It’s the earliest of the three major junior drafts and the only one that sees players wait a full season before joining their CHL teams, but there’s always intrigue when it comes to the Western League bantam draft and this year is no exception. Two players have distinguished themselves at the top of the pile and both are record-breakers.
Up front, there’s Edmonton’s Ty Benson, who turned heads when he broke Ty Rattie’s mark for points in a season in the Alberta Major Bantam League when he eclipsed the St. Louis Blues prospect’s 131 points by notching 57 goals and 146 points in 33 games. Meanwhile, Kale Clague was breaking down barriers of his own with the Lloydminster Heat in the same circuit. Clague stole the defenseman scoring crown from Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, finishing his campaign with 35 goals and 77 points in 33 games (Phaneuf had 65).
“If you find yourself as the top-scoring defenseman in that league, breaking the record set by a player who became a top-10 NHL pick, all those facts give you all the information you need,” said Tyler Boldt, the WHL’s manager of player development and recruitment. “That league produces more WHLers than any other league.”
I had a chance to interview Clague over the summer while he took part in a prospects camp organized by his agency, CAA Hockey, in Los Angeles. The hype surrounding him was already beginning to take shape, but the youngster was level-headed about the whole process.
“I just want to think about working hard and getting bigger and having a great season,” he said. “We’ll see what happens when the draft comes.”
Well, the great season happened, that’s for sure. While Benson is reportedly considering a bid to become the first player granted exceptional status to enter the WHL a season early, insiders say the team almost assuredly picking first, the Vancouver Giants, haven’t made it obvious that the big forward is their guy just yet. But whether he goes first, second or elsewhere, Clague has the skills teams covet.
“As a defenseman, how good a skater he is and how he plays at high speeds with the puck is impressive,” Boldt said. “He skates well, but he does everything.”
And while Clague broke a record held by fellow western boy Phaneuf, the Heat star looks further east for his favorite player.
“The guy I like to model my game after is Drew Doughty,” he said of the Ontario native. “He’s an offensive guy and all-around great player in my eyes.”
Though it might seem wild that a player as young as Clague has an agent already, the Alberta native had a peer in Los Angeles in Montreal blueliner Michael Campoli and big-name player reps were coming at Clague and his family when he was still 12. Signing on to a reputable firm such as CAA means the youngster doesn’t have to worry about other agents constantly making their pitches; he can simply focus on hockey. And for Clague, that means honing all areas of his game.
“I’m an offensive defenseman,” he said. “I like to rush the puck and score goals, but defense is always first.”
And whether or not the defenseman goes first overall, he certainly looks to have a bright future in the WHL.
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