The 2023 NHL Entry Draft is just over a month away. At the end of June, the league will convene in Music City, where the Nashville Predators will have 13 picks to use, including seven in the first three rounds, starting at 15th overall. In my latest draft notebook, I broke down the game of three forwards from the Western Hockey League (WHL) all hoping to hear their names called on night one.
Brayden Yager | C | Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
Heading into his draft year, Brayden Yager had the hype of a top-five draft pick. Nowadays that might not be the case, but Yager should still be a bonafide top-20 selection. The 6’0″ center was nearly a point-per-game player in his first full season in the WHL last year, posting 34 goals and 59 points in 63 games. This season, he spent most of his time playing down the middle, and his production increased to 28 goals and 78 points in 67 games; he then added 16 points in 10 playoff games too.
Yager comes with some extremely solid skating mechanics that allow him to cover all 200 feet of the ice; despite a slight heel kick here or there, there’s little to complain about. He’s also quick, attacking open ice, jumping toward loose pucks, and always keeping his feet moving. Yager’s exhaustive coverage at both ends doesn’t force him to sacrifice his finishing skill either.
He has a rapid release to his wrist shot that’s part of a diverse shooting arsenal. He can drag the puck and manipulate his blade with the best of this class, fooling goalies from a distance and picking corners. He doesn’t always make the most creative decisions in transition, but he rarely makes careless decisions with the puck and is an above-average distributor.
Sometimes he attempts to attack defenders too directly, and his hands just aren’t quite there to do that with the regularity that Connor Bedard can. But when he’s excelling at buying time for his teammates and creating his own space off of zone entries, Yager is a dangerous playmaker that could be a valuable second-line center in the NHL.
Riley Heidt | F | Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Another forward at the top of an extremely strong class for the WHL is Prince George’s Riley Heidt. At 5’11”, Heidt is a tad undersized but packs a ton of skill into his frame. After a 58-point debut season in the WHL last year, Heidt exploded for 25 goals and 97 points in 68 games this season and then tacked on eight points in nine playoff games. His U18 World Junior Championship (WJC) performance was a bit pedestrian as he finished with just two assists in five games.
Heidt is a nifty puck handler who moves well in transition, keeping his head up as he looks off defenders and dares them to force him into a decision. He can distribute the puck with ease, but first, he’ll pull up, dangle the puck in any direction he wants, and buy time for his linemates to find some soft ice. Sometimes that bites him when defenders with exceptional gap control and good angles close in on him too much, forcing him into a corner or a careless pass. But Heidt wins much more of those battles than he loses.
He can be an exceptional forechecker even when he doesn’t attack with a full head of steam. He understands how to read opponents’ passing and skating lanes and pressures them by segmenting and compacting their available ice.
Heidt is a really strong skater with some explosiveness to his crossover steps; in transition, he maintains good stride extension and knee bend. Some nights, he can get a little too confident with his skill or he’ll overpass his teammates too much, but he’s as creative as they came, and I applaud him for trying.
Koehn Ziemmer | W | Prince George Cougars (WHL)
A linemate of Riley Heidt’s and another WHL forward trying to muscle his way into the first round is Koehn Ziemmer. And on the ice, the Prince George winger and late-2004 birthday does just that. After posting a nearly identical 2021-22 season to Heidt (57 points in 68 games), Ziemmer was neck-and-neck with his center in scoring this year, posting 41 goals and 89 points in 68 games.
Ziemmer is a similar player to Ryan Leonard. He muscles his way to winning foot races, he drops his shoulder when defenders are trying to reach around his frame to dislodge the puck, and he loves his stick checks in one-on-one battles. Off the puck, he’s very good at finding soft ice in the offensive zone and finding little pockets around the net to screen goalies.
His wrist shot, aside from his physicality, is his best asset. Ziemmer can rip a shot as well as anyone in this class, and his release isn’t just quick, it’s extremely forceful. He needs little time and space to get full power behind the release of his NHL-ready shot.
Defensively, Ziemmer demonstrates some solid scanning ability. I think he needs to mature a little bit in sticking to his assignments at his own end, but he maps the ice well and leaves the zone on breakouts in a timely fashion. His skating is okay; the knee bend is solid even if his stride extensions are a tad inconsistent. But it takes him a few strides to get up to a top speed that is likely NHL-average at best.
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com.