10 sophomores poised to blossom into stars: WHL Breakout Kings

For the most part, a player's rookie season of major junior hockey tends to be somewhat of a struggle. This is definitely expected, though. The jump from major midget to major junior is a doozy. The players are faster, stronger, and undoubtedly more talented.

Nevertheless, the second time around seems to be a lot easier. They know what to expect and have a full offseason to prepare for their second kick at the can.

Prince Albert Raiders star Mark McNeill is a prime example of a player blossoming in his sophomore season in the Dub. He followed up his 24-point rookie season by notching 32 goals and 81 points. He was later rewarded for his breakout season by being drafted 18th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2011 entry draft.

Here is a look at 10 young guns, who scored 40 points or less last year, poised to breakout into junior hockey stars in their sophomore seasons.

Curtis Lazar, centre, Edmonton Oil Kings — It was clear as day while watching Lazar in Edmonton's MasterCard Memorial Cup run that he has the potential to become a superstar. The 6-foot, 189-pounder did it all. He threw hits, back checked, and put the puck in the back of the net eight times in 20 games while adding 11 helpers.

Some "prospect gurus" are surprised when Lazar's name is put into the hat of potential top-15 2013 draft picks because his 20-goal, 31-point rookie season with the Oil Kings doesn't exactly look top-15 worthy on paper. It is a shame they never watched him live before analyzing him because he possesses talent that is a treat to watch.

Since Lazar is more of a shoot-first type centre, it seems unlikely that he will rack up a ton of assists next year to push him over the 100-point mark similar to how Ryan Nugent-Hopkins did for the Red Deer Rebels in his second major junior season. Nevertheless, taking into account his uncanny goal scoring abilities, the Vernon, B.C., native might be able to take a strong shot at the big 50.

Medicine Hat Tigers star Hunter Shinkaruk was only a single goal shy of 50 last year in his sophomore season. And Shinkaruk scored six less goals than Lazar did in his first year in the Dub. However, Shinkaruk took the term pepper the net to a completely new level last year. Lazar will have to take a page out of Shinkaruk's shoot-like-there-is-no-tomorrow book to be able to join the exclusive 50-goal club.

Eric Comrie, goaltender, Tri-City Americans — Comrie will be the No. 1 guy between the pipes in Tri-City this year with the Americans dealing Ty Rimmer to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. This was a surprise to no one. It was evident as soon the Americans inked Comrie over a year ago that he's their goaltender of the future.

Comrie's rookie season in Tri-City had its ups and down, but for the most part it was on the up. The 6-foot, 175-pounder posted a 2.67 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage throughout 31 games.

It's expected that Comrie will suit up for around 60 games next year. This will give Comrie the opportunity to separate himself from the rest of the 1995-born goaltenders in the CHL. He will be able to prove he's not only one of the top puck-stopping talents of the 2013 draft class, but that he also has strong endurance and can carry a team throughout an entire season.

Henrik Samuelsson, centre, Edmonton Oil Kings — The only reason Samuelsson is on this list is because he never joined the Oil Kings until slightly after Christmas last year. If he were to have joined them earlier, he definitely would have posted more than 40 points.

It took the 6-foot-2, 192-pounder, who is the son of Ulf Samuelsson, no time to adapt to the Dub last year after leaving the Swedish Elite League. He racked up seven goals and 23 points in 28 games. He also had an impressive Memorial Cup, potting two goals and five points in four games.

Unless Samuelsson sits out too many games because of suspensions, it seems an 85-plus point season is in the cards for the 18-year-old. This would come to the delight of the Phoenix Coyotes who recently drafted him 27th overall in the 2011 draft.

Morgan Klimchuk, centre, Regina Pats — There will be plenty of opportunity for Klimchuk down the middle in Regina next year since Pats star forward Jordan Weal is expected to move on to the Los Angeles Kings organization rather than coming back for his overage season.

The Calgary native has already turned heads in Regina. He was one of the Pats' top scorers straight out of the gate, netting 18 goals and 36 points throughout 67 games in his rookie season.

Regina's offence will heavily rely on Klimchuk and Washington Capitals prospect Chandler Stephenson. It will be hard for them to fill the shoes of the Pats' old 1-2 scoring punch, Jordan Eberle and Weal. Nevertheless, if the scoring duo can click and stay healthy, there's a good chance they could bring the Pats back into the playoffs for back-to-back seasons.

Alex Forsberg, centre Prince George Cougars — As the first-overall pick of the 2010 bantam draft, high expectations have fallen on Forsberg's shoulders. For the most part, these expectations have been reached thus far. The Waldheim, SK., native stood tall in his rookie season with the Cougars, scoring 15 goals and 40 points in 51 games.

If Forsberg can stay healthy next year, he definitely seems to have the potential to breakout into one of the top centres in the WHL. That appears to be a big if, though. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound centre has had a history of injury problems in his young hockey career. Forsberg missed 21 games last year in Prince George and struggled with shoulder and head injuries the year before with the Beardy's Blackhawks of the Saskatchewan AAA Midget Hockey League.

Since Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Joonas Korpisalo recently backed out on his contract to guard the net for Prince George next year, the Cougars will be backing on a big year from Forsberg and company upfront for them to sneak back into the playoffs. Therefore, it doesn't seem as though the pressure will loosen off Forsberg's shoulders anytime soon in Northern B.C.

Josh Morrissey, defence, Prince Albert Raiders — Morrisey's outstanding rookie season in Prince Albert last year was one of the few bright spots in the Raiders' Eastern Conference last-place finish.

Without looking at the 6-foot, 184-pound blueliner's birth certificate, one would never have guessed Morrissey was a rookie last year. He looked like a seasoned veteran, dashing around opponents as if it was business as usual. As expected, this impressive play has him ranked as a potential first-round pick of the 2013 draft by the vast majority of scouting services.

Having scored 10 goals and 38 points last year, Morrissey has already set the bar high. It's hard to predict how big of an arc his development curve will take next year. However, if comparable precedents such as Brandon Wheat Kings' Ryan Pulock and Winterhawks' Derrick Pouliot can be used calculating his crystal ball, 60 points could definitely be in the cards for Morrisey next year.

Taylor Leier, wing, Portland Winterhawks — Sitting in a dressing room with the likes of Calgary Flames prospects Sven Bartschi and Tyler Wotherspoon, Pittsburgh Penguins prospects Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot, St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie, and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Brad Ross — it was tough for Leier to standout past his ultra-talented teammates in his rookie season. Nonetheless, having potted 13 goals and 37 points while receiving limited minutes, Leier managed to turn some heads.

Next year should be a different story. The Winterhawks are expected to lose top scorers Bartschi, Ross, and Marcel Noebels to the pros. This should pave the way for a promotion for Leier from his third-line secondary-scorer role to receiving top-line minutes in both five-on-five and power-play situations.

Leier was a big goal scorer for the Saskatoon Contacts in the Saskatchewan AAA Midget League back in 2010-11. He netted 31 goals and 74 points in 44 games. His success at the major midget level was a huge reason why the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him 117th overall in the 2012 draft. It's clear he possesses uncanny offensive skills, he just needs opportunity to allow him to showcase these talents in the Dub.

Nik Zajac, wing, Saskatoon Blades — Zajac proved in the post-season during Saskatoon's four-and-out first-round debacle against the Medicine Hat Tigers that he comes to play every night. While several of his teammates put on their invisible cloaks during showtime, Zajac hustled and acted as though he was a rugged veteran for the Blades rather than a 16-year-old rookie. If this superb work ethic in his game continues, Zajac could definitely upgrade from his current plumber role, as Alexander Ovechkin would say, to a valuable two-way forward on the second or third line for the Blades.

The only question is how big of a point producer can the 5-foot-9, 160-pound winger become in his sophomore season. He was only able to muster four goals and 11 points in 67 games last year. Nonetheless, he showed vast improvements in his game as the season went on, scoring two goals in his last three games. If Zajac is able to earn a top-9 role with some power-play time on the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup Hosts, it wouldn't be shocking to see him quadruple his numbers from his previous season.

Nicolas Petan, centre, Portland Winterhawks — No different from Leier, Petan succeeded in a limited role with the Winterhawks last season, posting 14 goals and 35 points in 61 games.

He too, is poised to blossom in his second season with Portland. Petan will likely lineup as the Winterhawks' second-line centre next year behind Nashville Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic.

The 5-foot-9, 153-pound centre did somewhat struggle in the post-season, though. He failed to register a point throughout 22 contests. Portland will definitely need him to come up big when it counts next year if they plan on taking yet another run at the Memorial Cup.

Jay Merkley, centre, Lethbridge Hurricanes — Having missed the playoffs the past three seasons, Lethbridge Hurricanes fans are praying for a saviour to lead them back into the promise land. Jay Merkley may not be their saviour, but it definitely seems he could be part of the solution.

The 5-foot-11, 187-pound centre, who was the third pick of the 2011 bantam draft, contributed as a secondary scorer in Lethbridge last season, scoring 12 goals and 23 points in 58 games.

Merkley, along with 2011 first-round bantam picks Ryan Pilon and Reid Duke, are considered much of the Hurricanes' future. All three young guns are expected to receive plenty of opportunity to succeed next year. Their play, backed by recently acquired goaltender Ty Rimmer, will make or break whether the Hurricanes enter back into the post-season next year.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net Columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

What to Read Next