NHL Draft 2021: So who’s really going No. 1?

We may have narrowed down a top pick, but other candidates still remain in the conversation

Steve Kournianos  |  6/4/2021 |  Nashville  |  [hupso]

NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — No matter how forceful or comprehensive an analysis of the NHL’s 2021 draft class, nothing can change the fact that it has the potential to be one of the most scrutinized. Some may feel that societal irregularities in the wake of a global pandemic drove and will continue to drive the nonstandard nature of this current draft class, which from a hockey standpoint collectively served as the proverbial guinea pigs for all sorts of scheduling and training contingencies.

But much like everything in life, the blame game can only be played for so long, especially since over 90 percent of the notable prospects got to participate in organized and competitive hockey, and in many cases actually completed a wire-to-wire season.

Yet we certainly can ask the tough hypothetical questions, beginning with whether or not the NHL’s Class of  ’21 would have been easier on the eyes of evaluators had it not been for the shutdowns and postponements?

Moreover, could we as a group collected enough data to lock down a consensus top choice had there been an Ivan Hlinka tournament for a prospect or two to dominate? How about the two under-18 Five Nations events that were nixed? Or the entire OHL season? Was there a World Junior “A” Challenge or CHL Top Prospects Game? What about the Memorial Cup?

But alas, this entire draft season was one big minefield where the smallest of sample sizes replaced what was traditionally a full 11 or 12-month multi-pronged campaign of player evaluation.

Again, the aforementioned constraints and limitations are just explanations and not excuses, especially when it comes to identifying and then separating the all-important premier group at the top of every draft class. These prizes were expected to do their part in helping scouts and scouting directors form coherent tiers — tiers that begin with a consensus choice for first overall. The pessimist (or realist), however, will say that didn’t necessarily happen in 2021.

The confusion began sometime in October with a minor letdown from Aatu Raty, a Finnish center who quickly dropped from the top of the late-summer lists immediately following his less-than-reassuring start to his SM-Sarja and SM-Liiga seasons. What soon followed was a serious knee injury suffered by center Chaz Lucius from the U.S. National Team Development Program and a sluggish start by Swedish defenseman Simon Edvinsson.

Right off the bat, the varying circumstances surrounding three prospects projected to go in the top five of the draft had opened the door for doubt and second-guessing.

It didn’t stop there. Although three top-10 caliber prospects from the University of Michigan — defenseman Owen Power, and forwards Matt Beniers and Kent Johnson — delivered positive results immediately upon hitting the ice in Big-10 action, neither the Ontario Hockey League nor the Western Hockey League returned to play, and Sweden’s J20 Nationell cancelled it’s season. The imbalance had worsened.

By the time late December rolled around, the under-20 world junior hockey championship was once again viewed as a potential watershed moment for the determination of a coherent top-10 ranking. Even more promising was the expected release of preliminary rankings by the NHL’s Central Scouting arm, which usually delivers them in January after the world juniors.

But not a single one of the dozen or so 2021 draft-eligibles at the tournament produced an awe-inspiring performance, with the exception limited to the hustle and possession driving of Beniers to help Team USA win gold. Further compounding matters was the decision by Central Scouting to hold off on the January rankings and simply update a graded watch list. With first overall still up for grabs and junior leagues slamming shut, the level of uncertainty grew even higher.

With the draft season rife with confusion and ambiguity, positive signs began to emerge. USA Hockey announced the return of the IIHF under-18 world championship in late April while the WHL was approved for a 24-game schedule. Some said any hockey is good hockey regardless of sample size, while others questioned the usefulness of one short tournament to project long-term NHL potential.

Yet as exciting as the U18 tournament was, there was one major issue — a chunk of this year’s top draft prospects, to include Powers, Beniers, Johnson, Raty, and Sweden’s William Eklund and goalie Jesper Wallstedt, were not age-eligible for the tournament. Therefore, the danger of recency bias had not only increased exponentially, but also paved the way for additional names to be thrown into the conversation for first overall.

Which brings us where we are today, less than two months from the actual draft itself with only a general idea of which prospect will go first overall to the Buffalo Sabres, who won the draft lottery on Wednesday night. Therefore, this exercise not only will try to make sense of it all, but also prepare fans for the element of surprise once the big night arrives on July 23.

The Prospects

Owen Power, left-handed defenseman

Ranking: No. 1 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Favorite

Resume: Trained in the USHL and the Big-10, Power has been a No. 1 or No. 2 for several years. He also played for Team Canada at the World under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2019 and currently is excelling for the NHL-laden Canadians at the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championship. Power at 16 finished second in USHL rookie defense scoring in 2018-19 and was the top overall point-getter among defensemen in 2019-20. His 16 points in 26 games with Michigan this past season led all NCAA Division I freshman defensemen; a group which included 15 NHL draftees.

Upside: No. 1 defenseman who can produce points while eating minutes and playing in all situations. Power has produced points with or without a strong supporting cast and can create offense on his own. Power also is quite mature and composed both on and off the ice.

Downside: Hard to find any, but some may point to Power usually being surrounded by a loaded forward-centric attack, although that’s just nitpicking — he’s literally one of the top scorers among his peers every season and even outscored all of Canada’s NHL defenders at the Men’s Worlds. Power’s risk taking also has been criticized but that didn’t stop a credible and respected coach like Gerard Gallant from increasing his minutes as the games and situations grew more critical.

Reality: Power’s the closest thing we have to a consensus top pick and he is the odds-on favorite to go first overall

Matt Beniers, center

Ranking: No. 2 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Runner-up

Resume: Beniers was a top-line, all-situations forward with the U.S. U18 NTDP prior to his draft-year campaign. He was selected as a 16-year-old to play for a powerhouse squad (with Jack Hughes, Trevor Zegras, etc.) that took home bronze at the 2019 IIHF U18 World Championship and he would later win gold last January as the youngest forward for Team USA at the 2021 world juniors. Beniers finished second in team scoring on the U18 NTDP in 2019-20 before he joined Michigan, where he was fourth among all Division I freshman in both scoring (24 points) and points-per-game average (1.00) while sporting a freshman-best plus-21 rating. Beniers was selected to play for Team USA at the ongoing Men’s Worlds, where he has a goal and an assist in six games while averaging under seven minutes a contest.

Upside: The type of top-line center and overall problem solver that any NHL general manager would require when building a contender. Beniers is an exemplary forward who pours all his abilities into every shift. He also has very good speed for his build and excels in the trenches.

Downside: In terms of assessing premier draft prospects, it’s folly to correlate sound defensive play and self-sacrifice in the opposing end to limited potential for point production, especially if said prospect has a history of being a consistent scorer at multiple levels. Nevertheless, this lazy narrative won’t go away so ignoring it would be wise. What should be a concern is Beniers’ crash-and-bang style that increases the liklihood of injury. He appeared to have hurt his ankle seriously in Thursday’s win over Slovakia at the Men’s Worlds

Reality: In a draft limited in center power, Beniers is the best option. As we saw with Team USA and with Michigan, Beniers will get his points regardless of who his linemates are. He’s a winner, which is why he’ll be No. 1 on several team draft boards and also Power’s closest challenger for first overall.

William Eklund, left wing

Ranking: No. 2 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Challenger

Resume: Eklund is the reigning SHL Rookie of the Year after he ranked second on Djugardens with 12 goals in 40 games. He also smoked the J20 Nationell’s North Division in 2019-20 by placing fourth in overall scoring (10 goals, 19 assists). Eklund is a late birthdate which kept him one or two levels up at international tournaments, but he still produced 26 points in 36 games while wearing Sweden’s blue and gold.

Upside: A high-scoring, high-flying winger who’ll highlight the nightly highlights, Eklund is a lot of fun to watch and is far more competitive and abrasive than some are giving him credit for. Watching his quietest performances from a production standpoint still revealed commendable efforts off the puck, but he should never be slotted below a second line.

Downside: Lack of size is the first thing that jumps out but we’ve seen time and again that effort and anticipation can help a smaller player overcome limitations in strength, especially early into their NHL careers. The length of Eklund’s eventual adjustment period is hard to predict but recent history tells us that smaller players usually take longer to reach their ceiling.

Reality: It’s between Eklund and Kent Johnson in this draft class for the title of Mr. Excitement, which should be enough for fans to get thrilled about and also to convince a general manager to favor Eklund’s speed and pure skill over a “high floor” prospect like Beniers or Power. Keep in mind that it’s the Sabres drafting the No. 1 pick and they already have a bunch of Swedes in the lineup.

Kent Johnson, center/left wing

Ranking: No. 4 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Challenger

Resume: Second to teammate (and San Jose prospect) Thomas Bordeleau in overall NCAA Division I freshman scoring, Johnson is a point-producing machine whose reputation as a highlight-reel forward preceded his initial season of college hockey. He was the 2019-20 BCHL scoring champion by 30 points over his closest competitor and in turn took home the 2019-20 CJHL Top Forward of the Year. Johnson also is a late birthdate so he has yet to play in any major international tournaments outside of the 2019 under-20 World Junior “A” Challenge, but there should be little doubt that he’ll play for Team Canada at the 2022 world junior tournament this coming December.

Upside: Johnson has lit it up as a center or wing and should be viewed as one of the forwards with a realistic shot at developing into the best player to come out of this group. He’s a scoring machine for several reasons but unpredictability and deception have to rank high on that list. Johnson also competes harder off the puck than most finesse types which should help limit the amount of times he’s benched, demoted, or scratched during the early stages of his NHL development.

Downside: With all due respect to his BCHL competition in 2019-20, Johnson has yet to face a major test where he by himself is in a position to will his team to victory over a formidable opponent. Additionally, the vast majority of his points this season came during garbage time or were of the secondary nature.

Reality: Johnson has star potential but a team in turmoil like the Sabres need more of a guarantee with their first-overall pick. They also drafted a finesse winger in Jack Quinn with their first choice in 2020 and already have dual-threat types in Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens, and J.J. Peterka, so it will be a major surprise if Johnson goes to Buffalo at No. 1.

Brandt Clarke, right-handed defenseman

Ranking: No. 6 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Darkhorse

Resume: Clarke was a high OHL draft pick (fourth overall in 2019) which should mean he’s been on scouts’ radar for almost half a decade. He delivered a promising rookie season for the Barrie Colts in 2019-20 and was named to the OHL All-Rookie Team, but what was significant about his first major-junior season was how he took over the defense corps after Blues’ prospect Tyler Tucker was traded. Clarke later moved to the adult-age Slovak Extraliga in the wake of  this season’s OHL shutdown and it bore positive results as it didn’t take long for him to gain the trust of his coaching staff. The highlight of Clarke’s season was an outstanding wire-to-wire performance as Canada’s No. 1 defenseman during their gold-medal run at the 2021 U18 world championship.

Upside: Clarke checks most boxes required to become a consistent No. 1 defenseman in the NHL. He’s an elusive skater and brilliant passer who doesn’t get rattled by a physical or aggressive forecheck. Clarke also runs the power play and loves to shoot the puck so his production should be split between even strength and with the man advantage.

Downside: Clarke may never be a shutdown type and he didn’t kill penalties with regularity, although that probably changes if he returns to the OHL. He also isn’t overly physical but makes up for it with a competitiveness which can take him down the path of dirty play or loose-cannon decisions. Clarke’s skating style has been criticized but it’s more of an aesthetic issue than the actual ability to outpace or elude pressure.

Reality: A right-shot defenseman with good size and scoring prowess, Clarke has to be considered a viable candidate for Buffalo to employ alongside lefty Rasmus Dahlin in what could develop into an elite pairing. And although drafting for need with the first pick is something you rarely see, it would be silly for the Sabres to not consider it, especially since the gap between Power and Clarke is not particularly wide.

Dylan Guenther, right wing

Ranking: No. 7 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Darkhorse

Resume: Much like Clarke, Guenther is a heralded Canadian-born prospect with a strong reputation that dates back several years. He was the first pick in the 2018 WHL Bantam draft and lived up to expectations the ensuing season by placing second in rookie scoring with 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 58 games. The shutdown shipped him off to the Alberta Junior Hockey League for a handful of nondescript games but he returned to the WHL with a vengeance, averaging a league-best 2.00 points a game before joining Team Canada at the U18 world championship. Guenther’s performance at the event was perfectly fine and one cannot fault him for underage phenoms like Connor Bedard and Shane Wright grabbing all the headlines.

Upside: Guenther is an elite scorer with soft hands who always is in the right place in the right time, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s been in the conversation for first overall since 2019. Scoring usually comes easy for most of these notable junior-age prospects, but Guenther is a hard worker and quick thinker with excellent speed who keeps delivering daggers. A quiet game for Guenther also doesn’t mean he’s not involved or engaged. You have to think that a fiery Guenther at 24 or 25 years of age with 20 pounds of muscle added to his 6-foot-1 frame will cause all sorts of matchup problems. Guenther’s game has few weaknesses and he’s been an effective penalty killer to boot. The fact that he can play aggressive off the puck without losing control or situational awareness is a testament to his discipline.

Downside:  Defensive play at even strength is something any young scoring forward can stand to work on but its importance means less if they’re producing at a high rate. With Guenther, occasional lapses in coverage seem minor at the junior level but will be magnified once he puts on his first big-boy uniform. Still, it’s nothing more than minor housekeeping, even at this stage.

Reality: Guenther is exactly the kind of tough-yet-skilled player the Sabres should covet but the question is whether or not the dual-threat forwards they have (Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn, J.J. Peterka) already satisfy the requirement. Guenther if chosen would eventually make them “harder” to play against, but Buffalo’s dire situation pushes them closer to the likes of the stronger Power or Beniers.

Luke Hughes, left-handed defenseman

Ranking: No. 8 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Darkhorse

Resume: The youngest brother from an insanely talented and prominent hockey family, Luke was the No. 1 defenseman and primary power-play quarterback on both the U17 and U18 NTDP until he suffered an unfortunate skate-cut injury that ended his 2020-21 season prematurely. Committed to the University of Michigan, Luke is trending towards the similar path taken by older brothers Quinn and Jack, who were drafted seventh and first overall in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Upside: Hughes’s ceiling is sky high, as he has the potential to be a No. 1 franchise-type who is just as quick, exciting, and dynamic as his brother Quinn, but does so in a 6-foot-3, 200-plus pound package. Additionally, Luke in his current draft year is nearly a full year younger than Quinn was in his first look at Michigan in 2018, yet Luke still out-produced Quinn during their respective tenures with the U17 and U18 NTDP’s (Quinn 0.42 p/g with the U17’s and 0.82 p/g with the 18’s; Luke 0.58 p/g and 0.89 p/g, respectively).

Downside: Luke is a wonderful skater and playmaker whose risk-taking on the puck can make any coach reach for the Rolaids. It may sound hyperbolic, but Hughes definitely needs to tighten up his puck management and opt for safer plays beyond the bare minimum. On top of that, there’s always the pressure of trying to live up to the lofty expectations that are attached to his surname.

Reality: Although the Staal and Sutter families (among others) proved that the pressure placed on a legacy to meet expectations can be nothing more than a pre-draft talking point, Luke still has a ways to go until he validates the claim that he can be just as dynamic or skilled as his brothers. If the Sabres at No. 1 are willing to assume risk with Hughes over Power or Clarke, then they probably should trade down if the opportunity presents itself.

Mason McTavish, center/left wing

Ranking: No. 9 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Darkhorse

Resume: A top OHL prospect with the Peterborough Petes who took his heavy North American game to Switzerland during the shutdown, McTavish has consistently maintained a strong reputation as a potential top-10 pick in this draft. He was selected fifth overall in the 2019 OHL Priority Selection and followed that up by leading all 2003-born players in both goals (29) and points (42) during the shortened 2019-20 season. McTavish played in 13 games (9 goals, 2 assists) for Olten HC in the adult-age Swiss League before he joined Team Canada for the U18 Worlds. It was at that tournament where McTavish’s took his play to the highest level we’ve seen, as he was a team leader and finished with an impressive 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in helping Canada win gold.

Upside: Remember when hard-hitting, dual-threat forwards dominated the top 10 of drafts during the Dead Puck Era? Well McTavish is exactly that type of player, and most NHL front office types will probably say that his skill set is suited for any time period. When all things are clicking, McTavish can be a bull in a China shop in one end and a soft-mitted possession driver in the other. If all else fails, his elite wrister will make him the perfect top-line compliment for a pass-first center.

Downside: McTavish isn’t the best skater among his draft-age peers but it’s a criticism that loses force every time he is the first one in on a forecheck, or stripping pucks from behind on the backcheck, or winning a 50/50 battle. The bigger questions surround McTavish’s consistency, as he wasn’t known to be that physical of a player until this past season. And although his playmaking from a passing standpoint is underrated, McTavish’s assist totals (only 15 in 70 combined games since 2019-20) are quite low for someone who can project as a center.

Reality: McTavish doesn’t get ranked No. 2 on Central Scouting’s final list (ahead of Matt Beniers) had it not been for his stellar performance at the U18 worlds. Therefore, any talk of this bull of a lad going first overall should be caveated with the context of major recency bias that immediately followed a short tournament in front of hundreds of scouts. Still, the kid can be a nightmare to the opposition, which is why the Sabres should consider him before wisely passing.

Jesper Wallstedt, goalie

Ranking: No. 13 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Longshot

Resume: Wallstedt is Sweden’s most decorated goalie prospect in over a decade and has already drawn comparisons to his boyhood idol Henrik Lundqvist. Born into a family of netminders, Wallstedt has always played at least two or three levels above his age group. In fact, Wallsted at 14 not only became the youngest player to ever debut in the J20 Superelit, but he also led the difficult Top-10 portion of the schedule with a .927 save percentage over nine starts. His upward trajectory continued thereafter, as Wallstedt backstopped Sweden in at least one of every major international prospect tournament in the under-17, under-18, and under-20 brackets, posting a combined .913 save percentage in 24 appearances. He spent the entire 2020-21 campaign with a contending Lulea squad in the adult-age SHL, where he split No. 1 duties and finished 13th among 35 goalies with a .908 save percentage.

Upside: Wallstedt has all the making of a bonafide franchise goalie for a variety of reasons. Yes, he already has the size, quickness, and technical know-how to form a solid foundation. But Wallstedt’s biggest attributes at this stage of his development center on his experience and big-game exposure. He’s been facing the best shooters and scorers available at every level and met those challenges with distinction. Although Wallstedt struggled in his only playoff appearance this past season, he is expected to become Lulea’s full-time No. 1 beginning in 2021-22 and eventually backstop Sweden at the 2022 world junior hockey tournament.

Downside: Ask around, and many will tell you that assessing and subsequently predicting a teenage goalie’s future is one of the hardest things to do in player evaluation for any team sport. Therefore, Wallstedt is going to have periods of inconsistency and instability that will challenge his wherewithal, especially if he gets rushed by a downtrodden NHL club that is desperate for a quick fix in net.

Reality: Wallstedt has done everything in his power to be considered a potential franchise goalie, but several teams picking early in this draft have shown an apprehension towards grabbing one before the second or third round. Additionally, the Sabres already have two quality goalie prospects in Erik Portillo and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, plus the organization hasn’t taken a netminder in Round 1 since 1997.

Simon Edvinsson, left-handed defenseman

Ranking: No. 21 | Profile page

Current Status for No. 1: Longshot

Resume: Edvinsson played in all three of Sweden’s major leagues — the SHL, the Allsvenskan, and the J20 Nationell — with varying degrees of success and effectiveness. Where Edvinssson has excelled is on the international stage, where he has been Team Sweden’s undisputed No. 1 at major tournaments such as the World under-17 Hockey Challenge and the recent under-18 IIHF worlds. In terms of experience gained, Edvinsson’s time with Vasteras in the adult-age Allsvenskan probably was his most important, as he earned a regular shift on the middle pairing for a playoff team. His usage with Frolunda in the SHL was close to nonexistent as he appeared in only 10 games and essentially was the seventh or eighth defenseman.

Upside: Few defensemen in any draft year can carry the puck and distribute it up ice as well as Edvinsson, who at times can have a sharpness in his decision making that is visibly game changing. His size, fluidity, strength, soft hands, and confidence offer teams a rare blend for a teenage blueliner. If everything goes right, there’s little reason to believe Edvinsson won’t be a top defender for his NHL team.

Downside: Edvinsson can be a loose cannon and is often unpredictable. He consistently puts his forwards and defense partner at risk by making zone entries that end up with him trapped some 180 feet from his net. He may very well develop into a Victor Hedman carbon copy, but none of the teams picking early outside of Seattle can afford to wait five or six years for Edvinsson to near his ceiling. Consistency and picking better spots are two major areas that need improving.

Reality: Edvinsson is adored by the NHL’s scouting community and their feelings are somewhat mirrored by his No. 2 rank in Central Scouting’s final European list. But he is far too guilty of high-wire acts and unforced errors that a fragile team like the Sabres can no longer afford to stomach. The Frolunda connection with Buffalo is very real, but the Sabres need as close to a sure thing as possible, and Edvinsson ain’t it.