With about a month to go before the 2021 NHL draft, GMs are beginning to have their final meetings with their scouting staff to prepare for the event, which as everything this season, has been complicated by the pandemic. Some players didn’t even skate in formal games this year due to certain leagues cancelling their schedules, while many others played abbreviated seasons more akin to a sprint than a marathon. Nonetheless, the picks must be made, even with less viewings to go off.
Ordinarily, there would be a draft combine in Buffalo that would allow scouts and GMs to see prospective draft picks work out in a gym-style setting, while also getting the chance to interview the kids 1-on-1 to get a sense of who they are as people. Needless to say, Zoom became the dominant tool for interviews this year as teams took to their computers to interview the kids virtually.
The draft combine is always a great place to get little tidbits of information from teams and players and since it’s not happening this year (it was cancelled last season as well), I called up three NHL GMs to get their thoughts on a couple burning questions I had on my mind.
My first question was about best interview, but some of the GMs hadn’t finished talking to everyone on their list yet. But one did list Owen Power and Matty Beniers from the University of Michigan as good ones, plus Edmonton Oil Kings goaltender Sebastian Cossa.
“He was really mature, well-spoken and there was no nervousness,” said one GM of Cossa. “Very relaxed.”
So with only one response, we’ll call that half a burning question. Here are three full ones:
Who is the Biggest Wild Card in the Draft?
I framed this as a player who will go high – but how high? There’s always a push-pull on potential when it comes to the draft and things will be especially fraught this year since different teams got different viewings on players (apparently the University of Michigan even had a lottery for scout seats at one point thanks to the demand and Covid precautions).
Barrie Colts defenseman Brandt Clarke was tabbed by one GM as a big wild card; Clarke played in Slovakia this year since the OHL cancelled its campaign and he did well against men over there. He also looked sharp at the world under-18s, helping Canada win gold in Texas. Skating was once a concern but it didn’t seem to impact Clarke this year. So is he top-10, or top-five?
Another defenseman on the wild card list was Luke Hughes, from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. Hughes missed time due to injury, but was the NTDP’s best player when healthy. He’s a Michigan commit with two brothers in the NHL already, Quinn and Jack.
Luke is an elite skater, but he’s also one of the youngest players available in the draft (his birthday is six days before the cut-off) and still raw in some areas. Like Clarke, Hughes could be top-10 or top-five.
One GM focused his wild card vote on a different position.
“I would say the two goalies, Jesper Wallstedt and Sebastian Cossa,” he said. “They’re both high-end and both had great years. Over the past few years you’ve seen more goalies go high – Askarov to Nashville and Knight with Florida. Sounds like these two guys are in the same mould, so who’s going to step up?”
Will OHLers Drop Because of Their Cancelled Season?
The Erie showcase gave some OHL players an outlet for their energy and a nice spotlight in front of scouts from most NHL franchises, but the paucity of viewings otherwise poses a real challenge for teams trying to assess OHL talent.
“It’s very difficult,” said one GM. “The only positive is that every NHL team is on the same playing field and you have to figure it out. Can you gauge a kid’s development at 16-17 years old and equate it to 17-18? It’s a projection. You’ll be throwing darts in the late rounds.”
All three GMs agreed that the lack of season will hurt OHL prospects, but in every situation there is also opportunity for teams with ace scouts to find steals. Many regional scouts have a good book on kids from their underage seasons, so at least they have a foundation to work off (conversely, next year will also be a challenge for scouts because they won’t have this year to look back on).
Who Will Seattle Take with the Second Overall Pick?
We’re all assuming Buffalo takes Owen Power first overall here, but I feel that’s a pretty good bet at this point. The Kraken on the other hand have options, particularly since this is the team’s first entry draft ever. They are building a pipeline from scratch and since their needs are “everything,” there isn’t really a wrong answer. Clearly Ron Francis was not one of the GMs I surveyed, so according to his peers, it’s one of two choices: Matty Beniers or Simon Edvinsson.
“Is it Beniers or Edvinsson? I think it’s wide open to tell you the truth,” said one GM. “Do you want a big guy on the back end to build around? That’s the Swedish defenseman. But Beniers is a helluva player – I’ll go Beniers, but it’s a coin toss.”
Another GM also offered a split decision in favor of Beniers.
“Centers are hard to get,” he said. “You have to draft them.”