Our weekly Top 5 lists always come out on Tuesdays but this past week we missed it (Dean tied up at the Canadian Finals Rodeo for Global TV and me... sleeping) so you can consider this one a make up for 5 days ago. That, plus with NHL Central Scouting's list coming out on Monday, I wanted my thoughts to come out a bit before just for the sake of not following in their footsteps.
Today I'm looking at the Top 5 forwards out of the WHL that right now, aren't getting a lot of consideration as 1st round picks. Come June, one or two of these guys might have played their way into the top 30, but at this point in mid-November, no one has really been suggesting that they are 1st rounders.
I spoke with B.J. MacDonald on Saturday morning's edition of The Pipeline Show and we talked about the World Junior A Challenge and he also gave listeners a preview of the Monday CSS release. As I suggested, and he confirmed, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be the top rated player out of the WHL - no surprise there.
I asked MacDonald if we should automatically assume that Vancouver Giants D-man David Musil will be next on the WHL list though but, he wouldn't say. I saw him play twice in two days against Red Deer and Edmonton just a couple of weeks ago and he really didn't wow me in any way aside from his size and reach. Chalk that up to small sample size during an extended road trip?
Folks I have been speaking with have suggested that Saskatoon blueliner Duncan Siemens could very well overtake Musil in the rankings, if he hasn't done so already.
Other players I spoke with B.J. MacDonald about knowing they're probably 1st round talents included Portland forwards Ty Rattie and Sven Bartschi as well as Kelowna forward Shane McColgan.
My top-5 list takes off from that point, and only includes forwards so take Regina Pats defender Myles Bell and set him aside for now. Here are the names of the players that, here in mid-November, I think might be the next 5 forwards to be taken in the 2011 NHL Draft.
5. Luke Lockhart (RW) Seattle Thunderbirds
Not many players are as hot right now as Lockhart who has 11 points in his last 6 games which includes last night in Swift Current where he didn't hit the score sheet. It's no coincidence that the T-Birds have collected 8 of 10 possible points in their last 4 outings considering the way Lockhart has caught fire. The Burnaby BC product will be fighting the 'small man' stigma this year as he's listed by the WHL as 5'10 but he does tilt the weigh scale at 182 lbs making him a sturdy if not tall skater.
Not only is the right winger a guy Seattle looks to for offence but he's a contributor on the penalty kill as well making him even more valuable. With 9 goals already under his belt this year, Lockhart has surpassed his previous best and is well on his way to a breakout season this year, his third in the WHL. Originally drafted by Seattle in the 7th round (145th overall) of the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft. (Photo: Seattle Thunderbirds)
4. Brent Benson (C) Saskatoon Blades
The Weyburn, SK product has been a bit of a victim of Saskatoon's depth the last two seasons. Playing on a contending team means that the new guys won't get the same opportunities that they might get on other, weaker teams in the league. Benson's 18 points as a rookie last year were vastly overshadowed by 14 players who finished above him on the Blades scoring list. However, this year he's playing a bigger role and is contributing more points. Benson already has 13 points after 20 games and has five points in his last five games.
The 5'11, 187 lb forward was selected by Saskatoon in the 1st round (6th overall) in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft. (Photo: Saskatoon Blades)
3. Colin Jacobs (C) Seattle Thunderbirds
The 6'2, 205 lb pivot from Texas drew attention last year after a 26-point rookie campaign in Seattle. This year Jacobs is bigger and stronger and is scoring at a faster rate having already compiled 18 points this season. He's a point behind teammate Luke Lockhart but does not have the size issue nagging him. (Photo: Seattle Thunderbirds)
"Colin's coming along, I think he's learning the league a little more every game he plays and he's getting stronger with every outing," said Central Scouting's WHL based B.J. MacDonald in a recent conversation, "The one thing with Colin is that he's very smart; he's always on the right side of the puck and plays at both ends of the ice very well and he does have very good size. The thing I like about him, which is rare and so a lot of teams like, is that he's a right-handed center so those guys are hard to find."
Originally drafted by the T-Birds in the 4th round (67th overall) in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft.
2. Michael St. Croix (C) Edmonton Oil Kings
The team's leading scorer for the second season in a row, Michael St. Croix is coming off a 46-point rookie campaign for the Oil Kings. As a player I am able to watch thirty-some times a year, I've seen St. Croix at his best and at his worst. He's certainly a much better, more well rounded player this year (especially over the last month) but I still wouldn't consider labeling him as a "two-way" player. He's a skilled forward who is a terrific playmaker but has scored some beautiful goals this year as well like the one-handed, top shelf marker that earned him #1 Play of the Week recently.
Noticeably bigger at training camp than he was at the end of last season, St. Croix told me he trained a lot over the summer. He's now listed at 5'11 and 180 lbs so, average sized rather than under-sized with still some more growth expected. Offensively, St. Croix is much less the perimeter player that he often appeared to be last year. He's playing with more confidence as of late and goes into traffic and to the net with more determination than he has shown at times in the past. I think what stands out most to me is thathe's using his teammates more as opposed to trying to do it all himself.
Drafted in the 1st round (4th overall) by Edmonton in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft. (Photo: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oil Kings)
1. Mark McNeill (C) Prince Albert Raiders
With an 8-game point steak which has seen him collect a total of 11 points, big Mark McNeill has taken over the team lead in scoring with 25 points. The 6'2, 210 lb middleman hails from Edmonton and was part of that strong 2008 draft class where several players from the Alberta capital were selected in the first round. McNeill has already surpassed his rookie point total of 24 points and he's been described to me as somewhat of a late bloomer in that he's grown a few inches and filled out a lot since he made his WHL debut.
The Raiders started hot out of the gate this year then came back down to reality and there is a pretty solid parallel to how McNeill performed through the end of October as well. He went goal-less for 8 games before finally getting back on track after Halloween. Since then, the Raiders haven't had much success (only 1 win in their last 10 games) but McNeill has rediscovered his offensive touch. Consistency is his biggest hurdle according to scouts I've spoken with but when he's on his game, McNeill looks very much like a player worth using a first round pick on.
Originally chosen by the Raiders in the 1st round (5th overall) in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft. (Photo: Thomas Porter Photographics)
Honorable mentions go to:
Travis Ewanyk (Edmonton) - The versatile 6'1, 185 lb forward can play any role but is at his best when he's physical because the points seem to come easier for him when he's emotionally invested in the game. A terrific sleeper choice with a ton of leadership upside although you shouldn't look to him to be a point producer.
Kale Kessy (Medicine Hat) - Listed at 6'3 and 185 lbs, Kessy is going to get a lot of consideration because of that size. He skates well and has an offensive upside but is struggling to produce this year. Is that because he's further down the depth chart or is it something more? He's only got 6 points so far this year but has only appeared in 13 games too so injury may have played a role. He had 29 points as a rookie last year.
Adam Lowry (Swift Current) - Another big body forward, Lowry checks in at 6'4 and 184 lbs. The son of former NHL player and Calgary Hitmen head coach Dave Lowry, Adam is an intriguing player who has not gotten the results I expected this year. He looked really good when the Broncos came through Edmonton in October but he's only got one point, a goal, in his last 11 games dating back to October 16th.
Dylan Willick (Kamloops) - A hard working, two-way character player, I liked what I saw from Willick although that is admittedly a very small sample size to go on. He's only got 7 points this year, well off his pace from last year, but if you're taking him you're not expecting offence from him anyway. He's probably a tenacious checking forward at the next level.
Colin Smith (Kamloops) - With 13 points he's more offensive than his Blazers teammate but he's also smaller at just 167 lbs. The Edmonton native had 26 points in 48 games last year so he's expected to produce more than we've seen from him so far this year.