By Andy Eide
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The 2019 NHL Draft saw a strong showing from the Western Hockey League.
The WHL led the way this past weekend with 28 players selected, more than any other feeder league or organization. Seven players went in the first round and by the end of the weekend at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, all five U.S. Division teams in the WHL had players drafted.
In total, 10 U.S. Division players were chosen, although Dillon Hamaliuk, who was picked in the second round by the San Jose Sharks was traded out of the division in May from the Seattle Thunderbirds to the Kelowna Rockets.
Counting Hamaliuk as a U.S. Division player, it turned out to be one of the biggest draft classes the division has seen.
Adam Beckman – Third round, pick 75 – Minnesota Wild
The Saskatoon native, Beckman, is coming off a 32-goal, 62-point rookie campaign with the Spokane Chiefs. He led the Chiefs in goals scored, which is remarkable considering he had played in one WHL game prior to the 2018-2019 season.
Facing the prospect of playing on the fourth line with limited minutes a season ago, Beckman stayed in Midget hockey with the Battleford Stars in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League for the 2017 season. It was a choice that would allow him to play more minutes and further his development. It paid off as he recorded 44 goals, 34 assists and 78 points in 41 game with the Stars.
He showed that he was ready for the step up in competition during the Everett Preseason Tournament last Labor Day weekend, scoring four times in three games.
“Anytime you can put some goals in the net, it gives you a little bit of confidence,” Beckman said Saturday about the preseason. “That was the biggest thing for me. I kind of got off to a good start early and I think that kind of helped me progress as the year went on.”
With an injury to Chiefs star Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Beckman stepped up and took advantage to help fill the void.
Anderson-Dolan was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2017 and is one of several Spokane players who had been through the NHL Draft process. That includes New Jersey Devils former first-rounder Ty Smith.
They were guys that Beckman could lean on.
“I’ve got two teammates that have been through it and they’re awesome guys,” Beckman said. “They led me through it, they talked to me. As the day went on, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was getting really nervous. They just talked to me and told me ‘you never know what’s going to happen, just remain calm and try to enjoy it as much as you can.’”
John Ludvig – Third round, pick 69 – Florida Panthers
As the first Winterhawk drafted in Vancouver, Ludvig is coming off a season with Portland that saw him develop into a solid shut-down defenseman.
He got a ton of ice time in 2018-2019, something which should increase even more in the coming year, and often was relied on by head coach Mike Johnston to take on the opposing club’s top scoring lines.
A physical defenceman, Ludvig also chipped in with five goals and 13 assists over 58 games with the Winterhawks.
Reece Newkirk – Fifth round, pick 147 – New York Islanders
Not afraid to go into the so-called dirty areas on the ice, Newkirk is a player that is tough to play against and can be a bit of an agitator. His production in 2018-2019 jumped from eight goals and 11 points to 23 goals and 59 points.
That emergence gave the Winterhawks some much needed scoring depth down the middle, and with some sandpaper to boot.
With league leading scorer Joachim Blichfeld and Vegas Golden Knights top prospect Cody Glass headed to the pro ranks next season, Portland will lean more on Newkirk. Don’t be surprised to find him manning the top center position for the Winterhawks. You might also find him mixing it up in front of the opposing goalie’s crease.
Gianni Fairbrother – Third round, pick 77 – Montreal Canadiens
After an injury in December of 2017 limited him to 33 games in his rookie season, Fairbrother broke out this past year on the Everett blueline.
A physical defenseman, he also contributed offensively with 10 markers and 36 points. It was a stark improvement from the offensive numbers he had put up in Bantam and Midget hockey – where he never scored as much as he did for the Silvertips last season.
“My awareness with the puck,” he said on Saturday about where he felt he improved. “Offensive play with the puck and having more confidence out there making plays. Just kept working on my creativity, so I think that’s been the big thing for me.”
Hailing from nearby North Vancouver, Saturday’s draft was a special day as he got to share it with family, friends, and a vocal contingent of Everett fans that made the trek up to Rogers Arena.
“I wasn’t really too sure what to expect,” Fairbrother said. “Obviously I was hoping to end up getting picked at some point. For it to be in this spot I’m really happy and it’s a really cool feeling.”
Dustin Wolf – Seventh round, pick 214 – Calgary Flames
One of the more fascinating mysteries of the draft would be when and where Wolf would be selected. The American-born goalie put up eye-popping numbers for the Silvertips this past season, his first as the number one netminder.
His 41-15-2-2 record, 1.69 goals-against average, and .963 save-percentage were among the tops in the CHL. He was the Silvertips workhorse, appearing in all but seven of their games last season.
The only knock on him appears to have been his size.
With taller, over 6-foot-2, goalies the trend in the NHL, Wolf’s listed 5-foot-11 frame scared most teams away from drafting him. As Saturday’s session wore on, goalie after goalie were selected before him, all taller, but without numbers nearly as strong.
While he sweated it out in the stands with his family, the relief and joy finally came, courtesy of the Calgary Flames, who selected him in the seventh round. As he heads to the Flames prospect camp later this summer, he can begin to try and prove the doubters wrong.
Sasha Mutala – Fifth round, pick 140 – Colorado Avalanche
By all appearances the Avalanche had a good draft weekend in Vancouver and added what could turn into a sneaky good pick in the fifth round. Mutala put up crazy numbers in Bantam and has shown he has a scorer’s touch in the WHL.
After an 11-goal rookie campaign as a 16-year-old he upped that number to 20 goals and 41 assists for Tri-City this past season. He has the skill and potential to score even more and as he steps into a bigger role for the Americans, could develop into a strong prospect for Colorado.
Henrik Rybinski – Fifth round, pick 136 – Florida Panthers
Rybinski, who was attending a driver’s ed class in Vancouver when he was drafted, was a mid-season pick up for the Thunderbirds and turned out to be a key part of their second half resurgence.
Coming over from the Medicine Hat Tigers, the relentless forechecking machine scored seven times with 28 assists for 35 points in 33 games with Seattle. He’s tall and lanky but played much bigger for the Thunderbirds.
“I’m a little skinny, not going to lie, I’m kind of skinny,” he said with a chuckle at the draft Saturday. “Just keep getting stronger and work on my skills. My shooting, I think that’s an area of my game to work on.”
Rybinski set up his teammates nicely last season and an improved shot would make him more of a threat for Seattle in the coming year.
Roddy Ross – Sixth round, pick 169 – Philadelphia Flyers
Ross’ accession to the WHL and to becoming an NHL Draft pick is one for the ages. Discovered by one of the Thunderbirds owners at an Alberta Junior Hockey League game, the 6-foot-4 Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan product was listed by Seattle and brought in on New Year’s Day.
He then took over the Seattle net, led the Thunderbirds to the playoffs and got drafted.
Saturday, he claimed he wasn’t nervous waiting to see if he would get selected.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said Saturday. “He’s pretty cool as a cucumber in there. He doesn’t get too rattled or show stress in the net. I’m sure the butterflies are going now and there’s a pretty good celebration back home.”
Matthew Wedman – Seventh round, pick 199 – Florida Panthers
As a 19-year-old, Wedman was in his last year of NHL Draft eligibility. The big, 6-foot-3 center was passed over twice before but turned in a monster 40-goal season for the Thunderbirds.
He was one of the best players over the second half of the WHL season and had he not been drafted, would have ended up in an NHL development camp as a free agent. The Panthers didn’t allow that to happen and selected him to ensure they would get a look at him.
“He’s on the rise,” O’Dette said from Rogers Arena Saturday. “He’s come a long way. I think he’s earned the right to get drafted … hell of a season from Weds. He’ll have a future in hockey for sure.”
Whether that future is in Seattle remains to be seen. Wedman could be sent to Florida’s AHL team in Springfield next year as he is old enough for pro hockey. While that would be great for his future, it would be a blow to Seattle’s offensive production this season.