Produced by the WHL in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multipart 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 2018 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
When it comes to skilled top-six forwards, you can never have enough, regardless of whether you’re in minor hockey or the professional ranks. The importance of those players upfront have also tended to build the backbone of successful junior hockey clubs through the entire Canadian Hockey League.
Enter winger Riley Stotts of the Calgary Hitmen.
For the 6-foot-0, 171-pound forward, his growth as a player has taken him through all three Prairie provinces from his hometown of Winnipeg, Man., to making his Western Hockey League debut with the Swift Current Broncos and now getting an opportunity to shine with the Calgary Hitmen.
Selected in the first round, 10th overall, by the Broncos in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft, Stotts was a younger piece used as a trade chip in a November deal with the Hitmen. He was also one of four Manitobans selected in the top 10 of the 2015 draft, joining the likes of Calen Addison, Jett Woo, and Koby Morrisseau.
With the Broncos contending at the top of the league and the Hitmen starting slow, the trade made sense for both clubs at the time.
What’s even more apparent now is how the Hitmen plan to benefit in the short- and long-term from the acquisition of Stotts. Since his arrival in Calgary, Stotts has 28 points (11G-17A) in 33 games, including both his multi-goal games this season. Being counted on as part of a young core, Stotts has also benefitted from increased ice time, being ranked 88th by NHL Central Scouting on their mid-term rankings.
“It was obviously really cool,” said Stotts of the recognition. “There’s lot of good players on that list and it’s an honour to be [mentioned] with all those guys.
“I’m just trying to improve my all-around game and I think [head coach] Dallas [Ferguson] has given me lots of opportunity and I’m really thankful for that. I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
The former Winnipeg Monarch has certainly come a long way, geographically as well as from a developmental perspective in order to better his game and to make it on the list. The acquisition of Stotts has given Ferguson three players from the first round of the 2015 Bantam Draft to build around with fellow forwards Carson Focht and Tristen Nielsen.
Stotts came “as advertised” according to Ferguson when the Hitmen brought him onto the roster, adding he’s gained confidence in his game with the opportunities he’s been put in with the Hitmen.
“When he got here, he got put into a lot of situations that I think he’s very capable of playing in, but they were a little bit new to him as far as at this level,” Ferguson said. “He’s take those opportunities and ran with them.
“Good offensive players find ways to create when there doesn’t seem to be any offence to create and I think that’s what Riley does.”
As important as the games are, Stotts is striving to grow his skills and physical attributes further away from the game action, a facet Ferguson has taken notice of.
“He also works at his game, I think that’s the one thing our staff has really grown to like about Riley.
“He wants to get better every day and he enjoys the process of developing as a hockey player. His workload is good and his hunger to get better is even better.”
If the spotlight wasn’t already shifting towards him, it will be directly on him by the time the 2018-19 season starts. The Hitmen may not be the best club in the WHL this year, but they’ve got a mind to correct that that soon and Stotts is part of that plan, something the 18-year-old is a-ok with, even if he did feel a little nervous about the move from Swift Current to Calgary at the start.
“As soon as I got here, got to meet everyone, all the feelings were gone and I was just excited to get started,” the forward said. “I’ve got lots of support from everyone here.
“The coaches, the teammates. [Jake] Kryski and [Jakob] Stukel are great players and I really like playing with them so that helps a lot. I’m just trying to make the most of all the ice time I’ve been getting and keep working towards the end of the year.”
Growing up in Manitoba’s capital, Stotts has drawn inspirations from the rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets and the franchise’s first selection after their relocation, forward Mark Scheifele, for the right way to play the game.
“He was young in the league and he grew each year,” said Stotts. “Now he’s stepped into one of the biggest roles in the NHL and one of the best players on the best team.
“That’s someone who I really look up to.”
If Stotts continues on his current path, it may be soon that it’s others looking up to him in the same way he looks up to Scheifele. Ferguson added that one of his top young forwards can’t get caught up in the process of the draft.
It’s an exciting time in the career of all players, but there’s only so much Stotts himself can control, a facet him and his coach know perfectly well.
“His drive tank is real high and he wants to not only be that player and be successful at this level, but he wants to be an NHL player,” Ferguson added. “He’s doing the right things to develop his game, but you can’t get caught up in the end result.”