Major-junior once dominated the hockey development landscape but now shares it as NHL drafts have increasingly become divided between players taken from major-junior, the U.S. collegiate NCAA and Europe.
Although its market share has decreased, major-junior is still a major factor in the development game, as attested by the 125 Western Hockey League 2023-24-season eligible players leaving this week for NHL training camps. Several upper-end listed players, such as Connor Bedard of the Regina Pats, will however be starting their pro careers and not returning to the WHL this season. Wenatchee is also unlikely to see the majority of Zach Benson, Conor Geekie, Carson Lambos, or Matthew Savoie in junior this season. The Victoria Royals will have to wait and see what the San Jose Sharks decide to do with Gannon Laroque, who is also signed to an NHL entry-level contract.
A total of 31 of the 32 NHL teams will have at least one WHL-eligible player in camp. The Calgary Flames have nine and the Minnesota Wild eight.
The Victoria Royals have five players off to NHL camps. Minnesota draft pick Kalem Parker is off to the Wild camp, Arizona draft selection Justin Kipkie to the Coyotes camp, free-agent Nate Misskey to the Edmonton Oilers and captain and 2022 Sharks fourth-round draft-pick Laroque to the San Jose camp from a potentially-loaded Victoria blue line, along with forward Reggie Newman as a free agent to the Coyotes camp.
“Anytime you can be at that [pro] level — and they [pros] are demonstrating constantly day-in and day-out what it takes to be at that level and how they got there and how they earned spots on the team and increased their minutes and roles — you’re going to learn a lot by just watching that standard and bringing it back to Victoria,” said Royals head coach Dan Price.
Kipkie and Newman will play for the Coyotes and Laroque for the Sharks in the 2023 Rookie Faceoff tournament Friday through Sunday in Las Vegas. Parker will skate for the Wild in the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Misskey with the Oilers prospects at the 2023 Young Stars Classic in Penticton, also both Friday to Sunday.
Forward Ty Halaburda of Victoria, who plays in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants, is a free-agent invite of the Boston Bruins, and forward Parker Bell of Campbell River, who plays for the Tri-City Americans, is a draft pick of the Calgary Flames.
Forward Brayden Schuurman of the Royals skated in NHL training camps the last two seasons as a free agent but did not receive an invite this year, which will no doubt serve as motivation.
Each of the 22 WHL teams has at least two players in NHL camps. The defending WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds lead with a whopping 14 players. The Kamloops Blazers, Portland Winterhawks and Wenatchee Wild each have 10 players in NHL camps, which should give Royals fans pause as to just how tough the Western Conference will be this season.
Of the B.C. Division teams, the Blazers lead with 10 players in NHL camps followed by the Royals, Prince George Cougars, Kelowna Rockets and Vancouver Giants with five each.
Meanwhile, the Royals opened the preseason over the weekend with a 5-0 loss to the Cougars in Port Coquitlam and 5-4 shootout victory over the Giants in Ladner with Laroque, Parker, Matthew Hodson and rookie Cole Reschny scoring for Victoria in regulation time.
Victoria began the preseason with 35 players. That was cut to 29 on Monday. The Royals conclude exhibition play in Kamloops against the Blazers on Friday and in Kelowna against the Rockets on Saturday.