Welcome back to our 2021 NHL Draft Top 5! As was mentioned in last week’s article on the best available goalscorers in this draft, team needs will play a huge role in this year’s set of picks, and we might see teams focus on plugging holes in their prospect pool rather than go for the best player available. We will focus on another of those needs; as the game revolves around speed and skill, moving the puck regularly and efficiently becomes an indispensable tool to teams looking to contend for a Stanley Cup. For that reason, let’s take a look at the best available playmakers in this draft and where they are projected to go.
5. Ayrton Martino – LW, Omaha Lancers, USHL
Martino is a little-known United States Hockey League (USHL) winger for the Omaha Lancers, as he missed the first two months of their 2020-21 season after complications with his transfer from the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) to the USHL. Since his arrival on American soil, however, he has impressed many a scout with his playmaking abilities and his tenacity when forechecking and chasing down loose pucks. These strengths have earned him 17 goals and 31 assists for 48 points in only 30 games with the club, leading the entire team in scoring despite being 14 games behind on the runner-up, 21-year-old Ryan Lautenbach.
To lead your team in points as a rookie is impressive at any level, but to dominate as much as Martino has with new teammates, new systems, new coaches, new everything, despite having missed the first two months of the season, is something that has not gone unnoticed in the scouting sphere. Although most rankings on Martino are conservative (FC Hockey has him as late as the 84th slot), mainly due to a lack of viewings and his tendency to overlook his defensive responsibilities at times, he is likely one of the most purely skilled offensive playmakers in this draft and should see a selection in either the first or second round.
4. Matthew Samoskevich – C/RW, Chicago Steel, USHL
Samoskevich is one of two Chicago Steel forwards projected to go in the top-50 of the 2021 NHL Draft, along with USHL scoring leader Matthew Coronato. Samoskevich’s game revolves around deception, as he regularly looks off his pass to fool defenders into blocking the wrong passing lane, shifting the game to his will as he stickhandles through offensive pressure and finds the slightest seam with very little effort. He is especially a threat on the power play, forcing defenders to be extremely mindful of their stick positioning or risk a cross-ice pass.
Although his 32 points in 29 USHL games place him 18th in points per game league-wide and don’t seem like much compared to the other USHL draft-eligible forwards available in this draft, most of those points were earned in ways that translate to the NHL level: taking pucks from the boards to the middle, crisp passes through the neutral zone, and quick, high-tempo offensive plays.
As the 2021 NHL Draft approaches, Samoskevich’s strength as an East-West puck mover and his ability to find teammates’ sticks with consistency will become more and more coveted, especially in the latter half of the first round, where top-end offensive talent becomes scarce. Expect to see him off the boards by the mid-twenties, or early thirties; our own Peter Baracchini has him 35th on his top 100 of March, which checks out based on the names above him.
3. William Eklund, C/LW – Djurgårdens IF, SHL
The projected first overall pick in EliteProspects Rinkside’s March 2021 ranking, Eklund has a very refined game for his age, as do most Swedish juniors deemed good enough by their organizations to earn a call-up to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). His playmaking, shooting, stickhandling, skating and work rate all seem either NHL-ready or very close, and the 18-year-old already has 23 points in 40 games against men in a highly defensive league. His ability to control the flow and direction of offense really stands out on larger ice, as he regularly finds the best option available. A high level of intelligence spearheads his player profile, as it influences his ability to play pucks into space, and to generally keep the puck circulating in dangerous areas.
Eklund is one of the only players regularly found in the top 5 of most rankings; he is as low as tenth on McKeen’s projections and is currently third on Baracchini’s top 100. This speaks volumes to the unprecedented level of uncertainty surrounding this year’s selections; if a team in need of speed and playmaking is picking first, however, my money is on Eklund to hear his name before anyone else.
2. Kent Johnson, C – Michigan Wolverines, NCAA
Although Eklund is currently a better player overall, Johnson’s ability to distribute the puck is one of the best in this draft class, and he is one of the most skilled and crafty forwards available this year. His stickhandling is a tool that helps his playmaking tremendously, as he often will change the passing angle slightly before executing it. His vision helps him find players that are out of the average hockey player’s line of sight, as he often spots trailers and sprinting forwards behind his back. His 27 points in 26 games as a draft-eligible in the NCAA are very impressive, as even Jonathan Toews failed to reach a point per game in his draft-year NCAA season. His stats indicate a high offensive ceiling, even though Michigan was easily the best program at the collegiate level.
Johnson’s projections are all over the place; although multiple scouting and draft websites have him around seventh overall, Matthew Zator has him third in his Top 64 of February, and others have him outside the top 15 altogether. Although he is one of the most skilled and creative players in his draft class, those assets do not guarantee an NHL career, and he will need to work on his game without the puck to unlock his full potential.
1. Francesco Pinelli, C – HDD Jesenice, AlpsHL
Now, Pinelli’s ranking as the top playmaker in this draft will come as a surprise to everyone but Rachel Doerrie, OHL scout for EliteProspects Rinkside, who is the only major draft analyst to have Pinelli in their top 10 at this point of the year; in fact, he is sixth overall on EP Rinkside’s 2021 NHL Draft rankings, and in the twenties on every other board, including Baracchini’s March rankings (19th) and Zator’s top 64 of February (20th).
However, to anyone who has followed Pinelli relatively closely over the past year, he is nothing short of the most cerebral player in this draft. He is always two, three steps ahead of the opposition, making his game much easier as he reads the play like a coloring book. His ability to understand sequences and make the correct play is unparalleled, and this extends itself to his passing prowess as he spots passing lanes that few others can, not only in this draft but in general.
Pinelli’s detractors will speak of consistency issues and a lanky frame, but his point production in the Alps Hockey League (AlpsHL), comprised of Italian, Austrian and Slovenian men’s teams, leaves nothing to be desired: 11 points in 13 games in a men’s league, no matter the level, is more than impressive for a 17-year-old whose career path was blown up by COVID-19. He can keep up with the fastest, and regularly outworks his opponent as well. His shooting is quite refined, and his defensive game is sound. He was mentioned in Josh Bell’s 5 OHL players to watch back in July 2020 and has only gotten better since showing all the tools required for a career at center.
Honorable mentions: Aatu Räty, Matt Beniers, Trevor Wong