Plenty of storylines in 2023 WHL Prospects draft, says independent scout

Herald File Photo. Grady Martin (pictured) was selected in the second round of the 2021 WHL Prospects Draft by Prince Albert.

The playoffs are about to begin in the WHL, but there is still plenty to look forward to for teams who haven’t qualified.

The 2023 WHL Prospects draft order has been confirmed after the draft lottery took place on Wednesday, securing the first and second overall picks for the Prince Albert Raiders.

Joel Henderson is the director of scouting for Puck Preps and is based in Regina. Henderson is not employed by any WHL organization and has profiled the top 135 players in both the 2021 and 2022 WHL Prospects draft.

He says the 2008-born draft class has some promising rearguards near the top of his board.

“Early in the year, I would have said defencemen, and I still think that’s the case to an extent. I think there’s some throughout the draft that have moved a little bit down my rankings. But the newest ranking that I’m going to be releasing here soon has three defensemen in the top four. If you want to talk about the strength of the draft, I think it starts right there. Some of the higher potential players in this draft are defencemen.”

The Prince Albert Raiders won the 2023 WHL Prospects Draft lottery and will pick first and second overall. The last time a team used the first two picks in a WHL Prospects draft was the Winnipeg ICE in 2019 when they used the first overall pick on Matthew Savoie and the second overall pick on Conor Geekie. Winnipeg completed a draft day trade with the Swift Current Broncos for the second overall pick.

Henderson says this year’s draft class will be a bit more difficult to predict due to the lack of a bonafide number one prospect such as Connor Bedard in 2020 or Gavin McKenna in 2022.

“This is a very good group and there’s always the reality, I think for a lot of these drafts is there’s always a lot of good kids, there’s a lot of kids with a lot of potential and things to work on. It’s rare that you find a draft that has some players with some really elite qualities in it that are easily projectable like Matthew Savoie’s stick handling and speed was [in 2019]. I think in the last couple of drafts, there has been maybe one player that everyone thought that this is the number one player in this draft. I think without that player, without one or two players that really elevate to that top spot, what you are left with is just a swath of really good players that people kind of have different opinions on.”

Although he spends a lot of time analyzing and ranking players, Henderson says it is not always an exact science to predict where a player will get chosen in the draft.

“You’ve got 22 different teams building their programs and so there’s a method to the madness. The reality is there are some times where I get my evaluation slightly off or when you see a player fitting into a program, it’s like ‘I’m surprised they took them, and then when you look at their prospect pool, you go that’s a great fit.’

“It’s fun to see it unfold. It’s very, very unpredictable. You have a lot of things at play in this draft, including kids that are considering NCAA, kids that have stagnated in their growth or projected to grow another eight inches in height. There’s a lot of things at play with this and so you never quite know how it’s going to shake down. And I think that’s the exciting part.”

This year’s WHL Prospects Draft will have no shortage of storylines in the first round, including one prospect with connections to a team ownership group.

“I always love the uniqueness of drafts. I always love the storylines and the things that are that are a little bit unusual.” Henderson says.  “I think there are three storylines in this draft that are going to be very fun for teams to follow. Number one is that there’s a highly ranked kid out of Manitoba that just happens to be connected to one of the owners, and that is Jaxon Jacobson. I think there are a lot of teams that are already speculating that Brandon’s going to try to find a way to get him.”

Another player drawing buzz heading into the draft is Noah Kosick out of the Pacific Coast Academy who has recorded 45 points in 32 games as a 14-year-old playing in the CSSHL U18 division. Kosick is listed at 5’6 and 105 pounds according to eliteprospects.

Henderson says Kosick’s size may make him fall in the draft.

“I think the opinions on him vary much to do with his height. But in his minus one season last year, I believe he was the leading scorer in all of the U15 CSSHL. He is a highly intelligent, highly talented player who is right now very, very small. And so, I don’t know where he’s going to go and I’m just curious where he’s going to go.”

The final storyline Henderson is monitoring is a pair of twin brothers lighting the scoresheet for the Okanagan Hockey Academy U15 Prep.

Liam and Markus Ruck currently sit top two in the CSSHL U15 league in points. Liam has recorded 53 goals and 37 assists in 27 games, while Markus has 22 goals and 65 assists in 27 games played.

He says he wouldn’t be too surprised if a team moved in the first round for the chance to select both players.

 “When you watch them play, there is no physical element that they have which is dominant. The way that they absolutely take control on the ice in their puck movement, their spacing, their intelligence and their puck control. They use passes across zones. They have highlight reel puck movement plays that are just going to be unbelievably exciting at the WHL level. And I think when you have two players like that the reality is they’re going to go together. And so, a team has to find a way to get both of them. I think if you’re going to see movement in this first round or teams really targeting those guys, it’s going to have to come with some movement and some kind of trading in and out of spots for some teams. So those two are my players to watch because there are two very big wildcards in this draft.”

The 2023 WHL Prospects Draft takes place on May 11 and will be streamed on WHL Live