The Calgary Hitmen won the 2010 WHL championship, but they are just one of two WHL clubs who will play in the Memorial Cup, as the host city Brandon Wheat Kings will get their shot to win major junior hockey's flagship tournament as well.
There aren't any high-end 2010 draft prospects on these teams as is the case with Windsor and the Moncton Wildcats, but there are still some players who will hear their name called at some point, with Hitmen defender Matt Mackenzie leading this modest group.
Matt Mackenzie, D--
Every year, there are always those "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" players in the draft, and Mackenzie could be one at the defense position. He's a solid prospect, but doesn't have any of the high-end abilties that would make him stand out or propel him into the top-30 picks, even though he may develop into a serviceable middle pairing 'D' at the NHL in time.
The 6-1, 190-pounder looked to be on a 1st-round trajectory as a 16-year-old when he first broke into the WHL, but simply hasn't done enough since to justify that initial promising potential. He plays a solid all-around game with good mobility and agility with adequate change-of-direction and fluid pivots and turns. Mackenzie makes a good first pass and sees the ice well; he's capable of moving the puck and his numbers took off in his third WHL season, tallying six goals and 40 points and 64 regular season games, then adding six more and 16 points in 23 postseason games.
In talking to one scout who covers the West, he concurred with a comparison to Ryan Button, Boston's second pick in the '09 draft as a player who is solid and has real NHL potential, but isn't going to necessarily wow you with his game.
"Mackenzie is a guy who came into the league (WHL) with a lot of expectations and had been a bit of a disappointment up until this season, but he really stepped it up with his production and has been even better in the playoffs," the scout, who works for an Eastern Confrerence NHL team, said recently. "I like his mobility and compete level. He's not going to be a big point producer at the next level, but he's well-rounded enough a player I think that he'll eventually play and make an impact as a role player."
He looks like a solid second-round pick at this point, and can help himself even more with a standout Memorial Cup performance.
Cody Sylvester, C--
At 5-10 and just 165 pounds, Sylvester was not considered a viable NHL prospect for much of the year, but after an 11-goal playoff (in 23 games) after tallying just 10 over 68 contests in the regular season, he could be worth a late-round look.
A good skater with decent skills, according to one scout I spoke to (the same one who weighed in on Mackenzie above), his lack of functional strength and an elite skill level limits his upside and projection as an impact player in the pros.
Still, his strong playoff performance just might be enough to earn him some consideration in the seventh round, but even so, he's a draft longshot.
Brandon Wheat Kings
Mark Stone, RW--
Let's face it, folks- Stone has had a very disappointing season after struggling with injuries and uneven play amidst high expectations going into the 09-10 year.
The second-year Wheat King has nice size (6-2, 185) and showed some real improvement over the second half of his rookie season in 08-09, finishing with 17 goals and 39 points in 56 games. However, 09-10 has been a real wash; he only made it into 39 contests, and managed just 11 goals and 28 points. In 15 playoff games, he found the back of the net just once.
The 13th-ranked WHL player in Red Line Report back in October came into the season with first-step concerns due to a bow-legged stride that gives him decent enough straight-line speed, but negatively impacts his acceleration and agility. A good shooter with strong offensive instincts, the book on him for this year was that he had some intriguing potential if he could pick up a few steps and stay healthy.
Unfortunately, a broken thumb cost him a lot of time early in the season and his lack of skating continued to hamper his progress. Lanky and lacking upper body strength, this affected his ability to battle for loose pucks along the boards and take up position in front of the opposition net.
Stone enters the 2010 draft as a mid-to-late round prospect unless some NHL team fell in love with his potential based on what they saw last season. The draft can be weird; guys you think have little or no chance end up going higher because of what scouts saw in them before, but if you base his draft potential on this past season, he looks more like Nate Thompson did in '03 when the Bruins plucked him in the fifth round out of Seattle after an underachieving year, hoping that he could recapture the success and promise he showed at 16.
A strong and productive Memorial Cup will certainly help Stone, but isn't likely to surge his draft stock much.
On an encouraging note, Stone was ranked 88th in the Hockey News 2010 Draft Preview, which places him squarely in the third round. So, if he can make a statement here in the next few weeks, it could go a long way for him. He's raw and has some holes in his game, but the offensive potential is certainly intriguing enough that he'll get picked at some point. Where that will be is anyone's guess right now.
Michael Ferland, LW--
The 146th-ranked player by Central Scouting plays on Brandon's fourth line and is a pretty straightforward, up-and-down winger with toughness and jam, though not possessing a lot of skill or huge size (6-0, 190). He jumped up 42 spots from where he was at midterm, and that can probably be attributed to his hard work and grit.
Ferland scored 9 goals in 61 games (28 points) for the Wheat Kings and added three more in the 15 playoff games, and will have to impress scouts in attendance with his willingness to initiate contact and outwork the opposition for loose pucks. Brayden Schenn, Matt Calvert and Scott Glennie form the Wheaties' potent top line, but Ferland has done his job on the bottom unit and will be counted on to grind it out whenever possible.
In talking to Taylor Hall today, he told me that recognized the toughness element that both Brandon and Calgary bring to the table at the Memorial Cup, so it should be interesting to see how the WHL teams match up with that high-flying Windsor club.
Overall, there is a lot to like about the draft-eligibles across the board here for the Memorial Cup, but clearly, the WHL entries are a cut below their OHL and QMJHL counterparts.
I'll be back soon with the final installment of this series, the Moncton Wildcats.