It has been an extraordinary year in hockey and that certainly extends to the 2021 draft, where the pandemic has altered and in some cases halted schedules for many junior and college teams. For NHL scouts, it means a lot more video than usual and a lot more forecasting – but those who know their regions inside-out still have a firm base to work off.
Having said that, expect the unexpected this year as teams will likely have drastically different draft boards when the virtual festivities get underway on July 23. Travel has been different and sample sizes are smaller, so opinions will be quite varied.
With all of that as a backdrop, this year's World Under-18 Championship, which starts next week in Texas, will be even more crucial than ever when it comes to shaping final draft boards. Some of Team Canada's OHL players haven't played at all since March of 2020, while some of Finland's kids from Helsinki haven't played since late November.
So it felt like the right time to drop some draft rankings. What you'll find below is where I see thing stand right now, based on conversations I've had with NHL team scouts this season. Truly there will be some movement – possibly a lot of movement – between now and the actual draft, but consider this a snapshot as we come down the home stretch.
Now, why have I gone with a top 40 here? First of all, I want you to buy Draft Preview when it comes out – it's the next issue we close and should be on newsstands and in our online shop in late May. We go to 100 there and this year we'll have more info than ever, plus a special "sleepers" page and the usual features on the top guys.
But also because the difference between a first-rounder and an early second-rounder is purely cosmetic. NHL teams don't think this way; they always group players as being in the 25-40 range. And if you think about it, the difference between No. 32 (now that Seattle is in the fray) and No. 33 is minuscule; it just means the kid who went 32nd gets to sleep better that first night of the draft.
With all that being said, here is my early top 40 for the 2021 draft.
1. Owen Power, D, Michigan (BigTen): The fact Power was able to step into a meaty role on good NCAA team at 18 is remarkable. He's a two-way defenseman that does it all and doesn't have any flaws, plus he can still add strength to his nearly 6-foot-6 frame.
2. Simon Edvinsson, D, Frolunda (SHL): Finishing the pro year in Vasteras so he could get more ice time, Edvinsson is a really good skater with great puck skills and a big frame. You don't find many 6-foot-5 defensemen that can do what he does.
3. Dylan Guenther, RW, Edmonton (WHL): Guenther terrorized the 'Dub' this year and the Oil Kings star will be one of the top offensive drivers for Canada at the world under-18s. He's a finisher with a great work rate and compete level.
4. William Eklund, LW, Djurgarden (SHL): Fantastic SHL season has earned him some exhibition games with the men's national team. Eklund has skill, hockey sense and a great work ethic and his SHL production (23 points in 40 games) was impressive.
5. Matty Beniers, C, Michigan (BigTen): A star for gold-medal Team USA at the world juniors, Beniers is an incredible two-way center who can take key defensive draws and also put up offense. He plays fast and he plays the right way.
6. Luke Hughes, D, U.S. NTDP (USHL): He'll miss the world under-18s due to a lower-body injury, but scouts know all about Hughes already. Jack and Quinn's younger bro has the family's skating gene and a lot of skill. His development is still on the upswing, too.
7. Kent Johnson, C, Michigan (BigTen): The third Wolverines freshman on the list, Johnson has incredible puck skills and offensive hockey sense. Still raw, the former BCHL star plays a very exciting game with intriguing upside.
8. Brandt Clarke, D, Barrie (OHL): With no OHL to play, Clarke went to Slovakia and held his own against men. An offensive defenseman with a big shot and great power play acumen, playing on the big ice in Europe helped his skating.
9. Mason McTavish, C, Peterborough (OHL): Another OHLer who went to Europe, McTavish was awesome in Switzerland, getting his nose dirty and competing hard. But he's also an offensive driver, a great finisher with a terrific release.
10. Chaz Lucius, C, U.S. NTDP (USHL): The most skilled forward on the NTDP, Lucius returned from a serious knee injury and somehow looked like a better skater than before. One of the best goal-scorers in the draft, his shot selection is impeccable.
11. Jesper Wallstedt, G, Lulea (SHL)
12. Fyodor Svechkov, C, Lada (Rus.)
13. Cole Sillinger, C, Sioux Falls (USHL)
14. Carson Lambos, D, Winnipeg (WHL)
15. Corson Ceulemans, D, Brooks (AJHL)
16. Zach L'Heureux, C, Halifax (QMJHL)
17. Oskar Olausson, LW, HV71 (SHL)
18. Scott Morrow, D, Shattuck-St. Mary's (Minn. prep)
19. Nikita Chibrikov, RW, SKA-St. Petersburg (KHL)
20. Aatu Raty, C, Karpat (Fin.)
21. Zach Bolduc, C, Rimouski (QMJHL)
22. Sean Behrens, D, U.S. NTDP (USHL)
23. Xavier Bourgault, RW, Shawinigan (QMJHL)
24. Mackie Samoskevich, C, Chicago (USHL)
25. Brennan Othmann, LW, Flint (OHL)
26. Sebastian Cossa, G, Edmonton (WHL)
27. Fabian Lysell, RW, Lulea (SHL)
28. Zach Dean, C, Gatineau (QMJHL)
29. Samu Tuomaala, RW, Karpat (Fin.)
30. Daniil Chayka, D, CSKA (KHL)
31. Sasha Pastujov, LW, U.S. NTDP (USHL)
32. Simon Robertsson, RW, Skelleftea (SHL)
33. Francesco Pinelli, C, Kitchener (OHL)
34. William Stromgren, LW, Modo (Swe.)
35. Stanislav Svozil, D, Kometa Brno (Cze.)
36. Tyler Boucher, RW, U.S NTDP (USHL)
37. Logan Mailloux, D, London (OHL)
38. Matt Coronato, LW, Chicago (USHL)
39. Alexander Kisakov, LW, Dynamo Moscow (Rus.)
40. Samuel Helenius, C, JYP (Fin.)