The WHL is the only one of the CHL’s three leagues yet to have granted Exceptional Status so a player can join its ranks a year early. This year however, the kids may be coming for them with numbers.
According to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, three Western Canadian players have applied for Exceptional Status this season: Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt. Having seen all three of them live, I think they could all do it. But Exceptional Status is never as simple as it seems out west.
Last year, right winger Matthew Savoie applied for the designation and was denied. Over in the OHL, center Shane Wright became the fifth to receive it in that league, following John Tavares, Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad and, incongruously, Sean Day. Wright went first overall to the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL draft and currently sits second in league rookie scoring – and that’s only because Mason McTavish of Peterborough just had a five-point night for the Petes. Wright is also tied for the Kingston scoring lead with linemate Zayde Wisdom.
Savoie, on the other hand, has already played 12 games with the Winnipeg Ice, the team that picked him first overall, despite Savoie’s commitment to the University of Denver shortly after his Exceptional Status claim was rejected.
Unlike the OHL and QMJHL (which claims Joe Veleno as its Exceptional Status trailblazer), the WHL drafts players at 15 instead of 16, then has them go back to minor hockey for a year before joining their major junior clubs. Usually top-end kids will get in a handful of games as call-ups in that transition year and there has been some confusion about why Savoie has played more than the traditional five. What I was told is that there are provisions within WHL regulations to allow a player additional games and clearly that is happening with Savoie. And there is recent precedent: when Kirby Dach was 15, he played 19 games with Saskatoon because the Blades went through some wicked injury woes.
The downside for Savoie was that he recently got clocked by a blindside hit against the Brandon Wheat Kings and is currently out of the lineup. Was this an example of why he shouldn’t have been in the league, or could it have happened to anyone? I lean towards the latter, but I wanted to put all the cards on the table for you, the reader.
So let’s get to the potential 2020 party-crashers, shall we?
As I said earlier, I’ve seen all three players live before and it happened to be in a very interesting setting: the Toronto stop of the Power Edge Pro camp, run by skills coach Joe Quinn. Bedard was there two years ago while Yager and Heidt attended this past summer. Quinn’s NHL clients include Connor McDavid, Dylan Larkin and the Hughes brothers, so he knows high-end talent.
There is a prospect scrimmage at the end of camp and this is where I saw just what these kids were capable of.
Bedard was playing against older talents such as Quinton Byfield, Cole Perfetti and Johnny Beecher, yet he was incredibly dangerous the whole game. His shot release was practically NHL-caliber already and again, this was two summers ago. Bedard is annihilating the competition with the West Van Academy prep team this year, leading the team of 2002 birthdays with 52 points in 23 games. He’s a 2005 birthday.
Yager and Heidt play for the same Saskatchewan team back home and they came to PEP camp to face names such as Wright, 2020 NHL draft prospect Frankie Carogioiello and Kimball Union Academy’s Adam Fantilli, the best player available for the 2020 OHL draft. Yager has incredible offensive instincts and both he and Heidt looked completely at home in that group of competition. Yager and Heidt are playing with and against kids two years older with the Saskatoon Contacts, yet sit third and fourth respectively in team scoring.
So on the ice, we’re good here. But Exceptional Status isn’t just about performance. It’s also about how a player will adjust to the major junior lifestyle, a change in schools and that sort of thing. A psychologist is brought in to assess the player and interviews are conducted with parents, coaches and teachers. For this portion, I don’t have any insider insight, obviously. But it’s important to remember when you start seeing more video clips of these kids on Twitter and loudly wonder how they could ever not be considered exceptional.
My closing opinion? I think at least one of them gets it. The Savoie process was a bit of an ordeal and I can’t see that happening again. It’s a big step and a controversial one, but the rule is there for kids who show a ton of promise – and these kids all have it.
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