Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: Welcome to the future

We are heading down the stretch toward playoffs in the WHL, with an average of 18 games to go in the regular season. The talent fueling the push to the playoffs was recently on display at the CHL Top Prospects Game and World Junior Tournament and they are showing no signs of relenting now that they are back. Some of the best young talent in the league, however, flies under the radar. Whether they are making headlines or quietly building their draft stock on the third line, it’s safe to say that the future of the NHL is secure.

You could write a book with all the talent that abounds in the WHL. These are just a few of my favorite things to watch during what I like to call the second holiday season, otherwise known as the stretch run:

Eric Comrie: When the Tri-City Americans’ starting goaltender came into the league in 2011 as a rookie, he was better known as Mike Comrie’s younger brother and frequently asked what Hilary Duff was really like. Today, the WHL's Goaltender of the Month for January has a GAA of 2.36, a 0.93 save percentage and is the league’s third leading goalie behind Victoria Royal Coleman Vollrath and Edmonton Oil King Tristan Jarry. Comrie was drafted 59th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, and he signed an entry-level contract with the team in December. The Portland Winterhawks seem to have dialed his number and that of his team this season, but Comrie is still widely regarded as one of the top netminders in the league. As easy as they make it look to score against him, the Portland Winterhawks have consistently told me that they have the utmost respect for him, as well they should.

Tayler with an E: Tayler Thompson played for two seasons with the Prince George Cougars and spent last season with the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, where he helped the team win the Canalta Cup. He was invited to the Portland Winterhawks training camp last summer before being released back to Yorkton. He earned a return trip to Portland this year, when he extended his stay with several pre-season games before returning to the Terriers. Tayler is key piece of the Terriers current success. They have a record of 30-11-2-4 and are first place in both their division and conference. Taylor is the league's third leading scorer, with 16 goals and 34 assists in 44 games played. Based on his brief time in Portland, I can also tell you that Tayler is a sweet playmaker, he comes in pretty handy on a face off and he’s definitely not afraid to drop the mitts. Most importantly, he's also a well-spoken, polite and all-around good person. I believe the word for Tayler is sleeper; he's not the headline-making player whose name is on everyone's lips, but if were in charge of Central Scouting, I'd give him a second look. He's worth it.   

29 is the magic number: Portland Winterhawks forward Chase De Leo is coming on strong in the second half of the season after a trip to the Top Prospects Game, where he finished second in the 30m sprint for Team Cherry. With top players away at World Juniors in December, Chase was honored with the “A” on his sweater, and he stepped up to the challenge with six goals and five assists in eight games between December 14 and January 4. Chase is currently ranked 26th among North American skaters on the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings, but many experts think he's too small to be a first round pick in the 2014 Entry Draft. I beg to differ; he was chosen 192nd overall in the 9th round of the Bantam Draft and today he plays on one of the Winterhawks' top lines, he's played in the Top Prospects Game and he's earned a solid midterm ranking. Back on the home front, he also has a bright future here in Portland, where I would predict we'll see him wear the "A" full time next season. All of which is why I'm making an early prediction that Chase will be chosen 29th overall in the 2014 Entry Draft, or even slightly higher. I may be alone in my conviction, but I'm pretty sure there are a few ladies in the Portland house who are with me on this one.

Rebel alliance: 19-year-old Presten Kopeck was one of the key pieces of the blockbuster trade that brought Mathew Dumba to Portland. A solid, reliable player with outstanding potential, Presten was a fan favorite in Portland and was well liked by his teammates. While we were sad to see him go, it’s comforting to know that he has ascended quickly through the Red Deer Rebels' ranks. Presten was recently honored with the “A” on his sweater and he has racked up 15 points in 15 games played with the Rebels. The team is currently 8th in the Eastern Conference; if playoffs started today, they would qualify. With a little help from Presten, they just might.  I would expect we'll see and hear more about Presten in the coming months as he makes his case for a second look from the NHL.

Rocket Power: The Kelowna Rockets hold a comfortable lead in the Western Conference and they are the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot. I make it my business to fear and respect any team whose mascot is Canada’s version of the Loch Ness monster, no matter where they are in the standings.  The Rockets are easily my choice for the team most likely to face off against the Portland Winterhawks for the Western Conference title. Players to watch: Forward Myles Bell (drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2012), forward Tyson Baillie (draft eligible in 2014) and Captain Madison Bowey (drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2013).

Kings of the Eastern Conference World: The Edmonton Oil Kings require no introduction. They are once again the top contender for the Eastern Conference title. The new archrivals of the Portland Winterhawks are on fire, so a third go ‘round with the perennially hot Kings in the WHL Championship could become a reality. Players to watch: Center Curtis Lazar (signed by the Ottawa Senators in Sept. 2013), defenseman Griffin Reinhart (son of Paul Reinhart, brother of Max and Sam, drafted 4th overall by the New York Islanders in 2012) and goaltender Tristan Jarry (drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013).

Royal treatment: The surprise of the 2013-2014 season has been the Victoria Royals (36-16-1-3). Backed by the league’s leading goaltender, Coleman Vollrath (2.09 GAA, 0.936 save percentage), the Royals are currently third in the Western Conference and second in the B.C. Division. In addition to their top-ranked goaltending, the team is also backed by a strong blueline. Defensemen to watch include Captain Jordan Fransoo (drafted 186th overall in the 7th round of the 2011 Entry Draft by the Ottawa Senators), Keegan Kanzig (signed by the Calgary Flames in December 2013) and Joe Hicketts (draft eligible in 2014). On the forward line, keep an eye on the team’s points leader Brandon Magee (50 points in 49 games played), 6’6” right winger Axel Blomqvist (43 points in 49 games played, signed by the Winnepeg Jets in January, 2013), and center Ben Walker (39 points in 56 games played, attended Minnesota Wild Development Camp in the summer of 2013). I would expect to see a late season burst of Royal firepower as we head into the final month of the WHL season, capped off by a strong performance in the playoffs.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com