The 2021 NHL Draft will be one for the history books. Every draft is filled with surprises, but none will compare to this year. For one thing, there still isn’t a consensus first-overall pick; while college defenseman Owen Power has topped most mock drafts, teammate Matthew Beniers is also a strong candidate for the top selection, as is Swedish phenom William Eklund. The draft order only gets more muddled after that, with very few scouts and fans able to agree on who will end up in the top-10, let alone chosen in the first round after the pandemic forced many leagues around the world to significantly alter their schedules.
Related: THW’s 2021 NHL Draft Guide
However, despite the unpredictability of this year’s draft, the WHL is in a pretty good situation. Fifty-seven WHL players were named to the NHL’s final rankings, an increase of five players over last year’s rankings and seven more than in 2019. Four of those prospects are all but guaranteed to be taken with the first 32 picks, although a couple more could end up being surprise selections late in the first round. The league also has several intriguing prospects that will tempt NHL teams in the third and fourth rounds.
Regardless of when they’re taken, the WHL will again be a league to watch at the draft. Here are the top-10 prospects for the 2021 Draft according to the NHL’s Central Scouting Service (CSS).
10. Eric Alarie, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors
Eric Alarie was one of the few first-year draft-eligible prospects in the WHL to surpass the point-per-game mark this season with 20 points in 19 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors. Better yet, he led the team with 10 goals. That alone is an impressive feat, as the Warriors struggled to score throughout the season and again finished near the bottom of the league. He’s also on the younger side for eligible prospects, after turning 18 in January. Despite his lower ranking – no THW scouts placed him on their lists – he’ll be one to watch, as the power forward has a lot of room to develop and become a dominant force on the wing.
9. Olen Zellweger, LHD, Everett Silvertips
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 45th
Before the U18 World Championships, few fans knew the name, Olen Zellweger. A smaller defenseman at 5-foot-10, he had a middling first season in the WHL, scoring just two goals and 12 points in 58 games in 2019-20, and was given a ‘C’ rating on the NHL’s Central Scouting To Watch List. But when the U.S. Division was finally given the go-ahead to start their 2020-21 season on March 20, he took off like a rocket. In the first four games, he had five points, making him an easy addition to the Canadian U18 World Championship Team. He scored another eight points in the final four games of the season, giving him 13 points in 11 games.
At the World Championships, Zellweger hit a new level of production, scoring eight points in seven games against some of the best draft-eligible players in the world and propelling Canada to a gold medal, their first since 2013, and their first top-three finish since 2015. Suddenly, the smooth-skating defender was on everyone’s radar, with some scouting services going so far as to project him to be a late first-round pick. While that still may be a long shot, there’s no question that he’s primed for a big 2021-22 season and that whoever takes him will likely have a true gem on their hands.
8. Nolan Allan, LHD, Prince Albert Raiders
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 24th
One of the most difficult things for young players to learn is defensive responsibility, but fortunately for Nolan Allan, he has that covered. He’s already an efficient defenseman with strong mobility and provides a physical presence on the blue line, which earned him a spot on Canada’s U18 World Championship roster this year, where he claimed the gold medal along with several other WHL prospects. The one area he struggles with is in the offensive zone. In 16 games with the Prince Albert Raiders this season, he had just a goal and an assist. Last season was similar with eight points in 58 games, but scoring may not be a high priority if he can continue to dominate defensively.
7. Conner Roulette, LW, Seattle Thunderbirds
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 36th
Another WHLer selected to Canada’s World Championship team, Conner Roulette, made a name for himself by being one of the best offensive threats in the league. He sees a play develop before it happens, and he can quickly decide whether he needs to deliver a crisp, accurate pass or break through a soft spot in the defence. Check out the goal below from the U18 Worlds, where his excellent positioning and patience create a turnover that he capitalizes on.
He missed a significant portion of the 2020-21 season while playing at the tournament, but Roulette still managed to score six goals and 12 points in 11 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds. With Canada, he added two goals and five points in seven games while playing in the bottom-six. His skating could use some work, but his offensive instincts are among the best in his class, which should make him a highly-coveted second-round pick.
6. Ryder Korczak, C, Moose Jaw Warriors
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 34th
Ryder Korczak is a shifty forward who uses his excellent puckhandling skills and deceptive movements to beat defenders and create openings. The younger brother of Vegas Golden Knights’ prospect Kaedan, he led the Warriors in scoring in 2019-20 with 67 points in 62 games and was the only player on the team to break the point-per-game barrier aside from 2019 first-round pick Brayden Tracey. He didn’t take as big of a step forward in 2020-21 as many would have liked, especially from one of the oldest players eligible in the 2021 Draft, but his 16 points in 17 games is still a respectable total, especially on a weak team.
5. Logan Stankoven, C, Kamloops Blazers
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 31st
What do Cole Caufield, Brayden Point, and Alex DeBrincat all have in common? They were passed over because they were too small and are now dominant forces in the NHL. GMs and scouts need to learn from their mistakes and not pass on Logan Stankoven, who may be 5-foot-8 but plays the game so much bigger than his size. He has a relentless pace, combined with an intense work ethic and blazing speed that dictates the pace of the play. It made him one of the top rookies in 2019-20 and, after ending the season with 29 goals and 48 points, he was chosen as the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award.
One of Stankoven’s best attributes is his shot, which is already one of the best in the 2021 class, and he’s used it to its full effect. Despite only appearing in six games this season, he scored seven times and finished with 10 points. He was equally dangerous at the U18 World Championship, putting up four goals and eight points in seven games with Canada while serving as an alternate captain along with fellow WHL star Dylan Guenther. Right now, he projects to be a late first-round pick, but if he remains on the board into day two, someone is going to end up with the steal of the draft.
4. Colton Dach, C, Saskatoon Blades
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 19th
Colton Dach exemplifies how varied the draft rankings are this year. While most scouts see him as a third-round pick, the CSS placed him 19th among North American prospects, a spot usually reserved for a potential second-round selection or even a fringe first-rounder. Now, some are thinking that could be the case. In The Athletic‘s staff mock draft, Sara Civian used the Carolina Hurricanes’ 27th overall selection to pick the Saskatoon Blades’ forward, believing him to be a replacement for towering center Jordan Staal (from ‘NHL Staff Mock Draft 2.0 with scouts’ audit: Do the Canucks win the draft? Will the Wild get a center?’ The Athletic, 7/8/21).
So, what makes him a fringe first-round pick all of a sudden? First, he’s got the size NHL scouts love, at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. But he’s more than just a big man; Dach demonstrated some strong goal-scoring skills this season, burying the puck 11 times in 20 games to lead the team. It helps that he comes from a strong hockey family; his older brother, Kirby Dach, has become one of the Chicago Blackhawks’ top young playmakers, but Colton arguably plays more like a Tkachuk – physical and in your face, but with a nose for the net.
3. Sebastian Cossa, G, Edmonton Oil Kings
The Edmonton Oil Kings have become somewhat of a goalie factory for the WHL, and Sebastian Cossa should join Tristan Jarry and Laurent Brossoit as the next to make the jump to the NHL. However, neither of the aforementioned netminders was ranked first among North American goalies. Cossa is the total package, with size, skill, and dominance. At 6-foot-6, he takes up a lot of net, but he also moves smoothly across the crease in a way that few big goalies can. He also led all starting goaltenders with an incredible 1.57 goals-against average and a 0.941 save percentage, totals comparable to Carter Hart’s time in the league.
There is some concern whether Cossa’s totals reflect that of a top goalie or whether he is simply benefitting from playing in a dominant system with the Oil Kings. But the technical skills are there; he has a quick recovery and great positioning. However, his draft position is another story. Some see him as neck-and-neck with Swedish star Jesper Wallstadt and project him as a top-15 pick, but many are still hesitant to take a goalie with such a high pick, which may push him down to the 20-30 range.
2. Carson Lambos, LHD, Winnipeg Ice
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 11th
Is Carson Lambos a top-15 pick? Six months ago, scouts would have wholeheartedly agreed. The deceptive defenseman put up 32 points over 57 games in his rookie season with the Winnipeg Ice, which made him the highest-scoring U17 defenseman in the league and the second-highest among U18s (only 2020-eligible Kaiden Guhle had more).
But today, many aren’t so sure. After the WHL’s start date was delayed, he decided to wait it out in Finland, joining JYP’s organization. He did all right, putting up 11 points in 13 games at the U20 level, but had trouble adjusting to the larger ice surface and didn’t take the step forward many had hoped. When he returned to the Ice, he only managed two games before health concerns ended his season. While he still looks like a promising prospect, his rankings have slipped.
1. Dylan Guenther, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings
NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters): 5th
Guenther is without question the top-ranked WHL player in 2021. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2020, he picked up right where he left off in 2020-21. In 12 games, the Oil Kings’ winger put up an incredible 12 goals and 24 points and his two points-per-game average led the league. He was equally electric at the U18 World Championship, scoring four goals and seven points en route to claiming the gold medal.
The only question that remains is how high Guenther be selected. He’s easily a top-10 pick, as he’s one of the best offensively-minded wingers available. While he’s not an elite force delivering highlight-reel plays, he does all the little things right, from putting shots on the net to finding teammates to set up for scoring opportunities. He’s also an excellent transitional player, using his speed and skating to create openings. But he could also end up in the top-five, especially if a team is looking for a scoring punch on their top end. He’s a few years away from the NHL, but he’s almost certainly destined to be a top-line player.
A Class of Hidden Gems
While it’s not the deepest class from the Western league, it’s far from the weakest and filled with diamonds in the rough. Zellweger could sneak into the first round after the tournament he had, and Roulette and Dach likely won’t make it out of the third thanks to their potential to develop into strong middle-six NHL players. Other names to keep an eye on are Sean Tschigerl and Vincent Iorio, along with second-year eligible prospects Kyle Crnkovic, Owen Pederson, and Simon Knak. The WHL boasts some of the most NHL-ready prospects every year thanks to the difficult travel schedule and gritty style, and this group is no different. Wherever they’re selected, they’re bound to make an impact at the next level.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.