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Beyond Bedard, Western prospects will be coveted in the NHL draft

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The final point Connor Bedard tallied in his brilliant draft season was a fluke.

Bedard's Regina Pats faced elimination from the Western Hockey League playoffs when a teammate rebounded his shot from distance in a hectic scramble. Saskatoon Blades defenseman Tanner Molendyk deftly poked the puck in mid-air away from the goal line. Saskatoon's goaltender headed it backward into the net.

The assist was Bedard's 20th point of the opening-round divisional showdown. He bent the series to his will, though the Blades laughed last. They vanquished the Pats in Game 7 before a sellout throng of 14,768 fans at Saskatoon's SaskTel Centre.

"Playing in front of that loud crowd where the building felt like it was going to collapse, it was pretty fun," Molendyk said in a recent interview. "It was like an NHL feel."

The excitement was warranted. A destructive offensive force, Bedard does what he feels like when he handles the puck. Beyond him, his peer group is deep. Prospects from all over Western Canada could be picked in rapid succession next Wednesday night when the NHL draft gets going in Nashville.

Eight first-rounders taken in theScore's latest mock draft hail from the WHL. No other feeder league produced more than five. The best forwards in the batch are complete players who star in every phase of the game. Snipers, playmakers, and electrifying skaters are available further down the board.

The cohort's talent is prodigious. Five draft prospects - Bedard, Zach Benson, Riley Heidt, Andrew Cristall, and Koehn Ziemmer - finished in the top 10 in WHL scoring in 2022-23. Lukas Dragicevic's 27-game point streak is the longest ever authored by a WHL defenseman.

Netminders shine out west, too. Led by Carson Bjarnason, the Brandon Wheat Kings starter who stood tall in Bedard's division, four WHL goalies outrank the finest puck-stopper from Ontario or Quebec in NHL Central Scouting's North American rankings.

"It's a great time for the Western Hockey League," said Marty Murray, the retired NHL forward from Manitoba who is the Wheat Kings' head coach and general manager. "It was fun, but not so fun sometimes to be on the bench against those high-end prospects night in, night out. At the end of the day, it's a treat."

Bedard, an all-world shooter and hockey mastermind who turns 18 in July, was the main attraction in every rink the Pats toured.

The North Vancouver native produced more five-point performances (eight) than zero-point outings (five) during the regular season. His 1.25 goals per game - 71 in 57 - are the most in the WHL since 1991.

Fans worldwide know about his capabilities. Bedard dangled Slovak defenders at separate World Junior Championships to score off a sweet give-and-go sequence and net an overtime beauty in knockout play.

He's bound for the Chicago Blackhawks at first overall. Benson will be snapped up later in the night. The go-to scorer for the Winnipeg Ice, a league finalist this past season, is physically slight but also agile, elusive, feisty, and an advanced hockey thinker.

Benson influences the action loudly and subtly. He buried eight game-winners in his draft year, trailing only Bedard's 11. He one-upped the Pats prodigy in shorthanded goals (6-5). Benson is disruptive on defense - "He's got one of the best sticks I've seen in the 'Dub," Molendyk said - and savvy when he battles for possession.

"He puts his body in places that other guys don't. He'll bump you before he gets the puck. He'll do the little things that go unnoticed," Molendyk said.

"Even as a 15-year-old kid, we were really impressed with his two-way game," said Ice head coach James Patrick. "When the play changes directions, he stops on a dime and he's right back on his pursuit. The word 'fly-by' is not in his vocabulary."

Nate Danielson, co-captain of the Wheat Kings at 18 years old, is similarly attentive and effective everywhere on the ice.

Smooth on the move at 6-foot-2, the center from Red Deer, Alberta, takes big faceoffs, carries the puck gracefully, and has recorded two point-per-game seasons in Brandon. His coach says he's versatile and no-maintenance.

"I view him as a 200-foot center who can transport the puck. I think he's got an outstanding future ahead," Murray said. "(What) excites me is that he can be effective in a lot of ways on the offensive side, from speed to finesse to the power game."

Brayden Yager's explosive, pinpoint release helped him rack up 34 goals for the Moose Jaw Warriors in 2021-22. The Canadian Hockey League rookie of the year that season rounded out his game as a WHL sophomore, doubling his assist total to 50.

"He's got a shot that can beat goaltenders from anywhere. But he doesn't want to be thought of as a one-trick pony," Moose Jaw head coach Mark O'Leary said. "He talked an awful lot about being responsible in all three zones, where I could trust him to play in all situations, and being more of a playmaker. I think he showed both those things this year."

Over in British Columbia, Cristall's craftiness and creativity with the puck wowed Kelowna Rockets supporters. Samuel Honzek left Slovakia's top pro league to join the Vancouver Giants and showcased his motor, slick hands, and fast stride at 6-foot-4.

Heidt is a clever and nifty pure passer from the Prince George Cougars. He tied Bedard for the WHL assist lead with 72 by sensing openings before they materialized and teeing up Ziemmer, the power winger to his right, for blasts.

"He's got that passing deception. He can look guys off. It's a special skill set that he's got," Cougars head coach and GM Mark Lamb said.

"You don't get that many assists without having pretty incredible vision," said Yager, Heidt's former youth teammate in Saskatchewan. "I played with him growing up pretty much my whole life. Scored a lot of goals playing with him. He seems like he's able to find people all over the ice."

Defensemen in this WHL class get overshadowed, but two could be selected in Round 1.

Sparking offense is Dragicevic's specialty. He controls the puck calmly, is quick to jump into the rush, and can shoot or facilitate as the Tri-City Americans' power-play quarterback. Scouts argue his gap control and defensive awareness need refinement, but no draft-eligible blue-liner in the CHL racked up more points (75 in 68 games).

Molendyk throws crunching hits for the Blades and is impressively mobile. His production (37 points) undershot expectations, but his breezy skating unlocks offensive opportunities. Molendyk sidesteps forecheckers, scoots up ice in transition, and dances with the puck at the offensive blue line to open shooting lanes.

"He already skates at an NHL level. His edges are great. His lateral movement, overall speed, and agility is probably the best in the league that I've seen," Blades associate coach Dan DaSilva said.

Defensively, DaSilva added, "He's pretty physical. He shuts down plays fast. It goes back to his skating. The way he's able to close in on players, they think they have more time and space than they have, and all of a sudden he's right there in their face."


Once Chicago drafts Bedard, touted forwards from every hockey superpower will follow him off the board. Probable No. 2 pick Adam Fantilli is from small-town Ontario and stars for the University of Michigan. Massachusetts native Will Smith, Sweden's Leo Carlsson, and Matvei Michkov of Russia are comparably talented.

Western Canadian prospects could headline the rest of the round. The WHL has produced more high picks lately than the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. This year's group has a good chance to consolidate that advantage.

The WHL's identity has evolved over time. Skill abounds league-wide. Speed is emphasized more than it was in past decades. But coaches and players maintain that their particular brand of hockey remains gritty, tests the body and mind, and demands resilience.

Bus rides to faraway barns can crisscross four provinces and veer into Washington or Oregon. Certain WHL road trips take two weeks to complete. O'Leary said players appreciate that the schedule and weather are arduous: "They take pride in finding ways to be great regardless of the circumstance."

"It's a grind. I think that's pretty relatable to how it gets at the next level and the NHL," Danielson said. "Getting in late. That's something that helps all of us."

Nate Danielson. Bill Wippert / NHL / Getty Images

The style of play taxes a prospect, too. Skaters with different strengths can flourish out west if they're willing to pay a price.

"There's still room for the big, physical defenseman and the teams that play an intimidating style," Patrick said. "You go into Red Deer. You know it is going to be intense and it is going to be physical from the drop of the puck. I'd say the same in Lethbridge."

The Ice coach added, "When I think about a player like (Benson), he competes as hard as anyone. Plays with pace. You're going to go into those buildings, you know that they're going to target you. Get to the puck first, move it, keep your feet moving to not get hit, and then how do you battle to get inside?"

Western Canada is vast, and this prospect group's upbringings spanned the region. Molendyk was raised in scenic snowmobiling country in the 600-person British Columbian village of McBride. Danielson rooted for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a young Red Deer Rebels fan and spent untold daylight hours skating on a neighborhood pond with his older brother.

"There would be some days you'd have to run home in your skates. Your laces would be frozen, and we couldn't get them off," Danielson said. "That's really where it all started. A love and a passion for the game grew from there."

As kids, some prospects crossed paths with budding NHL greats. Leon Draisaitl, the Prince Albert Raiders' leading scorer in 2014, visited one of Yager's youth practices with teammate Josh Morrissey that year and handed the awestruck 9-year-old a stick.

"It's hung up in our garage," Yager said.

Brayden Yager. Chase Agnello-Dean / NHL / Getty Images

This year, everyone witnessed Bedard's excellence from up close. Entire crowds buzzed when he touched the puck and expanded his highlight reel. Coaches who fretted about containing his dazzling rushes still felt lucky to be part of the spectacle. Prince George hosted the Pats once and was fortunate to limit Bedard to a pair of snipes, Lamb said: "He could have scored 10 goals that night."

On Moose Jaw's nights off, O'Leary sometimes drove 40 minutes to Regina to take in Pats contests from the stands.

"You can do all the game-planning and talk about him as much as you want," O'Leary said, "but he's so good and so dangerous all the time. It doesn't matter whether he's killing a penalty or on the power play or anything in between. (To see him) score when there's seemingly nothing there, it's fun to watch as a fan."

Defending him is less enjoyable, but the Blades withstood Bedard's 20-point postseason barrage, delighting the SaskTel Centre faithful. When Saskatoon's playoff run ended, DaSilva raved over the phone about Molendyk's ferocity as a competitor and desire to handle the toughest matchups.

Being in the spotlight suits Molendyk, the coach said. At 18 years old, he's convinced Molendyk could take an NHL shift.

"Just by the way he skates, he'd be more than fine," DaSilva said. "I'm not saying he'd go out there and dominate or have five points. But with the way he skates, you'd notice him in an NHL game. You could put him on the ice even against some of the best players in the world."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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