Photo Courtesy of IIHF.com
The 2020 NHL Draft hasn’t happened and at this point, thanks to COVID-19, we don’t know exactly when it will happen but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to the 2021 draft class. The beauty of next season is that we don’t have an Alexis Lafrenière-level prospect. The top of the 2021 draft is almost as wide open as we’ve seen it recently.
The 2021 draft’s strength is on the blue line. There are a number of defenders that have the potential to take the number one spot from the current favorite and there is a reality where the top-five consists of four defensemen. As with the last couple of seasons, we have an elite level netminder that should challenge the top-ten as Spencer Knight did in 2019 and Yaroslav Askarov is expected to do this year. With the 2021 draft being as open as it seems at this point, there is going to be a ton of intrigue to how it will play out.
Let’s take a look at some of the players that will be helping shape the top-end of the 2021 NHL Draft. A few things to remember before we start. These ARE NOT a ranking. This is a guide to who some of the top players are for next year’s draft. There are a number of prospects that were chosen because they are players who have stood out more than a year in advance of their draft. There could have been double the number of players but we will have plenty of time to cover them all. Without further ado, let’s get at it!
C Aatu Räty – Kärpät (Liiga) – 6’1″ – 181lbs – November 14, 2002
The younger of the Räty brothers, Aatu is a big, strong center who has pretty solid wheels. He gets around the ice with no issue and possesses the strength to play against men already. He has a big wrist shot and a willingness to get to the net. He may not be a true ‘franchise player’ but he has the chance to be a very solid number one center. He plays a mature game and consistently performs well against advanced competition. He isn’t a lock to go number one but he is certainly the early favorite. He could end up being the first Finn to go first overall in the NHL draft. In the clip below, we see the Räty brothers team up for a goal at the World Juniors this past December with the elder Räty setting up the younger for a sweet deflection for Aatu’s first of the tournament.
LHD Carson Lambos – Winnipeg ICE (WHL) – 6’1″ – 201lbs – January 14, 2003
RHD Brandt Clarke – Barrie Colts (OHL) – 6’1″ – 181lbs – February 9, 2003
LHD Luke Hughes – U.S. NTDP – 6’0″ – 161lbs – September 9, 2003
This group of blueliners is all top-tier talents. They all fit into that Drysdale/Byram level of defensemen. All three play a bit of a different style but they are all borderline franchise-level defenders. This group features the three early challengers to the number one pick that Aatu Räty currently holds down.
Lambos is the most physically gifted of the three at the moment. He’s had NHL-size since he was 16 years old. His skating is smooth and powerful. He plays the game at both ends of the ice and has the ability to take over a game in an instant. His IQ is off the charts and he seems to understand the development of a play in his own end and is able to cut it off and turn the puck back up the ice. He has a wicked shot and great hands at the blueline. The video above is from one of Lambos’ first games of the WHL season this year where he goes end-to-end, evading a forechecker before weaving in the neutral zones and then launches a shot past the netminder.
Brandt Clarke is the rearguard that we’ve heard about for the longest time. He possesses the offensive upside and flair that doesn’t come around often. He knows how to control the ice when the puck is on his stick and his game in all three zones got better as the season went on. The more responsibility he was given in Barrie, the better he played. His defensive zone play needs a bit of refinement but his athleticism allows him to make up for some smaller mistakes. Clarke plays a smart game and has incredible vision on the ice. His first-pass is consistently crisp and on target. The clip below
The question has to be asked, what do the Hughes parents feed their children because they raised some studs! Luke Hughes is the last to enter the NHL draft and his brothers have said that he might be the best of the three of them. He is the biggest of his brothers physically and as smooth of a skater. Luke has the chance to bring the flair and offensive dominance that Quinn brings to the game with the added physical element. While the youngest Hughes isn’t a traditional banger in his own zone, he does possess the physical tools to eliminate opponents as they enter the zone and then have the skating and skill to lead the charge for his team.
RW Chaz Lucius – U.S. NTDP – 6’0″ – 172lbs – May 2, 2003
LW Kent Johnson – Trail Smoke Eaters (BCHL) – 6’1″ – 168lbs – October 18, 2002
LW Dylan Guenther – Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) – 6’1″ – 170lbs – April 10, 2003
LW Fabian Lysell – Frölunda HC J20 (SuperElit) – 5’10” – 176lbs – January 19, 2003
This next group is full of offensive flair and entertaining hockey players. In Lucius, we have an elite goalscorer who finds ways to produce all over the offensive zone. His shot is lethal and his hands are filthy. He is a good skater and showed the ability to keep up when playing with the U18 team for the NTDP. The goal below can be filed under “Sick Hands”.
Kent Johnson has torn up the BCHL for two years now, finishing last season with 101 points in just 52 games. While the BCHL is a junior A league and not quite as good as the WHL, his numbers in his draft-1 year are comparable to Alex Newhook’s draft year (103 points in 53 games). Next season Johnson will be taking his talents to Ann Arbor to help revive the University of Michigan’s hockey program after a down year. Johnson is consistently the smartest player on the ice and his skill is off the charts. He should step right into the Wolverines’ lineup in the fall and be an offensive catalyst.
The WHL is well represented in the 2021 draft. While Lambos may be the best of the bunch, Guenther is surely going to challenge him for best player coming out of the west. He is a smooth skater and always seems to be in the right spot. His hands are lightning-fast, keeping up with his impressive skating. He is an excellent playmaker who has a quick wrist shot. In the play below he takes the puck from Dylan Cozens, the eighth overall pick in 2019, gets a hold of the puck and protects it until his teammate drives the slot and Guenther sets him up with Cozens draped all over him.
Fabian Lysell (Lu-sell) is the final member of this group and he’s our first Swede to enter the discussion. He may be slightly undersized but he possesses some flashy skill. He is a creative and dynamic offensive presence who can produce highlight reels with regularity. His game isn’t a finished product but the young Swede produced at an insane rate at the U18 level and his six points in 11 games at the SuperElit level last year is nothing to be ashamed of for a player who was 16 years old for about half of the season. He can get himself into trouble at times but his creativity is well worth the odd mistake.
Defenders Boosting the Class
LHD Owen Power – Chicago Steel (USHL) – 6’5″ – 209lbs – November 22, 2002
LHD Aidan Hreschuk – U.S. NTDP – 5’11” – 181lbs – February 19, 2003
RHD Corson Ceulemans – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 6’2″ – 190lbs – May 5, 2003
LHD Stanislav Svozil – HC Kometa Brno (Czech Extraliga) – 6’0″ – 172lbs – January 17, 2003
The 2021 draft class is full of quality options on the backend. This group is all possible top-15 picks with a couple possibly sneaking into the top-ten. Owen Power is a big defender who can crush an attacker and then move the puck up to the forwards before getting involved in the play. He led the USHL in points for a defenseman this past season with 40 points in 45 games and will look to make an instant impact next season when he takes his talents to the University of Michigan next season.
Aiden Hreschuk is another one the NTDP’s next high-end blueliner following in the footsteps of Cam York and Jake Sanderson before him. He is a smooth skater who plays the game at a high-pace. He looks to push the puck up the ice at all times. He has pretty slick hands and a wicked wrist shot from the blueline. The clip below is an example of just how lethal his shot can be. He doesn’t get the fanfare others in this class do but he is certainly deserving of being in the conversation. He has a legitimate chance to be the second NTDP blueliner selected in the top-10 in June 2021.
Following the footsteps of Cale Makar, Corson Ceulemans is a highly-skilled, push-the-pace, offensive defenseman. He sees the ice incredibly well and moves the puck efficiently. Ceulemans is three inches taller than Makar was in his draft-eligible AJHL season and his p[production is reminiscent of Makar’s Draft-1 season. While Makar is a special player, Ceulemans has just about the same kind of potential at the same age.
The best defender to come out of the Czech Republic in ages in Stanislav Svozil, the first 2003-born player to play in the Czech Extraliga. He plays a smart game and possesses good enough size to hold his own physically. He rarely looks out of place against men and should show that he not only belongs but that he is an effective and productive player next season when he plays there full-time. He is a good skater who has good instincts at both ends of the ice.
G Jesper Wallstedt – Luleå HF (SHL) – 6’3″ – 209lbs – November 14, 2002
In a class with Spencer Knight and Yaroslav Askarov, the young Swedish netminder could end up being the best of the three. Jesper Wallstedt is the youngest goalie to ever play in the SHL and he fared pretty well in his brief stint. The young Swede has high-end athleticism and plays a good technical game. Wallstedt’s lateral movement is impressive as he is in control and does well to not overshoot his spot. His movement is the net isn’t quite as crisp as Askarov when the Russian is at his best but Wallstedt does a good job of tracking the puck and staying square to the shooter. In the clip below we see Wallstedt make an impressive save off a one-timer from a fairly high-danger area. The puck comes loose upon being bumped but the young Swede does a good job of recovering to his net when he sees the loose puck. Wallstedt has a good chance of being the third consecutive netminder selected in the top-15, with the assumption that Askarov goes where many have him tabbed and Spencer Knight going 12th to Florida in 2019.
Forwards Who Intrigue
C Cole Sillinger – Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL) – 6’0″ – 187lbs – May 16, 2003
RW Samu Tuomaala – Kärpät U20 (Jr A SM Liiga) – 5’10” – 165lbs – January 8, 2003
C James Malatesta – Quebec Remparts (QMJHL) – 5’9″ – 172lbs – May 31, 2003
LW Isak Rosén – Leksands IF U20 (Jr A SM Liiga) – 5’10” – 154lbs – March 15, 2003
RW Prokhor Poltapov – Krasnaya Armiya Moskva (MHL) – 5’10” – 161lbs – February 1, 2003
This group of forwards is full of intrigue and upside. Cole Sillinger has pro-size and strength and his shot is better than half the NHL already. He dealt with an injury this past season which took him out of action for a bit but the young Medicine Hat Tiger could score 40 goals next season with ease. Samu Tuomaala is the second-best Finn available after Räty. He is a great skater who has impressive speed and thinks on his feet. He has hands that can keep up with his feet and a shot that beats goalies all over the ice.
James Malatesta is a volume shooter who finds any reason to shoot the puck. He is a shifty skater who likes to control the puck and his playmaking is underrated because of how shot heavy he is in the offensive zone at times. Isak Rosén is a crafty goal-scoring winger who attacks the net and doesn’t let his size hold him back. Prokhor Poltapov is a high skill, high energy player who looked good in the MHL this past season and should produce at a high level this coming season as a 17-year-old for much of it. The goal below is just filthy by Poltapov.
Defenders Who Intrigue
LHD Simon Edvinsson – Frölunda HC J20 (SuperElit) – 6’4″ – 185lbs – February 5, 2003
LHD Artyom Grushnikov – Krasnaya Armiya Moskva (MHL) – 6’2″ – 174lbs – March 20, 2003
LHD Sean Behrens – U.S. NTDP – 5’8″ – 173lbs – March 31, 2003
LHD Isaac Belliveau – Rimouski Océanic (QMJHL) – 6’0″ – 172lbs – November 26, 2002
Just in case it wasn’t obvious, the 2021 draft is chock-full of defenders who look like they will feature in NHL teams top-four for years to come. Simon Edvinsson is a towering blueliner at 6’4″ and he has produced offensively at around a point-per-game clip at every level he’s been at. He has a big shot and solid mobility. Artyom Grushnikov is a skilled Russian defenseman who has excelled in international play. There is room to grow in his game but a bit more consistent playing time and some added bulk to his 6’2″ frame should keep him looking like a potential first-rounder.
Sean Behrens is another NTDP defender that could go in round one. He played with the U18 team towards the end of the year, contributing at both ends of the ice and helping the U18s bolster their defensive unit. He is mature, patient and poised with the puck on his stick but isn’t the biggest rearguard at just 5’8″. Isaac Belliveau is one of the top QMJHL players for the 2021 draft and with 53 points in 62 games, it’s easy to see why. He gets a bit of a boost from playing with Lafrenière in Rimouski but he drives the play from his own end and pushes the pace offensively. While Lafrenière certainly helps the young defender rack up points, Belliveau is a capable producer in his own right.
There are a number of players that weren’t included here but have just as good of a chance to be selected in the first round. Many of the players that were mentioned will be chosen outside of the first round. We are 15 months out from the 2021 draft and there will be massive changes from now to then. With next year’s draft class being so wide open, we could see a number of different players in the conversation for first overall. As it currently stands, Aatu Räty is the projected first overall pick and that’s a well-deserved position for the mature young Finnish center but it isn’t out of the question that one of those stud blueliners take the throne or one of the forwards could take a big step and challenge to be the top dog. Next year’s draft is going to be a draft junkies dream with the uncertainty at the top.
What do you think of the 2021 NHL Draft class? Let me know! I can always be reached on Twitter @TheTonyFerrari! Be sure to check out the March Draft Report where I dive into what scouts and draft analysts do now, the All-Overager Team and a profile on defenseman Eamon Powell. Also, check out the full Dobber Prospects 2020 NHL DRAFT PAGE! There are over 60 player profiles and a ton more draft content including the January Mid-Season Draft Report with a full breakdown of my Top-100 Rankings with video and analysis on 60+ players including nearly every player in the top-40!