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Where the Western is Won

All 22 WHL teams feature players who could be drafted into the NHL; here are the players to watch for the 2021 Draft

by Andy Eide / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

What do hockey Hall-of-Famers Bobby Clarke, Joe Sakic and Scott Niedermayer have in common with current stars Carey Price, Carter Hart and Mathew Barzal? All six of them developed their games and were drafted into the NHL from the Western Hockey League.

They aren't alone.

Since 1967, the 2,048 WHL players have been drafted into the NHL, 315 of which were first-round picks. This past June, the WHL had 28 players nabbed by NHL teams, including seven in the first round and two of the top four - the Saskatoon Blades' Kirby Dach to Chicago at No. 3 and the Vancouver Giants' Bowen Byram to Colorado at No. 4.

The league features the top players in Western Canada and the United States, ranging from ages 16-20. Each club is allowed three 20-year-olds and two European imports.

When the league opens play Sept. 20, future NHL players will populate the rosters of all 22 teams. Pacific Northwest hockey fans have enjoyed these stars on local ice for more than 40 years. The WHL's current U.S. Division features the Everett Silvertips, Portland Winterhawks, Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans.

The WHL features highly-skilled hockey that attracts NHL scouts practically every night. The 2019-20 season offers the first look at a crop of 2021 NHL Draft hopefuls - the same year NHL Seattle will pick its first draft class. Another compelling reason to catch some games in the Seattle area, Spokane, Kennewick or Portland.

Here are some players that will be playing in the WHL's U.S. Division arenas that may be on draft lists when NHL Seattle GM Ron Francis and his hockey operations staff are part of the selection process:

 

2021 NHL Draft Hopefuls

The Portland Winterhawks have a pair of impressive looking rookies, starting with forward James Stefan. He's the son of Patrik Stefan, who was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers as the first overall pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. Last year, the younger Stefan, 16, played with Little Caesars U15 in the Detroit area where he piled up 95 points in 71 games.

His teammate at Little Caesars, Jack O'Brien, is joining Stefan in Portland. Both players will be up and coming offensive threats who will attract significant attention from NHL scouts.

Portland and the Seattle Thunderbirds have a long-standing, heated rivalry, so it is only fitting the T-Birds come with their own 16-year-old offensive firepower. Seattle has a trio of 2021 draft prospects sure to give the rivalry some legs even after some of these players are drafted at 18 years old with a birth year of 2003.

Kai Uchacz is a center for Seattle with the size and skill to make him a player to be seriously considered in 2021. On the roster with Uchacz is 6-foot-3 power forward Lucas Ciona, who burst on the scene at the Everett preseason classic in late August, scoring four points in two games. Seattle's third incoming rookie to watch is Conner Roulette, a Winnipeg native with the potential to be a dynamic scorer in the WHL.

The most heralded 2021 prospect in the entire WHL is Kamloops Blazers forward Logan Stankoven, who put up a ridiculous 49 goals and 101 points in 38 games playing last year in a U15 league. Stankoven and the Blazers will be in Kent for the Thunderbirds season opener Sept. 21.

Other notable 2021 prospects include the Kelowna Rockets' Trever Wong and Vancouver Giants forward John Little.

Along with local fans beginning to scout possible draftees for NHL Seattle, the race for the U.S. division title is always engaging. Here's a preview of the division's teams:

 

Everett Silvertips

The reigning back-to-back-to-back division champs will have to overcome the loss of forwards Conner Dewar (Minnesota Wild) and Riley Sutter (Washington Capitals) to the pro ranks. The cupboard is far from bare. Over-ager Bryce Kindopp was one of the league's hottest players over the second half last year and will spark the Silvertips offense. Everett is strong on the back end with Jake Christiansen, Gianni Fairbrother (Montreal Canadiens 2019 draftee), and the league's best goalie in Dustin Wolf (Calgary Flames 2019 draftee).

 

Portland Winterhawks

The strength of the Winterhawks is in their younger players. If they mature, the Winterhawks could challenge for the division crown. Along with aforementioned rookies Stefan and O'Brien, Portland features two 2020 NHL Draft prospects in Seth Jarvis and Cross Hanas. Returning players such as center Reece Newkirk (New York Islanders 2019 draftee), defenseman John Ludvig (Florida Panthers 2019 draftee) and goalie Joel Hoffer (St. Louis Blues 2018 draftee) will provide veteran leadership.

 

Spokane Chiefs

How far the Chiefs go depends on what happens in New Jersey with former Devils first-round pick Ty Smith. The defenseman got a long look by the Devils last year and at 19, has a chance to stay in the NHL this time around. If he doesn't return, the Chiefs will still be one of the division's favorites with returning players Adam Beckman (Minnesota Wild 2019), Filip Kral (Toronto Maple Leafs 2018) leading a talented bunch that can score with anyone in the league.

 

Seattle Thunderbirds

Matthew Wedman (Florida Panthers 2019) is the last remaining player from Seattle's 2017 championship team and will be leaned on heavily this year as the Thunderbirds are young. Along with their talented rookie group, they will hope for big years from 2020 NHL prospects Tyrel Bauer and Simon Kubicek on the blue line. The Thunderbirds defense should be stout and backed up by Philadelphia Flyers prospect Roddy Ross in goal.

 

Tri-City Americans

Colorado Avalanche prospect Sasha Mutala is poised to carry much of the load for Tri-City this year. He is off to a strong start after scoring four times at the Everett preseason classic. In goal, the Americans will turn to Beck Warm again this season. Warm kept the Americans in games last year and as a 20-year-old, should be one of the top goalies in the league. Fellow over-ager Kyle Olson and Czech import Krystof Hrabik will add to the offense.

As the WHL season opens Sept. 20, look for more reports from NHL Seattle correspondent Andy Eide covering the WHL and potential players destined for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

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