vision. He is a very smart player, anticipating where his teammates will be and hitting them with a tape-to-tape pass. Fonstad can put the puck through tight areas, whether it is threading the needle through traffic, or making a saucer pass. He controls the play on the half-boards on the power play and creates plays from there.
Fonstad has a good release on his wrist shot, and it is accurate. However, it lacks some power and he can have trouble scoring from outside the slot. As a result, he does not use his shot often, and that makes him somewhat predictable. Increasing the power in his shot and using it more often will be key going forward. He also does not seem to get that involved in the corners or in front of the net. When he does, Fonstad can be overpowered. He could use a bit more muscle on his frame.
Ian Scott, Goalie, Prince Albert Raiders
Scott was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. At 6-foot-3 he has the type of size that NHL teams look for. He also has quick legs that take away the bottom of the net. Scott tracks the puck well for his age. He has very good lateral movement as he gets side-to-side quickly without over sliding. He also shows a calmness and maturity that is rare in a 17-year-old goalie, especially when he was playing behind a weak Prince Albert team last season. Prince Albert will not be much better this year, so expect Scott to be peppered with shots.
Jake Leschyshyn, Centre, Regina Pats
Drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, Leschyshyn had a tough year with 40 points in 64 games. He is hoping to bounce back this year. Leschyshyn plays a gritty style. He never stops moving his feet, chasing down loose pucks, battling in the corners and getting to the front of the net. Leschyshyn has the hand-eye coordination to make plays in tight to the net. He can score on rebounds, deflections, and by making a quick move to open up space on a goalie. Leschyshyn might be undersized, but he never shies away from a battle, and can often be found at the middle of an after the whistle scrum.
Nick Henry, Right Wing, Regina Pats
A Colorado Avalanche prospect, Henry has a very good shot and release. He also has good size which he uses to protect the puck down below the hash marks. He can make passes to open teammates and makes smart plays off the cycle game. Henry is a smart player, who gets into good positions without the puck as making good decisions with it. He can stand to work on his skating though, as he needs to be more explosive to be an offensive contributor in the NHL.
Artyom Minulin, Right Defence, Swift Current Broncos
Undrafted for the second straight year, Minulin had 43 points in 64 games last season. He starts the transition game by skating the puck out of dangerous areas and then making a good first pass in the transition game. He is particularly good with the “home run” pass, catching a streaking forward behind the defence. Minulin is willing to play a physical game in his own end as well. He had off-season shoulder surgery and should return in December.
2019 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Luka Burzan, Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings
Undrafted in 2018, Burzan has good size and marries it with strong skating and good work ethic to play a strong two-way game. He has a strong wrist shot and a quick release. Burzan has also shown good vision and passing skills. A hard worker, Burzan gets in quickly on the forecheck, creating turnovers. He also goes to the net without the puck. Burzan has also shown a strong defensive game for a 17-year-old, but like most youngsters should improve with time and coaching.
Kirby Dach, Centre, Saskatoon Blades
Selected second overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Dach provides hope for a Saskatoon Blades fanbase that has watched a lot of rebuilding after the team went all-in hosting the 2013 Memorial Cup. In his rookie season, Dach put up 46 points in 52 games played. He also put up seven points in five games at the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge. At 6’4″ Dach has the size to be a powerful centre. His stride is long and powerful and he is very tough to knock off the puck. Dach takes the puck to the net and is more likely to go through a defender than to try and make a deke to get around him. He has good top-end speed but his first few steps can improve.
Dach has very good vision and passing skills. He finds open teammates and sets them up for scoring chances in tight. His puck protection skills allow him to extend plays down low and wait for a teammate to get open. Dach also has a strong wrist shot and a quick release. However, he needs to use that shot more often. Dach is also willing to use his body in his own end of the ice. He supports the defence with effective back pressure and works to win battles along the boards and keep the front of the net clear.
Nolan Maier, Goaltender, Saskatoon Blades
Maier played in 43 games as a 16-year-old, putting up a 3.31 goals-against-average and .895 save percentage. He also played four games for Team Canada that Gretzky-Hlinka Cup, coming home with a gold medal. Coming in at 6-foot-0, he will hope to add a couple of inches before the NHL Draft as teams are looking for taller goalies. Maier has quick legs and takes away the bottom of the net. His rebound control could improve, but this is common for young goalies. He likes to get out of his net and challenge shooters, giving them little to shoot at. Most impressive is the calm and cool demeanour he displays, even when under heavy pressure. He doesn’t let things get to him and is ready to make the next stop.
2020 NHL Draft Players to Watch
Braden Schneider, Right Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings
Schneider played five games for Team Canada at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. The late-2001 birthdate defender had 22 points in 66 games last season. He is a strong skater who handles the puck well. He can skate it out of danger and make plays in the neutral zone. Schneider is also a good passer who starts the transition game or can play the point in the offensive zone. However, he needs some work on his slap shot. Schneider has good positioning and gap control. He defends well against both the rush and the cycle game.
Kaiden Guhle, Left Defence, Prince Albert Raiders
The younger brother of Buffalo Sabres prospect, Brendan Guhle was the first overall pick in the 2017 WHL Draft. Like his brother, he is a strong puck-moving defenceman. Guhle is an excellent skater, with very good speed and acceleration in both directions. He can lead the rush through the neutral zone. Guhle also has a good wrist shot and slap shot from the point. He is a two-way player with strong defensive instincts and ability as well.
Main Photo: KELOWNA, BC – NOVEMBER 12: Cole Fonstad #24 of the Prince Albert Raiders warms up against the Kelowna Rockets at Prospera Place on November 12, 2016, in Kelowna, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)