The 2021 NHL Draft is setting up to be one of the most unique in recent memory. There is no clear-cut number one prospect as there is most years with a player such as Alexis Lafrenière or Auston Matthews. The 2021 class has doesn’t even have a two-horse race in the making. Rather, the 2021 group has a large group of talent that could be vying for the top pick. The ‘Contender Series’ will profile some of the contenders for the first overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Each edition will feature three prospects who all, to varying degrees, have a shot at first overall. This will serve as a four-part kick-off to the monthly draft reports that will be out the final week of each month until the draft. The four-part series will focus on a different grouping of prospects:
Fascinating Forwards Big-3 Blueliners
Michigan Made Wild Cards
The 2021 NHL Draft is undoubtedly heavy on defensive talent at the top of the class but there is plenty of forward talent to be had as well. Going back a year, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with Aatu Räty outside of the top spot but with a bit of a lackluster draft minus-one season, room atop the draft boards became a bit more crowded. Forward talents such as Dylan Guenther and Zachary L’Heureux have joined the fray. So where better to start than a group of forwards who all bring different skillsets and play styles? From Räty’s mature game to Guenther’s skill and precision or the massive step that L’Heureux has taken to start the QMJHL season, this trio brings a lot to the conversation when you start talking about the top players up front.
LW Dylan Guenther – Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
6’1″ – 170lbs – April 10, 2003 – Canadian
If you lean towards skill, precision, and excitement, Dylan Guenther might be your pick at number one. The Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) forward has the ability to pull fans out of their seats and put defenders on theirs. With incredible hands and an elite offensive IQ, he is one of the most threatening players with the puck on his stick in the WHL. In a class of many solid and projectable NHL players, Guenther is one of very few players in this class with a true top-line upside. He will be playing with the Sherwood Park Crusaders in the AJHL until December 20, 2020 which will give him a chance to get on the ice and get his legs under him against some level of competition prior to the WHL season restarting in January.
Despite not projecting or playing much center with Edmonton, Guenther truly is the play driver on his line. As Guenther moved up the lineup, his line was consistently the Oil Kings most effective. Once he ascended to the top lines with Jake Neighbours and Riley Sawchuk, the Oil Kings’ top line became nearly unstoppable at times and it generally came off the creation of Dylan Guenther, the youngest member of the line. Never panicking when pressured or bracketed, Guenther’s problem solving was evident as he would calming move the puck to an open teammate or into space so that either himself or a linemate could chase it down.
In transition, Guenther has the skating and elusiveness to be his team’s primary option up ice. He has a willingness to get a bit lower in the defensive zone to give his defenders an easy outlet. This helps prevent mistakes and make things easier on his blueliners. His skating is smooth, agile, and quick. He doesn’t have the highest top speed but the fluidity that he has combined with his creative skating paths through the neutral zone makes him a successful transitional catalyst. He will skate at defenders making a move at the last second, making his opponents look silly at times.
The weaknesses in Guenther’s game aren’t glaring. His defensive game may need some refinement but he produces average defensive results at worst. He anticipates and aggressively pursues players at times and can get himself a bit out of sorts when it comes to his positioning but the effort is generally there which is a promising sign for a young player. He has a 6’1” frame but is a bit lanky and will need to add some muscle and strength as to not get pushed around as he can be at times by bigger players who can keep up with his skating at the WHL level, which isn’t many if we are being honest.
Photo courtesy of OilKings.ca
The Oil Kings star finished his draft-1 season at just over a point-per-game with 59 points in 58 games. This after a slow start as he established himself in the Oil Kings lineup where he was often playing third-line minutes early in the year. His IQ helped him create offensively, utilizing space and manipulating defenders with his hands and skating paths. He leads and pulls defenses one way before finding his teammates all over the offensive zone. If the opposition doesn’t overcommit, Guenther has the ability and skill to burn defenders and inflict damage. Without the puck, he has the rare ability to recognize when and where things will open up and put himself into those open spaces between defenders. Many players find the soft spots but Guenther’s ability to exploit it regularly is special.
RW Zachary L’Heureux – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
5’11” – 196lbs – May 15, 2003 – Canadian
Zachary L’Heureux is a player who may not have made the cut for this series had he not been in the QMJHL, the only Canadian major junior league in action. Due to the fact that he’s been able to play in some preseason and regular-season games, he has been displayed the growth in his game from last season. The talent was always there for the Montreal born winger but it didn’t show up every night last season. Although not a tall player at just 5’11”, L’Heureux is a strong and sturdy player who plays a power forward’s game. He drops his shoulder and lowers his center of gravity to help drive to the net and play a strong game.
Photo courtesy of the QMJHL
The Halifax Mooseheads’ leading scorer has been lights out this year, delivering on the promise so many spotted in his game last season. L’Heureux is a high-end goal scorer who understands how to attack the slot area. He has a predatory nature to his movement in the offensive zone. Stalking plays at times before striking. He has the hands to finish in tight and the lethal shot that can beat netminders from distance. In tight, he will use his body and strength to roll off defenders and open himself up to the net for a shot from in tight. His backhand is dangerous and allows him to put a legitimate shot on net even when he can’t cut to the middle and use his forehand. His shooting arsenal is quite creative and diverse which keeps him dangerous from any position.
His heavy release is a constant threat that opens up passing lanes as defenders feel the need to guard against his shot. Taking advantage of that as an unselfish player, L’Heureux has the ability to affect the game as a passer and a playmaker. He doesn’t have the elite level creativity in his passing that truly special playmakers do but he funnels the puck to the open man and pushes play to the home plate area offensively. He has the ability to recognize and adjust mid-shooting motion to make a pass when the shooting lane is clogged. L’Heureux does an excellent job of drawing in defenders and then attacking the vacated area with area passing. Soft-touch and improved vision has made him a true dual-threat this season which has allowed him to be that much more dominant at times.
L’Heureux plays a sturdy and strong game with good puck control and an advanced understanding of body position. He has no issue using his backside to post up in the neutral zone and act as a relay point where he can receive the outlet pass and then put the puck into the skating path of a linemate attacking with speed akin to the old football hook-and-ladder play. He also has the skating and speed to be the primary puck carrier through the neutral zone, along with the hands and IQ to diagnose when and where to attack the opposing defenses. Flashing the ability to play a physical game and generate offensive chances with a defender on his back at times last season, L’Heureux has been far more consistent and utilizing his strength on nearly every shift.
The fact of the matter is that L’Heureux is likely the biggest longshot of this trio to go first overall but with the hot start to this season and the improvements we’ve seen in his game already in the early going of the 2020-21 season, he has certainly worked himself into the conversation. His blend of speed and power to go along with his predatory instincts offensively and a threatening shot all help make him an early-season riser. He’s always flashed the impressive toolset but the consistency in which he has put his skills on display this year is what truly gets him on this list. Could the QMJHL go back-to-back atop the draft? L’Heureux might be their best bet to do so.
C Aatu Räty – Kärpät (Liiga)
6’1″ – 181lbs – November 14, 2002 – Finnish
Coming into last year Aatu Räty was the player that top most lists. The Finnish center has many pro-ready and projectable skills already. The 6’1” pivot played 12 games in the Liiga as a draft-1 player but didn’t make the most of his opportunities and then struggled as his motivation dwindled back in the Jr A SM Liiga (now the U20 SM-sarja). His underwhelming year last season has begun to call his status as the number one player in the 2021 draft into question. Now he sits among a fairly large group of players vying for the top spot.
Photo Courtesy of IIHF.com
The intelligent forward has shown up at international competitions in the past and the 2019 World Juniors was no exception. Fitting right in as a middle-six player for the defending champion Finns. His three points in seven games were nothing to ride home about but his versatility and ability to play a good, smart defensive game when asked was an asset. This is part of what makes Räty so intriguing at number one in a year with no sure-fire, elite talent such as a Jack Hughes or Alexis Lafrenière.
His offensive game may not blow you away with his play on a regular basis but he has the skill to flash higher-end talent. He is a smart player who makes good passes and distributes the puck all over in the attacking zone. He works a cycle well and seems to have the strength to do the same with men in the Liiga. His wrist shot is his main weapon as an attacker. He can load up and let it rip with the best of them in the draft class. He picks corners and beats goalies clean from the slot. He uses the cycle to generate chances and works well off his teammates. He may not be a true offensive dynamo but he is an effective and efficient generator of play.
Some have compared him to Anton Lundell, the top Finnish player in 2020, with some favor given to Räty in the offensive zone. While his defensive play doesn’t quite reach the same level, this is another area of the game where Räty is above average and shows improvement. He has consistently played with the age group ahead of him and because of that, he has developed a maturity to his game that few players have as they head into their draft-eligible season. He reads plays well and understands defensive positioning. With excellent anticipation, he breaks up passes and corrals pucks to start the play in the other direction.
Among the group of European players to start their season already, Räty has played a couple of games at the junior level and a couple more at the Liiga level. He hasn’t quite shown up and taken over in any game this year but he does look stronger and a bit more aggressive offensively. He has generated some dangerous play at times and looked more comfortable at the men’s level but if he has any hope of becoming the first Finnish player to be drafted first overall, he will need to begin to not only play at the men’s level consistently but the young Finn will need to start putting some numbers up on the nightly box score.
It’s wild to think about just how wide open the top of the 2021 NHL Draft truly is. Aatu Räty, Dylan Guenther, and Zachary L’Heureux are all legitimate candidates for the top spot in the draft. Räty is likely the favorite to grab the coveted top spot from this trio, with L’Heureux being the long shot. There is such a long way to go until draft day but the intrigue will be at an all-time high as we watch some kids getting valuable playing time and others waiting for their leagues to come up with a plan. The debate for first-overall may end up coming down to the stylistic preference of whichever team is drafting in that slot which means there will be plenty of differing opinions on the top spot from draft analysts and scouts alike. It’s going to be fun.
Take a look at the DobberProspects Scouting team’s November Top-100 for the 2021 NHL Draft here!
Be sure to come back and check out the rest of the ‘Contender Series’ with the ‘Michigan Made’ trio coming up on Friday and the final two parts coming out on Monday and Tuesday! For more prospect talk or to reach out to me, follow me on Twitter at @theTonyFerrari! You can hear me and Jokke Nevalainen, the Head of European Scout for DobberProspects, on our NHL Draft centric podcast, Dobber’s DraftCast! We just had Scott Wheeler from The Athletic on to kick off the 2021 NHL Draft coverage! We are on a short post-draft break right now but will be back in early-mid November with top of the line NHL Draft coverage!
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