I know what you're thinking: Rookie predictions for 2009-10 already!?!? Well I say... WHY NOT?
Sure WHL training camps don't even open for another 6 weeks or so but I'm really looking forward to the new season. Maybe because after two years of the Oil Kings under my nose, I'm feeling like I've got a pretty good grasp on the WHL scene. Unlike Dean, I grew up well out of WHL country in NE Alberta so I didn't get to experience the league first hand until the revival of the local team.
That said, 2009-10 looks like a terrific year for rookies, especially in respect to Edmonton-area kids. Remember that the 2008 WHL Bantam draft saw 8 local boys selected in the first round so there will definitely be lots of stories for Edmonton's junior hockey media horde to focus in on. (And by Horde I mean the 4 or 5 of us that regularly attend Oil Kings games).
With that in mind, here are my top 5 WHL rookie forwards for 2009-10. And I just wanted to add that this could easily have been a top-10 list, there are several players who could have been here - plus I didn't even look at the incoming Euro group led by Toni Rajala (Brandon).
5. Klarc Wilson (RW) - Brandon Wheat Kings
Height: 5'11 Weight: 197 lbs
Drafted: 10th overall 2008
The Edmonton product made his WHL debut here in the City of Champions on January 28th as he joined the Wheaties for a road game against the Oil Kings. Wilson is described as a power forward in the making and as a 15-year-old he was already thicker than many in the WHL. He'll be part of a really strong Brandon club that has every intention of winning the Memorial Cup on home ice without skating in through the back door as hosts - on a team that will boast two top-10 1st round picks (Schenn and Glennie) plus Toni Rajala and whatever else Kelly McCrimmon can add to the mix, Brandon will be a force. And Wilson should be a contributor to that success.
4. Shane McColgan (C) - Kelowna Rockets
Manhatten Beach, CA USA
Height: 5'11 Weight: 170 lbs
Drafted: 13th overall 2008
Another guy who made his in Alberta, McColgan dressed for road games in Red Deer and Edmonton (first WHL goal) right before Christmas before playing twice in Kelowna in January. The diminutive Californian was with the team during the playoffs and the Memorial Cup as well so he's well versed in what it takes to win in the WHL. He'll be one of the guys expected to start filling the void left by Jamie Benn and Colin Long but it might be a little early to expect McColgan to score 40 goals and 80 points.
3. Ty Rattie (LW) - Portland Winterhawks
Height: 6'0 Weight: 167 lbs
Drafted: 2nd overall 2008
He was an offensive dynamo on a loaded Airdrie Xtreme club during his draft year and the new-look Winterhawks would love to see some of that firepower injected into their line up this year. Rattie appeared in 10 games with Portland last year but only recorded a single point - a goal against Seattle. The Xtreme had a few players who practically lapped the field in scoring during the 2007-08 season including Rattie. There was some suggestion that his numbers were inflated from playing on a highly offensive team so he might be on a mission this year to prove a lot of critics wrong.
2. Michael St. Croix (C) - Edmonton Oil Kings
Height: 5'11 Weight: 165 lbs
Drafted: 4th overall 2008
Speaking of offensive dynamos... the Oil Kings should be a playoff team this year but if they get strong performances from their 2007 and 2008 drafted players like St. Croix, they could legitimately be a top 5 team in the Eastern Conference. St. Croix led his league in Manitoba in scoring and was the youngest player on Team West and the World U-17s in BC last Christmas. The forward scored and picked up an assist during his two-game stint with the Oil Kings last year. He's got loads of talent and will get the ice time in Edmonton to show it off. A potential rookie scoring title contender.
1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (C) - Red Deer Rebels
Height: 6'0 Weight: 155 lbs
Drafted: 1st overall 2008
If anyone is a favorite to win the rookie scoring race next year it would have to be Nugent-Hopkins who scored 6 points in 5 games with the Rebels which included a 4-game scoring streak. Landon Ferraro told us in March that he thinks Nugent-Hopkins is the real deal but that he hopes Red Deer fans show patience and not heap major expectations on the shoulders of a 16-year-old. I've spoken with several media people who cover the CHL or have interests in the WHL specifically and to a tee they all agree; Nugent-Hopkins has everything it takes to be a star in the league.
Honorable Mentions: Like I said, there could have been a few and even this list was narrowed down some by only going with forwards. How about Brent Benson who will play for the Saskatoon Blades next year? He had a 4-game taste last season and could be a big player sooner as opposed to later for Lorne Molleken and company.
Another Oil King to watch for is Dylan Wruck. He's a year older than the gang listed above but he played an extra season in Saskatchewan, won the league scoring race and is poised to step into a big offensive role with Edmonton. He's not a big player but Jordan Weal and Brandon Kozun are proof that at the junior level, size isn't as big a factor as talent.
(Photos Courtesy: The Hockey News, Hockey Now, Portland Winterhawks)