2023 NHL Draft prospect profile: Riley Heidt is an underrated playmaker

A player who tied Connor Bedard with 72 assists in 2022-23 will be available a fair bit later than first overall.

2023 NHL Draft prospect profile: Riley Heidt is an underrated playmaker
James Doyle

Once you get out of the top five in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, there is a drop-off in sheer talent that is almost universally acknowledged among pundits. Only time will tell how steep that drop actually is, and even though the disparity is widely acknowledged, there will be some players flying under the radar who could have a significant impact at the next level.

Underrated is perhaps a tad hyperbolic in describing Riley Heidt – he is projected to be drafted in the first round – but he has some qualities that could even be top-10 worthy under different circumstances.

Birthplace: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Date of birth: March 25, 2005
Shoots: Left
Position: Centre
Height: 5’11”
Weight: 179 lbs.
Team: Prince George Cougars (WHL)

The Prince George Cougars used their second overall WHL Bantam Draft pick to select Heidt back in 2020. He had a cup of coffee with the club in the 2020-21 season, then broke out with 58 points in 65 games with them in 2021-22. This put him firmly on the map with NHL teams, and then his most recent campaign really put an exclamation point beside his name.

He finished tied with Logan Stankoven for fourth in WHL scoring this season, just behind potential top-five pick Zach Benson, but a ways behind the consensus first overall pick Connor Bedard, who ran away with the league scoring title. Heidt was actually level with Bedard for the league lead at 72 assists on the year, so while the scoring title itself was a runaway, he kept pace with the best Junior-aged player in the world from a playmaking standpoint.

Heidt was right up there with the best in the league, yet his preliminary rankings have him anywhere from 11 to 51 as of this writing. Normally there would be a bit more consensus around a top scorer in the WHL, hence my feeling that underrated was not too far-fetched to tag him with in this profile. So, the question becomes: why is there such a lack of consensus?

The concern with Heidt lies primarily with his defensive acumen, which is odd to say because he generally displays solid defensive positioning. The issue is more with respect to compete level, as he appears to drift if and when a significant lead opens up for either team on the ice. Whether his team, or the opponent, jumps out to an early lead, he can become disinterested, particularly in defending his own zone.

Mitch Brown & Lassi Alanen's tracking project

Adding some strength will also be paramount if he's to continue on at the centre position in the NHL. At times, his slight frame can make the workload of playing centre in the defensive zone a tall task, and he'll need more upper-body strength to compete with professional players in his zone. The lack of consistency on defence, paired with his smaller frame, are likely the main culprits keeping scouting services from ranking him higher on their lists.

When his compete level is up, you're watching one of the most dynamic playmakers in Junior hockey. His vision, anticipation, and ability to thread passes through minuscule windows is apparent in almost every game.

Mitch Brown & Lassi Alanen's tracking project

This chart really shows how far ahead he is compared to the average among his peers in terms of generating shot assists – the volume of his passes that lead directly to shots on goal. This exposes an issue with his game as well, however, in that he is below average when it comes to shots.

That might be the most frustrating aspect of his offensive game. He has one of the better shots you'll find in the WHL, but he just doesn't use it enough. As mentioned, he tied Stankoven for points on the year, but registered only 170 shots on goal to Stankoven's 265.

Mitch Brown & Lassi Alanen's tracking project

Here, we can really see the separation between himself, and players like Bedard or Benson. As accomplished a passer as Heidt is, there is something to be said for being a little more selfish, as an increased use of his shot would likely increase his expected goals by a significant margin.

He's still a wildly productive player, but bringing up his shooting volume would be a massive benefit to his future potential. Had he shot the puck as frequently as Stankoven, for example, his 14.7% shooting could have put him around 38 goals on the year, which would have put him in a clear second place behind Bedard in the scoring race.

Some simple adjustments could easily bring Heidt's game up to a higher level, and we've yet to even hear about his skating. He's significantly above average on that front, with elite top-end speed and a long, powerful stride. As you would typically expect with good playmakers, he also has some great puck skills, and can execute great moves while at top speed, frustrating defenders and creating space in which to set up his teammates.

With those small adjustments, he has legitimate top-six, 80-plus point potential that could be unlocked. You can't bank on that kind of production being available in the mid-to-late first round, so he stands to be one of the better value picks for a team looking to take him on. With proper development, this is one of those cases where you could look back on this draft in five years and wonder how on Earth he made it into the 20s, assuming that happens.

Preliminary Rankings

Dobber Prospects: #14 
Elite Prospects: #18 
FCHockey: #19 
Hockey Prospect: #40
Hadi Kalakeche: #14
McKeen’s: #25
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #22
NHL Central Scouting: #21 (North American skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) N/R in Top 34
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #18

Even if he can't figure out more consistency on defence, or how to bulk up a little bit, he is close to a sure bet to be an NHL player. In a worst-case scenario, a team could easily convert him to the wing, alleviating some of the concerns about his game and allowing him to continue doing what he does best – making plays. His ceiling is high, but his floor is also relatively safe, as a player of his abilities should be able to carve out a role in the NHL.

The Montreal Canadiens won't be looking his way with the fifth overall pick, but he'd qualify as an absolute steal with the Florida Panthers' selection in the unlikely event that he falls that far. He's likely gone somewhere between 15 and 25, so they'd have to consider trading up, or hope that the lack of consensus around him among scouts extends to NHL clubs.

In all likelihood, there will be a team very happy to bet on his skills somewhere in the middle of day one.

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