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Niagara Predators shore up positions with strong league draft

Preds looking to take a run at winning it all this year.

On-ice hockey development sessions at the Gale Centre run by Niagara Predators general manager Andrew Ferlatte reaped benefits for the team in the form of draft picks last week. 

At the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League entry draft, a number of the nine players chosen by the team that calls Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena home were invitees to Ferlatte’s sessions. 

“This year, I geared it toward players who are interested in playing for the Predators,” he tells The Local. “I wanted to see how they would hold up against stronger players. I get to see them up against guys with experience in the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) and other junior leagues, some as old as 25.”

All of the Predators’ first three picks last week are from the Buffalo area. The reopening of the border to the U.S. last year made it possible for some of those prospects to skate in Ferlatte’s twice-weekly scrimmages.

“It’s just the way the cards fell,” Ferlatte explains. “We had a lot of interest from the American side this year. We had a handful of players from the U.S. skating with us last season. It’s been great to see the number of American prospects coming to our Wednesday sessions.”

Choosing in the ninth spot in the first round the Preds opted for Dylan Denning, a 19-year-old defenceman who played 37 games for the Buffalo Stampede of the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) last year. 

“Dylan is a very big-bodied defenceman,” says Ferlatte. “He has excellent offensive awareness that allows him to make that first crisp pass to get the puck up in the zone. And he’s very gifted defensively. He’ll allow us to get the puck up the ice a lot more quickly this season.”

The Preds did not have a pick in the second round. In round three they took Hamburg, New York native Dalton Wright 68th overall. Wright skated for the Junior B Thorold Blackhawks and the USPHL’s Charlotte Rush in 2022-2023.

“He’s an offensive forward,” Ferlatte says of Wright. “With his experience there and in the NAHL (North American Hockey League) with Bismarck, he’ll be looked at as one of the GMHL’s top forwards this year. He’s a big forward, with qualities similar to Ryan Fritz (the GMHL’s North York Rangers forward who had 51 goals and 80 assists last season).”

The third Buffalo-area draft pick is 6’4” forward Connor Weiskerger, Denning’s teammate on the Stampede.  

The Preds’ round five pick is Aidan Jones, who played his AAA hockey last year with the Blyth-Deerview Academy. Jones is another prospect who has skated with the Predators this spring. Ferlatte is sure the stay-at-home defender is ready to make the jump to the Predators’ Toronto league. 

After signing 18-year-old Daniel Arnold of St. Catharines just a few days before the draft, Ferlatte felt comfortable choosing Daniel’s younger brother Ben in round six. Ben was also chosen in the 11th round of the Ontario Hockey League draft by the Niagara Ice Dogs. 

“We’ll see where the cards fall there,” Ferlatte explains. “He may end up with us this year, but it really depends on where the Ice Dogs see him. Usually with late-round draft picks like that it’s unlikely that he’ll go to the OHL this year. He’s been to our skates, and for him to choose to play with his brother seems very probable, actually.”

Kyler Brocklebank, chosen by the Predators in round seven, comes to the team from the Niagara Junior Knights, a prep team that competes in the North American Prospects Hockey League against Jones’ Blyth-Deerview Academy.

“He’s a very gifted two-way forward,” says Ferlatte. “He’s the captain of our partner organization’s team. He’s also very gifted in the faceoff spot. He’s going to come to camp and we’ll see where he’s at. He’ll get some time with us this year.” 

The team has already signed contracts with their eighth and ninth round draft picks, 17-year-old forward Nicholas Nicoletti of Stoney Creek and 17-year-old goaltender Mike Mankowski, another player from Buffalo. 

“He played with the Florida Jr. Blades,” Ferlatte says of Mankowski. “He’s a young guy, very low maintenance. He has the mindset of wanting to develop into the best goalie that he can be. He knows Zane Clausen will be seeing the majority of the games in goal this year. Zane will be a great mentor for Mike this year.”

Niagara’s final pick came in round 11 when they chose Owin Hendsbee of St. Catharines. Hendsbee, a forward, has spent the past two seasons between Thorold, Welland and Fort Erie of the Greater Ontario Junior B Hockey League. 

Besides Clausen and Arnold, the Predators also recently announced the re-signing of brothers Cameron and Nick Savoie and Russian player Georgi Kholmovsky, whose difficulty securing a visa kept him from joining the squad last year. 

With Kholmovsky and as many as 13 other players returning from the 2022-2023 team, the Predators will have experience heading into their third season in NOTL. That’s something the team lacked last September, with only a handful coming back from their debut Niagara season. 

“Last year we had a really young team,” Ferlatte says, “and they developed immensely. We had a good playoff run and we’re looking to really make a run at winning it all this year. With the added experience we have we’re expecting a big push this year.” 

Ferlatte expects the team to hold a prospect camp in mid- to late-July, with the main training camp taking place in late August.