Another exciting season of WHL hockey is right around the corner, and with main camps kicking off this week, the anticipation of opening night is almost unbearable. There are tons of enticing storylines to watch for as the season gets underway, and the one I will be watching the closest is how the 2016 draft eligibles will perform. Over at DraftGeek.ca, we currently list six WHL’ers in our top thirty which is somewhat underwhelming, however I fully expect to see Sam Steel, Tyler Benson, and Jake Bean’s stock rise over the course of the year, meaning we could see three WHL players in the top ten come draft week. Aside from the draft eligibles, there’s a laundry list of players to keep an eye on this season for a number of different reasons.
Mathew Barzal (C) – Seattle Thunderbirds
After an injury plagued campaign in 2015, Mathew Barzal has possibly the most to prove out of any Western Hockey League player. Barzal will be a huge threat this year as his elite level puck skills and vision make him a dangerous junior hockey player. The T-Birds are a team on the rise with a good, young core in place; it’s possible we see them take over as the top squad in the U.S division. Though they will lose veterans like Shea Theodore, Roberts Lipsbergs, and Justin Hickman, players like Nolan Volcan, Gropp, Kolesar, and Bear will be able to pick up the slack, and along with Barzal carry the team into the playoffs.
Nolan Patrick (C) – Brandon Wheat Kings
Nolan Patrick may be the next superstar to come from the WHL. Since Ryan Nugent Hopkins, the WHL has lacked in elite talent near the top of the draft order, and I’m not saying they haven’t been producing great talent, there just hasn’t been a Jonathan Toews or Steven Stamkos level prospect come around for a while. That changes with Nolan Patrick. I believe he’s the next one. Nolan brings a unique package to the Wheat Kings in that he’s as good of a goal scorer as he is a puck distributor. He has a big frame and gets around the ice extremely well. The Wheaties will push for a memorial cup this season, and it will be on the back of Nolan Patrick.
Carter Hart (G) – Everett Silvertips
The 2014/15 season was an interesting one for the young netminder. Playing behind a veteran goaltender usually means you won’t see a ton of starts, and it’ll be a while before you see time as a regular. Carter had a different story to write. After unseating Austin Lotz as the starter late into the season, Hart ran with the starting gig throughout the playoffs posting a .929 save percentage along the way. Coming off a gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, expect Carter to come into the season with a ton of confidence. Without anyone to really push for the job, I fully expect Carter to run with the job and finish top 10 in the league.
Conner Bleackley (C) – Red Deer Rebels
It wouln’t be a huge surprise to see Bleackley stick around in Colorado this season, but with the additions of Carl Soderberg and Mikhail Grigorenko, it’s more likely he suits up for the Rebels this season. With a lack of game breaking forwards up front, Bleackley will be heavily relied upon as the key offensive spark plug for the Mem Cup hosts. Conner is a strong two way player who isn’t necessarily considered an offensive minded player, but this will be the year we get to watch him emerge as a dominant junior hockey player. If all goes well for Conner, his offensive totals will be in the 70 point range. If he can prove to be a reliable point producer this season, it’s likely he’s brought in as a third line NHL’er next season.
Of course there are a ton of players who will play key roles on their clubs this season, but if I were to list every player who’s poised to have a breakout campaign I’d be writing for weeks. In a year that almost any team will be able to push for a playoff spot, I think this will be a very exciting season, and I can’t wait to get things rolling.