2020 NHL Entry Draft Preview: WHL Prospects

The Western Hockey League saw 28 of its prospects drafted into the NHL in 2019. Most notably, top-10 selections Kirby Dach (3rd), Bowen Byram (4th), and Dylan Cozens (8th). Seven of those WHL prospects were selected in the first round, rounding out a strong crop for the Canadian Junior Hockey League.

The 2020 NHL Entry Draft, however, has no WHL players slated to go top 10 (yet), though Connor Zary deserves more recognition.

1. Connor Zary—C/LW

Zary has all the makings of an effective top-6 center. As one of the oldest 2020 eligibles, he impressed in his draft-1 season with 67 points in 63 games, leading his team in assists. His production becomes even more impressive when you consider that the Kamloops Blazers were 6th worst in goals for, only scoring 2.88 goals per game. While he did not record the most points, he had the highest points-per-game average on the roster. Zary is not only an offensive pivot, he also plays a strong 200-foot game.

While he may not have any dynamic individual qualities, he is well-rounded and developed a “clutch” reputation late in the season. When the Blazers were making their playoff push, he lit up the last third of the season with 33 points in 22 games and 4 points in 4 playoff games. He does not impress with his physical tools; he is not a flashy play-maker or a goal-scorer. His game is well-rounded and he uses his exceptional hockey IQ to create dangerous scoring opportunities.

He typically excels around the net, whether it’s batting in rebounds or escaping his man for an open shooting lane, he continuously buzzes around the net for scoring chances. Away from the puck he can make subtle defensive plays that go unnoticed, he finishes checks and possesses a non-stop motor. He needs to improve his creativity and vision to showcase his elite potential, but he is a safe bet to become an NHL regular in some capacity. As of now, he sits in my top-10 comfortably.

2. Braden Schneider—RD

Schneider recorded 24 points in 58 games in his draft-1 with the Brandon Wheat Kings wearing an “A”. In seven World Junior Championship games for Team Canada, he recorded three points. At the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, he was scoreless in five games but displayed his ability as a steady, mobile blue-liner.

The 6-foot-2, right-handed defenseman is a defense-oriented player. He will not impress you with his quick hands or creativity. Most of the time, he isn’t noticeable, but when you do pay attention, his steadiness and dependability are apparent. His offensive upside may leave scouts weary of selecting him in the first round, as recent defensive defenseman drafted high have had difficulty justifying their draft slot. Hockey is moving towards high-end skating, puck-moving defensemen but Schneider can provide offense in the best way: with his defense.

He is quick in transition and while he may not skate the puck up the ice, he can quickly read the situation and adjust to get the puck out of his zone. He has an excellent first pass and high-end hockey IQ. His main form of offense is his shot; whether it be a slap-shot or wrist-shot from the point, he is effective at getting it through. While he may never quarterback a top power-play unit, he is reliable, has a good shot and the skating to become a top-4 defenseman in the NHL. He deserves top-15/20 consideration.

3. Jake Neighbours—LW

Playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings last season, Neighbours recorded 24 points in 47 contests, along with 12 points in 16 playoff games. While he may not be tall, he’s pretty developed at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds. He is a power forward that possesses high hockey IQ, a trait that is rare for that style of play. Typically, power forwards have an over-reliance on their size and are mainly shooters. He does not rely on his size (although it helps) but instead uses his instincts to create plays or finish them.

If Neighbours wants to solidify himself as a top-20 or even first-round prospect, his skating will need to improve. As of now, he projects to be a complimentary forward who can be a force around the net. He has quick hands and is hard to move as a net-front presence due to his wide frame. In fact, his best asset is his puck protection. He uses his body creatively to create space and time for himself or his teammates. His puck protection and possession abilities are among the best in the draft class. He should have little issues translating that aspect of his game to the NHL level. Although his height, skating, and style might make for a worrying prospect, he utilizes his tools smartly enough to make me believe in his ability. There is some Jamie Benn in his game.

4. Kaiden Guhle—LD

Brother of Anaheim Ducks prospect, Brendan Guhle, Kaiden plays a similar game. While he’s been hyped for some time as a potential top-15 selection (1st overall in the 2017 WHL Draft) he fell off the map due to his draft-1 season when he showed little progress. He finished with 17 points in 65 games, which is decent production for a rookie two-way defenseman. However, it’s good to note that he received little power-play time on a stacked Prince Albert Raiders team.

He has the tools to be an impact defenseman, though I’m not sure his IQ is strong enough. His main tool is his skating, which is elusive and refined for a bigger defenseman. His ability to close gaps defensively and lead the opposition to the outside is as good as any draft eligible defenseman, and his skating allows him to recover and re-position himself when he has to get back.

His offensive tools need work. While he’s good in transition and his first pass is typically accurate, he doesn’t possess the creativity, shot, or power-play quarterback abilities to increase his offensive potential. At this point, a trade would serve him best to get prime special teams minutes.

5. Justin Sourdif—C/RW

With 46 points (4th on team) in 68 games, the Vancouver Giants forward quietly shot up lists throughout the season and had 5 points in as many playoff games. In 2019, his production increased with ice time as he finished the season with 30 points in 32 games. Sourdif finally received hype at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup with Team Canada when he recorded 5 points in 5 games, earning more minutes as the tournament went on.

He’s a fun player to watch. Buzzing through the offensive zone, Sourdif has a well-rounded offensive tool kit. While he’s mainly a finisher, his creativity and ability to create plays is a factor. He also has a good defensive game, mainly due to his motor. His IQ can improve as he tends to try to do too much which leads to turnovers. However, he also creates turnovers with his persistence. He has the potential to be a top-6 threat, as the perfect third wheel of a line.

6. Ridly Grieg—LW

One of the younger players in the draft (August birthday), Grieg was under the radar during his draft-1 season with 35 points in 63 games suiting up for the Wheat Kings. It wasn’t until the Hlinka Gretzky Cup that he began receiving deserved recognition. He is the perfect example of a bulldog-type player. He has smooth hands and strong puck protection, but his biggest asset is his non-stop motor and aggressiveness. Grieg disturbs the opposing defense with his relentless forecheck, which leads to costly turnovers.

Grieg’s play-style reminds me of Zach Hyman – a relentless pest with an offensive touch. He possesses solid offensive tools with his shot, and most of his offensive is created from battling down-low. Is also pretty versatile, can adapt to any situation and is able to play all three forward positions, though he likely will remain a left-winger going forward. He has the potential to be a great compliment to a line.

7. Seth Jarvis—RW

While Jarvis’ size (5-foot-9) may leave people weary, he is a supremely skilled forward with a solid all-around game. He may have been slightly underrated during his draft-1 season but, like Grieg, he put his name on the map at the Hlinka tournament. He recorded 39 points in 61 games with the Portland Winterhawks and 4 points in 6 games for Team Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, where was continuously creating chances in the offensive zone with his drive and creativity. His hands and mind are quick and adaptive, and to have both at the same level is a dangerous combination.

He can try to do too much on his own though, and using his teammates is something he can work on. His shot needs work as well, especially if he continues to be a shoot-first player, which can make him frustrating to watch. A pass-first mentality would lead to increased production. Nevertheless, expect Jarvis to light up the WHL offensively next season.

8. Ozzy Wiesblatt—RW

As the third youngest member in the storied Wiesblatt family, Ozzy looks to do what his brother Ocean and Orca couldn’t do—live up to the “hype”, (from ‘Hockey mom’s deafness pushed her boys to be better,’ The Star, 07/23/2018). Wiesblatt has a sturdy build at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, though it is too early to tell if he’s peaked physically or if he’s just getting started.

Playing alongside Guhle with the Prince Albert Raiders, his production is impressive in context. He ranked tenth with 39 points in 64 contests, again, on a stacked roster. Increased power-play time next season should see his numbers jump.

He has good puck-protecting abilities and is willing to get to the dirty areas of the game. He could stand to put in more effort away from the puck. His foot speed could improve as well, but he’s a shifty skater. When time and space decreases, he tends to struggle; this, and his lack of awareness lead me to believe he has a lower hockey IQ. He also has quality goal-scoring abilities, mainly around the net.

9. Connor McClennon—RW

McClennon is 5-foot-9, but the diminutive winger makes up for his lack of height with a grinding play-style. Playing for the Kootenay (Winnipeg) Ice, a team that lacked firepower aside from 2019’s 17th-overall selection, Peyton Krebs. McClennon recorded 29 points in 46 games and impressed throughout tournament play over the season. Playing for the Canada White U-17 squad, he was dominant with 11 points (8 goals) in 5 games at the WHC-17. In the Hlinka tournament, he recorded 2 points in 5 games.

While he has the offensive toolkit along with a refined defensive game, I’m not sure what his upside is. His offensive game is good but not outstanding aside from his shot placement, and he doesn’t drive play. His skating could also be better, especially given his height. What he does have, though, is a motor, defensive awareness, hockey IQ, a good shot, and a willingness to compete. Expect him to be a bigger part of Winnipeg’s offense this season, though he’ll have to work out his flaws to be a first-round selection.

10. Kyle Crnkovic—LW

At 5-foot-6, Crnkovic established himself as a potential top-62 prospect through his resilient and skilled play. Playing with the Saskatoon Blades, he raked in 31 points in 52 games. However, it wasn’t until the WHL Cup that he not only impressed statistically (12 points through 5 games), but also with his relentlessness and his ability to play bigger than his size. Aside from Dach, Crnkovic was the most noticeable Blades forward shift-by-shift.

I worry about Crnkovic’s long-term upside, however. He has questionable upside at the professional level where he’d need to find a role for himself or produce well above average offensive numbers. I’m not sure he has either in him. He’s a fun player to root for with his play-style and height, but long-term NHL chances are slim due. However, if Crnkovic can take his offense to another level (than what I have him projected as), and he can continue to improve his all-around game, he’ll be a legit first-round prospect. As of now, he’ll have to exceed expectations to be drafted within the top-31, especially as a smaller player without an outstanding trait.

WHL Logo
WHL Logo

While this year’s WHL crop may not be the most exciting in terms of high-end talent, all 10 players have the ability to go within the top-45 if they progress as expected. For comparison, I ranked my top 10 of 2019’s WHL draftees and the 2020 draft-eligibles.

  1. Bowen Byram (3rd)
  2. Kirby Dach (5th)
  3. Connor Zary
  4. Peyton Krebs (12th)
  5. Dylan Cozens (18th)
  6. Braden Schneider
  7. Jake Neighbours
  8. Matthew Robertson (29th)
  9. Kaiden Guhle
  10. Justin Sourdif
  11. Ridly Grieg
  12. Brett Leason (35th)
  13. Brayden Tracey (40th)
  14. Kaeden Korczak (47th)
  15. Seth Jarvis
  16. Cole Moberg (56th)
  17. Ozzy Wiesblatt
  18. Adam Beckman (68th)
  19. Connor McClennon
  20. Kyle Crnkovic