Inaugural WHL Lottery Prognostication, Part II

Welcome to Part II of the WHL Lottery Prognostication. For those that missed Part I and need an explanation to the mayhem going on here, check back with yesterday’s post.

Reminder: The WHL Bantam Draft lottery will be streamed live on WHL.ca, Facebook and YouTube Live commencing at 11 a.m. MT.

Now, back to the categories.

ORGANIZATIONAL KARMA

1 Ping Pong Point: Kootenay ICE

If you sell your franchise to a few Winnipeg businessmen and they say that they have no plans to relocate the franchise and it turns into the worst kept secret in the Canadian Hockey League, you don’t deserve to win the lottery.

2 Ping Pong Points Prince George Cougars

If you gave the Cougars front office truth serum, at some point they are likely to display some frustration in the fact they can’t do anything about their location. Completely understandable.

Something that they had a chance to control better was their post-season success. Not qualifying for the playoffs as often as other teams has resulted in frequent trips to the lottery table, especially in the past 10 years. They have drafted in the top-six four times with another pick going to the Raiders (Nolan Allan, third overall, 2018) via the Brendan Guhle trade of 2016.

The Cougars’ other first rounder, the one coming from the Broncos, has also appeared in lottery three times in the past 10 years, tied for the second-most in that stretch from this bunch.

As the team that has populated the lottery the most, they do not deserve the most points. At some point, the Cougars need to dislodge themselves from the lottery rut.

Matthew Savoie is widely considered the top prospect in the upcoming WHL Draft. Photo courtesy of Rob Wallator.

3 Ping Pong Points: Kelowna Rockets

As already mentioned, the Rockets have proven to be one of the most stable and successful franchises on the ice for the past two decades.

Behind the bench, it hasn’t sunshine and lollipops even with all their success.

For some reason, the Rockets are struggling to find a consistent bench boss following the departure of their longest tenured head coach, Ryan Huska.

Huska joined the Rockets staff as an assistant under another iconic coach, Marc Habscheid, in 2002. Habscheid turned the team over to Jeff Truitt in 2004. After the Rockets missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2007, Truitt resigned and Huska was promoted.

Huska manned his post for seven seasons, nearly doubling the time of the second-longest tenured head coach, Habscheid.

In that time, the Rockets won a playoff series five times, won the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2009 and reached the Memorial Cup final that same season.

Since then, it’s basically been a revolving door.

Dan Lambert, who was an assistant for three years under Huska, had the first crack at it. He won the club’s fourth WHL title and reached the Memorial Cup final courtesy of Leon Draisaitl, Josh Morrissey and a young Dillon Dube. He bolted after one season for the Buffalo Sabres, where he spent one year as an assistant at the NHL level and one season as the head coach of the AHL club. He is currently the head coach of the Spokane Chiefs.

The Rockets replaced him with Brad Ralph, who was the head coach for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. In his first year in the WHL, he took the Rockets to the conference finals, where they ran out of gas against the Thunderbirds.

Ralph wasn’t long for the job, as both sides parted ways later that spring and he returned to the ECHL.

The next man up was former NHL blue liner Jason Smith.

In his first two years behind the bench, Smith went 88-44-7-2, advanced to the playoffs twice, highlighted by an appearance in the conference final in 2017.

After starting this season 4-10-0-0, Smith was let go by the Rockets.

Hamilton made the change and hired another former NHL blue liner, Adam Foote, whose son was a main fixture in the lineup. He became the Rockets fifth head coach in the past six seasons. Foote was given a two-year deal.

There was some speculation to who might have replaced Smith. Long time assistant coaches Kris Mallette, Kim Gellert and Travis Crickard were rumoured to be in the running. Once Hamilton went with Foote, Crickard resigned to pursue other coaching options.

Do the Rockets have their man in Foote? Why has there been so much inconsistency behind the bench over the past few seasons? Can Foote be the coach to return this program to greatness?

Weird happenings in Kelowna over the past few years.

4 Ping Pong Points: Regina Pats

North Americans were treated to a lovely Memorial Cup last May and the Pats were great hosts. They spent a lot of future capital in an attempt to build a competitive roster around Sam Steel and Jake Leschyshyn, but it didn’t work out in the end.

After dealing picks for win-now players, the Pats didn’t make it out of the first round. They became the rare host team with several weeks off before the tournament got underway.

Losing to the Broncos in the first round last year places them slightly below them in this category.

As for the Blades, they have already paid the piper for the self-inflicted damage that occured after purging future assets in an attempt to build a contender for the 2013 Memorial Cup.

5 Ping Pong Points: Swift Current Broncos

One of the foundational ideologies of sport is to compete your hardest against an opponent for the right to claim victory. No participation trophies here.

The Broncos weren’t the first team to make all-in moves in the pursuit of a championship. What separates the Broncos from the other all-in teams of years past is that the Broncos actually won. That bravery and sheer size of cojones required to pull those moves should be applauded.

Bringing home a league title will always boost organizational karma. The Cougars should send Manny Viveiros a bouquet a bouquet of flowers and a thank you note for his efforts.

6 Ping Pong Points: Brandon Wheat Kings

Franchise stability is a rarity in junior hockey. It is also why the Wheaties have appeared in the lottery the fewest amount of times — once from their own doing and once because they owned the Blades’ first rounder in 2014 —  over the past 10 years from this grouping of six non-playoff teams. Even though they have an impossible shot at the No. 1 overall pick, they should be rewarded for their consistency.

MOST EXCITING TEAM IN 2–3 YEARS

This was by far the toughest category to sort out. Not because I would make a terrible scout and projecting lineups down the road is a difficult task — especially dealing with teenagers  in the world of junior hockey — but because these teams are already loaded with talent or will benefit from an abundance of high draft picks.

First things first: WHL fans from all over, regardless of who’s dog you had in this race, are the real losers of Hockey Canada’s stupefying decision to not grant Savoie his exceptional status. But who that decision really impacts are the ICE and the Cougars. If he was allowed to play next year, he would undoubtedly help speed up the rebuild process. Of course, he would certainly accelerate the Blazers and Wheat Kings, but at the moment, they don’t have a chance at landing him. And not that they need him, but Savoie would turn the already talented Blades into an instant juggernaut.

Rarely am I sincere. So enjoy this one while it lasts: I sincerely believe that the future is bright for each team with a top-six pick in this year’s draft.

1 Ping Pong Point: Kelowna Rockets

Do you really want to see a team go all-in for the Memorial Cup more than what the Blades and Broncos did in the past? Trade up in the draft and take Savoie. It’ll cost them a king’s ransom, but it’s the only sure fire way to get Savoie to the Memorial Cup next spring. He was the only player in this draft that had a chance to participate in the tournament next year, but then he got Mutombo’d by Hockey Canada.

 

Take a good, hard look at this Rockets roster today, because one year from now, it will likely look drastically different than the one that skates out for the opening ceremonies of the Memorial Cup.

How different? Well, one year away from hosting the Memorial Cup and the Rockets aren’t even in the playoffs. No WHL Memorial Cup host has never missed the playoffs the year before hosting the event. Until now.

(Somewhat fun fact: Vancouver hosted the Memorial Cup in 1977 but didn’t have a franchise of their own in 1976.)

So, changes are coming to bring this team from lottery contestant to CHL contender. That’s a tall order.

Electric 2003-born Wong is their biggest trade chip and would garner the most in return. But he is too good, too young and viewed as the centrepiece of the Rockets roster for years to come. Moving him for solid veterans would take some rather large brass ones.

Will productive 17-year-olds in Alex Swetlikoff, Kyle Crosbie and Mark Liwiski be on the team one year from now? Or will they have draft picks attached to them in trades next winter in an attempt to buff up the Rockets roster?

Defenceman Kaeden Korczak should still have a home inside Prospera Place. He was the 11th overall pick in 2016 and should hear his name called by a NHL club this spring. He could turn into the next great Rocket blue liner, joining the likes of Morrissey, Alex Edler, Scott Hannan, Duncan Keith, Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn.

The Rockets are still buying Ethan Ernst’s stock, even though the 16-year-old had one goal in 61 games this season.

This roster is by far the hardest to predict a few years down the road. Who do they find valuable and who have they determined to be expendable?

Can Kelowna avoid the Memorial Cup hangover in the following years? We will all have to wait and see.

2.5 Ping Pong Points: Prince George Cougars

2.5 Ping Pong Points: Swift Current Broncos

Is it a strong draft or does it fall off the table after Savoie?

If they get the No. 1 pick and Savoie commits, lock it in that they will be a better team for the 2020-21 season.

If they take him and he never shows up, maybe they trade him for assets down the line.

That isn’t the only first round pick that the Cougars need to hit on. In order to really vault this organization into contention in two or three years time, they need to hit on both these picks. When is the next time they are going to own two of the top five picks ever again?

And what they do with the second pick is another fascinating question.

The Cougars feel like they are set for the next six years between the pipes.

Sure, Gauthier didn’t have a magical 17-year-old season this year. Why? Because he is 17. Gauthier is athletic and talented enough to go in the draft this year. He will be the backbone of their defensive system for years to come.

If and when Gauthier takes his talents to the next level, the Cougars feel like they have his predecessor waiting in the wings in Tyler Brennan. Brennan, like Gauthier, was a first-round pick last spring.

One of the blue liners with the highest probability of being around in a few years is Rhett Rhinehart, who despite his unsightly plus-minus (minus-19), destroyed his career highs offensively with four goals and 24 points in 68 games.

Prospect wise, Tyson Phare (18th overall, 2017) has looked good as the rare versatile player that can be thrown out on offence or defence and hold his own.

The Cougars second first-round pick from last spring, Craig Armstrong, debuted this season and has impressed with his leadership already. He’s a max-effort guy that already holds his teammates accountable. He was also nearly a point-per-game player this season with the Edge School of the CSSHL.

Aside from those four, there hasn’t been much contribution at the WHL level from the recent draft classes.

Aidan Hreschuk could provide some punch to their lineup in the future. The California product scored 19 goals and 34 points in 31 games this season with the L.A. Kings U16 club. The only trick would be finding a way to lure him from Boston College in 2021-22.

Mitch Kohner — who they nabbed in the 10th round in 2017 — has appeared in 49 games. He is a strong skater that brings a physical element to their lineup. He could be one to keep an eye on.

The Cougars simply haven’t developed some of their draft picks as well as other teams have to this point. Hitting their first two picks this spring would go a long way in helping people forget about a recent spotty draft history.

3 Ping Pong Points: Brandon Wheat Kings

This is not an error. Even though they have no shot at Savoie (barring any shocking transactions) the Wheat Kings have surpassed the Cougars.

What they lack in quality of high picks, they more than make up for in quantity. Thanks to previous trades, the Wheat Kings will draft four times in the top 23.

After winning a playoff round last season without the services of Kale Clague and Tanner Kaspick, the Wheat Kings have slightly under achieved this season.

The offence wasn’t as potent as it was last year (nearly 50 fewer goals for than last season) and both special team units have faded a tad. Also hurting the Wheaties was homegrown talent Ty Lewis sticking with the Colorado Avalanche AHL unit as a 20-year-old and seeing their 2018 CHL Import pick Erik Brännström turn into a first rounder of the Vegas Golden Knights right before their eyes and completely bypass his time in the WHL.

The Wheat Kings struggled with one of the youngest blue lines this season. They often started upwards of four rookies on the back end. 2002-born rearguards Vincent Iorio and Jack Zayat have enjoyed solid freshman seasons and will anchor the lineup as 18-year-olds in two years time.

Joining them up front will be the eighth-overall pick in 2017, Ridly Greig. The Lethbridge product has supplied 14 goals in 63 games this season. The Wheat Kings are also excited about their third-round pick from 2017, Nolan Ritchie. Ritchie was left down in midget AAA this year for an extra year of seasoning. It worked, as he was recently named MVP of the Manitoba Midget AAA Hockey League after leading the league in assists (55) and total points (94) in 47 games. For a 5-foot-7 kid, he still managed to pump in 39 goals as well.

Conor is the latest Geekie brother that could hear his name get called in the WHL Draft. Photo courtesy of Sharla George Photography.

Ben McCartney was one player that took a huge jump forward from two goals in 51 games last year to 21 goals in 67 games this season. The 2021-22 season would be his overage season.

Behind McCartney, Ritchie and Greig, a lot of forwards that have two or three years in the league remaining didn’t improve much from their rookie runs.

Ty Thorpe, Jonny Hooker and Marcus Sekundiak haven’t quite lived up to expectations this year.

A boost in the draft and an opportunity to add another skilled forward to a squad that feels they are set from the backend outwards, could be very beneficial.

The Wheat Kings have a rock solid draft history. Should they hit on their top four picks this year, it won’t take long for them to go back to being a pillar of stability in the WHL.

5.45 Ping Pong Points: Kootenay ICE

5.55 Ping Pong Points: Regina Pats

It took until the final category to see our closest decision. Seen as ties are for nerds, soccer players, MLB spring training games, poor NFL coaching decisions and the old NHL/WHL guard, they do not have a spot in this column.

By the slimmest of Ping Pong Point margins, the Blades would be the most exciting team moving forward and have the best chance from this group of six at representing the WHL at the 2021 Memorial Cup.

A clearcut determining factor would have been if one of these two cities was scheduled to host the Memorial Cup a few years from now. Presumably, the player they take with their first pick would be entering his prime and slide into a roster altered with the intentions of winning a Memorial Cup on home ice.

Before I loosely breakdown what each roster might look like a few years from now, let’s acknowledge that Krebs and Dach cancel each other out.

Both are projected to go in the first round, whether or not either player has a home in the NHL in two year’s time could very well come down to the situation they get drafted into. Both players are incredibly talented and very deserving to be high NHL draft picks, but each of their games as currently constituted presents holes at the next level.

It’s a good barber shop conversation on which one you’d rather have. Both are locks to be studs and at the peaks of their powers if they remain in the WHL until their overage season.

Krebs is electric, entertaining and has the ability to make more plays. With Dach’s 6-foot-4 frame, the possibility of him turning into an immovable object by 19 is more likely. He plays a lot on the perimeter now, but still has the hands to finish in front.

Krebs is incredibly patient with the puck while still being one of the more aggressive players on the ice. He hasn’t quite developed physically the same way Dach has and his ceiling might be more of a mystery given the poor team that he’s been chained to for the past two years.

(Side note: are we sure that Krebs won’t ask for a trade at some point because he might not enjoying moving two provinces away from his home, playing in front of 12 fans each night and because he might actually want to experience the WHL playoffs before he leaves for the AHL/NHL???)

There’s more to the ICE than just Krebs. They have acquired the right kinds of talent in the right areas that makes it hard to overlook them at this point.

Dipping into the lottery well more than any other team in the past five years has certainly stocked their cupboards with a lot of promising prospects.

Former No. 2 overall bantam pick in 2017 McClennon could have grown into an NHL pick by then. He was bitten by injury bug at times this year but still compiled 14 goals and 29 points in 46 games, along with eight goals and 11 points in five games while at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge.

On the back end, Lambos is ready for life in the WHL. He should turn into a good-to-great player given the size and ability to move on the ice. Taken behind Lambos is blue liner Karter Prosofsky. He’s right handed, physical and can move the puck. The ICE are excited about these two prospects moving forward.

Deeper on the defenceman depth chart is the Finnish product Valtteri Kakkonen, who was taken 11th overall pick from the most recent CHL Import Draft. The also ICE have faith that the 6-foot-4 d-man from Siksika Nation, Anson McMaster (2002-born) can grow into his WHL legs one day.

The issue holding the ICE back in this category is that many of those listed players logged significant time with the team this season and it didn’t take them anywhere.

If you had the choice, wouldn’t you want the team that has young players already making an impact?

The one thing the Blades have that the ICE don’t is a NHL prospect between the pipes. Maier, who has appeared on NHL Central Scouting lists this past season and landed a B grade for the upcoming draft. If he does get picked or inks a deal at some point, it is highly unlikely that he makes the jump to the pro ranks by his 19-year-old season and is more likely to remain in the WHL as an overager, as we have seen recently with Nick Schneider and Dylan Ferguson.

Having a solid goaltender in junior hockey automatically turns you into a contender.

Surrounding those two franchise cornerstones of Dach and Maier are some very nice players.

Kyle Crnkvic could turn into the next Dante Hannoun. Chase Wouters, who has improved his offensive production each year, could be a stellar overager by then. Rearguard De La Gorgendiere playing nearly a full season this year as a 16-year-old will surely help him out down the road.

In the farm system, the Blades have a few players they are probably hoping jump into bigger roles next season.

On the blue line, Alex Ozar (2002), Charlie Wright (2003) and Marek Schneider (2003) each bring something different to the table and have begun to develop after signing a contract in the WHL.

Wright was just named the CSSHL E15 Top Defenceman, Ozar captained the St. Albert Mintos in AAA this year and will be with the Blades for their playoff run to add depth to their roster and Schneider is the big, tough and shoots right-handed.

Those three combined with young forwards in Colton Dach, Sammy May and Jayden Watson have the Blades thinking of big things down the road.

Players will appear off the radar and will impact lineups. That goes without saying. At this juncture in time, it’s hard to argue against the Blades. NHL GMs could step in at any point and flip the script on these teams, but for the time being, the Blades appear to be positioned best moving forward.

RESULTS

(This is not the new draft order.)

After running all the numbers, three times, the results are in …….

10.70 Ping Pong Points: Kelowna Rockets

Without the exceptional player status granted to Savoie, there is no one in this draft that can help the Rockets out 365 days from now (unless they package this pick for a player or somehow swindle Savoie). The Rockets probably have most of their energy focused on the near future and not so much what these prospects will turn into three years from now. Best of luck at the Memorial Cup.

11.45 Ping Pong Points: Kootenay ICE

Poor one out for the Cranbrook die-hards that will miss watching this team next winter.

Not winning the lottery isn’t the worst thing in the world for the ICE. They might feel like they’re slumming it compared to where they’ve drafted lately. In case they forgot, there are plenty of good players available after the top two picks; I know this may feel like a foreign concept for the ICE organization. Hopefully they find the missing piece in this draft, end their playoff drought and treat the fine people of Winnipeg to some exciting games down the road.

16.75 Ping Pong Points: Prince George Cougars

17.25 Ping Pong Points: Swift Current Broncos

This one hurts. No question. Despite having two cracks at the top pick, the ferocious C logo couldn’t deliver. Depending which side of the fence you stand on in regard to Savoie’s decision, this is either a blessing in disguise or another stab in the back.

20.30 Ping Pong Points: Brandon Wheat Kings

Is there enough talent in the top of the draft to send the Wheaties a gift with the sixth pick? There is no doubt in my mind that Brännström would have drastically altered the course of the Wheat Kings’ season. He probably would have been in the MVP discussion. Blame that on having too good of a scouting department.

22.55 Ping Pong Points: Regina Pats

Well, it’s settled then. The Regina Pats’ ball will come out first and the Blades will draft first overall for the first time in franchise history (they’ve drafted second overall four previous times).

With all the talk going on lately about Savoie’s intentions, the Blades can either put forth their best sales pitch or flip the pick to a team Savoie would be open to playing for in exchange for a wad of assets.

Minus the five years of suffering, the Blades followed the same blueprint as the Brandon Wheat Kings from earlier in the decade. They now can add to an already stacked core and aim to accomplish something nearly impossible these days: build a dynasty.

Congrats to all the teams involved on completing another season in the WHL. That is an accomplishment in itself. Good luck in the (real) lottery and in the draft. I hope to see these teams benefit from the lottery process and turn back into contenders as soon as possible.

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