Eastern bias is a real thing. It is not a bias in the sense that every hockey fan in Ontario got together at a summit and declared themselves superior, it is mostly a bias in the sense that we're all in bed when the games are on out west. Add in the dwindling dollars spent on journalism of any kind outside the big cities, and you've got a situation where information about a player like the Leafs draft pick Adam Brooks seems like it's coming down the telegraph wire a week out of date.
What is going on out there in the WHL anyway?
The league is, like everyone else, winding down their regular season, and their last games are played March 19. The playoffs follow, and then the Memorial Cup takes place in Windsor in mid May. One WHL team will be there. That might bring one of the Leafs picks close enough to get a look at here in Ontario.
In the interim, let's check in with two picks and one intriguing undrafted prospect on the Leafs’ radar. All three of these players are in their last year of junior hockey which makes them grown men playing in a league full of teenagers.
Adam Brooks is a left-shooting centre for the Regina Pats, and he was selected by the Leafs last summer as an overager in the draft. He was taken 92nd overall.
He will turn 21 before the Memorial Cup starts in May, and we should bear that very closely in mind when we look at his last junior season. He is an average-sized player, just under six feet tall, and he is the captain of his team for the second year.
He had a very poor rookie year in the WHL, but since then he has put up a consistent number of a goals and a rapidly expanding number of assists until he is, this year, sitting at second in the league in points behind Sam Steel, and ahead of Steel for assists, leading the league. (As of the time of writing.)
Sam Steel is also a centre on the Regina Pats. He just turned 19 a few weeks ago, so he is two years younger than Brooks. If Regina has two centres topping the league in points, it seems likely they are a high-scoring team.
They are. The Pats are second in Goals For in the league, one off the Medicine Hat Tigers. At 329, they score a great deal more than the rest of the playoff bound teams who are mostly in the 230 to 270 Goals For range.
Is the team playing style driving that scoring or is it the skill of the players? It's usually both, but it is very easy to overstate the importance of point stats on players from high-event teams. It's even easier to miss the good players on the more average or defensive-minded teams.
Brooks also leads the league in power play assists, ahead of New York Islanders draft pick Mathew Barzal. He obviously gets a lot of power play time and is good at setting up the play. Regina has no one power play goal scorer; rather, they have several at about 10 scored on the season. Brooks is the man the puck flows through, but the man who puts it in the net is one of many he passes to, although he has 11 power play goals of his own too.
This is a good sign for his future, I think, since if we look back to last season and Mitch Marner's play in the OHL, it turned out it was his playmaking that translated to elite level, not his ability to fire pucks past teenage goalies from unlikely locations.
Brooks showed us here in the east what he can do in some limited play for the Marlies in training camp last fall. A large consensus opinion was that, like Marner, he had nothing to gain from junior hockey and he should have been on the Marlies this season.
In that training camp, Brooks played mostly on a Marlies team made up of ECHL players while the AHL-level players were still on the Leafs training camp roster. He was good in that group, obviously gifted, but not overwhelmingly so. He looked like a player who would easily be a 1C in the ECHL and could maybe crack the bottom of the Marlies lineup.
The thing to watch for this coming summer, as prospect camps and rookie camps bring him to Toronto again, is how does he compare to the man who filled that niche this year—Tony Cameranesi. If Brooks is NHL bound some day, we want to see him play this summer better in a very noticeable way than Cameranesi. Ideally, we want him to be one of the top centres on the Marlies next year.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. There's games to win and playoffs to play. And you can keep up with his stats each week in the Elseldo’s Prospect Report.
Jack Walker is a left-shooting winger for the Victoria Royals, and he was selected last summer by the Leafs 152nd overall. He does not turn 21 until this summer. He has a long history of is he a defender or is he a forward confusion, but now he is firmly on the wing, and has played there his last two years in the WHL.
Walker is not challenging for the top spot in WHL points like Brooks is, but he is 37th with 69 points in 67 games, 28 of them goals. He is second on his team to Matthew Phillips, who is 18 and was also drafted last year in a late round.
The Royals are in a wild card position right now, and may make the playoffs. They are not a high-event team like the Pats; they are a team that does okay at scoring goals, but they are as good as the Pats at preventing them. It shouldn’t surprise then that their top scorers rank a little lower overall.
Walker also played in the summer development camps for the Leafs, but he made less of an immediate impact to Brooks. He has also not taken the big jump in scoring rate that Brooks has in his last year in junior. He has, in fact, dropped by a slight amount.
We should not expect him to be a player at Brooks’ level, but scoring fluctuates for a lot of reasons that aren’t about one player.
Walker is 16th in the league in power play assists, so he’s obviously a key part of the Royals power play as well as their top line.
If his team makes the playoffs, he’ll have a chance to show off some more. If not, he might show up on the Marlies on an ATO this season. He’ll be back for the summer development camps too.
Tyler Wong is an unsigned, undrafted junior who was invited to the Leafs development camps last year and also played three games for the Marlies on an ATO last spring. He is a bit smaller than Brooks, more in the Dmytro Timashov range.
He has just turned 21, and he is lighting up the WHL alongside Brooks this year with 105 points in 66 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. That’s good enough for third place behind Steel and Brooks. He is second in the league with 49 goals, and he is in his second season as captain of his team.
His team is fifth in the league, well situated for the playoffs, and if the Pats and Medicine Hat weren’t lighting up the league with goals, the Hurricanes would be considered a high-scoring team.
Wong is eighth in power play goals, and sits just below Walker in power play assists.
On the Marlies last spring, he played three games of no consequence and had one assist. He stayed around during the period when the Marlies roster had ballooned to fifty names and they ran a second development set of practices. A lot of players out of that group ended up signed to AHL deals like Mason Marchment, Shane Conacher and Nikolas Brouillard.
Given his super-powered finish to his junior career, which has him the points equal of Brooks, we should expect Wong to be back this summer. Maybe he’ll be signing his name to a contract too.
If you believe in Brooks’ junior record, you should believe in Wong’s too. You should believe a little less in Walker, but all three should be considered for some sort of contract soon.