Road to 2021: The Search for a Play-Driving Centre

It’s a future-focused February check-in on the 2021 NHL Draft.

Welcome back! With the NHL resuming play, we’ve had a fair amount to distract us from the overwhelming prospect coverage we’ve seen as a community over the past year. It’s been a welcome break.

Our reprieve only lasted for a few weeks, with the Senators starting the season so poorly that the community sounds prime for a check-in. That’s where we come in. Every month, we’ll be sharing some key storylines to watch for as we follow the 2021 NHL Draft. Similar to our Five Thoughts column, we’ll pick a couple of topics to delve into a bit deeper — giving you information to ponder on and contextualize our detailed player profiles later in the year.

The Search for a Top Play-Driving Centre

As of yesterday morning, your Ottawa Senators have the best odds for picking first overall in the 2021 Draft. This could be the fourth straight year that the team would finish with a top-five pick.

In Brady Tkachuk, the team has a future captain — an elite winger with one of the league’s best physical games and a strong driver of both expected goals and penalty differentials. In Tim Stützle, the team has an electrifying talent with the puck on his stick and the work-ethic to become a bonafide star. In Jake Sanderson, the team is hoping they have a top-end all-situations blueliner that flourishes defensively in the way Thomas Chabot does offensively.

What is this group missing? A right-shot defenceman, a star goaltender, and a play-driving top-end centre. Stützle could potentially be the latter, but a game-breaking pivot would give the team the option to leave the German as a hunter on the wing. Luckily for the Senators, two of the most NHL-ready forwards from the 2021 Draft could fit this bill: Matthew Beniers and William Eklund.

Three points in seven games for the gold medal-winning American squad is nothing to scoff at, especially when you consider the prominent role that Beniers played and how much his transition game helped his team dominate possession with Cole Caufield and Matthew Boldy. He’s responsible with the puck, plays with speed, and is a prime playmaker for his teammates given his ability to quickly process options and make the correct decisions — a potential fit for Stützle or Tkachuk.

The best draft-eligible talent in the SHL, William Eklund missed the World Juniors, but continues to impress. The staff over at EP Rinkside recently named Eklund their first overall pick in their January ranking, noting:

He’s a high-pace, deceptive dual-threat scorer with advanced puck-protection mechanics and strong habits in all three zones. A lack of ankle flexion limits Eklund’s straight-line explosiveness, but hardly to a prohibitive degree. Really, he’s the complete package.

Getting top-end minutes with Djurgårdens alongside Alexander Holtz, Eklund occasionally flashes high-end skill that I’ve only seen from Kent Johnson — another top centre candidate — and is more sure of his game against men. Eklund is a natural centre who has primarily lined up at wing this season, but is expected to pivot as an NHLer.

Here are some quick hits on some of the other top centre candidates for Sens fans to keep their eyes on:

  • A consensus top-10 pick for a while now, Michigan’s Kent Johnson leads his stacked team in scoring with 18 points in 16 games as a freshman. Only five of his 18 points are on the powerplay, and he’s primarily been acting as a set-up man for teammates — only averaging 1.81 shots per game to date. Johnson is constantly labeled as a player with one of the top ceilings in this year’s draft, but there are question marks about whether his play will translate to being a top-line forward. He’s got some defensive warts, stays on the perimeter, and can sometimes play without pace — making him a non-factor when his offence isn’t going compared to his teammate, Beniers. The jump from the BCHL to the NCAA is a decently-sized one, though, and there’s a belief that Johnson could be the top player in the draft if he puts it all together.
  • A projected top pick coming in, we’ve spoken about how Aatu Räty struggled out of the gate — being left off his Liiga team and the Finland U20 squad to start the season. After a point-per-game spell in the U20 league, Räty has now played 14 games with Kärpät’s Liiga squad and is showcasing his ability to play fast with a balanced, offensive toolkit.
  • The top forward for the USNTDP, Chaz Lucius has missed the entire season dealing with a lower-body injury, but should get games in during the spring. He’s a goal-scoring centre who creates from the most dangerous areas of the ice — competing hard to generate net-front attempts and chances. His detractors note that he’s not quite efficient with his puck touches, and that his explosiveness needs work — something that’ll be interesting to watch for given his injury./

Watching the Wolverines

Let’s take an even closer look at a couple of the aforementioned forwards, plus one of this year’s many top defencemen. Most draft classes have their defining player. But 2021 is already shaping up to be much different, and instead has more of a defining team — the University of Michigan, AKA the Michigan Wolverines.

The NCAA isn’t exactly a hotbed for NHL draft talent, given that only players on the older side of the draft class are able to start college so early. Dylan Holloway made his mark last season, and we all remember Brady Tkachuk’s burst out of college a couple years prior. But again, 2021 decided to be a draft class unlike any other. Three of this year’s top prospects are all playing in the NCAA, and all of them decided to hop onto the same team.

Meet Owen Power, Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson. All three were ranked in the top ten during our preliminary look at this draft class, and have only stood to gain ground on their peers. Their season is currently on a two week pause with Michigan’s entire athletic department shutting down due to COVID-19 risks, with the trio likely making a return soon. But given the gravitas the team carries this year, I think it’s worth examining how they’ve performed in their games to date.

Right off the bat, let’s check in on the scoring leaders:

This, as some folks may say, is good. Even further, the two players rounding out the top five are also freshmen who were just drafted in 2019. Michigan currently sits in 7th place according to the latest NCAA rankings, so to see them led by such a young core is pretty unprecedented.

Stylistically speaking, we can divide the group of draft-eligibles into two categories. Power is the hulking 6’6” defeceman who plays a smart game in all three zones, while Johnson and Beniers are the pedal-to-the-metal offencemen who’ve shown an impressive level of chemistry thus far. Bailey Johnson does a fantastic job looking at their time together in this post.

A key aspect Bailey touches on in her piece is their proficiency these players have shown in getting the puck through the neutral zone, using data tracked manually by Madeline Campbell. It only further outlines just how prolific the two forwards have been so far — Johnson and Beniers are #1 and #2 in Michigan’s total zone entry attempts, with both players completing them with control over 60% of the time, with Beniers sitting all the way at 71%. They’re fast, consistent, and extremely efficient at getting their team in a strong offensive position.

Power has been solid on the breakout too. He’s not the team’s most frequent puck-carrier by any stretch, but he’s exited the zone with control 81% of the time, tops among Michigan blueliners and second overall to, you guessed it, Matt Beniers. This is a team built for the modern game, and their style has been paying off in spades thus far.

Tracking the Trackers

Wrapping up this post, I want to draw attention to a handful of phenomenal resources available for analyzing prospects, specifically in the realm of tracking data. Also frequently referred to as microtracking or microstats, a bunch of dedicated individuals have taken it upon themselves to manually scribe statistics that either aren’t tracked or made public by various hockey leagues.

Data tracking is nothing new to hockey — NHL front offices have been applying the practice for decades, keeping track of their internally defined version of ‘scoring chances’ even before the NHL started releasing detailed shot data in 2007. The tradition has continued even in the wake of giant leaps in hockey analysis, with research showing how elements like zone entries and shot assists can help paint a clearer picture. Many leagues and teams now hire private companies that use complex software to automatically track that type of data. In the public sphere, however, Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones project is the go-to resource for NHL microstats, tracking an obscene amount of games by hand.

Before I present the resources, though, I feel obligated to share a few words of caution. There’s three parts to this:

  1. Pay close attention to the sample size!!! I cannot emphasize this enough. If a player only has a couple games or few dozen minutes worth of tracked info, there’s a very strong chance that the data isn’t useful. The point of stability will change for each statistic too, so also keep that in mind depending on its frequency of events — total on-ice shot attempts will stabilize faster than total on-ice goals, for example. As a general minimum baseline, shot attempts (Corsi) tends to stabilize at around 100 minutes of ice time for the NHL.
  2. This might seem even more obvious, but the importance of keeping the context of each stat in mind can’t be understated. Microstats are very different from all-encompassing metrics such as WAR in that they exist to look at very specific traits, rather than trying to measure overall ability. Jack Fraser outlines this distinction well in his post ‘How Should We Interpret Microstats?’
  3. Finally, keep in mind that some of these statistics are completely unproven in having any positive descriptive power to how player performs overall. And given that prospect analysis is built on trying to project how players will perform at higher levels, none of this data is trying to accomplish that, focusing solely on how they’re playing this season. Be curious, but also be skeptical.

Despite all the caveats, all the sources listed below are invaluable, with individuals taking countless hours of their own time to help us deepen our understanding of the game. We’ll be referring to these frequently as we eventually wander into writing prospect profiles closer to draft day. So keep all of these pages bookmarked, and support all the folks behind the hard work.

Mitch Brown — Tracking stats for the OHL, WHL, QMJHL, USNTDP, USHL, NCAA and WJC

You probably saw us refer to Brown’s data a lot in last year’s draft profiles, and for good reason. The list of leagues he tracks is extensive, already providing preliminary data this season for the QMJHL, USNTDP, and a couple USHL teams. The data points are just as extensive too — shot assists, zone entries/exits, turnover rates, defensive retrievals, the list goes on. He even goes as far to building a model for expected goals and expected primary assists, which incorporates detailed data from both shots and shot assists. This is all available through supporting him on Patreon.

Will Scouch — Tracking stats for draft-eligible prospects

You might’ve stumbled across Will’s YouTube channel where he does in-depth reports on draft-eligible prospects and hosts weekly livestreams. A core part of his videos is the data he tracks for each player, including stats for passing, shot attempts and zone transitions. Peeling through the data can be tricky given that the tracking is focused on individual players spanning numerous leagues. But as far as microstats go for draft-eligible players, Will’s tracking is second-to-none.

The charts are publicly available, with raw data available by supporting him on Patreon.

Lassi Alanen — Tracking stats for draft-eligible prospects in the U20 SM-sarja (Finland)

Working with a similar framework to Mitch Brown, Alanen transfers the same terminology to Finland, providing us with data for Finland’s U20 circuit. It includes models for expected goals and expected primary assists, on top of information for zone transitions, shot contributions and defensive breakups. You can find all the charts here.

Dylan Griffing — Tracking stats for draft-eligible prospects in the MHL, KHL and VHL (Russia)

If you can count on someone to track down every tiny bit of info on Russian prospects, it’s Dylan Griffing. His dataset on Russian prospects spans all three of the nation’s big leagues, tracking on-ice shot attempts and passing data. The last tab in the link also includes his personal ranking of draft-eligible prospects, if you’re looking for a place to start combing through his findings. All the charts are available here.

Josh Tessler — Tracking stats for selected goalies (mostly draft-eligible)

Goalie stats, on their own, are something I’m already highly skeptical of. Then you get into the world of microtracking, and I’m on another planet in terms of comfort level. But what Josh provides is a unique look at netminders just beyond height and save percentage, quantifying different areas such as rebound control and movement speed. The data’s divided into two charts — rebounds and quickness.

Madeline Campbell — Tracking stats for the University of Michigan (NCAA)

The source of all the data referenced in the previous section, it’s become clear that no single team is more important to 2021 draft class than the University of Michigan. Madeline has taken on the task of manually tracking zone transitions for nearly every game the team has played this season, consolidated in this spreadsheet.

That’s all for this month’s edition of Road to 2021! We’ll be back again with a new edition in March, with additional writing coming your way in the long lead-up to the draft. Thanks for reading!

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