The Tri-City Americans selected a nice balance of players in Thursday’s Western Hockey League bantam draft, taking five forwards, four defensemen and one goalie.
“We really focused on the forwards early and the skill level,” said Americans general manager Bob Tory. “We have a lot of returning defensemen and good defensive prospects. The focus this year was on skill, character and leadership. All three of our top picks were leaders for their teams.”
The Americans used their first pick — seventh overall — to take 6-foot-2, 180-pound forward Michael Rasmussen of Surrey, British Columbia.
“We had him rated in the top three and we were fortunate to get him where we did,” Tory said. “We are excited to get him. He is a big man, a character leader on his club. He is a power player and competes really hard. At this age, size is not always relevant, but we always say we are going to take the best player available. Certainly his size is a real asset for him. He can still grow and get stronger, but for us the leadership and compete level was important.”
The Brandon Wheat Kings had the first pick of the draft, and selected center Stelio Mattheos of Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the coveted pick.
There were 21 picks among the 22 WHL teams in the first round. Portland had it’s first-round pick revoked as part of league sanctions levied against the Winterhawks in 2012, but they did draft 19th overall after acquiring Calgary’s pick.
Rasmussen, who turned 15 on April 17, led the Okanagan Hockey Academy’s Bantam Prep team in scoring with 41 goals and 46 assists in 59 games. He also was named an all-star at the John Reid Memorial Tournament and the Kamloops International Bantam Ice Hockey Tournament.
Rasmussen was in class at Penticton Secondary School when his name came up on the draft ticker. His teachers supported him having his phone in class until the big moment came — but he never really put it away.
“I was on my phone all day,” Rasmussen said. “I was super excited. I saw (the Americans) play five times this year (against Kelowna). It is a good organization and they care about their players. It should be good moving forward.”
Rasmussen was celebrating the draft with his parents and roommates — Jordan Hollett and Jonathan Smart — with dinner out Thursday night. Hollett was drafted 13th overall by the Regina Pats, while Smart was taken 22nd by the Kelowna Rockets.
The Americans had no pick in the second round, having traded it to Lethbridge in 2012 for Phil Tot, but went to work in the third, taking a pair of forwards from Calgary, Alberta.
Tri-City snagged Kyle Olson, 15, with the 45th overall pick (acquired from Lethbridge in the Ty Rimmer trade May 3, 2012), and added Brett Leason five spots later.
“We did take a couple of small dynamic players,” Tory said. “(Olson) is a real special player and is highly creative.”
Olson, a 5-8, 135-pound center, led the Calgary Bison with 39 goals and 41 assists in 33 games. He finished third in the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League scoring race. He was named AMBHL South MVP, Top Scorer for the South, Top Forward and an All-Star.
“I heard it is a great organization and I am excited to be part of their team,” Olson said.
Olson admitted he did not know much about the Americans before Thursday, but said Parker AuCoin, Tri-City’s first pick last year, had good things to say.
“I had to research them a bit,” said Olson, who said his parents allowed him to skip school for the draft. “They have created some great players that have gone on to the NHL and that was good to see.”
Olson and Leason played against each other during the regular season, with Leason’s Flames coming out on top and advancing to the provincial finals. They also played together last summer on the 99 Alberta Spartans.
“We know each other pretty well,” Olson said.
The 6-foot, 152-pound Leason, a native of Calgary, led the Calgary Flames in scoring with 23 goals and 50 assists in 33 games. The Flames won the AMBHL Challenger South division title, then lost the provincial title to the Lloydminster Heat. Leason won the AMBHL’s Sportsmanship Award and was named an AMBHL All-Star.
While Olson got to skip school, Leason was in class, but his teachers allowed him to keep track of the draft.
“The teachers allowed me to stay on my phone,” said Leason, who turned 15 on Wednesday. “(The Americans) never talked to me before the draft, but I am excited to come down to camp. This was a great birthday present.”
In the fourth round, the Americans, with a pick from Moose Jaw as part of the Jordan Messier trade in October 2012, took 6-3, 166-pound defenseman Conor Timlick (70th overall) from Winnipeg.
In the fifth round, Tri-City picked up a pair of defensemen in Landon Fuller (90th overall) and Erik Dahl (94th overall).
The Americans used Kamloops’ pick (part of Sam Grist trade in 2012) to get the 6-3, 190-pound Fuller from Williams Lake, British Columbia. They then used their own pick for Dahl, a 6-1, 173-pounder from Lakeville, Minn.
Center Riley Sawchuck of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, was taken in the sixth round (116th overall), while goalie Dominik Vlaha of North Bend was an eighth-round pick (160th overall), center Korbyn Chabot of Cranbrook, British Columbia, went in the ninth round (182nd overall), and defenseman Bryce DeFazio of Colorado Springs, Colo., was a 10th-round selection (204th overall).
“We focused on size on the back end,” Tory said. “We have a solid returning group on the blue line and we felt we would add some bigger defensemen to compliment last year’s group. We wanted to add a goalie for that age group. We saw him at the Anaheim camp. He’s a big kid (6-2, 160) and very agile. It doesn’t hurt to have depth at that position.”
In a breakdown of players, the Americans drafted three from the United States — the sixth consecutive year they have drafted at least one U.S.-born player — three from British Columbia, two from Alberta and one each from Saskatchewan and Manitoba.