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Who’s going No. 1 in the 2021 NHL draft? Evaluators identify a dozen top candidates

10 Mins read

The lottery for the 2021 NHL draft was on Wednesday night, but the presumed No. 1 pick wasn’t watching. Instead, Owen Power was sleeping.

“You nervous?” Power’s former GM with the Chicago Steel, Ryan Hardy, texted the defenseman on Wednesday. Power was in Latvia, playing with Canada at the IIHF Men’s World Championships. He texted Hardy back when he woke up on Thursday.

“Lol, no. I wasn’t nervous,” Power replied.

“I was like, ‘Alright, good luck today buddy, have fun,'” Hardy said. “He was like, ‘Thanks, you’re a beauty.'”

Hardy laughs recalling the exchange. “That’s so him,” Hardy said. “I love this kid. Nothing is going to rattle him.”

The 2021 NHL draft, which will be held virtually on July 23 and 24, has been a challenging one for NHL evaluators. Due to the pandemic, many junior, college and international leagues didn’t play a full season. The OHL, one of Canada’s top junior leagues, didn’t play at all. A lot of scouting was done on video, instead of typical in-person evaluations.

What’s more, for the last year there was no consensus about an obvious, franchise-defining No. 1 pick, such as Alexis Lafreniere (2020), Jack Hughes (2019) or Rasmus Dahlin (2018).

But Power, a Canadian-born left-shot defenseman who spent last season playing at the University of Michigan, has emerged as the front-runner. The Buffalo Sabres are slated to pick No. 1 overall; the expansion Seattle Kraken select at No. 2.

“I think Owen Power will probably go No. 1 because that’s what everybody says,” said one NHL scout. “And usually by this time of year, what everyone says will probably happen.”

So who is Power?

The first thing mentioned about him is often his height: 6-foot-5.

“It’s been very frustrating, a lot of people talk about his size,” Hardy said. “I think a good thing has happened in scouting over the last decade or so, where people are no longer saying ‘OK that guy is big, he has potential, we’ll take him.’ People question it now, because a lot of these big guys are busts.

“So he’s probably been unfairly labeled by some people in that way. But his hockey sense, his desire to compete, and skill level is really incredible for being that young and that big.”

According to Hardy, that’s not all that sets Power apart.

“What makes him special is, he’s very, very humble but he’s very, very driven,” Hardy said. “He’s coachable. He always wants more information. He never ever thinks he’s above anything. He just wants more and more and more so he can study and become better, and become great. When you have that mindset with that frame? This is the Owen Power draft. I don’t think a lot of people know how good he is.”

When the Chicago Steel drafted Power in 2018, the initial plan was for the 15-year-old to play one season in Canadian juniors before coming to the USHL. He attended the Steel camp that summer.

“His foot speed wasn’t where it needed to be, and there were some things he needed to clean up,” Hardy said. “But he was this 6-foot-4, 15-year-old that never turned the puck over, had this incredible feel for the game, a great confidence. And we were like, ‘Oh man, we have to do anything to recruit this kid.'”

The Steel, at the time, were rebuilding and didn’t have a ton of defensemen. That gave Power a top-four opportunity from the beginning.

“For a little while, he scuffled,” Hardy said. “Then around Thanksgiving or Christmas he started to catch his stride. By the playoffs, he was probably the best defenseman we had. He was playing 22, 24 minutes.”

Chicago had an even better team the next season in 2019-20. “Owen was by far our best player,” Hardy said. “We had [Brendan] Brisson who went in the first round [in 2020]. This year we have [Mathew] Coronato and [Matthew] Samoskevich who will probably go in the first round [in 2021.] But this one guy, Owen Power just looks completely different than anybody else.”

For a sense at what other players may round out the Top 10, ESPN polled a handful of NHL player evaluators in North America and Europe. Here’s who they identified:

Note: Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Matty Beniers, C, Michigan (NCAA)

Beniers grew up outside of Boston, and has said he modeled his game after Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron. Like Bergeron, Beniers is a classic two-way center.

“Incredible 200-foot player that is conscientious in all the zones,” said one evaluator. “He makes the players around him better, and you always know what you’re going to get with him.”

One evaluator thought Beniers may not have the “high-end potential” as a first-line center, like Bergeron, “but Beniers has all the tools to be successful and effective in the league.”

Like Power, Beniers has gotten some great experience this spring in skating at the World Championship. Unfortunately, he left Wednesday’s win over Slovakia with an apparent ankle injury.

Nikita Chibrikov, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

Chibrikov was rated the fourth-best European skater by NHL Central Scouting, and is coming off a strong under-18 World Championship, where he served as Russia’s captain. Chibrikov scored four goals and nine assists in just seven games — including the overtime winner in a thrilling 7-6 win over the American hosts — as Russia won a silver.

The winger, a bit undersized, spent some time in the KHL as a 17-year-old this season, though one KHL source who saw him play said that while Chibrakov showed some flashes in Europe’s top professional league, he didn’t necessarily stand out. “But he’s obviously talented based on what I saw at U18,” the source said.

Chibrikov is under contract with St. Petersburg through 2022-23, so the 2023-24 season is the earliest we could see him in the NHL.

Brandt Clarke, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)

The postponement, and ultimate cancelation, of the OHL season had many of the top prospects scrambling to find opportunities to play. Clarke found a temporary home in Slovakia, playing 26 games for HC Nove Zamky.

One NHL personnel man, who is based in Ontario and follows the OHL closely, said Clarke “may be the best puck-moving defenseman in this draft,” which is something NHL teams certainly covet. Clarke is gifted offensively, scoring five goals and 10 assists with HC Nove Zamky, as well as seven points in seven games for Canada at the under-18 World Championship. The evaluator said Clarke “could really work on his skating,” but makes up for some deficiencies with a strong hockey IQ.

“I think he has top-5 [in the draft] potential,” the personnel man said. “Obviously you’re going to think of him as the guy to run point on your power play, but he has all the tools to be a top-pairing defenseman. I’m not sure if he will be, but it’s all there.”

Matthew Coronato, RW, Chicago Steel (USHL)

Another former Chicago Steel player likely to go in the first round is the New York-born Coronato.

“He’s probably in the 10-15 window,” Hardy said. “He’s highly competitive. He played 59 games this year and scored 57 goals. In this league, if you score 25 goals, it’s a huge statistical season.”

How similar is his game to other recent draftees who just have a propensity for finding the net, like Alex DeBrincat and Cole Caufield?

“DeBrincat does this amazing job of getting to soft areas in the defense, and just catching pucks and shooting them. Caufield, he can put it wherever he wants,” Hardy said. “Coronato is more like a Brad Marchand — sometimes it’s on the rush, sometimes it’s a deflection, sometimes it’s a rebound, sometimes it’s a catch and shoot, sometimes it’s a one-timer. He doesn’t have that one signature shot, but that’s why he scores so much, because he can do it in so many different ways.”

Simon Edvinsson, D, Frölunda (SHL)

Outside of Power, one of the most intriguing defensemen in this year’s draft is the 6-foot-4 Edvinsson.

“He’s a big guy who can do stuff that usually small guys can do,” one scout in Sweden said. “Handle the puck, break it out, be good in short breakout passes or short outlet passes down low, find solutions … and with that size, to be able to do that? It’s hard to get a hold of that kind of guy. If you are able to draft high, getting a guy like that will benefit you in the long run.”

The scout called Edvinsson the best talent coming out of Sweden this year.

“Edvinsson is going to be a top, top d-man in the NHL for many years,” the scout said. “But he has to add some weight, and play against big, strong men before he’s ready. If the NHL team that drafts him has a little bit of patience, they’ll get a really good player.”

William Eklund, LW, Djugårdens (SHL)

Eklund endured some road blocks this season: He missed the World Junior Championship with a false positive COVID test, and when he returned to Sweden, his appendix burst. “He had a tough year,” the scout in Sweden said. “But the games he played in the beginning and the end, they were really good.”

The scout continued: “He surprised everyone a little bit. He was good last year, but he kind of exploded this year. He holds onto the puck so good, he protects it really well. He plays a mature game. He’s not one of those junior guys that comes up and skates all over the place. There’s a meaning in everything he does. I think he can be trusted, and that’s why he’s playing so many minutes for them. He was part of a good line too, and of course that helps, but he also scored a lot.”

Like many of the top prospects in this year’s class, Eklund may benefit from at least one more year in Europe before coming to North America. “He’s a pretty decent sized guy, but I don’t think he’s not physically ready,” the scout said. “Give him this summer and next summer to keep building muscles to be ready to play, with the goal of being a good NHL player for many years to come.”

Dylan Guenther, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)

Guenther is the top winger in this year’s draft. He was an alternate captain for Canada at the under-18 World Championship, and scored four goals and three assists in seven games. Though his WHL season was cut short to 12 games, he posted a whopping 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in that span. It would not be surprising at all to see Guenther taken in the top 5.

Said one NHL personnel: “Very skilled player. Has everything you’re looking for: size, speed, skill, leadership intangibles. He’s a little lanky right now, so he’ll need to add muscle and weight. Great hockey IQ, and works hard off the puck.”

But the biggest compliment from the NHL evaluator: “I think he has the potential to be a star in this league.”

Luke Hughes, D, U.S. national team development program

The youngest of the Hughes brothers. Following the success of his brothers Quinn (No. 7 overall by Vancouver in 2018) and Jack (No. 1 overall by New Jersey in 2019), where does the young defenseman land?

Said one league source: “If Luke Hughes is there for them, both New Jersey and Vancouver are going to have a hard time not picking him.”

The Devils select at No. 4, and it’s a feasible landing spot based on his talent.

Hughes, whose birthday is Sept. 15, 2003, is one of the youngest players in the entire draft — which should excite teams about his upside.

One of the first things NHL evaluators point out about Luke is that at 6-foot-2 he is taller than his brothers. But he shares similar attributes; mainly, those who have watched him can’t stop gushing about his smooth skating.

“Just an incredible skater,” one evaluator said. “He’s exceptional in that area, and I think it could help propel him to have a high offensive ceiling, too.”

Kent Johnson, C/W, Michigan (NCAA)

Johnson is yet another talented Wolverine projected to be drafted high; and if we’re giving out superlatives, he’s “Most Likely To End Up On SportsCenter Top Plays.”

“I love Kent Johnson,” said one evaluator. “He has a dynamic, creative skill. A unique way of expressing himself.”

And another: “The kid is absolutely fearless when he has the puck, and makes smart, calculated decisions. It’s special what he’s able to create, offensively. He plays fast, has a real high upside. Super fun player to watch.”

Mason McTavish, C, Peterborough (OHL)

McTavish, an alternate captain for Canada at the under-18 World Championship, put up five goals and six assists in seven tournament games. He spent the season on loan with the EHC Olten of the Swiss League. He performed quite well overseas, posting 11 points (nine goals, two assists) in 13 regular season games and seven points (two goals, five assists) in four playoff games.

NHL Central Scouting ranked McTavish second among North American skaters in its latest rankings.

McTavish plays a heavy game, although his skating is not elite. An NHL personnel man who has watched McTavish play suggested the forward would do better as a winger in the NHL, instead of at center. “Real hard-nosed player,” said the NHL source. “A guy who you’d want to go to battle with.”

Aatu Räty, C, Karpat (Liiga)

Räty was once viewed as one of the top — if not the top — selections in the 2021 draft. He had a precipitous fall, thanks to a poor season in Finland, scoring only six points in 36 games. He is known more as a playmaker rather than a pure scorer.

“There were so many kids who didn’t have an opportunity to play this year, mainly with the shutdown of the OHL,” one evaluator said. “Räty, unfortunately, probably hurt his stock because he did play. He really struggled this season.”

Räty’s struggles came in Finland’s top league, as a teenager playing against grown men. He has fared much better when playing against his peers, which is why he absolutely should not be written off yet.

Jesper Wallstedt, G, Luleå (SHL)

The goalie has been on many an NHL team’s radar for some time, posting strong numbers at international junior tournaments for Sweden.

“People don’t draft goalies that high, but I think he’s a top-15 pick, depending on the team’s needs,” a Swedish scout said. “He’s a big, pretty athletic goalie that’s been playing the entire year in the SHL, doing a great job, being one of the better goalies in the league. Playing in the SHL as a young player is not that common, and being a young goalie in that league is even more uncommon. I would have him high. He’s the third-best Swede in this draft.”

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