Matt Barzal (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
You would think that Western League franchises would prefer to see potential talents grow both physically and skill-wise for another season before drafting them, but they have their reasons out West.
It's one of the more curious blips in junior hockey: How come the Ontario and Quebec Leagues draft players at age 15, but the Western League selects them at 14?
This question came up again in the wake of this year's bantam draft lottery, which was won, but lost by Saskatoon. Since 1990, the WHL has held a bantam draft – before that, teams just listed players they were interested in. The OHL and the 'Q' do a midget draft.
You would think having to choose a player one year less developed would throw unnecessary hardship on teams and their scouts, but the league does have a good explanation for its policy.
"It's more challenging from a hockey perspective, but from an educational point of view, it allows for preparation," said WHL commissioner Ron Robison. "Our primary reason was geographic. We have multiple school districts across the Western provinces and the U.S. A player may be from Manitoba, but drafted into Oregon."
And that means less Riel and more Reagan in history class, with the inverse true for American kids suddenly getting Canadian high school educations. Even going from Saskatchewan to B.C. can be different. Because the geographic footprint of the WHL is so much larger than the other two leagues, preparation for the Big Move needs to be thought out and Robison wants the kids to be ready.
In terms of identifying top talent a year sooner, WHL scouts have done a pretty solid job. Jake Virtanen went first overall in 2011 and became a top-10 NHL pick in 2014. Then the Vancouver Canucks prospect helped Canada win gold at the world juniors this past January.
In 2012, Seattle took Matt Barzal first overall and he will likely be a top-10 NHL pick this summer as well. Tyler Benson, Sam Steel and Nolan Patrick were high picks in the next draft and they're all looking pretty sharp for upcoming NHL top-10 lists.
Which is not to say that all the gold gets swept out of the riverbed right away. Robison noted that 20 percent of the players in the 'Dub' this season went undrafted and historically, so did some of the league's best talent: Shea Weber, Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla, among others.
"We really emphasize to the players not to get too concerned," Robison said. "It's just one day in your development."
As any worthy scout or coach will tell you, it's not where you go in the draft, it's what you do after that matters most.