You may not know much about Caeden Bankier. The Minnesota Wild took the forward in the third round (No. 86 overall) in 2021 after headliners like Jesper Wallstedt, Carson Lambos, and Jack Peart. He’s a bit lost in the shuffle when it comes to the Wild prospect pecking order. 10K Rinks didn’t have him ranked in their Top-10 Prospects in 2021 or 2022.
Bankier just won a Gold Medal with Team Canada at the 2023 World Junior Championships, and most Team Canada fans might not even know who Bankier is. He recorded only one assist in seven games and averaged 10:10 per night, playing fourth-line duty on a star-studded Canada team.
You might have glanced at those numbers and concluded he had a disappointing tournament. The Wild don’t see it that way. After watching Bankier get to and perform in the tournament, his stock rose despite his underwhelming numbers. “We’re excited for Caeden Bankier, actually,” said Minnesota Wild Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir when asked about his tournament.
Bankier showed the Wild a ton by even making Team Canada to begin with. “He wasn’t really on their radar,” Bombardir explained. “Then he pretty much forced his way onto the team… found the role he was going to play, and fulfilled his role to a ‘T.'”
When Bombardir says Bankier wasn’t on his radar, he means it. Team Canada holds camps every summer to essentially audition players for the World Juniors. Thirty-five forwards were invited, which didn’t include slam-dunk prospects like Connor Bedard, Logan Stankoven, and Dylan Guenther. Bankier was, at best, their 39th choice.
About six months later, though, Bankier earned the invite to the December camp. A strong camp then earned his place on the team. Bombardir says it took a ton of work for him to make it to where he’s at.
“He’s a really intriguing player for us, just because we drafted him coming out of that COVID season where teams played around 20 games,” recalls Bombardir. “For a lot of these kids, that season was… not an offseason for them, but it wasn’t a traditional season. So when we drafted him, he was probably a little bit out of shape.”
That nugget of insight would be bound to raise red flags for close followers of Wild prospects. It doesn’t take long to come up with names of talented players whose issues with conditioning derailed their careers.
Wild fans need not worry about Bankier, though, assures Bombardir. “He’s completely transformed his body over the last year. He’s committed to doing it, and now he’s reaping the rewards.”
Bankier, 19, is now sporting the alternate captaincy for the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL. Skating alongside offensive dynamo Stankoven, Bankier is making a name for himself offensively.
After scoring just 21 goals and 60 points in 68 games last season, Bankier is already at 20 goals and 35 points in 20 games. Only two WHL players best both his 0.80 goals per game and 1.40 points per game: Bedard and Stankoven.
Part of it is getting older, but Bombardir gives Bankier’s work on his body a lot of credit, as well. “He moves better on the ice,” Bombardir observes. “He’s in better shape, so the tail end of his shifts don’t fall off as much as they used to.”
He didn’t just impress the Wild brass by transforming his body, though. He transformed his game, too, which helped Canada win Gold.
When in Kamloops, the offense runs through Stankoven and Bankier. But Bankier’s tournament was never going to be about scoring. That’s why they had Bedard, Stankoven, Guenther, and an army of top prospects. No, if Bankier was going to succeed, he was going to need to play defense. His job was to not get scored on.
And he wasn’t. Playing heavily on the penalty kill and in constant defensive situations, Canada surrendered just three goals with Bankier on the ice. Only one of those was at even strength. On the penalty kill, Canada barely lost the battle, scoring a goal while allowing just two with Bankier playing shorthanded.
It’s easy to give credit to Thomas Milic, Canada’s goaltender, who was indeed outstanding with a .932 save percentage. But look closely at Bankier’s game, and you’ll see that he was making life much, much easier on Milic.
Mitch Brown of Elite Prospects tracked every minute of Bankier’s game at the WJCs this year. He did two things extremely well: Generate scoring chances with limited ice time and defend, defend, defend.
Bankier was one of, if not the, top defender at the tournament this year. He made a tremendous amount of defensive plays (breaking up/intercepting passes, pressuring shots, recovering dump-ins) throughout the tournament. In the offensive zone, he was quick to get loose pucks and turn them into scoring chances.
Performing like this in a huge tournament is proof of concept for Bankier to be valuable when he takes the next steps to the NHL, even if his scoring doesn’t translate. Just like how not everyone can be a scorer on Team Canada, not everyone can be a scorer in the NHL. If Bankier needs to shift gears to a more defensive-minded game in the pros, he proved he can play that kind of role in Halifax.
It took a ton of effort for Bankier to enjoy this success in both juniors and international play. It’s not just about what he’s done to get here, though, that excites the Wild front office. These last two years of transformation create a feedback loop that can propel Bankier’s game to success.
“It’s almost like he’s become addicted to it,” Bombardir said of Bankier’s commitment to improving himself. “Because he sees what this work has done, and it’s won him a Gold Medal, and it’s also had him having an excellent start to his season in Kamloops. … If he continues to do the work, he may end up being a good pro.”
After seeing how much his stock’s risen over the past six months, who can doubt him?