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Early 2021 NHL Draft Prospects to Watch

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No I haven’t caught Finnish Fever, shut up.

2020 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

If you were disappointed the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t take more high ceiling defensemen this past draft, you’re luck! The 2021 NHL entry draft is already being called the “Year of the Defensemen”.

Where 2020 was pretty weak for high ceiling defenders outside of Drysdale and Sanderson, 2021 could have as many as 4 of the top 5 and and 6 of the top 10 picks go to blueliners. For reference, there were 6 total defensemen taken in the entire first round this year, while there could be double that next year.

This is not a ranking for any of the prospects. I’m not familiar enough with them to be good at that. What I will do is list some of the prospects I have read about and find very interesting.

One thing I want to point out beforehand is how strong this class is said to be for North American prospects. That’s something I raise an eyebrow at, considering the known bias hockey scouts over here have in regards to players in European junior leagues — which is also where a lot of the Euro prospects mentioned above have been playing.

I will be very curious to see how many of them wind up advancing to the SHL, Liiga, VHL or even KHL — or who come overseas as imports to the CHL, USHL and NCAA. Those players with more exposure, and who get into whatever international tournaments can actually be held, will likely have much better rankings otherwise. What will exacerbate that is what Kyle Dubas talked about in his post-draft presser: all their scouting will be done by watching streams or TV broadcasts of games due to the pandemic. If a player is somewhere that has no good, reliable, or any streams to watch that can be a problem.

With so many older players and prospects being loaned to European leagues, they will be taking spots from guys who aren’t quite good enough to be 1st/2nd rounders (as of now), so they’ll get even less exposure than they would in a normal season. Others who were set to play in North American leagues that have not yet started their seasons, and may not be able to at all, will have much bigger question marks on them than those who did manage to play in Europe, Quebec, and the US leagues opening in spite of the pandemic.

The final thing I noticed about this list is how many of the higher ranked players are older — either late 2002 or early 2003 birthdays. Only 9 of the top 60ish names I’ve seen were born June 2003 or later, and 7 of those are ranked outside the first round. I assume this is because being younger (16/17 years old) those extra months of development matter a lot more, and its easier to see them as more dominant.

The one exception as a top pick is Luke Hughes — so watch out for him having a bigger step forward this season. I’ll be curious to see what later birthdays have their big developmental improvement come and jump way up in people’s rankings through the year.

All that out of the way, let’s list some prospects for 2021.

DEFENSE OF INTEREST

  • Brandt Clarke — RHD, 6’1”, 38 points in 57 games in OHL
  • Carson Lambos — LHD, 6’1”, 32 points in 57 games in WHL
  • Luke Hughes — LHD, 6’2”, 13 points in 28 games for the USNTDP Juniors team
  • Owen Power — LHD, 6’5”, 40 points in 45 games in the USHL

These are the four defensemen who, as of now, have good cases to be top 5 picks. They’re all in North America, three of the four are Canadian, and none of them are shorter than 6’1”. While they all have offense to spare, they’re all also noted to have potential as excellent all-round defensemen who can lock down a team’s #1D spot. If you’re seeing Luke Hughes and wondering... yes, he is the youngest of the Hughes’ brothers after Quinn and Jack.

The other defensemen who early rankings have in the late first/second round are:

  • Simon Edvinsson — LHD, 6’4”, 26 points in 27 games between Swedish Jr (U18/U20)
  • Sean Behrens — LHD, 5’9”, 21 points in 31 games for the USNTDP Juniors team
  • Aidan Hreschuk — LHD, 5’11”, 11 points in 29 games for the USNTDP Juniors team
  • Corson Ceulemans — RHD, 6’2”, 35 points in 44 games in the AJHL
  • Cameron Whynot — LHD, 6’1”, 9 points in 57 games in the QMJHL
  • Daniil Chayka — LHD, 6’2”, 34 points in 56 games in the OHL
  • Isaac Beliveau — LHD, 6’2”, 53 points in 62 games in the QMJHL
  • Stanislav Szovil — LHD, 6’1”, 5 points in 41 games in the Czech league
  • Anton Olsson — LHD, 6’1”, 17 points in 26 games in U20 Sweden
  • Viljami Juusola — LHD, 5’10”, 5 points in 37 games in U20 Finland
  • Brian Zanetti — LHD, 6’2”, 27 points in 38 games in U20 Switzerland
  • Atte Lehikoinen — LHD, 6’2”, 16 points in 49 games in U20 Finland
  • Jimi Suomi — LHD, 5’9”, 12 pointsin 37 games in U20 Finland
  • Graham Sward — LHD, 6’2”, 17 points in 55 games in the WHL
  • Vincent Iorio — RHD, 6’3”, 21 points in 59 games in the WHL
  • Jack Bar — RHD, 6’2”, 52 points in 49 games in the CAHS
  • Scott Morrow — RHD, 6’2”, 67 points in 46 games in Minnesota High School
  • Artyom Grushnikov — LHD, 6’2”, 5 points in 29 games in the MHL

Half of these defensemen, and almost all of the highest ranked ones, are North American. That’s something I touched on above. But from what I’ve seen and read early, my favourite of the lot may be Simon Edvinsson. If there’s any European defenseman who will jump into the top 5 I think it’s him. He just has an amazing set of tools between his size, skating, puck handling and playmaking.

FORWARDS OF INTEREST

  • Aatu Raty — Center, 6’1”, 25 points in 42 games between U20 and Liiga
  • Dylan Guenther — LW, 6’1”, 59 points in 58 games in the WHL
  • Fabian Lysell — RW, 5’10”, 46 points in 29 games across three Swedish Jr levels.
  • Kent Johnson — Center, 6’1”, 101 points in 62 games in the BCHL
  • Matthew Beniers — Center, 6’1”, 41 points in 44 games in U18 USDP
  • Cole Sillinger — Center, 6’0”, 53 points in 48 games in the WHL
  • Chaz Lucius — Center, 6’0”, 50 points in 46 gamges in U17 USDP
  • Samu Salminen — Center, 6’2”, 13 points in 8 games in Finland U20 (this year)

Aatu Raty has been earmarked as the early favourite to be the Number 1 pick, but after a not-as-otherworldly season as people expected in 2019/20, that’s not so firm anymore. It’s basically a toss up from what I’ve seen between Raty and the four defensemen I mentioned above, with Clarke probably having the second strongest case.

Is there a reason why I included fewer forwards than defensemen? Not necessarily. There are a lot of interesting forwards too, outside of even the ones I listed above. I mainly listed so many defensemen to illustrate just how deep the pool is at this early point. Some of them may fall off, but others may rise too.

The one forward I really like is the guy I threw in at the end — Samu Salminen. The others are all guys who I saw a few people mention as potential top 10 guys, and are all likely locks for the first round (as of now anyway).

Salminen on the other hand was mostly included as a potential second round guy, but let me tell you about this young beast of a Finn. He’s a 6’2”, 187 lb center — that’s all great. He is also a very strong skater, and can both score and make plays. He captained Team Finland in international play last year — putting up 5 points in 5 games at the U17 World Hockey Championship. He’s wearing an “A” for his U20 team this year as well.

But I also want to run through the last two seasons and each level he’s played at:

  • U18 Liiga (16 years old) — 7 games, 8 goals, 15 assists.
  • U20 Liiga (still 16 years old) — 23 games, 7 goals, 13 assists, 20 points.
  • U20 Liiga (now 17 years old) — 8 games, 6 goals, 7 assists, 13 points so far this season.

Even those 23 games in the U20 level as a 16 year old, he had the second best PPG for 2003-born players who played at least 20 games. He was only behind Brad Lambert — a December birthday and phenom likely to be in the conversation as 1st overall in the 2022 draft.

This season, he is 7th overall in the U20 league in total points, 2nd in points for 2003-born players, and 1st in points per game for his age. If he can get some games in the Liiga this year, he has a good chance to force his way into becoming a first round lock.

GOALIES OF INTEREST

On the one hand, who the hell knows with goalies. On the other hand, there are actually two guys who already have a lot of hype as the next big things like Askarov or Knight the past two years.

The first is Jesper Wallstedt, which is a great name for a Swedish goalie. He’s a late 2002 birthday (Nov 14th), a decently tall goalie at 6’3”, and loves to stop pucks. He dominated the U20 league in Sweden as a 16 year old, posting the second best save percentage (.923) in the whole league playing the second most games at the level behind 2020 draft pick Calle Clang (3rd round pick).

That was good enough to get one game in the SHL last year (.944 sv%), and he’s gotten one game in the SHL already this year too (.952 sv%). In international play, he’s been similarly excellent — he had a .936 sv% at the Hlinka U18 tournament last year, and a .922 sv% in seven other games for Sweden. He will likely be the goalie that gets talk as a potential top 10 pick, but falls a bit because teams don’t like the risk inherent in goalies.

The only early threat to Wallstedt for the “best goalie prospect” crown is Canada’s Sebastian Cossa. He’s a 6’4” (some listings say 6’5”) goalie with good mechanics, and born exactly one week after the Swede. In his rookie season in the WHL, he had a .921 sv% which tied for first in the WHL among 2002-born goalies with Dylan Garand (2020 4th round pick).

The difference is that Cossa hasn’t had as long a track record in international play. In fact, he’s only had two games for Canada at the U17 World Championship in 18/19, and had a sub-par .895 sv%. If he dominates the WHL this year, and has strong outings for Canada during international play he might get some talk as a second potential first round goalie.

So that’s the list for now. I plan on following prospects in more depth through the season. I probably won’t do any in-depth profiles on anyone until more than halfway through the year just so there’s a good amount of video, scouting reports, etc on a wider pool of prospects. I’ll also try and watch more games, especially international ones so I can see the top European guys easier.

I’m looking forward to it!