Welcome back to another edition of the 2021 NHL Draft’s top 5, where we compare this year’s draft eligibles and their individual abilities.
The first two editions were rankings of the primary offensive components of the game; first, we looked at goalscoring, in which Dylan Guenther excelled, then playmaking, which saw Francesco Pinelli earn first place. This time around, we will be diving into the skill that is probably the most scarce in this year’s selection; for some reason, the two-way forwards in this draft are few and far between, so any team looking to add attackers with sound defensive awareness, strong understanding of systems and a good work rate probably has as many options as we will count here.
5. Zach Dean, C – Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL
Dean shoves his way into the fifth spot of this ranking due to his refined defensive game and constant effort on loose pucks. If you need a player to generate an extra 10-30 seconds in the offensive zone with a heavy forecheck, Dean is that player.
His frame is average at 6-foot, 176 pounds, but he keeps up physically with even the oldest of Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) defenders, and he battles for pucks like very few others can in this draft. To translate NHL Central Scouting Bureau scout Jean-François Damphousse’s comments on Dean to NHL News’ French division: “He does extremely well on both sides of the rink, and his compete level is very high. He’s always flooring the pedal, and it makes a difference.”
He also shows a great level of creativity and pace to his game to go along with his intensity, which gives for a very promising package. His defensive abilities do sometimes hinder his play-driving, as he goes for safe plays on the perimeter rather than bring the puck to the middle of the ice. Dean’s development would benefit from having more trust in his abilities to execute high-risk, high-reward plays, as he has shown the mind to do so on occasions.
4. William Eklund, C/LW – Djurgårdens IF, SHL
Eklund makes his second appearance in this series and warrants a fourth-place ranking as a two-way forward due to his possession-driving game. While he has not seen any penalty-killing time in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) this season, his ability to scan the play, anticipate the opponent’s intent and break up sequences helps him out greatly at 5-on-5 and allows him to spend more time with the puck. Eklund rarely drags his feet on the backcheck and is able to use his edges and a quick mind to get to loose pucks quickly once he is defending in-zone.
His point-production as a draft-eligible is really raising eyebrows, as well – his 23 points in 40 games are a total only exceeded by four names in SHL history: Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Elias Lindholm, and Nicklas Bäckström.
What’s more, he is playing at a higher level than his teammate Alexander Holtz, who is ten months older than him, and was drafted seventh overall last year. He puts up his points using the same mind and edges that make him such a useful player in his own zone, reading the opponent and using the right pass, fake or dangle to find free space.
Of the forwards in this draft who can be qualified as defensively responsible, I believe Eklund to have the highest skill level. Expect to see him in the top 5, as most rankings place him in those waters.
For more on Eklund, read my Top 5 Playmakers ranking here.
3. Red Savage, C – USNTDP, USHL
Red Savage is a player that you only notice if you watch the United States Hockey League (USHL) regularly. Unfortunately, that league is heavily paywalled and not the easiest to access. He plays for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), mainly in a checking role. His lack of offensive punch has kept him below the point-per-game mark, and therefore below the radar, but make no mistake: Red Savage is one of the most tenacious players in the 2021 NHL Draft, on top of having good defensive reactions, positioning, and stick-checking.
First and foremost, he is a puck hound, never giving the opposing defensemen a second’s rest; he utilizes his stick and body in varying ways to strip pucks from opponents and retain offensive zone puck possession. No matter what level he ends up playing at, his tenacity is going nowhere and will be a staple of his game for his entire career. On top of that, his understanding of his responsibilities as a center and his constant support on breakouts are tools that allow him to keep the puck in areas that are safe for his team. His skating is also quite sound, apart from a slight lack of ankle flexion.
Savage is not the most creative player, however; his lack of vision with the puck on his stick can lead him to steal a puck in the offensive zone and just skate it right into the boards, and he lacks the high-end finesse to make tape-to-tape passes consistently. He earned an honorable mention in Baracchini’s top 100, and was entirely absent from Zator’s February rankings; even Dylan Krill, a trusted reference for USHL prospects, has him as a fringe second-round pick.
He is projected as a safe pick for a team looking for a bottom-six center; however, if Savage becomes the defensive, buzzsaw-type forward he could be, having him in your lineup would be a plus, no matter the line.
2. Matthew Beniers, C – Michigan Wolverines, NCAA
The first overall pick in both Baracchini’s Top 100 of March and Zator’s top 64 of February makes his first appearance in the Top 5 series – this does not signify that Beniers is in any way poor at playmaking or goalscoring; instead, this speaks to how well-rounded Beniers’ game is. He is not especially dominant in any one facet of the game, but his overall package is well-refined and seems quite close to NHL-ready. Two things that do stand out about Beniers’ game are his tenacity and defensive awareness, which make him one of the best-available forwards with 200-foot capabilities in this draft.
He never gives up on any play, often putting in a second and third effort to ensure that the puck ends up where he wants it to be. Multiple times a game, he will force a defenseman to bobble the puck at the offensive blue line with timely pressure, or cough one up on the boards with a decent body and stick utilization. To quote Josh Tessler’s breakdown of Beniers’ game for Smaht Scouting, “Beniers uses his reach in tough puck battles. Battles in which he was not the first player to the puck. He shows quality balance and strength to reach out for the puck.”
If Beniers is somehow still available after the fifth overall pick, whoever is choosing should scramble to the stage to get him. He is one of the few sure-value players in this draft and should be off the board very early.
1. Fyodor Svechkov, C/W – Lada Togliatti, VHL
Svechkov is a player whose projections vary wildly; although he is 37th on multiple draft sites, including FC Hockey, Recruit Scouting and Smaht Scouting’s rankings, EliteProspects and DobberProspects have him 17th on their boards.
The latter two are the most trusted NHL Draft resources for talent abroad, as they have staff in Russia overlooking these players’ development. Dylan Griffing, DobberProspects’ Russian prospects specialist, has him 13th on his board and gave a soaring endorsement of his defensive game in DobberProspects’ March rankings: “Svechkov is one of the best, if not the best, defensive forwards in the 2021 Draft class. He is fantastic at escaping pressure cooker situations with the puck on his stick, even when it looks like there’s no chance for him to do so.”
Svechkov’s ability to read the game when exiting the defensive zone is unparalleled; he keeps his game simple, making effective, high-reward plays to generate positive results on the ice, and finding escapes like few can. He seems to predict turnovers, adapting his stance and positioning seconds in advance to properly address the situation. His stick is always well-positioned, and he generates a bunch of counter-attacks by quickly jumping into a passing lane.
His 15 points in 38 VHL games (Russia’s second division of men’s hockey) are the second-most among this year’s VHL draft eligibles and indicate an ability to play a mature game; he seems to show all the makings of a shutdown NHL winger. He is comfortable in all three forward positions, which will only help him establish a niche in the NHL one day. His conservative offensive habits and lack of flash prevent him from having a high ceiling, but if he can be one of the best middle-six shutdown forwards in the league, any team will want to jump on him in the mid-to-late first round.
Honorable mentions: Dylan Duke, Ty Voit, Kent Johnson