The 2016 National Hockey League Draft is still about six months away, and based on a lot of preliminary rankings it looks to be rather heavy with youngsters from the Ontario and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues. But the Western Hockey League has a lot of first-year draft eligible players that are turning heads and garnering a lot of attention from local scouts, but may fall a bit under the radar overall.
So in the interest of shedding some light at the young men contending for NHL attention from the WHL, here is my listing of the 20 best draft prospects based upon my own personal viewings and chatter I’ve been hearing from the press box. I’m based in Calgary and don’t see the Western Conference teams a ton, so I’m more reliant on information from second-hand sources for those players.
Your personal mileage may vary.
#1: TYLER BENSON – VANCOUVER GIANTS
Benson missed some time at the beginning of the season due to injury, but he caught up very quickly. A fast, creative player, Benson’s very adept at setting up his teammates for opportunities. Arguably the most interesting thing about him is his consistency: he is quite good at hitting the scoresheet with regularity, despite being the player that opposition teams key in on to shut the Giants offense down.
#2: JAKE BEAN – CALGARY HITMEN
Bean’s been highly-touted in the WHL for awhile, but his stock has really gone up lately after his performance in the absence of veteran defender Travis Sanheim. Bean began the season with the “safety net” of Sanheim on his pairing; when Sanheim was injured, Bean had to become “the guy” on the Hitmen back-end, and he gradually adjusted and became a consistent difference-maker for his club.
#3: SAM STEEL – REGINA PATS
Steel’s been nearly a point-per-game player for the Pats for about a season and a half, which is pretty impressive given his age, but the area where he needs to improve is his in-game consistency. His in-game impact in some ways compares to Calgary Flames winger Jiri Hudler – Steel consistently puts up points, but occasionally he can “disappear” for long stretches and blend into the crowd rather than emerge as a consistent difference-maker on every shift. He’s also not huge, which sometimes poses a challenge when the opposition attempts to turn a game into a trench war along the boards; Steel lacks the sheer strength right now to brute force his way to offensive situations, and has to rely on his speed and finesse instead.
#4: DILLON DUBE – KELOWNA ROCKETS
One of the youngest players in the draft class – he turns 18 in July, about a month after the draft – the worst thing you can say about Dube is he’s a tad under-sized. That said, he’s been a consistent contributor as both a scorer and a set-up man. He’s definitely been helped by playing for the Rockets, but this fast, skilled forward has definitely created a ton of offense on his own.
#5: BRETT HOWDEN – MOOSE JAW WARRIORS
Howden’s been blessed with some strong physical tools – he’s big and has a frame that can support more muscle as he matures – but he’s also been fortunate to play alongside Brayden Point, who has helped juice up his offensive totals a bit. However, Point’s influence may overshadow Howden’s raw skills; he’s a strong skater, good positionally and adept at being in the right place in all three zones. He can add a bit of physicality and aggression to his game, but Howden’s already a very smart (and well-rounded) hockey player.
#6: KALE CLAGUE – BRANDON WHEAT KINGS
The Wheat Kings have been fertile soil for developing defenders over the past few drafts and Clague is another rock-solid addition to that crop. While his offensive numbers have taken a bit of a step back, perhaps representative of the Wheaties team-wide struggles, he’s a positionally-sound player with good skating and strong hockey sense. He has a frame that can support more muscle, which he’ll need to survive in higher levels of hockey.
#7: CARTER HART – EVERETT SILVERTIPS
The first of two goaltenders on this list, Hart has been a model of consistency for the Silvertips. He’s reliable, consistent and a rock-solid positional netminder who uses his size intelligently and tends not to over-commit on chances.
#8: ZACH SAWCHENKO – MOOSE JAW WARRIORS
Sawchenko doesn’t have Hart’s size, but he’s a bit more of a battler than Hart is. He’s not as big and not quite as consistent, but he has good positioning and cuts down angles well.
#9: SIMON STRANSKY – PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS
He’s a tad under-sized, but man, Stransky has seen his stock steadily rise since he came over as an import from the Czech Republic last season. Size will probably be a concern to NHL teams, but he uses his speed really well and has good instincts with the puck – factors that have helped pump up his offensive numbers this season.
#10: MAX LAJOIE – SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS
Lajoie is still refining his offensive game, but he’s positionally sound and uses his frame well in the defensive zone. Given some time and bulk, he should be able to figure the offensive side of things out.
#11: NOAH GREGOR – MOOSE JAW WARRIORS
Gregor’s one of those players that doesn’t have any glaring strengths or weaknesses, which is part of his appeal. He’s reliable in all three zones, tends to be in the right spot at the right times and makes smart decisions with the puck.
#12: PATRICK BAJKOV – EVERETT SILVERTIPS
Another solid 200-foot player, Bajkov suffers at times from inconsistency in his play, but he’s a wizard in the offensive zone with his ability to thread a needle on a pass. He could be valuable for a team as a power-play specialist if he can translate it to the next level.
#13: DANTE HANNOUN – VICTORIA ROYALS
It’s easy to be skeptical about Hannoun, as he’s not particularly large. But he’s shown the proven ability to put the puck in the net at the WHL level, and he’s an August birthday and so he won’t turn 18 until two months after the draft. He might have a long runway to the pro level, but his shooting ability alone should give him a fighting chance.
#14: TY RONNING – VANCOUVER GIANTS
Ronning benefits a bit from playing with Tyler Benson, but he’s also got good instincts and strong bloodlines as the son of former Canuck forward Cliff Ronning. He’s not huge and has gone cold for decent stretches of the season, but he also tends to put up points in bunches. He’s one of the older 2016 draft-eligible players with an October birthday, so his offensive numbers should probably be discounted a little bit.
#15: MATTHEW PHILLIPS – VICTORIA ROYALS
Phillips is consistent and quite skilled, but he also lacks size. Concern about his ability to withstand physical play may bring his stock down a bit.
#16: MAX GERLACH – MEDICINE HAT TIGERS
Gerlach is fairly small, but also has good acceleration and speed and a really quick, accurate shot. He has some issues getting to the “dirty” areas of the ice due to his size, but his speed makes him dangerous.
#17: BRANDON HAGEL – RED DEER REBELS
Hagel is quite young (he has an August birthday) and pretty skinny (weighing just 165 lbs on a 6′ frame), but he’s got upside and is nearly a point-per-game player, and has a frame that should support a lot more muscle than he has now.
#18: DAWSON DAVIDSON – KAMLOOPS BLAZERS
Davidson’s a really steady blueliner with some offensive upside. He’s a tad small for a blueliner, but he’s a good skater and pretty consistent.
#19: CARSEN TWARYNSKI – CALGARY HITMEN
Jake Bean is definitely the Hitmen’s most flashy draft-eligible player, but Twarynski is metronome-like in his consistency. Defensively responsible, offensively underrated and blessed with NHL size already, he’s probably a project pick but he’s got a lot of strong attributes.
#20: JOSH ANDERSON – PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS
Anderson doesn’t have a ton of offense to his game right now, but he already has NHL size at a listed 6’3″ and 210 pounds. If he can maintain his strong positional (and physical) defense and reel in his tendency to take penalties, he’s got all of the physical tools to make the jump to pro hockey.
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.