The 2019 NHL Draft looks to be a banner year for the Western Hockey League.
Headlining the group is Vancouver Giants rearguard Bowen Byram, the top-ranked defenceman in this year’s draft who many pundits believe has top-pairing potential. The second-best North American skater in NHL Central Scouting’s Final Rankings, Byram put together a dominant second half including an incredible postseason performance in which he led the entire WHL with 26 points and guided the Giants to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Final.
In recognition of his exceptional play, Byram earned a spot on the WHL Western Conference First All-Star Team. It was the latest in what was a season of highlights for Byram, who set a Giants’ franchise record for points in a single game by a defenceman when he notched two goals and a trio of assists in a win versus the Kamloops Blazers in mid-January.
“(Byram) has clearly separated himself as this draft’s top defenceman,” notes Sportsnet draft expert Sam Cosentino.
With the first two selections in this year’s draft all but a shoo-in, the action starts at third overall. Should Byram be selected there, it will mark the third time since 2014 where a WHLer has been chosen in the top three, counting Sam Reinhart (Kootenay ICE) who went second overall to the Buffalo Sabres in 2014 as well as Nolan Patrick (Brandon Wheat Kings) with the No. 2 pick to the Philadelphia Flyers three years later.
It also stands to be the first time in five years where as many as four WHL products could be selected in the Top 10, as that year saw Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert Raiders), Jake Virtanen (Calgary Hitmen), and Haydn Fleury (Red Deer Rebels) follow Reinhart.
For the 2019 draft, trailing Byram is Saskatoon Blades centre Kirby Dach, NHL Central Scouting’s third-ranked North American skater.
Standing 6-foot-4 and clocking in at 198 pounds, Dach is a hulking pivot who models his game after Calgary Hitmen graduate Ryan Getzlaf. Like the Anaheim Ducks captain, Dach plays a pass-first style, as evidenced by his 73-point finish with the Blades this season that included a career-high 48 assists.
That performance helped the Blades punch their ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2013, while the team also won its first playoff series in eight years following an opening round sweep of the rival Moose Jaw Warriors. In all, Dach tallied eight points across 10 playoff appearances.
For NHL clubs who have their sights set on a budding centre, there is little wiggle room between Dach and the No. 5 ranked North American skater in Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
The 2018-19 campaign saw Cozens put up impressive numbers following a season in which he claimed the Jim Piggott Trophy as the WHL Rookie of the Year on the back of a 22-goal, 53-point output. This season, Cozens continued to draw the attention of talent evaluators as he led the Hurricanes with an incredible 84 points.
The budding centre likens his game to Seattle Thunderbirds alumnus Mathew Barzal, given that both pivots boast tremendous skating and puck skills. A native of Yukon, Cozens is somewhat of a trailblazer as only 13 athletes from the Canadian territory have skated in the NHL, with just four playing more than 200 games.
“Both (Dach and Cozens) are going to be solid, exceptional-level NHL players down the road,” NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL Draft Class. “There is not a lot that separates them when it comes to their size, skating, and overall production. They each bring a different dimension to the game.”
Rounding out the list is another up-and-coming centre in Peyton Krebs of the Winnipeg ICE, the former first-overall selection in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft who NHL Central Scouting ranks 10th among North American skaters.
It’s difficult to find faults in Krebs’ game as the spunky centre offers not only an edgy style and an ability to play in all three zones, but plenty of offensive talent to boot – he led his squad in scoring with 68 points in 64 appearances, just one year after he topped all league rookies with 54 points.
A natural leader, Krebs not only guided the ICE this season but also captained Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF U18 World Championship, where he put up a team-leading 10 points in seven games and was named a top-three player for the Canadian squad.
Cosentino may have summarized Krebs best, stating, “(He has a) great motor, leadership qualities, and proficient skill set. (Krebs) works his tail off nightly (and) makes those around him better.”
The next step now begins as all four players ready for the opening round of the 2019 NHL Draft on Friday.