November 26, 2020

2021 NHL Draft: 5 under-the-radar WHL players to watch

Like the rest of Canadian Major Junior, significant unknowns surround the WHL’s 2020-21 season.

If the league can manage a successful return to play, the WHL will play host to some of the most compelling players for the upcoming 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

Related: FCHockey’s Top-10 Preliminary Rankings – Western Canada

As prep for the 2021 NHL Draft has begun at FCHockey, our scouts have pointed out five under-the-radar players in the WHL who all could see significant rises in their draft stock by the end of their 2020-21 WHL campaign. From two high-skill centers coming off phenomenal rookie seasons to three defensemen with all the physical tools to contribute at the next level. The WHL will once again have an abundance of players with high-draft potential.

Here are FCHockey’s five under-the-radar WHL prospects to look out for this upcoming season.

Yaroslav Busygin, D, Brandon Wheat Kings

Brandon Wheat King’s defenseman Yaroslav Busygin is a stay-at-home defender who managed to put up four goals, one assist, and five points in 25 MHL games last season. Despite weighing only 170 pounds, it is inventible that he will fill out his six-foot-two frame, adding physical tools to his already impressive defensive prowess. Coming to North America from Russia, the smaller ice surface should play to his advantage, as his skating is one of his biggest strengths.

Related: 2021 NHL Draft: 5 Western Canadian players to watch

Before getting picked 39th overall by Brandon in the CHL Import Draft, Busygin had four goals and 11 assists in eight games wearing the “C” for the U18 Vitayz Podolski team. Without any prior North American experience, Busygin is a dark horse candidate to climb into the earlier rounds of the upcoming draft.

Jayden Grubbe, C, Red Deer Rebels

The seventh overall pick by the Red Deer Rebels in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, Jayden Grubbe, The six-foot-three, right-shot center from Calgary has shown plenty of promise as a high-end offensive playmaker. His rookie season in the WHL was a smooth transition from AAA, where he put up six goals, 23 assists, and 29 points.

During Grubbe’s time with the Calgary Bison’s U15 AAA, the forward was a force en route to winning AMJHL MVP. He scored a phenomenal 29 goals and added 37 assists for 66 points in 35 games. The following year as a 16-year-old, he had four goals and 22 assists for 26 points in 32 games helping the Calgary U18 AAA Buffaloes win the AMHL championship.

As it goes for most rookies in major junior, Grubbe should see a significant jump in his usage next season, which will directly correlate with his stock for the 2021 NHL Draft, climbing out of the later rounds where scouts currently have him slotted.

Vincent Iorio, D, Brandon Wheat Kings

As a late 2002 birthday, Vincent Iorio holds several physical advantages over his peers. The defenseman stands at a towering six-foot-three and 195 pounds. During his 2019-20 campaign Iorio put up four goals, 17 assists, and 21 points in 59 games with Brandon Wheat Kings. Beyond the obvious physical tools, Iorio’s strength lies in his puckhandling and passing.

Iorio has always had offensive tools at his disposal. His defensive game is his best asset. Before his rookie season in Brandon, he played 52 games for the Shattuck St. Mary’s 16U AAA, Iorio put up four goals, 19 assists, and 23 points. After that campaign, Iorio played a key role for Team British Columbia as the second-highest scoring defenseman on the team with three assists in five games to capture the WHL Cup Gold Medal.

Entering the 2020-21 WHL season, Iorio has all the tools in his arsenal, where he could see a rise up the draft rankings from where he is currently seen as a late-round selection by scouts.

Marc Lajoie, D, Tri-City Americans

Unlike other prospects who will need time beyond this season to mature into their physical frames, Marc Lajoie already stands at a whopping six-foot-four and 231 pounds. Lajoie dominates his competition physically while still being able to contribute a bit of offense. In his 2019-20 season with the Tri-City Americans, he had eight goals and five assists in 53 games.

While primarily known for his size and defense, he was much more dominant offensively before his rookie season in the WHL. During his 2018-19 season with the Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep, Lajoie scored 11 goals and 24 assists, putting up an encouraging 35 points in 35 games. Lajoie went on to win the CSSHL U18 Championship playing a pivotal role.

Lajoie’s size alone will garner interest from scouts as a later-round pick. However, should he see an increase in scoring similar to his year with Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep, he can expect to see a major rise in his draft stock.

Jack O’Brien, C, Portland Winterhawks

Jack O’Brien might be one of the most underrated forwards draft-eligible in 2021. The center for the Portland Winterhawks could see a considerable uptick in production when the season begins. O’Brien put up 14 goals, 16 assists, and 30 points in 55 games during the 2019-20 calendar as a rookie, which is no small feat. The then-16-year-old would routinely display flashes of skill playing behind an immensely deep group of forwards in Portland, including Carolina’s 13th selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, Seth Jarvis.

When the season came to an abrupt end, O’Brien was on a hot streak registering four goals and five points in his final three games. A potential graduation for a couple of Portland’s centers in 2020-21 would significantly increase O’Brien’s role during his sophomore season.

Unlike most prospects with this level of offensive instincts, O’Brien seemingly came out of nowhere. He was transferred to Portland from the Little Caesers 15U AAA team in November 2018, where he put up 86 points in 60 games. That year, O’Brien also managed to put up eight points in six games in the OHL Cup. The following season, he burst onto the scene in the WHL as a rookie. If he can maintain his pace of growth, it will be reflected in his offensive output.

Early scouting reports for the 2021 NHL Draft have O’Brien ranked anywhere from an early second to late third-round pick. Still, with a year under his belt in the WHL and an increased role in Portland upcoming, it is easy to picture him climbing up the rankings and break his way into the first round of the draft.

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