For Western Hockey League teams, the annual prospects draft is their lifeline.
It’s the most reliable source of up-and-coming young talent capable of playing at the major junior level and the choices made at the draft table turn teams into winners or losers, so you’d better get it right.
The Prince George Cougars will get that chance next week when the WHL hosts its U.S. Priority Draft on Wednesday and the Prospects Draft on Thursday.
Looking into their draft history, it’s no wonder the Cougars have struggled for so long to ice competitive team. Of the 30 players the Cougars picked in the first three years of the current ownership regime, from 2015-17, only three went on to become everyday players in the WHL.
“The first three seasons, we were as bad as you can be,” said Cougars president John Pateman. “To go through a whole draft and not have anybody play in the league, it’s pretty hard to do.
“If you look at this last year, often your three 20-year-olds are guys you drafted back in the day. The only guy playing in the league out of that group (drafted in 2016), was (Taylor) Gauthier in the first round. The year before that, only (Jackson) Leppard and (Reid) Perepeluk were regulars. Out of the 2017 draft, which is the group that will be 20 next year, there is not a player out of that whole group that’s playing in the league. So we were just devastated in the draft.”
After they won the B.C. Division regular season title in 2016-17 - still their only WHL banner since the team shifted from Victoria to P.G. in 1994 – that promising Cougars team fizzled in the playoffs with a first-round loss to Portland and their only hope the following season was the trade deadline fire sale in 2018 that shipped out the likes of Dennis Cholowski, Kody McDonald and Josh Anderson in exchange for a pile of draft picks.
“We thought we were going to be really good in 2016-17, but we drafted terribly, we gave away draft picks for the future through that time period, and we did the ticket pricing thing (which brought in zone-based pricing) right when we were not so good,” said Pateman
“Back in 2017-18 at the trade deadline, we realized we’re either going to be pretty marginal for a long time or we were going to have to give up some pretty good hockey players. We realized our scouting and our depth of scouting needed a lot of work.”
Did it ever.
Under minority owner Eric Brewer’s guidance, following his retirement as an NHL defenceman, the Cougars basically doubled their scouting staff in 2018, from six or seven to the current 14, and it seems to be paying positive dividends.
Out of the nine players the Cougars picked from the 2018 crop, five were major contributors this past season. That includes Craig Armstrong (ninth overall), Tyler Brennan (21st), Hudson Thornton (33rd), Blake Eastman (44th) and Ethan Samson (66th).
Mark Lamb took over from Todd Harkins as the Cougars’ general manager in June 2018 and used the high draft picks Harkins had acquired to build up the kitty.
From the 2019 draft, the Cougars have signed Keaton Dowhaniuk (third), Koehn Ziemmer (fourth), Kyren Gronick (26th, since traded to Saskatoon for Carlin Dezainde and Cayden Glover), Jaren Brinson (36th), Carter MacAdams (70th), Ty Young (158th) and Gavin Schmidt (202nd). The products of the 2020 draft include Riley Heidt (second), Caden Brown (17th), Ryker Singer (22nd), Bauer Dumanski (26th), Zachary Shantz (66th) and Ephram McNutt. They’ve also signed three picks – Tyson Buczowski (15th), Hunter Laing (33d) and Madden Mulawka (100th) – from the class of 2021.
“We as an ownership group have said all along the last three years that Mark’s been here that we don’t want to trade away our future just to be a bit better, we’re going to take our lumps a bit, and those first three drafts you cannot recover in a year,” said Pateman.
Much has been discussed about how youthful the Cougars were collectively as a team this past season, and they were young, but nowhere near the youngest. According to quanthockey.com, the Cougars had the ninth-youngest team in the 22-team WHL, averaging 18 years, three months and five days.
For perspective, the Prince Albert Raiders were the league’s oldest team (18 years, eight months and 30 days), followed by the Kelowna Rockets (18-8-17) and Vancouver Giants (18-8-5). The Kamloops Blazers, who won the B.C. Division regulars season title and are now just one win away from advancing to the Western Conference final in their second-round series with Vancouver, were ninth-oldest on the list, averaging (18-5-18) just two months older than the Cougars. The Victoria Royals (17-11-5) ranked youngest of 22 WHL teams.
Within the B.C. Division, if you compare the five teams this season if they dressed their top two goalies, top six defenceman and top 12 forwards, the Cougars were considerably younger than the other four, averaging 17.55 years. Vancouver was the oldest (18.35) followed by Kamloops (18.30), Victoria (18.05) and Kelowna (18.00).
At the start of next season, recognizing each team is limited to three 20-year-olds, the Cougars' eligible returning players will have more years of WHL eligibility ahead of them (49) than any divisional opponent. Kelowna has 39, Victoria has 37, Kamloops has 31 and Vancouver has 24.
The Cougars (29-34-4-1) had their struggles on the ice this past season and waited until the final weekend to claim a playoff spot after they finished sixth in the Western Conference. They were swept in the first round by the Portland Winterhawks. What really hurt the Cougars was their lack of major junior experience and a shortage of players used to the rigours of 68-game season. They started 2021-22 with just one defenceman (Ethan Samson) who had played a full WHL season and had just three seasoned forwards (Armstrong, Connor Bowie and Jonny Hooker). For half the season they had fourth-year veteran Gauthier in goal until he was traded in late December for 20-year-old Danish defenceman Jonas Brondberg, who started his WHL career in Portland in 2019.
Prince George had just four players 19 years-or-older (20-year-olds Bowie, Hooker, Gauthier/Brondberg and their lone 19-year-old Aiden Reeves). By comparison, Kelowna had seven 19s or 20s, Victoria had eight, Kamloops has 10 and Vancouver has 12. Everett had four 19-year-old defenceman.
“I know at the beginning of the season Mark (Cougars head coach Lamb) and Eric (Brewer) appreciated more of the fact of our young and inexperienced defence and how hard that makes it on everybody,” said Pateman. “We only had the one experienced guy (Samson) and then when you go on the road, where the other team has the last change, we got really exposed and we were playing kids further up than we would have liked to have. Thornton, who took a long time for us to sign, was a godsend to us in the end and he was only 18, like Samson, and they’re both back next year (among six potential returnees on the blueline).”
The Cats had just four experienced forwards to start the year but will have as many as 10 back for next season.
Trading Gauthier to Portland allowed the Cougars to play their younger goalies and they both raised profiles in the eyes of NHL Central Scouting. Brennan is ranked as the top North American goaltending prospect and Young, who played exceptionally well late in the season when Brennan was injured, is ranked sixth on that list. Brennan played 39 games in 2021-22 after seeing action in 19 games the previous two seasons combined, while Young went from three games as an untested rookie 2021 in the WHL bubble to 23 games this past season.
The Cougars were hamstrung this year by a rule that forbids teams from trading any signed player 17 and younger and took their lumps as a result. For the coming season they will have an abundance of trade bait and will almost certainly make a move or two to acquire some top-ranked 20-year-old talent.
That could mean they will part with some of their unsigned players or some of their 2022 draft picks. For Thursday's Prospects Draft, the Cougars hold the ninth overall pick and also select 28th overall in the second round, with two third-rounders (50th and 61st) as well as a high fourth-round pick (72nd). Regardless of who they pick next week those drafted players are still a year too young for the league and will be restricted to a maximum of five WHL games during the season.
Experience breeds winning and the Cougars expect to make that more of a habit, starting next season.
“We’re going to still be young next year,” said Pateman. “We got a pretty good group of 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds next year and we think we have a few kids that are 16 that are going to challenge for spots.”
“Kids like (Ryker) Singer and (Caden) Brown played five games the year before and they’re going to be so much smarter when they come back and maybe some of them will be a little better conditioned too,” said Pateman. “Brown really came on and he ended up on a checking line at the end. He’s got some offensive skill and he’s easily going to play three more years here.
“We had seven kids at the start of the year who had gone through a whole season, well we’ve got 18 next year that know the whole flow and just about everybody, all but two guys, could be back the year after.”