For the second straight year, the concept of generational talent will emerge as the key talking point at the NHL Draft.
By the time the festivities get underway in Buffalo next weekend, the Auston Matthews watch will have been percolating since the day after Connor McDavid was selected first overall a year ago. Expect a large contingent of Toronto Maple Leafs fans to attend the First Niagara Center (soon to be KeyBank Center) to welcome Matthews to the NHL.
The first half of the first round will be deep with players from around the globe who are capable of making almost an immediate impact. Also note that the seven Canadian teams will pick among the top 12, as none qualified for the most recent postseason. Beyond the midway point, the proceedings will get much more interesting, and part of that drama will be associated with WHL.
It is unlikely the WHL will see a player taken in the top 10; perhaps not even the top 15. In fact, it is conceivable that this time around, the first round could include selection of only a couple of WHL prospects. A total of four players were chosen in the first round in 2006, the league’s lowest first round total during the past decade.
This year, our WHL ranking sees the forwards outnumber the rearguards, which bucks the recent WHL trend. We’ve also included a goaltender, somewhat of a rarity of late for the WHL. There are seven players from the Eastern Conference among our top 10. There a total of nine Canadian-born players, along with one import.
Of the players in our ranking appeared in the BMO/CHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver on January 28th. It is said to be an honor that can enable a player to enhance their profile.
It is widely suggested that Jake Bean of the Calgary Hitmen will be the top WHL player chosen in Buffalo, but a year ago the Boston Bruins surprised many WHL followers when they chose Jake DeBrusk ahead of all other WHL eligibles. For 2016, one has to wonder if perhaps Brett Howden of the Moose Jaw Warriors made enough of an impact during the second half to get the nod ahead of Bean.
Below are the top 10 prospects from the WHL for the 2016 NHL Draft as chosen by this Hockey’s Future writer.
1. Jake Bean, D, Calgary Hitmen
At 6’1” and 170 pounds, Jake Bean remains slight of build, but handles the rigors well with the help of quick feet, great vision and an advanced hockey IQ. But, like each of the top four in our ranking, Bean has also been bitten by the injury bug during his short WHL career. He suffered a broken wrist in late February of his rookie season during a game in Kelowna, then missed the U18 World Championship this past spring with a broken foot.
Beyond the injury bug, Bean progressed quickly last season. Of note this season is the quality of Bean’s play while veteran Travis Sanheim (PHI) was briefly out of the lineup with an injury and then at the 2016 World Junior Championship (WJC). Bean basically took over as the offensive catalyst on the back end and assumed the role of a power play quarterback with the Hitmen. In 68 games, Bean scored 24 goals and added 40 assists
2. Brett Howden, C, Moose Jaw Warriors
Brett Howden is physically the biggest player in this ranking, checking in at 6’3” and 190 pounds. He skates very well for a big forward and brings physical play to the mix for the Warriors. He is following in the footsteps of his older brother, Quinton Howden of the Florida Panthers, who also played his junior hockey in Moose Jaw.
It his ability to play alongside elite players and also perform like that elite player when inserted throughout the lineup that has him this high up in the rankings. In an era of top-nine compilations in the NHL, offensive skill from a third line is of paramount importance. This is where Howden currently provides intriguing possibilities. From Oakbank, Manitoba, Howden scored 24 goals and added 40 assists in 68 games. He was also prominent for Team Canada at the U18 World Championship as a late addition when the Warriors were bounced from the WHL playoffs.
3. Tyler Benson, LW, Vancouver Giants
We’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that it will be hard for an NHL team to ignore Tyler Benson’s upside, although the team that chooses the Vancouver Giants captain will have to be comfortable exercising patience. Benson has endured some definite frustrations during his two-year junior career.
While the Giants have remained somewhat tight-lipped about the injuries, Benson’s inability to remain active on a consistent basis this season was certainly a concern. Despite the myriad of challenges, along with the responsibility that came with being named the Giants team captain this year, the 6’, 196-pounder from Edmonton was offensively productive when in the lineup. While Howden might have an edge in skating ability, a healthy Benson can be an absolute beast at both ends of the rink. With nine goals and 19 assists in 30 games, his presence on an improving Giants roster is crucial moving forward.
4. Libor Hajek, D, Saskatoon Blades
Libor Hajek quietly emerged as a reliable WHL defenseman after a season with HC Kometa Brno in the Czech Extraliga, where he played 17 games as a 16-year-old. He was one of 33 players selected at the 2015 CHL Import Draft who are eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft. At the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial, Hajek served notice that he is fully capable against elite competition in his age group.
At 6’1” and 198 pounds, he is strong on the puck and doesn’t shy away from physical play. In Saskatoon this season, on a Blades team that missed the playoffs, Hajek played in 69 games, scored three times and added 26 assists. Not a glamour pick by any stretch, but Hajek is a competent, serviceable defenseman with high-end skating ability. The question is, have scouts seen enough of him? We think they have.
5. Kale Clague, D, Brandon Wheat Kings
Another in the long line of elite defenseman that have honed their skills in Brandon of late, Kale Clague has all the tools, particularly with the puck on his stick. At 6’ and 178 pounds, Clague will likely need to add weight and muscle in the coming years to handle defensive zone battles in pro hockey.
From Lloydminster, Alberta, Clague was a durable member of the WHL champions this season, appearing in 71 games for the Wheat Kings. He scored six times and added 37 assists for the high octane Wheaties. Viewing during the long WHL playoff run and Memorial Cup this season could nudge Clague ahead of Hajek come Draft Day.
6. Carter Hart, G, Everett Silvertips
Carter Hart took over as the number one goalie for the Everett Silvertips as a 16-year-old. This past season, he appeared in 63 games, posting six shutouts, a 2.14 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and a 35-23-1-3 record. Hart was named the CHL Goaltender of the Year during Memorial Cup week in Red Deer.
Hart, from Sherwood Park, Alberta, was in and out of the lineup during the postseason, but following the Silvertips playoff exit, he was able to focus on conditioning and he turned some heads with his athleticism, quickness and dexterity at the NHL Scouting Combine. At 6’1” and 170 pounds, he has room to grow and to add strength.