Graphic Courtesy of Andrew Armstrong
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
This trio of defenders could easily be called the “Favorites” instead of the “Blueline Big-3”. A great deal of the talk around the first spot, especially as Aatu Räty struggles to start the season, has gone to Brandt Clarke of the Barrie Colts. The right-shot rearguard has been electrifying at times with the Colts. His upside seems enormous with his combination of IQ and toolset. Owen Power has also been a hot topic of conversation because of his massive frame and gaudy point totals with the Chicago Steel last season. Heading to the University of Michigan this upcoming season, he’ll be one of the most interesting players to follow for the year. Carson Lambos is a horse on the back end. His ability to step into a number one defenseman role with the Winnipeg Ice (WHL) last season was impressive. He was an instant contributor in all facets of the game and showed immense potential as the year wore on. Of all of the Contender Series trios, this one has the most likely chance to produce the number one pick.
LHD Owen Power – University of Michigan (NCAA)
6’6″ – 214lbs – November 22, 2002 – Canadian
With the combination of size, skating, and skill, Owen Power’s name has vaulted to the top of many 2021 NHL Draft boards early in the year. The 6’5” defender was one of the best players in the USHL of any age last season. His 40 points in 45 games led all blueliners in scoring, earning Defenseman of the Year and First Team All-Star accolades along the way. The fact of the matter is, Owen Power was an absolute force for a loaded Chicago Steel squad last year.
Oftentimes you hear big players are good skaters “for their size”. Not the case for the Steel alum. Power is a very smooth skater. His stride is quite fluid, despite his size which often hinders players’ fluidity due to lankier limbs and the fact that they just have more to move. He does an excellent job of staying agile and on his edges to keep 360-degree mobility in all three zones. It’s rare that a rearguard has the size and mobility that Power possesses which is part of the reason so many have him at or near the top of their rankings.
Offensively, there is a ton to like about Power’s game. He has a very good shot and doesn’t rely on shooting from the blueline. He moves around the offensive zone aggressively and played a bit of a rover role at times. His willingness to pinch in the offensive zone helps push offensive results and his skating and reach allow him to close in on the puck quickly and effectively, sealing off the wall with his frame. He gets the pucks to the playmaking forwards and lets them do their work. He is a lethal weapon on the powerplay, moving and creating havoc with the puck on his stick, finding the open man as he opened up passing lanes.
There are times when Power’s offensive risk tasking can burn him and cause him to be the fifth man back defensively or allow for an odd-man rush. There are times when because of his insanely talented teammates, mistakes were covered up for Power. He has been the biggest kid most of his life growing up as well. It will be very interesting to see how he handles the strength and size of more mature players in the NCAA when he plays for the University of Michigan this upcoming season. How he projects to the college game will go a long way to where he gets drafted because as one of the older players in the draft and a player who has taken advantage of his size, some of his decision-making will be a bit easier to evaluate without a loaded roster around him.
In his own end, Power can blanket his opponent’s offensive attempts. His wingspan envelopes oncoming attackers, eliminating the space and passing lanes that are often available as a player crosses the offensive blueline. Power closes the gap quickly while adjusting his tactics for the situation, understanding when to lead with his stick and when to lead with his body. He thwarts the opposition before they can get started many times and has the skating to beat dump and chases that teams often attempted to utilize to beat his transitional defense.
With the ability to affect the game in all three zones, size that intrigues scouts and coaches alike, and the skill and skating that many players could only dream of, Owen Power should be in the running for the first overall pick, and for some, he’s the favorite.
LHD Carson Lambos – Winnipeg Ice (WHL)/JYP U20 (U20 SM-sarja)
6’1″ – 201lbs – January 14, 2003 – Canadian
The 2021 NHL Draft class has been touted for the talent on the blueline and rightfully so. There is a lot of skill on the back end that will be up for grabs and the beauty of it is that each defender brings a bit of a different game. The most well-rounded of the bunch may be Carson Lambos of the Winnipeg ICE (WHL). His blend of power and skill is intriguing and allows him to be a difference-maker in all three zones and in all situations.
He possesses the necessary size and strength to be a physical player paired with the skill and finesse to makes some pretty impressive plays. The other blueline ‘Contenders’ may be a bit more offensively leaning but the results that Lambos generates are as good or better in some cases while also bringing a defensive value that only Owen Power really approaches. Many high-end draft-eligible defenders play on the penalty kill but few truly excel in the area because it generally requires a bit of a more mature and advanced defensive game. Lambos is one of the rare U18 blueliners that possesses the anticipation and defensive reads combined with the high-end skill to make him effective down a man.
Photo courtesy of the WHL
Lambos is a very good skater who has attacks the play wherever he is on the ice. His powerful stride allows him to close on gaps quickly and ensure that he is in the opposition’s face when they approach the blueline. The real difference-maker in the young Canadian’s game is his ability to read and anticipate the play. Similar to the way an NFL safety reads the quarterback and anticipates a play, breaking on the throw to intercept that pass right before it reaches the receiver, Lambos does the same on passes in transition at the blueline, cutting down and intercepting passes.
As an offensive player, he is smart and decisive. Understanding that the most dangerous area of the ice is the ‘home plate’ area in front of the net, he filters pucks forwards cutting into that zone. He has a patience to his game, never seeming to rush a play. He deals with pressure very well, staying calm as an incoming forward makes a break for him at the point. He has the sense of mind to change his stick angle to allow a pass around the opposition or use his skating to find himself some room by either walking the blueline or breaking down the wall.
His shot is a weapon on the powerplay with it possessing the accuracy and finesse to get it through to the net and the heaviness to make it a scoring threat from the blueline. Unafraid to throw it back to a time where defenders had a bit of a bigger wind-up, Lambos can hammer pucks on the net if given the space or use a quick-release snapshot to get it off with less time. He understands the situation at a high-level and makes a play based on his reads. There are times when his shot seems lackluster which is a bit of an anomaly in his game as it seems to be the one area of his game that lacks real consistency.
He has taken the step to move to Finland to start the season with JYP U20 in the Finnish junior league and has looked good in his first few games of action. He will return to Winnipeg for the WHL season but the loan gives him a place to get his legs under him and find some game action. He hasn’t blown the doors off but he’s adapted to the game well and shown his steady presence in the lineup. As he acclimates to the atmosphere, he should push the envelope as the best defenseman in the league. He may be the most stable of this trio and his ability to affect the game in all facets will be a valuable asset as he showcases his game overseas to start the season.
RHD Brandt Clarke – Barrie Colts (OHL)
6’1″ – 181lbs – February 9, 2003 – Canadian
With so many high-level blueliners in the 2021 Draft, the opinions on who the top player is varies based on stylistic preference at this point. The rearguard with the most offensive pop has been widely considered to be Brandt Clarke of the OHL’s Barrie Colts. The 6’2” defenseman oozes talent and potential. His skating is picturesque when he’s flying through the neutral zone in transition. His confidence and skill with the puck on his stick can make his opposition look silly as he turn-styles them. The upside is sky-high.
Although Clarke has the height and frame to give him a bit more projectability, he is still very lanky and will need to put on some strength. Clarke has the room to grow and he likely will with some maturity and training over the next few years. While he can get overpowered when the opposition sustains pressure, specifically in the corners and around the net, the thought of what he will be when he does fill out is enticing, to say the least.
The aggressive style of play that Clarke has is part of what makes him special. In the offensive zone, the young Canadian has the conviction to make decisions and commit. He attacks the play and does a very good job of playing below the top of the faceoff circles, cutting to the middle of the ice and attacking the slot. In the defensive zone, he is aggressive in defending transition. He can step into a player as they cross the blueline but is more effective when he uses his stick and disrupts possession and lifts sticks to corral the puck. He can get beat to the outside at times but his skating and reaction time helps him regain a semblance of positioning, forcing the attacker into a more difficult play.
When the puck is on his stick, Clarke becomes an instant threat to make a big play. He is an excellent transition player who can create via his passing or his skating. He has the ability to make a long stretch pass tape-to-tape or draw forecheckers in by fainting up ice before sending a cross-ice pass to a streaking teammate allowing them to attack with speed and space. If given the space to utilize his smooth stride, he can get on his horse and attack. His speed and agility through the neutral zone are intimidating for defenders at a standstill and his puck skills allow him to deke through the resistance.
While there are some details that need refining, the potential that the Barrie Colts blueliner has is growing as he matures. As his frame fills out over the next couple of seasons, we will begin to see the full picture of what this dynamic defenseman can do. With the raw talent and skill that he already has, a thicker and stronger frame, and his continued growth mentally, Clarke has the chance to be a very special player. Brandt Clarke very well could be the rare defenseman who captures the pole position on draft day.
This trio could be looked back on as a very special group of blueliners who all competed for the first overall pick with the forwards in the class left in the dust. There aren’t many years where it is primarily defensemen in the first overall conversation but the 2021 NHL Draft has the potential to be just that. The 2021 class has been looked down at a bit by both public and private scouts and it might be a bit unfairly. While there is no Auston Matthews or Alexis Lafrenière but that doesn’t mean teams won’t get a top-end talent. All three of these blueliners have a legitimate chance of being true number one defenseman. All three would likely rank ahead of both Jake Sanderson and Jamie Drysdale from the 2020 class and Bowen Byram from 2019. There may not be an elite number one center or high scoring winger but there could be three truly elite defensemen, a player every team covets, and very few have.
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 ‘Wild Card’ trio coming out tomorrow to cap the series off! 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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