July 23, 2021

10 storylines to watch at the 2021 NHL Draft

The 2021 NHL Draft is finally here.

For the first time ever, 32 general managers will take to the virtual podium and call the names of the next 223 NHL prospects thanks to the introduction of the Seattle Kraken.

In one of the most uncertain hockey seasons to date, the draft has numerous question marks surrounding it. Perhaps even more than usual given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the hockey world.

What will the Buffalo Sabres do with the first overall pick? How will the Kraken begin to shape their prospect pool? Should we expect some draft-day transactions? Who slides and who rises in the first round and beyond? How will the Ontario Hockey League season cancellation impact the draft? There are many unknowns entering the annual event. Luckily, these questions will soon be answered.

With the first round kicking off later tonight and rounds two to seven taking place tomorrow, here are 10 of the biggest storylines to follow as the 2021 NHL Draft gets underway.

Who do the Sabres take at No. 1?

More than any other year, the first overall pick has been long discussed about this draft. Coming into the season, Finnish forward Aatu Raty was widely considered the top prospect. We’ll get to him. Throughout 2020-21, it’s been a revolving door of names to be considered with the top spot. Depending on the list, you may find one of Matthew Beniers, Brandt Clarke, Simon Edvinsson, William Eklund, Dylan Guenther, Luke Hughes, Kent Johnson, Carson Lambos, Fabian Lysell, Owen Power, or Jesper Wallstedt at the top. That’s a wide range of players.

So, what will the Sabres do with their second No. 1 pick in four years? All indications point to Power being the guy here. A duo of Rasmus Dahlin and Power might just be too good to pass up, and after Power’s performance at the 2021 IIHF Mens World Championship, it seems as though he’s become the consensus selection.

However, the rumours around the possible/eventual trade of Jack Eichel makes this interesting. Could they bite on Beniers or Eklund in the hopes of rebuilding their future down the middle? Or, do they value one of the other defenders more? Clarke and Hughes seem to be the next two to consider and they may even have higher ceilings versus Power. However, Power remains the frontrunner to hear his name called first.

Prediction: The Buffalo Sabres select Owen Power with the first-overall pick.

Who becomes the Kraken’s first-ever draft pick?

We don’t have to wait long for the next big question mark of the draft. If we assume Power goes first overall, then all of the other players mentioned above are still in play. Beniers seems to be the likely answer here. He’s widely considered the top forward prospect in the class, pushed very closely by Eklund. However, don’t count them out from selecting a defenseman as well. Hughes, Clarke, and Edvinsson all have similar positional projections and ceilings right now.

The projection of players matters here. In all likelihood, Beniers is a second-line center. Hughes, Clarke, and Edvinsson likely won’t be number-one blueliners, but could be top-pairing or top-four defenders. That leaves Eklund. After stepping into the SHL, playing significant minutes, and making an impact night in and night out, Eklund’s ceiling could be extremely high. His skill could make him a top-line forward. For a team looking to build its prospect pool from scratch, Eklund could very well be the best choice here.

Prediction: The Seattle Kraken select William Eklund with the second-overall pick.

Wallstedt or Cossa – which goalie goes first? And can they (both) crack the top-10?

Wallstedt has been on the radar for years already, always playing above his age group and always impressing. That continued this season with his stepping into the SHL and event taking over as the starter for a while. In 22 games, he went 12-10-0 with a .908 save percentage (SV%). What’s most impressive though, is just how rare it is for a draft eligible to play in the SHL in their draft-eligible year. Extremely rare. All bets are that he’ll pan out as a starter in the NHL.

Another netminder has climbed up draft boards as well, in Sebastian Cossa. As a rookie in the WHL, the Edmonton Oil Kings stopper went 21-6-3 with a .921 SV%. He followed that up this season by going 17-1-1 with a .941 SV%. He’s been absolutely dominant, and teams have taken notice. Either one could very well be the top goaltender taken in the 2021 draft.

However, considering the level of the leagues, Wallstedt is the best bet to go first in the draft. The SHL is a much more difficult league to play in and given the rarity of what he’s accomplished, he’s earned the top spot. However, don’t expect Cossa to be too far behind him.

Prediction: Jesper Wallstedt goes top-10, Sebastian Cossa goes top-20.

How the mighty have fallen – how far will Raty fall?

Entering the season, Raty was the projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft. After consistently playing against older competition and standing out in international competitions, it seemed like the first-overall spot was his to lose. He lost it.

Raty struggled out of the gate this season, starting in the U20 SM-sarja rather than the Liiga as was expected, didn’t make Finland’s entry for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship — despite making it in 2020 — and seemed unable to put it all together in the first half of the season. This has led to a rather remarkable tumble in the rankings and some serious questions as to where he’ll be selected on draft day.

Raty still has a chance to turn it around and this season could be a one-off. But that won’t stop the hesitancy around selecting him. It’s very possible that he could slide out of the first round altogether. With numerous teams having multiple first-round picks though, that seems unlikely. A team like the Columbus Blue Jackets, with three first rounders, could take a flyer on the Finnish prospect as they have the picks to take that chance. He might not be the top prospect in the class, but there’s still potential in the young center.

Prediction: Aatu Raty is selected in the 25-30 range.

Which first-round prospect is poised for the biggest slide?

Raty isn’t the only prospect in the first round that might slide down the board. Two other top contenders are Lysell and Lambos. Both have been considered top-10 picks in the public sphere at one point or another this season.

Lysell has a tremendous amount of skill, from his speed and agility to his quick hands, to his playmaking ability. However, there is some question around how he translated to the NHL level and there are questions about his coachability that could impact his draft stock significantly. This looks to be a player that the public sphere and NHL teams value very differently and for that, he’s a strong candidate to slide.

Lambos was a victim of the WHL season being delayed to start the season and looked overseas to hit the ice. He laced them up with JYP U18 and U20 SM-sarja, even getting two games in at the Liiga level. While some prospects that headed overseas to play elevated their games, Lambos struggled to find his game and didn’t take the step forward from his D-1 season that many had hoped. Upon returning, Lambos got just two games in for the Winnipeg Ice before his season was ended due to a reported medical condition. This may be cause for concern for some teams.

Prediction: Fabian Lysell is selected in the 20-25 ranger, Carson Lambos goes in the 25-30 range.

Will we see a surprise name in the first round?

With the 21st selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets selected… Yegor Chinakhov?

This selection was a big surprise to almost anyone who covers the NHL Draft. Often in the draft, there are some surprises that hav the public scratching their heads. In this draft, this should very much be expected but the names will be hard to peg down prior to the draft. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?

Currently, in the public sphere, there are a few names in first-round rankings that go against the consensus that could be one of those surprises. Forward Tyler Boucher and defenders Jack Peart, Shai Buium, Scott Morrow, and Aleksi Heimosalmi could all be players that teams value highly. FCHockey’s scouts also named Cole Jordan, Ville Koivunen, Danila Klimovich, and Wyatt Johnston as names that could pop up in the top-32.

Finally, it was reported earlier this year the Russian overager Ilya Safonov was being considered a top-three-round prospect by at least two NHL teams. After seeing Chinakhov selected high last year, don’t be surprised to see a name like Safonov’s pop up in the first round.

Prediction: There will be two ‘off the board’ selections in the first round.

Once discussed as the ‘year of the defender’ – how many go in the first round?

Entering the 2020-21 season and therefore the 2021 NHL Draft season, the numbers of high-end defenders in this class looked extremely promising. On top of the big four of Clarke, Edvinsson, Hughes, and Power, there was excitement with Lambos, Sean Behrens, Corson Ceulemans, Daniil Chayka, Stanislav Svozil, and many others. It was leading up to be the year of the defender.

However, as the year has gone on, some of these defensemen didn’t take the expected steps forward, some had their games take a bit of a dive, and some were simply passed by some impressive forwards this season.

This question is brought up every year. So, in comparison, here is the number of defenders taken in the last five drafts:

  • 2020: 6
  • 2019: 10
  • 2018: 14
  • 2017: 9
  • 2016: 9

Taking a look at these numbers, and the public rankings and mock drafts in the public sphere, it looks as though there will actually be a below-average number of defensemen taken this year. The big four are seemingly locks, with Chayka, Ceulemans, Lambos, likely candidates as well. There could be a couple of surprises as well, but it looks to be a fairly low number this year compared to recent drafts.

Prediction: Eight defenders are selected in the first round.

How will the OHL season cancellation impact the NHL Draft?

One of the most interesting storylines to follow in this draft will be how the cancelled OHL season impacts the league. The OHL is a primary source for drafted prospects into the NHL. With their season being cancelled, a wide range of prospects didn’t get to hit the ice this season and couldn’t show NHL teams the value that they’d bring. While teams had access to 2019-20 video footage, for those who couldn’t get a full season under their belts, they missed out on showing the growth of their game.

This draft looks poised to see a record low of players drafted from the OHL.

For reference, here’s how the last five drafts have been impacted by the OHL in the first round and entire draft.

  • 2020: 7 in the first round, 31 total (14.4% of all picks)
  • 2019: 4 in the first round, 32 total (14.7%)
  • 2018: 7 in the first round, 43 total (19.8%)
  • 2017: 5 in the first round, 47 total (21.6%)
  • 2016: 9 in the first round, 52 total (24.6%)

For comparison, in FCHockey’s top-300 ranking, there are only 23 OHL prospects ranked, with six coming in the first round. These prospects are Chayka, Clarke, Benjamin Gaudreau, Mason McTavish, Brennan Othmann, and Francesco Pinelli. Another name that has been popping in the first is Wyatt Johnston after a strong performance at the 2021 IIHF World Under-18 Hockey Championship.

In reality, it’s unlikely that all of the above go in the first round. What’s more likely is we see a record low number of OHL prospects selected in the 2021 draft. However, this has a very strong chance to bounce back next year in the 2022 NHL Draft after a (hopefully) full OHL season. There’s a good chance we see several OHL overagers selected next year, and they could have a big impact on next year’s draft.

Prediction: Five OHL prospects are drafted in the first round and less than 30 are selected in the entire draft.

Who is the first overager selected?

Another question that is asked before every draft, who will be the first re-entry off the board? This year seems to have several contenders, including Ethan Cardwell, Josh Doan, James Hardie, Simon Knak, Janis Moser, Xavier Simoneau, and Pavel Tyutnev. At FCHockey, Doan is ranked the highest out of this group at No. 72, but frankly, any of these prospects could be the first to hear their name called.

Doan definitely seems to have the best chance to be the first off the board. The Chicago Steel winger took a huge step forward this season, picking up 70 points (31 goals, 39 assists) in as many games en route to the Clark Cup as USHL Champions. Watching his improvement over the past year should be enough to earn him the title as the first overager off the board.

Prediction: Josh Doan will be the first overager drafted.

Should we expect teams to trade first-round draft picks?

Absolutely. Every season, we see NHL teams make draft-day trades within the first round. This year, given the lack of the franchise talent at the top of the class and the wide-open nature from practically the top-down, there are likely a few teams open to moving down in the draft. Perhaps the bigger question will be who wants to move up?

The Blue Jackets should be a team to keep an eye on for sure. With three first-round picks, including fifth overall, they’ll be a target for anyone looking to gain a first-round pick. Currently, the Arizona Coyotes, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Washington Capitals don’t have a first rounder and could be prime candidates to move up. As could the Kraken, who are looking to build out their prospect pool from the ground up. The Blue Jackets No. 25 and No. 32 selections could be perfect targets for these teams.

If any of these teams are looking to move up a little higher, the New York Rangers and their No. 16 pick seem like prime targets. The Rangers have had a remarkably fast rebuild and look set to ascend the standings. Moving their draft pick for a piece that helps now could be an option. Could it be a part of a package for Eichel? It’s very possible.

What will be interesting to see is if any team pulls a Brad Treliving. Last year, the Flames general manager came into the draft with the No. 19 pick, trading it to the Rangers for No. 22 and No. 72, then moving the No. 22 for the No. 24 and No. 80. He turned one pick into Connor Zary, Jeremie Poirier, and Jake Boltmann. If there was a candidate to do this again this year, look to the Minnesota Wild or Detroit Red Wings to work to pull this off as they restock their cupboards and look to add as many draft picks as possible.

Prediction: The Columbus Blue Jackets move one of their two lower picks, the New York Rangers move their pick.

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