18 April 2019

WHL churns out talent


The Western Hockey League could easily be compared to a turbine.  From across the Canadian heartland, boys dream of one day donning a National Hockey League sweater. Many realize their potential through the WHL.  Others are given a glimpse of the rough-and-tumble careers they are to forge, which the Western League is accomplished at conditioning and preparing the athletes for. 


While one is familiar with National Hockey League superstars such as Jarome Iginla, Scott Niedermayer, Ray Whitney, Mark Recchi and Shane Doan (to name a few),  the WHL has consistently produced world-class talent year after year. 


The renaissance in Philadelphia has a lot to do with the young core of WHL players that compliment the superstars suitably.  It is clear that the Flyers are convinced the demanding schedule and playing conditions in the WHL are ideal for budding talent. Scottie Upshall (Blazers) and Scott Hartnell (Raiders) were acquired in different deals from Nashville recently; Oiler whipping boy Joffrey Lupul (Tigers) has returned to form with the orange-and-black this season; and the Flyers also robbed the Thrashers of one of the best young defenseman in the game in Braydon Coburn.  Coburn, played his junior with the Portland Winter Hawks and was drafted eighth overall in 2003.  He is listed at 6’5” and 220 pounds, skates extremely well and distributes the puck impeccably.


There are numerous examples around the NHL.  Defenseman Nick Schultz (Raiders) is thought of as the epitome of a WHL product and deservedly so. The Strasbourg, Saskatchewan native plays an abrasive game and is responsible defensively, allowing the more skilled players time and space out on the ice.  Though not a big point-producer, the team undoubtedly appreciates Schultz’s style.  Andrei Meszaros (Giants) has developed into a solid two-way defender for the Senators and Jay Bouwmeester (Tigers) is rounding into an elite defenseman, something that Florida has waited patiently for.  Daymond Langkow (Americans) is the type of centre all teams need for depth up the middle, combining toughness, wit and alacrity.  The Prince George Cougars alone have produced some high-end talent of note.  Trent Hunter has averaged over 20 goals per season in his first 3 campaigns for the Islanders.  Blair Betts has acclimatized himself to the spotlight with the Rangers, and Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara played alongside Blues’ defenseman Eric Brewer in junior.  Dan Hamhuis is a stand out along the blueline for Nashville and goaltender Chris Mason sizzled with the Predators last year, after surfacing from some fine seasons in the AHL (and the now defunct IHL).


The up-and-coming talent is marvelous.  Martin Hanzal (Rebels) and Peter Mueller (Silverbacks) have both contributed to the Phoenix Coyotes this year as rookies out of the WHL, averaging just over 15 minutes per game and Mueller is the point on the power play at times.  Gilbert Brule left the Vancouver Giants early to play for the Columbus and despite struggling early in his career with injuries and inconsistency, looks to have found chemistry as of late with Sergei Fedorov and Curtis Glencross.  Milan Lucic has been a surprise, making the Bruins this year and playing a gritty game, though for the most part, has been held pointless.  Devin Setoguchi (Blades/Cougars) has been playing substantial minutes for San Jose, responding with seven goals thus far.  Nigel Dawes (Ice) has produced excitement cracking the Rangers’ lineup while rookie teammate Brandon Dubinsky (Winter Hawks) has found himself skating with team captain, Jaromir Jagr.  Kyle Chipchura (Raiders) has seen regular shifts come his way after displaying a sound defensive game for Head Coach Guy Charbonneau in Montreal. 


Chipchura has a teammate who has seen his career ascend to the NHL level quite quickly.  Born in Vancouver, B.C. and raised outside of Williams Lake in the small community of Anahim Lake, B.C., Carey Price has all the earmarks of a franchise goaltender and has been treated as such by the Canadiens since he was drafted 5th overall in 2005.  His career for the Tri-City Americans of the WHL was outstanding and earned him three visits to World Junior tournaments abroad, the last with Team Canada saw him post a 6-0 record, two shut outs and a 1.14 goals against average.  His AHL career was short and dominant.  After the end of his junior work, Price was signed by Montreal immediately and reported to Hamilton of the AHL.  He split the Bulldogs’ final two regular season games, going 1-1 and posting a 1.53 GAA and .949 save percentage.  In the playoffs, Price went 15-6 with two shutouts, a 2.06 GAA and a .936 save percentage to lead Hamilton in winning the Calder Cup. 


In the future the Detroit Red Wings will look to Darren Helm and his awe-inspiring work ethic to help them win another championship.  Keaton Ellerby (Blazers) and Michal Repik (Giants) will certainly press the Panthers’ brass into making decisions and Matt Keetley (Tigers) has made a bid this season to win a spot in Calgary backing up Kiprusoff.   The Los Angeles Kings surprised many by picking Thomas Hickey 4th overall this past draft and he has been enjoying another fine WHL campaign in Seattle.  Lightning management has long been impressed by industrious talent Dana Tyrell (Cougars) and stud defenseman Ty Wishart (Cougars) is seen as a blue-chip prospect for the Sharks.  Karl Alzner (Hitmen) will most certainly enjoy a long tenure in Washington in the near future.


These players have seen the WHL as their own conduit to the dream of playing in the NHL, and why not?  There are many examples to gain confidence from and they themselves may add even more credibility to the Western Hockey League‘s credo of “building the world’s finest talent.”

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