Strong prospect pool projected for Wednesday’s WHL Bantam Draft

It’s a fool’s game to try and predict how a group of bantam aged players are going to turn out in their junior hockey careers.

However, the 2005 age group that will see their names selected by Western Hockey League teams is widely considered to be one of the strongest in recent memory.

Wednesday’s Bantam Draft, which is set to get underway at 10 a.m., will be slightly different as it will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent years, the event has taken place the day after the WHL Awards Ceremony and just before the start of the league final.

This year’s draft date was also moved up slightly as it was originally scheduled to be held in Red Deer on Thursday, May 7.

Raiders slated to pick 15th overall

After capturing their second straight East Division title in the shortened 2019-20 campaign, the Prince Albert Raiders will add to their prospect pool on Wednesday.

For the first time in team history, the club holds the 15th overall selection, which is where the likes of Daemon Hunt, Ty Ronning, Rourke Chartier and Sam Reinhart have been drafted in recent years.

The Raiders will pick again in the second round with the 37th overall selection.

They also had the Kamloops Blazers’ second round pick (41st overall) as part of the Max Martin trade in October, but it was dealt along with forward Jakob Brook to the Regina Pats in January to acquire netminder Max Paddock.

The Raiders’ third round choice (59th overall) belongs to the Victoria Royals as part of last January’s Dante Hannoun trade.

Although they also gave up forwards Kody McDonald and Carson Miller in that deal, the Raiders were able to nab a fourth round pick in last year’s draft (that originally belonged to the Brandon Wheat Kings) from the Royals and selected forward Tyler Dysart, who had 17 points in 18 games for the San Jose Jr. Sharks Under-15 program this year.

They also picked up a 2019 eighth round selection in the deal, but that was dealt to the Seattle Thunderbirds for defenceman Loeden Schaufler on trade deadline day.

The Thunderbirds would later select forward Jacob Lize, who had 13 points in 25 games last season for the Little Caesars Under-15 team that’s based out of Michigan.

With their fourth round pick (81st overall) now the property of the Everett Silvertips as a result of January’s deal to acquire netminder Keegan Karki, the Raiders will return to the draft board with a pair of picks in the fifth round.

They own the 90th overall choice, which they acquired along with a seventh round pick in 2021 from the Moose Jaw Warriors for goaltender Boston Bilous in January, and their own pick at 103.

Although their sixth round pick (125th overall) was dealt to the Spokane Chiefs for netminder Donovan Buskey in August 2018, the Raiders will pick twice in that portion of the draft.

They acquired the Blazers’ pick (129th overall) in the aforementioned Martin deal and picked up the Portland Winterhawks’ selection (132nd overall) from the Red Deer Rebels for forward Cohner Saleski in October.

The Rebels had previously received that pick from the Winterhawks in January 2018 for forward Lukus MacKenzie.

The Raiders’ seventh round selection (147th overall) was dealt to the Royals in September for blueliner Remy Aquilon, but ended up heading to the Chiefs in a roundabout way.

The Saskatoon Blades would acquire that pick from Victoria as part of a trade that saw them move forward Gary Haden to the Royals for blueliner Scott Walford last August, but they would then have to move the selection to the Chiefs as part of a July 2018 deal that saw forward Riley McKay join the Blades.

The Raiders also owned the Seattle Thunderbirds’ seventh round pick (139th overall) for a brief time.

They had acquired it from the Prince George Cougars in September for the rights to forward Davin Griffin before dealing it back to Seattle two months later in exchange for forward Michael Horon.

Although they might not use every pick, the Raiders have all of their selections in the last eight rounds of the draft.

Photo Courtesy of Garrett James/CSSHL
Forward Connor Bedard had 84 points in 36 games this season for the West Van Academy prep program.

Bedard set to make history

There will be no surprises at the top of the draft board on Wednesday as the Regina Pats will be taking Connor Bedard with the first overall pick.

The forward from North Vancouver, B.C. has already signed a standard player agreement with the club and will become the first player to enter the WHL on a full-time basis as a 15-year-old next year after he was granted exceptional player status last month.

“Obviously it’s a huge honour,” Bedard said to TSN’s Gino Reda on the Junior Hockey Magazine radio show. “Looking at guys like (Connor) McDavid, (John) Tavares, (Aaron) Ekblad, even Shane Wright with what he did this year, it is just crazy to have my name in the same sentence as those guys.

“I’ve only heard great things about the Pats organization so I couldn’t be more thrilled about going to Regina and I am sure it will be a great experience for me and my family.”

Bedard, who will turn 15 in July, was named the Canadian Sports School Hockey League’s most valuable player this season after posting 84 points in 36 games with the West Van Academy.

He is the seventh player to receive exceptional status from Hockey Canada, with the other two being Sean Day and Joe Veleno.

The first overall pick was originally the property of the Swift Current Broncos, who dealt to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in January 2018 as part of a blockbuster deal that saw the Broncos pick up Stuart Skinner, Giorgio Estephan and Tanner Nagel.

The Hurricanes would then send that pick to the Pats in November of that year to acquire the services of forwards Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry.

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald
Saskatoon Contacts teammates Riley Heidt and Brayden Yager are expected to be picked early on Wednesday.

Strong Saskatchewan contingent

After Bedard, Riley Heidt and Brayden Yager are considered to be the top talents in Wednesday’s draft.

The pair, who also applied for exceptional player status but did not receive it, were on the same line for the Saskatoon Contacts this season as underage players in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League.

“They were both able to make good adjustments coming into the league and they competed hard every night,” said Marc Chartier, who was the coach of the Contacts this past season.

“Their speed is probably what helped them out the most in making the jump to Midget AAA. It’s so much different than in bantam hockey as everyone plays the body. You can’t coast out there…you always have to be engaged.”

Yager was third in team scoring with 42 points in 44 games, while Heidt had 37 points in 44 contests to finish fifth among Contacts players.

Two other Saskatchewan products that are projected to be first round picks are forwards Kalan Lind and Sam Oremba.

Lind, who is the younger brother of former Kelowna Rockets forward and Vancouver Canucks prospect Kole, scored 68 goals in 27 games this year on his way to a 120-point campaign for the Swift Current Bantam AA Broncos.

Oremba, who suited up for the Regina Monarchs, led the provincial Bantam AA circuit in scoring with 133 points in 31 games.

Defensive Prospects

Two of the top blueliners in this year’s draft come from British Columbia as Lukas Dragicevic and Tanner Moledyk are both projected to be top five picks.

Dragicevic put up 52 points in 30 games with the Delta Hockey Academy’s Bantam Prep Green Team, while Moledyk had 55 points in 27 games this season for the Yale Hockey Academy.

Fellow defenceman Mazden Leslie, who had 12 points in 32 games as an underage player for the Lloydminster Midget Bobcats, is widely considered to be the best from Alberta.

Over in Manitoba, forward Brayden Dube is projected to be the top player in the province after a 130-point campaign for the Parkland Rangers.

When it comes to netminders, Draft Geek has Carter Capton and Jackson Unger at the top of their rankings.

Capton had a 12-2-1 record with a 2.25 goals against average and a .903 save percentage with the Yale Hockey Academy last year, while Unger suited up for the Calgary Bisons and posted an 11-6-3 mark with a 2.45 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald
Kaid Oliver chases after Kaiden Guhle during a game at the Art Hauser Centre in January.

Trade market reopens

It’s also been a busy time on the transaction front over the last few days as clubs are allowed to make moves for the first time since the Jan. 10 trade deadline.

The Victoria Royals have been the busiest team thus far as they dealt a pair of 2000-born players.

On Friday, the B.C. Division side moved defenceman Mitchell Prowse and two draft picks to the Lethbridge Hurricanes for 18-year-old forward Nick Dorrington and a pair of picks.

They followed that up on Monday by trading Kaid Oliver and two draft picks to the Edmonton Oil Kings for 19-year-old blueliner Jacson Alexander and pair of picks.

Prowse led the Royals defence in scoring last year with 33 points in 64 games, while Oliver had 47 points in 51 games.

Dorrington, who was signed by the Hurricanes as a listed prospect in August 2018, had two points in 36 games this past season.

Alexander, who was the 17th overall pick by the Swift Current Broncos in 2016 and was part of their league championship side in 2018, recorded 11 points in 28 games during two injury-shortened campaigns in Edmonton.

The Oil Kings also dealt 2000-born forward David Kope, who had 37 points in 59 games last year, to the Kelowna Rockets on Monday for a fourth round pick in 2023.