Produced by the Western Hockey League in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring the 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
For 28 WHL players, their dreams came true at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver, B.C. this past weekend.
With seven of those players selected in the first round and 16 of those coming in the first three rounds, WHL talent was on display early and often throughout the two-day event.
Now, they’re one step closing to realizing their next dream: making it to the NHL.
The first WHL player off the board in Vancouver was Saskatoon Blades forward Kirby Dach. The 6-foot-4, 197-pound forward was chosen third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks. Dach described the moment of being the top player from all of Canada selected as ‘surreal’.
“There’s such a great talent of WHL and Canadian players here,” Dach said. “To be the first one selected, it’s an honour to represent my country that way.”
Dach didn’t have to wait long to have company from the WHL either as defenceman Bowen Byram was selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche. The top defenceman selected in the draft and the start of a WHL-heavy draft for the Avalanche, Byram was excited to join the organization.
“I had a good feeling about them,” Byram said of the organization. “It’s a pretty incredible place to place; they’ve got a really good team right now. I’m super excited.”
The 6-foot-0, 193-pound defenceman led the CHL in goals by a defenceman with 26 and made WHL history twice throughout the season. His six overtime goals set a new WHL record while his 26 points (8G-18A) in the 2019 WHL Playoffs made him the first defenceman to ever lead the league in scoring for a single post-season.
Three selections later, another WHL player came off board. The Buffalo Sabres looked to the Lethbridge Hurricanes and selected forward Dylan Cozens with the seventh-overall pick. The first-ever first-round NHL Draft pick from the Yukon, Cozens was hopeful about what his moment would mean for those back home pursuing the game themselves.
“There’s so many people that are watching tonight,” Cozens said. “I’m so happy to be representing the Yukon. I’m so happy to be from there.”
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Cozens posted a spectacular 84 points (34G-50A) with the Hurricanes in the 2018-19 WHL Regular Season, placing him in a tie for 10th in league scoring.
First-round action continued with four other WHL players hearing their named called. Next on the list was Winnipeg ICE captain Peyton Krebs, selected 17th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights. After that, a pair of Kelowna Rockets were selected as defenceman Lassi Thomson went at 19th overall to the Ottawa Senators followed by forward Nolan Foote to the Tampa Bay Lightning at 27th overall. Moose Jaw Warriors forward Adam Beckman rounded out the WHL’s strong showing in the first round after being selected 29th overall by the Anaheim Ducks.
“Now I’m here so it’s pretty cool,” Krebs said. “It’s my next step to make the Golden Knights. Vegas was one of those meetings you went out and felt really good about. They felt like family from the get-go.”
Krebs led the ICE in scoring during the 2018-19 WHL Regular Season with 68 points (19G-49A) in 64 games. The top selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Krebs attended the draft with his family and significant others, including his two brothers, Calgary Hitmen defenceman Dakota Krebs and Medicine Hat Tigers defensive prospect Dru Krebs.
The first WHL player to be selected by a Canadian NHL team, Thomson is now a member of the Senators’ organization. The WHL’s Western Conference Rookie of the Year led all defencemen in scoring throughout the regular season with 41 points (17G-24A). In his post-selection interview, Thomson was looking forward to bringing his skills to the nation’s capital.
“It’s big hockey town,” Thomson said. “There’s a lot of fans. Everybody is watching hockey games.”
Family connections ran deep at pick 27 as Foote went to the Lightning. In addition to being the son of long-time NHL defenceman Adam Foote, Nolan was able to join his older brother Cal in Tampa Bay’s organization. At the 2017 NHL Draft, Cal was selected 14th overall by the Lightning and recently completed his first season in the American Hockey League with the Syracuse Crunch.
“We’ve mentioned it, playing junior together,” Nolan said of the two ending up with the same NHL team. “We thought it’d be cool, but now it’s real and I can’t wait to celebrate with him.”
Foote’s season in Kelowna saw him led the team with 36 goals while finishing in a tie for second in team scoring. Foote also rose from NHL Central Scouting’s Final Ranking in April to June’s draft. Ranked 37th among North American skaters in April, Foote found himself a part of the elite talent taken in the first round.
That elite grouping of talent included the WHL’s Rookie of the Year in Tracey. After a superb 81-point (36G-45A) campaign in 2018-19, he was rewarded by the Ducks’ organization with one of their first-round selections.
“At the beginning of the year we didn’t really think we’d be here,” Tracey said. “I’ve come a long way, but it doesn’t come without the coaches in Moose Jaw.”
The second day of the draft saw 21 WHL players taken, including five in the second round.
Mads Søgaard of the Tigers led the field of WHL talent Saturday as the Senators took the Danish goaltender 37th overall. Following behind were the likes of Rockets defenceman Kaedan Korczak at 41st overall to the Golden Knights, Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman Matthew Robertson to the New York Rangers at 49th overall, Rockets forward Dillon Hamaliuk to the San Jose Sharks at 55th overall, and Prince Albert Raiders forward Brett Leason to the Washington Capitals at 56th overall.
“I think I’m really strong mentally, and that helps me to be good in both situations, where if it’s 40 shots or 10 shots I’m still pretty confident,” Søgaard said of his selection.
Getting a chance to connect with another WHL player-turned Golden Knight in Krebs, Korczak was excited for both of their prospects.
‘It was a pretty cool thing when they called my name,” Korczak said of the Golden Knights trading up to get the Yorkton, Sask. product.
From the Eastern Conference in the WHL to the Eastern Conference in the NHL, Robertson is now headed for the Big Apple. Though the process of waiting to hear his name called made him ‘nervous’, Robertson was ready to get started with the Rangers.
“It’s something you dream of as a little kid, watching the draft,” Robertson said.
Closing out the second round for WHL players, Leason realized his NHL dream at pick 56.
“To get picked by the Capitals, it means a lot,” Leason said. “It was motivating for me to continue pushing. Hockey is the sport I love and I want to continue playing that.”
Overall, the Rockets had four players selected while the Thunderbirds finished with three players selected. Five other WHL teams had a pair of players selected while 11 more had a single player taken.
From the NHL’s perspective, the Avalanche, Florida Panthers, and Senators led the way. In addition to selecting Byram fourth overall, the Avalanche chose three other WHL players in their draft, concluding by adding Byram’s teammate in Trent Miner with the 202nd overall pick.
The Panthers made three selections from the WHL, with all coming from the U.S. Division. Their run began by selecting Winterhawks defenceman John Ludvig 69th overall and followed with Thunderbird forwards Henrik Rybinski and Matthew Wedman later on.
After picking up Thomson and Søgaard, the Senators nabbed Hitmen captain Mark Kastelic with pick 125 to give them three WHL players in their draft class.
Among teams selecting a single WHL player, the Minnesota Wild looked back to the U.S. Division for a second consecutive year. They took Spokane Chiefs rookie forward Adam Beckman 75th overall. Beckman had an impressive 62 points (32G-30A) in the regular season to rank second among rookie skaters.
For now, those players will attend NHL development camps in the coming weeks while others will also fulfill duties with Hockey Canada and their National Junior Team’s Summer Showcase at the end of month. Like their dream of one day playing the WHL, their sights are set on improving and making the permanent jump to the NHL.
Through thousands of hours of practice and a consistent hunger to get better at the sport they love, these players are blossoming at the right time.
2019 NHL Draft – WHL Players
Overall – Player (Pos.) – NHL Team; WHL Team; Hometown
Round One (7)
#3 – Kirby Dach (F) – Chicago Blackhawks; Saskatoon Blades; Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
#4 – Bowen Byram (D) – Colorado Avalanche; Vancouver Giants; Cranbrook, B.C.
#7 – Dylan Cozens (F) – Buffalo Sabres; Lethbridge Hurricanes; Whitehorse, Yukon
#17 – Peyton Krebs (F) – Vegas Golden Knights; Winnipeg ICE; Okotoks, Alta.
#19 – Lassi Thomson (D) – Ottawa Senators; Kelowna Rockets; Tampere, Finland
#27 – Nolan Foote (F) – Tampa Bay Lightning; Kelowna Rockets; Kelowna, B.C.
#29 – Brayden Tracey (F) – Anaheim Ducks; Moose Jaw Warriors; Calgary, Alta.
Round Two (5)
#37 – Mads Søgaard (G) – Ottawa Senators; Medicine Hat Tigers; Aalborg, Denmark
#41 – Kaedan Korczak (D) – Vegas Golden Knights; Kelowna Rockets; Yorkton, Sask.
#49 – Matthew Robertson (D) – New York Rangers; Edmonton Oil Kings; Sherwood Park, Alta.
#55 – Dillon Hamaliuk (F) – San Jose Sharks; Kelowna Rockets; Leduc, Alta.
#56 – Brett Leason (F) – Washington Capitals; Prince Albert Raiders; Calgary, Alta.
Round Three (4)
#69 – John Ludvig (D) – Florida Panthers; Portland Winterhawks; Kamloops, B.C.
#75 – Adam Beckman (F) – Minnesota Wild; Spokane Chiefs; Saskatoon, Sask.
#77 – Gianni Fairbrother (D) – Montreal Canadiens; Everett Silvertips; North Vancouver, B.C.
#91 – Aliaksei Protas (F) – Washington Capitals; Prince Albert Raiders; Vitebsk, Belarus
Round Five (5)
#125 – Mark Kastelic (F) – Ottawa Senators; Calgary Hitmen; Phoenix, Ariz.
#133 – Carson Focht (F) – Vancouver Canucks; Calgary Hitmen; Regina, Sask.
#136 – Henrik Rybinski (F) – Florida Panthers; Seattle Thunderbirds; Vancouver, B.C.
#140 – Sasha Mutala (F) – Colorado Avalanche; Tri-City Americans; Vancouver, B.C.
#147 – Reece Newkirk (F) – New York Islanders; Portland Winterhawks; Moose Jaw, Sask.
Round Six (3)
#169 – Roddy Ross (G) – Philadelphia Flyers; Seattle Thunderbirds; Meadow Lake, Sask.
#171 – Luka Burzan (F) – Colorado Avalanche; Brandon Wheat Kings; Surrey, B.C.
#182 – Quinn Schmiemann (D) – Tampa Bay Lightning; Kamloops Blazers; Wilcox, Sask.
Round Seven (4)
#194 – Cole Moberg (D) – Chicago Blackhawks; Prince George Cougars; North Vancouver, B.C.
#199 – Matthew Wedman (F) – Florida Panthers; Seattle Thunderbirds; Edmonton, Alta.
#202 – Trent Miner (G) – Colorado Avalanche; Vancouver Giants; Brandon, Man.
#214 – Dustin Wolf (G) – Calgary Flames; Everett Silvertips; Tustin, Calif.