2021 Draft Class Introductions: Who To Watch This Season, Part One

The 2020 Draft class was a blast, and the 2021 NHL draft should be too. Alexis Lafreniere was the first overall pick for the New York Rangers in ‘20, but who will it be in ‘21? How about we here at Last Word introduce two names to pay attention to this season: Aatu Räty and Luke Hughes!

2021 Draft Class Introductions: Who To Watch This Season

The 2021 Draft class isn’t quite like the 2020 class. In 2020, we saw Lafreniere consistently be seen as the best player in the draft. In 2021, there isn’t a clear-cut top-3, never mind top prospect. This class is also different because of the depth of defence prospects as compared to 2020. While Jake Sanderson and Jamie Drysdale were the top defensive prospects in 2020, there are several defensemen who project as high-end NHL studs in the future. Alternatively, the forward prospect pool is not nearly as deep or high end, relative to 2020. Let’s dive into the currently top-ranked forward, Räty, and then one of the top-ranked defensemen in Hughes!

2021 Draft Class Introductions: Aatu Räty

There are a plethora of names to pay close attention to when it comes to the 2021 NHL Draft class. Ahead of the season, there are several defensemen leading the way, but there’s been one player getting hype for a good while now. That player is Aatu Räty, of Oulunsalo, Finland. 

Räty is a 6’1”, 181-pound center, who currently plays for Kärpät of Liiga, the top men’s league in Finland. He has also played two consecutive seasons in Jr. A SM-Liiga, a U-20 league in Finland, at just 16 and 17-years-old, respectively. In total, he played 71 games in the U-20’s, recording 52 points. 

Aatu Räty’s Overall game

Where Räty stands out the most is in three areas: off-the-puck movement in the offensive zone, work ethic, and playmaking abilities. He constantly keeps his feet moving when he doesn’t have the puck. His forechecking is strong, he gets to the dirty areas, and he has an edge to his game. He is excellent at finding soft spots in coverages and getting open consistently. Räty is also very dangerous with the puck on his stick, as he has excellent vision and a knack for sending clean, crisp passes onto the tape of teammates. 

Räty’s skating is also strong, and that ability allows him to not only read the play but act on it. That’s part of the reason why his anticipation is a big part of his game – his feet move as fast as his mind. His shooting is also a strong asset that he has, but he is simply a better playmaker and knows it. He is a dual-threat, and if he shoots more and continues to layer his offensive game this season, he could easily wind up as the first name called. Currently, Räty is my third-ranked prospect in the 2021 Draft. 

2021 Draft Class Introductions: Luke Hughes

Luke Hughes, the youngest of the three Hughes brothers – Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils and Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks are the other two – is a 17-year-old left-handed defenseman. This past season, Luke played for the US National Team Development Program, scoring 4 goals and 13 points in 28 games. Standing at 6’2” and 176 pounds, Luke is already the biggest among his brothers. That frame and high-end skill level is an excellent thing to pair and could give him an advantage over his brothers, though only time will tell. 

Luke Hughes Overall Game

Hughes is a sensational talent. His awareness in all three zones is very apparent. His skating is effortless, and he can step by guys and leave them in the dust with regularity. That skating ability gives him advantages in all three zones, and it especially helps him in the offensive zone. Because Hughes is confident in his skating ability, he doesn’t shy away from taking risks offensively and sneaking down-low for opportunities. Quite simply, he takes risks because he knows he’s fast enough to get back and defend. Hughes is also very good defending against the rush as well, and that’s partly because of his speed and smarts, and partly because of a very effective active stick. 

However, he does have some holes. He seemingly shies away from blocking shots and engaging in physical battles along the boards. He steps back and anticipates where the puck or puck-carrier will go rather than fighting for it. Another negative aspect of his game, albeit somewhat small and easily coachable, is his first pass on the breakout. He forces stretch passes that often have too much zip and lead to icings or deflected in dump-ins. Basically, his first pass doesn’t always lead to possession, and that is a problem. You don’t want a defenseman who consistently ices the puck on the breakout, bringing the puck back for a defensive zone faceoff. Hughes has high expectations coming into his draft year, and he will likely shoot up draft rankings. Personally, I have Hughes ranked 7th, but I can easily see him becoming a top-5 talent.

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