Previewing the 2020 WHL draft – a special one at that

Just over two weeks after the OHL concluded its annual minor midget draft, the WHL is set to become the second major junior league to make selections while the hockey world waits for any bit of positive news about what’s next.

The WHL does things a little bit differently, though: instead of selecting 2004-born kids like the OHL and QMJHL, WHL teams select players out of the 2005 bantam-aged group, allowing the club to get a head start on the fututure. It’s a year scouts have been waiting ages for – this is one of the best, if not THE best, draft class the WHL has had in quite some time. Three players applied for exceptional status: Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt. And while Bedard was the only one that earned the title, the fact that three players were even in consideration (and in Bedard’s case, he’s the first to ever get accepted) shows just how high-end this draft class is.

Many believed Matthew Savoie deserved the prestigious honor a year ago, and with a prior commitment to the University of Denver, there were rumors the Winnipeg ICE would look elsewhere to make the No. 1 pick. But it worked out, and Savoie had a solid partial rookie campaign as an underaged player. But now, the WHL has three superstars to prepare for. Bedard is the only one with a direct path to full-time junior status, but we’ve been waiting about it for a long time.

Just how good is Bedard, Regina Pats fans? I hate throwing the word “elite” out to describe a player, especially at this age, but that’s a no-brainer for one of the best prospects to ever come out of western Canada. He’s just 14, but Bedard had 43 goals and 84 points in just 36 games against U-18 competition, good for first in league scoring. His shot is so dangerous, whether it’s a far-range slap shot or an in-tight wrist shot. Bedard has a quick release and his superb skating allows him to create his own scoring chances with minimal difficulty. There’s isn’t a player in this age group that you want to leave alone less then Bedard because he’ll make you look like a fool – and he’ll have no issue doing that against even older competition in the WHL this season.

My former The Hockey News colleague Ryan Kennedy had a great write-up on the future superstar last week, but Ken Campbell had an in-depth look at Bedard back when he was 13.

Of course, we’re going to get the inter-draft politics with players telling teams where they’d prefer to go. Love it or hate it, it’s a staple among junior hockey drafts. For example, rumors surrounding where Yager and Heidt – the consensus No. 2-3 picks for the draft – will land have swirled around the community in recent days. There’s even rumors about a minor hockey program getting moved as part of everything, Welcome to major junior, where the actual selection process is mostly decided beforehand.

For Regina, Prince George and Moose Jaw (the teams with the top three picks on Wednesday), the excitement surrounding this draft couldn’t be higher. After talking to scouts and following players myself, I put together a list of 15 players (including Bedard) that you should acquaint yourself with before the draft begins on Wednesday at noon ET. For the full draft order, click here.

Before I start: I follow Ontario-based prospects more than those out west. These players are from my own viewings and talking to scouts. I TRULY recommend you pick up the WHL draft guide from DraftGeek for a deep dive on this year’s top western prospects. It’s just $5 and worth every cent.

Brayden Yager, C (Saskatoon Contacts, SMHL)
Last summer, one Western league scout told me “I have full confidence Yager will be a better NHL player than Bedard.” I asked him the same question last week – same response. Why? “He’s got the flash – maybe not Bedard-like, but special nonetheless – but he’s beyond polished for his age. He could have been an impactful top-six player in the WHLer as an underager. It may just be a hunch, but it’s a strong one.” It’s too early to know how true that will become, but Yager is special. Watching him dangle Shane Wright – granted exceptional status for the OHL 2020 before putting on one of the most impressive rookie seasons we’ve ever seen – with ease at the PEP high-performance camp last year was incredible. It’s a shame he didn’t get exceptional status, but given the fact that Bedard is the only player in WHL history to attain it, impressive the junior hockey overlords is easier said than done.

Riley Heidt should have no issue becoming a superstar in the NHL someday. (Photo from Steven Ellis).

Riley Heidt, LW (Saskatoon Contacts, SMHL)
Yager’s left-hand man in Saskatoon, Heidt, like Yager, applied for exceptional status to no avail. Heidt makes everyone around him better thanks to his reputation stout playmaker and he’s willing to take risks (with a high degree of success) to make a play happen with the puck. The chemistry that he and Yager have shown in recent years is something any team could ask for, so it’s a shame we won’t see them together again next season unless a trade occurs near the top of the draft order. Just to show how incredible the 2023 draft is shaping up to be, Heidt may just be a fringe top-five candidate already, but with Bedard, Yager, Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov in the fray, it’s no surprise why. But some have Heidt going ahead of Yager this week, too, so we’ll see.

Tanner Molendyk, D (Yale Lions, CSSBHL)
Molendyk is the top defenseman of the draft class and his 2019-20 campaign made it clear why. With 55 points in 27 games, Molendyk was the only defenseman in bantam to record over two points a game – good enough to earn the top defensemen honors in his league. But is that a blessing or a curse? Dating back to 2015, previous winners Luke Zazula and Jackson van de Leest have gone undrafted and Kaiden Guhle’s long-term potential has been a subject of debate ahead of the NHL draft this season. That’s just an observation more than anything, especially since Moldendyk’s mix of speed and creativity with the puck is among the best I’ve seen at this age level in some time. I have full confidence in Moldendyk becoming an impactful top-four defenseman in the NHL some day.

Lukas Dragicevic, D (Delta Green, CSSBHL)
Scouts liked him as a forward, but now they love the draft-riser as a defenseman. Dragicevic converted to a blueliner this season and finished behind Molendyk with 52 points in the CSSBHL in addition to five points in four games against 2004-born kids at points this season. Dragicevic is always looking to make a pass and can make passes to his forwards at a high speed and his forward nature makes him an obvious candidate to join in on the rush. He still needs to improve his defensive consistency and decision-making with the puck in his own zone, but what a boost for someone changing positions this late in the running.

Matthew Wood, C (West Vancouver Warriors, CSSBHL)
One of the better pure goal-scorers in the draft, Wood is coming off a 40-goal campaign with West Van – good for second in the CSSBHL. It helps that Wood already has good size for his age at 6-foot-0, allowing him to power his way through defenders and create his own scoring chances. Wood has the skill to win most 1-on-1 battles and he loves to shoot the puck often – and with a wicked wrist shot in his arsenal, the team that drafts him will look for him to use it often. He’s one of the most physically mature kids in this group and should have no issue making the transition to junior hockey in two years.

Grayden Slipec, C (West Vancouver Warriors, CSSBHL)
Need a forward with an incredible playmaking skillset? Slipec’s your man. Slipec is a quick skater that plays the game at a high pace, both with and without the disk, forcing mistakes and using his quick hands to get him out of tight situations. His skillset is among the best of all bantam-aged players and he’s a human highlight reel with the puck. You’d love to see him improve his defensive play, but whichever WHL team that drafts him will push Slipec to improve on it because he’s got nearly every other aspect of his game rounded out at this point in his development.

Austin Zemlak, D (OHA Edmonton, CSSBHL)
“He’d probably have one of the hardest shots in the WHL if he played right now.” That’s a glowing assessment from a scout who told me last summer that Zemlak wasn’t close to being a top-10 pick for the 2020 draft. A smart offensive defender, Zemlak is no stranger to end-to-end rushes and he’s not afraid to lay someone out with a big hit. Sometimes, he’s almost too fast of a skater, leaving him prone to missed passes, but he’s added some extra control to his step and you can’t help but love watching him move the puck. Still a raw talent, but one with high-end potential.

Kalan Lind, C (Swift Current Broncos, SBAAHL)
No need to brag, but Kalan Lind’s 120 points in 27 games is the sixth-highest point total in Saskatchawan bantam AA history, and his 227 points over 82 games are the most ever. Not too shabby for the younger brother of Vancouver Canucks prospect Kole Lind. Yes, he was quiet in his 10-game midget stint but he proved he can be a scoring machine against kids his own age and has a dynamic skillset that allows him to play any role that’s needed of him. But for as skilled as Lind is, he’s known to get a little too feisty and takes some inopportune penalties, with his 90 penalty minutes placing him eighth in the league. If it’s any consolation, Ryan Getzlaf had 189 penalty minutes in 41 games in 2000-01, and he turned out quite OK.

Sam Oremba, F (Regina Monarchs, SBAAHL)
Speaking of bantam AA, you can’t forget about the league’s top scorer, Oremba. With 75 goals and 133 points, only Chris Durand (135 points in 2001-02) finished with more points – but he needed 30 more games to achieve that. A strong skater that never stops moving, Oremba is dominant with the puck and, as you can tell from his output, he puts pucks on net at a high rate, rarely leaving a shift without a scoring chance. He’ll put up big numbers in the WHL and teams will love his competitive edge – well, whatever team picks him, at least. Everyone else will hate playing against him.

Mazden Leslie, D (Lloydminster Bobcats, AMHL)
After finishing as the Alberta bantam top defenseman in 2018-19 thanks to a 50-point campaign, Leslie made the jump to midget this past season and didn’t look out of place against older, stronger competition. Leslie loves to play a physical game and can rush the disk end-to-end without difficulty – but he’s still prone to making mistakes without the puck in his own zone. Still, Leslie exudes confidence and enjoys laying out his opponents and has the makings of a top-pairing defender in the WHL someday.

Matteo Fabrizi, D (Yale Lions, CSSBHL)
Fabrizi was one of the biggest risers for the draft this season and having a 6-foot-3, 222-pound frame means he was hard to miss out on the ice. More of a shutdown defender than some of the other top blueliners in this draft, Fabrizi is an intimidating presence on the ice and is known to throw big hits on occasion. Fabrizi’s game is centered around his smart defensive play, but he’s got some budding offensive potential still. He’ll be relied on to play heavy minutes next season before going the junior route in two years.

Zach Bensen, C (Yale Lions, CSSBHL)
“Easily one of the most improved kids in the draft class,” said one western-based scout. “So talented, but still waiting on his growth spurt,” said another. Listed at just 5-foot-5 and 126 pounds, Bensen is still quite small for his age but he did everything in his power to prove he’s a legitimate scoring threat. He went from putting up 19 points in 28 bantam games a year ago to 86 in 30, scoring at a goal-per-game and showing his value as a shifty, two-way forward. Bensen is reliable in his own zone and he has great speed to boot, so counting on him to produce – especially in a league where small players tend to thrive – is a safe bet.

Ryker Singer, C (Lloydminster Bobcats, AMBHL)
Scouts seem split on Singer’s high-end potential. Many had him as a top-five threat heading into 2019-20, but most have him falling closer to the second round at this point. Why? He had a strong season woth Lloydminster in Alberta, but he didn’t see a big jump in his offensive production, going from 41 points in bantam a year ago to 51 in two more games. Scouts love his punishing phyiscal play and he’s got a well-rounded power-forward playing style, but he’s going to need to take a big step in his development next season to show that he’s ready for the next step. Regardless, scouts like his potential.

Oliver Tulk, C (Delta Green, CSSBHL)
When the game matter the most, Tulk shows up to play. In two bantam pool games at the CSSHL championship, Tulk led all players with 10 points in just two games before the tournament was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tulk plays at a high pace and is creative with the puck, especially when he’s looking to make a play to setup a linemate. Tulk uses his quick speed to avoid checks and his shot is deceptive in the way that he let’s off a powerful wrist shot when you least expect it. A lot to like in his game.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.