Top 5 Undrafted WHL Players to Sign Before 2022-23

Much like with goaltenders taking longer to develop, some players just don’t come out of their shells until they are 19 or 20 years old. Sometimes an NHL team will draft a player in their first year of eligibility, and then not sign them by the time two seasons have been completed. These players can either go back into the NHL Entry Draft or be signed to a contract during their 20-year-old (or overage) season.

Recent examples of both situations include the former Red Deer Rebels’ duo of Brandon Hagel and Reese Johnson.

Hagel was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres. The team had until June 1, 2018, to sign him to an entry-level contract. It was decided that Hagel had not developed as they had hoped and so the Sabres chose not to sign him. He was able to re-enter the draft process for 2018 but was not re-selected.

Related: Blackhawks Bytes: Kane, Hagel, Reichel, and More

Undeterred, Hagel went on an absolute tear in his 20-year-old season. In 66 regular-season games, he scored 41 times and added another 61 assists on his way to 102 points marking the first time a Rebels player hit 100-plus points since Ryan Nugent-Hopkins did it in 2010-11. The Chicago Blackhawks quickly signed Hagel to a three-year entry-level contract at an annual average salary of $925,000. He has since played 100 NHL games.

Brandon Hagel, Chicago Blackhawks
Brandon Hagel, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Johnson took a different route than Hagel, having not been drafted in any of his five seasons with the Rebels. Before his final season in 2018-19, he was named captain of the team. During that season, Johnson was also signed by the Blackhawks. He took a little longer to develop in the American Hockey League (AHL) than Hagel did, but has made his mark on the Blackhawks as well.

Johnson had been playing with the Blackhawks until an injury sidelined him in December. He has appeared in 23 games so far with them.

Making a Case

Five 20-year-old players are taking a shot to be signed by an NHL team before the beginning of the 2022-23 season. Four of them are forwards, one of them is a goaltender. The 20-year-old crop of Western Hockey League (WHL) defensemen is a little weaker than in past seasons.

Arshdeep Bains – Red Deer Rebels

Bains was not selected in the WHL Bantam Draft but instead joined the team in 2017. The quiet kid from Surrey, BC has been groomed to be among the WHL’s elite players and has grown into his 6-foot-1, 184-pound frame.

In December 2017, Bains was called up to the Rebels and has never looked back since. He scored his first WHL goal on Dec. 30, 2017, and has added 61 more since. He has also added 113 assists in his 240 WHL games.

Bains has had an excellent 2021-22 campaign, with 28 goals and 50 assists through 51 games. This is good for second in WHL scoring. He is on pace to become the first 100-plus point player since Brandon Hagel’s 102-point season in 2018-19. Finding the right areas to get a pass to his linemate, Ben King, is a skill that he possesses. He leads the WHL with 50 assists, and many of those are in contribution to King’s league-leading 41 goals.

Josh Williams – Edmonton Oil Kings

The fifth overall pick from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Williams has been a consistent point-getter since his Jan. 10, 2019, trade to the Edmonton Oil Kings. Currently listed at 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, he is solidly built to be a player in the NHL one day.

Josh Williams Edmonton Oil Kings
Josh Williams, Edmonton Oil Kings (Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings)

While he took some time to get adjusted to his new surroundings, Williams has been a point-per-game player since the 2019-20 WHL season. This season he is seventh overall in points with 27 goals and 38 assists on an Oil Kings team with three players in the top-25 in league scoring. They are also the third-best team (by points percentage) in the WHL.

Look for Williams to head to a team that needs a dependable forward in the AHL and can allow him some time to grow into a professional hockey player. Rushing him will not produce good results.

Bailey Peach – Victoria Royals

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Bailey Peach has made a name for himself far from home. He is from Falmouth, Nova Scotia, and the shortest available route by car to Victoria, BC is 5,840 kilometres. This came about as he was released by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Charlottetown Islanders in late September.

Since joining the Royals, Peach has lit it up scoring 28 goals and adding 35 assists through 51 games. That is more than a half-a-point per game better than his QMJHL career.

The Royals are in contention for a Western Conference playoff spot this season but will need to continue to see Peach carry the team on his back. He has 20 more points than the next closest forward on his team and has 17 multi-point games, including a seven-point game against their closest rivals, the Vancouver Giants.

While small in stature (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) he more than makes up for it in feistiness. Peach does not back down from opponents and holds his own when required.

Alex Swetlikoff – Everett Silvertips

Remarkably, the Kelowna Rockets were able to get Swetlikoff to head to the WHL despite being committed to Denver University and playing for the Vernon Vipers of the BC Hockey League. He signed with the Rockets 12 days after being acquired from the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Dec. 6, 2018.

Related: Flyers’ Top Undrafted Free Agent Signings of All-Time

It took Swetlikoff six weeks to score his first goal and his progression with the Rockets didn’t go necessarily as expected. As the season turned to 2021-22, they decided to ship him off to the Everett Silvertips, just a few months removed from a point-per-game shortened WHL season.

This season, Swetlikoff is 16th overall in WHL scoring, with 23 goals and 38 assists through 51 games. The Silvertips are the best team in the WHL currently, and he is the leading scorer on a team with five players that have 50 or more points.

Nolan Maier – Saskatoon Blades

His numbers don’t jump out at you, but they don’t have to with a high-scoring team like the Saskatoon Blades. He gets wins and generally stops more pucks than the competition, so Nolan Maier is a great candidate to be signed by a team looking for a goalie with long-term potential.

Nolan Maier Saskatoon Blades
Nolan Maier of the Saskatoon Blades (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

The native of Yorkton, SK, has 24 wins this season, good for third-most in the WHL. He allows 2.91 goals per game (15th among goalies with 10 or more games played). He also ranks 14th in the WHL with a .907 SV%. He has 115 wins in his five WHL seasons with the Blades, moving him to within five of the WHL’s all-time leaders (Corey Hirsch and Tyson Sexsmith)

Correcting Mistakes

NHL teams often make errors in their drafting, taking players long before they should or missing on potential late-blooming stars. The Calgary Flames were fortunate to land Dustin Wolf in the final round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. He was the Del Wilson Memorial Trophy winner that season as the WHL’s Top Goaltender. He is now among the best goaltenders in the AHL (28 games played, 22-3-3, 2.24 GAA, .927 SV%) at the same age as Gauthier.

Not everyone who is signed as an overage player goes on to make it in the NHL, or even the AHL. But in some cases, being patient with a player who was not drafted or was allowed to be a free agent has its benefits.


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