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- 5 WHL Players to Watch
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- 9 European Players to Watch
- 5 OHL Players to Watch
While the 2020 NHL Draft hasn’t happened yet, this would normally be the time where we start to turn our attention to the following edition of the event. For the sake of normalcy, I’m going to begin the 2021 NHL Draft coverage with a seven-part series introducing some of the names you’ll want to keep an eye one when the 2020-21 hockey seasons start – whenever that may be.
This first edition focuses on one of the best routes for prospects in recent years, the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP). While 2020 is a slight dip in the number of high-end players coming from the program (other than Jake Sanderson), 2021 is looking more like the strong 2019 class, where three players from the USNTDP were taken in the top-10, headlined by Jack Hughes.
Early indications look like the 2021 NHL Draft will have at least three players from the USNTDP in the top-10 – with a couple more right on the bubble.
As we begin to look towards the upcoming hockey season, here are five players on the team that you need to keep an eye on (alphabetically listed).
Sean Behrens, D
We start off with defenseman Sean Behrens who early on, already doesn’t seem to get the love he deserves. He’s an excellent skater, from his explosiveness, into his stride, all the way into his (high) top speed. He’s able to change direction on a dime, making him extremely elusive and dangerous in transition.
He’s an offensive defender in no small part due to his skating, but also thanks to his incredible vision. He sees the ice so well, even at top speed. He can find his teammates with a big pass or shift through holes between defenders to make space. He doesn’t get talked about as much (yet) thanks to studs like Luke Hughes and Aidan Hreschuk, who might be top-10 talents, but guess what? Behrens might be a top-10 talent too.
He had a great 2019-20 season for the U17s, putting up six goals, 31 assists, and 37 points in 45 games. He finished seventh on the team in points and second in assists behind Sasha Pastujov’s 36. He also got six games in with the U18 team, tallying another goal and two assists in six games.
While he may be slightly under the radar heading into 2020-21, he has done everything he can to be very much on the radar. That was evident at the 2019 World Under-17 Challenge where the defender helped Team USA to a silver medal thanks to a tournament-leading seven assists and the most points from a defender (eight). He was named to the First All-Star Team.
Aidan Hreschuk, D
Aidan Hreschuk looks to be the No. 2 defender on the stacked U18 U.S. National Team next year behind the next player on this list. And I don’t think the gap’s very big. He’s similar to Behrens in his excellent skating ability, with Hreschuk’s smooth stride standing out.
The left-shot d-man is another offensive weapon, bringing a dynamic toolbox to the offensive end. Whether he needs to make a pass or fire off a beautiful wrist shot himself, Hreschuk being on the ice usually means that his team is going to generate chances. There is a chance that we see his name called in the top-10 of the 2021 NHL Draft – and as the third USNTDP player.
In 2019-20, Hreschuk played 49 games with the U17 U.S. National Team, collecting four goals, 20 assists, and 24 points in the process. He also played in 29 USHL games, adding on another 11 points (two goals, nine assists).
Like Behrens, Hreschuk looked good at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, collecting four points (two goals, two assists) en route to the silver medal. Expect the young player to be a fixture on the U18 team this coming year and get ready to hear his name often.
Luke Hughes, D
The final defender on this list is one that might just go the highest in the draft. And chances are, you’ll recognize the name. Luke Hughes is the younger brother of Vancouver Canucks’ star Quinn Hughes and New Jersey Devils’ first-overall pick Jack Hughes. Early on, it looks like Luke will carry on the family tradition of being selected high.
The comparisons between Quinn and Luke are going to be unavoidable – and for pretty good reason. The younger Hughes has that incredible skating ability that his older brother has, and the offensive potential to match. In fact, the youngest Hughes might even be the best of the bunch. He adds on to his toolkit with excellent defensive awareness and a level of physicality that Quinn didn’t really have at this age.
In 48 games this past season, Hughes put up 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) and added another 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 28 USHL games. He finished second on the team in defensive points behind Behrens.
Like Hreschuk, Hughes put up four points at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge (one goal, three assists) and came away with the silver medal. Hughes should be the No. 1 guy for the USNTDP moving forward in 2020-21, and could very well be a top-five selection in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Chaz Lucius, C
You like goals? Then you’ll want to keep an eye on Chaz Lucius. There’s a very real possibility that Lucius is the best player to come out of the USNTDP in this class – yes, better than Hughes. At the very least, he’s the best forward in the class and should be a top-10 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Lucius led the U17s with 31 goals and 50 points this past season, earning six games at the U18 level where he had two assists. In 32 USHL games, he added on another eight goals, 14 assists, and 22 points. This comes after an incredible performance with Gentry Academy 15U, putting up 62 points in just 13 games.
While the 2020 NHL Draft has a few players who enter the conversation of best shot (sidebar: it’s Alexander Holtz), Lucius should have that in the bag for the 2021 edition. He has a nose for the back of the net and his shot has the speed and strength to force its way through. Not that it needs to, as he can pick corners with relative ease.
Lucius used this goalscoring ability to put on a show at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, leading the tournament in goals (seven) and points (10), while winning the silver medal and earning a spot on the All-Star Team. In 2020-21, look for Lucius to put up Cole Caufield-like numbers.
Sasha Pastujov, LW
The last player I’m highlighting here doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of love, but he will. Sasha Pastujov is the second-best forward to come out of the USNTDP in this draft, and the gap might not be as big as you think.
To start off, Pastujov actually tied with Lucius for the points lead this season with 50 (14 goals, and a team-leading 36 assists). Granted, he did it in 49 games compared to Lucius’ 46. In the USHL, he actually led the team in points with 26 (nine goals, 17 assists) in 29 games (tied with Jack Devine).
While Lucius is the elite goalscorer, Pastujov is the elite playmaker on the team. He has the ability to create space int he offensive end with a well-placed and well-timed pass, or by drawing defenders in to make room for a teammate. He’s likely a first rounder who could be a riser as the season goes on.
Of course, Pastujov also played in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, leading the tournament in assists (seven) and adding a goal for eight points in six games. As I’m sure you know by this point, he helped the team to a silver medal.
Others to Watch
- Jack Devine
- Dylan Duke
- Justin Janicke
- Red Savage
- Jeremy Wilmer
USNTDP Poised For Bounceback Draft
With the 2020 NHL Draft looking like the USNTDP will have a “down” year – especially after the impressive 2019 NHL Draft, the 2021 edition will look to have the United States program right back at the forefront of the teams to watch for the 2020-21 season. At least three players could be top-10 picks and there could be at least five first rounders. While this list has some players to focus on, the whole team will be one to watch in the upcoming season.
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Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.