WHL bantam draft: A foot in the door, but not the be-all and end-all

Bruins star Milan Lucic, like many NHLers, was passed over in the WHL bantam draft. Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Bruins star Milan Lucic, like many NHLers, was passed over in the WHL bantam draft. Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The annual Western Hockey League bantam draft coming on May 7 will be full of mixed emotions for hundreds of Grade 9 kids in Western Canada and parts of the United States. For some, it will be the first step towards playing major junior hockey, but others will feel the disappointment of having 22 teams pass them over.

The fact of the matter is that being drafted into the WHL isn’t as big of a big of a deal as it may seem and getting passed over isn’t as devastating as it may seem. Look no further than how 20 per cent of the players currently in the WHL weren’t drafted into the league for proof of that. Moreover, getting passed over in the draft didn’t stop the likes of Jarome Iginla, Dan Hamhuis, Milan Lucic and Shea Weber from going on to make millions in The Show. On the flipside, many former No. 1 picks like Chris Nielsen (1995), Ryan Hollweg (1999) and Ryan Kerr (2004) didn’t exactly go on to become stars in the pros.

That’s not to suggest WHL scouts get it wrong more often than not. It’s simply extremely hard to know how a 15-year-old’s hockey career will play out. Some kids are finished growing at Grade 9 while others hit their growth spurts later on. In addition, there aren’t that many obstacles to overcome at the bantam level, but the ones in midget and junior have a tendency of making or breaking young players.

Spokane Chiefs longtime head coach Don Nachbaur laid it out plainly in a past interview with BTN: “The bantam draft is a bit of a crapshoot. It is tough determining where players should go and how they will adjust to the league.”

Ins and outs of the draft

Unlike the NHL draft, the bantam draft isn’t as straightforward as each team drafting the best talent available because of how big of a factor recruiting plays into it. It’s business as usual for teams to stay away from certain players because the club’s location is a problem for the family. Organizations also tend to draft a couple of local players because they know it will be easy to recruit them.

Josh Anderson’s commitment to the Prince George Cougars did wonders for him in 2013. It played a huge role in the Cougars picking him third overall when considering he was regarded as a mid-first-round prospect. It’s important to take into account that the Cougars have had issues recruiting in the past and the players who were picked fourth, fifth and sixth (Nolan Patrick, Brett Howden and Kale Clague respectively) made it known that they weren’t interested in moving to Prince George.

U.S. prospects tend to go later in the draft because there’s more risk in losing them to the NCAA route than Canadians. A prime example of this is how Texas native Max Gildon wasn’t selected until the third round of the 2014 draft despite being considered a clear-cut top 10 prospect. If he made it known that he wasn’t interested in the college route, there’s no way the Vancouver Giants would have snagged him that late in the draft.

This BTN blogger saw firsthand in the 2003 bantam draft how size plays into the draft. The Seattle Thunderbirds drafted a player from North East Saskatchewan in the later rounds merely because of his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame. The word “merely” isn’t an exaggeration, either. The fact that he couldn’t make a ‘AA’ midget club in his 17-year-old season is hard evidence for that.

At the other end of the spectrum, smaller players tend to drop in the draft. Moose Jaw Warriors superstar Brayden Point fell to the 13th pick in the 2011 draft partially because of his lack of size. There are countless other examples of this.

On top of a player’s commitment and size, parents have had an impact on their kids’ draft stock in the past. If a scout sees a player is from a levelheaded family, it will factor into his ranking like sprinkles on a cake. It makes the player slightly more enticing because teams know he was brought up in a good home. But in other instances, albeit few and far between, clubs have stayed away from certain players because they foresee trouble ahead from the parents. For example, a crazy father constantly calling a coach to tell him his son needs more playing time.

“Only in the extremes (has Brandon not drafted a player because of the parents),” said Wheat Kings GM-head coach Kelly McCrimmon in a March interview with BTN. “It doesn’t happen often, but in some extremes is has before. We just want parents to trust us and know we know what we are doing and let us do our jobs.”

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen