By Isaiah Bouchard

Welcome to Draft Prospects Hockey’s introduction to the 2023 NHL Draft Class series. This is a multi-part series which we will be releasing over the next couple weeks to give you the readers some insight on whom we feel is the cream of the crop for 2023.

DraftPro’s #1 prospect for the 2023 NHL entry draft, Connor Bedard finished the 2021/22 WHL season with the Regina Pats scoring 100 points, and 51 goals in just 62 games. The five-foot-nine centerman is already making his name as a fast paced, high- hockey IQ player on the ice. Being able to set up his teammates and find offensive opportunities that produce high quality chances throughout the offensive zone. His puck handling and control makes him a reliable mover of the puck in all zones, and he is already showing signs of being an elite-level shooter both towards the net and to his teammates. Bedard, who set up 49 assists last year on a rather weak Regina team should be telling for just how capable this player is at creating offense.

Perhaps more important than his pure stick handling abilities is his profound hockey IQ on the ice. Coupled with his elite level skating ability Bedard has all the tools to put himself in the high-chance zones thanks to his ability to out skate his opponents and out maneuver them on the ice. Bedard is showing McDavid-esk capabilities to move the puck at will. “Bedard thinks the game so well and is so fast it is unreal” says Draft Pro’s head WHL scout Matt Hnatiuk. His sharp attention and hockey sense is perhaps his greatest asset, being able to apply these puck handling, power skating, accurate shooting skills in the most effective ways possible.

So far Bedard is yet to play in the WHL playoffs due to being on a weak Regina Pats team, however, that isn’t to say he has zero big game experience. He’s competed in both the IIHF WJC – U18 and the U20 games, boasting a point per game total in all three appearances.

Other high-end talent in the west include Zach Benson, a smaller forward playing for the stacked team that is the Winnipeg Ice. He plays fast and smart and is not afraid to capitalize on any opportunity his teammates provide. Benson got 7 points in the 5 games Canada played in the Hlinka-Gretzky cup in 2022, one of the highest in the whole tournament, only following behind fellow WHLer Brayden Yager, and the OHL’s Callum Ritchie.

“His two strengths are his passing and vision, as well as his puck handling ability at higher speeds. He backs defenders up so fast that it gives him and his linemates a lot of time and space to control the offensive zone.” Hnatiuk had to say about Benson’s greatest strengths. Scoring a point per game last season, Benson is looking to join the 100-point club this season, and very well may be on his way on a strong Winnipeg team. Suspect this player to score from all over the ice and rack up points in the process. Benson is currently ranked #8 by Draft Pro.

Brayden Yager

Benson’s linemate from the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, Brayden Yager is showing great promise in being one of the best snipers in the draft. During the HGC, Yager put up 5 goals and 9 points, most of the goals happening in the slot, from a solid distance to bury the puck in the back of the net. Yager shows great caution with his shooting, not taking a chance on a wild angle that could lead to a turnover for his team. His own hockey IQ is underrated and doesn’t get the praise that a Benson or Bedard receive. Fully expect Yager to grow into a team player who makes those around him better, much like he did with Benson and Gauthier in the HGC. Yager is ranked #5 by Draft Pro, and will play for the Moose Jaw Warriors, likely facing Benson head-to-head this year.

If you are looking for a forward who is a bit more aggressive and hands on with tactics look no further than Nate Danielson. Hnatiuk describes Danielson as a ‘offense first’ player and often this mindset is reflected in his style of play. “Nate is an offense first player who likes to be the one who controls the play while the puck is on his stick.” Are Hnatiuk’s own words to describe Danielson’s presence on the ice. But perhaps most special about Danielson is that he is not afraid to drive the flow of the game once he gains control of the puck. He will rush defenders and force them out of position, and he will distribute his shots equally to the net or to his teammates sticks which makes his tactics unpredictable. Danielson finished with a point per game last season and played with a subpar Brandon Wheat Kings team. As Danielson develops however, his ability to control the pace of game while he has the puck may become more of an influential factor on where the Wheat Kings land this year.

Riley Heidt, who plays on a sub-par but still growing Prince George Cougars team, led his team in points at only 16 years old. Heidt put up 6 points in the HGC and, like Yager showed great caution and restraint when moving the puck. Heidt’s greatest skill however, is his skating. There are very little players with the momentum building capabilities that Heidt possesses. His agility and acceleration is top tier, and it truly shows in his puck moving abilities. There may not be a harder player to cover than Heidt in WHL, as he is capable of moving around the offensive zone and changing his positions faster than defenders can cover him.

Prince George Cougars sniper Koehn Ziemmer. Hnatiuk says “Koehn is a nice complimentary winger who has good offensive instincts, and likes to get pucks to the middle of the ice for high quality chances. He has a strong shot that he will let go from anywhere in tight and he can hit the net frequently from within the circles..”

Kelowna Rockets diminutive winger Andrew Cristall is another high-end talent. “Andrew is a small player with excellent puck distribution ability. He has a quick first three steps and is able to provide immediate pressure on the puck with his speed. His passing ability is high end and he has excellent vision to spot and utilize seams on the ice that many players don’t see at the same speed he does. He has quick hands, allowing for fast puck movement, all while being cleanly in control of the puck. His offensive zone IQ and awareness is high as well. He recognizes where openings are going to be and inserts himself into those spots for potential passes/shots. He also reads his defense well when in the o-zone and quickly reacts to their movements should coverage on the blueline be needed. While not a physical player at 5’9″, he shows some strength when shielding the puck and when he needs to fend off an attacker before making a pass. Slightly underrated to this point, and feel he could be a steal in the late 1st round, despite his size, due to his puck control and distribution qualities.”

Andrew Cristall

Kalan Lind is a six-foot tall player who has a pivotal season ahead of him. Playing on a strong Red Deer Rebels team, Lind put up 38 points in 62 games, scoring 20 goals alongside his experienced teammates: Arshneep Bains and Ben King. Matt Hnatiuk had this to say about Lind’s role on the Rebels last year: “The experience and strength of Bains along the wall and King behind the net, allowed Lind to drive to the slot area with little pressure for high quality chances. They were a constant threat in the offensive zone and drove the bus for the Rebels. An excellent top line.” Like Howe keeping up with Bedard, Lind playing with 20-year-old players is a strong indicator that this player has potential as a top star in the WHL, and a high draft pick in 2023. Even if the young player does not exceed his point total expectations, his performance on a strong team, playing alongside experienced players says a lot for the forward’s talent.

Hnatiuk had this to say about Kalan Lind: “He has fast feet, hands and a head that keeps up just as well. He skates with a smooth, fast stride and is able to push the pace of play when he wants.” Hnatiuk goes on: “His shot is where he shines the most. It is a laser that he gets away with a great release. It is accurate and he showed multiple times he can pick corners from in tight. (Just watch the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup from this year)” Lind got his team one goal in the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup this year, showing the weight behind Hnatiuk praise for Lind. Kalan Lind is ranked 53rd overall by Draft Pro as of right now, an intriguing player to watch this year to say the least.

As for the Defensemen, the highest-ranking D-man the WHL can offer as of right now, is Luca Cagnoni. A five-foot-ten defensemen whose playing in Portland for the Winterhawks. Cagnoni has a lot of upsides as a strong two-way defender, Cagnoni can play on both sides of ice. This is reflected in his high point total and keeping his +/- at positive level while also producing many assists for his team.

Cagnoni is ranked #38 in Draft Pro’s early rankings, and just below him at #39 is Lukas Dragicevic. Dragicevic put up very similar numbers to Cagnoni last year, with Cagnoni finishing with 36 points and Dragicevic finishing with 32.

Other than Cagnoni and Dragicevic, the Vancouver Giants, another struggling team similar to the Americans, have Mazden Leslie. Leslie put up smaller numbers than Cagnoni and Dragicevic, but he still shows glimpses of high-level defensemen. He can move the puck and isn’t afraid to take chances in deep. He’ll utilize his larger frame to ward off smaller checkers who do not see a rush coming from the blueliner.

As for goaltenders, there are a few intriguing names our scouts are excited about. Scott Ratzlaff of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Carson Bjarnason of the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Scott Ratzlaff

Ratzlaff, the six-foot-one, 172-pound keeper who was so solid in the blue paint for Canada at the most recent Hlinka Gretzky Cup, is the top guy in the western region early in the season. An active puck playing, positionally smart goaltender as our scout Matt Hnatiuk put it.

Hnatiuk says, “He has very precise movements, almost mechanical, and does a very good job at tracking, setting up and stopping pucks as the play moves around his zone. He is quick with his up/down motions and when he is down, he seals off the ice very well. His rebound control is excellent, directing them out of play or to the corners for his teammates to deal with. One of Ratzlaff’s strongest abilities is his movement to get around behind the net and play or stop pucks. He is always ready to get back there to stop the rim around and set it up for his defenseman. This is something a lot of goaltenders don’t do at his age, and he seems to have an amazing ability to do it effectively. Scott is a goaltender you’ve heard about at the U17 level, nationally, for a while, look for him to burst on the scene further in his third season with Seattle and make a run at the top draft eligible goaltender in this draft.”

“Bjarnason is a tall goaltender who plays a top of the crease game. He stands a little smaller than I would like to see for a goalie his size, as he crouches way down when play comes in towards him. When he drops to his butterfly, he remains upright with his chest, which is good, as he takes up a lot of space when he does so. He seals the ice well when he’s down but tends to tuck his hands into his sides a bit, giving shooters extra room to aim for. This is something I’ve noticed he’s adjusted or is working on adjusting since the end of last season thru the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament. He also has some issues with sliding side to side with the play. He is a half second behind most times and needs to anticipate that move across the front a little sooner. Again, this seems to be something he is working on to get to the next level as there was improvement from the end of last season and through the HGC. He has very good rebound control and anything that hits his chest is immediately swallowed up, and if it hits his blocker or legs, it’s directed safely away from danger. Puck play is another area that Bjarnason is very skilled in. He has no issues getting around behind his net to stop or set up pucks for his teammates. He can make stretch passes when given some time and they are usually right on the mark. I expect that he will be Brandon’s starter this year. He is someone who needs to build confidence and grow his game. I can see him being a later round selection and a goaltender a team can take their time developing.”

For more on WHL prospects, and the 2023 draft class as a whole, be sure to pick up a copy of our 2023 Draft Preview Magazine available later this fall and subscribe to our bi-monthly DraftPro newsletter full of up-to-date info and scouting reports.