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2021 NHL Draft Preview

2021 NHL Draft Preview

It is NHL Draft week! For me, this is one of the most exciting weeks of every NHL season. It takes months of research and watching draft eligible players, finally leading to the moment where we get to see who could be the next star prospect. In recent history, Sharks fans haven’t had many seasons where the draft is highly anticipated. Considering the previous 13 drafts, only once have the Sharks had a top 10 pick (2015-Timo Meier) and in 5 of those drafts, the Sharks did not make a first round selection due to trading the pick away. Most seasons during this period saw the Sharks having regular season and playoff success leading to a first round pick in the 20+ range. After a pretty awful 2020-21 season, the Sharks come into the 2021 NHL draft with the 7th overall selection.

The draft crop this season is a very interesting and unique group. Circumstances relating to the Covid-19 pandemic have made it difficult to truly get a read on some players, some of which played in alternate leagues due to shut downs or experienced severely shortened seasons. The 2021 draft eligible group is being labeled as “weak” by recent standards and this group doesn’t feature a player likely to have an immediate impact. such as McDavid, Mathews, Eichel, Dahlin, Laine, and even Hischier have over the past 6 years. That said, there is a good amount of talent in the top 10-12 picks with the upper tier likely dropping off around picks 7 or 8, just in time for the Sharks to grab a good player.

It’s always difficult to guess what Doug Wilson (and Doug Wilson Jr.) will do on draft day, but recent drafts have shown a focus on skill and upside while sacrificing size. In 2020, the Sharks drafted only forwards, nine in total. One has to wonder if this will result in the Sharks taking a defenseman, which this draft has an abundance of in Luke Hughes, Brandt Clarke and Simon Edvinsson. Could the disastrous performance by Sharks goaltenders over the past 3 seasons convince Wilson to take a gamble on a goaltender with the 7th overall selection? This draft features two highly rated goalies in Sebastian Cossa and Jesper Wallstedt. Or will the Sharks recent trends continue and opt for a skilled forward such as Kent Johnson and William Eklund?

The Sharks have rarely taken a consensus player when making their way to the stage so I wouldn’t be shocked to see them select a player missing from the below list. The lack of a normal season could result in a ton of twists and turns on draft day after the first pick which most experts agree is fairly solidified at this point. With the exception of my highest rated player, there are varying scenarios that could see all of the remaining players fall to number 7. This top 10 list is ranked in order of talent and projected impact at the NHL level, not necessarily a “mock draft” which would focus more on team needs.

Top 10 Prospects for the 2021 Draft

1.) Owen Power – Defenseman

Owen Power is undoubtedly going first overall in this draft. He may not be your prototypical number 1 overall talent, as his upside isn’t quite that of a superstar, but he has locked down the top spot after a very strong performance with Canada in the World Championships. Power is a big (6’6, 213 lbs) mobile defensemen who contributes on both ends of the ice. He played 26 games this past season with Michigan in the NCAA scoring 3 goals and 16 points. Power lacks the high end skill of a Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes but projects to be a top pairing defenseman who can quarterback a power play. During the World Championships, Power saw his ice time steadily increase as he continued to impress against professionals from around the world some of which are already NHL players. This should be an easy pick for Buffalo to make at number 1 overall.

2.) William Eklund – Center/Left Wing

William Eklund

William Eklund

Eklund is super talented forward coming off a very successful season playing against men in the top Swedish league with Djurgardens. In 40 games, Eklund scored 11 goals and 23 points. These numbers may not seem significant, but it is rare for a draft eligible player to accumulate these stats in the SHL. As a point of reference, the Devils 2020 7th overall pick  Alexander Holtz had less goals and points on the same team as did the Red Wings 2020 4th overall pick (and highly rated prospect) Lucas Raymond who played for Frolunda. Eklund is a smooth skater with great edges and decent speed. Eklund’s value really shows though with his vision and ability to find teammates. His game should translate well to the NHL and he could become an exciting top line winger. Eklund was looking like a realistic option when then Sharks pick at number 7, but his stock has shot up recently and it would be surprising to see him fall from the top 5.

3.) Matthew Beniers – Center

Matthew Beniers is the only truly projectable Center likely to go in the top 5. I was actually tempted to place him a little bit lower on this list as I feel he has a lower ceiling then several of the following players, but his floor is significantly higher. Beniers finished his freshman season with Michigan in the NCAA, scoring 10 goals and 24 points in as many games. He also had a solid showing with team USA at the World Junior Championships (under 20), scoring a goal and 3 points in 10 games, helping USA to a Gold Medal. Beniers likely projects as a 2nd line center at the NHL level who plays in all situation. He reminds me of a forward version of Mario Ferraro. Not elite skill in any area, but gives a lot of effort, has a high motor, and uses his hockey smarts to succeed. I have little doubt Beniers will succeed at the NHL level, but the question remains to what extent. First line center seems like a stretch for his skill set, but he could be a highly effective second line center and it’s very likely he would at a minimum develop into a high end 3rd line center. Being that Beniers is a Center and high rated, I see little chance for him to drop to the Sharks pick at number 7. It should also be mentioned that Beniers played a depth role for USA at the World Championships scoring a goal and an assist in 6 games played.

4.) Dylan Guenther – Right Wing

Dylan Guenther could be the best bet on this list to become a scoring forward at the NHL level. He had a severely shortened season with Edmonton of the WHL playing only 12 games. That didn’t prevent Guenther from impressing scouts as he scored 12 goals and 24 points. There’s no question that Guenther’s shot is top level and when you combine that with his solid skating and puck skills you have a guy who can project to being a top line wing at the NHL level. Dylan won’t be confused with a Selke candidate, but his defensive play isn’t bad. He puts in the effort to get back and play responsibly in his own end. Among scouts, there seems to be a varied opinion for where Guenther will go on draft day. He could be a guy who drops to the Sharks at number 7 and the Sharks would be very lucky to grab him there.

5.) Luke Hughes – Defenseman

Luke Hughes

Luke Hughes

Luke Hughes will be the 3rd Hughes brother taken in the top 10 of an NHL draft. Luke is the tallest of the three siblings and, like Jack and Quinn, is an elite skater. Hughes doesn’t appear to be as dynamic offensively as his brothers, but there could definitely be some untapped potential in that area. Defensively, Luke can use improvement but he isn’t quite as raw as a player like Ryan Merkley was in his draft year. With his elite skating and decent puck handling abilities Luke’s strength is in leading the rush and transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone. In 38 games with the USNTDP Luke had 6 goals and 34 points. Next season Luke will be joining the Michigan team that features several of the players on this list as well as Sharks prospect Thomas Bordeleau. Many scouts don’t see Luke dropping beyond the Devils pick at number 4, but teams could be concerned about the lacerated tendon he suffered this past March. Regardless of the injury, Luke Hughes would be a fantastic addition to the Sharks prospect group.

6.) Kent Johnson – Center

Kent Johnson is by far the most polarizing player near the top of this draft. Scouts opinions of him widely vary with some having him as high as number two and others listing him outside of the top 10. Kent is likely the most offensively gifted player in this years crop but his game is plagued with inconsistency and some poor decisions. Johnson’s puck skills are unquestionably elite, often dangling defenders and making highlight reel plays. This elite level of talent though is often wasted as he is guilty of trying to do too much and making ill-advised plays. That type of play can sometimes be overlooked at the college ranks where Kent recently completed his Freshman season (9 goals, 27 points in 26 games) with Michigan (yup another Wolverine!), but at the NHL level this could really turn teams off. There is no doubt his offensive game should get him to the NHL and make him an effective scorer at that level, but the real question is whether his game will mature or if some of his decisions continue to hold him back. The team which drafts Johnson may be getting a guy who 5 years from now we look back and say how did he not go first overall, or they may be getting a maddening player who is just too much of a liability at the NHL level. I’m leaning towards the former and think Johnson would fit very well with the Sharks forwards taken in the 2020 draft.

7.) Brandt Clarke – Defenseman

Brandt Clarke

Brandt Clarke

Brandt Clarke had a unique draft eligible season in that he played for HC Nove Zamky of the Slovakian league. This was due to the entire OHL season being cancelled. Brandt was set to play with Barrie where he scored 6 goals and 38 points in 57 games the year prior. In Slovakia while playing against men (albeit a less talented compared to some of the other leagues in Europe), Clarke had a fairly productive season scoring 5 goals and 15 points in 26 games. Clarke is a great puck handling defenseman and boasts near elite level offensive abilities, but the knock in him is his skating. Brandt is mobile and moves around fairly well, especially in the offensive zone but his skating is a bit awkward and may not translate well to the greater pace of professional levels in North America. Improvement in this area will be a major dependency in Brandt becoming a quality player at the next level. Skating aside, Brandt Clarke is likely the most offensively gifted defenseman in this draft. With some progression in his skating and maturing of his game, he could easily be projected as a top 4 defenseman who runs the top PP unit at the NHL level. I could definitely see a team focusing on Clarke’s upside and taking him as high as number 2 in the draft. I tend to prefer great skaters, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Clarke to end up being the Sharks first round pick this Friday.

8.) Simon Edvinsson – Defenseman

Simon Edvinsson continues the trend of players in this draft who flash some huge upside but have some big holes in their game. He likely will be picked much earlier than here at number 8 because of his size (6-foot-5) and some scouts lazy method of comparing him to Victor Hedman. Simon Edvinsson is no Victor Hedman but he is a big Swedish defenseman who can move the puck fairly well and is a strong skater. Edvinsson is confident with the puck and projects as an offensive defenseman with top PP unit potential but this didn’t quite translate to production (0 goals, 1 assist in 10 games) this year in the SHL with Frolunda. That shouldn’t be terribly concerning as this one of the better professional leagues outside of North America. The concerning part of Edvinsson’s is that he makes some highly questionable decisions and can be seen panicking with the puck in the defensive end. He also doesn’t have a strong shot from the point. I’d say he is the ultimate boom or bust pick this year. If his development goes well he could be the best player from this draft but the alternative could lead to him never making the NHL.

9.) Chaz Lucius – Center

Chaz Lucius had a tough season dealing with sickness and injuries. As a result he only played 13 games with the USNTDP scoring 13 goals and adding 7 assists. His offensive abilities are impressive and he has been a scoring machine to this point. Chaz has great puck skills and a strong shot which uses to generate offense typically from high-danger locations on the ice. The main knock on Chaz though is his skating abilities and there is a chance it could hold him back from being a truly effective player at the NHL level. When the speed picks up at the AHL and NHL levels he may not be able to compete without further development in this area. Next season he is committed to the University of Minnesota.

10.) Mason McTavish – Center

Rounding out the top 10 is another center in Mason McTavish. Similar to Brandt Clarke, McTavish played in Europe this past year due to his OHL season with Peterborough being cancelled. Mason decided to play with EHC Olten of the Swiss 2nd tier pro league where he scored 9 goals and 11 points in 13 games. Where McTavish really impressed though was under-18 tournament scoring 5 goals and 11 points for Canada. McTavish has good offensive instincts but skating is a weakness and it could prevent him from being the top line center teams often covet in the early portions of the draft. Fact is McTavish will probably go earlier than this due to his position and him projecting to a pro-style center but I think his ceiling is closer to that of a 2nd liner than it is of being a first line center.

Other Notable Players

Just missing the top 10 are Cole Sillinger, who I could see sneaking in on draft day as well as the two goalies mentioned earlier. I left Cossa and Wallstedt out of the top 10 mostly because I don’t believe in picking a goalie in the first round let alone the top 10. Some scouts do have Wallstedt as high as number 5. The risk is too high, in my opinion, with little success if looking at the last 15-20 years. Despite the Sharks weaknesses in net, now is not the time to gamble on drafting a goalie. Lastly, a name to keep an eye on is Aatu Raty out of Finland. A year ago he was projected by many to go first overall in the 2021 draft, but he had an underwhelming 2020-21 season. Raty (pronounced Rah-too) is a big bodied Center with some elite abilities, but his game did not develop this past season and he appeared to battle confidence issues.

Conclusion

Ultimately on draft day, the best bet for the Sharks needs and overall value would be for William Eklund, Dylan Guenther or Kent Johnson to be available at number 7. Throughout the last couple of months all three of these guys have, at times, been commonly listed in range of the Sharks pick, but recent rankings have seen Guenther and Eklund specifically jump. Having any of them fall to number 7 will really rely on teams favoring the available defenseman in the top 5 or a goalie like Wallstedt which isn’t far fetched. Drafting Guenther, Eklund or Johnson would give the Sharks a blue-chip forward prospect with elite level upside all of which could end up being the best player coming out of this draft years down the road.

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