August 14, 2020

Regional Roundtable: Evaluating Western Canada’s Crop in 2020

When putting together our draft rankings throughout the season, both the periodic updates and our final list, the scouting team at FCHockey engage in plenty of discussions about prospects.

By pooling our reports and insights together, we form more comprehensive evaluations of individual players.

These conversations are primarily kept private.

However, we want to give our readers a little more insight into what it’s like when we discuss players.

As such, this will be the first edition of a new series of ours: Regional Roundtable.

Moderated by Derek Neumeier, head video scout at FCHockey, we ask a series of questions to scouts from specific regions.

We start with our western region, encompassing the WHL, AJHL, BCHL and other leagues.

Joining are Justin Froese, head Western scout, who is based in Manitoba; Larry Fisher, who is based in British Columbia; and Joel Henderson, who is based in Saskatchewan.

Derek Neumeier: Over the course of the season, Portland Winterhawks winger Seth Jarvis seems to have cemented himself as the top prospect out of the Western region, finishing No. 11 on our Future Considerations board after an incredible second half. But there still seems to be a lot of debate about who the second-best prospect is out of the west this class. For the sake of conversation, let’s assume that Jarvis will be the first player from our region to get picked. My question to you three is: who goes next after him, and why?

Justin Froese: On my list, Connor Zary is the second-best player available. It was a unique year that has started to look stronger than expected, and at the top there were multiple names jockeying for position this year in the region, with Braden Schneider being the favourite early and then being overtaken by Zary, who ceded the top spot to Jarvis. There were some technical deficiencies Zary worked through to make them passable elements to his game, and he checks off a lot of boxes that I find valuable in making the jump to the pro ranks. He will never be an elite skater, but where he does excel is in the details and how he processes the game, allowing him to drive play now and be versatile with his usage for whoever drafts him.

Larry Fisher: I agree with Justin that Zary will be the second WHLer selected in 2020 — if not the first. Zary let off the accelerator a bit once Kamloops started to run away with the B.C. Division while he was leading the entire league in scoring. But Zary really elevated his game in the best-on-best events — he was better at last April’s under-18 worlds than Jarvis was at last August’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and Zary outshone Jarvis again at the CHL Top Prospects Game in January as one of the standouts from that showcase. For me, Zary and Jarvis are still neck-and-neck as the top WHL prospect for 2020. For a fantasy league, I’d probably pick Jarvis since he has a higher offensive ceiling. For the best chance at the Stanley Cup, I’ll still take Zary — he’s a gamer!

Joel Henderson: Zary definitely shone in the CHL game and the WHL vs Russia game I watched, but if the question is ‘who goes next?’ I think it’ll be Kaiden Guhle. The rationale would be ‘big, strong, agile, and scratching the surface.’ One thing I’ve learned about GMs is ‘highest upside’ is sometimes the determining factor, and a lot of teams probably think that’s Guhle whether we at FC quite agree or not.

DN: Guhle is one of the other names that I think is a serious contender as well. Teams tend to value defensemen pretty highly in the draft, and there’s a lot of raw potential to Guhle. Do you guys think Schneider also has a chance, especially considering what we’ve previously seen him do for Hockey Canada in best-on-best competition?

JH: He certainly could. Schneider has the ability to jump higher than people expect because he’s a right-handed shot. That might be the difference-maker for GMs who have 4-5 players in the same range. How many clubs this off-season are going to try and acquire a big, hard-hitting, mobile, right handed defender to fit into their top-4? They can be tough to acquire.

LF: I totally agree with Joel that either of those defenders could wind up being the second WHLer taken — perhaps even the first. The factor most working in Schneider’s favour is handedness, as he is a righty and they tend to go higher on draft day. Winnipeg, for example, will have seen plenty of Schneider just down the road in Brandon and has a real need for a right-shot defense prospect — sooner than later. Schneider is further along in his development with a very projectable floor, so he could be a good fit for the Jets as high as No. 12 overall, which could put him ahead of Jarvis. I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, depending how Winnipeg fares in this play-in round.

JF: Everyone’s views on a player are subjective based on the hierarchy on which they evaluate talent, and both defenders are definitely in the mix for the top spot on some teams’ lists. In terms of upside, I see them more in the mould of crease clearing, secondary puck movers who make the sound play over the flashy one. Personally, I would take the swing on player who I could see pushing play and driving offence at the next level, especially early in the draft. I see more of that capability in Schneider then Guhle, but would hold off on both until the higher-end forwards in this class are off the board.

DN: All good responses. On the flip side of the coin, who are some names that you guys think could fall further than expected come draft day and surprise people? Larry, let’s start off with you this time

LF: Good question, I’ll circle back to Jarvis for starters. He could slide into the 20’s as an undersized winger. Some teams could prefer the centre in Zary and the big blueliners in Guhle and Schneider. That would be pretty shocking if Jarvis was the fourth WHLer off the board. But I look at that next wave of forwards, Ozzy Wiesblatt and Justin Sourdif in particular. I could see them slipping into the middle rounds — outside the top 75. I like Wiesblatt just a tad more than Cole Fonstad during his draft year and he fell to the fifth round, then went unsigned by Montreal. I can’t fathom the same fate for Wiesblatt, but never say never. That next wave of WHL forwards after Jarvis and Zary could have some randomness to it.

JF: I think our group has identified a few polarizing players in the region that will appeal to some and be avoided like to plague by others. As mentioned by Larry, Sourdif is one of those guys who has some attributes that appeal to some and holes in his game that may cause him to drop. Carter Savoie and Jack Finley are others we tend to disagree on, one being viewed as high upside offensively with compete issues and the other where I see a lower offensive upside than others. We see it every year, with the surprises on draft day. Teams don’t sway from their list at the table, and whether a kid is second from the top of the list or 18th when a team is picking is irrelevant, the chain reaction is the same and some of these kids could go way higher or lower than then we anticipate if different philosophies are implemented throughout.

JH: I think some of the players we’ve talked about, Zary, Schneider, Guhle, are players that project a higher floor. These guys often aren’t large sliders from the general consensus. I think when you get to some of the forwards under six feet without a large frame, that’s where you see some sliding. I think Tristen Robins or Pavel Novak could slip a lot further than some would like.

DN: Joel brings up an important point. Traditionally, if a player is lacking in both size and skating ability, they usually slide down the big board. Alex DeBrincat might have helped buck that trend a little, since a lot of teams are kicking themselves about missing out on him, but guys like Robins and Novak aren’t on DeBrincat’s level. Savoie is the most interesting name to me on this topic. He put up some eye-popping numbers this year, but most of the times I watched him I came away very, very disappointed. Some people might be shocked if a prospect with such amazing point totals falls to the third round or later, but that has a very real chance of happening. What are everyone’s thoughts on Savoie specifically?

JF: Like any player, there’s a lot of ways to skin this cat. If you’re looking for parallels, he plays a lot like the Patrick Laine of the AJHL, so to speak, all offense and limited impact when needed to dig deep. No one questions the offensive acumen and the toolkit as Savoie’s vision and ability to finish on plays is phenomenal, but the lack of effort and compete makes you question the will to improve to make that jump. I don’t foresee him having tremendous issues working with a skills coach to become a more efficient skater and harder to play against with and without the puck, but the fire needs to burn in his belly for him to be trusted in a game where you only get so much time with the puck on your stick.

LF: That’s true, but part of me feels Savoie was playing down to the level of competition and also pacing himself for the AJHL playoffs that never happened — pacing himself by scoring at a goal-a-game pace, with 53 in 54. He was too good for that league this season and everyone knew it, including Savoie himself. He took it easy a lot of nights and still found the scoresheet. I think he’ll ramp it up with Denver or with WHL Winnipeg if he winds up there with younger brother, Matthew. I think Carter has another level — another gear — and he compares very favourably to Jaden Schwartz when analyzing their careers and stat-lines to date. I do think Savoie can get to Schwartz’s level — both in productivity and in competitiveness.

DN: Alright, let’s shift gears a little here into one of my favourite types of draft questions: who are some ‘sleeper’ picks from this year from the west that you guys are personally big fans of, and why? Think of prospects who might not be well-known names at this point and could still be available in the third round or later, but are still players that you would advocate strongly for if you were sitting at an NHL team’s draft table. Joel, how about you kick this one off.

JH: If people have followed my twitter, I think Robins has been my pick most of the year. After watching him last season and seeing his decision-making, the speed of his hands matched with the ability to control pace of play, it was only a matter of time before he started excelling. Every team should be hoping to land a prospect like him.

JF: A couple guys I have higher than most are Cross Hanas and Ethan Edwards. Both fit into the category of unpolished but competitive, highly skilled players who have a knack for making plays and finding seams all over the ice, showing that they can play without the luxury of time and space or generate it on their own. As a defenseman, Edwards is already an elite-level skater but has a lot of the same flaws with defense at the puck, positioning and consistency that Hanas has necessary to be positive players away from the puck. Neither guy is going to be able to be thrown into the Easy Bake Oven and done in half an hour. These two will take time to mature and add layers, but in the future they look like better bets than some of the kids producing at higher clips in their respective leagues.

LF: I like all three of those sleeper candidates, though I’m not sure how much of a sleeper Robins is anymore — thanks to his second-half surge and to Joel’s tire pumping on Twitter (warranted tire pumping, I might add). Joel is also a big fan of Lukas Svejkovsky, and he grew on me as a smaller guy with big skill. He could explode next season and prove to be a steal as another sleeper, so he gets a shout-out here too. Dylan Garand, as a goaltender, could be a steal outside the top 100. He isn’t very big, but he is a fitness freak and a scholar, which speaks to his competitiveness on and off the ice. I think he would have backstopped Kamloops deep into the playoffs and really raised his stock. I also like Czech imports Pavel Novak (outside the top 75) and Michal Gut (outside the top 150) as potential steals with the upside to outperform their draft position, though I’m not sure how hard I would advocate for them. Garand, on the other hand, I would definitely advocate for in the middle rounds. Svejkovsky to a lesser degree too.

DN: I’ll echo Justin here and also mention Edwards as the big one for me. His skating is special, and he sees the ice incredibly well. He’s still far from a finished product, but I think it’s going to be one heck of a finished product. I’ll also shout-out Ronan Seeley, who I would argue is one of the smartest defensemen in this entire draft class. The Everett Silvertips have really shown themselves to be a great organization for developing young defenders, so I think Seeley is going to take major strides over the next two seasons.

DN: OK, last question before I wrap this up. Let’s say that it’s late in the draft, the sixth or seventh round, and you’re asked who from this region would be worth taking a flyer on. What names do you feel most confident throwing out there?

LF: If any of the steals we’ve mentioned are still there in the sixth or seventh round, I wouldn’t hesitate taking them. Three more names that I’m very intrigued by are forwards Kyle Crnkovic and Cole Shepard as well as defenseman Landon Kosior. Those three are in that range for my personal rankings and I see a good amount of upside as fairly raw packages — the latter two in particular. I like a lot of late flyers from other regions too, but those three come to mind from Western Canada.

JH: I think there are about 10 different defenseman that could be taken late from the WHL who all offer a little something different. If you want a homerun swing, I like Danila Palivko. His skating is catching up to his mind. At forward, I think Novak, Crnkovic, Svejkovsky, Simon Knak and Josh Pillar are fun. Once again, it all depends on who is available.

JF: I think the two that come to mind for me that could be good ‘bang for your buck’ picks are Medicine Hat goalie Garin Bjorklund and Fort Mac defender Kabore Dunn. Bjorklund has a strong technical foundation and mental fortitude to his game, and should see a starter’s workload over the next couple seasons with Mads Sogaard moving onto the pros. Dunn is more of a special breed, the drive and pace of play is a big question, but if someone gets him motivated his natural skill, skating ability and creativity can weaponize him into a puck-rushing threat. Neither are slam-dunks, but definitely have the upside worthy of a gamble.

DN: Justin, did you just read my mind? Bjorklund and Dunn are probably my two biggest names in this area as well. Like you said, neither are slam-dunks, but they have potential that few others likely to still be available that late possess. I’ll also personally name-drop Daniel Baker and Jonas Brondberg here, two re-entry defenders who don’t have big upside but have enough tools that I like their odds to become third-pair defenders down the road. The former is rangy and athletic, while the latter has great poise and puck management for a big guy.

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