Welcome to a brand new series here at The Hockey Writers called “Road to the Draft.” In this series, our draft contributors will count down from 32nd overall all the way to 1st overall and revisit each player taken with that pick between 2010 and 2020.
The goal of this series is to reflect on some of the biggest steals and some of the biggest busts taken in the first round over the past ten years, as well as to shine a light on some players who could potentially see themselves taken with the corresponding pick at the upcoming 2021 NHL Draft.
Related: THW 2021 NHL Draft Guide
After recapping picks 32 to 22, the series continues with the 12th piece, where we’ll take a deep dive into the entire history of the 21st overall pick.
Like most of the picks so far, the 21st overall selection has seen its fair share of forwards. In fact, only one out of the 11 selections was a defenceman or goaltender. Ryan Merkley, who was chosen by the San Jose Sharks in 2018, gets the distinction of being the only defenceman drafted with the 21st overall pick in the last decade. As for the success of the pick, there are only four players that have not seen at least 100 games in the NHL, and they are all recent draft picks.
2010 – Riley Sheahan (C, Detroit Red Wings)
Riley Sheahan has not become a prominent goal scorer, but he has proven to be a very effective bottom-six player in the NHL. Drafted out of the NCAA’s University of Notre Dame, he played three full seasons with them where he scored 20 goals and 64 points in 114 games. Never the most productive player offensively, he made a name for himself as a very reliable defensive forward with great hockey sense.
After his time in the NCAA, Sheahan graduated to the AHL and exploded for 16 goals and 36 points in his rookie season. I say exploded because he never saw more than nine goals and 25 points with Notre Dame. After three seasons shuttling between the Grand Rapids Griffins and Detroit Red Wings, he became a full-time NHLer in 2014 and has since left his AHL career behind. After three fairly successful seasons wearing the winged wheel, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Scott Wilson and a fifth-round pick to play the role of shutdown center for the Sidney Crosby-led team.
Sheahan only lasted two seasons in Pittsburgh before he was on the move again, this time to the Florida Panthers for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann. In hindsight, the Penguins got the better end of that deal, as McCann is now a core player of the team and Sheahan is a free agent after spending time with the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres.
2011 – Stefan Noesen (RW, Ottawa Senators)
Stefan Noesen is yet another example of a prominent player in junior that could not translate his offensive skills to the NHL. Now 28-years-old, he only has 31 goals in 205 games and has basically been pigeonholed as a depth winger with occasional offensive outbursts. His career season came during the 2017-18 season where he scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games. That’s a far cry from the 38 goals and 82 points he recorded during his career year with the Plymouth Whalers.
In seven seasons in the NHL, Noesen has played for five teams and has never been more than just a complementary player. His time with the New Jersey Devils was by far his best, but when he failed to back up his career season with another, they quickly lost interest and traded him to the Penguins. Since then, three teams have tried and failed to unlock the potential he showed back in 2018. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the latest team to attempt the feat as he is entering his second season with the club.
2012 – Mark Jankowski (C, Calgary Flames)
Ranked by most draft pundits as a second or third-round pick, the Calgary Flames went off the board and selected him 21st overall in 2012. Citing the fact that other teams saw him as a first-round pick, then assistant general manager John Weisbrod defended the selection with promises that Jankowski’s talent was just raw and ready to be molded into a top-six center (from “Cruickshank: Calgary Flames’ controversial draft pick Mark Jankowski finally turning pro”, Calgary Herald, 3/31/16).
To Jankowski’s credit, he did show up to the NCAA ready to defend his first-round status. After three seasons of middling productivity, he broke out with a career-high 15 goals and 40 points in 38 games and finished his last season of eligibility as a first-team all-star. Fortunately for the Flames and their fans, his newfound productivity followed him to the AHL and the Stockton Heat where he finished his rookie season with an impressive 27 goals and 56 points in 64 games.
Jankowski’s NHL journey went off without a hitch when he scored 17 goals as a rookie and 14 goals as a sophomore. However, that’s where his success ended as he fell back to earth with a mediocre 2019-20 season that led to his eventual departure from Calgary. He signed a one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2021 offseason and is now a restricted free agent (RFA) awaiting his fate after yet another campaign with less than 10 goals. In fact, he only has nine goals in his past 101 games.
2013 – Frédérik Gauthier (C, Toronto Maple Leafs)
Yet another disappointing first-round draft pick for the Maple Leafs, pivot Frédérik Gauthier was a highly-touted forward coming out of the QMJHL’s Rimouski Océanic. Nearly a point-a-game player in his draft year, he recorded 22 goals and 60 points in 62 games and was ranked favourably by scouts as someone that could potentially become a solid matchup center in the NHL. Then general manager Dave Nonis favoured toughness like his mentor Brian Burke, so he drafted him 21st overall.
Gauthier had another two productive seasons in the QMJHL and finished his junior career with 56 goals and 144 points in 153 games. He then graduated to the AHL and played three seasons split between the Maple Leafs and the Toronto Marlies where he never really produced much offence. In fact, he didn’t eclipse 10 goals in either league. He became a full-time NHLer in 2018 and played back-to-back seasons with the Maple Leafs before he was let go as a free agent in 2020. He is now a RFA after spending the 2020-21 season as a member of the Arizona Coyotes organization.
2014 – Robby Fabbri (C, St. Louis Blues)
One of the most dynamic players in the 2014 Draft, Robby Fabbri exploded onto the scene during his draft year with 45 goals and 87 points in 58 games. By far his best season in junior, he also played an integral part in the Guelph Storm’s 2014 playoff run scoring 13 times en route to an OHL Championship and Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as MVP of the OHL Playoffs. Obviously turning some scouts’ heads, he was selected as a first round pick by the St. Louis Blues.
After one more season in the OHL with the Storm, Fabbri made his NHL debut with the Blues and proceeded to have a breakout rookie campaign and playoffs where he came away with a Stanley Cup championship. Scoring 18 goals and 37 points in the regular season and four goals and 15 points in the playoffs, his speed and tenacity got him a regular spot in the Blues’ top-six and a trusted position on the team.
Unfortunately, a knee injury cost Fabbri the entire 2017-18 season and it wasn’t until he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings that his career got back on track. In his first season with the team, he scored 14 goals and 31 points in 52 games and then followed that up with another 10 goals and 18 points in 30 games for 24 goals over two seasons. He is now entering the second and final year of the contract he signed with the Red Wings as an RFA in 2020.
2015 – Colin White (C, Ottawa Senators)
As we continue our travels through the draft picks of the last decade, you can’t help but notice the amount of USNTDP and USHL graduates. Colin White is no different as he spent his draft year split between the USNTDP Juniors and U.S. National U18 Team. After starring with them and getting drafted by the Senators, he moved to the NCAA to play for another hockey factory in Boston College.
After two seasons and 76 points with them, White turned pro with the Binghamton Senators, and shortly after, moved to Ottawa full-time to play with the NHL’s version of the team. Since then he has established himself as part of the new core of players in the Nation’s Capital. He has yet to match or surpass his career-season in 2018-19 when he posted 14 goals and 41 points in 71 games, but at 24-years-old, the best should still be yet to come for the Massachusetts native.
2016 – Julien Gauthier (RW, Carolina Hurricanes)
Excluding White and Fabbri, none of the past six players have hit the offensive potential expected from a first-round pick. Julien Gauthier, unfortunately, has joined that club too. After flying through the QMJHL with the Val-d’Or Foreurs and Saint John Sea Dogs to the tune of 104 goals and 210 points in 227 games, he has basically become a career-AHLer who can play in the bottom-six for short periods of time.
Since leaving the QMJHL and turning pro with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers in 2017, he has only seen 35 NHL games between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. His best came just last season when he suited up for the Rangers for 30 games and scored his first two goals in the NHL. At 23-years-old, he still has time to develop into a bottom-six player, but time is quickly becoming the enemy of the former QMJHL star as he waits for the Rangers to decide if he’s worth extending a qualifying offer to.
2017 – Filip Chytil (C, New York Rangers)
Like many Europeans playing overseas, it’s hard to gauge how good they will be in the NHL when they finally make it over to North American ice. Filip Chytil wasn’t the most productive scorer in his draft year playing for PSG Zlin in the Czech league, but he quickly showed scouts his value with Team Czech Republic during international play when he was a point-a-game player at the 2017 U18s.
Chytil was eventually drafted by the Rangers, and because of his status as an European player, he immediately turned pro with the Hartford Wolfpack and even saw nine games with the parent club where he scored his first NHL goal. Three seasons and 71 points later, he is a full-time NHLer with the Rangers and a prominent member of the team’s bottom-six.
2018 – Ryan Merkley (D, San Jose Sharks)
The only defenceman to be drafted with the 21st overall pick in the last decade, Merkley is only at the beginning of his NHL journey at this point. A scoring machine with the Guelph Storm, Peterbourough Petes and London Knights, he just recently finished his junior career as one of the best offensive defencemen in the OHL. Graduating with an astonishing 54 goals and 269 points in 248 games, his elite mobility and puck handing skills should be the perfect fit for the fast moving NHL.
Merkley made his pro debut with the San Jose Barracuda at the end of the 2019-20 season, but it wasn’t until after his 76-point breakout campaign with the London Knights that he moved full-time to the AHL. Though, his productivity did not follow him there, as he finished with only one goal and ten points in 31 games. With how much skill and potential he has, he should be able to bounce back fairly quickly. He is only 20-years-old afterall.
2019 – Samuel Poulin (RW, Pittsburgh Penguins)
Another solid point producer in the QMJHL, Samuel Poulin was one of the best the league had to offer for a number of seasons, not just on the ice, but in the dressing room as well. Drafted by the Penguins after a season that saw him record 29 goals and 76 points in 67 games and 14 points in the playoffs, he was named captain of the Sherbrooke Phoenix. Touted for his leadership and two-way play, he spent two seasons with the “C” stiched to his sweater before a 2021 trade sent him to the Val-d’Or Foreurs.
Poulin continued to produce with the Foreurs, scoring eight goals and 25 points in 19 games and 11 goals and 19 points in the playoffs. Now at the end of his junior career, he is poised to make his pro debut either with the Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Penguins or Pittsburgh Penguins in 2021-22. If his QMJHL stint is any indication, he will be a star and leader in the NHL in no time.
2020 – Yegor Chinakhov (RW, Columbus Blue Jackets)
The final and most recent 21st overall pick was a bit of a surprise, to say the least, when he was drafted in 2020. Yegor Chinakhov, ranked by many as a fringe prospect, ended up hearing his name called by Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen in the first round. Yes, an overager having already been passed over in the 2019 Draft was now a first-round pick. It left many fans and draft pundits scrambling to find information on him, as he was not on the radar of many people throughout the year.
Fast forward a year and Chinakhov is proving to be an astute pick by the Blue Jackets. He had a solid season in the KHL with Avangard Omsk where he scored 10 goals and 17 points and then was a key part of their Gagarin Cup championship team where he scored five goals in 21 games. Now 20-years-old, the Russian sniper can join the Blue Jackets as soon as next season. We will soon see if Kekäläinen was a genius or just someone that was reaching for the stars.
Players Who Could Be Drafted 21st Overall in 2021
ALL-TIME PLAYERS TAKEN 21ST OVERALL
1968 – Dave Simpson (Pittsburgh Penguins)
1969 – Ron Garwasiuk (LW, Detroit Red Wings)
1970 – John Stewart (LW, Pittsburgh Penguins)
1971 – Rod Norrish (LW, Minnesota North Stars)
1972 – Larry Sacharuk (D, New York Rangers)
1973 – Eric Vail (LW, Atlanta Flames)
1974 – Bruce Affleck (D, California Golden Seals)
1975 – Dennis Maruk (C, California Golden Seals)
1976 – Steve Clippingdale (LW, Los Angeles Kings)
1977 – Mark Lofthouse (RW, Washington Capitals)
1978 – Joel Quenneville (D, Toronto Maple Leafs)
1979 – Kevin Lowe (D, Edmonton Oilers)
1980 – Mike Stothers (D, Philadelphia Flyers)
1981 – Paul Boutilier (D, New York Islanders)
1982 – Pat Flatley (RW, New York Islanders)
1983 – Nevin Markwart (LW, Boston Bruins)
1984 – Selmar Odelein (D, Edmonton Oilers)
1985 – Glen Seabrooke (C, Philadelphia Flyers)
1986 – Kim Issel (RW, Edmonton Oilers)
1987 – Peter Soberlak (Edmonton Oilers)
1988 – Jason Muzzatti (G, Calgary Flames)
1989 – Steve Bancroft (D, Toronto Maple Leafs)
1990 – Bryan Smolinski (C, Boston Bruins)
1991 – Trevor Halverson (LW, Washington Capitals)
1992 – Libor Polasek (Vancouver Canucks)
1993 – Saku Koivu (C, Montreal Canadiens)
1994 – Evgeni Ryabchikov (Boston Bruins)
1995 – Sean Brown (D, Boston Bruins)
1996 – Marco Sturm (LW, San Jose Sharks)
1997 – Mika Noronen (G, Buffalo Sabres)
1998 – Mathieu Biron (D, Los Angeles Kings)
1999 – Nick Boynton (D, Boston Bruins)
2000 – Anton Volchenkov (D, Ottawa Senators)
2001 – Colby Armstrong (RW, Pittsburgh Penguins)
2002 – Anton Babchuk (D, Chicago Blackhawks)
2003 – Mark Stuart (D, Boston Bruins)
2004 – Wojtek Wolski (LW, Colorado Avalanche)
2005 – Tuukka Rask (G, Toronto Maple Leafs)
2006 – Bobby Sanguinetti (D, New York Rangers)
2007 – Riley Nash (C, Edmonton Oilers)
2008 – Anton Gustafsson (C, Washington Capitals)
2009 – John Moore (D, Columbus Blue Jackets)