It’s shaping up to be a real battle for first overall this year — not by two players, but a large group. It’s anyone’s guess who could earn the title when the 2021 draft rolls around, as even a couple months into this proto-season, we’ve seen the conversation shifting drastically between a few players. The increased uncertainty is also shown in the expected range — between the 14 sources, five players have been ranked first on a least a single list.
We’re sure these rankings will be drastically different by the end of the year, but as of now, these are the top-10 players that we’re keeping a close eye on for the 2021 NHL Draft.
A couple extra notes:
- Age is listed as of September 15th, 2021, the cutoff date for draft eligibility where every player must be 18+.
- Height/weight is taken from the player’s listing on Elite Prospects; most other statistics cited are from the invaluable Pick224.
- Expected range is taken from a consolidation of 14 reliable public draft rankings, with an adjustment added to better reflect how many times each player was ranked. You can find the full list here.
- You can view part one of this article, covering players ranked 11th to 21st, here.
#1: Owen Power
|LD||Univ. of Michigan||NCAA||18.81||6'5"||214 lbs||1 - 3|
In a strong year for defencemen, Owen Power currently holds the top spot as the draft’s #1 eligible prospect. A key part of last year’s overpowered Chicago Steel team in the USHL, his 40 points in 45 games not only led all defencemen, but was the second highest scoring rate in league history for a D-1 defender, right behind Quinn Hughes in 2016-17. It rightfully earned him the award as the USHL’s top defenceman at only 17 years old.
Depending who you ask, Power is either 6’5” or 6’6”. It immediately makes him stand out on the ice, but paired with a fluid skating stride, he’s a scout’s dream when looking for a mobile, pressuring defenceman. The Steel’s general manager called him “mature beyond his years”, something that’s shown through his calculated defensive play (helped by his long reach) and growing creativity offensively (helped by his, wait for it, powerful slapshot). One of the draft’s older prospects, he’s already ten games deep into his NCAA career with the University of Michigan. Overall, Power boasts a rare combination of skills to find in such a young defenceman, which currently places him right at the top.
Read more: Contender Series, Blueline Big 3 (Tony Ferrari, DobberProspects)
#2: Brandt Clarke
|RD||Barrie Colts||OHL||18.60||6'1"||181 lbs||1 - 7|
The lone right-hand shot among this talented group of defencemen, Barrie’s Brandt Clarke possesses a mature, versatile skillset that screams top-pairing defender. The Ottawa-born defender grew up with season tickets for your Ottawa Senators, and I’d be lying if I didn’t own up to my bias here: he seems like the perfect fit given the team’s organizational depth at the moment.
Here’s what we like about Clarke: he’s an aggressive blueliner, with tantalizing skating ability and sublime control over his stick that allows him to make moves to generate dangerous chances when he has the puck, or to stymie opposing attackers when he doesn’t. Clarke excels in transition given his passing and skating ability, and he knows he oozes confidence, often utilizing quick feints or drawing forecheckers in before beating the first attacker and buzzing through the neutral zone.
Before being drafted fourth overall by Barrie in the 2019 OHL Draft, Clarke put up 113 points in 73 games for the GTHL’s Don Mills Flyers — finishing third in the league in scoring, 42 points ahead of the next blueliner. His 1.55 points-per-game that season is the highest mark of all-time among defenders in that league. Brock Otten of OHLProspects noted that Clarke is the most complete 16-year-old defenceman he’s seen since first overall pick Aaron Ekblad, noting that his takeaway metrics when defending the rush were stellar in addition to his 38 points in 57 games.
Like many young players, Clarke needs to fill out his currently-lanky 6-foot-1 frame, as the increased strength will help him not get overpowered on the boards and to defend cycles better. Really, though, that’s it for the flaws.
Read more: Contender Series, Blueline Big 3 (Tony Ferrari, DobberProspects); 21 Days of 2021 NHL Draft Prospects: #11 — Brandt Clarke (Lauren Kelly, Raw Charge); 2019-20 Highlight Reel (Ontario Hockey League YouTube)
#3: Carson Lambos
|LD||JYP U20||U20 SM-sarja||18.67||6'1"||201 lbs||2 - 7|
The WHL — and now Finland’s — contribution to the list, Carson Lambos brings raw power, intelligent defence, and decisive offence to his game. A filled-out 6-foot-1, Lambos is regarded as the blueliner bringing the most defensive value in the draft, with high-end anticipation to shut down plays as they’re developing and a strong neutral zone skillset à la Jake Sanderson.
The best draft-eligible defenceman in the WHL last year, Lambos led all his peers in even-strength primary points-per-game and primary points-per-game, shots on goal, estimated time-on-ice per-game, and even-strength GF% relative metrics. He played regular minutes on the penalty kill last year for the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice as a 16-year-old, and played top-pair minutes at the U17s.
When pandemic restrictions were put in place, Lambos uniquely made the move to Finland, where he currently plays for JYP in the U20 SM-sarja. Scouts will be looking to see if he’s able to drive offence himself on a consistent, game-by-game basis, and while the move to a new team, language, and culture will lead to an adjustment, if Lambos is able to contribute in another league, it’ll help ease any concerns on his current top-pair potential.
Read more: Contender Series, Blueline Big 3 (Tony Ferrari, DobberProspects); 21 Days of 2021 NHL Draft Prospects: #17 — Carson Lambos (Lauren Kelly, Raw Charge)
#4: Luke Hughes
|LD||U.S. National U18 Team||USDP||18.02||6'2"||176 lbs||2 - 8|
The defencemen just keep on rolling, and you may already recognize Luke Hughes just from being the youngest brother in the Hughes family, looking to follow the elders Quinn and Jack to be the third sibling picked in the top ten. He’s the tallest of the bunch at 6’2”, and also the first of many USNTDP players you’ll be seeing grace this list.
As we’ve come to expect from Hughes players, Luke’s skating ability is exceptional among his peers, demonstrating effortless fluidity with and without the puck. He operates best in transition, but has shown some flashes of offensive creativity too. And given that he’s one of the draft’s earliest birthdays and is gradually growing into his frame, Hughes is a player where I’m most curious to see how much he can grow his skillset in the months ahead. If he can continue to grow into his exciting style of offence from the blue line, the sky may be the limit.
Read more: Scouting Report: Luke Hughes (Josh Tessler, Smaht Scouting)
#5: Kent Johnson
|C||Univ. of Michigan||NCAA||18.91||6'1"||165 lbs||3 - 9|
Finally, a forward. Kent Johnson is making a heck of a leap this season, moving from the BCHL right to the NCAA as one of the draft’s older players. He posted record-breaking numbers in 2019-20 for the Trail Smoke Eaters, with his 1.94 points per game the highest mark for a D-1 player since Scott Gomez in 1996-97. Now he’s playing with Owen Power on the University of Michigan (apt given how many times he’s attempted The Michigan), already receiving top minutes while making his mark on the scoresheet (albeit with many secondary assists thus far).
When it comes to smooth hands and offensive creativity in this draft class, Johnson is unmatched. He sees the ice incredibly well and manipulates defenders with his smooth hands, which has made for some highlight reel plays. Some scouts are concerned with the lack of a high gear to his skating, although he doesn’t seem to be holding him back in his handful of NCAA games to date. In a draft class that lacks a true elite-level forward prospect, Johnson is currently the most likely to get there.
Read more: How will Kent Johnson’s BCHL dominance translate to higher levels? (Sam Happi, The Prospect Network)
#6: Aatu Räty
|C||Kärpät U20||U20 SM-sarja||18.84||6'1"||181 lbs||2 - 13|
Widely lauded as the #1 prospect heading into the season, Aatu Räty was the youngest player at the 2020 World Junior Championships representing Finland, and now hasn’t even been invited to their 2021 camp. It’s odd to see a downward trajectory for prospects this young who aren’t dealing with injuries, but he’s still in the top ten for a reason — Räty’s played above his age group for years now, participating full-time in the Finnish U20 league two seasons ago as a 17-year-old. He’s struggled in his multiple attempts to move up to the Liiga against pro competition, but continues to be fierce against what’s now his age group.
Given this situation, Räty is maybe the most perplexing prospect in this draft. When analyzing prospects in terms of their risk factors, Räty’s profile goes against so much of what we see in young prospects — he’s responsible defensively and boasts a level of cerebral refinement possessed by few others in this draft class. But he’s also shown some inconsistency with his offensive skills, something that’s progressed worryingly little in the last couple seasons, hence the fall from first overall. When he’s on his game, he can be a shifty dual-threat scorer who utilizes his teammates to get pucks towards the net. But at his current crossroads in development, I’m especially curious to see how the rest of his season will progress.
Read more: Aatu Räty (FinnProspects)
#7: Dylan Guenther
|LW||Sherwood Park Crusaders||AJHL||18.43||6'1"||185 lbs||5 - 9|
The top CHL forward at the moment, Dylan Guenther was the first overall pick in the 2018 WHL Draft and won the league’s rookie of the year last season after a 26-goal, 59-point performance in 58 games. Upside is the name of the game with Guenther, as he possesses dazzling hands, strong decision-making, and is responsible in transition.
A true play-driver despite playing mainly at wing, Guenther tracks well in his defensive zone, and is smart with his positioning on outlets which allows him to receive many puck touches throughout a single game. He’s adept at drawing in pressure and either utilizing a quick move to beat his player, or to facilitate the puck into the offensive zone with control. He’s got strong puck control, and while he’s occasionally overpowered by stronger players in-zone, he’s creative on the rush — with strong patterns of attack and good one-on-one skills if he has an opportunity.
While Cole Sillinger outscored Guenther, he likely won the rookie of the year award for his leading production at even-strength and strong impact on goals on a weak team like the Edmonton Oil Kings. This year, Guenther has suited up for just four games with the local Sherwood Park Crusaders in the lower-tier AJHL, and could potentially fall on draft day given the lack of playing time relative to some of the other players mentioned here.
Read more: Contender Series: Fascinating Forwards (Tony Ferrari, DobberProspects); 21 Days of 2021 NHL Draft Prospects: #3 — Dylan Guenther (Lauren Kelly, Raw Charge); Prospect Profile: Dylan Guenther (DraftGeek); Dylan Guenther: The journey from first overall at WHL Draft to offensive star for the Oil Kings (WHL)
#8: Simon Edvinsson
|LD||Frölunda HC J20||J20 Nationell||18.61||6'4"||185 lbs||5 - 14|
A Swedish blueliner from just outside Gothenburg and suiting up for Frölunda will always catch our eye, but Simon Edvinsson has a lot more going for him than just that. A top player among his age group for the last three seasons, Edvinsson starred in the country’s annual TV-pucken tournament and really flourished at the U16 level. Last season, Edvinsson started to shoot up into his now 6-foot-4 frame, and has added power to go along with his creative, aggressive, in-zone offence.
Edvinsson is adept as a neutral zone puck rusher like compatriot William Wallinder was in the 2020 class — he possesses a smooth skating stride, and can glide past attackers at top speed while looking to do something dangerous with the puck once he’s in the zone. He’s extremely confident in his in-zone ability, always looking to beat one or two players before setting up a now-open teammate with a quick, accurate pass.
He’s still learning how to best utilize his frame defensively, and moreso depends on his stick and positioning as opposed to physically imposing himself on the opposition. Like other puck rushers, his team can occasionally be exposed to odd-player rushes when he’s on the ice, as Edvinsson is out pinching. Continuing to work on his timing and getting his skating routes in order will help him circle back and utilize his sublime skating stride to dispossess opposing onlookers.
Read more: Scouting Report: Simon Edvinsson (Alexander Appleyard, SmahtScouting)
#9: Matthew Beniers
|C||Univ. of Michigan||NCAA||18.86||6'1"||174 lbs||6 - 13|
I noticed Beniers during last year’s draft coverage, because despite being a 2001-eligible player, Beniers drove offence for last year’s USNTDP group and stood out in nearly every metric I looked at. Hence, it’s no surprise that the November-born centre has got off to a hot start with the most talented Michigan group in years. He’s Bob McKenzie’s favourite to be the first forward off the board, with 6 points in 8 games already in NCAA action and a likely prime spot at the U20s on the docket next.
Beniers is a mature, nearly-pro ready forward that could easily be a one-and-done at Michigan — even if I expect him to go back for at least one more season. He’s strong in every zone, and plays in all situations given his advanced hockey sense. He’s versatile offensively, leading the U18s in goals last season while being a creative passer. I liken his style of play to a hunter, as it’s almost like he’s laying traps for his opposition to fall into so he can take the puck and set up a goal.
I was unsure whether he’d be able to translate his production to the NCAA so quickly because draft-eligible players usually struggle against stronger opponents with more developed physical frames, but Beniers has. He can likely owe that to his explosive skating ability, where his two-step acceleration allows him to close quickly when forechecking and when fulfilling his defensive zone responsibilities.
Read more: 21 Days of 2021 NHL Draft Prospects: #15 — Matthew Beniers (Lauren Kelly, Raw Charge); Prospect Ramblings: Looking at USA Hockey’s NTDP (Tony Ferrari, DobberProspects)
#10: Fabian Lysell
|RW||Frölunda HC J20||J20 Nationell||18.66||5'10"||176 lbs||7 - 17|
We already saw a couple of Swedes in part one, although Fabian Lysell leads what appears to be another strong group of Swedish forwards (even though it’ll be extremely hard to top 2020). He’s already turned into a personal favourite — naturally, he’s also the first player under six feet on this list. He recently made the jump from a deep Frölunda team to Luleå in an effort to get a shot in the SHL, so let’s cross our fingers he doesn’t become a Noel Gunler 2.0 and sees plenty of opportunities from his coaches.
What makes me so excited about Lysell is his electrifying combination of speed and offensive creativity. He was evidently way too good against U18 competition last year, turning defenders into pylons seemingly at will. This isn’t at the sacrifice of his two-way hustle either, reminiscent of Lucas Raymond last season who is always on their toes. He hasn’t put up nearly Raymond’s level of scoring totals, although if his play so far this season is any indication, Lysell just heating up.
Read more: 21 Days of 2021 NHL Draft Prospects: #16 — Fabian Lysell (Lauren Kelly, Raw Charge)