How 2021 NHL Draft uncertainty is impacting players differently

Chris Johnston and Elliotte Friedman go over all the new and rumours around the NHL, including that status of Auston Matthews.

Top-rated prospect Brandt Clarke is confident an NHL team will be calling his name early in the 2021 draft.

But the offensively gifted defenceman fears he won’t be stepping on the big-league ice soon enough.

As the pandemic drags on, talk of postponing the 2021 NHL Entry Draft continues to pick up steam. Most scouts can’t physically attend games to evaluate players, the OHL has yet to start, and the WHL just got going this weekend.

One option the NHL is reportedly considering would move the draft to the summer of 2022.

“I ideally want the draft to happen this summer, so I can get in an NHL system,” said Clarke, who had 38 points as a rookie for the Barrie Colts last season.

“I’m working towards being in the NHL before the upcoming season, so that would be pretty demoralizing if I don’t even get that opportunity to prove that I can fill a roster spot.”

With the OHL on hold, Clarke and his older brother Graeme packed their bags and flew across the Atlantic on Christmas Day to play pro hockey in Slovakia.

“If you told me two months ago that I was gonna be playing in Nove Zamky, Slovakia, I wouldn’t even know what the heck you were talking about,” said the NHL Central Scouting A-rated prospect. “I’d never even heard of this place until mid-December.”

Clarke was determined to find a way on the ice for his draft-eligible season. He needed to improve on his game and catch the eye of NHL scouts. As a coveted young player, signing for a European team became an option.

Others are waiting for their next chance to play.

Clarke’s Barrie teammate, Jacob Frasca, is also draft-eligible, but he last played an organized game nearly one year ago. Frasca is living back at his parents’ home, staying in the bedroom he grew up in, but he hasn’t sat around in the time off. The past year has been one of hard work and growth.

He hits the ice four to five times a week, sometimes twice a day, and works out at the Athlete Training Centre in Mississauga alongside NHL and AHL talent when government lockdown regulations permit. During stay-at-home orders, he skates in a neighbour’s barn in his hometown of Caledon, Ont.

With gyms closed, Frasca had to get creative.

He studied how trainer Tim Grover helped Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant with their explosiveness and started a speed training program.

“I’m a big body, and they were obviously big, they played basketball, so I just copied what they were doing,” said the 17-year-old centre. “I’ve seen a lot of improvements with my explosiveness.”

Frasca came into the OHL a six-foot-two, 189-pound rookie last year and scored 16 points in 51 games as a 16-year-old.

A little over a year later, he measures at six-four, 220 pounds and feels faster than ever. Frasca has transformed into a different specimen since his rookie year, but wonders how NHL amateur scouts are supposed to know that.

If the OHL doesn’t start and the draft proceeds in July, getting chosen is hardly a certainty for him.

“I have no clue,” Frasca said when asked where he thought a team might select him. “I think based off my rookie year I would have a chance of getting drafted… but it’s hard to say.

“If [the OHL was] having a year, I think with my improvements made and training with the right players… I can honestly see myself getting drafted 100 per cent.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The WHL tentatively started a 24-game season on Friday. The OHL is reportedly looking to follow suit at the beginning of April, pending approval from the Ontario government.

Los Angeles Kings amateur scout Denis Fugère couldn’t understate the importance of seeing these prospects play.

“If Ontario and WHL don’t play games, what do we do with those kids? We draft them on what we have seen last year?” said the Quebec/Maritimes-area scout.

“The difference between a 16- and 17-year-old is major.”

Jack Quinn, selected eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2020, is a perfect example. He produced 32 points in 61 games for the Ottawa 67’s in 2018-19 and followed that up with 89 points (52 goals) in 2019-20 – his draft-eligible year.

Frasca envisioned himself making a similar jump.

“I was looking at a big breakout year,” he said. “[Tyson] Foerster did that, and [Luke] Evangelista… same with Jack Quinn.

“I was hoping to do the same thing.”

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That’s one reason Frasca wants the draft postponed. Judging him purely on his rookie year wouldn’t be fair, especially when leagues like the QMJHL and NCAA are playing while others are not.

“If they’re gonna have a draft in the next few months, and there’s no OHL season, then it’s going to be really tough for the teams to not only draft players but for the players to be noticed by them too,” he said.

He feels postponing the draft is the best option even if the OHL has a shortened 24-game season.

“Who knows if that will be enough to have a whole draft off?” he said. “I think most people will want it pushed.”

Clarke wants the draft to go ahead, but he’s an exceptional player, and his circumstances don’t generally resemble those of his peers.

With six points through 19 games in Slovakia, the Ottawa native’s numbers aren’t living up to his expectations. Still, he said that’s not representative of his play, and he knows scouts are watching, albeit on video.

“They’re definitely still keeping an eye on me over here… they love how I’ve been progressing, so that’s really positive to hear,” said Clarke, who meets with scouts virtually three or four times a week.

“But it’s been different, and it’s harder to read them when you’re not in person.”

It’s even more challenging for scouts to make reads from watching players on video.

Chris Byrne, an Ontario-region amateur scout for the Kings, said video doesn’t catch some aspects of the game. Skating is hard to diagnose unless you’re physically there, and what you see is limited.

“The view from a video or a camera isn’t the same as seeing the whole ice or being able to choose what view you’re looking at,” said the former Ottawa 67’s head coach. “You don’t see players on the bench, and you don’t see the reaction with teammates.”

Fugère seconded these thoughts and added that sitting rink-side provides extra intel.

“When you go at the rink, you hear a lot of things. Either from other scouts, journalists, people in the stands, or billet parents,” he said. “Then you have some other things that you can check with the kids. Right now, we cannot check all those things.”

Typically, most scouts would have seen over 100 games in person at this point in the season. In Fugère’s peak years of scouting, he drove up to 60,000 kilometres a year — that’s excluding the plane rides. In the last 11 months, he’s accumulated 10,000.

Scouting is entirely different heading into the 2021 Draft. With the lack of games and live viewings available, Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman recently suggested that postponing the draft might be better.

Fugère and Byrne acknowledge that their advice to the Kings can’t be as detailed this year, but both feel at ease because every team faces the same reality.

Fugére believes a postponement would be best for the organizations; Byrne’s opinion depends on how the next few months play out.

“If the OHL plays a 24-40 game season and they play a playoff, and there’s an under-18 tournament, then why would you push it back?” he said. “If the OHL doesn’t play or WHL doesn’t play, and there isn’t an under-18 tournament, yeah, it would be hard to run a draft with players not having played.”

The OHL is currently discussing the possibility of safely conducting a season with the Ontario government, and the 2021 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship is slated for Apr. 26 to May 6 in Frisco and Plano, Texas.

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