After a topsy-turvy season that saw regular routines upended by Covid-19, hockey’s top prospects are into the home stretch ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft.
For the second straight year, the players who are selected will miss out on the opportunity to walk to the stage and shake hands with their new bosses in front of cheering fans in a sold-out arena. This year’s draft will be held virtually on July 23-24.
And instead of being introduced to fans on a TV broadcast during the Stanley Cup Final, 10 of this year’s top prospects answered questions from the media via Zoom on Tuesday.
Three of those 10 were freshmen at the University of Michigan last season. Defenseman Owen Power was ranked No. 1 among North American skaters in the final rankings released by NHL Central Scouting in late May, while forwards Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers were ranked No. 3 and No. 6, respectively.
Defenseman Luke Hughes, ranked No. 4, is set to join the Wolverines this fall after two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program. He’ll follow in the footsteps of his oldest brother, Quinn, who spent two years at Michigan before joining the Vancouver Canucks.
It has been 15 years since the last time a first-overall draft pick didn’t jump directly to the NHL after his selection. That was defenseman Erik Johnson, who played the 2006-07 season at the University of Minnesota before joining the St. Louis Blues.
It may happen again this year. Power is leaning toward returning for his sophomore season after Covid-19 restrictions deprived him of a typical college experience in his freshman year.
“To actually go to class and not doing online, being able to do stuff other than go to the rink and go home, I think, is something that I would like to do,” he said.
“One of the big parts why I kind of want to go back to school is to just be able to experience a true college experience, especially at Michigan with Yost (Arena), the fans there, playing in front of them. I think it would be pretty special,” he said.
This Wolverines roster was also denied the opportunity to play for a national championship. Ranked ninth in the country with a 15-10-1 record at season’s end, they were forced to withdraw on the eve of the Frozen Four tournament due to Covid-19 protocols.
At 6’6” and 213 pounds, Power has the physical tools to step straight into the NHL. But the opportunity to return to a team that should be dominant in NCAA play — and to suit up for Canada at the World Junior Championship — might be too much to resist.
This year’s top two international skaters are both from Sweden — shifty forward William Eklund and big defenseman Simon Edvinsson. Their countryman Rasmus Dahlin came straight to the NHL when he was selected first overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2018 but for the most part, Swedish players tend to spend at least one year at home before coming to North America — a path both Eklund and Edvinsson plan to follow.
At 6’4” and 198 pounds, Edvinsson resembles a young Victor Hedman. But to the delight of fans of the Detroit Red Wings, who hold the sixth and 23rd picks, Edvinsson says his hockey idol is countryman and one-time Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom.
The New Jersey Devils also hold two first-round picks — at No. 4 and No. 28. They have two highly regarded legacy prospects to consider — Hughes, whose brother Jack was selected first overall by the Devils in 2019, and defenseman Brandt Clarke, the seventh-ranked North American skater whose brother Graeme was taken in the third round by New Jersey that same year.
The story of the Hughes brothers is well known. But when the Ontario Hockey League shut down for all of last season, Brandt and Graeme Clarke set out on a European odyssey when they signed on to get some games in the Slovak men’s league.
“We kind of jumped at that opportunity,” Brandt said. “We never really played together, so I think that’s why our parents were so open to it.”
After just a few weeks, 19-year-old Graeme was recalled to North America, where he was able to spend the season with the Devils’ AHL farm team. That left Brandt, who turned 18 in February, suddenly fending for himself.
“Being a 17-year-old kid halfway across the world, your big brother just kind of picked up his stuff and left, I wasn’t really sure how I was personally going to react to that,” he said. “But I think I did pretty solid for myself. I had to be more independent, but I think I did a pretty good job of that.”
Two other top Ontario-based prospects also spent part of the season in Europe. Mason McTavish, the second-ranked North American skater, went back to Switzerland, where his father Dale had played when he was young. He joined eighth-ranked Brennan Othmann on Olten EHC.
After spending time playing against men in Europe, McTavish, Othmann and Clarke all earned gold medals with Team Canada when they returned to North America for the World U18 Championship. That roster also included scoring winger Dylan Guenther, the fifth-ranked North American forward who made the most of his brief junior season in the Western Hockey League by putting up 12 goals and 24 points in just 12 games with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Immediately after the draft, Hughes and Beniers will be among 44 U.S. invitees for the World Junior Summer Showcase, the summer evaluation camp that will help nations determine their rosters for the 2022 World Junior Championship at the end of the year. Eklund and Edvinsson will suit up for Sweden, and Finland will also participate in the event, which will be held from July 24-31 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan. Rather than participating as usual, this year Hockey Canada has elected to hold its own evaluation camp at its home base in Calgary, from July 29 to August 3. That roster has not yet been announced.
After a last-place finish in a tumultuous season, the Buffalo Sabres currently hold the No. 1 pick in the draft. In their first order of business after officially earning NHL franchise rights, the expansion Seattle Kraken pulled off a draft lottery win that moved them up into the No. 2 slot, and the Anaheim Ducks are set to pick third.