2019 NHL Draft: WHL Sleeper Picks

The 2018 NHL Entry Draft was a tough couple days for the WHL. Only two players were selected from the league in the first round, and the earliest selection was Ty Smith, taken 17th overall by the New Jersey Devils, both all-time lows. In total, only 20 players were taken from the WHL, 13 less than the previous year and the lowest in over a decade.

The 2019 NHL Entry Draft should erase those memories.

Related: 2019 NHL Draft Must Haves

WHL players have come back strong in this year’s draft on June 21st and 22nd. Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach, and Peyton Krebs have all appeared as top-10 selections in various mock drafts, and Brett Leason, Matthew Robertson, Nolan Foote and Lassi Thomson are potential late first-rounders. It’s going to be a very good year for the WHL.

Beyond the first round, the WHL still promises to offer plenty of top talent. Some, like Moose Jaw Warrior Brayden Tracey, have jumped into the spotlight, but many others have kept a lower profile despite comparable or superior potential. Will 2019 uncover another Brayden Point (79th in 2014)? It’s impossible to say, but these five WHLers offer something more than what their draft ranking shows and could make a franchise look brilliant

Brayden Point has become one of the most well-known draft day steals in recent years after starring for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Adam Beckman

Position: Center / Team: Spokane Chiefs / Central Scouting Final Rank: 34 (North American Skaters)

Adam Beckman is a true goal-scoring center. In 68 games with the Spokane Chiefs, he netted 32 goals, then scored another eight in 15 playoff games, leading his team and all other teams not playing in the WHL Final. He’s also a force without the puck, using his speed and agility to forecheck and finish plays.

Better yet, 2018-19 was just the 18-year-old’s first season in the league. Apart from a single game last season, Beckman played in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League, where he was named the top forward and top scorer in 2017-18. Despite starting much later than his peers, he led all WHL rookies in goals by November and never let up, earning WHL Rookie of the Month honors in March with a 17-point stretch in just 14 games.

Adam Beckman of the Spokane Chiefs
Adam Beckman of the Spokane Chiefs. (Larry Brunt/Spokane Chiefs)

What keeps Beckman out of the conversation of top WHL forwards is his size. At 6-foot-1, Beckman only weighs a trim 168 pounds; Dylan Cozens, a top-ranked goal-scoring center playing for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, has two inches and 20 pounds on him. Despite the success of smaller players in the NHL, scouts still see size as an asset, and Beckman has suffered for it.

Related: Adam Beckman – 2019 NHL Draft Prospect Profile

Still, his skill set has forced teams to take notice. Prior to the season, Beckman wasn’t even ranked. By December, he made the Central Scouting list, clawing his way to 189th among North American forwards. In January, Beckman shot up to 44th, and by the final CSB ranking, Beckman sat comfortably in 34th, ahead of early favourites like Foote. Teams should be wary of passing up Beckman more than twice.

Alexei Protas

Position: Center / Team: Prince Albert Raiders / Final Rank: 44 (North American Skaters)

Belarus isn’t known for producing NHL stars, but Alexei (or Aliaksei) Protas could become the next top talent from the small country. A giant center at 6-foot-5, his draft stock has been steadily rising during his time with the WHL’s best team.

A first-round pick by the Raiders in the 2018 CHL Import Draft, Protas wasn’t on a lot of radars, as he had been hidden away playing Tier Two in Belarus. The 2018 U-18 Championship and the Mac’s Midget AAA Tournament drew some attention, though, after he displayed an intriguing package of skills against some of the world’s best junior players.

Aliaksei Protas of the Prince Albert Raiders
Aliaksei Protas of the Prince Albert Raiders. (Robert Murray/WHL)

Protas’ first WHL season was less than spectacular. After 61 games, he’d put together 11 goals and 29 assists. Still, his combination of size and potential landed him 77th on the CSB’s midterm ranking. It wasn’t until the WHL playoffs that Protas displayed what he could become. In 23 games, the Belorussian scored 12 goals and added 10 assists, including back-to-back hat tricks against the Edmonton Oil Kings.

There are concerns about Protas, specifically regarding his skating, but the criticism is relatively minor, as most big hockey players struggle initially with that skill. He seems to be the complete package of strength and finesse. However, he is a long-term prospect, which may dissuade some teams from taking him too early. For a team with patience, he could be a steal in the third or fourth round.

Henry Rybinski

Position: Left Wing / Team: Seattle Thunderbirds / Final Rank: 123 (North American Skaters)

Any time a player asks for a trade, no matter the reason, it’s a black mark on their career. Eric Lindros and Chris Pronger, no matter their accomplishments, will always have their detractors because of their decisions to leave their teams. Scouts will undoubtedly be taking note that Rybinski asked to be traded early this season, especially so early in his career.

Henry Rybinski Seattle Thunderbirds
Henry Rybinski of the Seattle Thunderbirds. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

It was a calculated risk. In Medicine Hat, Rybinski was not getting the minutes he believed he deserved: veteran wingers James Hamblin and Ryan Chyzowski were locks on the top two lines, and after 77 games over a season and a few months, it was obvious that Rybinski wouldn’t be moving up until they graduated. With his draft day quickly approaching, he knew he needed a change, and quickly.

It paid off. After asking for a trade, Rybinski temporarily joined the BCHL’s Coquitlam Express and had 12 points in nine games. When he was finally traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds in January, he broke out, scoring at over a point-per-game pace for the rest of the season. In just 33 games, Rybinski was sixth in team scoring with 28 assists and 35 points.

While the playoffs were mostly a disappointment for both Rybinski and Seattle, he arguably did enough to put himself on some radars. He’s a talented play-maker who approaches his position like a center, making him a unique player in this year’s draft. Although few mock drafts have included him, even as a late pick, he offers in intriguing skill set that could pay off handsomely for an NHL team.

Cole Moberg

Position: Defense / Team: Prince George Cougars / Final Rank: 136 (North American Skaters)

Thanks to a late birthday, Cole Moberg wasn’t eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft. It’s a good thing, too, as he didn’t have a strong rookie campaign in the WHL. In 64 games, he ended his first full season with just two goals and nine assists. But it was an important growing year, and Moberg took full advantage of it.

Cole Moberg Prince George Cougars
Cole Moberg of the Prince George Cougars. (James Doyle/Prince George Cougars)

Everything clicked in his second season with the team. As one of the older players on the young Cougars, he had an increased role and gained the trust of coach Richard Matvichuk. All those factors gave the teenage defenseman a huge boost of confidence, which translated onto the score sheet: 13 goals, 27 assists, 40 points, in 61 games.

Moberg also has experience playing forward, which draws some comparisons to Dustin Byfuglien. They’re not terribly far off, either. Moberg is 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds, has a booming, right-handed shot and has comparable stat lines. In 2003, Byfuglien had 39 points in 56 games with the Cougars and Brandon Wheat Kings.

The biggest concern, which may cause some teams to rethink using a high pick on him, is Moberg’s plus/minus stat. His minus-33 was one of the lowest in the WHL. However, only three teams managed less wins than Prince George, and only one scored less goals. Moberg’s accomplishments came almost in spite of his team. Although currently ranked near the end of the draft, he could develop into a powerful offensive defenseman. After all, Byfuglien was taken in the 8th round.

Nolan Maier

Position: Goalie / Team: Saskatoon Blades / Final Rank: 22 (North American Goalies)

Nolan Maier started this season as a potential mid-round pick thanks to his Hlinka Gretzky Cup performance, where he captured a gold medal with Team Canada. Since then, however, Maier’s ranking has plummeted. By February, he was one of The Hockey Writers’ top draft fallers, and in the CSB’s midterm rankings, Maier wasn’t even listed.

Thankfully, Maier has surged at the right time. In March, he was named the WHL Goaltender of the Month after posting a 1.64 goals-against average and a 0.930 save percentage, following a win streak lasting nearly two months. Then in April, Maier joined the Canadian U-18 team in Sweden, where he managed a 2.67 GAA and 0.926 SV%, both better numbers than starter Taylor Gauthier.

Like Beckman, the biggest criticism of Maier is his height. Standing at only 6-feet, the Blades’ goalie is considered short among today’s net minders – some general managers won’t even touch a goalie under 6-foot-3. Yet Maier has continued to try and prove critics wrong. “People are always overlooking him just like they did in the bantam draft,” says Saskatoon GM Colin Priestner. “He’s used to that and it’s kind of his bread and butter, he just thrives in that zone.”

A guy that I really watch how he plays is Juuse Saros (of the Nashville Predators)…not the biggest guy and he can show that small guys can play in the NHL, and that’s my dream, that’s my goal.

Nolan Maier talking to The Pipeline Show, June 7, 2019

With the goaltender class in 2019 looking as deep as the rest of the positions, Maier may have a tough time standing out from the crowd. If someone does take a chance, though, he could prove to be a very good find.

Does your pick make the list? Who do you hope your team drafts come draft day? Let us know in the comments, and stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for more NHL draft coverage.