June 20,2014(ISN) – Over the past five NHL drafts, 31 Western Hockey League stars have gone in the first round, with another 140 young men hearing their names called in rounds two-through-seven. This year is no different, and may end up being the most prosperous draft for westerners since 2010 when 42 players were selected. I would estimate that as many as 11 WHL players could hear their name called in the opening round. I caught up with four hopefuls to talk about their game and get to know them a little better.
JAKE VIRTANEN Left Wing, Calgary Hitmen 6’1″, 210 lbs. ISS Rank: 7
When Jake Virtanen is on the ice, you’re going to notice him. That’s because the rugged 17-year-old winger is generally running someone over or putting the puck in the net. The physical side of hockey is something that has come naturally to him, having played both rugby and lacrosse while he was growing up. Once he was allowed to start hitting, Virtanen knew it was going to be a part of his game. “I love being physical and taking the body on guys,” Virtanen said. “It’s just kind of natural for me to make big hits.” And while Virtanen’s physical side—hitting and fighting—usually takes more out of the opposition, midway through this season he suffered an unfortunate shoulder injury.
After his season finished with a strong showing for Canada at the U-18 World Championships, Virtanen went under the knife to get his shoulder fixed. Currently, Virtanen’s recovery from surgery is going well. “It’s pretty good,” he said. “I went to the doctor this week (Jun. 11) and he says I’m right on track to be 100 per cent.” And since the season has finished, Virtanen has kept himself busy meeting with a number of NHL teams.
People such as Brian Burke, Brendan Shanahan and Trevor Linden are just a few of the big names that he has spoken with. “You see those guys on TV and it’s pretty surreal to be walking into a room and meeting them.” For those that haven’t seen Virtanen in action, he plays a gritty game and uses his speed well to get to the dirty areas of the ice. He also has a booming shot and can finish from virtually anywhere on the ice.
NELSON NOGIER Defence, Saskatoon Blades 6’2″, 193 lbs. ISS Rank: 69
In the WHL, there are smart hockey players, and then there is Nelson Nogier. The six-foot-two, 193-pound stay-at-home defenceman for the Saskatoon Blades was named the WHL’s Top Scholastic Player this year, after averaging 96 per cent in his high school classes. “It’s tough, especially with the schedule we have in the WHL,” Nogier said as he explained his school/hockey/life balance. “You might have to sacrifice some things like going to the movies or hanging out with the boys after practice, but it’s rewarding, because all the hard work pays off in the end.” And Nogier’s schooling won’t end at high school. Next year he will be picking up the odd class the University of Saskatchewan.
And while registration isn’t until Jun. 21, he’s looking at taking Calculus or English in the fall. “I’ll take classes in the mornings, so that will give me something to do instead of sleeping in while I’m not at the rink.” And brains aren’t all there is to Nogier.
He was originally slated to suit up at the BMO Top Prospects Game, but an unfortunate shoulder injury derailed his season. Before the injury, he was a player many had tabbed for the second round because of his combination of size, skating and character. But because of the injury his future looks to be in the fourth or fifth round—however, his recovery it on track.
In the International Scouting Services draft guide,
Scout Andruw Yarema says Nogier’s biggest strength is his skating. He likes to sit back and play the responsible game and hardly ever gets beat on one-on-one plays because he reads the play remarkably well.
JAYCE HAWRYLUK Centre, Brandon Wheat Kings 5’10”, 190 lbs. ISS Rank: 94
Every good team has an inspirational leader that leaves everything they have on the ice. For the Brandon Wheat Kings, that player is Jayce Hawryluk. But on Mar. 26, the Wheat Kings inspirational leader had a scary moment when he felt lightheaded and was experiencing shortness of breath, just moments after notching the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Regina Pats.
“It was a little bit scary, but I was in good hands and the doctors took good care of me,” Hawryluk said, as he explained what happened. “It ended up being just some dehydration combined with a pretty big moment, but everything is fine now.” After a day of tests, Hawryluk was back on the ice with his teammates, notching two more points as the Wheat Kings sent the Regina Pats packing.
The Wheat Kings would eventually lose in round two to the eventual Memorial Cup Champions, the Edmonton Oil Kings. And while losing may discourage some teams, the Wheat Kings’ future looks good with a number of talented players born in 1996, 1997 or 1998. “I think we’ve got a bright future ahead,” Hawryluk said. “We’ve got a lot of young players coming up and they are very talented, so we’ll hopefully be able to win a championship one day.” And with a player like Jayce Hawryluk—who patterns his game after Brendan Gallagher and Brad Marchand—leading the way that is entirely possible. “I play a high-energy game and I’m a skilled, gritty forward that plays bigger than I am,” he said when asked about his style of play.
RYAN REHILL Defence, Kamloops Blazers 6’3″, 213 lbs.
ISS Rank: Not Ranked
Some WHL players fight to keep their roster spots, but for Kamloops Blazers defenceman Ryan Rehill, fighting is a way for the big man to create space and give himself a little extra time with the puck. Rehill led the WHL this past season with 182 penalty minutes, dropping the mitts 15 times. “[Fighting] builds up a bit of a reputation for yourself, so that maybe guys think twice about hitting you when you’re out in the ice,” Rehill said, when asked how fight relates to giving him more time and space when he’s on the ice.
But unlike most players that lead their leagues in penalty minutes, Rehill isn’t just another dancing bear enforcer. No, Rehill is often the first defenceman called upon by the Blazers when it’s time to shut down the other team’s top players. Because of his reliability and work ethic, this season Rehill earned team awards for Best Defenceman, Most Dedicated Player and Inspirational Leadership Ability.
The award that means the most to Rehill is the Most Dedicated Player Award, because he feels it shows all the hard work that he puts in not only during the season, but also in the off-season with his trainer Steve Adams. And with the Blazers going through a rebuilding season, Rehill was called upon to play more of a leadership role in the locker room this year. “Someone who does the right things both on and off the ice,” Rehill said when asked what a leader was to him. “They’re not necessarily the most vocal person, but they always try to make sure they’re doing things the right way and that they don’t take time off.”