Breaking Down The WHL Talent Of The 2019 NHL Draft

The crop of players eligible for the NHL Draft out of the Western Hockey League is particularly strong this year, with as many as four WHLers in contention for top 10 picks this year, and another four players in first round contention. For comparison, last year saw just two WHLers drafted in the top 31— none within the top 15 (to be fair though, Ty Smith deserved to go much earlier than 17th overall)

Let’s take a deeper look at the WHL players expected to be drafted in June.

Potential First Rounders:

Dylan Cozens (C/RW, Lethbridge Hurricanes)

Cozens mixes power and finesse to form a deadly offensive package. The Yukon native has feasted upon the WHL in his draft campaign, leading the Lethbridge Hurricanes in scoring with 84 points over 68 games. With 34 goals and 50 assists, Cozens is a dual-threat talent that can be dangerous as both a shooter and a passer.

An outstanding skater, Cozens plays with speed and quickness all over the ice. He has no fear of the dirty areas, using his size, speed, and balance to attack the middle of the ice. At 6’3”, 185 lbs, Cozens is strong on the puck and difficult to move.  He’s excellent in the corners, the netfront, and in the cycle game, consistently winning puck battles and retaining possession on behalf of his team.

He’s a modernized power centre with the full offensive package: quick feet, soft hands, great vision, and a dangerous shot. Cozens can attack in a wide variety of ways, making defending him a difficult task. As a similar multi-tooled attacker that can play both centre and wing, Leon Draisaitl is an easy stylistic comparison, although I’d say Leon is considerably more skilled and versatile as a playmaker.

I project Cozens as a high-end 2C at the NHL level, capable of providing about 60-65 points a year at his prime.

Blending power and finesse, Dylan Cozens will be a popular target at the 2019 NHL …DraftGeek › ca

Kirby Dach (RHC, Saskatoon Blades)

It’s been quite the season for Saskatoon Blades pivot Kirby Dach. After a ridiculously hot start to the season, inconsistency has defined the rest of his campaign. Some nights, Dach will find himself on the scoresheet several times; but other evenings, he’s absolutely invisible. His production has dropped considerably since his luck ran dry and, despite touching 1.5 PTS/GP before Christmas, Dach now finds himself with an excellent but less impressive 1.17 PTS/GP.

Dach is a 6’4” playmaking centre with outstanding vision, but also quite a few red flags. First of all, there’s the variance in his night-to-night effort and performance— when Dach is in the zone, he’s an extremely effective offensive talent, but just as frequently, it seems that he isn’t giving his full effort, and his offensive impact feels the consequences. To make matters worse, Dach isn’t much of a skater— his speed is average, he’s slow to accelerate, and his short, choppy stride isn’t as aesthetic as it could be.

If a team is drafting Kirby Dach top five, they better hope that they’re getting the engaged, head-in-the-game prospect, not the sluggish, disengaged player that we sometimes see. If they get the first player, they’re getting one of the best playmakers in the draft— otherwise, there is significant potential for disappointment.

I’d say Dach’s ceiling is a bit higher than Dylan Cozens’ is— whereas I expect Cozens to hang around the 60 point mark, I could see Dach settling closer to 70 tallies per year. However, Dach’s skating and consistency issues mean that I’m less confident in the likelihood of him achieving that target.

Peyton Krebs (LW/C, Kootenay Ice)

Krebs is an incredibly intriguing player— easily one of the most interesting players to evaluate in the entire draft. On the surface, Krebs’ statistics, although promising, aren’t anything to write home about. With 68 points in 64 games, Krebs’ top statistical comparables would be Brayden Schenn and Jordan Eberle, two clear top-6 forwards with career-high totals of about 70 points. That’s excellent on its own, but Krebs’ unique situation as the best player on a very poor team means that his production is even more impressive than a quick glance will show. The 18-year-old forward recorded a point on 40% of Kootenay’s goals this season, compared to 32% for Dylan Cozens and 31% for Kirby Dach.

A playmaker, Krebs is a shifty attacker with excellent hands and vision. He excels at the creation of passing lanes, using a variety of moves to manipulate defenders and create open space. He’s one of the leaders in the draft when it comes to making plays from below the goal line, managing to thread passes through defenders into the slot area. As a shooter, Krebs isn’t as significant a threat, but I still wouldn’t call it a weakness. He won’t be a sniping threat from the perimeter, but he’s able to finish on opportunities from the slot area. On top of this offensive repertoire, Krebs is a fantastic skater. Above-average speed, agility, and edgework allow Krebs to enter the offensive zone with intimidating pace.

I see Krebs’ upside as similar to Dylan Cozens’, except Krebs will be providing his value from the wing. 60-70 points in a season is a realistic expectation for Krebs’ prime.

Bowen Byram (LHD, Vancouver Giants)

The uncontested top defenceman available in the draft, Bowen Byram is a minute-eating two-way beast that has starred for the Vancouver Giants this season. With 71 points in 67 games, Byram is tied for 4th among WHL defenceman by offensive output this season.

Byram is a well-rounded, smooth skating blueliner that contributes in all ends of the ice. Offensively, he uses his skating ability activate into the play, giving his teammates another option on the rush and within the offensive zone. He has no ties to the offensive blueline and won’t hesitate to move deeper into the opposing team’s zone when he senses an opportunity. The combination of willingness to jump into the play and his stunning offensive toolbox— excellent vision, hands, and shooting ability— forms a dominant offensive talent from the backend.

Byram is an exceptional skater— he has the speed to pull away from forecheckers in transition and the agility to avoid opponents through the neutral zone. He’s able to establish himself as an option on the rush with outstanding frequency because of how quickly he can catch up to the play. As the trailer on the rush, Byram shows exceptional skill and poise with the puck, waiting for a passing option to present itself, and if that fails, putting a hard, accurate shot on net. On the breakout, he makes intelligent, possession-oriented plays that allow his team to begin the transition with full control of the puck. You won’t see Byram panicking under pressure and throwing the puck off the glass— that just isn’t the way his brain is wired.

All in all, Byram is an offensively gifted two-way defenceman capable of near-dominance in the WHL at just 17 years old. He’s easily the best defender in the draft, projecting as a top-pairing blueliner that can play in a variety of situations, including the powerplay.

Brett Leason (RW, Prince Albert Raiders)

As a double-overager, Leason is in a unique position as a draft eligible player. In 2017, his first year of draft eligibility, Leason’s 18 points in 68 games weren’t enough to get him drafted. The next year, the story was the same: 33 points in 66 games just wasn’t enough to catch the eye of NHL teams.

Fast forward one more season, and everything is different. With 89 points in 55 games this season, Leason jumped to 8th in WHL scoring — 5th by points per game. An apparent late bloomer, the forward exploded in his D+2 season, and is now projected to be drafted somewhere within the latter half of the first round. When a player comes out of nowhere like this, there’s reason to be wary, but his season this year was far too dominant to be a product of luck or other uncontrollable factors.

Standing at 6’5”, Leason is a massive forward that combines skill with physical prowess. He’s strong around the net, an exceptional finisher, and an above-average skater, especially considering his size.

Leason’s almost 20 years old already, so the team that drafts him will be getting a player that’s close to NHL-ready. He’ll probably need a year in the AHL to adjust to the professional game, but he could step into a bottom-six role by the year after.

Nolan Foote (LW, Kelowna Rockets)

Much has been said about the extent Peyton Krebs’ incredibly poor Kootenay Ice team has negatively impacted his production, but the same discussion must be had in regards to Kelowna’s Nolan Foote. The Kelowna Rockets scored 14 fewer goals than Kootenay this season, meaning that Nolan Foote’s supporting cast is even less capable than Krebs’.

Foote, a 6’3” scoring winger, recorded 63 points over 66 games this season— 23 of them at 5v4. He recorded a point on 38% of Kelowna’s goals this season, the 2nd highest INV% of any WHL draft eligible (Peyton Krebs is 1st). Foote had a primary point (goal or primary assist) on 33% of Kelowna’s goals, which is first among WHL soon-to-be-draftees.

Foote’s biggest strength is his shot— an accurate laser with a quick and deceptive release. Foote shoots with a drag motion that conceals the puck and makes it difficult for the goalie to read the shot.

He’s also a proficient playmaker, with decent vision and passing ability. He’s an intelligent player, with good sense for soft spots in the offensive zone to get his shot off. Foote also has above-average hands, which he uses well around the net.

The majority of Foote’s profile is positive, but his skating is a glaring weakness. He’s slow to move his feet, his acceleration is clearly below average, and he frequently seems to find himself a step behind the play.

Foote’s skating is a legitimate concern, but if we see improvement, there’s top-6 potential here. If he can’t, his combination of size and decent two-way ability could still form a proficient bottom-six winger.

Brayden Tracey (LW, Moose Jaw Warriors)

Tracey’s path to the NHL Draft was an uncommon one: after being drafted 21st overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft — just two spots after Dylan Cozens — Tracey spent an additional season in midget in 2017-18, presumably because of the depth of the first place Moose Jaw Warriors that year. This season, he broke into the WHL full time, instantly becoming one of the premier players on the Warriors’ roster. With 81 points in 66 games, Tracey has been an extremely effective attacker alongside top forwards Tristen Langan and Justin Almedia.

A scoring winger, Tracey has soft hands, a dangerous shot, and excellent sense for space in the offensive zone. He loves to attack through the high slot, timing his strikes perfectly to arrive in position for a quick pass from a teammate, usually followed by a quick one-time snapshot to the upper corners of the net. His shot isn’t a laser, but he picks his spot and the puck comes off his quick quickly. Additionally, Tracey has an excellent motor and a decent two-way game.

If anything holds Tracey back, it will be his skating. Tracey isn’t slow, but his stride isn’t powerful enough to project as anything more than average at the NHL level.

Matthew Robertson (LHD, Edmonton Oil Kings)

Robertson isn’t the type of defenceman that will wow you with any particular ability, but he’s an intelligent player with very few weaknesses. The defender was an important piece of the Oil Kings blueline, quarterbacking the second power play unit and playing meaningful minutes at even strength. Robertson’s impact is primarily made in transition, where he uses his intelligence and feet to lead the breakout.

Robertson consistently makes accurate reads all over the ice, giving him a step on his opponents. He does an exceptional job anticipating breakouts and finding soft spots to exit the zone. He exhibits strong decision making, frequently targeting open players with speed through the neutral zone. When he has space, he’s more than capable of skating the puck through the neutral zone himself, but his offensive skills don’t seem to be developed enough to make anything of those opportunities in the offensive zone. Moving forward, that will have to be a key focus for Robertson if he wants to unlock additional offence.

Robertson’s developed all-around game will make him a safe bet to be an NHL player, but his ceiling will be the big question. There are people that think Robertson has what it takes to be a #1 defenceman, but a significant amount of offensive development will have to take place. I’m more comfortable projecting him as a second-pairing defender.

Other Prospects:

Lassi Thomson (RHD, Kelowna Rockets): There are few defencemen in the draft with upside like Thomson, a mobile defenceman with quick feet and an offensive mentality. He can carry the puck just as well as he can pass it, making him an effective transitional player. He has good vision and a powerful shot from the point, but his defensive game needs work.

Kaeden Korczak (RHD, Kelowna Rockets): A smooth-skating, two-way defenceman, Korczak can start the breakout and shut down opponents in one-on-one situations. He won’t be a big offensive contributor from the blueline, but he’s steady and dependable.

Adam Beckman (LHC, Spokane Chiefs): A scoring centre, Beckman has terrific offensive instincts. He’s quite similar to Brayden Tracey— great finishing touch from the slot and above-average hands, but his skating could use improvement.

Dillon Hamaliuk (LW, Seattle Thunderbirds): Standing at 6’3”, Hamaliuk brings a power element to accompany playmaking ability and strong two-way play. A season-ending knee injury cost him the second half of his season, but he was very effective for Seattle before that.

Reece Newkirk (LHC, Portland Winterhawks): Newkirk is a slick forward with soft hands, finishing ability, and a willingness to go to the net. He’s a pretty good skater with decent speed and excellent agility, allowing him to navigate through defenders to get to the blue paint.  Newkirk is undersized at 5’11”, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he plays.

Cole Moberg (RHD, Prince George Cougars): As an October birthday,  Moberg’s on the older end of the draft, but  his 40 points in 61 games is excellent for a blueliner. Moberg is a strong passer with a well-rounded offensive portfolio.

Oleg Zaitsev (LHC, Red Deer Rebels): Well-rounded two-way centre with good speed and grit. Not a big offensive contributor, but could be a useful bottom-sixer at the NHL level.

Sasha Mutala (RW, Tri-City Americans): Mutala is an intriguing all-around offensive winger with good puck skills, but he hasn’t taken the step forward this season that was expected from him. 41 points in 65 games isn’t what you hope for from a player with this kind of offensive talent.

Josh Williams (RW, Edmonton Oil Kings): Expectations were high for Williams after a goal-per-game Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, but he’s struggled to produce this season. Williams was traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings mid-season, but was unable to find his game with the new club.