In a year where the pandemic has affected everybody, the hockey world has been no exception. We’ve already seen the NHL host the bubble playoffs and subsequently start a new season, and the World Juniors came and went in January.
Those are some of the biggest revenue-generating events hockey has to offer, however, and even those experienced varying degrees of less-than-perfect success at keeping their athletes safe and healthy. As we look towards the NHL draft, an event that includes players feeding from dozens of leagues, it becomes increasingly complex to decipher how things might go.
The uncertainty this year is unprecedented — some seasons have been delayed or fully cancelled, and players have been migrating all over the world to get some games in. In an effort to at least get our heads on our shoulders heading into this year’s draft coverage, this post will be dedicated solely to untangling some of the mess. It’ll be divided into two sections:
- What’s the current state of the major leagues affecting the 2021 NHL Draft?
- How have draft-eligible players been affected; specifically, which ones are on loan or have transferred to other leagues?
Consider this our guide of how we’ll be tracking the current season. There’s a lot to account for this season, so hopefully having everything in one place will be able to keep us all on the same page. We’ll be updating this post about once a month, so keep it bookmarked for future reference.
Status: It’s... complicated
Sens prospects saw the first-hand impact of the pandemic as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2019-20 NCAA Championship (Frozen Four). Since then, the different conferences that make up collegiate hockey have responded to the pandemic in various ways. North Dakota and Omaha’s NCHC went for a modified bubble-format called the NCHC Pod, playing many games over a short period, taking a break for the holidays, and then meeting up for another condensed burst. For 2021 draft followers, most draft-eligible players are in the Big 10 conference, which started the season on November 13th with no fans in buildings, but traveling teams on a modified schedule. There were some small changes, too — no more handshakes, an increase in bus travel to name a few — but the rest of their season is in jeopardy with the University of Michigan shutting down its entire athletics department due to positive COVID-19 cases.
Status: USHL playing games since November 6th; some with limited (<3000) fans in the stands; NTDP started in October
After three players tested positive for COVID-19 in July and the annual USA Hockey Summer Showcase was cancelled later that month, things looked... rocky for the top Tier I junior league south of the border. Despite that, the NTDP group began games right around the 2020 NHL Draft without fans, and the USHL tweaked their schedule to play games regionally, and without two franchises as the Madison Capitals and Cedar Rapids RoughRiders withdrew due to COVID-19 and arena damage respectively.
Status: It’s...complicated. Some prep schools are experiencing large outbreaks, while others — like the famous Shattuck St. Mary’s program — are still playing regularly.
Status: Season yet to get underway
It seems like every few weeks, we’ll hear news from the OHL about a potential start date to their season, and soon after, we’ll find out that its been delayed. It’s hard to play organized sports during a pandemic, folks. The last time we heard, the league wanted to start on February 4th, but after Ontario entered a lockdown in December, that date has been indefinitely delayed. A season for the NHL’s largest feeder league looks doubtful.
Status: Started in October; delayed in December due to provincial restrictions in Québec; play resumed January 22nd outside of the Atlantic Bubble.
The wild West or the erratic East? Of all the North American junior leagues, the QMJHL has had the most tumultuous season to date. The 2020-21 season started on October 2nd and all was well for two weeks until positive cases came up in Québec’s two divisions — leaving the six-team Maritimes Division as the only one running. The whole season was delayed in late December as Québec imposed more restrictions on play, and as of Friday, the early-season situation is now flipped — with teams in Québec able to play while teams in the Maritimes still waiting to restart. The league has been receiving funding from provincial governments to stay alive; interestingly, teams in the Maritimes Division have been able to have ~1000-2000 fans in the stands, while all games in Québec have been with empty seats.
Status: Getting ready for a 24-game season
Back in May, one of the league’s most successful teams — the Seth Jarvis’ Portland Winterhawks — filed for bankruptcy protection. It speaks to the systemic issues surrounding even the most popular junior hockey teams face during pandemic times. The league had planned to start the 2020-21 season on January 8th, but the start date was pushed back on December 15th as B.C. and Alberta announced new public health restrictions. On January 8th, the league’s Board of Governors committed to a 24-game season, with the specific format to be determined. Some rumblings suggest that the league is considering a bubble model in March, with four host cities — potentially one for each division. As the league has some teams based in the States, it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.
Status: A month of exhibition games in October; season underway in November; delayed by the end of the month, and looking to restart in February
Oh, Alberta. The province with the most lax regulations given the government in power, there’s a reason why the NHL was able to use the province to run its playoff bubble and the IIHF looked to Edmonton for the IIHF World Junior Championships. The AJHL started play as early as the QMJHL did, but had to cancel its season before — getting to play about three weeks of regular season hockey until the province imposed heightened restrictions on organized sports. Many weren’t happy, with some prominent WHLers initially flocking to the league for playing time when the WHL’s season looked uncertain, and the coach of the Canmore Eagles was suspended and fined after botching media communications when he had an outbreak on his team.
Status: Looking to start their season on February 8th
Like other leagues, the BCHL were planning for an early Winter start — aiming for December 2nd, and then December 8th. Those plans changed as British Columbia banned adult sports, significantly impacting a league where half of the players are over 18. BCHL leadership argued for an exemption alongside other sports leagues in the province, and got positive news on December 30th that they could resume practices with full teams and aim for a mid-January start if restrictions eased. With cases still ever-present in the province, the league has aimed for their current predicted start date of February 8th. Like others, teams are looking for provincial funding to stay afloat.
J20 Nationell (Sweden)
Status: Played September 9th to November 1st; paused until further notice
Formerly known as the SuperElit, Sweden’s top junior league was one of the few top-tier hockey leagues to get going before well before the 2020 Draft. When Sweden paused youth sports at the end of October, the league — and its U18 (J18) counterpart — were put on pause until further notice. The first indication from the league was that they’d outright cancel the rest of the season, but in January, there were rumblings that Sweden might lift its restrictions on youth sport. We’ve yet to see anything materialize, but it’s worth to keep your eyes peeled for news — especially because many of the players mentioned later in the article would likely flock to the league for playing time against quality competition.
Status: Season-in-progress, with all teams having played between 30-37 games
Sweden’s top men’s league began their regular season on September 19th and haven’t looked back. There’s been limited attendance from fans, with empty seats one game, to 50 people in another, to now close-to 300 people being allowed in under current restrictions. Individual games have been postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, and in particular, Örebro, Oskarshamn, and Rögle all had team activities suspended for a period in late November and early December due to infection rates in their respective cities. Overall, though, the league is operational, and should finish out its season.
U20 SM-sarja (Finland)
Status: Season-in-progress, with most teams having played between 25-32 games
The most stable top-tier junior league in the world, Finland’s relative inaccessibility and strong social support network has helped it become one of Europe’s few countries that haven’t been overrun by the virus. Don’t get me wrong — cases have increased over the Fall and peaked in mid-December — but when compared to its Scandinavian neighbour, Finland’s in a better shape. Responsibly playing with no fans in the stands, Leevi Meriläinen and co. are on pace to play nearly a full season (~60 games).
Status: Season-in-progress, with all teams having played between 24-29 games
Lassi Thomson’s old stomping ground and Roby Järventie’s current one, Finland’s top men’s league began their season on October 1st. Like the SHL, there have been instances of individual players testing positive for the virus and games being postponed, but unlike their Swedish counterparts, fans were allowed in the stands in larger capacities. As cases increased in Finland, stricter restrictions were put in place on people gathering and the league took a two week pause from December 3rd to 19th. In January, regular play had resumed.
Status: Season-in-progress, with most teams having played between 39-52 games
Status: Season-in-progress, with most teams having played between 41-45 games
Status: Season-in-progress, with most teams having played between 47-51 games
Despite Russia’s mishandling of COVID-19, hockey has been present in all three major leagues. The KHL saw one club, Admiral Vladivostok, pull out due to financial difficulties but started their season ‘on-time’ on September 2nd. As of Dec 1, the league has had 507 total cases of COVID-19 — forcing varying restrictions on fan attendance, game postponement, and more.
Player Loans & Transfers
In an ironic yet predictable twist of events, the increased amount of shutdowns has led to a significant increase in player movement.
The uniqueness of this year can’t be understated, so in an attempt to further untangle this mess, the next section is our notepad focusing solely on which players are playing where.
The list of transfers is divided into five sections: 1) players moving from North America to Europe, 2) Europe to elsewhere in Europe, 3) Europe to North America, 4) North America to elsewhere in North America, and 5) players who just don’t have a place to play right now. Following along? It’s messy, but there’s a couple other things worth mentioning.
First, this is only focusing on players in their first year of draft eligibility. Notable overagers are starting to emerge this year, but it’s too massive a pool to keep track. Maybe that’s a risky move to pull on a blog covering the Sens, but oh well. Second, players marked in italics are the bigger names to keep an eye on, either marked as an A-tier prospect by NHL Central Scouting, or a potential top-32 pick by expected range, derived from the public consolidated rankings.
Let’s dive into part two!
North America to Europe
Most of this list’s section is made up of OHLers looking for a place to play while their season is on hold until further notice. More surprisingly, there’s been little consensus as to a preferred league for the young players to join. The top of this list also starts with a few potential top-ten defencemen.
- Brandt Clarke (RD) — Moved from the OHL’s Barrie Colts to the Slovakian men’s pro league, playing with HC Nove Zamky.
- Carson Lambos (LD) — The only WHL player in this section, having moved from the Winnipeg Ice to splitting time between Finland’s U18 and U20 leagues with the JYP franchise. The majority has been spent at the U20 level (13 of 15 games).
- Daniil Chayka (LD) — Moved from the Guelph Storm to Russia to play for top team CSKA Moskva, with stints in the VHL and MHL although sticking mostly in the KHL. Moscow is his hometown, having moved to play in North America back in 2017 at age 14.
- Brennan Othmann (LW) — Moved from the OHL’s Flint Firebirds to play in the SL, Switzerland’s second-tier pro league behind the NL.
- Giancarlo Chanton (LD) — Chanton moved from Switzerland to play one season with the Niagara IceDogs in 2019-20, but has now moved back his home country to split time between the SL and the Swiss U20 league. Chanton recently participated at the World Juniors.
- Francesco Pinelli (C) and Francesco Arcuri (C) — The two Francescos from their respective OHL teams to the AlpsHL, a pro league spanning Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Pinelli has yet to play, announcing the move earlier this week.
- Brett Harrison (C) — Another very recent move, moving from the Oshawa Generals to the KOOVEE franchise in Finland. He’ll likely start with their U20 team, then move up to Mestis (Finland’s second-tier pro league) once the second half of their season begins.
- Logan Mailloux (RD) — Moved from the London Knights to HockeyEttan, Sweden’s third-tier pro league.
- Chase Stillman (RW) — Moved from the Sudbury Wolves to Denmark’s U20 league.
- Alexander Mirzabalayev (LW) — The only QMJHL player to appear in this section, Mirzabalayev did similar to Chanton by moving back to his home country in Russia, after spending a season playing for the Val-d’Or Foreurs.
Europe to Europe
Some European players have recently been out of luck with their typical league shutting down, forcing them to either a different division or an entirely separate country.
This section doesn’t include regular loan transactions, such as moving Finnish players to the Mestis or Czech players to Czech2, since those typically happen to a few players each season regardless of the pandemic situation.
- The biggest story is where all the Swedish players have flocked to since the U20 and U18 leagues were cancelled for the season. For some it’s meant more time in the SHL, although the list of players loaned to HockeyEttan, the third tier pro league, is long: William Strömgren (LW), Liam Dower Nilsson (C), Hugo Gabrelsson (LD), Victor Sjöholm (RD), William von Barkenow (LW/RW), Elias Stenman (C), Philip Granath (RW) and Theo Angesved (RD) are the main players on our radar.
- One exception is Marcus Almquist (C/RW), who moved from Sweden to play for his hometown Rødovre in the Danish pro league.
- Viljami Juusola (LD) made a more unexpected decision, deciding to leave the U20 SM-sarja (Finland’s U20 league) to compete in HockeyEttan, despite the former still running. My best guess is that he’s pursuing more minutes in a league that’s gaining more eyes with the shutdowns in Sweden.
Europe to North America
While confusing on the surface given where most cancellations are happening, the tradition of European players seeking more scouting eyes in North America continued into this season, albeit in a much smaller capacity. The recent re-opening of the QMJHL has particularly served as a re-opened door.
- Viljami Marjala (LW) — Moved from Finland to the QMJHL’s Québec Remparts.
- Alexei Prokopenko (F) — Moved from Russia to the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques, although he wasn’t with them for the first section of the season before it shut down.
- Attilio Biasca (C/LW) and Lorenzo Canonica (C/LW) — Both committed to play in the QMJHL. Like Prokopenko, Biasca and Canonica hadn’t joined them for their teams for first part, and have instead been playing in their home country Switzerland between the SL and U20-Elit. Both recently participated in the World Juniors.
- Artyom Grushnikov (LD) and Daniil Sobolev (RD) — Two players committed to play in the OHL whenever their season starts, electing not to play in their home country Russia while they wait.
- Alex Geci (C) — Similar situation to Grushnikov, deciding not to play while committed to playing for the Sarnia Sting. He spent last season in two parts between Slovakia’s U20 league and Finland’s U18 league.
- Brian Zanetti (LD) — Similar to Biasca and Canonica, Zanetti is playing in Switzerland’s U20 league while committed to playing for the Peterborough Petes.
North America to North America
Similar to the Swedes in Europe, a handful of North American players have decided to change course in their development path, as the league they anticipated to play in was forced to shut down. The two most common destinations are the USHL and QMJHL.
- Cole Sillinger (C) and Jack O’Brien (C) — Moved from the WHL to the USHL. Sillinger headlines the entire group as a probable first round talent joining the Sioux City Musketeers.
- Scout Truman (LW) — Same deal as Sillinger and O’Brien by moving to the USHL, although Truman was expected to spend the season in the AJHL before taking the college route.
- Evan Nause (LD) and Cameron MacDonald (C/LW) — Two players moving out of the USHL and into the QMJHL development route, both selected in the CHL import draft.
- Colby Saganiuk (F) — Another player changing development paths, Saganiuk left the USDP to commit to the Erie Otters, signing with them back in May of 2020, long before league schedules were known.
- Simon Motew (RD) — A rare OHL player deciding to join a league that isn’t in Europe, instead going to the USPHL Premier, a third-tier junior American league.
Players Without a Home
Let’s face it: there’s a tonne of obstacles facing North American players whose options are to either play in Europe or not play at all. Travel costs are significant, and moving far away from family in the middle of a global pandemic is a tough decision to make. The extra risk of viral spread from playing hockey is also far from zero.
That leaves a large chunk of players who have played either zero or very few games heading into February of their draft year. That obviously shouldn’t disqualify them from being drafted entirely — in the long-term this will just be a bump in the ultimate success of some players’ careers. But these are the players we’re keeping an eye on, with potential decisions to be made on the horizon if their leagues aren’t figured out in the near future.
- Let’s get the big ones out of the way first. The OHL is in most years the NHL’s biggest feeder league for the draft, and the players we have our eyes on are: Mason McTavish (C), Benjamin Gaudreau (G), Tristan Lennox (G), Connor Lockhart (C), Wyatt Johnston (C), Avery Hayes (C/RW), Ty Voit (C/LW), Stuart Rolofs (LW), Ethan Del Mastro (LD), Alex Christopoulos (RW), Isaac Enright (RD), Bryce Montgomery (RD), Ethan Burroughs (RW), Deni Goure (C), Jack Matier (RD), Jacob Holmes (LD) and Tucker Robertson (RW).
- The other behemoth is the WHL, where we’re looking out for the following players: Logan Stankoven (F), Ryder Korczak (C), Sebastian Cossa (G), Vincent Iorio (RD), Graham Sward (LD), Olen Zellweger (LD), Talyn Boyko (G), Carter Serhyenko (G), Colton Dach (LW) and Trevor Wong (C).
- A few major edge cases also need to be included: WHL players who briefly visited various CJHL leagues before they too were cancelled. Dylan Guenther (LW) is the biggest name of the bunch, although this also includes Zack Stringer (LW) and Sean Tschigerl (LW) in the AJHL, Conner Roulette (F) and Tyson Kozak (C) in the MJHL, and Nolan Allan (LD)in the SJHL.
- We also can’t forget the players who were expected to spend their entire draft year in the CJHL, with Corson Ceulemans (RD) and Ty Mueller (F) in the AJHL, and Finlay Williams (F) and Ray Fust (LW/RW) in the BCHL.
- Remember the Swedish folks who had to make the jump from the U20 league to HockeyEttan? There’s still a handful of players who have yet to find their new destination: Lucas Forsell (LW), Oskar Jellvik (C), Jakub Altrichter (C), Jonathan Myrenberg (RD) and Gustav Stjernberg (RD).
Special thanks to EliteProspects for the player positions and being an invaluable resource for tracking player transactions.