WHL bantam draft format necessary despite flaws

Matthew Barzal was the top pick of the 2012 bantam draft. He didn't sign with Seattle until May 2013. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)
Matthew Barzal was the top pick of the 2012 bantam draft. He didn't sign with Seattle until May 2013. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

The Western Hockey League takes heat every year because it holds its entry draft for second-year bantams rather than first-year midgets like the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Even though the draft is still roughly three months away, Edmonton Journal reporter Jason Gregor recently blasted the WHL for its draft format. He believes the time is now for the league to change its draft format to a minor-midget draft.

Scroll through the bantam draft and you will see way more misses than hits, even in the first round, because outside of a few elite players, it is almost impossible to tell which path their development will go down.

Some kids are six feet tall and 200 pounds in bantam. They have a physical advantage, but they stop growing, and by the time they are 17, many kids have caught up to them, and now these players who were highly touted lose their confidence and watch their development grind to a halt.

WHL teams try to project how a player will look 16 to 28 months later. Very few business can accurately project where their sales or market share will be in two-and-a-half years, but the WHL is arrogant enough to believe they have the winning formula.

It’s absurd to even consider the WHL holds its draft a year early because of  an "arrogant" mentality. It doesn’t have anything to do with arrogance, as this comes down to a long recruitment process.

The WHL has teams in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon. Moreover, they have the rights to players in those six territories plus 18 other states. Therefore, of all the major junior leagues, they easily have the toughest recruitment job because it’s often not as simple as convincing a player to move three or four hours away from mom and dad. In some instances players are moving as far as 2,500 km away from home.

“The guys who are very critical of the WHL draft also have never recruited hockey players,” says a WHL scout of a Western Conference team. “They don’t understand how much time goes into convincing a family to let their son move from Manitoba to B.C. or Saskatchewan to Washington State at 16 years old. Sometimes we meet with the family four or five times over the course of eight or so months before they sign the contract. It takes time and we need that extra year to recruit.”

There’s no denying that the WHL draft is a crapshoot because it’s impossible to know how a 15-year-old hockey player’s career will unfold. Some players are finished growing at that age while others shoot up another 10 inches. In addition, young hockey players don’t have many obstacles to overcome until they hit the major midget level when the game becomes faster and stronger.

Changing the WHL draft format  to minor-midget players would make draft picks more valuable to teams; however, it would likely hurt the league’s 16-year-old talent pool because of the limited amount of time to recruit.

“WHL scouts would love to move the draft back a year in a perfect world,” says the scout. “But in that world, we don’t have to recruit and the players sign as soon as we draft them. Yes, it would lead to less bad picks in the first couple of rounds, but it doesn’t matter if you’re drafting better players if you can’t recruit them.”

In a recent interview with Greg Drinnan, Hockey Canada boss Tom Renney stated an interesting idea of having most 16-year-old players excluded from the major junior levels for development reasons.

Asked if that meant not having 16-year-olds playing junior hockey, Renney said: “Maybe there is this exceptional player thing . . . we almost have to.”

In Renney’s mind, how important is it to get 16-year-olds out of junior hockey?

“I think it would really improve our game,” he said. “It’s probably the most key component of our development model . . . protecting that age level right there.”

It’s true that many young players would benefit from another year of major midget over the WHL for development reasons. Youngsters lose their confidence and often play sparingly when they jump the major junior gun.

Nonetheless, far too many 16-year-old players show they are ready for major junior to write off the age group. Moreover, it’s not just first-round picks. Look no further than Spokane Chiefs forward Kailer Yamamoto for proof of that, as the fifth-round bantam pick netted 57 points in 68 games as a WHL freshman last season.

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

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