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 a key member of the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
When a new challenge arises, Josh Williams embraces it.
From trying to figure out top-tier defences in the WHL on a nightly basis to missing a big chunk of his rookie season due to injury, Williams has cleared each hurdle with confidence, ready for the next challenge ahead.
However, when it comes to the 2019 NHL Draft, Williams has the opportunity to return to his roots and shine in a local setting.
The Langley, B.C. product has been making a name for himself ever since he was selected fifth overall by the Medicine Hat Tigers at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. Now, he’s high on the radar of NHL Central Scouting as well.
“A lot of people say they try and not look at it, but I think it’s always going to be there,” said Williams. “It’s always in the back of your mind.
“You try your best not to think about it and just focus on the game at hand, but it’s a surreal feeling being ranked wherever you are. It’s pretty cool.”
Williams quickly built on momentum for his draft stock, scoring the first goal of his WHL career in his fourth game during the 2016-17 WHL Regular Season. Eyeing a big rookie season, Williams’ plans were partially derailed as a collarbone injury sidelined him for 25 games from the start of November to early January.
“Just trying to recover from that and back to where I was was a big challenge,” said Williams. “They’re long days. You want to be out there with your team, trying to help them win, but you’re up in the press box and having some hard practices trying to get back to the fitness level and the strength that you were at before.”
Williams got back to better and aided the Tigers down the stretch with 15 points (7G-8A) in his final 28 games last season, helping them clinch another Central Division title. He’d also add two goals in six playoff games.
“You can’t take days off and everybody else is trying to improve so I think you’ve got to keep trying to improve as fast as them or better,” he added.
At the 2019 WHL Trade Deadline, Williams dealt with another hurdle-turned-opportunity as he was traded to the division-leading Oil Kings. The forward is now thriving on a bigger stage and is making a good impression early on.
“With Josh’s skill level, he brings an offensive game to us,” said Oil Kings’ head coach Brad Lauer. “He’s a guy that doesn’t need a lot of time to get open. His biggest thing is finding that area on the ice in the offensive zone. He’s got a shot that can beat goalies from almost anywhere. That’s one area where obviously on the power play he’s our trigger guy.
“He’s playing a much better game defensively. He’s understanding our systems more as we go through.”
As a former divisional rival to his new teammates, Williams is on familiar terms with defenceman Matthew Robertson, a fellow member of Canada’s Gold-Medal squad at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup last August. The duo are the highest-ranked of five Oil Kings highlighted on NHL Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings.
Lauer went through the NHL Draft process himself as a member of the Regina Pats in 1985, part of what has helped him relate and connect with his players this season. Conceding that the external factors in the present day are more than he ever faced, he noted that pressure from within was still a big part in determining where you wound up being selected.
“They have a lot of pressure on themselves,” added Lauer. “Obviously they’ve done something good up to their draft year to be recognized as one of the top guys drafted. It’s that year that now they have to play to certain level to maintain where they’ve been rated.”
Ranked 67th among North American skaters, Williams knows there is room to grow ahead of June, but the task at-hand is helping his new team clinch a Central Division title of their own. Of the Oil Kings’ seven remaining games, six are against the Central Division. They hold a two-point lead over the Lethbridge Hurricanes for first place.
“Right now, the playoffs have started for us already,” said Williams. “Every game matters so much, especially a race as close as this one.
“It’s going to be seven games of pretty much playoff hockey. It’ll help us in the long run.”
Williams and the Oil Kings return to action Friday, March 1 (7:00 p.m. MT) at Rogers Place when they close out their season series against those very same Tigers.