‘Tis the season to start digging into the 2021 NHL Draft. It’s a class with plenty of debate at every ranking, a far cry from the solidified tops of the 2019 and 2020 NHL Drafts. This debate is heightened by the fact that some teams are playing, while some are yet to find any sort of start date.
It’s an exciting class with some exciting thinking surrounding it. Today, we’ll finally dive into my ‘Top 32’ rankings. I’ll give a bit of a deep dive into my ‘Top 10’ and provide the entire ‘Top 32’ at the end!
Early 2021 NHL Draft Top 32
1. Brandt Clarke, RD, Barrie Colts (OHL)
Brandt Clarke has all of the signs of a very special defenseman. He’s the embodiment of the “modern defenceman”, showing prowess above the heights set by players like Quinn Hughes.
Clarke’s style is carried most by his speed. He’s arguably one of the fastest players in the 2021 Draft and absolutely loves using that speed. The Barrie Colts have embraced his ability to gather possession in the defensive zone and then blaze up the ice. He doesn’t slow down in the face of pressure at all, either, using top-end agility and some truly elite stickhandling to dance around the opposition in the offensive zone. This ability to evade defenders combines perfectly with great vision and play-reading abilities that allow Clarke to laser a beautiful pass to a teammate or take advantage of a great shot.
In short, Clarke is a very fast, very agile, playmaking-defenceman. He’s proven invaluable for Barrie, leading the team’s defensemen in scoring during his rookie season last year.
Issues do arise with his defensive ability, though. While his speed keeps him from being an outright liability, learning how to control his aggressive play-style – and, well, actually play like a defenceman – will be very important for Clarke. But he’s a smart player with abilities that could very seriously develop into a true-number-one defenceman in the NHL.
2. Carson Lambos, LD, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)/JYP U20 (U20 SM-Sarja)
Carson Lambos is the definition of what NHL teams look for when drafting defencemen, especially in the top-five. His skill set is too intricate to list. Like Clarke, Lambos is a big fan of using great agility and speed to carry the puck up the ice himself. But Lambos is not nearly as fast as Clarke. To adjust for this, he has had to take on a much, much more physical style.
Simply put, Lambos is a tank on the ice; clearly stronger than his contemporaries. This allows him so many different opportunities. His highlight reel is riddled with cases of him effortlessly holding off pressuring defenceman with one hand, while he controls the puck on his stick with the other. It’s filled with cases of Lambos rushing unexpecting forwards, sparking immediate turnovers, and banking on the opportunity with a quick rush up the ice. He’s similarly terrific on defence: with great gap control, smart timings, and strength closing off any opportunities for opposing teams. His grit, strength, and strong skating make him excellent at winning back possession and jumping on flat-footed opponents.
Lambos is similarly demanding a future top-pairing role in the NHL. His prowess as an elite two-way defenceman made his transition from youth hockey to juniors seamless. That’ll be the same story for his transition from juniors to the NHL. His game has few flaws and his work ethic, and hockey IQ, make him a perfect player for NHL teams in need of fast blue-line help.
3. Owen Power, LD, University of Michigan (NCAA)
Owen Power is seriously, seriously special. The beautifully-named defenceman is 6’5″ and 214 pounds (195 cm, 97 kg) at the age of 17. That’s, uh… big. And Power, of course, brings the obvious dominating strength, booming slap-shot, and physicality that comes with the “big man” label.
But what makes Power so special is his ability to transcend the label of “big man”. Nearly every player standing 6’4″-or-over has some clear-cut issues with their skating at the age of 17. But Power does not have those issues. He’s a blast to watch, as he flaunts surprising agility for such a big player. While, no, he’s not fast by any means; his skating abilities are miles above where most “big men” sit at such a young age.
That’s great news, showing that teams can throw trust into him without being scared of his skating holding him back. And with the abilities he has elsewhere, Power would be an incredible addition. He has a booming shot and incredibly strong (figuratively and literally) passing, two assets he uses to great effect. And while he can’t be trusted to carry the puck up the ice in the same ways as Clarke and Lambos, his passing does work enough to spark forward rushes.
In the defensive end, Power dominates. Obviously. It’s simply too difficult to put up with the strength or stick of a 6’5″ defenceman. He’s a defence-first player that can be trusted in the rush and perform very well in the offensive zone. With his size to boot, he’ll be very, very sought after by NHL teams come the next draft; with a potential top-line future in his own right.
4. Aatu Raty, C, Karpat (SM-Liiga)
Aatu Raty is perhaps the most popular player in the 2021 Draft class. He made his debut in Finland’s top league in the 2019-20 season at the age of 17, appearing in 12 games over the course of the season and netting four points. So far this year, Raty has earned a consistent role in said top league.
Raty has the potential to be elite, quite frankly. He undoubtedly has the best shot in the draft class, with great strength and accuracy making him into a serious sniper. He also has terrific stickhandling; again likely among the best in the class. It’s a great skill set that could make him a dangerous scorer in the NHL one day. That is, if he can fix glaring issues that are holding his game back.
Raty’s most blatant problem is his skating. He’s not particularly fast, agile, or strong in his first steps. In fact, Raty is poor in transition and usually has to pass the puck to a teammate in the neutral zone; held back by his speed. He’s thankfully strong enough to catch up as the high-man of an offensive rush but his hockey IQ holds him back in any offensive-end setups. Raty simply does not take risks and instead holds very, very strictly to his positioning.
He’s got terrific potential, great shooting and passing, and great stickhandling. But Raty is held back by fixable holes in his play. If he can hammer them out, becoming a more-agile and creative player, he could be a first-line feature of any NHL lineup. Because of that serious potential, and the fixability of the issues, he’s worth a (cautious) top-five pick.
5. Stanislav Svozil, LD, HC Kometa Brno (Czech League)
Stanislav Svozil is a very, very underrated name headed into the 2020-21 season. Some rankings don’t even have him in the first round! But he is well worth a top-five selection… seriously.
Svozil is great in all assets of play. He’s smart with his gap control and is able to battle in the defensive end, leading to a transition up the ice that Svozil regularly quarterbacks. He’s not particularly fast but his acceleration helps push his team up the ice. Once in the offensive zone, Svozil is a bit of a genius. He has laser passes that regularly sneak their way through multiple opponents. Even with the puck off of his stick, Svozil flexes terrific offensive IQ. He’s a genius with when to dip into the zone, opening up a passing lane and scoring opportunities.
There’s no reason to beat around the bush. Svozil is a genius defenceman with great ability in the offensive end. His two-way, playmaking abilities are among the bests of the 2021 Draft. He seemingly plays with a top-down view of the rink, able to see everything happening at once and responding to it perfectly.
Svozil’s great promise was rewarded with a debut in the Czech Republic’s top league in the 2019-20 season, when he was only 16. He was also selected 15th overall in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, showing his international value.
6. Francesco Pinelli, C/LW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
This is, clearly, a defence-heavy draft class. But through the smoke of defence, Pinelli shines as an ideal centreman. He’s very proud in the defensive zone; the definition of a defence-first centre. But he’s equally as promising in the offensive zone. His shot is incredibly quick, accurate, and solid, as is his passing and ability to read the play.
Pinelli earns a top-10 nod thanks to some very sly play. He’s sneaky in the offensive end, showing his true colours when the puck isn’t on his stick. He regularly lurks behind opponents or slides behind the net, ultimately placing himself into perfect scoring situations. The sneakiness of his style persists when the puck is on his stick as well, with his ability to snipe home a goal in even the most improbable situations or laser a pass to uncovered teammates.
Pinelli scored the second-most goals of any rookie on Kitchener last season, fourth among the entire OHL’s rookies. This was despite being one of the youngest players in the league. He’s a great two-way talent with a beautifully effective shot, genius ability to sneak around the zone, and great work in transition. It all combines to award him with top-six potential.
7. Luke Hughes, LD, U18 US. National Team (USDP)
The third Hughes brother is facing his draft year. Oldest brother Quinn Hughes was taken seventh overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. Middle child Jack Hughes went first-overall in the 2019 Draft. And now, Luke Hughes will look to earn a top-10 selection of his own.
That’ll be a really, really easy feat for Luke, who is a terrific offensive defenseman. He’s a bullet in transition and is absolutely fearless. He has the ability to skate directly into opposition, only to come out on the other side with possession, thanks to great agility and great stickhandling. He has a good, quick shot at his disposal once he dances around the opposition. Hughes is also able to reliably pass the puck off to similarly-fast teammates that join him on odd-man-rushes.
When he wants to, Hughes’ ability to rush up the ice and guarantee a goal is very similar to that of Brandt Clarke. But unlike Clarke, Hughes doesn’t show off that ability consistently throughout every game. He only seems to break it out when angry or when he sees the perfect chance. This lack of consistent dominance, combined with seriously-awful defence, drops Hughes in my early rankings. He’s the last member of this draft that could earn a top-pairing role in the NHL one day. But if he wants to reach that potential, he needs to make his elite play much more consistent and needs to drastically improve defensively.
8. Kent Johnson, C, University of Michigan (NCAA)
The University of Michigan is loaded with talent headed into the 2020-21 season. They are serious championship contenders… if the NCAA plays. Alongside Power, the team’s front-running star is Kent Johnson.
There’s not much to say about Johnson. He’s nowhere near prolific in any given category. He’s instead very well-rounded, with good skating, shooting, and passing. What ranks him so high is his outright playmaking ability. Johnson is drawing early comparisons to Mitch Marner, stylistically and not potential-wise, and it’s clear to see why. Johnson is terrific with the puck on his stick, dictating play with an iron fist.
With well-above-average ability in every facet of play, Johnson is a dangerously productive scorer. In fact, he scored 101 points in the BCHL last season. That ranked him top in the entire league in scoring… by 30 points. In fact, over the last four seasons, only one BCHL player has recorded more points in a single season: Colorado Avalanche top prospect Alex Newhook, who managed 102 in the 2018-19 season. That’s good company for Johnson to be apart of and the height of the total speaks volumes towards a playmaking ability that will reward Johnson with a long NHL career.
9. Cole Sillinger, C, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Cole Sillinger is an absolute dynamo offensively. It’s incredible. In his rookie season in the WHL, he netted 53 points in 48 games, a seriously great scoring pace. Despite missing a month with injury, Sillinger managed great point totals; totals that ranked him second in points-per-game among all WHL rookies. The only rookie to outscore Sillinger (in terms of points-per-game) was Michal Teply, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect drafted in the 2019 Draft.
Teply has had experience working with NHL coaching, at the 2019-20 Blackhawks training camp, and had experience in the Czech’s top league. He was much better prepared for a rookie season in the WHL than Sillinger was. And yet, Sillinger’s 1.10 points-per-game was only 0.09 short of the league-leading tally that Teply put up.
That speaks wonders to Sillinger’s abilities. His value as an offensive-specialist was made very well known through his rookie year; with his shot and creative passing making him one of the best in the league last season. He could work on his two-way play and skating but his ability to put up points on the back of great assets is terrific. He’ll be a high-scoring, top-six name in the NHL one day.
10. Samu Tuomaala, C, Karpat (SHL)
Samu Tuomaala has played 12 games in Finland’s U20 league so far this season, scoring 11 points. That earned him a call up to the country’s top league, where many expect him to thrive. This is thanks to a skating ability that’s translatable at any level. Tuomaala is very fast, agile, and effective with his edge work. Among a draft class that’s filled with strong skaters, Tuomaala’s play stands out.
His speed makes him great in transition; where Tuomaala thrives. His rush up the ice is quick and effective, marked by strong passes and efficient plays. This leads him perfectly into the offensive end, where Tuomaala clearly thrives. This is largely thanks to his speed in transition, which creates countless opportunities.
Even in the offensive zone, Tuomaala finds ways to use his speed to manipulate the opposition. He has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to open up passing lanes: including simply looping around the zone with his great speed until holes in the defence open up and baiting opposition into corners only to turn on a dime to work his way out of trouble.
He’s an effective skater with smart offensive abilities. With a shot at Finland’s top league, Tuomaala could become a favorite among the 2021 NHL Draft class.
Full Top 32 Picks
Here are the full Top 32 rankings!