The Journey: What We Learned in the WHL

by Brayden Olafson on April 20, 2019

If you haven't had the opportunity to check out some rankings for the upcoming draft, one of the major highlights of the first round will be the WHL’s presence. Historically, the league has been known for producing a slightly more physical breed of player, but that notion is only relative to the rest of the CHL. Each prospective NHL player must be evaluated subjectively, and this year, there is plenty of skill out West. The last time that we saw this kind of an influx of talent from the dub would have been in the 2014 draft… and frankly, that hasn't quite gone as planned.

In 2014, a total of 18 WHL players were selected in the first three rounds of the draft. Outside of Sam Reinhart (2nd overall), Leon Draisaitl (3rd overall) and Brayden Point (79th overall), by and large, they wouldn't be considered overly successful selections. Of course, serviceable players such as Travis Sanheim and Jake Virtanen also came as a result of the first round, but as a whole, the entire draft, not just the first three rounds has wound up to be a disaster for the WHL.

Some of the players expected to be chosen in the first dozen or so picks of the 2019 Entry Draft include the following players:

Kirby Dach, Saskatoon Blades

The Saskatoon Blades’ leading scorer was selected second overall in the 2016 WHL draft, just behind fellow top prospect Peyton Krebs, who was taken first. Dach has become a dynamic force in the Western league, using his body and his smooth skating ability to burn defenders. Dach will have to continue to develop those skills in order for them to have the same effect at the next level, but his current toolbelt has him prepared to allow for a gradual progression to the highest level. He plays a similar style to Ryan Johansen, but has been known to take a shift or more off when things aren’t going his way. In my personal experience of watching him, it can often become more. That’s certainly something that will need to change before he cracks an NHL roster.

Dylan Cozens, Lethbridge Hurricanes

The Whitehorse native is one of the most self-aware and intelligent forwards to come out of the WHL since Sam Reinhart (at the time). Cozens also brings a talented set of mitts with him to the draft, a skill that should translate quickly to the next level. It’s unlikely that he leaves the WHL in the next calendar year, but his awareness could push him to make the right tweaks to earn an NHL roster spot sooner than some of his peers.

Peyton Krebs, Kootenay/Winnipeg Ice

The leader of the new Winnipeg Ice is a tenacious and skilled forward who plays each shift with 100% effort. His speed and vision make him a threat to create offense each and every time he’s on the ice at the WHL level. I’m a bigger fan of Krebs than most who’ve been following the 2019 draft class, but agree that he might have a slightly lower ceiling than other forwards like Dach and Cozens.

Bowen Byram, Vancouver Giants

Labeled as the top defensive prospect approaching the 2019 Entry Draft in Vancouver, Byram is currently in the midst of a playoff push that supersedes the thresholds of his fellow top WHL prospects. Both Dach’s and Cozens’ respective clubs have been eliminated from WHL playoff contention, while Krebs was unable to will the Ice to the post-season to begin with. Byram is a highly mobile blueliner with a ceiling not unlike former top rated draft picks like Aaron Ekblad and Seth Jones.

Aside from draft eligible talent, the WHL also played host to a significant amount of high profile NHL prospects from previous drafts this year.

New Jersey Devils prospect Ty Smith leads all players in the WHL in terms of PNHLe – a stat developed by DobberProspects writer Mason Black. The Spokane Chiefs defenseman contributed on 30% of his team’s tallies this year for a total of 68 points in 57 contests. His offensive contributions project him as a first-pair defender according to Mason’s model. The Devils will give him a long look this fall in training camp, and considering their current commitments at his position, he could have an opportunity to stick around. Significant production shouldn't be expected for a couple of years, but an earlier debut will bode well for his future.

20-year-old Cody Glass had an outstanding start to his D+2 campaign with the Portland Winterhawks. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by what seemed like a nasty knee injury at the end of January. Fortunately, Glass is expected to make a full recovery to what turned out to be a sprained ACL. With some of the Golden Knights in-season additions to their forward ranks, not to mention the post-season addition of Nikita Gusev, Glass will be hard pressed to earn a favorable spot in the NHL lineup. Beginning his professional career in the AHL will be the best option for his development. Patience, however, will surely pay off with Glass who will likely get a cup or two of coffee in his rookie campaign.

In deeper leagues, Pittsburgh prospect Justin Almeida is a player to keep an eye on. The Moose Jaw Warriors’ 20-year-old forward wrapped up his second consecutive season with more than 95 points. The Pens inked Almeida to an ELC in early March, which will likely have him suit up in Wilkes Barre-Scranton in the fall.

Thanks for tuning in to our fourth edition of the series. Next week I’ll wrap things up with the OHL. If you’ve missed either of the last two reads, you can find them here:

What we learned in the QMJHL

What we learned in the SHL

What we learned in the USHL

As always, you can find me on Twitter @olaf1393.