Struggling Victoria Royals could have exceptional WHL draft

With the Victoria Royals floundering badly, it might not be too early for followers of the Royals to begin talking about Berkly Catton, easily the projected consensus first overall pick in the 2021 Western Hockey League U-15 (formerly bantam) draft.

The Saskatoon Contacts youth star is considered a prodigy and could be only the second player in WHL history to be awarded exceptional status, meaning he can play in the league right away as a 15-year-old. The first was Connor Bedard of North Vancouver, who went first overall in the 2020 WHL U-15 draft to the Regina Pats. Bedard promptly put up 28 points in his first 15 WHL games this season for the Pats before heading out to join Canada’s team at the U-18 world championship. They are the kinds of generational players, clearly destined for the NHL, who can assure big success for a junior franchise.

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The Royals are 1-9-1 heading into tonight’s game against the Vancouver Giants in the pandemic-abbreviated 24-game B.C. Division season. If they continue at this pace they will finish with the worst record among the 22 WHL teams.

The league tradition is to have the six teams from the previous season, that missed the playoffs, enter the draft lottery. The WHL has pushed back the 2021 draft to December from its usual May slot and has yet to announce the format. Under the existing format, lottery teams are only allowed to move up two slots or drop two slots, meaning only the bottom-three teams have a shot at the overall No. 1 selection. If that past practice holds, and there is no indication it won’t, the last-place team in the WHL will receive the most balls in the hopper and have a 57.2 percent chance of getting the number one pick. The Royals look to be a good bet for that bottom-dweller slot.

The only team looking to be a challenge to Victoria for this reverse championship are the Red Deer Rebels, who have lost 12 consecutive games and are 2-15-2 for a winning percentage of .158. The Royals, who have lost six consecutive games, are even more lowly with a winning percentage of .136. The Swift Current Broncos (4-15-1) appear as if they will be the third team in the Catton sweepstakes at .225.

Understandably, this is not a plotline the Royals wish to highlight midway through a season, even though it will increasingly be a subject others will bring up.

“We think about it zero,” said Victoria GM and head coach Dan Price.

“It’s not even crossed my mind. We’re busy getting ready for our game [tonight] against the Vancouver Giants.”

But you can safely bet the Royals’ scouting staff has begun concentrating on the top-three U-15 prospects. Or at least they will when youth hockey returns.

ICE CHIPS: While the speculation swirls around the Royals’ eventual 2021 first-round draft pick, their 2020 first-round selection Austin Zemlak — a five-foot-11 defenceman from Fort McMurray, Alta., taken ninth overall — has been called up for the rest of the season to try to bolster a Victoria blue line that has leaked a B.C. Division-leading 53 goals against.

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