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Grizzlies’ Newhook, Campbell under NHL watch

Victoria Grizzlies player Alex Newhook.

Cleve Dheensaw / Times Colonist
OCTOBER 1, 2018 09:40 PM

It’s unusual in any Canadian hockey market to have the local Junior A team with two players tabbed for the next NHL draft and the major-junior team with none.

That’s the twist as the Victoria Grizzlies of the B.C. Hockey League have Alex Newhook and Alex Campbell listed by Central Scouting in its preliminary ranking released Monday for the 2019 draft while the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League were blanked in the ratings.

The annual preliminary list ranks “players to watch” and only in categories with an A given to first-round prospects, B to possible second- and third-rounders and C for those rated for the fourth-through-sixth rounds. There are two more lists to be released, one at mid-season and the final in spring, in which players will be ranked by number.

There are only 16 Junior A players given ratings by Central Scouting in its preliminary list and the Grizzlies have two of them among the BCHL’s seven in total. As expected, Newhook was the lone player from Canadian Junior A granted an A rating. The talented and fleet centre could be joined in the 2019 draft, which will be held in Vancouver, by fellow Grizzles forward Campbell, who was given a C rating.

Newhook has three goals and 12 points in nine games, but Grizzlies head coach and GM Craig Didmon said the sophomore sensation’s presence alone creates opportunities for others.

“The opposition teams are always looking to shut down Alex Newhook, but we’ve had lots of secondary scoring,” said Didmon.

“Alex faces the top defenders from the opposition teams, and once he settled in, has been determined facing that challenge and has prevailed every night and been dominant. He plays a full 200-foot game and captains us like a 20-year-old [despite being 17].”

Among those to emerge out of Newhook’s shadow are Campbell, who has turned into a prize rookie recruit out of Montreal with five goals and 11 points in eight games.

“[Campbell] has an abundance of skill and is an NHL prospect, no doubt, and we want to lift him to a B or A rating,” said Didmon.

There are only two Junior A players attached with B ratings as potential second or third rounders and both are also from the BCHL. The Grizzlies meet one of them on Friday night — defenceman Layton Ahac — when they are in Prince George to take on the Spruce Kings. The other B-ranked BCHL player is centre Massimo Rizzo of the Penticton Vees, who is injured and has not played this season.

“This shows the quality of the BCHL. And we feel we are an elite team in it,” said Didmon.

Yet, there remains no doubt major-junior still retains a vast superiority advantage in Canadian junior hockey with 110 players listed to Junior A’s 16. Of the former’s total, 44 are from the Ontario Hockey League, 35 from the WHL and 31 from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The three leagues comprise the Canadian Hockey League. (But the 2019 projected top pick, forward Jack Hughes, is from the U.S. U-18 program).

While Newhook is the only A-lister among Junior A leagues, the major-junior CHL boasts 12, including seven from the WHL. Among them are B.C. Division rivals whom the Royals will face often this season — defenceman Bowen Byram of the Vancouver Giants and Nolan Foote of the Kelowna Rockets.

The Rockets and London Knights of the OHL, two reliable producers of NHL talent, lead all teams with five players each on the Central Scouting preliminary list.

“Kelowna and Vancouver are formidable in any season and it looks like they will continue to be,” said Royals GM Cameron Hope.

It should be noted, however, Vancouver missed the playoffs the previous three seasons before finally making it back to the post-season and taking Victoria to seven games in the first round last spring. The Royals play the re-emergent Giants more than any other opponent, and the offensively-gifted blue-liner Byram will be a handful this season.

The Royals have not been a major factor in the NHL draft in seven previous seasons of skating on Blanshard. The team’s two most notable products to date, Joe Hicketts and Matthew Phillips, were respectively undrafted and taken in the sixth round.

The Royals, off to a 4-0 start, are known for coaching up their players and getting the most of the talent on hand. Victoria has achieved age balance on its current roster. But its 2019 draft-eligible 2001-borns, led by forward Tarun Fizer, aren’t the main feature of it.

“It’s nice recognition for the players listed. But these are mostly 17-year-olds [turning 18 during 2019], and they are being projected for so far down the road,” noted Hope.

The can’t-miss A-listers obviously aside, Hope added players in their draft year generally do not have as big impacts on major-junior teams as do 19- and 20-year-olds, drafted or not.

The biggest impression on a season, said Hope, is not the players on next year’s draft list, but recent high picks returning to their junior teams from NHL camps. Eight 2017 and 2018 first-rounders have already been returned to CHL clubs, including WHLers Cody Glass back to the Portland Winterhawks from the Las Vegas Golden Knights and Alexander Alexeyev back to the Red Deer Rebels from the Washington Capitals. Others who could shake up a WHL season if returned include Michael Rasmussen of the Tri-City Americans, still with the Detroit Red Wings, Henri Jokiharju of the Winterhawks, still with the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Royals’ Phillips, currently assigned to the Calgary Flames’ AHL farm team in Stockton and appearing increasingly likely to stay in California.