Once again I have been dragged kicking and screaming out of my retirement from blogging to discuss the WHL. This is probably a good thing, as I’m actually starting to miss blogging and I’m terrified what this article would look like if it was left to someone in Ontario to write. (Please note that I acknowledge the OHL is the superior CHL league.)
The OHL lovefest on this site aside, this draft year is one of the most promising ones in recent memory for the WHL. You’ve got the almost guaranteed first overall pick coming from the league, you’ve got a couple more that could reasonably go in the top 10, and a best case of 10 potential first round picks. This may sound like a normal year for the OHL, but shut up and let Western Canadian hockey fans enjoy this.
Since the Prospects Game on January 30th may be the first exposure to the WHL players for many of you, I’ve put together a little primer on who these cats are and what you should expect to see from them. I look forward to everyone disagreeing with this.
NOLAN PATRICK- BRANDON WHEAT KINGS (C) – Consensus Rank: 1
Let’s start with the name that everyone knows. I don’t really need to preview him too much because you already know he’s a 6’3 scoring machine that has been carrying the Wheat Kings on his back for the past two seasons. He might not be McDavid, Matthews, Eichel level, but he’s very comparable to recent 1st overall pick Nathan McKinnon.
Patrick missed the World Juniors and most of the season rehabbing an upper body injury, but at the time I write this, he’s picked up 17 points in his first 11 games back and has made Brandon a team to watch down the stretch and into the WHL playoffs.
As for the Prospects game, expect that Patrick will be front and center on Team Cherry’s first line, and while typically the guy expected to go first overall doesn’t standout at this event, given the amount of time missed Patrick might be tempted to put on a show and prevent anyone from hot taking him out of 1st overall in the draft rankings.
JAKE LESCHYSHYN- REGINA PATS (C) – Consensus Rank: n/a
Personally, I really like Leschyshyn. He’s a player I have been prone to consider a good option for a late first round pick and he has largely gone unnoticed because the stacked lineup ahead of him especially at center with Sam Steel and Adam Brooks bumping him down to third line duties.
The fact that Leschyshyn is still getting time at center is encouraging and it will be better for his long-term development, though the Pats are pretty stacked on the wing too and it makes it difficult to get any time in the top six.
Leschyshyn does play on the second power play unit, and has picked up 17 goals in 44 games this season, which isn’t something to sneeze at giving his usage and he isn’t far off from a point per game pace. At 5’11, his size isn’t currently ideal, but it won’t be an issue by the time he’s ready for the pro ranks.
Leschyshyn might not have as high-end tools as Sam Steel, but looks capable of being a 2nd/3rd line tweener down the line which isn’t a bad option in a draft that isn’t as deep as previous years. He’d be a safe pick and a lot of what he does might not shine in an unstructured showcase like the Prospects Game, though he might pull off a Pascal Laberge type surprise.
ARTYOM MINULIN- SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS (RD) – Consensus Rank: n/a
This draft year seems like the demand finally catching up with the supply. There seem to be a number of capable right shooting defensemen available, and the WHL is one of the areas leading the charge (especially seen on Team Cherry.)
Minulin is a probably late second rounder who could go earlier if teams are drafting for need, and Minulin checks a lot of boxes for need. He’s got the right shot. He’s 6’2 and already over 200 lbs, so size won’t be an issue. He’s not an elite puck mover, but does it well at the level he’s at, and there’s nothing about his offence that makes it seem that will be a standout attribute for him later on, but he’s likely to be a good steady presence with enough smarts to develop into a meaningful pro role, though it’s likely skating that keeps him from being discussed any higher in the draft.
Watching defensemen in the Prospects Game is usually a lost cause, but Minulin is a guy who might pull off a nice stretch pass or look solid running a power play, just don’t expect cannons firing from the point or end to end rushes.
CAL FOOTE- KELOWNA ROCKETS (RD) – Consensus Rank: 16
It seems like the first thing that needs to be said about Cal is that he’s not Adam. The size is there, the genetics are there, but where once offence refused to flourish, it is in now in abundant supply.
That might not be fair. Adam put up points in the Soo. Crap. Maybe we’re going to spend the next few years watching Cal’s two-way game get torn away from him so he can become a stationary object on the penalty kill. Being a Kelowna Rocket it seems like a comparison to Luke Schenn is also necessary. Crap.
Seriously though, Cal is one of the top CHL defenders this year, and his right-handed shot gives him a strong possibility of going very early in the first round. He’s got the booming point shot, so if we haven’t compared him enough, let’s compare him to former Kelowna Rockets Shea Weber. And for good measure, he also isn’t overly physical, but uses his size well like former Rocket Tyler Myers.
Foote is going to probably be a first pairing guy on Team Cherry, and with his heavy shot he’ll see power play time and with his last name he’ll probably be killing penalties too. This is all comfortably in Foote’s wheelhouse. Though like Minulin, I wouldn’t expect any end to end rushes.
HENRI JOKIHARJU- PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS (RD) – Consensus Rank: 34
Rounding out the right shooting defensemen on Team Cherry is Henri Jokiharju. Henri’s not entirely different from Minulin in that they are both players who are putting some decent offensive numbers in junior, but are unlikely to see that continue as they move through the pro ranks.
Where Minulin has size going for him, Jokiharju has a bit more speed which makes him likely a more attractive prospect. He’s also got a hint of that Finnish chippiness that will interest fans of intangibles and penalty differentials alike.
Jokiharju doesn’t seem to have a slapshot in his toolkit, and doesn’t have the vision to be noted as an offensive zone passer, so it’s unlikely he’ll see much time on the power play during the Prospects Game. A good for Jokiharju is a game where you don’t really notice him or you see someone like Hischier taking a dumb penalty for retaliating to something Jokijharju did.
JARRETT TYSZKA- SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS (LD) – Consensus Rank: n/a
Breaking with the pattern, here’s a defenseman who shoots left. Tyszka, like most of the previously mentioned defensemen really fits the bill of the typical WHL defender. Smart, but conservative with decent size, a lack of standout offense, but capable of moving the puck around.
Tyszka is maybe a bit of a late bloomer, and while his offensive numbers don’t support it, he might be the most capable puck carrier of the defensemen listed and developing on a team that has recently produced Shea Theodore and Brendan Dillon gives some encouragement to how he’s being developed.
A 6’3 defender isn’t going to go unnoticed by NHL teams, and he’s likely to have his suitors, but Tyszka is more likely a mid round pick to be proud of rather than a solid early round pick, but the Prospect Game might be better suited to him than the other defenders listed as he is more capable of moving the puck up the ice himself and that won’t go unnoticed. A good showing here would be a big deal for him.
IAN SCOTT- PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS (G) – Consensus Rank: n/a
I learned a long time ago that I shouldn’t pretend to know what I’m talking about when evaluating goaltenders. I suck at it. I really loved Zach Sawchenko last year, and despite his poor Prospect Game outing, I figured he was an early round pick by a savvy team. He went undrafted.
That being said, Scott has the key stat I look for in a goaltender heading into his draft year, and that’s a ton of games played. And he played a lot in his predraft year as well. An .885 save percent and GAA north of 4 on the worst team in the WHL is acceptable, in that at least he’s still getting in games, learning to handle a heavy workload, and his coach still trusts him. Anything mechanics wise I’d say go read InGoal because I’m the wrong guy.
Scott being selected to play might have something to do with NHL teams always being curious about big goaltenders and at least Future Considerations sees him as potentially an early 3rd round pick possibility.
STUART SKINNER- LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES (G) – Consensus Rank: n/a
It seems like Skinner has been around forever and we’ve always been hearing about him. That’s probably because this is the third year that has seen him play more than 40 games and this is also his third year with a save percent north of .900 (good for WHL) as he’s gone .909, .920, and this year is .904.
The decline this season should be a bit of a concern, but not enough that he’s still not going to draw a ton of attention on draft day. The fact that he’s 6’4 also helps keeps teams interested.
While most eyes will be on DiPietro as the potential top CHL goaltender selected at the draft, Skinner is someone who could benefit from a good showing at the Prospects Game as I’m sure a lot of teams will lean towards the big guy and I question how much goaltending scouting takes place on a regular basis.
KAILER YAMAMOTO- SPOKANE CHIEFS (C/LW) – Consensus Rank: 22
While Team Cherry might have the big name WHLers in Patrick and Foote, I’d argue that the fun WHLers to watch on Team Orr.
Yamamoto fits right in previous first rounders like Mitch Marner, and Clayton Keller as a fun, but undersized forward who is seemingly capable of making something out of nothing on every shift. When he’s in his comfort zone he’ll be making impossible passes and using relying on unteachable vision to make plays that are necessary for him be considered as highly as he is.
The Prospect Game should be an event tailored to his kind of offense, but with linemates who aren’t used to his creativity, he runs the risk of continuing down his path of being undervalued strictly because teams don’t prioritize small wingers.
When we look back on the 2017 draft, I have no doubt that we’ll all be kicking ourselves for underestimating Yamamoto, and if there’s one player I’d say to really focus in on when watching the Prospects Game, it’s Kailer. Even if what he tries doesn’t work, try to appreciate what he is attempting and how that in a couple of years it’s exactly what every team could use in their top six forward good.
NOTE: I really like Kailer Yamamoto. He should be a top ten player in the draft.
CODY GLASS- PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS (C) – Consensus Rank: 21
I’ve often thought that Mike Johnston’s system in Portland has inflated the value of the prospects that come out of there. Neiderreiter, Baertschi, Rattie, Pouliot, and Ross are some of the players who had plenty of acclaim attached to them, but yielded little at the next level and for that reason I might be overly cautious about Cody Glass, who by all accounts is very good.
Glass is projected as a mid to late first rounder, and that’s probably the right place for him. He’s got top six upside, but also a reliable and smart enough game that he could fill bottom six roles if the offense isn’t there at the next level.
A 6’2 center with the need to add a little to the frame, the smarts and the skating are there. I don’t doubt that he’s capable of showing well in Quebec.
STELIO MATTHEOS- BRANDON WHEAT KINGS (C) – Consensus Rank: 36
He’s the third Winnipeg born center, and second one from the Wheat Kings listed in this article, which makes me wonder when Manitoba became a pipeline for this.
Mattheos was a big part of keeping the Wheat Kings competitive this season with a couple of key graduates from their team last year and of course with Nolan Patrick’s injury this season. He proved he was capable of finding his offense after playing a much different role last season.
The end result is that Mattheos has shown to be a (*gags*) 200 foot player that coaches feel they can trust in any situation.
In non-cliche talk, Mattheos is a strong player with a good shot, that protects the puck well. If he bulks up he’ll be a decent power forward and that’s something someone is likely to try and draft in the first round.
MICHAEL RASMUSSEN- TRI-CITY AMERICANS (C) – Consensus Rank: 9
McKeens has Rasmussen ranked 3rd overall, Future Considerations has him 20th, and personally I lean more towards the latter.
That’s not to say that Rasmussen has had a great year, 30 goals in 48 games fits that bill nicely, but when you look at points per game, Rasmussen only sits 6th on the list of Prospect Game attendees, and it seems like scouts favourably comparing Michael to Ryan Getzlaf is taking him the rest of the way.
Like Mattheos, Rasmussen plays a power forward game, but with increased offensive talent. He also needs to bulk up, but there seems to be little doubt that he will. There’s little in history that makes me believe that a coach will steer him away from being an offensive talent and make him grind for a living, so I guess it’s a top six or bust path for Rasmussen, and he does have a solid chance of achieving that.
Look for his reach coming in handy for at least one goal at the Prospect Game.
KOLE LIND- KELOWNA ROCKETS (RW) – Consensus Rank: n/a
Like Yamamoto, Lind is one of the prospects invited to Quebec that I feel really strongly about. He’s projected as a possible late first rounder, and likely 2nd rounder, but I lean towards the late first.
Lind is a prospect that you can conservatively swing for the fences with. The same way everyone used to chase the next Lucic, I’d argue they should now be chasing the next Marchand, and that seems to be the mold that Lind is in. He’s a smart winger who works hard, and sees significant minutes in all situations.
He’s been effective largely on the powerplay, but has a shot that benefits the team in any situation. With 22 goals and 58 points in 47 games this season, the offense is definitely there.
Personally I’d love to see a Yamamoto-Rasmussen-Lind WHL line for Team Orr, as it could showcase all of their different skills very nicely.
NIKITA POPUGAEV- PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS (LW) – Consensus Rank: 23
Here’s the thing about 6’6 wingers, they show they can score at all and scouts start saying that’s a good thing. There’s a reasoning behind that. It’s a very good thing and while it have some scouts overestimating how good Popugaev will be, he seems like a strong candidate to be an impact player at the next level as well.
Nikita is not an overly physical player, so I’ll immediately insert the lazy Antropov and Ponikarovsky comparisons in here, but reach is important. Being a net presence is important, and having a high level competence in deflecting the puck and thinking quickly is important, and all of these things apply to Popugaev.
There aren’t many teams in the NHL that aren’t looking at adding size to their top six forward group (whether you agree that’s necessary or not) and as such Popugaev will get a ton of attention. The Prospect Game will also showcase him rather nicely as pretty goals seem to be a rarity, and knocking in loose rebounds seem to be more common (as is true for most games, really).
JUUSO VALIMAKI- TRI-CITY AMERICANS (LD) – Consensus Rank: 17
Oh boy. If there’s a team that is looking for a quality defenseman and doesn’t care what side he shoots on, Valimaki is one hell of an option. You can comfortably make the argument that he’s either the second or third best defender in the draft, and at 6’2 and being over 200 lbs, the point per game defender could be on the fast track to the pros.
Valimaki is the kind of player you’d always be comfortable with carrying the puck up the ice. He makes smart offensive players, but he’s unlikely to try to score the goal himself, and while he has the skillset to be more aggressive, he’s a tad more conservative and won’t allow himself to get too far out of position or trapped up ice.
I’m sure there will be someone tracking shot differentials during the Prospect Game, and I’m willing to bet that Valimaki comes out very favourably on that exchanges or at the very least has one of the better CF/60 of anyone playing.
Having 16 WHL players of 40 in the game is pretty damn impressive. It’s a big year for the WHL and of course that means the game is played in Quebec City.
Anyways, out of all these guys to watch I’d say that Yamamoto is most worthy of your time. He’s fun, he’s skilled, and in my opinion he’s being criminally underrated.
Also, I know you all completely disagree with everything I said.