Hitmen Bantam Draft History: Inside The Top Ten
It’s time to restock the cupboards.
The WHL Bantam Draft is set for May 3 in Red Deer, where the Hitmen own eight of the first 71 selections and 10 picks overall.
Thursday’s draft will mark the highest pick the Hitmen, selecting fourth, have had since selecting Jake Virtanen first overall in 2010.
Last year saw the Hitmen select defenceman Luke Prokop sixth overall, and they will now have picked back-to-back in the top-10 for the first time since 2002 and 2003.
Prior to this year’s draft, the Hitmen have picked in the top-10 seven times with four being in the top five.
Here’s a look back at those seven picks and the careers they went on to have in the WHL.
1995 – Chris Nielsen, 1st Overall
In the inaugural season, the Hitmen took the Manitoba native with the first pick. Nielsen appeared in 268 games with the Hitmen in his four-year WHL career, which ranks 16th all-time in games played in franchise history. The centreman ended up with 93 goals and 103 assists for 196 points, ranking 12th in points. Nielsen was also part of the franchise’s first WHL championship in 1999, finishing with 16 points (11G, 5A) in 21 games and chipped in with three points in four games during the Memorial Cup.
1996 – Kris Beech, 3rd Overall
After selecting Nielsen the year prior, the Hitmen went with another centreman in Beech with the third-overall pick. In 1996/97, Beech split the season with the Hitmen and the Sicamous Eagles of the KIJHL, appearing in eight games with the Hitmen where he scored his first career WHL goal and ended with two points. With the Eagles, Beech finished with 70 points (34G, 36A) in just 49 games played. The B.C. native spent his entire WHL career with the Hitmen and ended with 256 points (91G, 165A) ranking in the top-five in franchise scoring, while his 165 assists rank fourth. Beech was also a part of the 1999 championship team.
1997 – Michael Bubnick, 2nd Overall
The 1997 Bantam Draft saw the Hitmen change things up and go with a winger after two straight years of going with a centre. Bubnick was selected with the second pick and went on to spend five seasons with the Hitmen before being traded to the Saskatoon Blades in the 2002/03 season. During his time with the Hitmen, Bubnick played in 294 games, which ranks seventh in franchise history. He ended his career with the Hitmen racking up 53 goals and 91 assists for 144 points. His best season was in 2001/02, as he set career highs in goals (26), assists (42), and points (68), and was on the roster when the Hitmen won the league championship in 1999.
2002 – Riley Merkely, 9th Overall
Six years passed by before the Hitmen found themselves picking in the top-10 again, using it to select the Alberta native. Merkely spent his draft year with the Okotoks Oilers Bantam AAA, and racked up 33 points (15G, 18A) in 36 games. The centreman went on to play one season with UFA Bisons Midget AAA, ending with 21 points (11G, 10A) in 36 games. The two-way centre spent four years with the Hitmen and proved to be a reliable shutdown centre matched up against the opposition’s top lines. In 240 games played, Merkely finished with 85 points (35G, 30A) while chipping in 17 points (6G, 11A) in 40 career playoff games. His best season came in the 2005/06 season as he finished with 32 points.
2003 – Keegan Dansereau, 9th Overall
It was back-to-back years in picking in the top-10 and an identical ninth-overall selection for the Hitmen when the 2003 Draft came along. The Hitmen selected Keegan Dansereau to add some scoring to their roster and in three seasons with the club, they got just that. In 179 games played, the right-winger ended with 49 goals and 55 assists for 104 points. His best season with the Hitmen came in 2006/07, as he finished third in team scoring with 59 points, (28G, 31A) in 71 games. Dansereau was traded to the Swift Current Broncos the following year and went on to finish his WHL career with 241 points (108G, 133A) in 311 tilts.
2011 – Jake Virtanen, 1st Overall
The Hitmen had the luxury of selecting first in the 2011 Draft and the pick resulted in Virtanen being the second player in franchise history to be selected first overall. In his draft year, Virtanen scored an eye-popping 68 goals in 59 games played, to go along with 49 assists to finish with 117 points. As an affiliate player, Virtanen appeared in nine games and finished with four points (3G, 1A) to show off his scoring touch. In 192 career games played with the Hitmen, Virtanen racked up 85 goals and 76 assists for 161 points. His 85 markers rank 14th in franchise history, with his best season coming in the 2013/14 season, as he was a point-a-game player with 71 in the same number of games, and ended with 42 goals. Virtanen also won gold with Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships and was selected 6th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks.
2017 – Luke Prokop, 6th overall
Prior to this year’s draft, Luke Prokop was the highest pick the Hitmen had since Virtanen, as the defenceman went sixth to the club. In his draft year, he appeared in 30 games with the Pursuit of Excellence Bantam Prep of the CSSBHL, finishing with 41 points (4G, 37A) and four points (2G, 3A) in five playoff games. Due to injuries and a pair of defenceman in Vladislav Yeryomenko and Jake Bean representing their countries at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, Prokop played in 14 games with the Hitmen as an affiliate player. The Edmonton native finished with two points and was paired up with 2016 first-round selection, Jackson van de Leest.