With that in mind, I have taken the time to rank my top 12 players from the WHL who are eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft. I have also included a list of 8 honourable mentions, essentially ranking my top 20. It is only July of 2012, so things are surely to change and there are many players who could eventually crack this list for me. Keep that in mind.
The 2013 Draft is shaping up to be a very good one and the WHL will play a large role in that. They've boasted some impressive draft classes in recent years and 2013 will be no different. Unlike the defence-heavy 2012 NHL Draft, the 2013 crop is very well rounded featuring top end defenceman, highly skilled forwards, gritty forwards and even a top-notch goaltending prospect.
So, without further delay, here is my preliminary WHL ranking for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft:
#1 - Seth Jones - D - Portland Winterhawks
When sitting down to do this early ranking for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, this was the easiest pick to make. To me, Seth Jones is clearly the top commodity the WHL has to offer for the 2013 NHL Draft. After him, I could easily see my remaining top 12 being mixed and matched by several scouts and organizations throughout the year. Jones is a potential franchise defenceman in the making and is going to look great on the Winterhawks blueline this coming season. It was an easy decision for me just because of how skilled Jones is as a player. He's very well rounded, being able to play the game as a defensive defenceman, an offensive defenceman or a combination of the two. He's got a great shot, is a very good skater for his size, is an excellent passer and has great bloodlines as the son of a former NBA player. Not only that, but he's heading to an organization that has produced some of the best talent the hockey world has seen over the last few years, producing names like Sven Bartschi, Ty Rattie, Nino Neiderreiter, Joe Morrow, Derrick Pouliot and Ryan Johansen. All of these things rolled into one make Seth Jones my number one ranked WHL player for the 2013 NHL Draft. He should contend with Nathan MacKinnon for the top spot in the 2013 NHL Draft.
#2 - Hunter Shinkaruk - LW - Medicine Hat Tigers
Hunter Shinkaruk had been my top ranked WHL player for 2013 for well over a year until Jones announced he was going to play in the league. And that's not a shot against Shinkaruk for being bumped, because he's a hell of a talent. He's not the biggest guy, but his size (or lack of) isn't a big concern because he lets his play do the talking. He's an amazing finisher with great hands and the ability to score in a variety of ways. He also competes extremely hard, never quitting on a play and always wanting to show people that he's the best player on the ice. For a style comparison, I've said in the past that he reminds me of Sidney Crosby, the way he skates, competes and handles the puck. Hunter has skated with Sid from time to time this offseason, so that should only mean that he will continue to mold his game after the world's best player, you would have to think. He's had a very good first two years in the WHL, posting 49 goals and 91 points in his most recent campaign. But, this year will have some challenges as he will be in the draft spotlight from start to finish, will be relied upon more as a leader on the Tigers and will also not have his dynamic linemate Emerson Etem (who will likely spend most of 2012-13 in the AHL). It will be a fun year to see how Shinkaruk handles the new challenges head, especially with Curtis Lazar right on his tail in this set of preliminary rankings.
#3 - Curtis Lazar - C - Edmonton Oil Kings
Lazar's 31 points in 63 regular season games last year might not blow anyone away. But, you have to look at it in a different light. First of all, it was his first full year in the league. Second of all, he then posted 19 points in 20 playoff games as the Oil Kings won a WHL title. He certainly came on strong in the second half. And that performance might have him ahead of Shinkaruk on some people's lists. He's not quite there on my list yet, but it's definitely close. Lazar is a hard working kid with good size, skating ability and excellent offensive skills. He's shown the ability to play centre, as well as some wing and has also grown to be a very competent defensive player. He plays the game much like NHLer Shane Doan. Also like Doan, Lazar should very well end up as a top 10 pick in the 2013 draft (Doan was taken 7th overall in 1995). The graduation of several highly skilled Oil Kings teammates also means that Lazar will be given more minutes and responsibility next season. Don't be shocked if he takes that ball and runs with it and ends up being taken in the top 3-4 come late June of 2013.
#4 - Ryan Pulock - D - Brandon Wheatkings
The WHL has always been known as a top producer of defensive talent for the NHL and 2013 looks to be another good year on the blueline. Among the intriguing names is Ryan Pulock of the Brandon Wheatkings. When it comes to offensive skill, he's likely the best of the bunch. In his second full season in the league, Pulock (pronounced Poe-lock) finished 3rd in the WHL among defenders in both goals (19) and points (60). He also finished 14th in the entire league with a +33 rating, despite being on a team that only finished 6th in their conference. He doesn't play an in your face style of game, but is cerebral all over the ice with very high hockey sense and great positioning. He can rush the puck, but is also a very good passer. His best offensive attribute though is likely his shot. I've seen it numerous times live and wouldn't hesitate to say it's in the 95 mph zone. I predict him to score a minimum of 22 goals next season, and the Wheaties will need it. His defensive play has grown by leaps and bounds since his rookie season but it's an area that will need to continue to improve. I would also like to see him play a bit more aggressively, being a bit more physical while staying smart in his own zone. If I had to make a player comparison, I would say his style is very much like Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, although that doesn't mean I expect him to be a 65 point player in the NHL. Pulock will be on a ton of NHL team's radars throughout next year and at this point I wouldn't hesitate to predict he'll be a very nice top 12-15 selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
#5 - Josh Morrissey - D - Prince Albert Raiders
Morrissey exploded onto the WHL scene last year with a very good rookie season for the Raiders. The two way defenceman caught my eye early in the year, being the best player on the ice in a pre-season game between the Blades and Raiders in September of 2011. He continued to impress throughout the year, posting 10 goals and 38 points in his rookie campaign on a last place Prince Albert club. He played top minutes on both the PP, PK and wasn't given a ton of help out there. But, that experience will surely go a long way for him this coming season. Morrissey is definitely considered a two way defenceman. He's got a good shot, can pass and skate the puck and also plays with a great edge to his game. He's very passionate about the sport and it shows in his play and in his training. I was very close to ranking him ahead of Pulock in this preliminary list, so that goes to show how much I expect out of him going into next season. He's had the chance to get some great experience internationally, playing for Team Canada at the U-18 World Championships in April and I fully expect him to be a top two defender at the upcoming Ivan Hlinka tournament. As for a player comparison, think of a guy like Mark Giordano. Expect this kid to make some noise and fully justify a top 15 selection in 2013.
#6 - Alex Forsberg - C - Prince George Cougars
Diverging opinions are abound on this playmaking centre. He's come with a ton of hype since being called on as the 1st overall pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. For me, it's been a steady progression since then and I still like his upside. He's not the swiftest skater or the biggest guy, but he has the best playmaking ability of any WHL player in the draft, in my opinion. He's got eyes in the back of his head and knows how to create time and space for himself. He reminds me very much of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in this regard. He may not end up as a top 5 or 10 pick, but I fully expect that a team will snap him up in the top 20 next year and not look back. Keep him on your radar, despite the fact that he was notably absent from Team Canada's selection camp for this summer's Ivan Hlinka tournament.
#7 - Madison Bowey - D - Kelowna Rockets
Another year, another Kelowna Rockets defenceman set to be a good pick in the NHL Draft. Bowey is a big kid from Winnipeg who has great skating ability for his size and has shown the ability to fill a number of different roles. He's got a good shot and is very hockey smart. He should make Team Canada for the upcoming Ivan Hlinka tournament and continue to raise his status for the draft. He's still pretty raw but will be counted on for important minutes next year, so expect some teams to be very interested in him as a first rounder.
#8 - Shea Theodore - D - Seattle Thunderbirds
Theodore is a WHL defender that continues to fly slightly under the radar, in my opinion. He's a very slick skater and is a fantastic passer of the puck, finishing 3rd in assists last year out of all the players I am ranking today. He's got decent size and will hopefully be given time to develop properly by whatever team drafts him. But, I like his upside. He might be one of the top offensive defenceman the draft will offer and has been recognized by Hockey Canada, earning an invite to try out for the Ivan Hlinka team. He might not be a first rounder at this point, but I could see him sliding into the top 30 by next June despite the T-Birds lack of prospect development in recent times.
#9 - Eric Comrie - G - Tri-City Americans
Comrie has been a much talked about asset since he was taken in the 1st round of the 2010 WHL bantam draft. He's been talked about in the same breath on many occasions as Carey Price, but that's unfair to him, in my opinion. He's a good-sized kid with good technical skills and positioning. He'll also be counted on big next year for the Americans as they will hope to given him much more than the 31 appearances he got last season. The 2013 draft looks to have some decent goaltending depth and Comrie is the clear headliner from the WHL class.
#10 - Morgan Klimchuk - C - Regina Pats
The Regina Pats will be counting on their younger core to carry them next year and Klimchuk headlines the group, along with Capitals draft pick Chandler Stephenson. He had a very solid first season in the WHL last year, posting 18 goals and 36 points. He's a hard worker, a fast skater and has the hands to eventually be a point per game guy in the league. Right now I consider him a borderline 1st rounder, but with a good year he could definitely improve that standing.
#11 - Connor Rankin - C - Tri-City Americans
Rankin's game offers a little bit of everything. He's got good size, he's good around the net and he's even dropped the mitts in defence of a teammate or two. There is a lot to like. With a ton of talent leaving Tri-City this offseason, his responsibilities will be drastically increased next season. If he can keep up with those expectations, he has a shot at being a 1st round selection. For now, I like him as a great value pick in round two for 2013. I'm sure some NHL teams, scouts and agencies like him much more than that as he's a very talented player.
#12 - Matt Needham - C - Kamloops Blazers
Needham will win you over with very few viewings. He competes hard despite his lack of size, will go to the front of the net and has also shown the ability to play centre, the wing and in a number of other roles. If he has had the good fortune of growing an inch or two since this time last year, that will greatly increase his draft stock. The Blazers are expected to be very good again next year, so that should also help his cause. As for now, he stands alongside Rankin as a very good value pick in round two for me.
Dillon Heatherington - Swift Current Broncos - Big defenceman who flew under the radar last season. Was forced to play in many tough situations and that experience will be huge for him in his draft year.
Jayden Hart - Medicine Hat Tigers - Big and skilled two way centre, will likely play in their top 6 with the loss of a few veterans.
Carter Hansen - Moose Jaw Warriors - Great size as a forward, was pretty raw last season but there is a ton to like here.
Eric Roy - Brandon Wheatkings - Rugged, physical, can still post offensive numbers from the blueline. I know some scouts like him much more than I do.
Jamal Watson - Lethbridge Hurricanes - Speedy and gritty. Expecting big things from him going forward.
Jay Merkley - Letbridge Hurricans - Flying under the radar, should see big offensive growth in 12-13.
Nic Petan - Portland Winterhawks - Will be counted on to fill an offensive hole left by Bartschi going pro. Just wish he was a bit bigger.
Chase Souto - Kamloops Blazers - A Cali kid who isn't afraid to work his ass off. Should see a bigger role next year on a deep Blazer club.