With so many players still looking to play their first games of the season, it’s been challenging to get a handle on what the 2021 draft might look like.
Scouts have attended games whenever it's been safe to do so, but for the most part, this draft class has been scouted by video. Not just video from this season, but going back through the archives to get a better feel on those who have not yet started to play.
Add to that the uncertainty surrounding when the draft will take place and the addition of a 32nd team to the mix, and you have a whole lot of confusion and conjecture. At the very least, it’s kept the 2021 NHL Draft top of mind, especially considering the gap between the haves and have-nots is starting to widen in the NHL standings.
There are essentially two theories that exist. One, have the late-2002, and 2003-born players drafted in December of 2021. This would allow for scouting any play this season and, in the hopes that all leagues will return to some sort of normal schedule in late-September or early-October, give scouts an additional two months of viewing into the 2021-22 season. This does present a number of logistical challenges, not concerning scouts, but definitely concerning executives and owners. From a scouting perspective, this seems to be the schedule of choice. The late-2003, and 2004-born players would go back to a regularly scheduled draft in June of 2022.
The other idea that has been tossed around is a dual draft that would take place in late-June or early-July of 2022. The first part of the draft would be the 2021 eligible players, while the 2022 eligibles would get their first exposure to the draft in the second portion of the proposed week-long event.
Of course, each team has its preferences. The teams that have traditionally leaned on video scouting are good to go at any time, and would prefer an as-close-to-normal schedule as possible, feeling they may have a leg up on the competition. Then you have the teams that employ a portion of their staff to scout underaged players, as a way of building their draft book a year earlier. Mike Futa and head scout Mark Yanetti employed this tactic while working under Dean Lombardi when he was with the L.A. Kings. Based on their current prospect pool, you would have to say this tactic is effective. Teams that do this would also prefer going to the draft table earlier, feeling they have an advantage over teams that simply scout the current year’s prospects.
Then you have a group of teams that utilize the traditional in-person scouting tactic. That method has proven to be successful for a number of teams, especially those that have a good track record later in the draft. Those teams would prefer to push the draft back as far as possible in order to maximize the in-person viewing opportunities. Several events for both the 2021 and 2022 draft eligibles have already been cancelled, though.
From a league perspective, there are several considerations. First, the health and safety of the teams and prospects is of the utmost importance. Second, the league never likes to see competitive advantage given to teams. Their interests lie in a 32-team league full of parity, where entertainment is at the forefront, and every fan base feels it has a chance to cheer as late into the season as possible. Then, there’s logistics. What works best, and when, for a majority of the teams? How will different draft dates affect the ability to sign players, the number of contracts they have on the books, when players can participate with their NHL clubs, salary cap, etc. There are a number of logistical elements that have to be considered. Finally, what about the NHL Combine? It’s a hugely important piece of the puzzle. Teams gather, interview players, talk amongst each other, and of course, the physical testing results that are made available to all teams once the Combine is complete.
The league has quietly put together a committee to work through these issues, yet any talk of dates or logistics has been muffled. The NHL wants to wait until absolutely necessary to announce dates, times, locations, etc. As of the NHL key dates list released in January, there is no date set for the NHL draft lottery. Currently, the draft is scheduled to take place July 23 and 24 with a location TBD. The 2020 draft template may very well be employed. I believe those dates are fluid. Time is of the essence as vaccines are administered at different rates across North America.
Of course, the priority is getting through the 2020-21 season, something essential to determine the 2021 draft order.
Now to the fun stuff.
In years past, this would’ve been our sixth edition of draft rankings for the season. Instead, this month, rather than post a top-32 ranking, we will focus on a short-list of players making waves. This short list will include only players who are currently playing. As an aside, there’s a list of a few honourable mentions that include players currently on the ice, and those expected to suit up in the next month. The OHL is the only major junior league that has no official start date, although it is rumoured some sort of protected environment system will be utilized as early as the first week in April.
Let’s hope things change for the better by the time we get to our next rankings due date of mid-March. Until then, here’s a list of 10 players who are in the conversation to be featured prominently in the first round of the 2021 draft.
1. Kent Johnson, C, U of Michigan (NCAA): One of the most dynamic players this draft class has to offer, Johnson continues to create content for the highlight reel. There’s no denying his offensive instincts include a measure of risk not normally taken by freshman at the NCAA level. Johnson has put up point per game numbers, which fits with his CJHL Player of the Year honours from last season. Johnson puts up points, but not at the expense of giving them up the other way.
2. Simon Edvinsson, D, Frolunda Jr. (SWE): There are plenty of high-end options at defence in this draft. The projection of the first one of them taken will range, but one of the names who will continually be in the conversation is Edvinsson's. He moves well, makes plays and projects to be a top-pairing, multi-situational defender. There have been some issues finding him a place to play. He’s too good for the Under-20 league, not quite ready for primetime SHL minutes, so the Allsvenskan is a nice go-between.
3. Owen Power, D, U of Michigan (NCAA): Has earned his ice with solid play at both ends of the rink. Not afraid to transport the puck or take calculated risks in the offensive zone. A massive (6-foot-5, 14 pounds), skilled defenceman who is excelling against older competition in his freshman season. Another name in the conversation as either being the first overall pick or the first defenceman off the board.
4. Luke Hughes, D, USNTDP: The third and final instalment of the Hughes brothers, Luke is following brother Quinn as a Michigan commit, while playing out this season with the famed US U18 program. Like his brothers, skating is the foundation for success. Add to that elite hockey sense and size (6-foot-2), and you have the makings of a top-pairing defenceman. While he may not be as dynamic as his brothers, he plays a more simple, safe and effective game. He makes good, accurate passes while being able to handle the puck with poise and confidence in the offensive zone.
5. Matthew Beniers, C, U of Michigan (NCAA): Beautiful blend of will and skill, Beniers was leaned on heavily at the world juniors. His numbers didn’t pop off the page there (three points in seven games), but he was trusted in most every situation. He’s not as dynamic as some others on this list, but he displays an excellent two-way game and some intangibles that will translate well to the NHL.
6. William Eklund, LW, Djurgarden (SHL): Due to COVID-19 protocols, he wasn’t able to participate in the world juniors. Had he been given the chance, he likely would’ve been one of Sweden’s top two centres. A modest 20-game stint in the SHL last season allowed him to feel comfortable starting with Djurgarden this season. Not only is he getting top-six minutes, but he’s producing at a top-six rate. There’s great deception in his shot, either by looking off-target, or through subtle manipulation of the blade angle. A hard worker who skates well and utilizes those assets to create turnovers and offence.
7. Brandt Clarke, D, HC Nove Zamky (SVK): Has been able to transition to the pro game in Slovakia and through 16 games he has four goals. Size, speed and offensive instincts define Clarke’s play. It will be fascinating to watch his game if and when the OHL returns to the ice.
8. Aatu Raty, C, Karpat (Liiga): Because of his success at home and internationally over the past couple seasons, Raty was pre-determined as a top-three pick going into this season. A poor start in Liiga play left him off Finland’s world junior team, though. There’s no doubt he possesses plenty of NHL translatable skills, but playing just over 11 minutes per game will be challenging to put up expected numbers. Turning those two disastrous narratives into a positive the rest of the way will be key to getting Raty back into top five contention.
9. Carson Lambos, D, Winnipeg Ice (QMJHL): The perfect example of what many European players face when coming over to North America to play junior hockey. Not only are the expectations high, but managing a new language, new food, new town, different rink size in a new location isn’t easy. Having said that, Lambos will likely look back on the experience as a positive one in furthering his hockey development. A couple games in the Liiga should serve as a great reminder of how fast the pace is at the pro level before re turns to the WHL ice.
10. Zachary Bolduc, C, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL): The numbers don’t dazzle like they did a year ago, but remember Bolduc is playing in different company this season. One thing is for certain: he is extremely talented with magic hands and the ability to release the puck in deceptive fashion. He excels in the small area game and will need to continue his work away from the puck and in the defensive zone. Bolduc is still understanding that many of the same skills used on offence are effective while defending.
Nikita Chibrikov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (RUS): Dynamic playmaker, entertaining
Dylan Guenther, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL): Skater, sniper, confident
Xavier Borgault, C, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL): Deceptive shooter
Corson Ceulemans, D, Brooks (AJHL): Well-rounded defenceman
Cole Sillinger, C, Sioux Falls (USHL): Gutsy, gritty, skilled
Daniil Chayka, D, Guelph Storm (OHL): Big, mobile defenceman
Fabian Lysell, RW, Lulea Jr. (SWE): Temperamental yet dynamic
Mason McTavish, C, Peterborough Petes (OHL): Pure goal scorer
Stanislav Svozil, D, Brno (CZE): Second season playing pro
Matt Coronato, RW, Chicago (USHL): Leads USHL in goals