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CHL Storylines: 2023 draftees impressing ahead of WJC


When the NHL Draft comes around, it’s often framed as a time when young hockey players’ dreams come true.

While that is accurate, it is merely the start of the journey to get to the big leagues.

Most players drafted get their feet wet with their new NHL team by being invited to their rookie camps. If they’re lucky and impress enough, they may be invited to training camp prior to the start of the regular season.

Some players, like Chicago Blackhawks phenom Connor Bedard, have the instant gratification of skating on National Hockey League ice right away. However, for many players they have to return to their junior team in order to further develop their game.

“There are two things really important for players [to work on once they’re drafted],” TSN’s Director of Scouting Craig Button said. “First to understand how fast the game is played at the NHL level. They have to really work on their pace of play not just physically, but mentally as well.

“No. 2 is that they better know what their calling card is. If you don’t, you’re going to have a tough time finding yourself and excelling.”

While teams are obviously evaluating players for their skills on the ice, they are also evaluating how players handle themselves off the ice amid a setback. Does it drive a player to become better or do they wallow in their failure?

“The main thing is that they can’t worry about the things that are out of their control,” said Button. “NHL teams work with players in terms of their development, telling them what they need to do and help them stay on top of it. There’s going to be stretches where they might not be able to have the success they want. As long as they work the process and do the things that made them good, they’ll be ok.”

This season, there are 11 players who were drafted in the first round of the 2023 draft that ended up in the CHL, highlighted by London Knights winger Easton Cowan, Owen Sound Attack captain Colby Barlow, and Vancouver Giants forward Samuel Honzek.

Cowan was drafted 28th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, which surprised fans and experts alike as he wasn’t rated that high on many draft projections.

Button ranked Cowan 34th on his final draft list of projected NHLers, while TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie had the winger 53rd in his final ranking.

Cowan began the 2022-23 Ontario Hockey League season as part of the Knights’ bottom-six forwards but worked his way up to the top six by becoming a point-per-game player in the second half of the regular season, scoring 11 goals and 32 points in 32 games to end the season.

The 5-foot-10 winger exploded in the OHL playoffs, recording nine goals and 21 points in 20 games to lead the Knights to the OHL Final where they eventually lost to the Peterborough Petes in six games.

“I can guarantee that if Cowan started to really track in November [instead of January], there would have been no surprise [at the draft]”, said Button. “If you watch how coaches use players you get a very good idea of what they think of the player. For a 17-year-old kid, Cowan was used in every situation by [Knights head coach] Dale Hunter. That is telling.”

This season, Cowan has continued to be a force offensively, ranking second on the Knights with 12 goals and 39 points in 23 games.

The Mount Brydges, Ont., native leads the OHL with seven shorthanded points and has 14 multi-point games including a goal and three-point performance against the Saginaw Spirit on Friday, his last before joining Team Canada’s training camp for the 2024 World Junior tournament.

“[Cowan] just needs patience with his development,” said Button. “He’s going to be physically mature and back at junior next year, so he needs to know his game and work on being quicker and faster in everything he does.

“It’s not an accident that he’s at the World Junior camp and it’ll be no surprise if he’s on the Canadian team.”

Barlow was drafted 18th overall by the Winnipeg Jets and has been a foundational piece for the Attack in his three seasons with the team.

The 6-foot-1 forward finished sixth in the league with 46 goals last season and led the Attack with 79 points. He also added three goals in the playoffs before the Attack were swept by Cowan and the Knights in the first round.

After the Jets returned Barlow back to the Attack after their pre-season on Oct. 3, the Orillia, Ont., native continued where he left off, scoring nine goals and 14 points in his first 14 games. However, Barlow then went down with a back injury and hasn’t played since Nov. 8.

Barlow helped Canada win gold at the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup but he was left off Canada’s preliminary roster after not playing in his team’s last 12 games.

Like Barlow, injury problems have hindered the start of Honzek’s 2023-24 campaign with the WHL’s Giants.

Honzek was drafted 16th overall by the Calgary Flames in last June’s draft and participated in the Flames’ training camp and preseason. However, the 6-foot-4 winger suffered a lower-body injury during a preseason game on Oct. 4 causing him to miss the first two months of the season.

This isn’t the first time Honzek was slowed down by injury as he missed two months last season after sustaining a skate cut to his left calf at last year’s World Juniors while representing Slovakia.

The Trencin, Slovakia native made his season debut on Dec. 1 and has three goals and eight points in five games. He will be representing Slovakia once again in this year’s edition of the World Juniors.

“Players also need to get ramped up and ready to play on a conditioning level [before coming back to play],” said Button. “The key to getting them ramped up to play is to make sure they aren’t vulnerable to any other type of injury. It may not be the same injury, but if you’re not up to speed or the challenges they’re facing, they aren’t ready.”

Yager leading the way

Brayden Yager Moose Jaw Warriors

Of all the prospects who returned to the CHL after being drafted in the first round in June’s draft, Moose Jaw Warriors centre Brayden Yager has been the most productive.

Yager was drafted 14th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins and ranks just behind Seattle Kraken prospect Jagger Firkus in team scoring with 17 goals and 41 points in 28 games this season.

The 6-foot centre was originally thought to be more of a goal-scorer after his first full season in the WHL, registering 34 goals and 59 points in 63 games in 2021-22. Last season, Yager’s goal total dropped from the year before, but he became more of a playmaker by doubling his assists and netting a career-high 78 points.

At Penguins camp, Yager had the opportunity to be around a veteran NHL team with big names such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Erik Karlsson. The opportunity to learn from some of the best the NHL has produced is an invaluable asset in the development of a young player.

“He needs to keep his eyes wide open to watch how those players prepare, practise, everything that goes with playing in the NHL,” said Button.

Button, who was part of the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars upper-management team and later the general manager of the Calgary Flames, was reminded of a story of recent United States Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jamie Langenbrunner about his first experience in an NHL camp.

“When [the Stars] drafted Langenbrunner in the second round [of the 1993 draft] out of high school, we didn’t even bring him to training camp [the first year]”, said Button. “Langenbrunner’s work ethic was off the charts, you never had to tell him to work. When he came to training camp the following year and eventually sent him back down, he said ‘boy I thought I worked hard, but then I watched how hard Mike Modano worked.’”

Yager, a Saskatoon native, was a teammate of Barlow on the gold-medal winning Canadian squad at the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup and has been named to the country’s selection camp roster for the 2024 World Juniors.

Adjusting to North America

Dalibor Dvorsky Sudbury Wolves

NHL prospects coming from Europe have the added challenge of adjusting to the North American game after playing in Europe their entire career.

A player like Anaheim Ducks centre Leo Carlsson has had the opportunity to make that adjustment at the NHL level while others like Sudbury Wolves forward Dalibor Dvorsky and Barrie Colts winger Eduard Sale do it at the major junior level.

“There was a time where it was a real transition to play on a smaller ice surface, and it still is to an extent, but these players have played in North America from a young age,” said Button. “They’re playing in tournaments all over North America just like North American players playing in Europe.”

Dvorsky was drafted 10th overall by the St. Louis Blues and was the No. 3-ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting heading into the draft.

The Zvolen, Slovakia, native played in the Swedish hockey system the last five seasons. He played 38 games with AIK of Allsvenskan in 2022-23, registering six goals and 14 points as a 17-year-old.

After participating in the Blues rookie camp, Dvorsky was loaned back to Sweden to play for IK Oskarshamn of the SHL. The 6-foot-1 forward played 10 games in Sweden this season with limited ice time before he came to an agreement with the club to terminate his contract so he could join the CHL.

Since joining the Wolves at the end of October, Dvorsky has flourished leading the team with 18 goals and is tied for second on the club, along with San Jose Sharks first-rounder Quentin Musty, with 34 points in 20 games.

Dvorsky is set to compete in his third World Junior tournament for Slovakia. In his previous two appearances at the tournament, he has two goals and five points in nine games as a 16- and 17-year-old.

Like Dvorsky, Sale has spent most of his hockey career playing in Europe within Czechia’s development system.

The Brno, Czechia native was drafted 20th overall by the Seattle Kraken and was the No. 4-ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting heading into last June’s draft.

Sale played in Czechia’s top professional league as a 17-year-old with HC Kometa Brno, recording seven goals and 14 points in 43 games.

After wrapping up his responsibilities in Czechia in August, Sale joined the Colts, who drafted him 29th overall in the CHL Import Draft in 2022.

The 6-foot-2 winger has been one of the Colts’ bright spots this season, recording seven goals and 21 points in 25 games, ranking fourth in team scoring.

“[The biggest thing for European players] now is when you’re bringing them to training camp and putting them into exhibition games is [you see] their sense of readiness to handle the challenges of the NHL,” said Button. “For many of them, they’re experiencing those challenges for the first time in their lives. They’re all good players but they’re not ready to handle it from a physical point of view.

“So, you’re trying to get themselves in a situation where they’re not at risk of getting overwhelmed or injured.”