On Wednesday, the WHL held its annual Bantam Draft. A total of 233 players from across western Canada and the United States were chosen.
The Portland Winterhawks, led by vice president, general manager, and head coach Mike Johnston, made 11 selections.
Given the current environment, the draft was held online this year rather than in a large room in Red Deer, Alberta.
“The overall feel of the draft today was an interesting way to do it online, much like the way the NFL Draft will be done tomorrow,” Johnston commented about the different format. “We had all our scouts on a zoom call, Kyle (Gustafson) and myself in the office spread out, and were listening to our scouts online. It was a different way to do it, but I liked it. It will be interesting to see how the other teams felt.”
With the draft being conducted virtually, Johnston felt connecting with his staff during the draft was easier. “Often times in a room at the tables, our staff is reluctant to talk because other people might hear you, you might give away what you might be doing, etc. So, this year, everybody talked freely. A great conversation occurred with our scouts over 7-8 hours.”
The Winterhawks Coaches and Scouts are ready for the #WHLBantamDraft this morning!
Thankful for technology during social distancing 🙌 pic.twitter.com/Qtl8FN7ZMW
— Portland Winterhawks (@pdxwinterhawks) April 22, 2020
However, the other side of the coin meant connecting with other teams was harder. “Access to the other general managers and trading picks and trading players or whatever you may want to do on draft day was a little more challenging,” Johnston explained. “You didn’t see much of that today because logistically phoning a guy up, getting a trade for him done, switch the picks, it wasn’t as easy as just walking over to the table beside you and saying, ‘Hey, want to flip picks?”’
The WHL did allow the teams additional time to make selections given the adjustments needed. Per Johnston, each team had five minutes to make its selection for every round if needed. Teams were also granted an additional timeout. Portland’s general manager did not think the draft went on too long though as a result. “There wasn’t a great deal of stalling at the draft. When you look at it in the end, it might have been half an hour longer this way than live. It isn’t like one way is way better than the other way in regards to speed of the draft.”
Eleven names called
Portland made 10 selections on Wednesday adding seven Canadians and three Americans to its pipeline.
Johnston was naturally pleased with the outcome of the draft. “I think at the end of every draft the teams are really excited because their scouts have done a lot of work throughout the year. As a management group, Kyle and I, we have heard about these players, but we haven’t seen many of them, a few we have though. We positioned our list, and go off our list, stick to our list, and I was really excited.”
Part of what made Johnston so excited was “our first four picks were in our top 38 players. That is an indication those were players we wanted and our scouts were excited about. I just liked the way the mix fell for us — some forwards, some defensemen, some different types of defensemen, and two goaltenders, a couple of US players in the draft too.”
Jayden Perron was the first to hear/see his name called by Portland. The Winterhawks selected the 5-foot-7 forward with the 23rd overall selection.
The 23rd pick originally belonged to Swift Current, but Saskatoon held the rights. At the 2019 trade deadline, Johnston made another big splash in addition to trading for Joel Hofer. He brought in Josh Paterson from Saskatoon for Ryan Hughes. The deal also included this draft choice along with a fourth-round pick in 2021.
The Hofer acquisition cost was six picks to Swift Current, so the cupboard was a little light until Johnston regained some much-needed draft capital.
Portland’s own first-round selection went to Prince George in the Dennis Cholowski trade. The Cougars therefore selected 22nd overall, only one spot higher than where the Winterhawks picked.
Johnston talked about how important this selection was to the organization. “It was huge because we wouldn’t have picked until the fourth round unless we made another trade. People will look and see that we traded a first-round pick and made a move to get a second-round pick. However, it turned out to be that we only moved one spot. It sounds like a lot originally — ‘Oh, they traded another first and got a second later.’ However, it was only one spot in the draft.”
Perron was going to be the pick for Portland assuming he was available. “I always say, if you are back in the draft, you can still get a player you have rated in the top 10. If we would have been in the top 10, we still would have picked the same player. It wouldn’t have been any different for us if we were 10th or 23rd. That happened with (Cody) Glass, (Seth) Jarvis, and several players in the past that were sitting there and we said, ‘Hey, that is the player we would have picked if we had been up higher.’”
For fans wondering what Perron might offer when they can see him in person, Johnston offered, “He is a very, very good hockey player from Winnipeg. Perron is a guy who we like the way he plays the game — our style of player. He was a guy we were really, really excited to get at our pick.”
The Winterhawks have quite the history of players from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Johnston commented on the connections, “It seems like we talk about Winnipeg a lot with having guys like Glass, (Brendan) Leipsic, Jarvis, (Nick) Cicek, Hofer, (Dante) Giannuzzi, etc. It just so happened this way too. It is more about the player than the location though.”
Rhett Ravndahl (fourth round), Carter Sotheran (fifth round), and Dante Nunes (seventh round) were the three defensemen selected by the Winterhawks. Ravndahl and Sotheran help fill a void of right-shot defensemen in the pipeline. Johnston feels “all three of those guys give us a little different look. They are guys we project who can definitely play for us. Sotheran is a good skater, Ravndahl is a real thinking guy who is smart both ways, and Nunes is a little bit of a blend — not overly big but really smart and poised.”
The next step for the Winterhawks is connecting with the parents and players selected. “We are going to have a Zoom call with each of them over the next week to introduce them to our organization,” Johnston mentioned. “Usually I would travel right now and visit the family of each of these players – that would be my normal schedule. I can’t do that now, so we will just do it by Zoom like everyone else.”
A quick summary of the eleven selections made on Wednesday:
- 2nd Round – 23rd overall – Jayden Perron – Forward
- 4th – 83 – Rhett Ravndahl – Defense
- 5th – 97 – Carter Sotheran – Defense
- 5th -110 – Tanner Bruender – Forward
- 7th – 141 – Donavan Bodnar – Goalie
- 7th – 154 – Dante Nunes – Defense
- 8th – 176 – Josh Zakreski – Forward
- 9th – 198 – Aiden Sotas – Forward
- 10th – 220 – Nicholas Johnson – Forward
- 11th – 242 – Carsen Musser – Goalie
- 12th – 264 – Matt VanderVort – Forward
Tanner Bruender was selected in the fifth round, 110th overall, and has connections to Portland already. The 5-foot-9, 150-pounds forward became just the second player (Paul Gaustad) from Portland to be selected by the Winterhawks in the Bantam Draft.
Johnston shared more of the story. “Tanner grew up in Portland, played in Portland at the Skating Center, and then went to Minnesota for the last two years. That is rare that we get to pick a Portland player in the draft, but it is really exciting.”
Sometimes in sports, hometown picks can be the sentimental choice. Bruender however was not. “Actually, in the US Prospects Draft, he would have been our next pick if our two guys weren’t on the board,” Johnston commented. “That is how highly we thought of him, so we are very excited about having him in our organization.”
Prospect Carter Streek Traded
A day before the draft, Portland traded unsigned prospect Carter Streek to Saskatoon in exchange for a fifth-round pick in Wednesday’s draft (Carter Sotheran).
Johnston explained the rationale behind the deal. “We really liked him as a player. We just have so many forwards. I didn’t think he could fit into our lineup in the next year or so given the depth of our forward group. I wanted another pick in the draft and it allowed us to pick two defensemen back-to-back which was important for us.”
While some fans may be disappointed Streek never made the lineup in Portland, Johnston shared more perspective about looking out for the players he signs. “He would have signed here, but we just don’t sign players unless we have a spot for them and I can say, ‘Here is where you are going to play.’ I couldn’t do it for him, but he is a good enough player. We picked him in the fourth round last year and traded for a fifth round this year.”
Many across the city, state, and country have had their jobs impacted by the current pandemic. The Portland Winterhawks organization is no different. While Johnston would not go into specific details, he did confirm the organization is still on furlough and will be for a little longer.
Originally scheduled for the month of April, sources indicate the date is now into the second half of May.
Johnston said, “They are making decisions as we speak. We will find out in the next little while if the whole organization will still be furloughed or if we will have bits and pieces come back on over the next little while. Right now, with the offices being closed, it is hard to have people coming back to work if there is no place to work.”
As a result, Johnston confirmed, “The Import Draft is TBD, the start of the season is TBD, the training camp dates are TBD. There is another Governors call tomorrow, and then another one next week to just continue to make decisions as they see things unfolding.”
These are unprecedented times. In the meantime, we can all look forward to the bright future ahead of the Portland Winterhawks with the addition of 11 new prospects.
Stay safe, and hope to see you around the rink soon!