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It’s never early too early to talk about the playoffs. And it’s never, ever too early to talk about the NHL Entry Draft.
Even before the 2013-14 Western Hockey League season started, going deep into the playoffs was already part of the daily conversation for Joe Hicketts and Jack Walker of the Victoria Royals.
That’s because Hicketts, a Kamloops native, and Walker, from Minnesota, are two of the league’s prospects who will be scouted thoroughly this season ahead of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft next June.
The Royals/Bruins franchise has never produced a first round NHL draft pick. Despite having superb skill and skating qualities, Walker (5-foot-11, 165 lbs.) and Hicketts (5-foot-8, 180 lbs.) are on the small side in terms of pro size. They’re long shots to go in the first round. But they’re both on the radar, and a big season can change everything.
“(Getting drafted) is the goal but team success brings individual success,” Hicketts said. “We’ve heard it all the way up coming into this league, but it’s true, the farther you go in the playoffs the higher your chances of getting drafted.”
“The fact is some guys mature later than others,” said Royals general manager Cam Hope.
“In a way, it takes a special and sort of a weird combination of player, an early bloomer, to get drafted into the NHL in his draft year.”
If the Royals can improve this year over last, and general manager Cam Hope believes they will, then Hicketts and Walker will be at the centre of it.
The 17-year-olds are inextricably linked in the way in which their paths have crossed. As 16-year-old rookies last season they were paired together on the power play, with Walker dropping back from his regular role at forward to play the point with Hicketts, a regular defenceman.
Hicketts was shortlisted by Central Scouting Services this year on the 2014 early watch list for WHL draft eligible players. He’s represented Canada at the Youth Olympics and the World IIHF Under-17, and in July he helped Canada win the the Ivan Hlinka Memorial U18 world championship.
Walker, meanwhile, has been in the Team U.S.A. pipeline for years.
Walker came close to making the Ivan Hlinka tournament, as he was on U.S.A’s 40-man roster and played in its intrasquad game. But Walker ultimately had to resign himself to watching Canada defeat his American brethren in the gold medal final on television.
“It was tough but I turned my attention to the year ahead and what we’re going to be doing here in Victoria, and having a good season,” Walker said.
Walker was trying out as a defenceman for his national team, the position he was initially pegged for when he came to the Royals in 2012. But Walker was converted to forward after a slow start. He scored in his first game as a forward and has been a versatile part of the Royals ever since, quarterbacking the power play. Thanks to his experience with the American national program he will be scouted thoroughly this year. Same goes for Hicketts, who was on Canada’s top defensive pairing at the Ivan Hlinka tourney with Aaron Ekblad of the OHL, a top prospect heading into the 2014 draft.
They may not get selected in the first round next June, a feather still missing from the franchise’s cap, but Hope believes everything is in place for it to happen soon.
“If you look around the Western League rinks of the teams that have been around a long time, it is a big deal,” Hope said. “(Having) first or second round draft picks who go on to play in the NHL leaves a legacy behind, something for the players here to shoot for.”
Five Royals draft eligible
Forward Brandon Fushimi is also in his draft eligible season, as are newly acquired Royals, forward Landon Welykholowa and defenceman Jake Kohlhauser.