Around a week away from the WHL season starting, one of the biggest headlines going into the 2018-2019 WHL season is the wide open rookie of the year race with an influx of high end players entering the league. The 2002 class was one that showcased a tonne of offensive forward who showcased strong performances in limited games with their teams last year and a core of imports who are joining teams that need offensive production. Last year’s winner, Dylan Cozen, was a 19th overall pick which goes to show that anyone can win this. The year before import Aleksi Heponiemi won the award and before that it was Matthew Philips of the Victoria Royals. So as you can see this award is always wide open and isn’t just given to the highest pick in the previous bantam draft. Here is my list for front runners of this year’s award:
- Jake Neighbours – Edmonton Oil Kings
Left Wing – 5’11 201lbs – 2002
Jake Neighbours has been well regarded as a top prospect for over a year now. Being selected with the 4th overall pick in the 2017 WHL Draft, the 5’11 201lbs winger is highly touted to lead the rookie race this year. In a small sample size last year Neighbours displayed a WHL ready player who could compete against bigger/stronger/quicker competition. He led the AMHL in scoring last year, Neighbours is a skillful offensive winger who has some grit to his game. He’s a knack for making players on his line better and blend elite playmaking with multi-facetted scoring abilities. Skates like a WHL veteran, a rangy powerful stride, I thought last season he not only kept up with the WHL pace but at times dictated the game. Neighbours is in a great position to be an offensive leader of his team.
- Kaiden Guhle – Prince Albert Raiders
Defense – 6’2 190lbs – 2002
The first overall pick the 2017 WHL Draft, Guhle is the highlight of rookies coming in this season. Guhle has shown the past that he elevates his game against older/better competition and I expected nothing less with him entering the WHL. He had 41 points in 38 total games last year and was awarded CSSHL Midget Prep Top Defenseman. Guhle is an elite skating two-way defender whose hockey IQ, puck transporting, composure, and poise will stand out like a sore thumb this year on the Prince Albert back end. Guhle will step into a situation in Prince Albert where he can quickly work his way up the depth chart. I expect him to be a 20+ minute defender on most nights. I projected his production to be similar to Bowen Byram in his rookie year.
- Connor McClennon – Kootenay Ice
Winger – 5’9 154lbs – 2002
Kootenay’s first round selection in the 2017 WHL Draft, McClennon is expected to play a huge role in the Ice’s offensive success this season. I don’t think McClennon has the individual physical tools to out produce others lower than him on this list but his situation where a player of his abilities can benefit. McClennon has elite scoring tool’s his possessive style of game may not translate but I expect him to be the trigger man on that Kootenay Ice power play. With Peyton Kreb’s feeding him the puck and his wicked wrist shot, I’d expect McClennon to potentially have the most impressive season in terms of goal scoring on this list.
- Michal Kvasnica – Portland Winterhawks
Winger – 6’1 187lbs – 2000
Portland’s prized import pick spent most of last year playing in the Czech 2nd pro league against men, he produced 16 points in 45 games but was spectacular at the U-18’s with his national team. Kvasnica will benefit from playing with the abundance of elite offensive talent that Portland brings year in and year old. A wicked release on a precise shot and the ability to exploit defensive errors. Kvasnica can produce offense on his own and anticipate offensive plays at a high end level. Expected to be a 20-25+ goal scorer. Production may take a hit if he plays WJC.
- Justin Sourdif – Vancouver Giants
Center – 5’10 165lbs – 2002
Unlike others on this list, I have Justin Sourdif on here for the overall impact he will have on a game night in and night out rather than production he may bring. For me Sourdif draws a lot of similarities to Peyton Krebs, I think both are such responsible two-way players with elite hockey IQ. Sourdif’s one of the most intriguing players entering the WHL in a long time in my opinion, every time I have gotten the opportunity to see him play he has been the power play quarterback, and the kid can really do it all. Balanced offensive game, awareness of the defensive play, high end skating abilities and dynamic pace. I think he’s going to be a stud for the Giants this year, I may have undervalued him on this list.
- Ridly Greig – Brandon Wheat Kings
Center – 5’10 154lbs – 2002
Ridly Greig caught my eye in every viewing I had of his last year, with both the Lethbridge Hurricanes Midget AAA’s and with the Brandon Wheat Kings. The kids is fun to watch, he has such offensive flare to his game and a fearless attitude. Greig’s best asset is his ability to make adjustments in all three zones, someone who has vastly improved his two-way game over the past year but can still take over offensively. Greig is expected to be a 2/3 line center for the Wheat Kings but I feel he will take advantage of all opportunities he is given.
- Joona Kiviniemi – Swift Current Broncos
Left Wing – 6’0 161lbs – Late 2001
Selected by the Bronco’s in the import draft, Kiviniemi is a late 2001 born prospect who has caught our Southern Saskatchewan’s eye in pre-season play. While he wasn’t productive in Finland last year, Kiviniemi has drew comparisons to Aleksi Heponiemi comparisons early in Swift Current. A similar offensive winger who dazzles tremendous puck skills, Kiviniemi does his damaged with his formidable shooting abilities and electrifying pace of play. He’s expected to be the trigger man on the Bronco’s power play and will be heavily depended on offensively. Excited to see what he can do in regular season play.
- Vladimir Alistrov – Edmonton Oil Kings
Left Wing – 6’2 168lbs – 2001
Much like his team-mate on this list (Jake Neighbours), Alistrov is in an excellent position in Edmonton to be a leader offensively. They are a team that has been looking for offensive for a few years now and I think they finally have guys enter the line-up that can contribute to that. In training camp and preseason, I thought Alistrov display a balanced power forward type of game. He certainly doesn’t lack skill and his overall strength on the puck is eye-catching. He’s a five tool winger who I think will be a huge addition to the Oil Kings this year.
- Seth Jarvis – Portland Winterhawks
Right Wing – 5’9 159lbs – 2002
Jarvis’s performances last year with the Winterhawks were nothing less than tremendous, he seemed to have no issues adapting to the WHL speed and size. Jarvis is a player who loves to do it all himself offensively and does so with a fearless attitude towards physical play. A take a hit to make a play type of player who’s north-south acceleration and slick puck control will make him a constant threat on the rush. Jarvis will need to stay away from big hits but otherwise I think he will be a huge offensive addition to the Winterhawks already dynamic offensive group.
- Brayden Tracey – Moose Jaw Warriors
Center – 5’11 168lbs – 2001
Tracey is a first round pick in the 2016 WHL Draft who struggled to make the stacked Warriors line up last year out of camp. This year he is going into a situation in Moose Jaw where he can on not only make the team but be a leader offensively. I’ve often compared his game to a player like Brayden Burke, who had a tonne of offensive production success. A poised scoring center who loves to dictate the pace of play and play puck possessive in the offensive zone. Tracey’s a spectacular one-dimensional offensive center who plays with composure and has an edge to his game.
Honorable Mentions: Ronan Seeley, Jiri Patera, Kyle Crnkovic, Jack Finley, Sebastian Cossa, Luke Prokop, Krystof Hrabik, Daemon Hunt