Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: So It Begins

You know you've had a really bad year when someone asks midway through the Stanley Cup Final, "so who's winning?" and your answer is "uuuummmmm." Not that I would ever say such a thing, but if I did, I'm just sayin; it's a good thing I have a chance to reboot the system with the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Western Hockey League did well this year, with seven players taken in the first round and 21 picked up in rounds two through seven. They're not Jack Hughes, but this year's WHL draft class has a lot to offer. Among the players I'll be watching more closely in the 2019- 2020 season are hidden gem Sasha Mutala, old-school hockey defenseman John Ludvig and goalie Dustin Wolf. 

Raiding Party: The WHL name making all the headlines this year was forward Brett Leason, ranked 25th on the final Central Scouting Rankings. He was just one part of a bigger machine that was the Prince Albert Raiders. They ruled the WHL all season long, punching their ticket to the Memorial Cup in spectacular fashion with a Game 7 overtime winner. Alas, their experience at the tournament reminded me a little of the disappointment that longtime fans expressed about Season 8 of "Game of Thrones." After a year of hype and excitement, the Raiders exited early after three straight losses. That doesn't take away from anything the team achieved this year and it certainly didn't stop Brett Leason. In addition to being drafted 56th overall by the Washington Capitals, he won the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence. His linemate Aliaksei Protas was drafted 91st overall by the Caps, setting up the possibility that the two linemates could be reunited one day. A lot can happen between draft day and the day players actually suit up for a team, but just the idea of those two playing together again is exciting enough. 

Hey ladies: Portland Winterhawks defenseman John Ludvig is an old school hockey player. He's tough, talented and fearless. Watching his rise through the ranks this season was a bright spot in a season that ended early for the Winterhawks when they fell to the Spokane Chiefs in the first round of playoffs. In his spare time, John also likes boxing and he's not afraid to display his fighting skills. Last season, he put up seven points in 51 games played. This year, he more than doubled his output with 18 points in 58 games played. If he continues playing like he did this year, John Ludvig will be a top player to watch this season. Fun fact: In his rookie season, he scored the Winterhawks' Teddy Bear Toss goal. The thing I like best about John is his honesty. When I did a rookie profile with him, he gave the simplest, best and most honest answer I've ever heard to the question "what do you like best about Portland?" Most players give the usual answers, like "the fans" or "I just love the city. It's great to be here." John's answer? "The girls." And there you have it. For my two cents, his honesty on and off the ice is John's most valuable asset to the Florida Panthers. 

Island life: Reece Newkirk is the third Winterhawk to be drafted by the Islanders and the first since Nino Niederreitter in 2010. After a quiet rookie season, he had a breakout year in 2018 - 2019 with a career high 59 points in 68 games played. As his development improved, his confidence grew. Like John, Reece is not afraid to chirp at opponents. Off the ice, he is one of the most talkative, friendly and enthusiastic players you will meet around these parts. His personality is one of the value-adds he brings to the Islanders. Fun fact: In his rookie profile, his goals were to "watch the older guys and learn from them. And to know where I'm going." Now we know where he's going. How he gets there will be worth watching. 

Avalanche warning: Tri-City Americans forward Sasha Mutala has only played in the Dub for two seasons, but he already seems more like an overager. I feel like he's been here forever. This year, even in the midst of a difficult family situation in which both his parents dealt with major illness, he put up a career high 41 points in 65 games played. Crafty is the word I'd use to describe him. He's a little bit of a ninja: he gets in and out before you know he was even there. You might be busy watching players like Cody Glass or Bowen Byram and Mutala would sneak in and do something that made you ask "what just happened?" Sasha Mutala is one of the unsung heroes of the WHL and I look forward to a breakout post-draft year for him. Speaking of Byram, to nobody's surprise he went fourth overall to the Colorado Avalanche. The early sign that the Vancouver Giants would go on to become the Western Conference Champions came in the pre-season, when they were already playing like a championship team at the tournament in Everett.  The Giants came ready to play and they never really stopped. Byram is a big reason why. Speaking of the Silvertips:

Backup plan: When all was said and done, the Everett Silvertips emerged as the WHL's 2019 U.S. Division Champions. They had the talent, the endurance and most importantly a "bite" to their game. They are a little bit of a secret weapon here in the Dub, where they are home to players like Gianni Fairbrother, goalie Carter Hart and the netminder who had to step into his shoes, Dustin Wolf. His GAA last year was 1.69 and his save percentage was .936. The goaltending tradition continues in Everett. As a Portland resident and fan, all I have to say to his opponents -- including the Winterhawks -- is be afraid. Be very afraid. 

Best Foote foward: The Foote family is a dynasty here in the Dub, where Nolan currently plays for his father in Kelowna. Cal Foote scored a career-high 70 points with the Kelowna Rockets in the 2017 - 2018 season, his post-draft year. Last year he notched 31 points in 76 games played with the Syracuse Crunch. His brother Nolan joins him in the Tampa Bay Lightning system, after being drafted 27th overall. Nolan Foote had a breakout year in 2018 - 2019, with 63 points in 66 games played. Of the three leagues that comprise the Canadian Hockey League, the WHL is more of the scrappy underdog. Elite hockey families like the Footes bring that unique blend of NHL glamour and grit to the league. We're all better for it.

So it begins: A player's draft year is the culimination of a lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and dedication, but it's really just the beginning of his professional career. That's exactly why I've always believed that players' post-draft seasons are the ones to watch. They will be trying to earn that NHL contract and show their teams they are worth it. If the 2019 draft is any indication, the WHL is going to be the place to be this season. 

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Comments

german_wing's avatar

Really hoping Wolf makes it to the big dance. He’s “undersized” for a goalie, but so is Saros in NSH for example. Heartwarming scene when he was selected!

Posted by german_wing from Toronto, Canada on 06/24/19 at 01:13 PM ET

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com