WHL’s Bumper Crop Leads Canada into Hlinka Gretzky Cup

Bruce Hamilton had a big hand in Canada winning gold at last year’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament.

He handpicked that team as part of Hockey Canada’s management group, overseeing his selections excel en route to defeating the host Czech Republic 4-1 in the championship game.

Less involved in the decision-making process this year — relinquishing that role to Alan Miller — Hamilton has maintained a keen interest and is looking forward to watching a WHL-laden roster attempt to defend gold at the summer under-18 tournament, which has been rebranded as the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and will debut in Edmonton this coming week, Aug. 6-11.

“I hope they win, that’s the most important thing, but it’s a great thing for them to make this team because it’s a wonderful experience and it also really gets them a foot up in the minds of the NHL scouts when you’re playing in that tournament,” said Hamilton, general manager of the Kelowna Rockets and chairman for the WHL’s board of directors.

Big Year for WHL

Canada has dominated this tournament, winning gold 15 times since the turn of the century — with the exceptions being 2003 (United States), 2007 (Sweden) and 2016 (Czech Republic).

Hosting for the first time, Canada will be the favourite to repeat this year — thanks to that bumper crop of WHL talent.

Half the team hails from the Western Hockey League — 11 of 22 players, including five forwards, four defencemen and both goaltenders.

That isn’t a record — the WHL placed 12 players on the 2015 team, including Nolan Patrick as an under-ager — but it is almost twice as many as the previous two years, with six each from the WHL.

Bruce Hamilton Madison Bowey Josh Morrissey
(Marissa Baecker/Shootthebreeze.ca)
Bruce Hamilton has plenty of experience with Hockey Canada, seen here between Madison Bowey, left, and Josh Morrissey, right, upon returning to the Kelowna Rockets with gold medals from the 2015 World Junior Championship.

Last year’s group featured Ty Smith, who went on to become a first-round NHL draft pick, as well as second-rounders Jett Woo and Calen Addison, plus Luka Burzan and Jackson Shepard, who both went undrafted in 2018, and Nolan Foote as an under-ager, a late-2000 birthdate who is eligible for the 2019 draft but too old to play again in this year’s tournament for 2001-born prospects.

This year’s group from the WHL is above average — both in quantity and quality, with several candidates to be first-round picks and even top-10 selections in the 2019 NHL draft.

[miptheme_quote author=”Bruce Hamilton” style=”text-center”]“We’ve got some great players, in my mind, coming into the draft this year. It’s cyclical and I think we’re in a real good spot right now in the West where we’ve got eight or nine real solid, high-end guys, and I think they will all be real prominent players when it comes draft time in Vancouver next spring.”[/miptheme_quote]

Launchpad for 2019 NHL Draft

Indeed, most of the WHL players making the cut for Canada’s roster have the potential to play starring roles at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Dylan Cozens was the first name out of Hamilton’s mouth, calling the Lethbridge Hurricanes centre an “exceptional player.” He was named the WHL’s top rookie last season and has a terrific backstory as a diamond mined from the Yukon.

Dylan Cozens Lethbridge Hurricanes
(Robert Murray/WHL)
Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes is an explosive centre with size (6-foot-3), speed, a wicked shot and all-around finish. Worth noting, TSN’s Craig Button has Cozens ranked No. 2 behind only American centre Jack Hughes for the 2019 NHL draft.

The second name mentioned by Hamilton was one of his own, Kaedan Korczak, a smooth-skating, right-handed defenceman who grew a couple more inches in the offseason — now up to 6-foot-2.75. He made steady improvements as a rookie and was one of Kelowna’s lone bright spots in a playoff sweep at the hands of Tri-City.

This tournament could be a coming-out party for Korczak, among others.

“Our guy is probably a guy that has been under the radar, nobody has known who he is and when we get into the games, they’re going to find out who he is,” Hamilton said of Korczak.

“We’ve been developing defencemen here for many years and we started out a lot of times the same way, with our guys being under the radar, and all of the sudden people realize they are a little better than they thought. And he’s no different.”

Kaedan Korczak Kelowna Rockets
(Marissa Baecker/Shootthebreeze.ca)
Kaedan Korczak of the Kelowna Rockets is a two-way defender who can make an impact at both ends of the ice. Most have him ranked outside the top 50, but I’ve been pumping his tires as a first-round talent for some time and that should shine through in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.

Bowen Byram of the Vancouver Giants is the blueliner garnering the most hype for Canada, and Matthew Robertson of the Edmonton Oil Kings has significant upside too. As does Braden Schneider of the Brandon Wheat Kings, but he’s five days too young for the 2019 draft and will have to wait until 2020 to hear his name called.

Up front, fellow under-ager Alexis Lafrenière, from the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic, will get plenty of spotlight as an early favourite to go first overall in 2020. But the WHL forwards are promising in their own right, led by Cozens, Peyton Krebs of the Kootenay Ice and Kirby Dach of the Saskatoon Blades, who are all in the top-10 mix for 2019 as of today.

Kirby Dach Saskatoon Blades
(Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)
Saskatoon Blades forward Kirby Dach has been a scoring sensation for years, smashing the Alberta bantam record that previously belonged to Tyler Benson and Ty Rattie. Dach is destined to light it up this season as a sophomore on a higher-scoring Saskatoon Blades team.

Josh Williams of the Medicine Hat Tigers missed significant time to injury as a rookie but is a sniper that really shouldn’t be a sleeper. And Sasha Mutala of the Tri-City Americans had a lesser role in breaking into the WHL on a deeper team but should also come on strong as a sophomore.

“These players are all high quality, very talented,” Hamilton said of the nine skaters. “They’re all going to take a jump because they’re going to have roles that they didn’t have before.”

The goalies, Taylor Gauthier of the Prince George Cougars and Saskatoon’s Nolan Maier, are tougher to predict in terms of the NHL draft and their long-term potential, but this tournament will give them a great showcase too. If they can stand tall, Canada should be a lock for a medal.

2016 Bantam Draft was ‘special’

Canada is about to reap the benefits from a stacked 2016 bantam draft. All 11 of the WHL players on Canada’s roster were taken in the top 25 picks that year.

Krebs, Dach and Byram went 1-2-3, followed by Williams (5), Mutala (6) and Robertson (7). Gauthier (10) also cracked the top 10 — a rarity for a netminder — and Korczak (11) was actually the 10th name called that year since the Portland Winterhawks had to forfeit their ninth overall selection.

Peyton Krebs Kootenay Ice
(Robert Murray/WHL)
Peyton Krebs of the Kootenay Ice was the first overall pick in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft and the cerebral forward should really rack up the points in his NHL draft year.

Young Schneider went 12th, Cozens has proven to be a steal at 19th, and only Maier wasn’t picked in the first round, going 25th as the third selection of the second round.

“It was a special draft and that’s why we moved up when we did,” said Hamilton, referencing a draft-day trade from May 5, 2016 that saw Kelowna acquire the 11th overall pick used on Korczak from the Red Deer Rebels in exchange for the Rockets’ first-round pick (20th overall, goalie Trent Miner) and one of Kelowna’s four selections from the third round (48th overall, centre Justin Svenson).

“When we made the trade to move up to get him, we knew what we were getting and he’s delivered. Now it’s our coaches’ job to develop this young man into a high-profile player that will be a good NHL player in the future.”

Hamilton spoke highly of that 2016 bantam draft class as a whole, saying “there aren’t many guys from that year that aren’t real solid players. They have all matured into real good young men.”

Bounce Back for WHL

Regardless of the result at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the WHL is well positioned for a bounce-back year at the 2019 NHL draft.

For a league that has twice had 10 players picked in the first round and nine on four other occasions, the 2018 NHL draft was one to forget with only 20 total picks over seven rounds — 20 out of 217 selections.

That was a bad showing by the WHL’s standards and it wasn’t top-heavy either, with just two first-rounders — the aforementioned Smith (17th to New Jersey) and Russian import Alexander Alexeyev, with the final pick of the opening round (31st to Washington).

Woo (37th to Vancouver) and Addison (53rd to Pittsburgh) were the only second-rounders from the WHL, while Riley Stotts of the Calgary Hitmen (83rd to Toronto) and Everett Silvertips teammates Connor Dewar (92nd to Minnesota), an over-ager, and Riley Sutter (93rd to Washington) made it seven in the top 100.

A measly seven — well below average.

[miptheme_quote author=”” style=”text-center”]“Obviously we went through, I don’t want to say an embarrassing NHL draft, but the West was just in a cyclical year where we didn’t have a lot of guys that were candidates to be early picks,” said Hamilton. “I think we’ll bounce back here (in 2019), and I’m pretty positive in my feelings that a number of these (WHL) players are going to move way up the ladder compared to where they were when the first rankings came out.”[/miptheme_quote]

Draft Year Starts Here

NHL Central Scouting hasn’t released its preliminary rankings — and my preseason top-100 rankings will also follow the Hlinka Gretzky Cup — but some independent scouting agencies have beat the rush in publishing their lists prior to the official start of the draft year when the puck drops on Monday in Edmonton.

“At times, I think we get too tied up in what guys do at other tournaments before they get to this one,” said Hamilton. “It’s really the first opportunity for these guys to play against the best players in their age bracket internationally.

“This will be a great test for them, and it will give them an opportunity to separate themselves from others that are in the same age bracket.”

Bowen Byram Vancouver Giants
(Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)
Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram is a dynamic force with the puck on his stick, reminiscent of Matt Dumba during his WHL years, but Byram’s ceiling could be even higher.

There will be risers coming out of the Hlinka Gretzky Cup — there always is — and some prospects might set the bar too high for the season to come with their club teams.

Others who don’t make an impact on this stage or failed to make the cut — like Alex Newhook of the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies, a projected top-10 pick on most of those early lists — will need to work their way back into the good graces of the scouting community over the course of their draft year.

“It gives them tremendous exposure because all the NHL teams are very involved in following this tournament,” said Hamilton. “It’s a huge stage to start the year — the Finns, the Swedes, they all show up with real good players — and every one of these kids should be proud that they are there.”