2020 NHL Draft Profiles: WHL Forwards
We leave the Great Lakes for the West Coast in this edition of our 2020 NHL Draft coverage
Featuring the hardest list (so far) for us to agree on, there are just so many intriguing draft-eligible forwards playing in the Western Hockey League this year.
Beyond the top tier of Seth Jarvis and Connor Zary — two bonafide first-round picks — the players we feature below range between the second- and fourth-rounds. All nine forwards feature strong vision, an element the Sens currently have in Drake Batherson and Logan Brown, but not anywhere else.
Ozzy Wiesblatt (RW)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|Prince Albert Raiders||WHL||5'10"||183 lbs||32 - 56||#19 (NA)|
A smart, high energy, two-way winger, Wiesblatt was drafted by one of the WHL’s best clubs in Prince Albert and has immediately had an impact. It’s to be expected for Wiesblatt, who combines dazzling puck skills at times with a motor that allows him to outwork you.
In 2018-19 Wiesblatt recorded 39 points in 64 games — good enough for 10th on the Raiders and ranked sixth in points-per-game among 2020 draft eligibles, below the WHL’s first ‘tier’ of Seth Jarvis and Connor Zary, and just under Justin Sourdif and Connor McClennon. After winning the WHL championship, eight of Prince Albert’s top-10 scorers left via graduation or trade, including Ottawa’s Parker Kelly. It meant a top-line spot was open, and Wiesblatt emerged as a leader on the team alongside Caps prospect Alexei Protas and 2020 draft eligibles like Kaiden Guhle and Landon Kosior.
Wiesblatt’s on-ice production matched his opportunity, putting up 25 goals and 45 assists for 70 points in 64 games for a Raiders team that ranked third in the WHL’s Eastern Conference when the season was cancelled. That was good enough for 17th in league scoring and fifth in points-per-game among draft eligibles. While 27 of his points came on the Raiders’ deadly powerplay, he also ranked seventh among draft-eligible WHL forwards in even-strength primary points-per-game (EV P1/GP).
Every time he’s on the ice, Wiesblatt is involved in the play. When I look at Mitch Brown’s CHL tracking data, I see one of the most balanced skillsets in the draft class for players outside of the top-12. Brown has anywhere between five and 15 games tracked for most of the CHLers in his database at 5-on-5, and Wiesblatt ranks at or above the 80th percentile in many of the categories. He’s a volume shooter (shots per 60), but fares well in two important passing characteristics (expected primary assists per 60; shot assists per 60). He’s a machine at attempting controlled entries with the puck, ranking as Brown’s top skater in that metric. What’s important is that he’s also very involved in the defensive zone, successfully skating the puck out at a high rate (controlled exits relative%; success rate relative %; controlled exits per 60; exit turnover rate relative %). He’s involved in backchecks, and is often playing a retrieval role in both the defensive zone and offensive zone.
With all of this activity, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Wiesblatt fares well as a possession winger (shot share relative %). In Will Scouch’s dataset, when Wiesblatt is on the ice, only 28% of the team’s shots come from low-danger opportunities — the lowest among his tracked players. The systems the Raiders use and the skillset of Wiesblatt and his teammates allow the team to generate high-end opportunities consistently.
Ozzy Wiesblatt (2020) leads this year's CHL Tracking Project in controlled entries per 60 with 22.— Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown) March 22, 2020
Crossovers, deception, changes in speed, handling, and off-puck acceleration -- here's how Wiesblatt combines all of those elements for transition success. pic.twitter.com/eeSeNfrqdJ
How does he do it? While the video above highlights the versatility of his skating, I should also note that his top speed is just as explosive as some of the top players in this draft class, and really allows him to create entries out of nothing and just cover a lot of ground overall. I’ve been impressed with Wiesblatt’s creativity and decision-making, especially in tight spaces, and his tendency to threaten the opposition by cutting into the middle of the ice. At 5-foot-10, Wiesblatt isn’t the biggest player, so having the skating and the tenacity to successfully challenge older and stronger players is a positive sign for him being able to transition his game to the pro level. His passing is more dangerous than his shot, with Wiesblatt comfortable on both his forehand and backhand when threading pucks to teammates and is adept with using his hands and feet together to create lanes or open up shooting opportunities.
Wiesblatt and his family also has a story you want to root for, as the third of four brothers who have played hockey in the WHL. Raised primarily by his single mother Kim after a divorce when his eldest brother was 15, all the Wiesblatt kids (and Jake Neighbours) learned sign language to communicate with her as she lives with hearing loss. You can learn more about Wiesblatt in his own words here.
Why is someone with his talent not a consensus first-rounder? Wiesblatt hasn’t fared well in best-on-best play. He was invisible in the CHL Top Prospects game earlier this year, and only had one point in five games at the Hlinka. The WHL playoffs would’ve been a prime opportunity for Wiesblatt to shout back at his detractors with his play, but he won’t get that opportunity. There weren’t many weaknesses noted in the reports that I read, other than scouts noting that they want to see an improvement in both strength and in-zone offensive creativity to diversify his toolkit beyond the rush. Next season, you can expect Wiesblatt to take on an all-situations role and utilize his defensive skillset on the penalty kill. He definitely has the hockey sense and skating to succeed in that role, and adding that extra versatility will only help him in the pro ranks.
Justin Sourdif (C)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|Vancouver Giants||WHL||5'11"||165 lbs||34 - 81||#23 (NA)|
I’ll be the first to say that I am higher on Sourdif than most, so expect this profile to be a bit more glowing than what you’ll read elsewhere. A centreman for the Vancouver Giants, Sourdif is a well-rounded prospect, who similarly to Anton Lundell has had a few of his offensive traits looked over because of his stellar play in other areas. But don’t be fooled, because Sourdif is a really versatile player who can make himself effective in mays.
What first caught my eye with researching Sourdif this year was his gaudy statistical profile. On the surface his 54 points in 57 games is pretty middle-of-the-road for a mid-round prospect, plus the raw totals fell below expectations for those who were expecting him to build more from his impressive 0.72 points per game in 2018-19. But there’s a few things that need to be taken into account, most notably that the Giants were a pretty weak team offensively this season, surviving mostly off goaltending and strong defence. Sourdif was a part of that two-way core, though, playing some of the hardest minutes in the WHL.
A few notable stats about Sourdif:
- 22 of his 26 goals came at even strength, ranking behind Seth Jarvis and Tristen Robins amongst draft-eligible WHL forwards.
- He was one of the WHL’s premiere play-drivers, with his relative GF% of +19.59 ranking 3rd in the entire league (minimum 30 GP).
- From Mitch Brown’s tracking data, he grades extremely positively in his impact on generating expected goals, and is positive in nearly every other facet./
It’s a testament to Sourdif’s all-around ability that he managed to have as much of an offensive impact as he had while simultaneously leading one of the WHL’s best defensive squads. I’ve seen quotes from scouts bumping him down for having low “compete” or “character level”. They’re claims that don’t deserve credence and have been shut down by his coach, but they’re hardly surprising to come from hockey circles given he’s one of the draft’s few Black players.
A sizeable amount of prospects coming from the WHL this year are on the smaller side, but what separates Sourdif from the pack is that he can still engage physically and handle himself well despite being 5’11”. He’s consistently a hard-working and energetic player who isn’t afraid to get into puck battles, and while he still has to build out his frame to help increase his effectiveness, his continuous engagement in all zones makes him one of the draft’s more projectable players to play at higher levels.
A common concern for Sourdif is his lack of offensive flair — he isn’t the most explosive skater, but he makes up for it with subtle plays and deceptiveness which netted him as many goals as he did. Even with his stride he can be unpredictable in transition, making a quick shift past a defender leading to a scoring chance. Even his shot is one of my favourites of the draft, with a sneaky amount of power and a quick snap that also helps him fool goalies off the rush.
You won’t see Sourdif on the highlight reels stickhandling in tight or making the most creative passing plays, but he’s very smart with his how he maneuvers with and without the puck on his stick, which to me is a massive trait when trying to project a prospect’s future. It’s made him very successful thus far, making him a prospect I’d love to see in a Senators uniform.
Jack Finley (C)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|Spokane Chiefs||WHL||6'5"||207 lbs||73 - 106||#38 (NA)|
A player who features a 6-foot-5 frame and put up 57 points in 61 games this year while being one of the youngest (September 2nd, 2002) players in the class? Call me intrigued.
Ranked as a third-rounder by most sources but 55th in Bob McKenzie’s rankings, Jack Finley was the sixth overall pick in the 2017 WHL Draft. Unlike some of the other players we’ve profiled, Finley took a little while to get going — putting up just 19 points in 63 games with Spokane last season before really turning it on in the playoffs for eight points in 15 games. This past season, he was an all-situations centre who was heavily relied on by ex-Edmonton Oilers assistant and former Swift Current Broncos head coach Manny Viveiros as a true 17-year-old. His 57 points in 61 games ranked fifth on Spokane and 10th among draft-eligible forwards in the WHL. What stands out is his even-strength production, with only Seth Jarvis having more primary assists at even-strength among draft eligibles than Finley and his 0.59 even-strength primary points-per-game rate only ranking behind Jarvis, Robins, Zary, Sourdif, and Novak.
Finley’s vision is his standout skill, with Mitch Brown’s CHL tracking data ranking him around the 90th percentile in all three passing metrics — expected primary assists per 60, shot assists per 60, and transition shot assists per 60. His size allows him to compete with older players on a shift-by-shift basis, and he utilizes his long, powerful skating stride to drive the centre-lane during zone entries at an astonishing rate. After passing the puck, he doesn’t hesitate to push his way to the front of the net to battle for pucks in the crease, and when he started to receive time on the team’s first powerplay unit, many of his 10 points came from being a presence in and around the net. In Brown’s dataset, Finley also ranked above the 80th percentile in breaking up plays, his involvement on zone exits, and importantly, his shot share.
Only Tyson Foerster and Tristin Robins have had a bigger increase in production from their draft-1 year to this year. Some of that has to do with his increased role, with Pick224’s estimated time-on-ice metric (eTOI) showing an increase in minutes from 12:88 to 15:18 per game, but also with Finley growing into his game:
“His game has come a really long way,” Central Scouting’s John Williams said. “I first saw him as a 15-year-old, and even as a 16-year-old last year he had some trouble at times. He’s a big kid and he had a little bit of trouble with the pace at times. Part of it had to do with a lack of strength in his legs and he just couldn’t get up and down [the ice] as well, would tire easily. He’s obviously really worked at it, he’s improved significantly. ... He’s a very smart player. His details are very good, his positioning is very good, good face-off guy, uses his reach very well defensively, takes away space, takes away lanes, takes away time for guys. Offensively I think he’s more of a pass-first kind of guy. He sees it well, he’s good down low, using his reach, taking a hit along the boards and still being able to use his reach to get the puck to an open guy.”
The report reminds me of Logan Brown, and the comparisons extend further than just being a big centre with high-end vision who has to work on playing with pace. Like Logan’s father Jeff Brown, Jack’s father Jeff Finley played in the NHL for 15 seasons (708 GP), and is now a scout for the Winnipeg Jets. Unlike Logan, Jack won’t have the same pressure and expectations that comes with being a high first-round pick, and will get to quietly develop a game that’s already looking more well-rounded than the extra offensive flair Brown brings.
That Finley was used in such a versatile role at 17 makes me only wonder how he’ll continue to grow with more repetitions next season, where Spokane should have the WHL’s leading scorer Adam Beckman returning as they attempt to win a championship. With Beckman’s regular centre Eli Zummack graduating out of the program, there’s a spot there for Finley to see an explosion in point production given new offensive opportunity. Both Beckman and Finley are invited to Team Canada’s summer development camp.
Ultimately, a team drafting Finley is taking a bet on one of the draft’s youngest players who put up top-end production at even-strength and looks to take advantage of even more opportunity next season. In my mind, that’s a good combination for a player who features a safe ceiling as a third-line centre and could turn into something more.
14-year-old Finley was also featured in a minor league documentary that you can find on YouTube.
Tristen Robins (C)
|Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|Saskatoon Blades||WHL||5'10"||174 lbs||30 - 95||#86 (NA)|
Aaaaaaand we’re back to the short bois. Missed them yet? Tristen Robins has been one of the biggest risers of the draft, seemingly rising even more into the off-season as people are going back to watch more Saskatoon games. He’s Central Scouting’s 86th ranked North American skater, so it’s a bit of an uphill battle to project Robins as a second- or even third-round pick. But while his 5’10” height could potentially be a limiting factor at higher levels, it’s hard to not love everything else Robins brings to the table.
For starters, he scores a lot. His 73 points in 62 games was triple the rate he produced the previous season, particularly exploding in the back half of the year where he was one of the best players in the entire WHL, second in P/GP behind only Seth Jarvis. Some quick draft-year P/GP comparables show names like Dylan Cozens, Jake DeBrusk, and even last year’s 3rd overall pick from the same team, Kirby Dach. All these players have a different approach to the game and have seen different paths to success, though, but I’m convinced Robins has a good chance of following through.
Despite his size, Robins is a sound skater with fantastic versatility in all three zones. He plays with quick pace in the offensive zone, as he can be dangerous as both a shooting and passing option. He isn’t afraid to battle for pucks and get to the centre of the ice either, which helped him become one of the WHL’s premiere players at generating expected goals. His coach also trusted him to play on both the power play and penalty kill — in essence, his skillset is already complete to the point where it’s hard to really point out major flaws. Playing in a larger role this year gave him the opportunity to showcase his combination of smarts with fantastic skating, turning him into one of the draft’s best kept secrets as a potential hidden gem.
What bumps him out of first round rankings mostly comes down to his size and strength. He wasn’t very effective for Saskatoon as a transitional player, as even with his speed he would have a hard time getting past the blue line with the puck. It’s a common concern with a handful of WHL forwards this year as you’ll see in the honourable mentions, but even with all of Robins’ confidence and tenacity it’s the biggest thing he’ll need to improve.
The good news is that strength is a very workable trait to build on. His coaches have raved about his work ethic, and the way he skates with a lower centre of gravity gives me hope that it’s not going to be as big a problem down the road. The NHL continues to be more conducive for small player like Robins, which all together has me convinced he’s a prospect worth taking a chance on.
|Player||Pos||Team||League||Height||Weight||Expected Range||NHL Rank|
|Ridly Greig||LW||Brandon Wheat Kings||WHL||5'11"||159 lbs||27 - 85||#14 (NA)|
|Jake Neighbours||LW||Edmonton Oil Kings||WHL||5'11"||201 lbs||33 - 61||#26 (NA)|
|Connor McClennon||RW||Winnipeg Ice||WHL||5'8"||157 lbs||47 - 94||#65 (NA)|
|Cross Hanas||LW||Portland Winterhawks||WHL||6'1"||165 lbs||74 - 108||#58 (NA)|
|Pavel Novak||RW/LW||Kelowna Rockets||WHL||5'10"||170 lbs||57 - 93||#85 (NA)|
Like with the OHL forwards last week, there’s a strong group of WHLers this year. These are some others that although may not be our favourites of the crop are still deserving of a shoutout.
- Heralded as the buzzsaw player of the draft, Ridly Greig packs a tremendous amount of energy every time he steps on the ice. He’s a bit slight at 5’11”, but he plays with the confidence of a 6’4” giant with his physicality. He has some good playmaking abilities too and is confident with his stickhandling. He’s also one of the draft’s youngest players, but the million dollar question is whether his ceiling is higher than a bottom-six winger.
- 70 points in 64 games is a lot, and that was the statline of Jake Neighbours, a winger for the Edmonton Oil Kings. While a sizeable chunk of that came from secondary assists, he’s a talented dual-threat player who doesn’t really have the “wow” factor in the offensive zone, but can get the job done. There’s plenty of room for improvement with his skating stride, but for an 18-year-old he plays a very complete game.
- Connor McClennon scales in at 5’8”, which will be the primary factor for if he drops outside of the first two rounds. He was over a point-per-game player on a strong Winnipeg Ice roster, was fantastic at driving play whenever he hit the ice, and then his season was cut off due to a broken collarbone. He’s a fantastic stickhandler and smart player who can use his teammates effectively. But the height and strength concerns are still very imminent, which will be an obstacle he’ll have to overcome at higher levels.
- Want a player with top-10 even-strength production in the league (comparable to Jack Finley) but will likely get drafted much later? Meet Portland’s Cross Hanas, a hard-working winger from Texas (!) who features explosive acceleration, decisive hands-in-tight, and a grittiness to his game that will only expand once he adds some strength to his 165-pound frame. He features top-end passing ability, ranking well in both shot assists and transition shot assists in Brown’s CHL dataset, and loves the centre-line drive on the zone entry. Hanas played second fiddle to Seth Jarvis this season, bouncing around the bottom-six until the calendar turned to 2020, but looks in line to cement himself into a scoring role next season. You can read a detailed breakdown of Hanas’ game here.
- Jumping from the U19 league in the Czech Republic to the Kamloops Blazers, Pavel Novak had 58 points in 55 games and was only outscored by four draft-eligible WHL forwards at even-strength. Expected to be taken in the third- or fourth-round, the right-shot winger loves to play with the puck and set-up teammates in transition. He needs to add a gear to his skating ability and continue to add strength so he can charge the middle of the ice, which will only open up more space for him to consistently and efficiently distribute the puck./
More Draft Coverage
|--- Individual Profiles ---||--- Grouped Profiles ---|
|Alexis Lafrenière||First Round Forwards|
|Quinton Byfield||First Round Defencemen|
|Lucas Raymond||OHL Forwards|
|Tim Stützle||WHL Forwards|
|Jamie Drysdale||QMJHL Forwards|
|Marco Rossi||Next week: USDP Skaters|