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WHL Bantam Draft is up next for Thunderbirds

By Andrew Eide

The WHL Bantam Draft does not bring the juice the way the recently completed NFL Draft does, but it is the way teams in the league build their rosters. Each year, the 22 clubs gather in Calgary to select the best young hockey players in Western Canada and the United States. This year's draft is scheduled for this week, May 2, and Seattle is in a good spot to pick up some quality talent.

Seattle has three picks in the top 30 selections (eighth, 22nd, and 27th) for the second straight year. Now, most of us have not been scouting these players so in some sense the Bantam Draft can be a bit of a mystery. One man who has been scouting these players is Tyler Neisz, who runs Western Elite Hockey Prospects. For him, Thursday's draft is not a mystery. Neisz was kind enough to shed some light on the draft for us.

"This years draft is as deep as it has been in the past number of years," Neisz said. "A draft that is very comparable to that of the 2008 WHL Bantam draft where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went first overall and then Ty Rattie, Duncan Siemens, Michael St. Croix and Mark McNeill."

Last year Seattle had the top pick in the draft and used it to take the consensus No. 1 player, Matt Barzal. While Seattle is still waiting to hear if Barzal will don a Seattle sweater, they also picked up other good-looking prospects in Keegan Kolezar (later in the first round) and Ethan Bear (25th overall). While all three players seem to be top prospects, Barzal was the top prize. The Vancouver Giants are sitting where the T-Birds were last season – is there another Barzal this year?

"Although the Vancouver Giants are not going to publicly reveal this information, they are in fact going to take Tyler Benson first overall," Neisz said. "Not only is he the most dominating player in the draft, but he plays a good responsible two-way game, can play a pass first or be a goal scorer, has uncanny vision on the ice, has good hands and isn't afraid to go to the tough areas and play a gritty game, if need be."

Neisz stops short of saying that Benson, while a top-line prospect, is at the elite level that Barzal or former No. 1 pick Ryan Nuget-Hopkins were when they were selected. Benson played in his hometown of Edmonton last year and put up staggering numbers (57 goals, 89 assists, 146 points in 33 games) and should be a player to watch in two years when he is eligible to join the Giants full-time.

What about Seattle's picks?

Neisz has produced some mock drafts and thinks that Seattle would take defenseman David Quenneville with the eighth pick. Quenneville is another Edmonton product who put up an astonishing 34 goals and 72 points from the blue line – in only 32 games. Neisz has good things to say about him.

"I think if David Quenneville is there at No. 8 overall that the Birds would take him," he said. "He is a future quarterback-power play anchor and has perhaps the hardest shot of anyone in the draft. He plays a mean game, makes the big hit and could be a future captain."

If Quenneville is nabbed before the eighth pick Seattle may also look at guys like Tyson Jost (56 games, 53 assists, 109 points in 33 games) or Beck Malenstyn (57 games, 50 assists, 107 points in 53 games) – both of whom Neisz has ranked in the top 10 of the draft.

With Seattle's second first-round pick, the 22nd overall, that they got from Portland in the Marcel Noebels trade, Neisz likes Seattle to take more size. Two guys he identifies are Andy Stevens or Cody Paivarinta. Stevens is a 6-foot-2 defenseman who already weighs in at 185 pounds before he turns 16. Paivarinta is from Abbotsford, also a defenseman, who is 6-foot-5 and would fit right in with Seattle's already-large defensive corps.

The Bantam Draft is unlike drafts in pro sports in that these players aren't eligible to play until they are 16 years old, so most teams draft the best player they see available rather than for a particular position need. The good news for Seattle is that it has a lot of early picks in a deep draft.

Neisz feels that the draft has two rounds of good players, something he thinks is rare and that the group of forwards available might be the draft's strongest position.

"I think the forward group is very strong at the top of the draft with the likes of Tyler Benson, Sam Steel, Nolan Patrick, Brett Howden, Jost and Malenstyn and the list goes on," he said. "Defensemen are at a high premium after Clague, Fabbro, Quenneville and perhaps big Josh Anderson from Cowichan Valley. Saskatchewan and Manitoba are very weak, and it is possible that Saskatchewan won't have a single player picked in the first round. B.C. has the strength in the first round while Northern Alberta is also very strong."

The draft is the most important offseason event for teams in the WHL, and the good news for Seattle is that they have a number of high picks. Pick right and they could set themselves up to be a contending team for years to come.

Stay tuned to the blog as we will have coverage and information concerning all of Seattle's picks on Thursday.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide

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