On Wednesday the WHL conducted its inaugural US Prospects Draft where each team had two selections.
The order was a lottery-style draw with the draft occurring in a snake format — meaning Red Deer picked 1st and 44th, Tri-City 2nd and 43rd, and so on.
Portland’s picks fell near the middle with the 16th and 29th overall, something vice president, general manager, and head coach Mike Johnston was happy with. “From our perspective, it gives us a first and second-round pick. We were slotted nicely because of the reverse order. While we didn’t have an early pick, we got another pick on the rebound coming back. I think it is very positive for the league and very positive for Portland.”
Mike Coflin — Portland’s Assistant to the general manager/director of scouting and player development — mentioned the uniqueness of this draft. “It was really interesting in the lead-up and trying to figure out how it was going to go. It was a new experience for all of us, and we tried to prepare as best as we could for every possible outcome.”
Naturally, Johnston was pleased with the selections. “We had our list like everyone has their list. Sometimes you hear this after drafts, especially the NHL Draft, that ‘we like our picks, we loved our picks.’ Well, we were thrilled to get our top forward and our top defenseman with those picks. I’m sure if you were to interview all 22 teams they are going to say they loved their picks. Now it is a recruiting process for everybody. I do like our players and the ones we got. They are both Los Angeles kids and both know each other. I just think it is two positive impact players if we can get them into our jersey over time.”
The 16th overall selection was Alex Weiermair, a 5-foot-11, 168-pound forward who played with the Toronto Titans Bantam AAA team this season.
“With our first pick we had seen and knew a little bit about him and his family in Alex Weiermair,” Coflin said. “He is a highly intelligent player who is also very creative. (Weiermair) likes to have the puck, likes to make things happen, drives play, sees the ice exceptionally well, just as comfortable finding the open player as he is scoring himself.”
Coflin mentioned how Weiermair “can play with the best players in his age group in North America in the last couple of years. Obviously, if we get a chance to add someone like that it is fantastic. We had to wait at 16 to see if he would be available. When he was, we were excited and believe the family is excited as well.”
With their second selection, Portland drafted Jason Zaccari, a left-shot 5-foot-9, 145-pound defenseman from the Anaheim Jr. Ducks organization.
Coflin explained Zaccari’s game, “He is a puck-rushing defenseman who has the ability to go end-to-end. Again, another guy who is very comfortable with his head up and the puck on his stick and sees the ice.”
One area to keep an eye on for Zaccari in the future is the power play. “He also can operate a power play and skates very well,” Coflin added. “He had an injury that took him out of action for almost two months, a little bit of a setback in the middle of his season, but we think he is potentially a number one power-play type guy in time. We will try to develop him into that type of player, but we think that he has that level of potential.”
Overall, Johnston feels both players fit the Winterhawks brand of hockey, “They manage the puck, they play with skill, play with vision, play with hockey sense. Again, I never worry about how big guys are right now, they are only 14- or 15-years-old. They are our type of players. Every team in our league has a style they want to play and identify players that they like in those age groups. We’ve always sided with a skilled, high vision, high IQ, and the ability to play the game with pace and tempo.”
If history repeats itself, and Portland is able to sign Weiermair and Zaccari, the Winterhawks will be set up for sustained success.
Impact of the U.S. Prospects Draft on Portland
One advantage the Winterhawks seem to have done better over the years than most teams is to identify US-born talent later in the Bantam Draft or list process. Now, with this US Prospects Draft, 44 players have their rights assigned to a WHL team.
“I’m not sure as a league how it is going to pan out over time, I guess we will have to see. This was a league initiative to do this,” Johnston said. “Time will tell though how many of these players come to the league. How does it help our recruiting for the future, but more and more families are learning about the league. I think that is a positive because in the regular draft there was in the 20s how many US kids are normally selected. I think the more that parents and players learn what really happens in our league rather than listening to rumors out there about the league, I think they are going to be fairly impressed. They will be impressed by the teams, the coaching, the development, the focus on academics, I just think that is the best part of this draft.”
While Coflin sees pros and cons to the draft, today was a bright spot for him and the organization. “We were able to really celebrate from Portland’s point of view taking two top players. They know we believe they can be a big part of our future. It is a day separate from the regular draft where they might fall into all the 13 rounds of players selected at that point. By separating it, I think that was the goal. We are looking at is as an opportunity and a chance in this case to continue the conversation we’ve had with these families and see if there is a fit here in Portland.”
Portland was in the middle portion of the draft and didn’t have the opportunity at one of the high selections based upon how the draft was set up. “There are a number of teams in the league that are investing a lot of time trying to get those elite players, so seeing a draft that is purely on a lottery-style rollout, sometimes it doesn’t seem all that fair,” Coflin expressed. “But, are thinking if this is a five, ten-year plan, that those kinds of things that were unique about this year from our perspective would balance themselves out.”
While there may be negative impacts to Portland, and other U.S. Division teams who do a better job at landing American players, Coflin pointed out needing to sometimes take a step back.
“On the whole, I think sometimes you have to think about what is best for the league. If this draft is best for the league to have a chance to compete for the best U.S. talent, I think any challenges that it gives one team or another, you have to look beyond your own shadows sometimes. You have to recognize it will be a great asset for the league and hopefully, more of our teams have a chance to attract these types of players.”