This weekend, the NHL suspends itself for the All-Star Game – two days in Columbus, where the league's best (or, at least, healthy and invited) players will shoot at paper targets, strap on microphones and head-cams, and basically avoid physical contact for 60 minutes.
It's a fun day for the kids. For many hockey fans though, it's a skippable exhibition. Because most of the stars on display have little to play for past this weekend – they're already living their dream, after all.
But rewind to tonight and the CHL Top Prospects Game (4 p.m. PST on Sportsnet). While it's no doubt been marketed as another Connor McDavid show, every other teenager on Team Orr and Team Cherry has something to prove – to the scouts on hand, to the audience they may thrill in the pros, and perhaps to themselves.
And hey, your favourite NHL team will likely add one of them to their system this summer.
Read: 'CHL prospects game may shake out NHL Draft's top 10' – BCLocalNews.com (Jan. 21, 2015)
Here are the best WHL players on tonight's roster at the NHL's pre-Draft junior all-star game, in St. Catharines, Ontario...
*Because this is a CHL prospects game, no players from the U.S. collegiate system or international leagues will be playing – just ranked draft eligibles from the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. That includes potential top 10 picks like Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin, Oliver Kylington, and Mikko Rantanen.
Mathew Barzal – Seattle Thunderbirds, Centre – (Not Playing Tonight)
CSS Ranking: No. 9 – North American Skaters
A bit of a pocket rocket, the right-handed, slashing centre Barzal rings in at six-foot, 177 pounds – he's not tiny or light, but in the times I've watched him, he reminds me quite a bit of Brendan Gallagher (at least, in his style). Maybe Gilbert Brule, too.
He has 18 points in just 16 games played for Seattle this season (knee injury), and should go in the top 10 in June's draft, if trends and projections continue.
Barzal, a Coquitlam kid, will not play in tonight's prospects game but, as the WHL's top-ranked skater, I thought it was necessary to have him in this last of westerners to watch...
Ivan Provorov – Brandon Wheat Kings, Defence – Team Orr
CSS Ranking: No. 10 – North American Skaters
Read: Top 30 NHL Draft Prospects – Sportsnet (Jan. 14, 2015)
Lucky Provorov – he'll get to pass the puck to centreman Connor McDavid tonight in St. Catharines.
The Russian is slick as oil with the puck; he skates with an eyes-ahead, barrel-rolling style and has 41 points in 40 games with the almost WHL-best Wheat Kings this season.
He'll go in the first round, no doubt, in June. He could creep into the top 10, just maybe, if another team is looking for a defenceman and misses out on Oliver Kylington – the top-rated International skater, and a blueliner with a similarly hungry nose for the net.
Nick Merkley – Kelowna Rockets, Centre – Team Orr
CSS Ranking: No. 13 – North American Skaters
A right-handed shooter and playmaker that puts pucks top-corner with a flick of the wrist, Merkley has all the tools to be an all-star pivot for some middle-of-the-pack NHL team, at some point in the future. (Middle-of-the-pack because he'll likely be drafted 10th to 20th, not middle-of-the-pack in a negative way.)
His 64 points this season are impressive, in just 45 games with the league-leading Kelowna Rockets... but more impressive, maybe, is that 50 of those are assists.
A lot of guys want to score – Merkley likes to make his teammates better. (The evidence? Linemate Rourke Chartier leads the WHL with 38 goals in 38 games played.)
"Nick just has to make sure he keeps playing his game, because you can go down just as fast as you go up," said Rockets coach Dan Lambert, to the Kelowna Capital News's Warren Henderson this week. "At the end of the day, he has to keep proving he's the player the scouts think he is.
Brandon Carlo – Tri-City Americans, Defence – Team Cherry
CSS Ranking: No. 16 – North American Skaters
As the 16th-ranked North American skater, Carlo's one of those guys who could be available be the time the Vancouver Canucks pick – Merkley, too, actually.
"Brandon Carlo is an industrious, shift-by-shift defenceman who lets the game come to him rather than chasing the play; he is able to quickly adapt to the pace of the game on the fly," write the trust minds behind EliteProspects.com.
So, he's sturdy. He's calm. He's not going to be the next Erik Karlsson, but it sounds like he's okay with that. The sort of player you say, 'If you didn't hear his name, it means he had a good game' about.
Carlo, a native of Colorado Springs, played for the Americans at this year's World Junior Hockey Championship. And this only clips you can find of him on YouTube show him fighting, which probably lends evidence to the whole strong, stay-at-home reputation...
Jansen Harkins – Prince George Cougars, Centre – Team Orr
CSS Ranking: No. 18 – North American Skaters
North Vancouver's Harkins has the offence to prove his rank – 51 points this year, so far – and projects as the sort of responsible, two-way player teams covet. Maybe not the number one, European-ish skilled forward, but he holds his own in one of the league's best recent draft classes.
"He's really instilled that (work ethic) in me my whole life," Harkins said of his father Todd, who's his general manager in Prince George, to NHL.com last year. "He's always been around coaching me and teaching me. He's been a lot of help to me. And now I have him up in Prince George living with me."
Aesthetically, he reminds me of Jaden Schwartz or maybe Sean Monahan. A lefty and a little boxed-in, but obviously with a knack for getting in the stats column.
Paul Bittner – Portland Winterhawks, Left Wing – Team Orr
CSS Ranking: No. 19 – North American Skaters
The first dedicated winger on this list, Bittner rings in a few inches above the others – 6'4, 202 pounds – and has put up 34 points for the Winterhawks this season. He moves well off the wall and has the size and reach to be a force in the NHL, if given the chance and the situation. (I suppose that's the case with any of 'em, right?)
"A big-bodied power forward that plays with tenacity and an edge. Relentless on the forecheck and is able to bully his way to the net with his size and speed.
"All-in-all, an impact player that uses his size and skill to his advantage. Gaining consistency will be integral to his future success."
Add current Utica Comets coach Travis Green to his supporters. When the Canucks' AHL bench boss coach led Portland in 2013, he said, "His upside is huge" (via Oregon Live).
Jake DeBrusk – Swift Current Broncos, Left Winger – Team Cherry
CSS Ranking: No. 24 – North American Skaters
The Edmonton kid is playing at a point-a-game pace with the Broncos this season, and has 25 goals in over half a season, his second in the Dub.
His father, Louie DeBrusk, played over parts of 12 seasons in the NHL.
"I learned a lot being around the game and got to meet a lot of people in the game. And just with my dad, he has given me tips and advice along the way that I have really benefited from. We always talk about my games and he helps me learn more about the game."
Perhaps one thing DeBrusk has going for him is that he's still rising. Whereas other prospects have been over-analyzed and tracked for their entire teenage lives and are, therefore, liable to drop down the rankings in their draft year – Ottawa's Travis Konecny comes to mind – DeBrusk's junior career is a book with a lot to be written.
(As a comparable, Robby Fabbri had the same thing last year and Bo Horvat the year before that. Both were the best players in the OHL playoffs, and both could have legitimately been taken anywhere from the top 10 to the end of the first round. Do you trust their tepid start or their furious finish?)
"I'm a bit of late-bloomer, but other things played into not playing in the WHL right away... But I see the upside to how it played out because I went back to Edmonton and had a big role in midget. I really learned a lot playing in all situations and sprouted that year, too."