Fifteen-year-old hockey players across Western Canada and some parts of the United States will be faking sick on Thursday to stay home from school and watch the WHL bantam draft play out on their computers. Of course, with the hope of seeing their names pop up next to an appealing major junior destination.
The Brandon Wheat Kings hold the top selection of the draft because GM-head coach Kelly McCrimmon added a clause to have the option of swapping picks with the Saskatoon Blades when he dealt Brendan Walker to them in the 2012 offseason. The Blades, though, don’t hold their first-round pick as former GM Lorne Molleken traded it to the Vancouver Giants for Nathan Burns last year. Therefore, the Wheat Kings, who originally held the No. 10 selection, swapped picks with the Giants.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes, Kamloops Blazers, Moose Jaw Warriors and Prince George Cougars round out the top five selections.
The 2014 bantam class seems to be a shade behind the last two drafts in high-end talent. There isn’t a slam dunk pick like last year with Tyler Benson, whom the Vancouver Giants selected first overall, or in 2012 with Mathew Barzal, whom the Seattle Thunderbirds snagged with the top pick.
“I wouldn’t say there is a franchise player in this draft,” says a WHL scout, who asked to remain anonymous. “I think there’s two or maybe three kids that have separated themselves from the rest; all three should be big pieces for the teams that get them. But this draft doesn’t have a player like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (top 2008 bantam pick) or someone like that.”
Among those in the running to go first overall, Winnipeg Monarchs forward Stelio Mattheos and NSWC Winterhawks centre Jordy Bellerive seem to have made the strongest cases. The 6-foot-1, 174-pound Mattheos, who scored 53 goals and 103 points in 32 games, is regarded as having an enticing blend of speed, size, power and balance. The 5-foot-10, 177-pound Bellerive, who potted 61 goals and 114 points in 49 contests, is best known for protecting the puck well, physicality and speed.
“Throughout the season there has been some juggling at the top of the draft list,” says Tyler Neisz, owner and head scout of Western Elite Hockey Prospects. “Jordy Bellerive (NSWC) held the top spot for much of the year, but battled injury and some inconsistent play and has really dropped in many people's minds. When the Brandon Wheat Kings won the draft lottery by virtue of a Saskatoon Blades ball being drawn, it became likely that Stelio Mattheos (Manitoba born) would be the choice and we still feel that way.”
Brendan Semchuk of the Kamloops Jardine Blazers is considered the next best forward by most scouts. Meanwhile, the NSWC Winterhawks’ Nolan Kneen and the Dallas Stars’ Max Gildon appear to be the draft’s top defencemen.
Among the notable hockey bloodlines that flow through the draft, Saskatoon Stallions forward Jake Leschyshyn, the son of former NHLer Curtis Leschyshyn, stands out the most. The 5-foot-10, 154-pound forward is in the running to have his name called with a top 10 selection. OHA rearguard Jonathan Smart, whose father Jason Smart played for the Blades, and Prince Albert bantam Raiders defenceman Jake Hobson, whose dad Doug Hobson played for the Prince Albert Raiders, are two other elite prospects worth noting.
Every year the Notre Dame program in Wilcox, SK., pumps out a handful of top-notch prospects. They have had 19 players, including three first-round picks, selected in the last two bantam drafts. This year will follow their impressive trend as they have four highly regarded prospects: 5-foot-10, 155-pound blueliner Josh Brook, 6-foot-2, 160-pound rearguard Dominic Schmiemann, 5-foot-11, 160-pound defenceman Jake Kustra, whose brother Matt Kustra is a Cougars prospect and father Damon Kustra is a WHL alumni, and 5-foot-10, 140-pound forward Brett Davis.
One has to keep in mind that the bantam draft isn’t as simple as selecting the top player available. Prospects’ commitment levels heavily dictate whether a team will invest a draft choice on them. Several players have dropped in past drafts because they weren’t willing to commit to the WHL with it blowing their NCAA eligibility. In addition, some youngsters have made it known through their families and agents that they won’t report to certain organizations because of the location or personal reasons.
“Recruiting is half of the story of the draft,” says a second WHL scout. “I’m seeing it a lot where teams are playing it safe by picking a guy in the first round that they know will report. I’ve seen guys ranked by our team in the mid second round picked in the middle of the first round because, well, they like the kid more than our guys, but also because they got a commitment from him and his parents. If every team picked the best player available, the draft would unfold a lot differently than it does.”
With all that said, the bantam draft isn’t the be-all and end-all. Every year players are passed over that go on to have solid major junior and sometimes professional careers. Look no further than Boston Bruins stars Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla and Vancouver Canucks blueliner Dan Hamhuis for proof of that.
“If you don’t get picked, don’t sweat it,” says the first WHL scout. “Scouts follow the midget ranks closely, so as long as you get into an AAA program you’ll get a second chance on getting a camp invite or even getting listed. Some kids slip through the cracks; it’s bound to happen. But in other cases, some kids need that extra year or two where they grow or gain confidence to show that they might have what it takes to play in the WHL.”
Here is a look at BTN’s top 10 bantam ranking. This list was put together with the help of Neisz and two scouts employed with WHL teams. Just to be clear, this is a ranking not a projection. It's possible a prospect or two that cracked the top 10 could drop out of the first round because of commitment concerns.
1. Stelio Mattheos, forward, Winnipeg Monarchs (WPG AAA)
2. Jordy Bellerive, forward, NSWC Winterhawks (PCAHA)
3. Brendan Semchuk, forward, Kamloops Jardine Blazers (OMAHA)
4. Nolan Kneen, defence, NSWC Winterhawks (PCAHA)
5. Max Gildon, defence, Dallas Stars (Elite U16)
6. Michael Rasmussen, forward, OHA (Prep)
7. Jaret Anderson-Dolan, forward, Edge Mountaineers (Prep)
8. Jake Leschyshyn, forward, Saskatoon Stallions (SBAAHL)
9. Scott Walford, defence, OHA (Prep)
10. Josh Brook, defence, Notre Dame Hounds (SMAAHL)
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen