The start of a new year allows scouts and fans alike to see the early-season progression of players from one year to the next.
And to put it mildly, the big stars of the Western Hockey League’s 2013 NHL Draft class have come out shining. That conversation starts with Brandon Wheat Kings blueliner Ryan Pulock.
After losing veterans such as Michael Ferland and Mark Stone, the Wheat Kings were expected to take a step back this year, but led by Pulock it seems as though they haven’t skipped a beat.
Pulock is an all-around dynamic defenseman that is quickly establishing himself as one of the best defenders in the league despite just turning 18-years-old earlier in the month. His skating is very strong and his defensive game has looked much improved over last year. He is most effective on the breakout when he is able to patiently move the puck up ice and find open teammates. If the passing lanes aren’t available, he has shown the confidence to start the rush himself. Complimenting that confidence, Pulock also has one of the hardest shots in the entire league and he isn’t afraid to use it as often as possible.
Pulock was named the captain of the Wheat Kings prior to the start of the year. It has been all smooth sailing so far, but it will be interesting to see if he can sustain his high level of play over the course of a full season.
The same can be said of Prince Albert Raiders defenseman Josh Morrissey, who is quickly solidifying his status as a possible top-15 pick in June.
Similarly to Pulock, Morrissey is a legitimate scoring threat from the back end. His vision on the breakout is second to none among blueliners in the draft class. He is a power play quarterback that sets up shop at the blue line and feeds his teammates, or if given time and space he has a hard, accurate shot that makes him a nightmare for opposing teams to deal with. On top of that package, Morrissey’s best attribute is his skating. He maneuvers the ice almost effortlessly and he is able to get to full speed in the blink of an eye.
Morrissey’s game doesn’t come without a few areas of concern, though. He needs to improve a few physical aspects of his game. He could use his body and strength more in the corners and relies too much on his stick to fend off opponents, at times getting himself into trouble – especially at the top of his crease.
That region has quickly become the home of Edmonton Oil Kings forward Curtis Lazar, who has picked up right where he left off in last year’s playoffs.
Lazar is an ox; extremely strong and never backs down from a challenge. He is the best two-way forward coming out of the WHL this year. Lazar is good on his feet, generating a lot of speed and balance from his legs. His motor is always running and he is frequently throwing his weight around. Lazar has a quick release to an absolute cannon of a shot. He does a good job of protecting the puck with his body and you rarely see him turn the puck over.
That said, Lazar could improve his offensive efficiency. Too often he chips the puck in the corner or dishes it off to a teammate when he is in a good area to either take the puck to the net or fire a shot on goal.
A player that hasn’t received enough attention up to this point is Jayden Hart of the Medicine Hat Tigers. With teammate Hunter Shinkaruk stealing most of the headlines, Hart has quietly put together a solid start to the campaign.
Hart is a true two-way center, blessed with good size and deceivingly quick feet. He is mature enough physically to fight through checks and run the offense below the goal line. Hart is always conscious of his defensive responsibilities and is rarely caught out of position. His offensive skills won’t take your breath away, but he gets the job done by planting himself in front of the net and leaving his mark on the forecheck.
He was able to register 32 points as a rookie last year, and is already producing at a point per game pace so far this season.
Hart’s game doesn’t come without a few flaws. At times he is a bit indecisive and can get spend too much time holding on to the puck. He lacks high-end hockey sense and at times you would like to see a bit more creativity in the offensive zone, but there is no denying his work ethic.
Playing in an expanded role that includes top-six minutes, it won’t be long hearing Hart’s name alongside an already strong group of draft eligible forwards out of the WHL.
Will Hart keep up with the WHL’s big stars?
He’s done just fine shining alongside them thus far.