The Victoria Royals have had success with fast and exciting players who were at the lower end of the prevailing median height or weight scale among players in the Western Hockey League. Defenceman Joe Hicketts won gold with Canada in the world junior championship tournament, AHL pro Matthew Phillips was the most electric player in franchise history and Dante Hannoun is skating with Italy in the current 2022 IIHF world championship in Finland.
In keeping with a template that has worked, the Royals selected five-foot-eight, 140-pound forward Rui Han seventh overall in the first round of the WHL U.S. priority draft Wednesday. The 15-year-old native of Birmingham, Alabama, was raised in San Diego and can skate and score.
“Rui Han is a smaller player, who really uses his speed and agility, and has a quick and accurate release,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price.
The WHL U.S. priority draft is held separate from the main WHL Prospects Draft, in which the Royals will selected third today, so as not to have to gamble top picks in the main draft on American players who may eventually choose playing in the NCAA instead of the WHL. It illustrates the cultural divide in hockey between the U.S. and Canada.
“You have a different kind of conversation with the U.S. players as you educate them about the WHL and your particular market,” said Price.
“It’s about forming relationships with the families [of the drafted American players].”
The Royals’ first-round selection in the 2021 U.S. priority draft, ninth-overall pick Hudson Bjornson of Scottsdale, has committed to Victoria and is signed by the Royals. The six-foot-one defenceman is out of the Phoenix Junior Coyotes Tier One Elite program.
The 2022 top-pick Han, meanwhile, had 20 goals and 35 points for the St. George’s School U-15 Prep team in Vancouver this season and added three goals and 10 points in four playoff games. Han picked up three assists in six regular-season games, against players three years older, as a call-up to the St George’s U-18 team.
“We got to see Rui Han a lot because he plays on the Lower Mainland,” said Price.
Before coming to St. George’s this season, Han had 22 goals and 39 points in 32 games for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings U-13 Triple-A team in 2020-21. He has also made representative sides with three goals and five points in six games for Team California in the Brick Invitational in 2016-17.
Unlike the main WHL draft today, which is based in reverse order of the previous season’s standings, the U.S. priority draft is by random draw. That’s why the Edmonton Oil Kings got to select first, despite that they were a powerhouse this season and are in the Eastern Conference final. The Oil Kings took defenceman Blake Fiddler first overall out of the Dallas Stars Elite U-14 Triple-A team.
The two-round U.S. priority draft snaked in reverse order for the second round with the Oil Kings selecting last. The Royals chose six-foot, 178-pound forward Zach Spagnuolo with the 38th selection overall in the second round. The Michigan native, a teammate of first-overall pick Fiddler on the Dallas Stars Elite U-14 Triple-A team, had two goals and five points in 19 games this season.
“Zach Spagnuolo is bigger, rangier more power forward [than Han],” said Price.
Meanwhile, the Royals have the third overall selection in the main WHL prospects draft today of Canadian players. (American players not selected in the U.S. priority draft are also still eligible to be selected today). Victoria came up third in the draft lottery held among the WHL six teams that missed the playoffs. It has allowed the Royals to go deep in their pre-draft interviews with a trio of players, and their families, because they know they will get one of those players. The Royals are not saying who those three players are that they interviewed.
“It’s a great feeling and [director of player personnel] Ed Fowler has done a great job,” said Price.
It is the highest draft slot in Royals history and they are guaranteed to land among of the top prospects that have emerged on pre-draft lists — Gavin McKenna of Rink Academy in Kelowna, Cole Reschny and Reese Hamilton of Northern Alberta Xtreme, Jackson Smith of Edge, Cole Temple of Brandon, Chase Harrington and Jordan Gavin of Delta Academy, Cameron and Connor Schmidt of Okanagan Hockey Academy and Will Sharpe and Braeden Cootes of Yale Academy in Abbotsford.
Ollie Josephson of Victoria was selected fifth overall last year by the Red Deer Rebels.
It’s an educated throw of the dice, but still a throw of the dice. The list of players overlooked in the WHL draft is legendary and includes Jarome Iginla, Shea Weber, Jamie Benn and Shane Doan. Victoria’s top current player, San Jose Sharks-prospect defenceman Gannon Laroque, was also not selected in the WHL draft but was signed as a free agent by the Royals.
The Royals will be looking to make up for last year’s WHL main draft in which they did not have a first-round selection after flipping it to the Brandon Wheat Kings in the trade that brought then St. Louis Blues NHL-prospect Tanner Kaspick to Victoria in 2018. That eventually proved to be a glaring decision when the Royals finished last in the 2021 WHL pandemic bubble season only to have their first-round pick that year, which turned out to be No. 3 overall in the lottery, go to the Wheat Kings. That player turned out to be six-foot-two defenceman Charlie Elick, who Brandon director of player personnel Chris Moulton has described as “the total package.”