For this month’s WHL report, I figured that the most relevant topic would be focusing on the top WHL players available in the upcoming draft, as it is just around the corner. There are six players from the ‘W who projects as first-round picks this year. I will cover them in the order of my rankings, which you can check out here.
Denton Mateychuk is a fun player to watch. If you want to read an in-depth look at his play, you’re more than welcome to check out last month’s WHL report which focused solely on him. Mateychuk is a “unicorn” — no NHL player really plays the game that he does and that will undoubtedly spook teams and it makes him a candidate to fall to the mid-to-late twenties. However, despite this, he is my eighth-highest ranked player in the class and the second-highest defenceman on my board. Mateychuk is a master of offensive activation. When he gets the puck in the offensive zone he keeps his head up and attacks, often along the boards and constantly scanning for playmaking options. His pass accuracy shines when he’s in motion, and he has the mobility and handling ability to evade defenders before sending a pass to a teammate in the slot. He has a high-end offensive mind, and it makes him a huge threat both with and without the puck.
Off-puck, he likes to drift into the high slot and open himself up as a passing option, when he gets that pass, his shot is a real threat as well. Defensively, Mateychuk closes his gaps very quickly and limits high-danger chances against by constantly scanning and blocking the most dangerous passing lanes. In transition, Mateychuk demands the puck. He wants to send the breakout pass, carry the puck into the offensive zone, and chase after dumped pucks in the offensive zone as the F1 all at once. No player in the class is more implicated in his team’s play than Mateychuk. All of this skill is magnified by an excellent motor. He never gives up on plays and his feet never stop moving. This all combines to make Mateychuk a dynamic player with a very high ceiling.
Savoie is the highest-ranked WHL player in this class according to the general consensus, and it’s clear to see why, even if I see things a bit differently. He’s tremendously skilled and plays at a high pace. He overcomes his size disadvantage by using his low center of gravity to play a fairly tenacious game. His shot is among the best in the class, and his playmaking ability is nearly as good. The tools are there and the production was as well, with 35 goals and 90 points in 65 regular-season games.
The three reasons he’s not ranked in my top-5 are that he can panic under physical pressure, that his production was really boosted on the power play, and that his defensive motor and effectiveness don’t hold a candle to their offensive counterparts. Despite these concerns, Savoie would be a steal if he falls out of the top 15. His offensive potential is quite high and few players in the class can match his ability to make electrifying plays. While he is undersized, he is by no means a perimeter player, he attacks the middle on every shift, which plays a big role in the projectability of his game to the professional level, especially since he’s physically mature already.
Mateychuk and Firkus made Moose Jaw one of the most entertaining CHL teams this season. Firkus is an extremely slight forward with a boatload of skill. His shot is top-three in the class despite his 154 lbs frame. He can score from anywhere in the offensive zone and is more than intelligent and aware enough to seek out soft ice to use his cannon of a shot. He’s not just a shooter, either, he’s one of a few genuine triple-threat scorers in the 2022 class with an elite shot to go with elite hands and a playmaking ability that is on the cusp of projecting as elite.
This makes him a player with an extremely high ceiling, but he’s also more difficult to project to the NHL at this point in time, which is the reason Savoie ranks one spot higher on my board – they sit at 12 and 13 respectively. His inside game just isn’t as effective as it could be, due to his lack of muscle and strength. He should definitely be able to bulk up though, to fill out his 5’10” frame. The other thing that adds a question mark to his projection is his lack of defensive ability. He’s smart enough to read play and proactively jump into passing lanes, but he rarely does. This could change with coaching and maturity, but he doesn’t project as a plus-level defensive player.
Pickering is one of the rawest players ranked in my first round, if not the most. His huge growth spurt in his mid-teens has forced him to change his style of play and his skating still needs to adapt to the new 6’5” frame it needs to carry. His edgework is strong, however, and with time, his skating could once again become a clear strength in his game. His tools are excellent, as a whole. His shot, passing ability, and physicality are all above average. Pair that with a strong hockey IQ and deceptive ability which is especially impressive on retrievals, giving him upside as a breakout artist, and Pickering has all the tools an NHL defenceman needs to succeed.
While he’s far from a refined player as of yet, an organization with a good development team could mould him into a special player with a few years’ time. Due to this need to develop more of his game than other players in this class, Pickering is ranked in my late 20s, but the back half of the first round is so tight that he could make an awesome pick in the teens with the right organization.
I’m lower on Korchinski than most because of his subpar skating mechanics, high turnover rate, lack of shooting threat that makes him a one-dimensional player in the offensive zone, and his mediocre defensive positioning and involvement, but his upside as a playmaking defenceman with great puck skills and significant upside in transition can’t be ignored. While he doesn’t activate offensively like Mateychuk does, he likes to carry the puck up to the hashmarks and fire a pass onto the tape of a teammate.
One only needs to look at his stat sheet to realize his playmaking ability; he racked up 61 assists in 67 games with Seattle, but his mere four goals also demonstrate his lack of shooting threat. Whereas Mateychuk, and even Pickering, can step up into the high slot and manipulate defenders by selling the shot before passing to an open teammate in a high-danger area, defences know that Korchinski likely won’t shoot and that if he does, it won’t be particularly dangerous, which somewhat limits his offensive projection for me. He’s also dynamic in transition, he loves to attack the middle lane with both his feet and passing in the breakout and has the deception to get by forecheckers, but his lack of explosive skating ability can make it difficult to gain separation from them once he gets past them. Korchinski has the potential to make me look pretty dumb for ranking him near the bottom of my first round, but I have enough concerns about his projectability and projected NHL impact to feel comfortable about the ranking.
Geekie is going a lot higher than where I have him ranked at 31, and I completely understand why. He’s a center, he’s big, smart, defensively responsible, has good hands, and is an excellent playmaker who routinely sends passes to the slot, creating high-danger scoring chances. The main concerns with his game are his skating and pace. Geekie is not very quick, both in terms of top-speed and acceleration, and his skating mechanics, posture, and edgework all need work. This limits his value as a puck carrier and makes him most effective with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone when play is in front of him. In those situations, his playmaking ability and handling skill really shine.
His off-puck movements are refined in all three zones, he supports play well in transition, blocks passing lanes defensively, and attacks soft ice offensively. This offensive instinct would be far more deadly if his shot was above average, but it’s not. His relatively one-dimensional offensive game limits its effectiveness, a bit like it does with Korchinski. However, Geekie is will likely be an NHLer in a middle six role. I think it’s far more likely he tops out as a 3C, but with a great skating coach and a few years of steady skating development, he could turn into a 2C.