2021 NHL Draft: The Battle Royale for No. 1
The narrative surrounding the 2021 NHL Draft, long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, was that it would be a difficult one to project.
There was no player that everyone had to know before the year. There was not going to be a #FallinForDahlin, #LoseForHughes, or even a #FailForNail tanking slogan. This was always going to be a draft in which there would be a year-long, thorough discussion about who deserved to become the 58th No. 1 pick in NHL Draft history.
Then the entire world came to a halt, and things became even less clear.
Seasons were delayed, players began switching teams — and in some cases countries — in order to get ice and game time, and scouts began combing through video from previous seasons.
By the time 2021 began, most of the top prospects available had found somewhere to play and a top-eight began to form: the Michigan trio of Owen Power, Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson, the Swedish trio of Jesper Wallstedt, Simon Edvinsson and Wiliam Eklund, the third brother in Luke Hughes, and Barrie Colts’ starlet and HC Nove Zamky loan Brandt Clarke.
In February, the Western Hockey League began their shortened season. Dylan Guenther scored 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in 12 games and threw his hat in the ring for first overall.
Come the end of April, the 2021 IIHF World Under-18 Championship took place in Frisco, TX. With many eligibles playing in different countries at different skill levels, the tournament would be a much more familiar playing ground for scouts to evaluate players on.
It will also be the only live viewings NHL scouts will get on this class of eligibles.
In Texas, Mason McTavish, who had spent the season on loan in the second division of Switzerland, impressed many en route to helping Canada win gold.
Thus, a final top-10 took form. Slowly. Ten players whose names wouldn’t shock if called No. 1 on July 23rd.
There is a variety of opinions on who that could be amongst FCHockey scouts, with five players receiving first overall votes. Beyond those five are five more with an outside chance.
Power, though has the inside lane on the group.
Meet the candidates for No. 1.
Owen Power, D, Michigan (NCAA) | Rank: 1
The 6-foot-6, 214-pound Owen Power entered the year as one of the favourites to go first overall after two excellent seasons with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. He sat atop many draft boards before he hit the ice with the University of Michigan and throughout the season he did little to prove he didn’t belong there.
It took Power little time to adjust to the college level: he scored a goal and picked up two assists in his first game vs. Arizona State. He didn’t continue to score at that pace, but he finished the season with an impressive 16 points (three goals, 13 assists) in 26 games.
Although there are still some wrinkles he needs to iron out of his game, Power is an attractive option at first overall due to his incredibly versatile toolkit. He moves exceptionally well for his size, can create offence in a variety of ways and be deployed in all situations. His multifaceted game has resulted in comparisons to NHL stalwarts such as Victor Hedman and Alex Pietrangelo.
He hasn’t necessarily shown the skill level they did in their draft seasons, but Power displayed the ability to log minutes and dictate play in the NCAA the way they do in the NHL. Power played an average of 22 minutes a night and had an unbelievable even-strength goals-forward percentage of 70.45, per Pick224.
The No. 2 seeded Michigan were removed from the NCAA Championship due to COVID-19 protocol, yet Power was still able to finish the season on a high note. He was a Hobey Baker Award finalist and played a massive role on the Canada’s team that won gold at the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championship in Latvia.
The common critique of Power is that his upside isn’t as high as some of the players on this list. Though he has progressed well at all levels so far, perhaps there is little room for him to grow.
FCHockey scout Dylan Krill shares this sentiment.
“I have Power ranked fifth on my personal rankings only because I see much more potential in four others,” said Krill. “Even though he is the better player right now, that doesn’t automatically mean he will be in three-to-five years, which is always a thought I have when evaluating.”
On the other hand, he also is as ready-made as anyone in this draft.
He has already shown the ability to take over games against men internationally and is certainly physically capable of playing in the NHL. FCHockey scout Brandon Holmes sees these factors as the reason he is the best player available this year.
“Power is the top-ranked player on my board, and that is due to the ability I see in him as a complete 200-foot contributor,” Holmes said. “His unique blend of size, mobility, and puck skill from the backend is nearly unmatched in this draft class, and it is my belief that he possesses the least challenging road to becoming a star impact player at the NHL level.”
No one knows for sure except those working for the team, but in a draft year where there is little consensus of opinion, Owen Power becoming a member of the Buffalo Sabres seems certain.
Hughes could be an obstacle for that though.
Luke Hughes, D, USNTDP (USHL) | Rank: 3
Just like brothers Quinn and Jack before him, Luke Hughes was the star of the United States Development Team Development Program this season. He may not have the puck skills of Jack, or the ability to walk the blue line like Quinn, but Luke is the biggest and some say he is the best skater.
His edgework and straight-line speed are both elite, making him a zone entry and exit machine. That skating ability, in combination with a 6-foot-2, 184-pound frame, gives him one of the highest ceilings in the draft.
He has produced very well at all levels so far and can keep up with any forward in the class. However, it is up in the air whether he projects as a true offensive dynamo and he isn’t particularly dominant in his own zone.
The fact that he is such a raw talent means he could be a bit of a project for the team that drafts him. For that reason, Krill doesn’t see Hughes as a first overall candidate.
“I am a bit lower on Hughes because his foundation isn’t as complete as others,” he said. “Although I do believe he has one of the highest potentials in this draft, I also acknowledge that he might have the most room to grow to get to that potential.”
On the flipside, other scouts are of the philosophy that you should draft the player with the highest upside and trust your development system to get him there. Justin Froese, head of Western scouting at FCHockey, sees the third Hughes brother as the best player available at No. 1.
“Out of the big five defenders in this class I think that he’s not only the player with the highest ceiling but also the most likely to get there and be a top of the lineup impact player,” Froese said. “He’s got some high-end signature tools with the confidence to use them and the pathway to smooth out his flaws isn’t insurmountable from my perspective.”
It is worth noting that Hughes is one of the youngest players available in the draft with plenty of room grow into his frame.
It’s anyone’s guess where Hughes goes in the 2021 draft. The New Jersey Devils, home of his brother Jack, picks fourth overall and the Vancouver Canucks, where Quinn plays, have the ninth pick.
But any team with a lottery pick could use a player of the ilk of Luke.
The same can be said of Edvinsson.
Simon Edvinsson, D, Frolunda J20 (SuperElit) | Rank: 7
Another huge defenseman, Simon Edvinsson is much less of a sure thing than Power, which was reflected amongst our scouts’ rankings. He was ranked as high as third and as low as 12th.
Edvinsson is inconsistent in his ability to impact games and has areas severely in need of improvement, but in terms of raw physical ability, he is unmatched in this draft. There is a lot of swagger to his game: he tries plays no one else on the ice is thinking of. He is mobile with and without the puck and has great reach and physicality in his defensive game.
His Jekyll and Hyde game was no better exemplified than in the Under-18s, where he started the tournament almost unnoticeable in games and dominated them as the tournament progressed to a close.
The Swedish defenseman has produced around a point-per-game throughout his career, except this season which he split between the Swedish Hockey League, Allsvenskan and J20 Nationell. He struggled to create offense and as a result, fluctuated between the three levels.
Whether a scout is high or low on Edvinsson is usually determined by how much work they think there is to be done before he can reach his peak in the NHL.
“I see a lot of the athleticism as well as flashes of skating and skill that cause many to rush to comparables but I do have reservations,” Froese said. “He’s a prototype, but I also have concerns about his thought process and skill application. There’s a lot to iron out and I simply prefer other players more near the top.”
However, just like with Hughes, some scouts just drool over the idea of what Edvinsson could become.
“Edvinsson is definitely a wildcard for the top of this draft, but the upside is tantalizing. It’s just so rare to find defenders who can move around the ice and control the puck like he can, there are so many ways that he can influence play,” said Derek Neumeier, head of video scouting at FCHockey. “Turnovers are a problem, but that’s something that can be coached up over time, and his incredible range allows him to recover easier than others.”
It is nearly impossible to predict with certainty where he will be taken.
It will almost undoubtedly be in the first half of the first round, but his landing spot will solely be based on the belief an NHL club has in him. The Anaheim Ducks, at No. 3, and the Detroit Red Wings, at sixth overall, have both boasted plenty of picks from Sweden in the past. The Red Wings also picked Moritz Seider sixth overall in 2019 — a project which has turned out to be well worth the risk — they could swing high again.
Another player that could be worth the risk is the draft’s top goaltender.
Jesper Wallstedt, G, Lulea (SHL) | Rank: 8
Three things to know regarding Jesper Wallstedt: first, the last time a goaltender was taken in the top-10 of the draft was Carey Price in 2006. Second, the last goalie to be picked first overall was Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. Third, 2021 could be another year where a shallow talent pool results in the best player drafted being a goaltender, a la Andrei Vasilevsky in 2012.
Scouts tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to drafting goalies, but those three goalies are all starting in the semi-finals of the 2021 NHL Playoffs. Semyon Varlamov, the fourth starter, was a first-round pick, No. 23, in 2006.
And Wallstedt has as impressive of a resume as any of them did.
Before his 15th birthday, Wallstedt became the youngest player to make his debut in the Swedish J20 SuperElit League. That season, he posted a 15-8-0 record and finished with the fourth-best save percentage and goals-against average. He was also named to Team Sweden for the Under-18s, although he didn’t play at the tournament.
At age 16, he won bronze at the World Under-17 Challenge and gold at the Under-18s.
Last season, he made his SHL debut for Lulea at the age of 17.
This year, he took over the starting role and posted above a .950 save percentage in six of his first 12 starts. Although he cooled off in the second half of the season, his numbers are still the best seen from an 18-year-old goalie in Sweden since Jacob Markstrom.
“Wallstedt already looks like an NHL goalie with his style and mindset, and that’s pretty unique for a teenager,” Neumeier said. “He naturally takes up a ton of the net and knows how to play to his advantage, conserving energy and staying square instead of trying to make dramatic saves. He also showcases incredible focus and mental fortitude. He’s been elite among his peers for years, and I expect that to continue in the NHL.”
Those who aren’t as high on the goaltender have little to say about the downsides of his game. Instead, they point towards their skepticism towards drafting goaltenders with a lottery pick.
“When it comes to rating Wallstedt towards the tail end of my personal top ten, it has more to do with the players ahead of him rather than the player himself,” Holmes said. “He is an incredibly mature and intelligent netminder that plays his angles well and uses his frame well with strong positioning, and I believe he’s well on his way to becoming a top goaltender at the NHL level.
“However, I tend to give the tiebreaker to skaters in my rankings, and I see more impact ability in the flow of a NHL hockey in just a few players.”
Spencer Knight was selected 13th overall in 2019, and Yaroslav Askarov went at No. 11 in 2020. Some see Wallstedt as the best of the three. The Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Chicago Blackhawks are all viewed as potential landing spots, though all hold picks outside of the top five.
Wallstedt does, however, have the potential to make the biggest impact on his NHL team from this draft class.
But others could too. Like Clarke.
Brandt Clarke, D, HC Nove Zamky (Slovakia) | Rank: 2
Brandt Clarke finished the 2019-20 Ontario Hockey League season with 24 points in his final 24 games. A coaching change in Barrie saw the defenseman receive more usage overall, including on the power play. As a result, he was named to the OHL All-Rookie Team.
Little did he know he wouldn’t return to Barrie for over a year.
The defenseman found a home with HC Nove Zamky, a team in the top division of Slovakian hockey, in December. He struggled to put up points initially, but once he settled into his new environment, ice size and level of competition, the floodgates opened.
Clarke is a unique breed of player, in playstyle and in appearance. He has an awkward stance and plays a roving game that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Despite his quirks, Clarke has thrived at every level of hockey that he’s played. He was the No. 1 defenseman on one of the greatest minor midget teams ever, the ‘03 Don Mills Flyers, and broke GTHL records for points by a defenseman. He was one of the best players at the 2019 Under-17 Challenge and the top blueliner on a Canadian team that won gold at the 2021 Under-18s.
Just like every defenseman on this list, Clarke will need to learn better defensive habits and how to use his size in puck battles. But unlike Power, Hughes and Edvinsson, Clarke will also have to fix his skating mechanics and athletic stance.
As a result, there is a significant disparity amongst FCHockey scouts on where to pick him.
Froese admits there is a lot to like about the Ottawa, ON product, but is cautious whether he will reach the levels he is capable of.
“I really like what flashes I’ve seen from him, but there are red flags to how he can translate his game to an elite level or if his skating will come along with improvements to strength and balance,” he said. “He’s a bit enigmatic for me although I think he still plays an offensive role. I simply prefer other players’ projections to hit their upside in comparison to him.”
There were some scouts who saw Clarke as the top player in the draft, however.
Dylan Galloway, head of Eastern Scouting at FCHockey, explained why he thinks he might end up the best of the bunch.
“With the puck on the stick, he’s dynamic, and can see the ice really well,” Galloway said. “He needs to work on his defensive game and his stride, but I think he could succeed as a top-pairing offensive defenseman in the NHL.”
The diversity of opinion on Clarke at FCHockey is likely reflected amongst NHL teams, too. There may be a team that is really high on him and grabs him early. With the fourth overall pick, New Jersey has a family connection with Clarke too — they drafted his brother, Graeme, in 2019.
One has to wonder if some questions would’ve been answered over a full slate of OHL games for Clarke and thus allowing for a more full-bodied volume of work, too.
Same for Guenther to a degree, too.
Dylan Guenther, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) | Rank: 6
It’s tough to know how Dylan Guenther would have fared this year had things been normal. The Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League were comfortably the best team in the Central Division and due to COVID-protocol only had to play interdivisional games. He looked good at the Under-18s, but it wasn’t a dominating like some had expected pre-tournament.
That being said, his CV is still nothing short of spectacular.
In bantam, he had 103 points (56 goals, 47 assists) in just 30 games.
In his minor midget year, he played in the Canadian Sports School U18 Hockey League and won Freshman of the Year. He was second only to Matthew Savoie in team scoring as his team won the league championship. His rookie numbers are only matched by Nolan Patrick and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins this millennium.
Guenther receives praise for his versatility as a forward, both in his skillset and in his ability to play in different roles.
“Guenther is the closest to a five-tool player in the draft and is such a well-rounded but prolific skill player,” Froese said. “He’s got so many layers to his offensive game on and off the puck and thinks at a high level already with that ability to elevate his play or fit into any role. He’s a long-term top-six option for the team who picks him.”
Some aren’t as confident in his upside. There are doubts about whether he can be more than a passenger on a line in the NHL.
“Guenther I see as one of the strongest options at the top of this draft for a team looking to add goal-scoring punch to their team this offseason, but I do harbour some reservations when it comes to his placement in the top five,” Holmes said.
“He is a speedy and intelligent forward who drives high danger areas to score goals, but I have questioned his ability to drive his own line and create offence for the players around him at this time.”
It is hard to project where the Edmonton-born forward will end up. It is conceivable seeing him almost anywhere in the top-10. He is a player every team could use but if the teams picking at the top view his ceiling as lower than the others on this list he may slip.
Guenther could serve as the draft’s first forward taken.
But so too could Johnson.
Kent Johnson, C, Michigan (NCAA) | Rank: 9
After shredding up the British Columbian Hockey League, scoring 101 points (41 goals, 60 assists) in just 52 games and being named the best forward in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, Kent Johnson found success easily at the collegiate level this year.
Some were skeptical if the center was too small to compete against men in the NCAA this year, but the 165-pound freshman proved it doesn’t matter how heavy you are if they can’t catch you. He continued to make highlight-reel plays and finished second in Wolverines scoring with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in 26 games.
He was a Hobey Baker Nominee alongside Power and similarly burst onto the scene in Michigan’s first game against Arizona State. Johnson set up four goals in the 8-1 opener.
The Canadian forward’s game is based around his elite puckhandling and ingenuity. He has been able to create offense despite being undersized because he just thinks the game faster than his opponents.
It is those qualities that make scouts think he will be able to play in the NHL, but there are questions about whether he can play on a top-line.
“Johnson is shifty and creative with the puck. He is one of the best puck handlers in this draft,” Galloway said. “His creativity and ingenuity with the puck on his stick should help him adapt to the NHL where space is much more limited. He could provide some great offence to a team’s middle-six.”
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It is a lot more difficult to pull off high-level plays in the NHL and some doubt whether his game will translate at the next level if he doesn’t become more well-rounded.
“Johnson can be too fancy and get blinders on at times,” said Josh Bell, a video scout with FCHockey. “He does need to add strength and power to his game to add explosiveness and physicality to his arsenal.”
Johnson arguably owns the highest ceiling out of the trio of Michigan draft eligibles, too. He can do things with the puck that Beniers and Power will never be capable of. But drafting him yields a significantly greater risk.
With so many defensemen at the top of the draft, Johnson may get picked earlier than the 5-10 range. It is also important to consider whether he is viewed as a true center by the lottery teams.
If Johnson has the ceiling, McTavish’s calling card will be a strong floor with plenty of upside to compliment it.
Mason McTavish, C, EHC Olten (SL) | Rank: 10
And if the most promising 2021 draft-eligible from the OHL isn’t Clarke, it’s Mason McTavish. He finished second to only Shane Wright in rookie scoring and posted an incredible 20 goals in 57 games.
Just like Clarke, McTavish went on loan in Europe due to COVID restrictions in Ontario. After his 18th birthday in January, the burly pivot joined EHC Olten in Switzerland’s second tier and played in 17 games. He picked up an impressive 18 points (11 goals, seven assists) in 17 games, and did not look out of place amongst men.
His strong showing in Switzerland drew the attention of many scouts, but McTavish’s draft stock skyrocketed after his dominance at the Under-18s. He was named a top three player on Canada after scoring 11 points (five goals, six assists) in seven games.
“McTavish has an excellent all-around skillset. His ability to get into the high-danger areas and use his shot to generate offense is amongst the best in this class,” FCHockey video scout Auston Broad said. “I think he has a high floor and a high ceiling, and in a few years we could look back and see him as the best forward from this draft.”
The main question surrounding McTavish’s projection is whether or not he will be able to make space for himself in a variety of ways in the NHL. He has pro-level size but some are skeptical about his skating and puck skills.
“There are a lot of different things to like about McTavish. He’s a well-rounded player, a hard competitor and a natural leader. He really owned the U18 tournament. I do wish he was a little quicker and a little more skilled with the puck, however,” Neumeier said. “He might not be a center or a top-line player in the NHL, which puts him a little bit lower on my order.”
Only time will tell how far the 6-foot-1, 207-pound center rises up the draft boards.
Last season, we saw NTDP defenseman Jake Sanderson go from a fringe first-rounder to a fifth overall pick. McTavish could be the one to do it this year.
If McTavish is a wildcard in terms of draft position, Beniers is more of a sure thing.
Matthew Beniers, C, Michigan (NCAA) | Rank: 4
The American-born Matthew Beniers is the player with the most consensus in ranking from FCHockey scouts. Seven had him ranked third overall, with votes for first, second and fifth as well.
The reason there is little deviance in opinion on Beniers is because of how easy it is to see him succeeding in the NHL. He has produced consistently at all levels in his career and provided a steady defensive presence and work rate. Put simply, he plays the most pro game out of anyone in the draft.
Beniers fit in flawlessly with Michigan this season and made the B1G division All-Rookie team.
And if there was uncertainty about Beniers, it was eradicated at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. As the youngest player on Team USA, he excelled as the team’s second-line center as they brought home gold.
The main knock on Beniers, as well as players of his ilk, is that the incredible effort level he displays doesn’t always translate to success in the NHL. Just because he never stops working, doesn’t mean he will be able to shut down the best players on the planet.
“He has a lot of qualities on and off the puck that teams will covet,” Froese started. “That being said, I love the energy he brings but think that he uses a lot of placeholder skills that he will have issues translating. I think he’s a safe swing at the top but simply think others have more room to grow into bigger shoes.”
That critique isn’t representative of the widespread opinion on Beniers, however.
Those who see him as a top-three pick think he possesses both the hustle and the hockey sense to play a shutdown role at the net level.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a forward prospect be as good defensively as Beniers is,” Neumeier said. “He thinks the game quickly and can move around the ice quickly, and he has an elite competitiveness and desire to win.
“He’s not flashy offensively right now, but he shows glimpses that he could add more of that, and at the very least he’s a guy who will contribute offense with his sense and work rate.”
It’s easy to see Beniers being the first pick in the history of the Seattle Kraken. He’s a natural center and could be the safest pick with arguably the highest floor in the draft. Drafting a player with the championship pedigree and mentality is hard to do, and the 32nd franchise in the NHL will have the chance to do it with this year’s second overall pick.
Eklund is another player who shot up draft boards this year.
William Eklund, LW, Djurgarden (SHL) | Rank: 5
William Eklund entered the season as one of the names to know from Sweden — alongside Edvinsson and Wallstedt — and now may be the Swede with the best chance of being drafted first overall.
The hype around Eklund had never reached the height of the hype surrounding his compatriots — until this season. Centering a line with Alexander Holtz on Djurgarden, the 18-year-old had one of the best draft-eligible seasons in the SHL in recent history.
Although he was playing slightly more than NHL draft-eligibles typically do in the SHL, Eklund’s totals of 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 40 games is very impressive. It was also the most by any U20 player in the league — including Holtz and fellow 2020 NHL Draftee Lucas Raymond. He beat both out to be named Junior Player of the Year.
His stellar draft year and pro-ready game made him a near consensus top-five pick at FCHockey. Our scouts raved about his ability to make plays with limited time and space.
“I have Eklund as my No. 1 overall on my personal rankings because in my opinion he brings the most high-end tools and foundation, along with great hockey sense and decision making, especially under pressure,” Krill said. “He is incredibly creative and also very responsible, making him a safe pick with a high-floor, with also high-upside.”
Fellow FCHockey scout Joel Henderson also expressed his admiration for the Swede, commenting on his seamless transition to the SHL.
“Eklund brings a number of high-end abilities that make him super adaptable,” Henderson said. “He has elite speed and puck control on zone entries, quick decision making and the hands to facilitate, and the ability to one-time a shot backdoor. An extremely creative and competent player.”
Whether it’s Eklund, or another of the more than half-dozen realistic options for No. 1, one thing is certain.
There’s no certainty in the 2021 draft.