Many a wise coach has said, all the credit goes to the players.
After all, it’s the players making the plays that win or lose games.
With that in mind, any successful Western Hockey League team relies on its scouting staff to find class after class of talent and character to work with and help keep the club competitive.
This season the East Division welcomes the next generation with a 24-game sprint in the hub city of Regina and when you talk about these newcomers the term exceptional applies.
As discussed last week, there’s plenty for Winnipeg ICE fans to look forward to with a trio of eye-catching Manitoba forwards on the way.
Conor Geekie, second-overall in the 2019 WHL Draft, is generating a buzz and for good reason. At 6-foot-4 and more-than 200 pounds Geekie is both a physical presence and a smart player.
Look for the Yellowhead Chiefs U-18 AAA product to slot in at centre and get plenty of minutes under James Patrick’s tutelage.
A better than point-per-game player with the Chiefs last season, Geekie already has a feel for the WHL thanks to a seven-game introduction on the wing last season.
Slick offensive dynamo Skyler Bruce torched defences in the Canadian Sports School Hockey League last season with the Northern Alberta X-treme and will get a chance to contribute in a deep ICE forward group.
While feisty Chase Bertholet is set to show what his hustle-based game can do in the Dub following a couple of productive seasons with Prince Albert at the U-18 AAA level.
Defender Owen Boucher and goalie Daniel Hauser arrive from Alberta as 2004-borns eager to learn and earn playing time too.
One player everyone will be watching for when the action begins in the Saskatchewan capital is Connor Bedard of host Regina Pats, selected first overall in the 2020 WHL Draft.
An honour placing Bedard alongside the likes of reigning Western League rookie of the year Dylan Guenther, ICE captain and Vegas first-rounder Peyton Krebs, and NHL gems like Mathew Barzal and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
But what adds even more to the story is Bedard was born in 2005.
So how does a player in his 15-year-old season get full-time playing privileges?
Last year BC Hockey and Hockey Canada granted the centre from BC exceptional player status, making the West Van Academy Prep skater the first to earn that tag in league history.
It’s a designation placing Bedard in a club containing just six others including Leafs’ captain John Tavares, Oilers’ megastar Connor McDavid, and most recently Shane Wright who gained widespread attention with 39 goals and 66 points as a 15-year-old with Kingston of the OHL in 2019-20.
As if that wasn’t enough to make a young guy’s head spin, Connor also got a call from Wayne Gretzky to offer congratulations and support.
Have I mentioned Connor won’t be 16 until this summer?
Blessed with the kind of vision that makes his teammates better, a wicked shot, and the ability to stickhandle through traffic the B.C.-product spent part of last fall in Sweden honing his craft with HV71.
And, his arrival on the prairies is so highly-anticipated some Regina hockey fans are disappointed Bedard hasn’t been training in the Saskatchewan capital. Instead, Bedard has worked out in his home province including a spell with the West Kelowna Warriors of the BCHL.
But worry not, he’ll be there soon enough and he will be front-and-centre from puck drop when things get started in the upcoming WHL season.
While Connor Bedard has earned the headlines, it’s important to acknowledge the talent arriving in the remaining East Division markets in 2021.
Here’s a glance at some of the other prospects to watch for when the action returns.
Brandon Wheat Kings:
The Wheaties had three first round picks in 2019 and took talented forwards Nate Danielson, Tyson Zimmer and Rylen Roersma.
Danielson joined Mathew Savoie on Canada’s bronze medal winning team at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics and was selected fifth overall, one spot ahead of Zimmer who hails from Russell, MB. Roersma, 16th overall, has impressed in U-18 play with Lethbridge.
Moose Jaw Warrriors:
Manitoba’s Denton Mateychuk also represented Canada at those Youth Olympics and the 11th overall pick in 2019 was a blueline standout for the Eastman Selects U-18 AAA while also showing his potential in spells with the Warriors and with Steinbach (MJHL).
Swift Current Broncos:
A teammate of Connor Bedard’s comes next, forward Mathew Ward recorded 64 points in 34 games with West Van Academy Prep.
The 14th pick in the 2019 draft joins fellow forward Josh Davies and Toba’s own Reid Dyck, a talented goaltender, as key parts of the Broncos plans to return to contention after investing heavily en route to winning the title in 2018.
In Saskatoon, slick forward Brandon Lisowsky, a top ten selection in the 2019 draft, can’t be ignored. Lisowsky had 19 points in 13 outings with Burnaby Winter Club Prep U-18’s in 2019-20.
2003-born defencemen Spencer Shugrue and Marek Schneider (brother of NYR first rounder Braden) are also among those to look for when the Blades hit the ice.
Prince Albert Raiders:
The Raiders took big forward Niall Crocker with the last pick of the first round in 2019, but don’t let that fool you.
Every bit a first-round talent, Crocker is on the Hockey Canada radar as part of the U-17 program and has shown progress in limited duty with the respected Delta Hockey Academy U-18’s.
WORD TO THE WISE
While identifying the East Division’s up-and-comers is an interesting and worthwhile exercise you know as well as I do that there will be surprises and disappointments as the next generation of players join the league.
Development can also be a long-and-winding road with success not often coming in a straight line, so what happens to start with is often just the beginning of the story.
One thing is for sure, it will be interesting to watch.
Actually, make that “exceptionally” interesting to watch!