The Western Hockey League (WHL) has forged an identity as being the toughest league to play in in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) circuit. They may not have the high-flying scorers like the Ontario Hockey League or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but they fight for every inch of the ice, playing, hard, grinding hockey to get the job done.
However, that might be starting to change. The 2018 Draft saw a record low of just 20 WHL prospects selected to NHL teams, a drop of 13 selections from the previous year. Only two were selected in the first round, Ty Smith, a skilled defenceman for the Spokane Chiefs, and Alexander Alexeyev, a more physical defenceman from the Red Deer Rebels. The following season saw a jump to 28 selections – still on the lower end – but that count included Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram, and Dylan Cozens all selected in the top 10. Those weren’t physical, grinding players – they had high-end skill, expected to give their respective franchises a huge boost.
Thanks to that shift in 2018, the number of WHL players taken in the draft has been steadily increasing, and now in 2022, fans could see the highest numbers of prospects selected in eight seasons. While some of the league’s top prospects up for the draft fit that classic mould, several others are direct contrasts to it and will be high picks. There is a wide variety of skills and abilities coming from the WHL now, but they still know how to work hard and get the job done, making it a league to watch at the 2022 Draft.
10 – Fraser Minten, C, Kamloops Blazers
NHL Central Scouting rank: 28th (among NA skaters)
On a team with Logan Stankoven leading the offence, plus several top prospects up for the 2022 NHL Draft, Fraser Minten has gotten lost somewhat in the mix. He scored 20 goals and 55 points in his rookie season, plus another 16 points in 17 playoff appearances before the Kamloops Blazers were eliminated by the Seattle Thunderbirds. But scouts aren’t intrigued by his offence as much as they are his all-around ability. He’s so calm in any situation and rarely makes a mistake, which has stabilized the Blazers’ second line, but he also possesses an incredible work ethic, making him a valuable player in every situation.
While Minten may not be the flashiest player or have the highest upside, he projects to be a very reliable two-way center that can anchor a team’s fourth line or penalty kill, making him a very low-risk addition on draft day. It’s a big part of why he’s ranked within the top 100, and as one of the youngest players in his draft class, the potential to add strength and boost his offence is tantalizing, to say the least.
9 – Jordan Gustafson, C, Seattle Thunderbirds
NHL Central Scouting rank: 43rd (among NA skaters)
Everything that Jordan Gustafson does, he does with speed. He’s got fantastic movement, able to get up to top speed quickly and change direction on a dime, taking advantage of any gap he’s given, no matter how small. He has a quick release on both his shots and passes, which helped him rack up 23 goals and 52 points in 58 games, placing him fourth in goals on the Thunderbirds. Even without the puck, he’s always willing to get himself into a position to help his team, even physically despite his 5-foot-11 frame, and rarely makes any mistakes.
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
Earlier this season, he was considered a first-round pick, but the hype has fallen somewhat around him as he doesn’t possess the most dynamic vision or creativity, but he still projects to be a capable, middle-six player who can drive the play. Think of a Blake Coleman-type player, who has speed to burn, but is at his best in a depth role. He has the trust of his coaches, which will only increase next season, and he’s a physical player despite his smaller 5-foot-11 frame. If he makes the NHL, he may not be a game-breaking star, but Coleman still has two Stanley Cup rings, because those players know how to get the job done.
8 – Reid Schaefer, LW, Seattle Thunderbirds
NHL Central Scouting rank: 31st (among NA skaters)
Reid Schaefer’s draft value has been skyrocketing lately, jumping up from a ‘C’ rating in November from the NHL’s Central Scouting to a first-round pick on Craig Button’s latest draft ranking. A lot of his rise has been thanks to his incredible playoff heroics with the Thunderbirds, where he finished third on the team with 21 points in 25 games. Though, it certainly didn’t hurt that he finished the regular season with 32 goals, which ranked fourth among first-time draft-eligible players in the league.
Schaefer also caught the attention of The Hockey Writers’ Mark Scheig, who featured him in his 10 Biggest Draft Risers, saying, “After scoring just three points in his first 25 games with Seattle, Schaefer exploded for 32 and 58 points this season while being a point per game player in the WHL playoffs. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Schaefer could become a sought-after power forward teams are desperately looking for.”
7 – Mats Lindgren, D, Kamloops Blazers
NHL Central Scouting rank: 47th (among NA skaters)
There’s no question that Mats Lindgren is a dynamic offensive presence on the blue line. In his first full WHL season, he put up 44 points in 68 games and was selected to take part in the Top Prospects Game. He carries the puck up the ice quickly, can evade almost any opponent, and has a great sense of developing plays. If he continues to progress, he could very well be a top-four defender with the capacity to put up 40 points in the NHL.
However, scouts are a bit divided on if Lindgren will hit that lofty potential, as his effectiveness has been inconsistent throughout the season, especially when he’s defending. That likely can be attributed to his age – he’s one of the youngest players up for the 2022 Draft – and his size, as he’s also one of the smaller defenders at 6-foot-0 and 176-pounds. Still, that potential should be too enticing to pass up. As a result, expect to hear his name called sometime in the second round.
6 – Jagger Firkus, RW, Moose Jaw Warriors
NHL Central Scouting rank: 12th (among NA skaters)
Jagger Firkus went from a relative unknown to one of the most dangerous players available in the 2022 Draft. He’s unbelievably creative with the puck, able to lure defenders in or get around opponents with just a subtle twist. He led all first-time draft-eligible players in the WHL with 36 goals, and finished with 80 points, the second-highest total among his draft class. Whether he’s taking a shot or making a pass, whatever he does, it has a great chance to result in a goal.
The only problem is that he’s only 5-foot-10 and 159-pounds, which, for some, may be too small to take him in the first round. He does lack some strength and foot speed, but anyone who decides to hold off on picking him based solely on his size will be making a huge mistake. Firkus has the potential to be a first-line forward, and according to Adam Kierszenblat in his run-down of the 2022 NHL Draft Top-10 Right Wingers, “Every season, he seems to get better, so do not be surprised if he is near the top of the WHL scoring lead at the end of the 2022-23 season.” This is a special player that is only projected to get better, so don’t worry about how big he is.
5 – Owen Pickering, D, Swift Current Broncos
NHL Central Scouting rank: 15th (among NA skaters)
Another great skater is Owen Pickering, an incredibly mobile defender with the Swift Current Broncos, and with him on the blue line, the team recorded their best record since 2017-18. What makes his mobility even more impressive is that he also stands 6-foot-5; he doesn’t simply rely on his longer stride, but moves smoothly around the ice, mirroring opponents until they’re forced to make a move, then quickly shifting to the forecheck. On top of his skating, he’s demonstrated some strong offensive instincts with crisp passes and the ability to push the play and was one of the team’s leaders in ice time despite his age and experience.
Pickering had a fairly average season, scoring 33 points in 62 games, and that’s likely thanks to the weaker team around him. His minus-29 was the 24th worst finish in the WHL, but only one team scored fewer goals than the Broncos’ 181 this season, while they allowed the seventh-most goals against. His defence could use some work, as he lacks some of the physicality expected from bigger defencemen, but he arguably did the best he could with what he had in Swift Current. Had he not been on the blue line, it’s not hard to imagine how much worse the team would have been. Overall, his game is very raw, but given the time, he could end up as a capable top-four, two-way defender in the NHL.
4 – Denton Mateychuk, D, Moose Jaw Warriors
NHL Central Scouting rank: 14th (among NA skaters)
Just like his teammate Firkus, Denton Mateychuk is a lot of fun to watch. He led all first-year draft-eligible defensemen with 13 goals and finished his first full season with 64 points in 65 games, then added another 10 points in the playoffs which included three multi-point games. With him on the blue line, the Moose Jaw Warriors were a tough team to handle. His vision and playmaking abilities were some of the best in the league, and paired with some excellent speed and agility, he often served as the team’s quarterback, setting up plays and putting the Warriors in a position to win every single night.
Related: Top-10 Underrated WHL Prospects
Despite all his obvious talent, the way Mateychuk generates offence puts him in a class of his own in the 2022 Draft – over 70 percent of his points were primary points, and he contributed to the score sheet in every situation equally. He’s adaptable, refuses to back down from any situation, and possesses no obvious holes in his game. Not even his slightly diminutive 5-foot-11 frame holds him back; Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino claimed that “Size is not an issue. Coaches love these kinds of players.” As such, there is a strong possibility someone takes a chance on him in the top 10.
3 – Conor Geekie, C, Winnipeg ICE
NHL Central Scouting rank: 5th (among NA skaters)
There is arguably no more divisive player coming out of the WHL than Conor Geekie. At one point, the hulking center was seen as one of the top prospects of the 2022 Draft, but as the season progressed, some issues arose that caused several scouts to drop him in their rankings. While he still has a ton of skill, evidenced by his 70 points in 64 games this season, there are serious concerns about how well he’ll adapt to the professional ranks.
Scheig once again weighed in on the controversy, writing, “The consensus believes Geekie will go in the first round. Where the disagreement comes in is how high in the first round will he go. On the surface, a 6-foot-3 center with skill will get a ton of attention. Several early mock drafts have seen him go inside the top 10. But those who have some doubts question his skating and ability to keep pace. They also wonder if he can be a true, number-one center.”
If Geekie can iron out some of his skating issues, namely his speed and clunky stride – something he’s committed to improving over the offseason – then he’ll be one of the more dangerous players to come out of the 2022 Draft. He already has strong defensive instincts, great size, and great offensive awareness, and at the combine, he mentioned that he tries to model his game after Leon Draistaitl. But with the NHL increasing in speed every year, and the skating skills improving along with it, he’ll have to put in a lot of work to get to that lofty level.
2 – Kevin Korchinski, D, Seattle Thunderbirds
NHL Central Scouting rank: 7th (among NA skaters)
The biggest draft question – beyond whether the Montreal Canadiens will take Shane Wright or not – is where Kevin Korchinski will end up. Some sources list him as a top-10 pick, while others have him just barely in the first round. His offensive abilities are unquestionable; he was the first WHL defenceman since Darryl Sydor to record more than 60 assists as a rookie, putting up 61 helpers in 67 appearances. He also led all defencemen in the playoffs with 19 points in 25 games. His skating is likewise impressive, as he can move seamlessly around the ice, which earned him the title of one of the most electrifying defencemen at the 2022 NHL Draft.
Korchinski’s defensive abilities leave something to be desired, though, and for some scouts, it could mean the difference from being a top-pairing defender to a fringe NHL prospect. He also played for a strong Thunderbirds team, which masked some of his bigger defensive inconsistencies and decision-making issues. Still, he has decent size at 6-foot-2 and paired with incredible skating and offensive capabilities, that should be enough to convince a team to take a chance on him early.
1 – Matthew Savoie, C, Winnipeg ICE
NHL Central Scouting rank: 4th (among NA skaters)
It’s no surprise that Matthew Savoie is the top-ranked player coming out of the WHL. He finished seventh in the league with 90 points in 65 games, which was the most by any first-time draft-eligible player, while his 35 goals ranked 15th league-wide and just one behind Firkus. From his smooth stride, high agility, incredible speed, and dangerous offensive instincts, he’s a player that is going to be a threat in the NHL, and likely from the top-six.
However, some scouts are still unsure about Savoie’s long-term potential, simply because of his size. Yes, he’s on the smaller end at 5-foot-9, but there aren’t many aspects to his overall presence on the ice that imply that his lack of size will hold him back as he transitions to higher levels of competition. It’s impossible not to compare him to Brayden Point, who put up great numbers with the Warriors in 2013-14 but still fell to the third round. There was never any question that his skill would translate, but the antiquated mindset that focuses on size first prevented NHL teams from grabbing him earlier. Hopefully, the league has learned its lesson, and he’ll be one of the first names called on draft day.
WHL Brings Plenty of Skill to the First Round
The 2022 WHL draft class looks to be one of the strongest in several years. While they don’t possess a guaranteed top-5 prospect like Byram or Dach, there is a lot of skill here that will tempt NHL teams throughout the first round. Savoie, Geekie, Korchinski, Mateychuk, Pickering, and Firkus are all expected to end up as first-round picks, while Lindgren, Schaefer, and Gustafson have the potential to sneak in near the end. Should all those players hear their names on Day 1, it will be the best showing from the league since 2014, when it saw nine prospects get selected in the first round. Regardless of the outcome, however, the 2022 WHL crop represents a shift in the league, as these are some of the best prospects available, showcasing high-end offence, speed, and creativity that few other leagues can boast this time around.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.