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Future Watch: CHL talent to headline 2020 NHL Draft

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With the 2019 NHL Draft in the rearview mirror, talent evaluators will catch their breath before quickly turning their attention to the 2020 class, a group highlighted by countless exceptional talents from across the Canadian Hockey League.

Beginning in the QMJHL, Oceanic left-wing Alexis Lafreniere, the projected favourite to be chosen first overall in 2020, has offered up no shortage of skill through his first two seasons in Rimouski. After wrapping up his freshman campaign with 42 goals and 38 assists for 80 points in 60 games, for which he was later recognized as the CHL Rookie of the Year, Lafreniere was back at it again in 2018-19, putting together a 105-point season that saw him come just six points shy of claiming the Jean Beliveau Trophy, awarded to the QMJHL’s leading scorer. Still, there was no shortage of hardware for Lafreniere last season as he came away with the Michel Briere Trophy as the MVP of the QMJHL, then topped it off as he was named the CHL Player of the Year. On the international stage, Lafreniere picked up a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup after leading the team with 11 points in just five appearances. Lafreniere, 17, was the first-overall pick in the 2017 QMJHL Entry Draft.

Also turning heads in the QMJHL is Halifax Mooseheads defenceman Justin Barron, a budding blue-liner who is expected to hear his name called early next June. That will come on the heels of his latest opportunity to impress the scouting community after he took advantage of a handful of chances to do so last season, beginning with the Canadian squad at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, where he led all Team Canada rearguards with five points in as many games en route to a gold medal victory. With the Mooseheads, Barron nearly doubled his production from his rookie season, tallying 41 points in 68 games as he finished second in scoring among all Halifax blue-liners. The 17-year-old then found another gear in the postseason as he notched another 13 points to help guide the Mooseheads to the championship round at the 2019 Memorial Cup presented by Kia. Barron was originally chosen with the 13th pick in the 2017 QMJHL Entry Draft.

In the OHL, Lafreniere could see contention for first overall from Wolves centre Quinton Byfield, who dominated his first season with Sudbury in finishing at nearly a point-per-game pace after collecting 29 goals and 32 assists across 64 contests. That torrent pace continued into the postseason too, as Byfield notched another eight points in eight games, helping the Wolves advance beyond the opening round for the first time since 2013. Standing 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds, Byfield is the prototypical hulking centre that talent evaluators salivate over, and it’s that big frame that helped him make a good first impression in the OHL as he was awarded the Emms Family Award as the OHL Rookie of the Year, then later presented with the same distinction for the entire CHL circuit. Byfield, who turns 17 in August, was originally chosen with the first pick in last year’s OHL Priority Selection.

Meanwhile, one player who will look to keep Byfield off the board next season is Erie Otters defenceman Jamie Drysdale, a promising two-way defenceman who excels in his own end and has plenty of ability to put up points as well. In his first season with the Otters, Drysdale led all rearguards and finished fourth in team scoring with seven goals and 33 assists for 40 points in 63 games, earning him a spot on the OHL First All-Star Team as he outpaced all OHL rookie defencemen. Internationally, Drysdale captained Canada Black at the U17, where he registered four helpers in five appearances, then added another two points as part of the Canadian squad at the  2019 IIHF World U18 Hockey Championship. Drysdale, 17, was the fourth-overall pick in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection.

Out west, fans in Winnipeg will be on the edge of their seats watching second-year forward Connor McClennon, who impressed in his first season with the ICE in registering 29 points in 46 games as he finished fifth in team scoring as a 16-year-old. Away from the ICE, McClennon was a part of Canada White at the U17, where he led the squad with eight goals and 11 points. That performance came following his play with Team Alberta at the WHL Cup in 2017-18, where he was once again one of the top performers in a tournament featuring the highest-rated under-16 players from across British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In all, McClennon finished the tournament with 10 points in five games. As the second-overall selection in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, being slated as a top draft pick once again is familiar territory for McClennon.

Rounding out the top talents from the WHL is another impressive blue-liner in Braden Schneider of the Brandon Wheat Kings. Schneider, 17, has completed two full seasons with the Wheat Kings, including the 2018-19 campaign in which he finished with 24 points in 58 games, all while seeing a 7-goal uptick from his freshman year. In all, Schneider has notched 46 points through his first 125 WHL contests. Schneider, who is described as a steady, two-way defenceman, is also a noted leader as he captained the Canada White squad at the U17, all while finishing with two points in six games. He was then back with Canada at the 2019 IIHF World U18 Hockey Championship, impressing with three points in seven appearances. Not yet finished, he was also a part of the Canadian squad at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup that captured the gold medal. Schneider, who turns 18 when the Wheat Kings open the 2019-20 season on September 20, was chosen 12th overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

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