Don’t look now, but the 2021 NHL Draft is only two and a half months away. It’s been a crazy year for scouting as many leagues have shortened their seasons or canceled them all together (looking at you, Ontario Hockey League). That means a lot of prospects won’t get to strut their stuff for the scouts and draft pundits, leaving them to speculate on where their development is at right now. Though as I write this, it was just announced that a showcase featuring a large number of junior players will take place in Erie, Pennsylvania at the beginning of June, so scouts may get those viewings after all.
Related: THW’s FREE 2021 NHL Draft Guide
Covering the draft this year will be different to say the least, especially when it comes to building profiles for many of the draft-eligible prospects. Opinions will also be all over the place, which is great for discussions and roundtables like this one.
So without further ado, let’s jump into our first one with some of the experts who will be providing a lot of the prospect profiles you will see right here at The Hockey Writers. This edition will include, Matthew Zator (MZ), Peter Baracchini (PB), Alex Hobson (AH), Hadi Kalakeche (HK), Dayton Reimer (DR), Colton Davies (CD), and Josh Frojelin (JF). We will be covering some potential steals, under-the-radar and polarizing prospects, the U18 World Championships, and who could potentially end up as the first-overall pick.
Question #1: First-Overall Pick
This draft has a number of potential first-overall picks and despite some recent love for Owen Power, there is no consensus selection for the top of the mountain. Who is your first-overall pick, and why?
MZ: As much as I love Matthew Beniers’ game, I am now leaning towards defenceman Brandt Clarke as the first overall pick this year. Through three games at the U18 World Championships, he’s impressed me with his mobility, elite hockey IQ, and overall two-way game. Clearly, his time in the Slovak league playing with men has brought his game to the next level. He was already an elite prospect, now he could be a superstar in the vein of Drew Doughty who was drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2008.
PB: In a year where there is no clear cut number one, it’s really anyone’s game considering no one has run away with the title. Although I have Beniers as my number one prospect in my March rankings, that could possibly change as a result of the World U18 Hockey championships. From an early glimpse, Brandt Clarke could very well dethrone him for the top spot. He’s a very strong, puck-moving defenseman with great size and mobility. While it’s only one game, he was very impressive in Canada’s 12-1 win with two goals and two assists. It’s possible that if he continues to play the way that he has, he can very well move him up from fifth or sixth overall to back to being first overall as many projected him there before the season started.
AH: My first overall pick this year remains Owen Power. This year’s draft reminds me a lot of the 2014 draft in the sense that it’s noticeably weaker than the ones surrounding it and there really isn’t a guaranteed first-round pick, and Power reminds me a lot of Aaron Ekblad. He may not be the most skilled player in the draft, but general managers around the league still tend to have a little bit of a traditional way of thinking when it comes to the draft. I don’t think whoever gets the first overall pick will be able to say no to a defenseman with size along with both offensive and defensive capability.
HK: My current first overall pick is William Eklund – his mind, hands and feet all work at high speeds, but he can also slow down to time his pace and work the play as it comes instead of rushing it. A true playmaking forward in the making.
DR: Eklund. Maybe not the most popular pick, I think he has the highest potential of any of the top-10. He played the entire 2020-21 season in the SHL and produced at a higher rate than both Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. He may not be the same caliber player as those two, but for an 18-year-old to score like that in a professional league is incredible. Had he played at the U20 World Juniors, he likely would be a much more popular pick among scouts. However, most will look at his diminutive 5-foot-10 stature, much like they did with Marco Rossi last year.
CD: Power is easily my first pick in this year’s draft. He holds unlimited potential, with great size and mobility, will quarterback the blue-line for years. He’s got all the right tools to be a franchise defenceman.
JF: Power. I do not think he is or will be the best talent in the draft, but I think his size, the overall game he showed in Michigan, and flashes of brilliance he can show in offensive transition make him first overall. I’m guessing he’s viewed in a similar vein to Ekblad, although I don’t quite see that type of upside, especially in the defensive zone.
Question #2: Off The Board First Round Pick
After the Columbus Blue Jackets went way off the board to select Russian forward Yegor Chinakhov during the 2020 Draft, which player will be targeted as such in this year’s draft?
MZ: Once thought of as a first-round pick for the 2020 Draft, Théo Rochette fell down many draft boards and eventually didn’t get selected last year. He rebounded from the disappointment with a solid campaign in the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts, finishing with 12 goals and 30 points in 32 regular season games and another goal and six points in three playoff games. He also wore an “A” for his team. His skating improved from last season, and he still possesses great hockey IQ and a solid motor. In a draft full of prospects that didn’t play last season, his talent and compete level might have caught a scout’s eye enough to make him a late first-round selection.
PB: One player that caught the attention of many, including myself, was Dmitri Kuzmin who played for Dinamo-Molodechno. He’s not the biggest defender but he’s a sleek puck-moving defenseman. He wasn’t really on my radar until he scored the “Michigan” lacrosse goal. He’s proving to be a key player for Belarus at the U18’s as he’s showing the offensive upside to his game. Although he might be a mid to late-round pick, one team could see his potential as a prospect and could take him higher than where he’s expected to go.
AH: My “Yegor Chinakhov” of this year’s draft is Lorenzo Canonica. Not projected until the third round or so, but he’s one of the youngest players in the draft and had an impressive short season with the Shawinigan Cataractes with 16 points in 24 games. I had the pleasure of covering Switzerland at the World Juniors and while Canonica was quiet offensively, he got some solid ice time considering his age. Doesn’t turn 18 until Sept 3 and I think he could be worth a flyer as a first-rounder, especially since this draft isn’t loaded with talent compared to other years.
HK: If it’s anyone, it’ll be a defender; either Aleksi Heimosalmi or Brent Johnson could see a surprise first-round pick thrown at them.
DR: My go-to for an unranked overage prospect who could be snapped up early is Florian Elias. He really put himself on the map at the World Juniors and has been alright in the DEL this season, although nothing spectacular. Maxim Krovyakov also could be taken far earlier this year, as he’s been very productive in Russia’s MHL and even appeared in two KHL games. He also has the size that NHL scouts love, and although he’s not an overage prospect, there may be a GM who jumps on him early.
CD: Josh Doan. He was passed over in the 2020 draft. He had a massive season this year with the Chicago Steel in the USHL putting up 70 points. He became the first Steel player in fourteen years to score four goals in a single game this year. He’s projected to be a late third-fourth rounder, he has a never quit attitude and I think a team might try and select him in the second.
JF: I don’t know much about overaged prospects, but I think (and maybe this is more so a Reichel type reach from last year) someone will take a huge swing on is Sean Behrens. I could really see a team miss out on the big four defensemen and opt for him, thinking he could be a Quinn Hughes type player. Really random, but I think some team goes for it.
Question #3: Flying Under the Radar
This year’s draft is full of prospects that scouts have not seen in over a year. Which two players are flying under the radar right now?
MZ: Jack Peart and Shai Buium are two players that I feel are not getting enough press right now. Since joining the USHL from Grand Rapids High, Peart has displayed tremendous poise playing for the Fargo Force. He is relied upon in all situations and has become one of his head coach’s most trusted defencemen all while being 17-years-old. His mobility, hockey sense, and ability to create offence from the backend should make him an intriguing pick in this year’s draft. Buium got onto my radar during the BioSteel All-American Game where he had a solid outing, even though his team was blown out 7-1. He has the size and mobility to potentially make an impact in the NHL one day and he’s not one-dimensional either, as he possesses a very strong two-way game as well.
PB: Two players I feel don’t get as much attention as they should are Oliver Kapanen and Evan Nause. Kapanen has the mindset to provide a strong well-rounded game as he has great vision and awareness to anticipate plays while also providing a great scoring touch. Nause plays a very simple and steady game. He doesn’t have a lot of flash, but he has great poise. He’s great in transition to make long stretch passes or carry the puck as he has great speed. He’s very sound defensively, breaking up plays and providing strong coverage.
AH: My two under-the-radar prospects are Red Savage and Robert Orr. Savage, for one, has one of the best names I’ve ever seen from a draft prospect. He’s also off to a great start playing for the USNTDP with a combined 61 points in 65 games. He’s also a dual citizen who was born in Scottsdale, Arizona, just like some guy who was drafted a few years ago named Auston Matthews. Orr, on the other hand, while he likely won’t have the career of the man who shares his name, is another heavily underrated prospect. He isn’t projected to go until the third round or so, but he’s another one of the youngest players in this draft class, not turning 18 until Sept 1. He also had an impressive rookie season this year with 32 points in 41 games for the Halifax Mooseheads.
HK: Brent Johnson, Ayrton Martino, and Liam Gilmartin have been my sleepers for quite a while now, although my USHL work for DobberProspects could be tipping the scale there. I also have Francesco Pinelli higher than most on my board, at 11th overall.
DR: Oliver Kapanen has produced very nicely in Finland’s U20 league and is a point-per-game in the Mestis league, where he also served as the alternate captain. However, some have ranked him in the top half of the second round. Doan, on the other hand, has been ranked by very few but has been excellent in the USHL. Playing on the powerhouse Chicago Steel, only teammates Matt Coronato and Sean Farrell outscored his 31 goals and 70 points this season.
CD: I am a really big fan of Savage, his two-way game is spectacular, he’s an agitator and someone you can rely on to play in the dirty areas. He is currently the captain of Team USA at the U18 World Championships, I expect a big tourney out of him that will help raise his stock. Another player I would put on this list is Pinelli. He played overseas this year due to the OHL season being canceled due to COVID. He flourished overseas putting up 11 points in 13 games in the AlpsHL and earned himself a spot on Canada’s U18 team. He’s a crafty playmaker with a high hockey IQ. He can be utilized for years to come.
JF: Jiri Tichacek is flying very under the radar. He is very reliable defensively, always making the right reads in his own defensive zone, and I feel his utilization by the 2nd division Czech team leaves him room to be better offensively if he was given a chance. He’s somewhat given more of a chance on the Czech junior team to put up points. Tristan Broz to me is super fun. He’s nearly a point-per-game on the Fargo USHL team, and I could see him being a fun middle-six winger who plays both special teams.
Question #4: Steals
When we look back on this draft in five years, there will undoubtedly be a record number of steals especially with the potential lack of information on many of these prospects. Who is one of yours?
MZ: Matthew Samoskevich is going to surprise a lot of people when he gets to the NHL. He has the speed, skill, and hands to be an effective top-six forward, and he has the ability to make plays that get on the highlight reels. If he can translate those skills to the next level, the team that drafts him will be very happy indeed. He was one of his team’s best players at the BioSteel All-American Game, showing off his repertoire every time he was on the ice with fellow star Matthew Coronato. He is definitely going to be one to watch in the coming years.
PB: Ayrton Martino from the Omaha Lancers. He was well above a point per game in the USHL and is one of the better playmakers in this draft. His skating and speed allow him to fly into the offensive and set up an attack. While that is a strength, it’s his quick hands, vision, and ability to connect with his teammates that really stand out. He potentially could be a first-round pick, but if he falls from the beginning of the second round, one team is going to be really happy to pick him up.
AH: Somebody I think could be a steal of the draft is Pinelli. The Kitchener Rangers forward, unfortunately didn’t get a chance to play in the OHL this year since their season was canceled and I think that’s going to contribute to the reason that he doesn’t get picked as high as he should. He had 41 points in 59 games during his rookie season with the Rangers and finished a small campaign in Slovenia with 11 points in 13 games for HDD Jesenice. He’s currently projected to go mid-to-late first round, but I think if he played a full OHL season, he would easily be a contender for the top ten.
HK: My bet is on Martino – I’ve seen him as low as the third round on some boards, and he simply shouldn’t be that low. A great overall offensive package, a great mindset for an 18-year-old, and chips in defensively as well.
DR: Sasha Pastujov is a really intriguing prospect. He projects to go late in the first, potentially early in the second round. Yet he led the USNDP in scoring with 52 points in 34 games, which sits 20th among all-time points-per-game in a season. That’s better than Trevor Zegras, Matthew Tkachuk, and James van Riemsdyk. I expect him to fall a bit in the draft, but there’s a chance he will be a huge college star in a season or two. Don’t sleep on him.
CD: I believe one of the steals this year is going to be Logan Stankoven. In just six games with the Kamloops Blazers this season he had ten points, including seven goals. He’s a legitimate goal scorer, high hockey IQ, and he’s not afraid to play the body or get down-low. Overlooked once again due to his size, but with recent success from smaller players like Johnny Gaudreau, Alex DeBrincat, and now Cole Caufield, one has to wonder if a team will take an early gamble on Stankoven.
JF: Fabian Lysell outside the top seven would be a miracle for some lucky team. Watching him in Sweden, he excels in nearly every role he’s placed in. If he’s needed to forecheck in the bottom six, he excels. If his team needs him to be a top-six scorer, he succeeds in that role. For someone less highly regarded, Brent Johnson is very entertaining. He’s near .7 points-per-game (PPG) in the USHL as a defenseman and tends to make correct reads in transition. He always seems to possess the puck and looks very solid.
Question #5: Polarizing Prospects
With the lack of games and viewings, there are also many players that are ranked all over the place. Who is one of your most polarizing prospects?
MZ: Carson Lambos is hands down my pick for the most polarizing prospect. He was ranked as high as first-overall before the 2020-21 season began, and now he’s hanging out as low as 37th. In fact, he’s all over the place with some places ranking him in the top-10 and others in the 15-40 range. More so than others, the pandemic really seemed to throw a wrench in his development. He understandably went overseas to get ice time but hit a wall playing against older players.
Lambos did eventually return to the WHL with the Winnipeg ICE but suffered a leg injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. So he won’t be able to showcase any more of his game to scouts and draft pundits. Regardless, he definitely has the tools to be a top-pairing defenceman in the future but will need to adjust some things in his game to ultimately get there. If he does in fact drop into the second round, he could be a steal considering he was in contention for the top of the draft only a few months ago.
PB: I would say Zachary L’Heureux from the Halifax Mooseheads. He plays with such a high tempo and energy, has a strong skill set, and brings a physical presence. However, it’s that same reason that he could be a concern. He received four suspensions this season alone and that could sound some alarms about his discipline. Initially, I had him as a top-15 pick. But this kind of play that crosses the line could hurt his draft stock.
AH: My polarizing prospect is Florian Elias. On one hand, he’s a year older than most of the people in this draft class. On the other hand, he was so incredibly impressive at the World Juniors. Some could say that he benefitted from playing alongside Tim Stutzle and J.J. Peterka, but his production nonetheless was incredible. He went undrafted in 2020, but I think based on his World Junior performance alone, he could be a sneaky good pick in the middle rounds.
HK: Definitely Corson Ceulemans – FC Hockey has him 11th on their board, Smaht Scouting has him 55th, and I have him just outside the 2nd round. Some people call him the next Cale Makar, others see a lot of inefficiencies and poor decisions at times. Time will tell, but I err on the cautious side with these types of prospects.
DR: Owen Power. When Bob McKenzie came out and claimed that 10 out of 10 scouts ranked him first, there were a lot of amateur scouts who were up in arms, myself included. He definitely possesses an excellent two-way game, but everyone who loves him always mentions his size first, which I find a problem. Big guys take a long time to transition to the NHL, and a lot of scouts in the past have been blind-sided by a prospects’ height. Erik Johnson comes to mind, who went first before Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel.
CD: Aatu Raty I believe deserves this spot. Last year, scouts were saying he could be the number one pick come the 2021 NHL entry draft. This year, he is all over the board when it comes to rankings, he has even dropped significantly on Bob McKenzie’s list. I think he is still one of those players that despite having some troubles, can get past and become a better player. It will be interesting to see where he gets taken and how his career pans out.
JF: Lambos is a very weird situation to me. He was very highly regarded entering this season. But, he went to Finland on loan and didn’t look good while playing against men in those games. This looks rough because watching Clarke play against men was much more special and reassuring, whereas Lambos looked rough against men.
Question #6: U18 World Championship
The U18 World Championships are well underway and we are seeing many prospects already raising their stocks and getting on the radar of many scouts. Once the tournament is over, who will have raised his value the most?
MZ: Olen Zellweger has become a big name to watch for me. Noticeably missing from my top-100 rankings for April, he’s made himself known in the first three games of the U18’s. He already has five assists and as my colleague Peter Baracchini and FCHockey’s Justin Froese can attest to, he’s been smooth and controlled as one of Canada’s most effective defensemen. He’s now tied in points with first-overall contender Brandt Clarke and could become one of the biggest risers coming out of this tournament. Most outlets have him either unranked or slated to go in the late second to mid-third round, which is now looking way off base. If he continues to play like this, a team might look at him a lot earlier.
PB: While I mentioned one Canadian defenseman already, I was really impressed with the way Nolan Allan has played so far. He already has an NHL-like frame at six-foot-two, 194 pounds and he uses that to his advantage. He knows how to read and anticipate plays, closing gaps on the opposition. He can quickly transition from defense to offense as he really great speed for his size. He’s not an offensive defenseman, but there are times where he makes plays like one. This tournament could really help his stock if he continues to have a strong tournament.
AH: I think Danila Klimovich is most likely to raise his stock based on his U18 performance. Not too many people had an accurate scouting report on him since he was playing in Belarus’ second-tier hockey league this season, but he has six goals in three games at the U18 Worlds so far. He’s a 6-foot-1 center and while I don’t know where his play will rank him come the draft, I’d have to imagine his chances of getting drafted have shot up after his performance at the tournament.
HK: There are a few names, especially the OHLers that haven’t played a game in 14 months prior to the tournament. Wyatt Johnston and Ryan Winterton come to mind. However, I can’t wait to see what Team USA’s Ty Gallagher does with his accrued offensive responsibilities, with Luke Hughes out with an injury.
DR: Pinelli had a great first game with Team Canada and if he continues to play like that, he will emerge as a contender as a top-10 pick. He has flirted with that title for most of the season but has always come just short largely in part due to the OHL deciding to cancel their season a few weeks ago after failing to set up a safe return-to-play plan. Then there’s Klimovich, the Belarussian who has scored six goals in just three games, leading the U18 tournament. Playing in Belarus’ top league, he’s been largely ignored, but may find himself a late-round pick if he can continue on that pace against some tougher teams.
CD: I would have to say Team Canada’s Brandt Clarke. He’s easily established himself as one of the most mobile defencemen in the tournament, with exceptional hockey IQ and awareness. He‘s a crafty right-shot defenceman who can contribute on both sides of the ice. He’s already proving this tourney to be a menace in the offensive zone.
JF: Lysell has been very exciting to watch so far at the U18s. He’s been easily outclassing players in transition in his games and been possibly the fastest player I’ve seen in the tournament. His stock will likely rise because of the prominent role he’ll play on a quality Swedish team.
This year’s edition of the draft will be chocked full of debate and discussion especially when it comes to the first round and who’s selected within it. With the lack of in-person viewings and the cancelation of the OHL season, many prospects that were highly rated before the pandemic are now in no man’s land. They could potentially drop into the second or third rounds when they should have been selected in the first. That means there will be steals galore in the later rounds.
It should also be interesting to see what everyone does with their first-round picks because of this. Stockpiling second and third-round picks may be the way to go this year with so much uncertainty flying around.
All I know is, it will be another exciting draft season here at The Hockey Writers as we continue to provide you with all the coverage leading up to July 23-24. Keep it locked to the 2021 NHL Draft Guide for all the updates.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, editor, part-time journalist, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.