There was a lot of chatter around Western Hockey League observers over the past season regarding the relative weakness of the 2016 class for the National Hockey League draft compared to recent years. But after all that chatter, WHL representation in the 2016 NHL Draft was largely unchanged from the year prior – and generally pretty typical of the league’s turnout in recent years.
Overall 34 WHL players were selected in the 2016 Draft, the exact same number as were picked in 2015. Four WHLers went in the first round – Jake Bean at 13th overall, Brett Howden at 27th overall, Lucas Johansen at 28th overall and Sam Steel at 30th overall — compared to five in last year’s draft (with the average WHL first rounder being appreciably higher in 2015 than in 2016). Two goaltenders, 11 defensemen and 21 forwards were taken from the WHL this year.
Several WHL clubs had multiple players taken, with the Calgary Hitmen leading the way with five players selected. The Hitmen had more players selected than any other team but the U.S. National Development Team and the Memorial Cup champion London Knights.
Victoria and Kelowna each had four players taken, while Red Deer had three – including 2014 first rounder Conner Bleackley re-entering the draft and going in the fifth round. Several NHL clubs went to the WHL well often, with a four-way tie between Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Washington with three apiece.
The most newsworthy thing to come out of the 2016 Draft from a WHL perspective is the number of higher-end prospects that ended up not being selected by an NHL club.
Arguably the biggest name passed over was Moose Jaw starting netminder Zach Sawchenko – the 6th-ranked North American goalie by Central Scouting – who’s been lights-out for the Warriors for the past couple of seasons. His only drawback is that he’s a smaller goalie and that the position is trending towards larger-bodied players in recent years. He’ll likely get attention from NHL clubs at development camps, though.
Aside from Sawchenko, offensively-minded forwards Simon Stransky (48th North American skater, Prince Albert) and Brayden Burke (63rd North American skater, Lethbridge), two-way forwards Jeff de Wit (80th North American skater, Red Deer) and Brogan O’Brien (97th North American skater, prince George) and blueliner Ondrej Vala (102nd North American skater, Kamloops) were all overlooked. Of those five skaters, Burke’s exclusion from the draft party seems particularly shocking given his absolutely insane offensive numbers this past season. His lack of physical stature is likely the primary reason.
Brandon’s Nolan Patrick is already projected as the runaway leader of the 2017 NHL Draft class and if that comes to pass, he’ll be the first WHLer taken first overall since Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011. However, there are several other high-end WHLers that may feature prominently in next year’s draft including Spokane’s Kailer Yamamoto, Kootenay’s Cale Fleury and Kelowna’s Cal Foote.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.