The 2018 NHL Draft was a disappointing one for the Western Hockey League. When the first round of the draft concluded, there were only two WHLers selected. Ty Smith was taken 17th by the New Jersey Devils and Alexander Alexeyev was taken 31st overall by the Washington Capitals.
In the 2017 draft, two WHLers were selected in the top 10 in Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Cody Glass of the Portland Winterhawks. Since the 2010 draft, there has been an average of 5.9 WHLers going in the first round every season. The most was in 2014 where 9 were selected. So after a disappointing draft, how did the WHL bounce back?
In the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, the WHL showed how good it’s pipeline of players really is. The top three selections went: Peyton Krebs, Kirby Dach and Bowen Byram. Shortly after those picks, Dylan Cozens was selected 19th overall. All four of these prospects are eligible for the coming NHL Draft and every single one of them has a shot at cracking the top 10.
A huge storyline going into the 2017-18 season was the battle for who would be the WHL Rookie of the Year. Peyton Krebs was the highly touted 1st overall pick of the Kootenay Ice while Kirby Dach and Bowen Byram were right on his heels. Dach was the Saskatoon Blades’ highly touted playmaker coming off a 19 game, 10 point stint in the WHL in his underage season while Byram was the Vancouver Giants’ stellar offensive defensemen, who has been Canada’s #1 defensemen internationally for his age group.
This all happened while the Whitehorse, Yukon native, Dylan Cozens, surprised everyone with his performance. The 19th pick became an integral part of a rising Lethbridge Hurricanes roster. The big bodied winger led all U17 players in points per game at a 0.93.
Cozens does everything in the offensive zone. He loves to drive the net hard with his size, speed and shot. He has a big 6’3” (191cm) frame that allows him to be physical, especially around the net. He also has stellar foot speed and generally great skating abilities. He’s quite fast which allows him to make a lot of great controlled zone entries and create opportunities off that.
Cozens has playmaking ability, but he thrives as a goal scorer. He’s a great finisher with a wicked release and a super accurate shot. Cozens has a great ability to put a shot up top in tight spaces when a goalie wouldn’t expect it.
This not to mention a solid one-timer that he can put to use on a power play. His previously mentioned prowess at driving the net also creates a lot of goals. The only problem with his goal scoring is that he often relies on his linemates to set him up and doesn’t create as many chances as you’d like to see.
With all of this in mind, the WHL selected him as the 2018 WHL Rookie of the Year. His 53 points were second only to Peyton Krebs who scored 54 points, but played 10 more games. After winning said award Cozens went off to the Hlinka U18 tournament. He looked fantastic, but only scored 5 points for Team Canada. Notably that included a tying goal against the Americans that was scored after the end of the game, but counted anyway because of a technicality.
My pick for the runner-up of the WHL Rookie of the Year was Saskatoon’s 2nd overall pick Kirby Dach. Dach is a pure playmaker. He has a vision of the ice that allows him to create space for teammates and make a great pass.
Dach is also a bigger player with good physical abilities that make him a pain to play against. He has a lot of raw athleticism that shows in his explosive skating and quick edges. Dach is also a player to watch on the rush and the forecheck.
My problem with Dach is that he has all the skill to score more goals, but often gets caught trying to make a play when he could shoot. Like Cozens, Dach also went off to the Hlinka and was easily one of Canada’s top performers. Dach was essential in Canada’s gold medal run. He was their #1 center and did everything for the team. He showed that he was right there with Cozens, and that he shouldn’t be counted out as the top WHLer.
Team Canada’s #1 defensemen at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup is the only defensemen in the group of four WHLers. Bowen Byram has been a staple of Team Canada having played at the U17s and U18s as a 16-year-old as well as at the international competition this year. When Byram is on the ice, he has the talent and IQ to control every aspect of the game.
He is a stellar skater who is so fast and can get up to top speed in an instant. That combined with his lateral movement and great hands makes him a perfect guy to rush the puck on a break out. He actually resembles Rasmus Dahlin a lot on the rush.
This not to say he’s anywhere near as good as Dahlin though. Byram also has the talent to score some goals. He has a solid one timer and can beat a goalie when given the chance.
Peyton Krebs, despite being the Kootenay Ice’s 1st overall pick, is the last of the four. Although, this doesn’t mean he isn’t a premier player. Krebs is a lot like Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau.
He is a dynamic playmaker who doesn’t have the size of Dach or Cozens, but is elusive and slippery. Krebs has fast hands and faster feet which allows him to avoid contact and create space for himself and teammates. Krebs has a lot of skill that he uses to show up defenders and set up teammates.
He also has the best IQ of the WHLers which allows him to play a great playmaking game. Krebs is also a clutch player who will come through with big goals. Like the other WHLers, Krebs went to the Hlinka Gretzy Cup for Team Canada and was able to tie Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes in points.
So this all brings us to their draft positions. In my coming rankings on my Twitter (@TPEHockey) for September, all four will slot into the top 10 rankings. Cozens slots in first at the #6 spot, Dach right after at #7, Byram goes at #9, and lastly Krebs gets the #10 spot.
The general consensus is that all four are top 10 talents and if this were to happen in June, it would be historic. The great strength of the WHL’s 2019 class is something to surely keep an eye on for the future with the 2019 NHL Draft ahead in Vancouver come the 21st and 22nd of June, 2019.