Coming off an excellent World Championship that saw him play important minutes for gold-medal Canada, defenseman Owen Power only cemented his status as the No. 1 prospect in the 2021 draft – not that he needed the help. The University of Michigan blueliner has the size, skating and two-way skill to be a top-end NHLer for the next decade-and-a-half and thanks to the draft lottery, he almost assuredly will do so in a Buffalo Sabres uniform.
But when does that run begin?
Recently, Power was interviewed on the NHL Network, where he said he was "leaning" towards staying in college next season and honestly, I think it's a pretty solid plan if he goes through with it.
From an individual standpoint, Power would get a much more normal college experience if he spends another season in Ann Arbor. The pandemic threw all aspects of life into flux and universities were no different. Michigan's hockey team was particularly impacted, as the Wolverines were forced to drop out of the national championship tournament due to last-minute Covid protocols and given the team they had, they probably could have done some damage.
But looking ahead to next year, the Wolverines will be even better. Power's game has already grown leaps and bounds while the same can be said for centers Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson, two other Michigan products who are expected to go high in the 2021 draft. Add in yet another 2021 top-10 prospect in defenseman Luke Hughes, who will be joining as a freshman next season, plus returnees such as Brendan Brisson (VGK), Johnny Beecher (BOS) and Thomas Bordeleau (SJ), and you've got quite the crew.
So Power would be playing on one of the most talented teams in the nation with a shot at a Frozen Four, plus an opportunity to suit up for Canada at the world juniors – something that didn't happen this past year due to Canada's extremely long training camp and the protocols surrounding it.
Staying at Michigan would also allow the Sabres to get all their ducks in a row without exposing Power to any short-term chaos. It is well-known that franchise center Jack Eichel may not be long for Buffalo and there are question marks about fellow top-six forward Sam Reinhart's future in town as well. Dealing one or both of those players would dramatically change Buffalo's roster and 2021-22 will likely be another painful campaign for the Sabres. But if GM Kevyn Adams can set a new course, then perhaps the 2022-23 season will be a little more optimistic, with everyone on the same page. If that is the situation Power walks into as a rookie, it makes everything a little easier for the youngster, as good as he is already.
Lately, we have been conditioned to expect the No. 1 pick overall to go straight to the NHL and in most instances, the players have indeed been ready. The last time a first overall selection did not go straight to the NHL was in 2006 when another big defenseman, Erik Johnson, was tabbed by the St. Louis Blues (Nail Yakupov spent time in the KHL in 2012, but that was only because the NHL was locked out; once it came back he joined the Oilers right away). Johnson had been with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program that season and instead of going straight to the pros after the draft, he fulfilled his commitment to the University of Minnesota. During Johnson's freshman campaign, the Golden Gophers won their conference and earned a No. 1 regional seed in the national championship tournament before falling to North Dakota in the second round. On the international stage, he was named the Best Defenseman at the world juniors while helping Team USA win bronze.
By going to college that year, Johnson also missed a disastrous Blues campaign that saw St. Louis fire coach Mike Kitchen after a 7-17-4 start. The next season, Johnson joined the Blues and put up solid numbers as a rookie and though injuries have sidelined his career at various points, the big D-man still brings value when he's in the lineup for the Colorado Avalanche (where he was traded in a blockbuster involving Kevin Shattenkirk in 2011).
And hey; maybe Power changes his mind and decides he does want to go straight to Buffalo next season – that's fine too. He clearly demonstrated his high-end ability at the worlds and looked comfortable playing against NHLers there.
But if Power does return for his sophomore season at Michigan, he and the Sabres could both reap the benefits of development there.