Boy, what a year, hey?
To say that the 2020-21 hockey season was a weird one for scouts would be quite an understatement. From the drastic reduction of available in-person scouting and interviews, to the necessary pivots to video, to many top prospects playing in new countries (or not at all), scouts all around the world — both NHL-affiliated and independent — had quite a task on their hands preparing for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
But scouting is a difficult art even at the best of times, and all one of its practitioners can really do is dig in and keep working. So that’s what we did, and today I am happy to share some of my work right here with anyone who is willing to read this article.
In addition to my work covering Dallas Stars prospects I have been preparing and publishing my personal draft rankings here on Defending Big D for a few years now (here is my list from last year), a task that I love to do and am very proud of, and knew that I wanted to keep the trend going in 2021. However, while the prior two years saw me compile a list that went all the way up to 101 names, this year I was forced to keep things shorter because of time commitments, including work elsewhere in the scouting community. This time I focused solely on the 1st round, though I did go beyond the number of picks that will be made on Friday night to mention everyone that I personally consider to be worthy of being a 1st-round picks (which ended up being 35 names).
Beyond my work here with Defending Big D, I’m also the Head Crossover Scout with an international scouting service called FCHockey. This list has been compiled and refined through a dedicated collection of video scouting, watching highlight packages online, statistical analysis, reading scouting reports written by others, discussions with other scouts, and other methods. In a normal season I spend a lot of time in rinks in my home base of Calgary and elsewhere in Southern Alberta, taking in WHL games, AJHL games and special events, but due to COVID that wasn’t able to happen this past season. Fingers crossed that I can get back to freezing my butt off and drinking bad arena coffee come the fall.
For my list I order the prospects by “draftability,” which I weigh by a combination of hockey-specific skills, natural athleticism, mental composition, development opportunities and numerous other factors. In terms of their long-term potential, some players on this list I consider to be high-ceiling and low-floor, while others are low-ceiling and high-floor — I believe there is draftability and value in both.
To help illustrate my projected upside of these prospects, I have separated my list into various “tiers” (separated by the asterisk lines). I consider players in the same tier to be better draft options than those in the tier below, although all the members of the same tier are very, very close in terms of their draftability. When it is all said and done, I won’t be surprised if the prospect I have at the bottom of a tier turns out to be a better draft choice in the long-run than the prospect I have at the top of the same tier, and vice versa. I have also included a brief description of each player, though more thorough scouting reports from me on most of them can be found on the FCHockey website.
Without further ado, let’s dig in.
1) Owen Power — Defense — University of Michigan (NCAA)
For much of this season there wasn’t a clear-cut top prospect. But like he has the past few years, Power just kept getting better and better and better, culminating in a stellar performance where he helped Canada win gold at the World Championships, fitting right in with and against current NHLers playing a Top 4 role. He has a full toolbox and the sky is the limit for him.
2) Matthew Beniers — Center — University of Michigan (NCAA)
I genuinely can’t remember the last forward prospect I scouted who was as dominant defensively as Beniers is. His ability to match up against the best players on other teams is unparalleled in this class. His offense isn’t elite, but he finds ways to contribute, mainly thanks to his superb skating and incredible conditioning. He will impact games like Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron do.
3) Simon Edvinsson — Defense — Västerås IK (Allsvenskan)
Is Edvinsson the third-best player in this draft class as of today? No. But I’m willing to bet on him being the third-best in five or 10 years from now once he is fully developed. Defensemen with his blend of huge size, amazing skating and smooth puck skill can impact the game in so many different ways. He just needs time and focus to clean up his turnovers.
4) William Eklund — Center/Wing — Djurgårdens IF (SHL)
Eklund has everything going for him but size — including knowing how to play a style of hockey that overcomes being small. He is incredibly smart, has plus puck control and is heavily involved in the play because his motor is excellent. Outshone teammate Alexander Holtz this year. Might not be a prolific scorer or elite defensive forward, but he’ll be a consistent contributor.
5) Luke Hughes — Defense — USNTDP (USHL)
Arguably the best skater in this draft class, the youngest Hughes brother has the renowned family skating proficiency down pat. However, he differs from Quinn and Jack in some good ways (a bigger frame to build upon) and some worse ways (hockey sense, effort level, offensive creativity and impact). Just how far can he take his tools, and will the family shadow be a problem?
6) Dylan Guenther — Right Wing — Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Guenther can score points in any way — shooting, playmaking, on the powerplay, off the rush, in the cycle, at the net-front — and his stats thus far into his career prove it. He’s also no slouch defensively and applies himself on his shifts. Might need to get a tad more explosive and dynamic to be an elite NHL producer, and his performance at the U18s wasn’t a standout.
7) Jesper Wallstedt — Goaltender — Luleå HF (SHL)
Wallstedt has been a goaltending prodigy over in Sweden for years now, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has ice in his veins when he is between the pipes. He naturally covers a lot of net, and his positioning, technique and fine details are exceptional, allowing him to make hard saves without breaking a sweat. If anything, he can be a little too laid back at times.
8) Mason McTavish — Center — Olten (SL)
Sometimes you can watch a prospect and just tell that they were born to be a hockey player, and McTavish — who grew up in rinks while his dad was playing pro — fits the bill. His hockey sense and competitiveness are off the charts, he can rip a puck like nobody’s business, and he protects them well with his strength and thick frame. Needs to work on getting quicker, and he will.
9) Kent Johnson — Center/Wing — University of Michigan (NCAA)
Johnson is easily the most creative and purely skilled puck handler in this draft class. When the rubber hits his stick he can make serious magic happen, making his linemates better and opponents look foolish. However, there are some questions about how well his high-flying playing style will translate to the structure of NHL hockey. Hasn’t been pressure-tested a whole lot yet.
10) Brandt Clarke — Defense — HC Nove Zamky (Slovakia)
Clarke’s calling card is his ability to contribute offense from the back end, and he needs to master and maximize that, because his defending is not a real strength. Which is why it’s a bit concerning that his contributions in Slovakia and at the IIHF U18s were up and down and left a bit to be desired. Started the U18s on Canada’s top powerplay unit but didn’t end there.
11) Fabian Lysell — Right Wing — Luleå HF (SHL)
At his best, Lysell is an electrifying player. His top gear is exceptional, and with his hands and his edgework he can break the ankles of defenders and create chances out of nothing. At his worst, he looks like he’s in quite a hurry but doesn’t know where to go, something that was always a knock againstNail Yakupov. There are whispers of attitude issues that might hurt his draft stock.
12) Sebastian Cossa — Goaltender — Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Cossa is easily one of the most unique and intriguing goaltending prospects to come along in a while. He combines his enormous size with impressive quickness and athleticism, and his stats have been otherworldly. There is a very real chance that he could end up getting drafted ahead of Wallstedt and eventually end up as the better goalie, because there’s so much there to work with.
13) Corson Ceulemans — Defense — Brooks Bandits (AJHL)
Ceulemans checks off so many boxes of what you want in a defenseman: he has size and athleticism, he skates and handles the puck well, he plays with an edge and he’s confident enough to drive play. He plays fast and loose, but that’s how the always offense-oriented Bandits him to play. He’ll need to sand his game down a bit, and he’s driven enough to put in that work.
14) Cole Sillinger — Center/Wing — Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)
Two seasons ago in the WHL Sillinger was an east-west pass-first forward, but this season in the USHL he was a north-south shoot-first player, and he looked good playing both styles. Despite that small identity conflict, you like that his game is versatile and adaptable. Plays with a feisty chip on his shoulder at times, too. Might not have what it takes to play center in the NHL.
15) Matthew Coronato — Center/Wing— Chicago Steel (USHL)
The progress that Coronato made from last year to this year was stratospheric, but then again, scouts are coming to expect that out of the Chicago Steel prospect factory. He plays with incredible smarts, pace and confidence, drives so much possession on his stick, and can score in bunches. He somehow managed to get better late in the season when teams honed in on him.
16) Chaz Lucius — Center/Wing— USNTDP (USHL)
Lucius has the ability to score goals from anywhere in the offensive zone, and that skill alone will have many teams picking in the teens interested. The fact that he’s sturdy on his feet, hard to beat in battles and can play both center and wing is a bonus. A recent knee surgery makes him a bit of a wildcard — will it hurt his skating long-term, or will he get quicker when he is fully recovered?
17) Fyodor Svechkov — Center — Lada Togliatti (VHL)
This draft is short on centers, and it’s always hard to find teenage ones who already have an advanced understanding of how to play all 200 feet of ice in the position. Enter Svechkov, who looked at home playing center against men most of the season in Russia’s second pro league, making him a valued commodity. He shows occasional flashes of offense, but not all the time.
18) Isak Rosén — Left Wing/Right Wing — Leksands IF (SHL)
After playing limited minutes in the SHL Rosén was given the opportunity to play a bigger role at the U18 tournament for Sweden and he absolutely ran with it, producing a ton of scoring chances, most of which happened single-handedly. He has the speed and tenacity to be a Bottom 6 guy early on, while also having the hands and the shot to be a point-producer when he’s older.
19) Zachary L’Heureux — Left Wing — Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
L’Heureux said that he models his game after Matt Tkachuk and Brad Marchand, and boy does he show it — in both good and bad ways. He is fearless, determined and talented when it comes to driving the puck into prime scoring areas. He’s very hard to contain. You just hope he doesn’t become the next Tom Wilson, as he was suspended four separate times this season.
20) Logan Stankoven — Right Wing — Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
After the amazing playoff performance that Cole Caufield had I guarantee you that there were a few scouts around the league who circled back to Stankoven to watch more tape of him. While he might not be on Caufield’s overall skill level, Stankoven’s enthusiasm, his deceptive hands and his ability to snipe from difficult angles are all pretty darn similar. A really easy guy to root for.
21) Nikita Chibrikov — Left Wing/Right Wing — SKA-Neva St. Petersburg (VHL)
If you only watched Chibrikov’s highlight reels you might think he is worthy of a top-10 pick. Unfortunately, his effort and impact on a shift-by-shift basis fluctuates wildly and frustratingly, especially when he doesn’t have the puck and should be working to get it back. He shows some fire from time to time, and if he can somehow find that fire consistently he could be a star.
22) Zachary Bolduc — Left Wing — Rimouski Océanic (QMJHL)
Every now and again Bolduc will pull off an amazing play, stickhandling through the opposing team to generate an amazing scoring chance, which makes you wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. The hope is that his problems can be traced to some questionable on-ice habits and undeveloped strength and conditioning, both of which are things that can be improved over time.
23) Zach Dean — Left Wing/Right Wing — Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
Dean is one of those guys who will be an easy fan favorite and coach’s pet anywhere he goes. He plays with a ton of quickness and intensity, and he the puck skill and confidence to try fancy moves if the situation is right. You wonder how much the offense will come and you hope he’ll get stronger to help his defending, but he’s about as safe of a pick as you can get this year.
24) Xavier Bourgault — Right Wing — Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
Much like Johnson, Bourgault is a wizard with the puck who can pull off moves that other players could only dream of. He is a slippery and creative puck-handler who can beat defenders one-on-one, including at full speed and in spectacular fashion. Can buzz when around the offensive zone when he’s feeling it. He’ll need to tweak his play style to make it more team-oriented.
25) Brennan Othmann — Left Wing — Olten (SL)
Othmann is short and stocky, which is why he can catch opponents by surprise when he turns on the jets and blows past them. He’s a hard-nosed kid who loves to have the puck on his stick and will carry it hard to the net before dusting it off and firing a shot. Very dangerous around the crease too. Might be a bit of a sleeper since he played on big ice this year but fits best on small ice.
26) Stanislav Svozil — Defense — HC Kometa Brno (Czech Extraliga)
Svozil is a tricky prospect to get a read on, since he spent the vast majority of his season playing against men in a somewhat limited role, but then was only so-so against his peers at the U18s (though the Czechs weren’t great). However, he’s smart, his skating is high-end and oftentimes he likes to push the pace up ice, which are all good building blocks for him moving forward.
27) Carson Lambos — Defense — Winnipeg Ice (WHL)
It’s one thing to be a well-rounded player, but it’s another to be someone who doesn’t have a true calling card or project neatly into a certain role. Maybe Lambos would have found that this season if his foray to Finland went a little better (he just never seemed to fully adjust or get comfortable) or if his WHL return wasn’t cut short, due to what is currently rumored as a heart procedure.
28) Daniil Chayka — Defense — CSKA Moskva (KHL)
Chayka was one of many guys who played in a new environment this season, but for him it was back in his home country of Russia after playing in Canada for a few years. Bizarrely, his play dropped off from where it was in the OHL, much quieter and less impactful. He has upside as a mobile, modern-day shutdown defender, yet you wonder if the offense and play-driving will return.
29) Olen Zellweger — Defense — Everett Silvertips (WHL)
Zellweger is easily one of the smartest and most reliable puck-moving defenseman in this draft class. He’s just so smooth and consistent, driving possession for his team with minimal stress or turnovers. It would be nice to see more offensive impact and a better top gear for a defenseman his size, but given his mental makeup the odds of him improving those things over time are good.
30) Benjamin Gaudreau — Goaltender — Sarnia Sting (OHL)
It speaks volumes that Gaudreau didn’t play any hockey whatsoever this season before the U18s, but then comfortably led Canada to a gold medal there. Became a 16-year-old phenom in the OHL by turning away mountains of rubber on a terrible Sarnia team. His movements are quick, fluid and controlled, and he has that unflappable mindset that you love to see in a goalie.
31) Francesco Pinelli — Center — HDD Jesenice (AlpsHL)
Pinelli was primed for a big breakout season as a star player in Kitchener, only to have the pandemic reroute him to Slovenia instead, where the competition wasn’t great, but hey, at least he was playing. His performance at the U18s was up and down, but NHL teams still know what they’re getting: a smart, hard-working, two way center without any notable weaknesses.
32) Simon Robertsson — Right Wing — Skellefteå AIK (SHL)
Robertsson’s dad, Bert, is a former NHLer and longtime professional coach, and you can see that influence in his son’s play. He is a consistent, responsible forward whose fine details are sharp. However, he had a chance to flex his offensive muscles at the U18s and the results were disappointing. If you think a guy’s ceiling is as a safe Bottom 6 winger, how high do you pick him?
33) Aatu Räty — Center — Kärpät (Liiga)
The more you watch a prospect the less questions you should have about him, but unfortunately that just isn’t the case with Räty. He has all the physical tools to be a dangerous offensive contributor, but the results just don’t show up like you want them to, mainly because his sense is lacking and it leads to awful turnovers. He might top out as a Bottom 6 forward.
34) Scott Morrow — Defense — Fargo Force (USHL)
Morrow is the true dark horse prospect of this draft. For a big defenseman his skating is gorgeous, and his hands are quite impressive as well. But due to a lack of experience at high levels he’s just so raw and undeveloped that you don’t fully know what he’s going to become, especially for a 2002 birthday. Could end up as a top-10 player from this class, or might never sniff the NHL at all.
35) Samu Tuomaala — Right Wing — Kärpät (Liiga)
Tuomaala has always had oodles of talent with his skating, puck skill and shot, but his work ethic and determination were serious questions marks. It’s hard to see a talented prospect not apply himself on the ice. Luckily for him he realized that he couldn’t mail in his performance at the U18s, and he looked excellent and engaged there. Could be a guy who outperforms his draft position.