From Winnipeg Jets draft choice Michael Spacek to Regina Pats prized prospect Jake Leschyshyn, there’s no shortage of highly regarded rookies entering their Western Hockey League careers this season.
The top two picks of the 2014 WHL bantam draft – Brandon Wheat Kings winger Stelio Mattheos and Lethbridge Hurricanes centre Jordan Bellerive – are expected to be among the league’s top 16 year olds. But as Spokane Chiefs forward Kailer Yamamoto, a 2014 fifth-round pick, showed last year by earning the Western Conference’s Rookie of the Year honour, a player’s bantam draft status doesn’t mean much once the puck is dropped.
Here is a look at 10 new faces to watch in the WHL this year. The season kicks off on Sept. 24 with a match between the Pats and Moose Jaw Warriors.
1. Michael Spacek, centre, Red Deer Rebels – The Czech Republic native is a key piece to Red Deer’s 2016 Memorial Cup puzzle. The tournament hosts, who chose him 47th overall in the recent CHL import draft, are hoping to see him and Colorado Avalanche pick Conner Bleackley lead their offense.
Spacek, 18, is an undersized centre, standing 5-foot-11, 187 pounds, who possesses raw skill and a good work ethic. He netted five goals and 12 points in 40 games for HC Pardubice, a Czech Republic men’s team, last season.
2. Jordan Bellerive, centre, Lethbridge Hurricanes – The signing of the North Vancouver, B.C., native was a huge morale booster for the Hurricanes organization. There was some speculation that he might play for the BCHL’s Penticton Vees instead of Lethbridge partially because of the club’s“Interesting” history.
Bellerive, whom the Hurricanes chose second overall in the 2014 bantam draft, thrived at the Okanagan Hockey Academy last year. He showcased his elite skill while netting 34 goals and 49 points in 27 games at the midget prep level.
3. Stelio Mattheos, centre/wing, Brandon Wheat Kings – Unlike most No. 1 overall picks, Mattheos isn’t joining a team going through a rebuild. The Wheat Kings are entering the season as the CHL’s top-ranked team following losing to the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL championship last year.
The only reason the Wheat Kings were able to draft Mattheos, who scored 14 goals and 25 points in 27 games with the Winnipeg AAA midget Wild last season, is because of a deal that GM-head coach Kelly McCrimmon made with ex-Saskatoon Blades GM Lorne Molleken in 2012. He acquired the right to swap 2014 first round bantam picks with the Blades in a trade that sent Brendan Walker to Saskatoon.
4. Juuso Välimäki, defence, Tri-City Americans – Välimäki, who was picked 14th overall in the CHL import draft, joins the Americans touted as a highly regarded defensive prospect for the 2017 NHL draft. He stands out because of his thick 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame, offensive upside and poised demeanor.
The 16-year-old Finnish product won’t have the pressure of having to anchor Tri-City’s defence as a rookie. Boston Bruins draft choice Brandon Carlo and New York Islanders prospect Parker Wotherspoon will help ease his transition into the league.
5. Josh Brook, defence, Moose Jaw Warriors – The 6-foot-1, 176-pound Brook has the potential to become Moose Jaw’s next cornerstone defenceman. He possesses an appealing blend of a smooth skating ability, elite vision and top-notch offensive abilities.
The Roblin, MB., native, who was picked fourth overall in 2014, is a product of the esteemed Notre Dame Hounds program in Wilcox, Sask. He registered nine markers and 36 points in 32 games with the midget AAA Hounds last season.
6. Michael Rasmussen, centre, Tri-City Americans – Rasmussen, who was selected seventh overall in 2014, will stand out in Tri-City for more reasons than his imposing 6-foot-5, 203-pound stature. Evident in the 27 goals and 50 points he racked up in 28 games at the Okanagan Hockey Academy last year, the Surrey, B.C., native possess a top-notch shot, an elite skating ability and hockey smarts.
7. Jack Dougherty, defence, Portland Winterhawks – The 19-year-old defender, along with Edmonton Oilers prospect Caleb Jones, will receive ample opportunity to play big minutes on Portland’s blueline. He left the University of Wisconsin this past offseason after he signed his entry-level deal with the Nashville Predators.
8. Jonathan Smart, defence, Kelowna Rockets – With Washington Capitals pick Madison Bowey and Winnipeg Jets draft choice Josh Morrissey on their way to the pros, there’s opportunity for Smart to make a notable impact on Kelowna’s back end this year. The 22nd overall selection seems poised to become the organization’s next star defenceman.
9. Nolan Kneen, defence, Kamloops Blazers – High expectations sit on Kneen’s shoulders after he was chosen third overall in the 2014 draft. The 6-foot, 176-pounder is a solid all-around rearguard who likes to play physical and has good mobility.
10. Jake Leschyshyn, centre, Regina Pats – The 5-foot-11, 176-pound Leschyshyn, whom the Pats acquired from the Rebels in a blockbuster trade at last year’s trade deadline, is a big part of Regina’s future. He’s expected to develop into the Pats’ future No. 2 centre behind top 2016 NHL draft prospect Sam Steel.
“It was a surprise at first to get traded, but it was exciting to get traded to a team in my home province,” Leschyshyn, a Grasswood, Sk., native, said in a July interview with BTN. “The Pats are a great organization and I’m happy to get to play there.”
Honourable mentions: Calgary Flames second-round pick Oliver Kylington could find himself in Brandon this year if he struggles in the AHL…Justin Almeida is expected to add some skill to the Prince George Cougars’ offense…Dominik Schmiemann could play big minutes on the Swift Current Broncos as a rookie defender… Saskatoon Blades rookie defenceman Jake Kustra appears to be a big part of his club’s future… at 6-foot-4, 209 pounds, it will be tough to overlook former Pursuit of Excellence defender Ethan King in Lethbridge…. Winnipeg sniper Cody Glass has the potential to hit the ground running as a freshman in Portland.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen