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
You can’t have a conversation about the top of this draft class without some of the wild cards. Each of these players deserves to be in any conversation near the top of the draft. Goaltender Jesper Wallstedt will make it three years in a row with an elite prospect in net and will look to break into the top-10, a feat that both Spencer Knight (12th overall in 2019) and Yaroslav Askarov (11th overall in 2020) couldn’t quite reach. Simon Edvinsson very well could have been one of the ‘Big-3 Blueliners’ as his skill level is at the level of those three high-level blueliners. Cole Sillinger may have been the best rookie in the WHL prior to his injury. Dylan Guenther may have won the Rookie of the Year in the Dub but Sillinger was generating the buzz in the first two-thirds of the season. Each of these players has immense potential and talent. Each of these players is a long-shot to go number one for one reason or another, but each of them is good enough that, if things break right, they could be the number one player in 2021.
G Jesper Wallsetdt – Luleå HF (SHL)
6’3″ – 214lbs – November 14, 2002 – Swedish
Let’s get this out of the way right away. The likelihood that a goaltender is selected at first overall is very, very low. There are a few factors that play into the inclusion of Jesper Wallstedt in the Contender Series. The first of which is his level of play. This is a prerequisite for any player with a chance to go first overall. As previously mentioned, we’ve been spoiled with elite level netminding prospects over the last couple of seasons with Knight and Askarov but the best of the bunch may end up being the young Swede. If Knight is a small step behind Askarov for the top drafted goalie prospect, Wallstedt will jump into the Askarov tier as soon as a team calls his name. The second factor at play is the fact that the 2021 draft class doesn’t have an Auston Matthews or even a Jack Hughes. With defenders as the primary candidates to go first overall, something that rarely happens, it gives that sliver of light that Wallstedt may need to work his way into that conversation.
When looking at Wallstedt’s game in comparison to the two elite netminders in the previous two drafts, we can see one major difference in their games. While Knight and Askarov thrive on their athleticism and ability to read and react, Wallstedt is an elite technical goaltender. He certainly has the athleticism to make a save out of position or in desperation but the reality is that he is rarely out of position. He has the anticipation and vision in net to ensure that he is in position and isn’t lagging behind the play. The young Swede understands what the opposition is trying to do with their puck movement and puts himself in the best position to make the save with consistency.
With netminders, it is often difficult to evaluate their play unless you’ve played the position. The fact of the matter is that there are so many small intricacies and structure details that regular scouts will not pick up, myself included. In a bit of a divergence from that understanding, there is an element of being able to point out the obvious. We saw it last year with Askarov and we are seeing it again this year with Wallstedt. When you watch a typical draft-eligible goaltender, even a common fan can look at them in comparison to an NHL netminder and make the judgment that they are playing a different game from structure to skill. When watching Askarov last year and Wallstedt this year and you compare them to the same NHL netminder, you come away with the opinion that the young Russian and Swede are playing at a pro-level most of the time. From the way they carry themselves to the way that they move around their crease, both goaltenders have that special trait.
Photo courtesy of the SHL.se
The maturity and structure in his game are what make him special. He never seems to be in a panic. Wallstedt’s movements around his crease come with an air of calm regardless of the chaos in and around his crease. His lateral movement from post to post is quick and deliberate. He doesn’t waste much energy with unnecessary flailing or exaggerated arm movements while sliding. When gathering himself up against the post he seals cleanly. He is very quick off his posts and back to his feet. Wallstedt often seems near robotic in the net because of his precision as he gets himself into position. Many young goalies have oversliding issues and a tendency to pull themselves out of position when the opposing attackers get some sustained pressure and in-zone movement. Wallstedt has the ability to maintain body control in all situations. Here’s what our goaltending scout Danny Tiffiany had to say about Wallstedt.
A superb talent in net, Wallstedt is one of the most technically sound goalies we’ve ever seen in a players draft year. Not even having turned 18 yet, Wallstedt is playing in the SHL this season, the top league in Sweden. Not only has he played, he’s played exceptionally well. Wallstedt blends great positioning and fluid movements combined with his NHL size of 6’3 215 pounds, there are no real flaws in his game. Jesper Wallstedt is a top 10 talent and has the potential to be a Vezina caliber goalie for years to come in the NHL.
A goaltender going first overall is extremely rare. In fact, it has only happened three times in the history of the NHL Draft, Michel Plasse in 1968, Rick DiPietro in 2000, and Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. It will take a very special netminder to end the drought and make it four. In a year where the uncertainty around so many of the top prospects seasons and Wallstedt garnering his fair share of playing time in the SHL and playing extremely well sporting a .929 save percentage through four games in the top men’s league in Sweden and arguably the third strongest league in the world. There very well could be reason to believe the Luleå netminder could challenge.
LHD Simon Edvinsson – Frölunda HC J20 (J20 Nationell)
6’4″ – 186lbs – February 5, 2003 – Swedish
A player that very well could have been included in the Blueline Big-3 and one of the smoothest skaters in the draft class, Simon Edvinsson had a hot summer and start to his 2020-21 campaign. He wowed with his puck skills and ability to skate circles around his opponents at times. He showed incredible vision and passing ability. He was an outstanding driver of offense. He skates like a 5’10” forward despite having his 6’4″ frame, the young Swedish blueliner checks all of the boxes an NHL team looks for in a defender. The skill and elusiveness that Edvinsson plays with give him the ability to play a ‘rover’ role at times. Playing aggressively and pushing the pace are the staples in which his game is predicated on.
His defensive game is where some concerns arise. There is little doubt that he will need to get a bit stronger, filling out his frame. In the defensive zone, he tends to shy away from physicality most of the time. When he commits to using his size, he is very effective in gaining body position along the boards and closing off the cycle game. He is strong on his feet and well balanced in battles. Rarely getting blown off the puck, Edvinsson’s struggles generally arises when he is outmuscled and outmaneuvered. He has a long stick, using it to get into passing lanes and take away options for the puck carrier. He can get a bit too aggressive in puck pursuit, pulling him from low in the zone and leaving an area exposed. He has the skating to recover at times in the J20 Nationell but may struggle at the men’s level where the game is a bit more up to his speed and pace of play.
Edvinsson is quite a good defender in space where strength isn’t as necessary and his skating and skill can excel. He is adept at using his stick as he closes the gap to knock the puck free and disrupt a clean zone entry. Edvinsson does an excellent job of closing space in the neutral zone, giving his opponent very little time to make a decision. Oftentimes this aggression leads to forcing dump-ins which allow his partner, or Edvinsson himself, to collect the loose puck below the goal line and then start the puck up ice. When he eliminates the time attackers generally have through the neutral zone, Edvinsson is able to strip the puck free. The Swede’s quick stick and aggressive gap control, even well into center ice, allow for him to generate counter-attack plays at a high rate
The Frölunda product is able to gather the puck and immediately turn up ice with it. Whether he utilize his skating to push up ice with the puck on his stick or he show his touch with a pass up to a forward in the neutral zone. He is able to hit forwards in stride and make passing while in stride himself. Edvinsson’s edges and agility with the puck on his stick are upper echelon. With the puck seemingly on a string at times, Edvinsson uses his silky smooth mitts to weave through his opposition. He is a rush attacker who thrives on his ability to attack with speed. He has a good shot off the rush but it’s his silky passing that makes him such a threat. Able to identify his teammates all over with eyes in the back of his head. He has the requisite skill to pull off the passes as well. His offensive profile is quite intriguing.
His production has slowed down a bit recently but he still remains a very effective player at pushing the puck up ice and pushing the pace of play. Edvinsson oozes potential because of his skating and skill with the puck on a 6’4″ frame. He should get stronger over the next couple of seasons and his skating and skill should continue to improve and grow. He has the potential to be a very production two-way blueliner who can play on either powerplay unit and be a high-level quarterback. We could be looking back in a few years and wondering how this player wasn’t a top-three pick or we could be looking at him step on the stage (or virtual call) as the first player taken in the 2021 class.
LW Cole Sillinger – Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
6’0″ – 187lbs – May 16, 2003 – Canadian
If Cole Sillinger was a bit more of a technically sound skater and a step quicker, he would be less of a wild card and more of a favorite for first overall. The offensive talent that the Medicine Hat Tigers star possesses is incredible. He may have the best shot in the draft class and his ability to put himself in good positions at the right time make him dangerous whenever he is on the ice. Sillinger is a smart playmaker who passes to the high-danger area in the offensive zone. His passing isn’t always pinpoint but he is far from a selfish player and tries to get his teammates involved. The manner in which Sillinger thinks the offensive side of the game is stalking and threatening. He doesn’t need a ton of space to make things happen.
Photo courtesy of CBC.ca
Sillinger’s calling card is his elite shot. The ability to shoot the puck from anywhere in the offensive zone and be a legitimate threat to score is special. While there are other players who can put the power into their shot that Sillinger has, no one can do it quite as well as the young Canadian. He has a diverse shot arsenal that ranges from an instant elevation from in tight with the flick of a wrist to a booming slap shot, there aren’t many players that can score with the soft touch that Sillinger possesses and the power that he can generate driving down the wing and cutting to the middle of the ice. Changing the hand position with small toe-drags and wrist rolls to alter the angle of the shot is a skill that has become more prevalent in recent years and few do it better than Sillinger, at any level of hockey.
While he doesn’t get credit for being a good playmaker, he has some intelligent passing tendencies that will lead to good scoring chances for teammates if he can refine it a bit. He peppers the slot with passes and although sometimes it winds up going through the slot without a player there to receive it, his instinct to pass there is good. He is also an excellent touch passer throughout the neutral zone. He will act as the give-and-go man along the boards to provide an outlet for a linemate to make their way up ice. Sillinger likes to make passes to areas, such as the slot, and allow teammates to skate into them. He thrives when he and his linemates are playing an open, free-flowing style of hockey when they have the puck as he moves intelligently in and out of traffic.
His defensive effort is hard to judge at times because he attempts to anticipate play and jump then he sees an opening rather than truly pressuring the opposition into making the mistake. He is satisfied to stay in front of the puck carrier and allow them to make the first move. While he isn’t a black hole defensively, he will need to up his efforts in his own zone to establish himself as a viable center, specifically below the goal line where his effort is inconsistent. He has the strength and frame to be able to hold up in tough spots and battles but his willingness to engage in them is not always prevalent.
There is work to do for Sillinger but skating issues have been improved before. To be completely fair to his game though, his overall mobility and timing are good. He may not be the fastest off the blocks but he gets around the ice, rarely looking slow. Mobility is more important than skating ability is a motto I’ve used over the last couple of seasons. There is a way to be perfectly mobile, specifically as a forward, without being a breakneck skater. With Sillinger’s offensive tools, ridiculous shot, and intelligence with the puck, Sillinger has all of the raw tools to work his way up the draft board. Even if he doesn’t get all the way to number one, he will almost assuredly pass a few of the names we’ve covered in the Contender Series and it won’t be shocking in the slightest.
The reality of the situation is that a goaltender isn’t the first player taken in the NHL Draft. Cole Sillinger has a boatload of raw talent but some skating issues may hold him back from first overall. Simon Edvinsson is a silky smooth skater and his 6’4″ frame should fill out over time giving him one of the mos