Holmes’ 10 Takes: Eklund, Raty, Clarke & More
Holmes’s 10 Takes is a monthly column from FCHockey’s Crossover scout Brandon Holmes. This column will highlight Holmes’s analysis of 2021 NHL Draft-eligible prospects and reaction news in the prospect world.
It’s a little touch-and-go, but the 2020-21 hockey season is off and running in many countries around the globe.
Around this time every year, scouts are happy to be returning to rinks to get a view on the upcoming class of NHL prospects. This time, we’re all huddled around our computer screens, notebooks in hand regardless. As long as we all have hockey to watch, you’re not going to find me complaining.
The 2021 NHL Draft class is remarkably wide open, with plenty of competition stemming all the way to the first-overall pick. Here are my 10 Takes on what we’ve seen so far.
1) NCAA Season Underway
The 2020-21 collegiate season is officially underway. The Big Ten Conference resumed play over the past few weeks, allowing a glimpse into exciting freshmen and upperclassmen alike. The Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin dominate the top of the scoring charts in the early going, with three Michigan freshman all in the current top six of NCAA scorers, but I can’t help but be fascinated by Wisconsin’s Linus Weissbach.
Weissbach, a 2017 seventh-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, leads the entire NCAA in scoring with nine points in his first six games, displaying consistent skill, pace, and offensive flair en route to four goals in the early going of the season. Weissbach is a senior this season for Wisconsin, and in turn, it will be an interesting situation to monitor as the season moves along, as the young Swede is bound to draw the eyes of NHL clubs if he declines to sign with Buffalo at season’s end.
2) Wolverines Start Hot
The Michigan Wolverines have been must-see TV for prospect enthusiasts in the young NCAA season, as the team was 4-0-0 to start and has been powered by a dominant class of freshmen. Thomas Bordeleau, a 2020 second-round pick of the Sharks, leads the way for Michigan in the scoring column, but my eye has been fixated on their high-octane trio of 2021 draft-eligible skaters in Matthew Beniers, Kent Johnson, and Owen Power.
Power, talked about by many as a potential contender for the first-overall selection, has come precisely as advertised thus far for the Wolverines, as he’s played in all situations and passed each test that has come his way with flying colors, pacing the team’s defense core in scoring along the way. Johnson, a player that wows me with skill every time I watch him, has been dangerous in the early going with seven points in his first four collegiate games, but my eyes are consistently drawn to his linemate in Beniers. Beniers may not blow away viewers with the kind of skill that Johnson has, but he might just be the most well-rounded forward available in the 2021 class. From my report on Beniers:
“Beniers saw the ice fantastically well in both zones, committed to his own defensive end, assisted his defensemen in clean breakouts, and displayed very good puck distribution skills – all aspects you would love to see in a future top 6 center at the pro level.”
3) USNTDP Playing Strong
Another team that is starting hot in the early going of the 2020-21 hockey season is the U.S. National Team Development Program, as the program has opened their season against USHL and NAHL competition. The U.S. U18 Team is 7-2-0 so far this season, and to me, this crop as a whole appears to be a step up from the previous group, particularly on the blue line. Luke Hughes, another potential candidate for the first-overall selection, has been steady thus far this season, consistently utilizing his smooth and crisp skating ability to make an impact at both ends of the ice and play in all situations for the Americans.
However, it is Sean Behrens and Aidan Hreschuk who lead the team’s defensive core in scoring in the early going with six points in nine games apiece. Behrens and Hreschuk both appear to have strong upside as potential power-play quarterbacks at the pro level, and both will be names to keep in mind for the first and second rounds in 2021, while Roman Schmidt and Jake Martin have also made strong cases to be one of the first 96 names off the board thus far.
4) Americans Deep with Forward Talent
The USNTDP has had absolutely no trouble putting the puck in the net so far this season, all while having one of their most potent weapons in Chaz Lucius out with an injury. The Americans are flush with talent at forward, and boast multiple names to keep in mind as early-round selections in the 2021 draft such as Sasha Pastujov, Tyler Boucher, Andre Gasseau, and Jeremy Wilmer, though Dylan Duke has easily been my favorite of the bunch to this point in the season.
Duke is currently tied with Pastujov for the team lead in points with 14 points in nine games and has consistently been one of the most noticeable Americans on the ice, able to create offense with underrated skill and mobility. In previous years, Duke has fancied himself more as a triggerman, but it appears to me that that Duke has taken great leaps in his playmaking ability, as he does a great job of filtering pucks to high-danger areas and creating offense for his linemates. Duke is capable of playing both center and wing, which will be an interesting aspect to keep an eye on to see where he may fit best as he moves to higher levels of competition.
5) Eklund Continues to Impress
Arguably the biggest story coming out of Sweden to start this 2021 draft season is the play of William Eklund to start the SHL season. A mainstay on Djurgården’s first line with captain Jacob Josefson and 2020 seventh-overall pick Alexander Holtz, Eklund has demonstrated he’s more than capable of playing against men as an 18-year-old, as the rookie forward has quickly become one of my personal favorites in the entire class. With six goals and 10 points through 15 games with Djurgården, Eklund has not only held his own in one of the world’s top professional leagues but has absolutely thrived, and is currently oozing with confidence every time he steps on the ice.
What stands out on nearly every shift Eklund takes is his skating, edge work, and willingness to play in the interior of the ice; he does a great job of using his edges to spin away from pressure and create space for himself in the offensive zone and can be a handful for defensemen to handle down low in the offensive zone when he’s playing at his best. There’s a lot of runway left, but to this point season Eklund is making a strong case to be a top-10 selection in the upcoming draft.
6) Swedish Junior Stars Turning Heads Before Pause
While Eklund turns heads in the SHL, a number of young Swedes had gotten off to hot starts in the newly renamed J20 Nationell, which is Sweden’s top junior league. Simon Edvinsson and Fabian Lysell, two top prospects playing for Frölunda J20, have not disappointed to this point in the season and both appear to be solidifying their standing in the top 15 on many boards. Edvinsson remains in contention as one of the best defensemen in the class for some.
Oskar Olausson, a skilled winger playing for HV71 J20, leads all first-year draft eligibles in the league with 14 goals and 27 points through 16 games played, with teammate Marcus Almquist trailing not far behind him with 23 points of his own. But my attention has been focused on Simon Robertsson of Skelleftea J20.
In addition to making four pro appearances for Skelleftea this season, Robertsson has skated in 15 games for the team’s junior program, recording nine goals and 20 points in the process. Robertsson’s ability to read coverage and facilitate offensive play from the wing is fantastic, which bodes well for his projection as a potential top-six forward at the NHL level. The J20 Nationell has suspended play until at least the beginning of 2021, so it will be interesting to see if Robertsson can find his way into some pro games for Skelleftea during the junior league’s pause.
7) Clarke’s Loan Situation
When it was announced that the OHL would return to play this season with revised rules, most notably with no hitting, many wondered if some top prospects may opt to play elsewhere, and it appeared for a brief amount of time that Brandt Clarke was the first shoe to drop in that respect. On November 17, it was announced that Clarke has agreed to a commitment with Vasby IK of Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier professional league, for the duration of the 2020-21 season.
For many, it would have been exciting to see Clarke ply his trade against professional players, as the offensively-gifted blueliner is yet another candidate to go first overall in a wide-open 2021 NHL Draft, though that excitement was tempered when it was announced that the Barrie Colts would be blocking his transfer to Sweden for the time being. Although his transfer did not work out, it seems clear that Clarke has his sights set on playing elsewhere, and it will be interesting to see if the high-octane defenseman will seek a partial season agreement with a different club. One thing is for sure, we would all love to see Clarke play hockey sooner rather than later.
8) Raty Slipping in Rankings
Once considered to be the near-consensus first-overall player in the 2021 class, Aatu Raty appears to be slipping from that standing as the competition at the top has become a lot stiffer. Raty has split his time so far this season between the Finnish Liiga and the league’s junior counterpart for Karpat, skating in six games apiece for both the pro and junior team, posting two goals while playing in the pros and scoring at exactly a point-per-game pace at the junior level.
Though Raty’s results this season have been mostly positive, many scouts, including myself, are beginning to wonder if the offensive upside is truly there to warrant a first-overall selection in the NHL, and if perhaps the five-10 range would be more of Raty’s sweet spot come draft day. Raty is still a very well-rounded offensive producer and I believe projects very strongly as a future top-six NHL forward, but I would love to see another dynamic gear in his game for him to truly contend with the likes of Power, Clarke, Hughes, and Johnson. Raty appears to be a lock to make Finland’s World Junior Championship roster as a returning forward, which may be viewed by some as a crucial stage for him to throw his name back into the top consideration for this class.
9) Guenther and Ceulemans Take AJHL By Storm
The AJHL, Alberta’s branch of junior A hockey, also recently resumed play for their 2020-21 season and draft eligibles Dylan Guenther and Corson Ceulemans have quickly gotten up to speed, finding their way on to the score sheet. Ceulemans, the top defensive prospect coming out of Canadian junior A this season, has been stellar to start the season for the Brooks Bandits, contributing two goals and five points on the score sheet in Brooks’ first two games. Ceulemans, a smooth-skating, right-shot, two-way defenseman, will be a crucial player for the Bandits this season, as he’ll have the opportunity to play in all situations and play in key minutes for his club while making his first-round case before moving on to the University of Wisconsin next season.
Guenther, the WHL’s 2020 Rookie of the Year, is skating for the Sherwood Park Crusaders while on loan from the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings and has looked dangerous in the early going while playing on a line with Matthew Savoie, a top prospect for the 2022 NHL Draft. Through and through, Guenther is a goal scorer and has gotten on the board three times in his first four AJHL games, while also picking up tw0 helpers for a total of five points. Seen as some as a potential top-10 selection in the upcoming draft, I would like to see him continue to put up gaudy numbers in the AJHL before returning to the WHL in January, as he has all the talent necessary to be one of the league’s top scorers before returning to the major junior level.
10) Competitive Canadian World Junior Camp
As we get closer and closer to the 2021 World Junior Championships beginning on December 25, Canada has opened its month-long selection camp, beginning the hunt for a roster spot for those attending. For WHL and OHL players alike, these are some of the first glimpses we’ve gotten of these players since March, though the early competition as seen in the team’s intra-squad scrimmages has been stern and competitive. Kirby Dach, the lone NHLer attending camp, has looked stellar so far among his junior counterparts while returning players such as Dylan Cozens, Bowen Byram, Connor McMichael, and Dawson Mercer have all looked very comfortable and in control.
Many fans will be looking for their team’s top prospects to make the cut for Canada, but draft enthusiasts may want to keep an eye on Shane Wright, who is currently the top prize in the 2022 NHL Draft. The competition to make the club may be sterner this year than it may have been in other years due to the circumstances caused by COVID, but Wright is a thoroughbred that’s as talented as any recent prospect we’ve seen come through the draft in recent memory, giving the likes of Connor McDavid a run for his money during his exceptional OHL rookie season. If Wright makes the Canadian World Junior club, it will likely be in a depth role, but I know myself and many other observers would love to see it.