Hey everyone! Sorry I haven't been able to post much the last few days as I have had a lot of work, and very little free time! I'll try and post a little more often. Anyway, back to some hockey-talk! Here's a list of the top 5 wingers playing in my favorite junior league - the Western Hockey League.
1. Nino Niederreiter, LW, Portland Winterhawks (NYI)
Upon his return to Portland from a season-opening nine-game stint with the New York Islanders, Nino Neiderreiter continued to demonstrate the compete level he has shown since arriving on the North American hockey scene last season.
Selected in the first round, fifth overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Niederreiter has scored 41 goals and 29 assists in 55 games with Portland this season. The Winterhawks won 50 games and are close to advancing past the injury-plagued Everett Silvertips in the first round of the WHL western conference playoffs.
Neiderreiter has played alongside forwards Ryan Johansen (CBJ) and Brad Ross (TOR) for most of hisWHL career, forming one of the most effective offensive forward lines in the league.
Niederreiter has also played an important role in the comfort level achieved by fellow Swiss-born prospectSven Bartschi, who is eligible for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Bartschi has played 66 games in Portland this season, collecting 85 points and is the western conference nominee for the WHL Rookie of the Year award.
2. Carter Ashton, LW, Tri City Americans (TB)
A huge power forward, Carter Ashton has become an integral veteran producer since being acquired by the Americans near the WHL trade deadline.
Selected in the first round, 29th overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Ashton is playing with his third WHL team. After stints with the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Regina Pats, he has a legitimate opportunity this season to play for a WHL Championship. During his rookie campaign, where he missed over 30 games with an early-season shoulder injury, the Hurricanes advanced to the WHL Final Series where they were dispatched in four games by the Spokane Chiefs.
In 33 games with the Amerks since arriving from the Regina, he has scored 17 goals and 27 assists. Ashton was also a member of Team Canada at the 2011 WJC.
3. Curtis Hamilton, LW, Saskatoon Blades (EDM)
A true power forward, Curtis Hamilton has begun to showcase an offensive skill set late in his junior career. The native of Kelowna, BC has tallied 26 times and added 52 assists and a plus-48 rating in 62 regular season games.
Selected in the second round, 48th overall, at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Hamilton has been a major contributor in Saskatoon this season as the Blades compiled 56 wins and ran away with top spot in the WHL standings. He has responded greatly during 2010-2011 after a challenging campaign last year where he suffered three shoulder injuries. As a member of Team Canada at the 2011 WJC, Hamilton did not look out of place at all, providing valuable scoring depth.
At 6'3 and 205 pounds, Hamilton is a much-needed prospect in Edmonton given his size and skills. In recent years, the cupboard has been stocked with a number of under-sized forwards, players who have battled consistency and the injury bug.
4. Quinton Howden, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors (FLA)
While he is listed as a winger, Quinton Howden is also considered by some as one of the top face-off men in the WHL. Indeed, versatility and elite skating ability have made the Oakbank, Manitoba native a much-sought-after NHL prospect.
Selected in the first round, 25th overall, by the Florida Panthers, Howden has also achieved success on the international scene as a member of Team Canada at the 2011 WJC. Howden scored 40 goals and 39 assists during the regular season, both career highs during his third full season in Moose Jaw.
5. Brett Connolly, RW, Prince George Cougars (TB)
Amid so much promise, Brett Connolly's junior career will probably leave many wanting more. The Prince George native burst on to the hockey scene as the WHL Rookie of the Year and CHL Rookie of the Year two seasons ago. Since then, the injury bug has had its way with Connolly.
Selected in the first round, sixth overall, by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Connolly's WHL career likely came to an abrupt end on March 25 when he was driven into the end boards by Mitch Callahan (DET) of the Kelowna Rockets just six minutes into game one of the western conference playoffs. Connolly suffered a separated shoulder and is done for the season.
Loaded with offensive skills, Connolly led the Cougars in scoring with 73 points this season. A healthy Connolly will give the Lightning an heir apparent to the likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. The Bolts have long been blessed with high octane talent up front and Connolly, it is hoped, will develop into another productive scoring threat.