The 2021 draft promises to be a chaotic event like no other. An extremely limited game schedule in many development leagues has scouts going off a lot less information than usual and it just so happens to be a year where there isn't a ton of variation within the top 10. And while individual team draft boards always vary, there is a sense around the league that this year promises even more wild swings from one franchise to another. So don't be surprised if a late first-rounder or early second-rounder was listed on someone's mock draft as a fourth-rounder - or vice-versa.
Having said that, there are a few groups of wild cards and sleepers to consider heading into the next day and a half. Let's take a look at those groups and the intrigue they hold.
The only one of the CHL's three leagues to miss the entire 2020-21 season, the OHL is traditionally the most fertile ground for high-end NHL talent, too. Big names like Mason McTavish and Brandt Clarke don't have to worry about their stock thanks to their sojourns to Europe and star turns at the world under-18s, where they helped Canada to the gold medal. But what about those talents who weren't so lucky? Hamilton defenseman Artyom Grushnikov hasn't actually played a game in a Bulldogs jersey, but was seen as a potential first-rounder before the schedule was cancelled. Titan-sized goalie Joe Vrbetic of the North Bay Battalion didn't see any formal action either, but the end of his 2019-20 campaign had scouts intrigued: no longer just relying on his 6-foot-6 frame to block pucks, he was starting to play with more quickness and confidence. Once his speed catches up to his size, he could be a beast - so when do you pull the trigger if you're drafting such a player?
There's also the players in deep systems to consider. Lately, the London Knights have made younger players earn ice time behind the team's already-drafted players. The result has been big jumps in post-draft seasons: Ottawa's Alex Formenton and Nashville prospect Luke Evangelista being two great examples. So what does that mean for players such as Bryce Montgomery, Max McCue or Ben Roger, who didn't get to show scouts anything this year? Perhaps those scouts with the best relationships in London will have greater perspective on what the Hunters have in store for these kids next year. That could be a tremendous advantage.
The USHL champions know they'll be busy at the draft thanks to top guns such as Mackie Samoskevich, Matt Coronato, Ryan Ufko and Josh Doan, but how many Steel kids will be snapped up in total? Like London, Chicago has been supersized the past few years, forcing young kids into smaller roles that became breakout seasons thereafter. In the USHL, a lot of these kids end up playing the middle of the season with their high school teams in Minnesota or New England and the Steel crew was no exception. Jackson Blake was the best of the bunch, winning the Minnesota State High School tournament with a dominating performance for Eden Prairie. Meanwhile, Sam Lipkin played in the USPHL bubble in Florida where he got a lot more touches than in the USHL. Lipkin needs to get stronger and improve his skating, but his hockey sense and offensive instincts have scouts intrigued. Luke Levandowski had a massive year at Rosemount in Minnesota while defenseman Lukas Gustafsson threw up nine points in four games for Cushing Academy in between his Chicago duty. With bigger roles expected next year, how many of these Steel kids go in the later rounds?
As Arizona GM Bill Armstrong quipped to me earlier in the year, "There's something in the water" that has led to a bountiful era of netminders in Russia. And scouts from all teams are wondering if they can find the next great hidden gem on Day 2 of the draft. Zakhar Vinogradov went from second-tier junior to the VHL (Russia's version of the AHL) this past season and put up numbers. Kirill Gerasimyuk had scouts intrigued heading into the world under-18s, but then he was yanked after a bad first period in Game 1 against the USA and never seen again. Nonetheless he's got great size and potential, so who grabs him and when? In this draft, expect the unexpected.