Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

As the Western Hockey League’s regular-season gets underway tonight, there is no better time to look at the top young players set to take part in their rookie seasons.

The first overall pick of the 2012 bantam draft, Seattle Thunderbirds centre Mathew Barzal, topped the list. He wasn’t given the spot because of where he was selected in the draft, though. He earned his ranking by dominating the British Columbus Major Midget League as a rookie last season.

Without further ado, here is a look at the top 10 rookies to watch in the WHL this season.

1. Mathew Barzal, centre, Seattle Thunderbirds – Barzal is touted as having the potential to blossom into one of the best players to walk through the WHL’s doors.

The Coquitlam, B.C., native is coming off an outstanding season with the Vancouver NE Chiefs in the BCMML. To put his 29 goals and 103 points in 34 games into perspective, he topped the BCMML rookie seasons of Edmonton Oilers first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (87 points, 36 games, 2008-09), Winnipeg Jets star Evander Kane (54 points, 30 games, 2006-07) and 2014 draft sensation Sam Reinhart (78 points, 34 games, 2010-11).

At one time Seattle hockey fans were quite worried they wouldn’t see Barzal suit up in a Thunderbirds jersey. He was, however, leaning towards major junior while he waited a full year to sign his WHL contract all along.

“I was leaning towards Seattle pretty much since they drafted, but I wanted to look at all of my options and not rush into anything,” says Barzal. “I did look at some American colleges during the process. I knew that would have been another good option for me, but in the end I felt the WHL was my best option.”

2. Jansen Harkins, centre, Prince George Cougars – The more Harkins plays, the more he impresses. Following coming off a 59-point season in 37 games in the BCMML, he finished tied for second in the WHL’s pre-season with one goal and nine points in five matches.

The regular-season is a whole different ball game from exhibition action. However, based on his previous season with the Vancouver NW Giants and his play thus far in Prince George, he should give Barzal some competition in the race to come out of the Western Conference as the top rookie.

The 5-foot-11, 161-pound centre comes from a hockey family. His father, Todd Harkins, formerly played in the NHL and was recently named the Cougars’ head scout and director of player personnel. The younger Harkins believes he has a similar edge to his game as his father, but he feels he plays ‘a more skilled game.’

“My dad was a tough player and I play like that in some ways,” says Jansen Harkins. “I’m not afraid to get into the dirty areas and get my nose dirty. But I think, and my dad would tell you the same, that I’m a bit more talented. I think I play a more skilled game.”

3. Jujhar Khaira, wing, Everett Silvertips – Khaira isn’t a typical major junior rookie. He is entering the Dub in his 19-year-old season following leaving Michigan Tech after just one year.

Khaira’s transition from the BCHL to the WCHA was a learning process. His points-per-game ratio dropped from 1.46 (79 points in 54 games) in the BCHL to .67 (25 points in 37 games) in the WCHA. In the WHL, it will be tough for the Edmonton Oilers prospect to get back to his BCHL numbers, but he should be able to produce at around the point-per-game mark.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound winger’s decision to join the Silvertips was music to the ears of Everett hockey fans. They know their team needs all of the offensive help they can get. Everett's leading point scorer last year, Joshua Winquist, only potted 51 points, albeit he only played 51 games. Behind him, only three other players scored north of 40 points.

4. Dimitry Osipov, defence, Vancouver Giants – Since Giants fans have to wait until next year for top 2013 bantam pick Tyler Benson’s rookie season, the spotlight will be on Osipov this year.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Osipov was not only the first overall pick of the 2013 CHL import draft, but he was also the top pick in the 2013 KHL junior draft. The Russian native chose the former over the latter because he has his eyes set on playing in the NHL.

Osipov, who turns 16 in October, will go through Vancouver’s second straight rebuilding season this year. But a couple years down the road, he should bear the fruit of Giants general manager Scott Bonner’s patient overhaul.

5. Tommy Vannelli, defence, Medicine Hat Tigers – Up until two days ago, Vannelli was expected to start his college career this season with the Minnesota Gophers. But right at almost the last minute, the St. Louis Blues second-round pick decided to head north to play for the Tigers.

Vannelli spent the last two seasons in his hometown playing for Minnetonka High in the USHS. He led his team’s defencemen in scoring both years, tallying 14 goals and 51 points in 50 games throughout the seasons.

Although he hasn't signed his WHL contract yet, multiple reports have circulated that Vannelli will join the Tigers.

Medicine Hat doesn’t have a superstar on the blueline, but they do have a handful of impact players. Therefore, it seems Vannelli is walking into a perfect situation as an 18-year-old rookie. He will receive opportunity to play big minutes and won’t have to bear the burden of carrying the back end.

6. Anton Cederholm, defence, Portland Winterhawks - Cederholm will be munching up big minutes in Portland with the departures of Nashville Predators fourth overall pick Seth Jones and Calgary Flames prospect Tyler Wotherspoon in the offseason.

The Sweden native, who was recently drafted in the fifth round by the Vancouver Canucks, looks as though he will be a very comparable player to Wotherspoon. They both have 6-foot-2 statures, with Cederholm weighing just four pounds more at 207, and they both play a defence-first style while having the tools to chip in offensively.

7. Julius Honka, defence, Swift Current Broncos - Honka brings a lot more to the table than just a catchy name. The Finnish blueliner, who turns 18 in December, possesses elite hockey sense, is a slick skater, and can be very elusive with puck on his stick.

It seems it will take Honka time to adjust from playing junior hockey in Finland to the much more physical Dub. However, based on his pre-season performance where he netted four goals and seven points in seven games, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound blueliner should be able to adapt to the league sooner than later.

8. Giorgio Estephan, forward, Lethbridge Hurricanes - The Hurricanes are hopeful that Estephan, along with sophomores Reid Duke and Ryan Pilon, will finally bring them back into the second season after a four-year drought.

The 6-foot, 184-pound Estephan, who was selected fourth overall in the 2012 bantam draft, made a name for himself during his bantam draft year with the SSAC Lions bantam ‘AAA’ club. He hit triple digits on the score sheet in just 32 games, potting 43 goals and 100 points. This past year, meanwhile, with SSAC Athletics ‘AAA’ midget team, he looked like a seasoned veteran straight out of the gate, scoring 17 goals and 47 points in 32 contests.

9. Adam Musil, forward, Red Deer Rebels - Hockey blood flows through Musil’s veins. His father, Frank Musil, formerly played in the NHL and his eldest brother, David Musil, recently made the jump to the Edmonton Oilers’ farm system following playing for the Giants and Edmonton Oil Kings.

All signs point to Musil, who was selected sixth overall in the 2012 bantam draft, making an impact in his rookie season. He not only has already developed into a 6-foot-3, 193-pound frame, but he also made a smooth transition to the major midget level last year as he scored 16 goals and 44 points in 32 games with the Greater Vancouver Giants.

10. Brendan Guhle, defence, Prince Albert Raiders - As the third overall pick of the 2012 bantam draft, high expectations sit on Guhle’s shoulders. The Raiders are hoping he will be able to step right into their lineup and help void the loss of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Harrison Ruopp, who moved onto the pros in the offseason.

The 6-foot-2, 178-pound Guhle isn’t a one-dimensional defenceman who will dominate one side of the ice. He is a well-rounded player that plays a steady game in his own end while making an impact in the offensive zone.

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

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