It's a bit silly to say that Riley Heidt was a sleeper in the 2023 NHL Draft. Heading into that weekend, the consensus among public ratings had the WHL center ranked 27th in his class. That's a lower first-round grade but definitely in the top 32 of a deep 2023 crop.
Still, public rankings and NHL scouts can diverge, and the scouts clearly were lower on Heidt than the public. Even the Minnesota Wild, who saved Heidt from falling to the third round by drafting him with the last pick of Round 2, passed on him twice. Their priorities led them to Charlie Stramel, a big center coming off a rough year at Wisconsin, at No. 21 overall, then Rasmus Kumpulainen, who the public saw as a fringe third-rounder, at Pick 53.
But look at the New England Patriots, who once famously drafted Bruce Armstrong and Bob Perryman before finally drafting four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon in the 1987 NFL Draft's fourth round. The lesson here is simple: You can't judge a pick by whether the scouts are sleeping on them on draft day. It doesn't mean squat.
At least, not if that player puts in the work and shows the scouting world their folly in not drafting them. And that's what Heidt's doing for the Prince George Cougars in the WHL right now.
Going into the season, it was hard to expect much more from Heidt from a numbers standpoint. As a 17-year-old for most of last season, he already was 14th in the entire WHL in terms of points per game. His 97 points in 68 games (1.43 per game) surpassed eventual first-rounders Samuel Honzek (1.30), Brayden Yager (1.16), and No. 9 overall pick Nate Danielson (1.19). How much better can you get?
Turns out, a lot. Heidt is destroying the Western League. He has 11 goals and 36 points, the latter of which has him tied for third in the league. In terms of points per game, his 1.80 mark surpasses all but Jagger Firkus and Andrew Cristall. The raw point total is staggering, but examining the details of his season reveals even more jaw-dropping aspects.
For one, on October 7, Heidt racked up zero points in a 6-3 loss against the Wenatchee Wild. That's not very impressive until you realize that that is the only time in 20 games this season where Heidt did not register a point. He's combining consistency and explosiveness, throwing in eight multi-point games -- including two five-point outbursts -- among his 19 games with a point.
Make no mistake, Prince George is a strong team, with five members in the WHL's top-20 in scoring, including Los Angeles Kings prospect Koehn Ziemmer. But Heidt stands ahead of all but 19-year-old Zac Funk in raw point total and tops them all in points per game. That includes Ziemmer, and it also includes probable 2024 first-rounder Terik Parascak.
The thing about great players, though, is that they play great with other great players. Being on a stacked team also makes it more likely that Heidt will keep up his blistering pace, meaning he can have one of the best Draft+1 seasons we've seen in the WHL in the last two decades.
Here are the most productive such seasons since the 2004-05 season:
1. Aleksi Heponiemi, 2017-18: 2.07 points per game
2. Sven Bärtschi, 2011-12: 2.00
3. Sam Steel, 2016-17: 1.98
4. Riley Heidt, 2023-24: 1.80
5. Nic Petan, 2013-14: 1.79
T-6. Brendan Leipsic, 2012-13: 1.76
Logan Stankoven, 2021-22: 1.76
8. Ty Rattie, 2011-12: 1.75
9. Adam Beckman, 2019-20: 1.70
10. Brayden Schenn, 2009-10: 1.68
The production is exciting, even if many of these names didn't exactly make waves in the NHL. Schenn is probably the best player in the top 10, with a 15-year (and counting) career as a top-six NHL center. Stankoven is a top prospect with the Dallas Stars; his story isn't quite written yet. The rest of the list doesn't inspire awe, weirdly enough.
Just a bit further down the list, though, you'll see some huge names that Heidt surpasses. Dylan Cozens, a 30-goal scorer with the Buffalo Sabres last year, sits in the 11th spot with 1.67 points per game in his Draft+1 season. 2019-20 Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl (1.66) is only one spot behind Cozens. All-Stars Mathew Barzal (22nd, 1.52), Mark Stone (26th, 1.49), Ryan Johansen (27th, 1.46), and Brayden Point (30th, 1.45) all fell short of what Heidt is accomplishing now.
Surely, though, there were reasons scouts weren't high on Heidt, even as he compiled video game numbers last season. They were generally twofold. One was a concern about whether he would be able to hold up at center. The other was that he was a power play merchant last season, with 43 of his 97 points coming with the man advantage.
Who can say what happens with him positionally long-term, but Heidt is making a better case to stick at center than he did last season. It's hard to draw many conclusions without access to underlying numbers. But at the very least, his faceoff percentage suggests good things.
He's winning 58.5% of his draws this season, up from 51.5% last season. There's much more to playing center than that. Still, improvement in that area (without sacrificing points) suggests he's doing what it takes to stick down the middle.
As for being a power play merchant? That label might still apply. 20 of his 36 points come from the man advantage, meaning he has 16 points at even strength. Going from scoring 44% of your points on the power play is a big jump, obviously. But it's a chunk out of a larger pie of points.
Last season, Heidt scored 52 even-strength points in 68 games, and he has 16 in 20 this year. Over a 68-game pace, that figures to be a small jump up to 54 even-strength points, which isn't a step backward by any means. His even-strength point totals are also very much in line with fellow top prospects in Yager (16) and Ziemmer (15). Heidt has just also happened to have more utility on the power play than either of those two.
And also... it's a good thing to score points on the power play. It might not be as reliable of a predictor of NHL success as even-strength points at that level. However, producing on the power play is absolutely a skill, and the WHL's most successful 5-on-4 group absolutely runs through Heidt. It's also a skill that the Wild have historically badly needed.
Especially now. The Wild have put Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman, and Freddy Gaudreau on its second unit over the past few seasons. It gets even worse this season, with cameos from Vinni Lettieri, Connor Dewar, and Petan in recent games. With all due respect, if Bill Guerin brought up Heidt from Prince George today to do nothing but play five minutes a night as a power play specialist who could maybe win faceoffs, the State of Hockey might throw their GM a parade.
Numbers are numbers, though, and a jump is a jump. Heidt has evolved into a more dangerous weapon than he was last season, and he's raised his stock considerably since Draft Day. He has to keep proving it beyond this season to get to the NHL. But if he keeps improving at this rate, many teams (and maybe even the Wild themselves) are gonna feel silly for letting him drop all the way to the end of the second round.
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