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2021 NHL Draft Profile: Olen Zellweger

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Zellweger is small and young, but already an exciting defenseman

2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I’m going to start off this profile by saying some controversial: the point of the NHL entry draft is not to pick players who are really good right now, but to pick players who will be very good in the future. More specifically, you want to take a player who has the best chance at developing into an NHLer.

That sounds simple, but if it was that simple then no team would ever miss on their picks. One interesting thing to consider is when a draft eligible prospect is born, as there are three significant points that can affect what you think of a prospect’s future development:

1) They’re born between September 16th and December 31st in 2002. These are technically the oldest players in the draft this year, since the cutoff date is always September 15th. In theory, these prospects will have the most time to have developed, so you should have a better idea of what they’ll become. On the other hand, that cutoff date only applies to the NHL draft. For much of the past, they’ll have been the youngest players in each year they played. That means they would have had to compensate for being almost a full year younger than players born in January the same year, which can be a good thing for those who learned how to succeed against older peers.

2) They’re born in early 2013, like January or February. These are the oldest players of their year, which in theory gives them an advantage when they are younger. Players born that early, and having more physical development at younger ages, would have an easier time dominating their age group. In practice, that is not always the case, but they definitely don’t have as much time left to develop once they are drafted by an NHL team.

3) They’re born right before that September 15th cutoff. This makes them the youngest players at the draft, which means they’d have the most time left to develop.

This makes an interesting case when comparing two prospects at either end of the draft-age spectrum. Take two potential top 5 prospects in this year’s draft, both defensemen: Simon Edvinsson and Luke Hughes. Edvinsson was born in February, Hughes was born September 5th. Hughes also reportedly had a growth spurt last summer, and grew a couple of inches to hit his current listing of 6’2”. They’re both considered to be top defensive prospects this year. Let’s say you think Edvinsson is a bit better than Hughes, do you still take Hughes because he’s so much younger, and may develop more?

That very long and barely related introduction is what is leading me into this profile on Olen Zellweger.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Olen Zellweger is a 5’10” left shot defenseman who has been playing in the WHL for the Everett Silvertips. Going into this season, he was listed as 5’9” and around 160 lbs (depending on the source). By now, and in fact this just updated from what I had last seen, he is now listed as 5’10” and 175 lbs. It might not seem like a lot, but that amount of physical development can help a prospect greatly.

He also had a short season this year due to the pandemic. The WHL was lucky enough to play in some games, compared to the OHL. But they still played a lot fewer than the USHL or European leagues. And because Zellweger had to quarantine to play in the U18 World Junior Championship, he wound up only playing in 11 games in the WHL. He played another 7 at the U18s, giving him only 18 games played.

But Zellweger made those 18 games count. He finished at better than a point per game in the WHL with 13 points in 11 games. That’s actually more points than he had in 58 games the previous season as a WHL rookie. In the end, Zellweger finished with the fourth best point per game pace in the WHL in this short year. The three players he finished behind are all 2+ years older than him.

He also did better than a point per game for Team Canada at the U18s, with 8 points in 7 games which tied for the tournament lead in points by defensemen. This was despite playing what appeared to be their third pairing, and splitting powerplay time between the likes of Brandt Clarke (consensus top 10 pick this year) and Corson Ceulemans. He was also used on Canada’s second penalty kill unit, despite being the smallest defenseman on their roster.

And this is where I bring up the birthdate. Zellweger was born on September 10th, 2003, making him less than a week away from being eligible for next year’s draft. So the question with Zellweger is not only how good he is now, but if he’ll have more room to grow into something even better over the next few years.

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: 88th
  • Will Scouch: 40th
  • Scott Wheeler: 47th
  • Elite Prospects: 28th
  • Dobber Prospects: 46th
  • Smaht Scouting: 41st

THE GOOD: INSTINCT, SKATING, & TRANSITIONS

Zellweger just seems like he’s a very hockey-smart player. I struggle to make up my mind in calling it intelligence, or calling it instinct. He is able to read the play well, to know when he can do something like jump into the rush but also to back off of it. He shoulder checks to stay aware of where other players are on the ice quite a lot. After he makes a play, such as a pass or a shot, he will at times already move to a different spot on the ice that doesn’t seem to make obvious sense. But when he does, it’s usually towards where the play moves a second later.

One example: in the U18 finals vs Russia, he took a pass in the offensive zone. He stepped in as much as he could to get a closer, more dangerous shot off. It was deflected to the side of the net, still on Zellweger’s side of the ice. What he did right after shooting the puck, before anyone else had picked it up, was start skating back to the other side of the ice. A second later, the first player to the puck was a Russian defenseman who passed it up to a Russian forward on the side of the ice that Zellweger was already heading towards. Zellweger’s defensive partner pinched to try and keep the forward from handling it cleanly and clearing it out. At that point, Zellweger was already backing him up and was hovering just outside the blueline in the neutral zone.

Once I noticed him do this the first time, I saw him make similar plays now and then. To me it seems like a combination of awareness and instinct. He has a good ability to be aware of what is going on, who is where, where they’re moving, and where the puck is moving. Then he has good anticipation to build on what he is aware of, to predict the a moment ahead as far as where other players and the puck will be soon.

The other skill that helps him all over the ice is his skating. It’s one thing to be able to read the play and know where you need to be the most, it’s another to have the skating that can get you there in time.

From Dylan Galloway at Future Considerations:

His dynamic skating posture immediately stood out as one of his best traits, allowing him to be mobile, and explosive in all four directions. His knees and hips stay bent, while he maintains a great upright upper body, loading himself like a spring and then exploding onto pucks when the opportunity arises. He has smooth, yet incredibly quick strides that allow him to get a high rate of touches on the ice to propel him forward and often be first on pucks. This skating also allowed him to get better body positioning on pucks and often separate larger opponents from pucks that smaller, slower defenders would struggle to do.

The most important part of Zellweger’s combination of anticipation and skating is how it helps him drive transitions, both offensively and defensively. With the puck, he can skate it through the neutral zone and evade defenders as he goes. If he sees a teammate with speed and an open lane to carry it, he’ll hit them with the pass for the easier zone entry. On the other side, he has a good sense of gap control against a puck carrier that challenges him. Against Russia, he harassed forwards as they approached the blueline enough to make them turn back or try and dump it past him on a few occasions.

From Josh Mallory:

Zellweger is a fantastic transition player, and he shows an innate ability to generate controlled exits and entries for Everett with his skating and passing. His accompanying willingness and ability to sprint to join the rush is part of what makes him such a dynamic offensive player.

Whether it’s jumping off the offensive blue line to retrieve loose pucks and extend possession for Everett, surfing through the NZ to neutralize plays, or holding air-tight gaps on opposing forwards, Zellweger doesn’t give the opposition any room to breathe on the ice.

Here is, #48 in white, whos tarts out at the faceoff dots on a pinch and comes all the way back to cut off the puck carrier, then harass him enough to force a turnover.

But it also helps Zellweger on offense. He has a good sense of where he needs to be in the offensive zone, and when to attack with the puck. When he gets the puck at the blueline, he is not content to shoot it. If he has any room, he will skate deeper into the zone to get a more dangerous shot attempt, or better yet to draw defenders towards him and open a passing lane to one of his teammates. He’s never really scored a lot of goals, and is much better at driving play and setting up teammates for assists. Here’s an example where his attacking deeper into the zone helped him score a goal:

And you can see the results in his tracking data. Mitch Brown does manual tracking for major international tournaments and North American prospect leagues, and his charts show just how solid Zellweger is across the board.

Credit: @MitchLBrown’s manual tracking

THE FLAWS: SHOT, STRENGTH, PROJECTION

Writing about weaknesses in Zellweger’s game seems a bit nitpicky, almost in the same sense for Logan Stankoven but not as pronounced. At his current level, Zellweger does not have many apparent flaws in his game. He can drive offense and put up points, he can defend well, he is an effective powerplay quarter back, he can play on the penalty kill, and he has an impact on both offensive and defensive transitions.

But we only care about all of that when it comes to how we project him into the future. Will Zellweger be able to do any of this at higher levels? At the U18s, he was one of Canada’s best defensemen along with Brandt Clarke. He stood out among his peers in a pretty strong tournament’s worth of prospects.

Professional hockey is different. There have been plenty of junior stars, even at major tournaments against the best of the best, who never make it in the NHL. The players in the AHL and then the NHL get bigger, faster, stronger, and better. The question will be if his skating, anticipation of the play, and transition abilities will play up against harder competition.

And there are still some flaws that can hold Zellweger back. His shot, for starters, is not all that strong. It’s good for the level he plays now — he can fire a slap shot or one timer from the point, and he has a decent wrist shot that’s more accurate than it is powerful. But it will need to improve, and might not be a shooting or scoring threat from the point in the future. He will instead have an impact on offense through his passing and positional play. His skating, while very effective and very mobile, doesn’t quite have the same high level speed and explosiveness of the top tier defensive prospects in the draft. His defense is very good at his current level, but his physical strength will need to get better to avoid getting pushed around even more in professional levels.

On the other hand, duh... if he was that special of a skater, with a great shot from the point, and stronger like most prospects need to be, he’d probably be a consensus first rounder if not top 10 pick.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

As Leafs fans, we’re by now pretty familiar with the idea of how much of a developmental leap a prospect can take when they’re that young in their draft year. Nick Robertson is the obvious example, but the Leafs have also taken the likes of Joe Miller (Sep 15, 2002). Zellweger is already good enough to be one of the very best of his peers at every level he’s played, despite being much younger than many of them.

That extra strength to help his shot, skating, and physical defense is more likely to come than someone in this draft who is already close to a full year older than him. That extra year’s worth of experience he will get will also help him refine his abilities and hone his instincts. Heck, he may still grow another inch or two — he already apparently grew one between the start of this season and now.

That’s the kind of projection you bet on when it comes to someone with a later birthday, like Zellweger. You can take how good he already is, and mentally adjust for how much better he will be when he is as old as some of the older draft eligible prospects. If he was six days younger, how good would he look as a first time eligible player in next year’s draft? He could well be a consensus first rounder.

In Bob McKenzie’s mid-season rankings, he had Zellweger ranked 88th — just inside his top 96 to cover the first three rounds. Bob has also teased that his final rankings will see some significant changes in his rankings because of the U18s. Considering the rave reviews Zellweger for his play in that tournament, I expect him to get a pretty big bump.

The question is... how much of a bump? The Leafs’ second round pick is locked in at 57th overall now. Will Bob’s final rankings bump up a full round, or more? I think it’s likely that Zellweger winds up being available right around where the Leafs will pick, and maybe even a bit later into the early third round. My dream of the Leafs trading down and getting two good picks may not have room for him in this scenario, but I would not be unhappy with the Leafs just taking Zellweger outright.