NHL Draft Scout Series: WHL

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Turning our attention to the WHL, FutureConsiderations’ Western Regional Scout Donesh Mazloum joins us to talk WHL draft eligibles. The ‘Dub consistently pumps talent into the NHL, and 2016 looks no different.

CR: It’s a bit of a strange year for the WHL, in that while it’ll still be among the top producing leagues in terms of drafted players, there doesn’t seem to be a real “elite” crop of WHL draft eligibles this year. How would you describe this draft class?

DM: I would definitely agree with that assessment, I don’t really see a blue chip prospect coming out of the WHL this year. That’s not to say there isn’t value out of the WHL this year however I’m not sure there is a top 10 talent out of the bunch.

This was an interesting year to scout the WHL because there wasn’t a player like Provorov or duo like Reinhart/Draisaitl that really separated themselves as the year went on. A lot of the high pedigree prospects coming into this year like Benson, Steel, and Clague had inconsistent seasons while players like Bean, Hajek and Johansen really impressed and it makes for a pretty crowded group in the 20-50 range of the draft out of the WHL. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 7-10 WHL players in that range. I know we at FC had a lot of movement in this area as there isn’t much separating the top handful of players out of the WHL.

CR: FutureConsiderations has Jake Bean as the highest ranked WHLer at 16. Is he also the highest on your board? What kind of potential do you see in Bean? Is he worthy of being spoken in the same breath as the big three in Chychrun, Juolevi and Sergachev? 

DM: Jake Bean is also my highest ranked player but I’ll admit I was definitely much slower on the uptake than many others. Bean is a prototypical puck moving defenceman. His combination of patience, vision and high level execution on his passes makes him a huge asset in the possession game. When the puck is on his stick, good things happen. Overall he is a very well rounded offensive talent. He can clearly shoot the puck as shown by his 24 goals, which is a Calgary Hitmen record for goals by a defenceman. Additionally while his skating isn’t picture perfect he moves well laterally and has the shiftiness to exploit space effectively.

While there is a lot to like about his offensive game, his defensive game and ability to transition to the pro game give me some pause. He gives up a lot of space defensively and overall seems to struggle in physical affairs. I also find that he lacks consistency from game to game; for every dominant performance I’ve seen from him there is a lukewarm one to match. I think he has the potential to be a middle pairing powerplay quarterback at the NHL level; however, he is far from a sure thing.

I was lucky enough to see Juolevi in person at the Memorial Cup this year and I think the thing that separates Bean from Chychrun, Juolevi or Sergachev is polish in his own end. Bean may have the offensive potential of the big three but I don’t see him being as effective a defender at the NHL level as any of them.

CR: FC also seems bullish on Tyler Benson, having him inside the first round at 28. How big of an impact did his injury have on his draft stock for you and where could you have seen him ranked having not suffered the season ending surgery? Is he top 15 on talent alone?

DM: Count me as a big fan of Benson and what he brings to the table. What I love about his game is his maturity and understanding of the little things that it takes to win. Benson is not the fastest, biggest, or most skilled player out there; however, he always has a noticeable impact on the game. His play without the puck is head and shoulders above of most of his peers. He is a pro-style straight line offensive talent and I think his two-way skill set will translate very well to the NHL.

His injuries this season were definitely unfortunate; however, if Alex Galchenyuk or Morgan Rielly are any indication, it’s a fool’s errand to discount players who are injured for a majority of their draft year. It’s nice to have a more recent viewing of a player to get an update on their development; however, having seen Benson multiple times since his record-breaking bantam days, I’m confident in what he brings to the table. Benson likely won’t be an elite point producer at the next level; however, I see him as a Cody Eakin-type who can move throughout the lineup, provide secondary scoring, and play a sound defensive game. Coming into the season I saw him as a potential middle-10 first rounder and while his injury uncertainty may move him back I think he’s a steal if he falls out of the first round.

CR: The final skater ranked top 30 is Libor Hajek, far from a household name. The Flames hold the 35th overall pick so he could be an option there. Who is Libor Hajek and what does he bring to the table? 

DM: Hajek is the defensive defenceman of the new age. While defensive defenceman often conjures up images of plodding punishing behemoths, Hajek has no issue with mobility. He has an extremely powerful stride and covers a ton of ground on the ice. What this allows is for him to keep very tight gaps in the neutral zone and disrupt the flow of attackers. For your “fancy stat” readers his zone entries against is very low. It’s tough to cross the blueline with possession against Hajek as he forces decisions in the neutral zone and he has the lateral movement to stay with speedier forwards. At best he creates a lot of turnovers and at worst he forces the attacking team to dump and chase. In his own end he is aggressive and physical; fans will love his effort level. Offensively he doesn’t bring much to the table. His go-go-go mentality is an asset on the defensive end but can get him into trouble with the puck.

CR: The Flames hold three second round picks this year. Who are a few WHLers that could provide value in that range?

DM: Like I said earlier I think there are a host of options out of the WHL in the second round, so I’ll mention a few that I haven’t touched on yet. The first is Brett Howden, who is an excellent two-way centre with NHL size and speed. He’s a player that likely won’t be near the top of scoring charts but would be an excellent complementary piece on a contending team. He’s a player without any glaring weaknesses; a guy who can chip in offensively and play tough against the opponent’s top lines. In a Western Conference stacked with big skilled centres, a backbone of Monahan, Bennett, and Howden down the middle would be formidable for years to come. Personally, I like Howden as a first rounder so he’d be a great get for the Flames if he is there at 35.

Another option early in the second is Kale Clague of the Brandon Wheat Kings. He had a roller coaster ride of a season but I thought he was excellent in the second half of the year and the playoffs and he was a rare bright spot on a disappointing Brandon team at the Memorial Cup. He is a fantastic skater who moves around the ice effortlessly and he possesses elite offensive potential. He needs to add a lot of strength and his defensive game is a work in progress but if the Flames are looking to take a homerun cut on one of their three second round picks, Clague could be a fit.

For the two later picks I think Kelowna Rocket teammates Lucas Johansen and Dillon Dube would be good options if they’re still around. Johansen is a steady two-way defender who has great instincts on the counter-attack. He isn’t an overly physical player in his own end; however, his defensive positioning and understanding of assignments keeps attackers to the outside. The younger brother of Ryan, Lucas is a late ’97 birthday; however, his development curve from start to finish this year shows that he’s just tapping into his potential.

As for Dube, he is a smaller forward at 5’10; however, he plays the game with spit and vinegar and isn’t afraid to mix it up. He is relentless on the forecheck and carries speed throughout a shift. Offensively he showcases excellent vision and makes lightning quick decisions. He is not a player where you worry his feet may be faster than his mind.

CR: Sam Steel hasn’t made that great of a case for the top 30 as some expected. Does that have to do more with him not neccessarily being a “sexy pick”, or are there some real concerns with Steel’s game? 

DM: I think it’s a little bit of both. Steel is a very cerebral player and I think players who excel due to their hockey smarts as opposed to their speed or strength are often overlooked a little. It’s easier to immediately see and be enticed by tangible tools: a player who can skate well or is physically mature often jumps out more than the player who is mentally a step ahead. That being said there are definitely things Steel needs to work on and there is a reason Steel was a faller on many lists throughout the year, including at FC.

I will start out by saying that overall there is a lot to like about Steel’s game. He is an excellent playmaker who passes with pinpoint precision and moves the puck in traffic with ease. He also has the rare ability to lead his teammates into open space with his passes, creating opportunities that most wouldn’t see. His high hockey IQ is present on both ends of the ice; he’s a player who makes purposeful decisions and plays a proactive, as opposed to reactive, game. In a bubble these attributes are excellent to have but when you factor in the fact that he had these same skills and a similar impact in his 16-year-old season it raises some concerns that his development has stalled. I still think Steel has the potential to be an impactful offensive player at the NHL level but I think this past season has given teams enough pause that I’d be surprised to see him in the top 30. 

CR: On the goaltending front, it seems Carter Hart is the head and shoulders favourite to be the first netminder selected from the ‘Dub later this month. Do you buy the hype surrounding this year’s WHL Goaltender of the Year? Is there anyone else you prefer or have high hopes for between the pipes?

DM: Hart is easily the top draft eligible goalie out of the ‘Dub this year and I think you’re shortchanging him a bit as he took home CHL Goaltender of the Year as well. It’s easy to see why he put up the excellent numbers he did this season as Hart is already a very polished goaltender. He is efficient in his movement and he tracks the puck well. He plays with a lot of confidence and focus and you can tell he’s paying attention to his rebound placement.

I think the one thing holding Hart back from being a first rounder is his quickness and general athleticism. His game is predicated on being in the right place at the right time but he doesn’t have the ideal explosiveness to recover from a poor read or quick puck movement. If he has a weak area it may be the upper corners as he doesn’t have the size to merely block the top part of the net or elite glove/blocker speed. That being said, his ability to predict the play and sound positional game forces shooters to make perfect shots to beat him.

The only other goalie out of the WHL this year that is a surefire draftee is Zach Sawchenko. His style is in stark contrast to Hart’s as Sawchenko very much relies on his natural quickness and instincts. Where he could use improvement is in the technical aspects of the position. He drifts a little in net when trying to predict the play, making him not square to shooters. As well, he’s not a big goalie and has a tendency to play deep in his net. Sawchenko is likely a middle round option. The team drafting him is getting a goalie with excellent physical tools but has room to grow mentally.

CR: Who has been your biggest surprise this WHL season?

DM: The biggest surprise for me this year is probably Jordy Stallard of the Calgary Hitmen. He’s a player who was considered a bubble player and a potential sleeper by us at FC to start the year; however, with every update to our rankings throughout the year he was a riser. With every successive viewing of Stallard I had this year he looked better and he forced his way up my rankings. Stallard is an excellent skater who is a handful to deal with when he gets to full speed.

At 6’2 and 187 lbs he has the size and strength to bull his way to the net; however, he also has understated finesse with the puck on his stick. While he’s not an elite point producer, he’s the type of player I could see as a complementary piece in the top six as he creates a lot of space down low but also has the puck savvy to play with skilled offensive players. He is also an excellent defender and is clearly very conscious about taking care of his own end. He’s a player who may not have any elite defining skill; however, he is above average in all areas. I think he has excellent value after the top 60 picks and is a safe pick to help an NHL team.

CR: Who has been your biggest disappointment?

DM: That’s a tough question to answer as it depends as much on your own expectations or overvaluation as it does on the year the player had. That being said my biggest disappointment this year was probably Simon Stransky of the Prince Albert Raiders.

Stransky is a player I had as a dark horse first rounder coming into this season. He has some outstanding offensive tools. He may have the best hands out of any prospect out of the west and he can make defenders look silly on a regular basis. He is not tall but he is fairly stocky and he protects the puck very well. He also has a knack for receiving passes no matter how poor they are. He’s like a vacuum, whenever the puck is in his area he’ll find a way to come out with control of the puck. When he’s on he can be dominant with possession in the offensive zone. He has high offensive awareness and knows exactly the play to exploit a defence.

The issue surrounding Stransky is his consistency and play away from the puck. Stransky has average foot speed and his stride deteriorates late in shifts. His effort level is wildly inconsistent and for every shift he dominates there are five quiet ones. He also has very little interest in his own zone: he often leaves the defensive zone early and his propensity to be ahead of the play slows him down. Instead of coming up with the flow of play he is often stuck stopping at the offensive blueline waiting for the play to catch up. He’s still a player with enticing tools and if he shores up his weaknesses he could be an impact player at the NHL level but I was expecting more this season. 

CR: If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated prospect for this year’s draft from the WHL, who would they be?

DM: Another tough question, as it’s difficult to get a true read on what teams are thinking. Also in the WHL this year I think there was a lot of expectation from the top group that wasn’t met so I think there are more underrated than overrated WHLers.

That being said, I think Vojtech Budik of the Prince Albert Raiders is being overvalued by some. He’s looked at as a top 100 player by some but in my eyes as I don’t think he has the mental or physical speed to be an impact NHLer (I apologize for alienating the Raiders fan base with my last two comments). Also, despite Bean being my top ranked player, I also think he is being overvalued by some. Like I mentioned before I don’t think he belongs in that same tier of top defencemen and I think he’s a bit of a reach if he goes in the top 10 like some believe he will.

As far as underrated, I think that Zak Zborosky of the Kootenay Ice doesn’t get the love he deserves. When talking about second or third time draft eligible players in the WHL the conversation usually starts with Brayden Burke or Adam Brooks but I think Zborosky deserves to be right there in the discussion. He was on an island in Kootenay as they had a very tough year but he put up well over a point per game stats and showed a much improved offensive arsenal from last year. Zborosky has always been a hard worker and defensively conscious but his offensive growth and confidence in his abilities was a pleasant surprise. I think he’s a real sleeper pick in the middle rounds of the draft.

CR: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Conner Bleackley, who’s reentering the draft this year as a 20 year old after Arizona chose not to sign him. Why has this former 23rd overall pick fallen from grace so sharply and where do you see him being taken this year, if at all? 

DM: Bleackley has had a tough go of things since his draft year. I think he started off on the wrong foot with the Avalanche when Patrick Roy questioned his conditioning in camp. Since then he has also dealt with a host of injuries in the past couple years. As a result of, or in addition to, his injuries, his offensive game hasn’t really improved as expected from his draft year.

I do still think he deserves to be taken in this year’s draft, however. He returned from injury for the Rebels in time for the Memorial Cup this year and I thought he had a fantastic tournament. He was engaged, dangerous, and showed flashes of why he was a former first round pick. While his prognostication has to be downgraded a bit, I still think he can be an effective bottom six player at the NHL level. He’s probably a mid-to-late round option but I think he deserves another chance and a change of scenery.

CR: Lastly, who’s your favourite WHL draft eligible and why?

DM: I’ll go back to Tyler Benson for this one. Again I wish we had the opportunity to see more of him this season; however, as I mentioned I’ve never come away from a viewing where he didn’t impress me with his complete game. I’ve been watching him since his record-breaking bantam days and even back then when he could’ve relied on his superior skill, he was dedicated at both ends of the ice and committed to the details. Some players just get it and I think Benson is one of those players.

It was a pleasure to scout this class of draft eligibles and it was easy to appreciate the hard work and skill these players play with. I am looking forward to seeing how the draft shakes out later this month.

As always, thank you to Donesh for sharing his insights on another good looking class of 2016 NHL Draft eligibles. You can follow him on Twitter here

NHL Draft Scout Series 

  • Flamethrower

    A little off the draft subject besides really liking Tyler Benson at #35. I would like to see the flames bring back Tyson Baillie from the Kelowna Rockets. At 21 this kid has put out. Improved numbers every year with the Rockets. Last year putting up 95 pts. A 5’11 and 196 lbs he has had two prior invites. Not to mention he’s a right hand shot.
    Maybe this kid is a diamond in the rough…