The Western Hockey League's next wave of talent will be introduced next Thursday at the 2012 bantam draft in Calgary.
The Seattle Thunderbirds hold the No. 1 pick of the draft. The Prince Albert Raiders, Prince George Cougars, Lethbridge Hurricanes, and Swift Current Broncos fill out the top five.
In recent years, the No. 1 pick has been a can't-miss. Last spring, the Calgary Hitmen selected Jake Virtanen. Although Virtanen is far from proven, several scouts have already touted him as one of the top prospects of the 2014 NHL draft class. In 2010 the Prince George Cougars selected Alex Forsberg. The 17-year-old kicked off his major junior career this year with 15 goals and 40 points in 51 games. A year prior to that, the Portland Winterhawks drafted Derrick Pouliot with the top pick. He has since became one of the league's top puck-moving blueliners, notching 11 goals and 59 points this year.
The previous four first overall picks — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Quinton Howden, Jared Cowen and Colton Teubert — all went on to become NHL first-round picks.
Every year there seems to be a later-round pick that goes on to be selected high in the NHL draft. The Portland Winterhawks selected Ryan Johansen in the seventh round in 2007. He went on to be drafted fourth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010. Another seventh-rounder who went on to be a first-round pick in the NHL is Jordan Eberle. The Regina Pats drafted Eberle No. 126 overall in 2005. He was later selected No. 22 overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2008.
Johansen and Eberle are prime examples of how hard it is to tell the hockey fortune of a 15-year-old boy. No matter how much training and experience one has in scouting, it is impossible to know how tall players will grow, their work ethic and how well they will be able to translate their point production to the next level.
Here is a look at some of the top talents of the 2012 bantam draft.
Barzal leads the way: It appears the Burnaby Winter Club is set to have another young gem selected first overall in the bantam draft. In 2008, current Edmonton Oilers rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was selected No. 1 by the Red Deer Rebels. It appears quite likely that Winter Club Bruins forward Matthew Barzal will have his name called first on the draft floor in Calgary.
Barzal lit up British Columbia's bantam league this year. He posted an outstanding 39 goals and 107 points throughout 35 games for the Bruins.
It is possible that the Thunderbirds could go with one of the other top prospects. However, it would be shocking since some scouts have touted this year's draft crop as "Barzal and everyone else."
Insider's take: "Barzal is definitely a first-overall calibre player," says Tyler Boldt, manager of player development and recruitment for the WHL. "He's at a different level than the players he plays against in the BC bantam league. His hockey sense and skating is phenomenal."
"Matt Barzal from the BWC has been the No. 1 rated '97 born player for almost two years now," adds Tyler Neisz, head scout for Western Elite Hockey Prospects Scouting Service. "He first made a major impression at the prestigious Quebec International Peewee Tournament which features all the top 11-and-12-year-old players in the world. Barzal tore apart the tournament, leading the scoring race."
Hockey bloodlines: There will be some familiar names called early on in the draft. International Scouting Service and Western Elite Hockey Prospects project Adam Musil, the son of former NHLer Frank Musil and brother of Vancouver Giants defenceman and Edmonton Oilers prospect David Musil, to be a top-10 pick. Nick Merkley, the brother of Hurricanes rookie Jay Merkley, is also regarded as a possible top-10 selection.
Insider's take: "Adam Musil is a horse of a forward who perhaps is one of the toughest to play against in this year's draft crop," says Neisz. "He can really control the play down low. I think he'll definitely be a Top 10 pick. We have him rated as the second best prospect."
"Nick is more of a freelancing dynamic forward, while Jay is a two-way pass first type of player. Both players are tremendous skaters, but Nick may have a bit more of a higher offensive ceiling to his game moving forward."
Sask's best: It should come to no one's surprise to see a handful of Saskatchewanians stand out in this year's draft. Saskatchewan produced Eberle and Teubert in the 2005 bantam, followed by Brayden Schenn, Carter Ashton, Brayden McNabb and Jared Cowen in '06, Everett Silvertips standout Ryan Murray in '08, Pouliot in '09, Alex Forsberg in 2010 and Ryan Pilon in 2011. Just to name a few.
Regina forward Jayden Halbgewachs and Saskatoon defenceman Tate Olson have stood out among the Land of Living Skies' best bets this year. Both Prairie natives project to be first-round picks.
Insider's take: "I do believe that Halbgewachs is the top forward in Saskatchewan," says Neisz. "Halbgewachs was MVP of the Regina bantam tournament and led the SBAAHL [Saskatchewan's top bantam league] in goals with 55. He held his own at the prestigious John Reid Memorial Tournament against the best in Western Canada which cemented himself in the first round."
"Tate Olson appears to be the best defenceman out of Saskatchewan. He is a Saskatoon native that is a big and skilled who is our No. 1 rated defenceman heading into the draft. He has a chance to go in the top six picks."
Okanagan Hockey Academy's standout star: Two years ago, Curtis Lazar was drafted second overall by the Oil Kings out of Okanagan Hockey Academy. The 17-year-old has yet to disappoint, notching 20 goals in his rookie season this year. He's also the Oil Kings' leading playoff scorer.
Brad Morrison isn't receiving as much hype as Lazar did as a 15-year-old but his name has definitely been widely circulated among scouts. The 5-foot-8, 160-pound forward, who is International Scouting Service's No. 7-ranked skater, scored 93 goals and 159 points in 63 games this year.
Insider's take: "Brad Morrison is a very agile, speedy, and talented goal scorer for OHA," says Neisz. "He has a powerful, accurate wrist shot. Morrison should go high, but he likely will not go as high as Lazar did."
USA's next crop: The WHL has continued to put time and effort into recruiting from south of the border. Every year they invite their region's standouts to a hockey camp in Anaheim. This has definitely paid dividends. Medicine Hat Tigers star and Anaheim Ducks prospect Emerson Etem was originally spotted at this camp, as well as Kelowna Rockets and New York Rangers prospect Shane McColgan and Edmonton Oil Kings sniper Tyler Maxwell.
Insider's take: "The American players that have been the most impressive to us this year are Robby Jackson, L.A. Selects, Keoni Texeira, L.A. Selects, and Ethan Price, Omaha U16," says Neisz. "Jackson is a speedy and ultra-talented forward who could be one of the top '97 born forwards in the USA. Keoni Texeira is likely the top defenceman out of the States available. He is a big, powerful skater with a huge shot and major toughness. Ethan Price is the third of the big three and offers a good hard working game that can do it all."
"I've heard a lot about Ethan Price," says Boldt. "Scouts and coaches have told me he's the best player south of the border in this draft. I believe Keoni Texeira is the best American defenceman in this year's draft. Robby Jackson has really impressed me. He has great play-making abilities and impressive hockey sense. He's a very special player."
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen and contact him at Friesenkelly@live.ca