As it stands, the 2019 NHL Draft might be fairly quiet for the Canadian Hockey League. The US National Team Development Program, led by projected first-overall pick Jack Hughes, is graced with a strong group of prospects this year. Add to that the increased production of solid prospects out of European leagues, and there appears to be less room at the top of the draft boards for Canadian junior hockey.
Nevertheless, the CHL does hold some elite talent heading into the 2019 Draft. The WHL leads the way, reaping the rewards from a stacked 2016 Bantam Draft with some strong offensive prospects. The OHL has a small group of high-end prospects, but then the talent level falls off slightly after the top few players. As for the QMJHL, Raphael Lavoie could possibly be the only returning Q player taken in the first round. However, the league does hold a fair few prospects who could make a name for themselves in the coming year.
Below I have taken a look at the top returning prospects from each league going into their draft year. For the OHL and the QMJHL I have included the top three. From the WHL, the top four prospects were interchangeable on many draft lists. As a result, I have included all four. At this point in the season, it is more beneficial to get a general idea of the prospects rather than focusing too strictly on rankings.
Bowen Byram – Vancouver Giants – LHD – 6’0, 179 lbs
(Photo: Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)
Byram tops the list of prospects out of the WHL. Earning 27 points in 60 regular season games with the Giants, Byram also posted 7 points in 7 playoff games (3 G, 4A). This was enough to earn him an invite to the U18 World Championships in Russia. He also gained a spot on the Canadian team for the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament. Byram is a strong skater; solid in all directions, with elite acceleration and mobility that drives his two-way game. But what really stands out about Byram is his confidence. He plays like a veteran already- with a high panic threshold, he is easily able to ward off pressure and make smart decisions with the puck. This is aided by great puck movement and stickhandling skills, which make Byram tough to play against as he can easily protect the puck and create separation.
Byram is also solid defensively- his skating allows him to close gaps and match opponents stride-for-stride, and he is good at getting his stick in the way of lanes. While not overly physical, he is not afraid to get under the opposing team’s skin. He is also willing to mix it up when necessary. Expect Byram to have some consideration for the World Juniors team later this year, as he seems like a lock for a high spot in next year’s draft. Only four Giants players have ever been picked in the first round of the NHL draft- Byram will almost definitely be the fifth.
Dylan Cozens – Lethbridge Hurricanes – C/RW – 6’3, 176 lbs
(Photo: Tyler Barrett/Lethbridge Hurricanes)
Cozens was the first Yukon-born player to ever be taken in the first round of the WHL Bantam draft. He did not disappoint in his first full season with the Hurricanes, posting 53 points in 57 games (22 G, 31 A). He also added a further 13 points in 16 playoff games to earn him WHL Rookie of the Year honors. Cozens also scored at a point-per-game pace at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, raising his stock across draft boards. He can only be described as a complete player. His big body allows him to play a very physical game, always finishing his checks, and he is strong down low when battling along the boards. But he also has deceptive acceleration and speed that can drive the play, as well as the soft, skilled hands necessary to make plays at high speeds.
Cozens can also finish. His heavy shot is helped by his size, with a quick, accurate release, and he can score in a variety of different ways in different situations. Expect big things from Cozens this season as he furthers his development with the Hurricanes. Having risen over the summer, his draft stock looks set to soar even further- Josh Williams of NHL Central Scouting admitted that “Cozens could be the top guy right now.”
Peyton Krebs – Kootenay ICE – C/LW – 5’11, 181 lbs
(Photo: Brad McLeod/Kootenay ICE)
Based on eye-test alone, Krebs might be the most dynamic prospect out of the WHL. The 1st overall pick in the 2016 Bantam Draft, he met every single expectation given to him in his rookie year. He put up 14 points in 67 games (16 G, 37 A) during the regular season, and added 5 points in 5 Hlinka games in the summer. Krebs possesses incredible speed, creativity, and skill. Shifty and elusive, he uses his speed to control the pace of play. His mobility makes him especially difficult to defend against as he is able to change directions in a millisecond. He is a talented playmaker, able to find passes through very tight areas, and is more than comfortable passing from his backhand. However, he doesn’t force a pass. A very intelligent player, Krebs knows when to pass and when best to unleash an accurate wrist shot on net.
One thing Krebs is often praised for is his commitment to defense. He is tenacious in all zones, hustling back on defense and supporting his teammates along the boards. Krebs will be leaned on next season as one of the top offensive outputs on the team and will be the go-to guy when looking for that game-changing play. He already has 6 points in 3 pre-season games; if he continues on this trajectory, expect to start hearing a lot more about Krebs in the months leading up to the 2019 NHL Draft.
Kirby Dach – Saskatoon Blades – C – 6’4, 198 lbs
(Photo: Liam Richards/Saskatoon Starphoenix)
Dach plays a very similar game to Cozens. They are both big, creative centers- but where Cozens trumps in skating, Dach wins in sheer playmaking ability. He had 46 points in 52 games last year, leading all WHL rookies in assists (39) and power-play assists (11). Dach also stood out at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, putting up 7 points (2 G, 5 A) in 5 games. Dach has great vision, able to find open teammates anywhere on the ice. He is a confident passer, whether forehand or backhand. Dach also has the patience and strength to hold onto the puck and battle through hits until his man gets open. He is instrumental on the powerplay, dictating the offense for his team, and should become a driving force on the Blades next season.
While clearly offensively-minded, Dach also possesses a solid 200-foot game. He is effective on the forecheck and in using his size to win battles. However, he could stand to be a little more physical, and he drops below the other top WHL draft prospects on many boards due to his average speed. Dach is looking to improve his shot this season, and becoming more of a dual threat will enable him to become an even more dangerous point-producer in his draft year.
Ryan Suzuki – Barrie Colts – C – 6’0, 172 lbs
(Photo: Miranda Zilkowsky Photography)
Suzuki is one of the best playmakers in the draft class. The brother of Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki, Ryan might already be better than Nick was at this stage in his development. He was drafted 1st overall in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, and put up 44 points in 64 games with the Colts last year. He followed that with 4 points (1 G, 3 A) in 12 playoff games. The Hlinka-Gretzky tournament was where Suzuki’s game really took off; he earned 8 points in just 5 games, including 7 assists. His IQ is what really stands out, with an exceptional offensive awareness that drives his game. He processes the game quickly and is always three steps ahead, knowing the location of all players on the ice at all times. This, combined with his pinpoint accurate passing skill, makes him especially dangerous on the powerplay.
Another notable feature of his skillset is his smooth skating. He always has his feet moving, generating a good top speed with an explosive acceleration. This allows him to evade contact or lead a rush after a turnover. Due to his fast processing, Suzuki is able to anticipate plays defensively, handling matters in his own zone with confidence. Heading into next season, Suzuki will be looking to increase his shot production, as that appears to be a rather underutilized weapon right now. With increased responsibilities on the Colts, Suzuki could potentially be the top OHL player taken in next year’s draft.
Arthur Kaliyev – Hamilton Bulldogs – LW – 6’2, 190 lbs
(Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Kaliyev exploded onto the scene last year in his rookie campaign with the Bulldogs. He became the first 16-year-old OHL rookie to score 30 goals in a season since Alex Galchenyuk in 2011. Kaliyev put up 48 points in 68 regular-season games (including 31 goals), then continued this production to help the Bulldogs clinch the league title with 11 points in 21 playoff games. He was also arguably the best player on the USA’s Hlinka-Gretzky team, with 6 points in 5 games. Kaliyev possesses an intriguing blend of power and finesse, with a good top speed. His strength and physicality are advanced, and he is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice. This helps him get set up easily in the crease for rebounds or deflections. He also displays skilled hands, able to beat defenders one-on-one then set up in open ice to unleash his shot.
His shot is the best part of his game; heavy and quick, it often catches goaltenders off guard. He also shows a willingness to shoot from anywhere on the ice. Kaliyev led all OHL rookies with 208 shots on goal last year and will look to continue that production as he heads into his second season. Improving his commitment in the defensive zone will be key for Kaliyev in climbing up the draft boards this year.
Blake Murray – Sudbury Wolves – C – 6’2, 179 lbs
(Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Sometimes overlooked, Murray nevertheless had a strong rookie campaign, earning 44 points in 57 games (21 G, 23 A) last year. He had an impressive season for those paying attention. Murray netted a hat trick in his third game, led the Wolves in scoring as a rookie, and did it all on a team that came last in the league. He is a strong, hard-working center, with a solid top speed and a good all-around game. His size and skating make him effective in all situations, with or without the puck. He is arguably more dangerous in possession, however. Murray combines a shoot-first mentality with a powerful shot, great offensive instincts, and the power to drive the net. Soft hands enable him to easily get around defenders, although he is definitely not afraid to battle where necessary.
While not overly flashy, Murray possesses all the tools to take over a game. Capable on the penalty-kill, strong on face-offs, and with a natural nose for the net, Murray is primed to have a huge season with a newly-bolstered Wolves team. With more help offensively this year, Murray will be able to develop his skill-set without being overloaded with pressure. He will no doubt rise into contention as a high first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Raphaël Lavoie – Halifax Mooseheads – C/RW – 6’4, 192 lbs
(Photo: David Chan/Halifax Mooseheads)
The Mooseheads continue their output of top NHL draft prospects with Lavoie. With his birthday just missing the cut-off for the 2018 draft, Lavoie has a little more experience than most prospects. He played 32 games with Halifax as a 15-year-old before starting his first full season with the team. This meant there was little to no adjustment period; he posted 63 points in 68 games (30 G, 33 A), adding 5 points in 9 playoffs games. This earned him a spot on Canada’s U18 World Championship roster. He ended up leading the team in scoring, with 5 goals in 5 games. An impressive skater for his size, his acceleration and foot speed mean he seems to find breakaway opportunities frequently. Lavoie is difficult to knock off the puck when in possession due to his size and can fight through bodies with ease, protecting the puck with his long reach.
He possesses a rocket of a shot. As a natural sniper, he often creates his own chances from which to get it off. The main thing Lavoie needs to improve is his defensive game, and adding muscle to his big frame will help him in this area. He will have a lot of room to prove himself this season with the Moosehead’s top 3 scorers from last season turning pro, and may also see a spot on the World Juniors roster later this year.
Jakob Pelletier – Moncton Wildcats – LW – 5’9, 161 lbs
(Photo: Daniel St. Louis)
Pelletier could very well be a steal in next year’s draft. He racked up 38 points in 60 games (23 G, 38 A) last season with the Wildcats. Pelletier also had a solid showing at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, earning 2 points (1 G, 1 A) in 4 games before unfortunately breaking his wrist. Despite being undersized, Pelletier makes up for it with no small amount of speed; he is able to dart in and out of spaces with ease, and his creativity keeps him out of trouble. He is tenacious on the attack and has the vision to create chances out of nowhere in the offensive end. When he chooses to shoot the puck himself, he has a quick, accurate shot.
He has earned high praise within the Wildcats organization, with GM Shannon calling him “the best player I have drafted.” He needs to add weight in order to be effective at the next level, and finding out how to do this without compromising his shiftiness will be key for him this year. However, Shannon is confident that he will be a star in the NHL. With the league moving toward a focus on speed rather than size, Pelletier has the potential to be considered a first-round pick for the 2019 NHL Draft.
Samuel Poulin – Sherbrooke Phoenix – C/LW – 6’1, 207 lbs
(Photo: Vincent L. Rousseau)
While not at the top of most draft boards, Poulin certainly has the pedigree to become an NHL player; his father was a former first-round pick in the NHL draft and had a ten-year strong career in the league. Poulin will be looking to follow in his father’s footsteps. Taken 2nd overall at the 2017 QMJHL Draft, Poulin earned 45 points in 55 regular-season games with the Phoenix and led the team with 5 goals across an 11-game playoff run. Comparing himself to Jamie Benn and Leon Draisaitl, Poulin is a strong playmaker, with above-average vision and good instincts in the offensive end as well as a quick, accurate shot. He can also play gritty when necessary, finishing his checks to inject energy into a flagging game, and supports his teammates well when battling it out in the corners.
His potential as a 200-foot player was what made Poulin such an attractive option at the QMJHL Draft. He shows a real commitment to defense. He works hard in all three zones and is reliable at the end of periods when protecting a lead. Poulin needs to prove himself this season if he wants to rise up the rankings, including working on his skating and agility. But he certainly has potential to turn heads this year.
(Parts of this post were aided by Future Considerations early 2019 Draft Rankings.)