A year later, the ball finally dropped where it was supposed to. The Prince George Cougars won the 2020 WHL Draft Lottery, moving up from fourth to second in the draft order, ahead of the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft. One year ago, lady luck wasn’t kind to the organization.
“Funny how things work out. Last year, we had nine balls in the lottery, the best odds to win but we didn’t. This year, we had three balls and we win. We feel very fortunate to get that second overall selection in what is a very deep draft,” said Cougars’ Director of Scouting, Bob Simmonds, said in a news release.
Simmonds is referencing the 54 percent chance the Cougars had to win the 2019 WHL Draft Lottery but lost out to the Winnipeg ICE, who climbed up two spots to take Matthew Savoie. This year, the Cougars had just a 14 percent chance of winning but defied the odds and had their ball come out first. The Cougars, despite missing out on a first overall pick last year, feel like they still have the same opportunity this year. The 2005 draft class is that deep.
The Regina Pats will be selecting first overall on Wednesday and they will be selecting forward Connor Bedard. The 15-year-old is the first player ever in WHL history to be granted exceptional status, meaning he will play full-time with the Pats next season as a 15-year-old. Bedard is the consensus top player in Western Canada for his age, but the 2020 draft is so deep that Simmonds believes the Cougars’ are in a position to land a cornerstone player at number two.
“There’s an elite group of talent at the top of the draft and for us to be in a position to get the player we want is incredible. In any other draft year, without a Connor Bedard at the top, the player we’re getting with our pick is a first-round, first overall type of player. I fully expect the player we bring into the organization is going to be a game-changer.”
The Cougars have plenty of options with the second overall pick. The two other players that applied for exceptional status were teammates in Saskatchewan. Forwards Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt are ranked second and third respectively in DraftGeek’s 2020 WHL Draft Guide. The two both played for the Saskatoon Contacts in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League.
Yager is a 6’0, 165-pound center that put up 42 points (18G-24A) in 44 games for the Contacts.
“We’re talking about a player here that’s a dynamic two-way forward who, according to some of our scouts, is the smartest player in the draft,” Hodder said. “He’s incredibly high skill; he’s the type of player that makes other players around him better,” said the WHL’s Manager, Player Development, Zach Hodder.
His teammate Heidt also had a standout season as a 14-year-old at the Midget level, amassing 37 points (17G-20A) in 44 games. Hodder says Heidt is equally as impressive, “He’s a guy that at 16 is going to be able to jump in and contribute offensively on whatever team selects him in the draft.”
Simmonds says there is some elite talent even beyond the projected top three. “This year there were three players that applied for exceptional status, which has never happened before, and for the first time ever a player (Connor Bedard) was granted exceptional status in our league. The other two players who applied are right there too; they’re gifted players. There are other players outside of those three, under the right circumstance, you can argue are right up there too.”
Simmonds may be referring to a pair of intriguing blue-line options for the Cougars to consider with the second overall pick.
Tanner Molendyk is the highest ranked defenceman according to DraftGeek’s guide, coming in at fourth overall. He played this past season at Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford and is being compared to former WHL standout Ryan Murray. Molendyk had 55 points (9G-46A) on the blue line for the Yale Lions.
Lukas Dragicevic, who is ranked fifth by DraftGeek, played at the Delta Hockey Academy this season and recorded 52 points (8G-44A) in 30 games. Dragicevic already has a sizeable frame (6’0, 163-pounds) for his age and is described as an all-around defenceman that teams are looking for.
The Cougars have an embarrassment of riches in their draft chest. Not only are they picking second overall, they are also picking two more times in the first round (17th and 22nd). They have a high second round pick too (26th overall). Prince George has 18 picks over the 15-round draft. Simmonds says they have to make them count.
“We’re picking four times in the first 26 picks overall. There’s no other team in that situation. We have to very dialled in to make sure with those four picks we’re getting four players that are going to be key parts of our organization and the foundation for success.”
The 2020 WHL Bantam Draft will be memorable for more reasons than the deep draft pool. In fact, this year’s draft has been thrown a curveball and it’s a first in WHL Bantam Draft history.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and both Federal and Provincial measures in place for the practice of physical distancing, the 2020 draft will be done completely remotely. The draft is held annually in Red Deer, AB but this year it will be done all online. No conference rooms, no face-to-face meetings. Simmonds says it’s a hurdle that the Cougars’ scouting team has taken in stride.
“Usually at this time of year you have the provincial cup tournaments. At those events is where we have our wrap up meetings. You are face-to-face with your scouts, you’re able to talk about your lists, but we’re not able to do that this year. Everything we’re doing is now remote and online. We’ve had a lot of conference calls and Zoom video conferences. It’s a bit unusual but we’ve still managed to have some very productive meetings.”
Draft day, Wednesday, April 22nd will have a different feel too.
“Draft day, in normal circumstances, always has potential for trades. General Managers are passing each other in the hallway or sitting at neighbouring tables and chatting, so trades can come together very quickly. That dynamic won’t be there this year,” commented Simmonds. “Our scouts obviously can’t all be together either, so it will be important to have multiple lines of communication open. It comes down to communication, communication, communication.”
This year marks the third consecutive draft that the Cougars have multi first round selections. Last year, they drafted third and fourth overall, taking defenceman Keaton Dowhaniuk and forward Koehn Ziemmer. In 2018, they took forward Craig Armstrong ninth overall and goaltender Tyler Brennan with the 21st pick. In the past two drafts, the Cougars feel they have the pieces to build a talented young core going forward, and Simmonds says there is plenty of buzz surrounding the Cougars.
“In speaking with these players and their families, even their agents as we prepare for the draft, they’re all very cognisant of the number of draft picks that we have, the players we drafted last year, and even the players we drafted the year before. To a player, they all seem very excited to have the opportunity to potentially be a part of a young, talented core going forward. There’s a lot of excitement about Prince George and the direction the organization is heading.”
The Cougars have picked second overall three times in franchise history and have fared well. The last time the Cougars picked second, they took one of their top players in franchise history. In 2012, Prince George snagged Jansen Harkins second overall in the Bantam Draft. Harkins went on to play 275 career regular season games over four seasons in Prince George and is the all-time franchise leader in points with 242 (75G-167A). Harkins was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2015 and made his NHL debut this past season. They also selected Tyler Bouck with the second overall pick in 1995, and he played nearly 200 games over four seasons with the Cougars and compiled 151 points (65G-86A). Bouck won silver and bronze medals with Team Canada at two World Junior Hockey Championships. Bouck was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 1998 and played parts of four seasons in the NHL with the Stars and Vancouver Canucks. He played another five seasons in Germany before retiring after the 2013-2014 season.
History shows the Cougars have drafted key pieces, foundation pieces, with the second overall pick. Will history repeat itself on Wednesday?