We’re days away from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, and if you were hoping that the experts’ mock draft predictions would all be lining up by now, I’ve got some bad news: Things are as muddled as they’ve ever been.
For the Detroit Red Wings at No. 6, that means it could be a chaotic Friday night.
TSN reporter Bob McKenzie released his final draft rankings, composed using a poll of NHL scouts, on Monday. Owen Power’s ranking at No. 1 finished as the only year-long consensus.
Still, just because a majority of the league thinks a certain way doesn’t mean that the Buffalo Sabres are inclined to do the same. Last year, the Sabres went off the board by picking winger Jack Quinn at No. 8 with prized centers Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti, both popular mock picks for the Red Wings at No. 4, still available.
A draft day shakeup isn’t unprecedented, but according to McKenzie, the even pace atop the board in this year’s draft is.
“There is virtually nothing separating the guys from two to six. It’s really as tight as I’ve ever seen it,” McKenzie said to Jay Onrait on Sportscentre on Monday. “I think it’s almost unprecedented. I can’t think of another year where it’s been like that.”
Michigan standouts may not be available for Detroit
It doesn’t appear right now as if Power or fellow Michigan standout Matthew Beniers will be available for the Red Wings, according to most 2021 NHL Draft predictions. But consider this: The Detroit Tigers — and most other teams — were robustly reported to have prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer at No. 1 on their big board ahead of the MLB Draft earlier this month.
Nobody thought Mayer would be there for the Tigers at No. 3, let alone for the Boston Red Sox at No. 4. Once the Pittsburgh Pirates went for Louisville catcher Henry Davis, the board froze: They’d spent so much time falling in love with the players behind Mayer, that when the time came to make their choice, the projected No. 1 pick was less favorable. Having spent so much time exploring the value and potential of Jackson Jobe, he ultimately was the prize for Detroit.
Or think about the 2020 NFL Draft. The Detroit Lions were in perfect position to snag the second-best quarterback of a great class, and that probably would have been best for the organization long-term. But general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia had a mandate to win now or be fired. The team had a hole at cornerback, and Jeff Okudah was the pick.
Remember, too, the Red Wings’ 2018 and 2019 drafts: Filip Zadina, widely projected to go No. 3, fell to the Red Wings at No. 6. A year later, Moritz Seider went to the Red Wings at No. 6 while being slotted at No. 16 on McKenzie’s rankings and No. 24 on Sportsnet’s.
In essence, mock drafts (ones without inside info, anyway) are attempts at guessing which organizational patterns and outside influences will culminate with a particular selection. The influences are different for every team. Some front offices are trying to save their jobs; others are comfortably building for the future. A handful are hampered by ownership. There might be a couple testing new drafting philosophies to find an edge.
Let’s further examine how simple it could be to reach chaos by looking at factors that could cause the consensus No. 1 pick to fall.
You can’t predict what the Buffalo Sabres will do
So this isn’t so much of a draft-related governor as it is a general one.
The Sabres, as you might expect, hold the keys to destruction. Although McKenzie also said “10 out of 10” scouts that he surveyed have Power at No. 1, Buffalo is rumored to be keen on Swedish forward William Eklund. He ranked consistently in the top five of most scouting websites, including Elite Prospects (No. 2), Dobber Prospects (2) and McKeen’s Hockey (4).
Sabres GM Kevyn Adams only has one draft under his belt in Buffalo, and he has an eyebrow-raising choice (Quinn) on his record in the top 10. That could cause him to play it safer this time around, or he could be a flat-out wild card. It’s worth noting that the team’s public perception is at an all-time low. There could be a desire to avoid rocking the boat.
This pick has many influences, including that Buffalo’s prospect pipeline on defense is actually in pretty good shape. Beniers is likely close in this race, too, and he’s probably the only one that could save the draft from flipping on its head by someone other than Power going No. 1.
For the purposes of this exercise, though, let’s say Buffalo doesn’t stray too far. The Sabres still pass on Power and Beniers, but it’s with a selection of Eklund, and that saves them from being the joke of the night.
Seattle Kraken could be the true wild card
The Seattle Kraken are now on the clock. Beniers has been pegged as the “perfect fit” there since they drew the No. 2 selection, mostly because a high talent floor makes it a safe choice. The maturity of his game also makes it possible that he sees the NHL next season — he’s the most likely candidate to do so — which is a pretty enticing bonus for an expansion team.
It’d make all the sense in the world if GM Ron Francis went that route.
The counterpoint: Seattle literally doesn’t have a player on its roster until Wednesday night. There is zero precedent for the type of player the front office is looking for. If the Kraken are looking for upside — more on that in a minute — there are plenty of options at all positions.
Defensemen Simon Edvinsson and Luke Hughes are raw, but still have as good of a chance as anybody to be the top players from this draft five years from now. Forwards Dylan Guenther and Kent Johnson hold the same chance.
Again, for science, let’s make a more digestible leap and say that Beniers’ pre-draft interactions landed him ahead of Power on Seattle’s rankings. They’re sold, no matter what Buffalo does.
In weaker class, Anaheim Ducks could take big swing
Power is now there for the Anaheim Ducks at No. 3 — and he’d be a tremendous fit.
Anaheim has a nice crop of forward prospects looking to break through over the next few seasons, so drafting a defenseman to complement 2020’s fourth-overall, Jamie Drysdale, makes sense. If pairing one with Drysdale is the goal, Power is probably the best partner.
Although prospect rankings are as fickle and random as they’ve ever been as far as 2021 NHL Draft predictions are concerned, the scouts, for the most part, do agree on one thing: This class is shaping up to be weaker than average. That’s been the class’ M.O. even before a global pandemic made draft-year seasons a logistical nightmare.
Since there’s lower opportunity cost in missing on a top pick in a weaker draft, there’s some pretty good logic in simply taking the hardest swing possible. Don’t assume the Red Wings, for example, will draft Mason McTavish at No. 6 on the sole premise of wanting to bolster their center depth if they think other players have higher potential. Or that the Ducks would draft Power simply because their pipeline warrants trying for another top-pair D-man.
There’s only one player with clear Hall-of-Fame upside in this class, and it’s Swedish goaltender Jesper Wallstedt. That’s as good of a reason as any to take a player third overall, despite the stigma surrounding the idea of drafting goalies in the top 10. Why not try for him?
The pick is Wallstedt.
How much is politics in play for New Jersey?
Suddenly, the New Jersey Devils at No. 4 are in a quandary of their own.
The consensus No. 1 pick among 2021 NHL Draft predictions has fallen into their lap, while the younger brother of franchise player Jack Hughes is still on the board. And he’s extremely deserving of a fourth-overall selection. There are probably other players that the Devils really like.
That’s a tough spot for a general manager. There are real-world politics to consider: If Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald drafts Power over Hughes and it’s the wrong move, he could risk upsetting their most valuable current asset. Then there’s the optics of “missing” on a player that was a slam-dunk fit, like the Wings had when Michigan native Quinn Hughes exploded as a rookie, after the Red Wings passed on him in 2018.
On the flip side, does Fitzgerald get crucified even more for passing on the consensus No. 1 player for perceived nepotism, fair or not? Is that a risk he’s willing to take? All of these conflicting directives can make the court of public opinion a very uncomfortable place. Much like you and I, most of these guys are simply trying to not get fired.
But let’s give the Devils some credit and assume that they’ve simulated this scenario. They want Hughes — but with such a big name in Power slipping down the board, other teams are circling. The phone rings: It’s Doug Wilson from the San Jose Sharks, offering the seventh pick and a nice prospect. Can they have their cake and eat it, too? Is the prospect worth enough to risk it? Their choice can stop Power’s slide.
With two teams ahead of them, they decide no. Hughes is the pick.
Columbus could be put into a bind
Now, the Columbus Blue Jackets would be staring at Power at No. 5.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, as you’ll recall, drafted a mostly unranked 19-year-old at pick No. 21 last year. He also famously chose Pierre-Luc Dubois over Jesse Puljujärvi at No. 3 in 2016. His only other selection in the top 10 through eight drafts is Zach Werenski at No. 8 in 2015, which again is pretty good.
Frankly, Kekäläinen’s success isn’t of importance to us. It’s his unhinged demeanor with the draft card.
But to round out our circle of influences, let’s say that the Columbus GM zigs while everyone else zags, and decides to draft for need. The Jackets desperately need center depth, and that’ll become even more true if Max Domi is the choice by Seattle in Wednesday’s expansion draft.
That leaves them with McTavish and possibly Cole Sillinger or Chaz Lucius. No matter which one comes off the board, Power remains. He’s there for the Red Wings at No. 6.
Conclusion: 2021 NHL Draft predictions are messy
Let me be clear: This is not a mock draft. Power falling to No. 6 is by no means likely.
But it’s also not entirely impossible. Draft-day shockers rumble through major sports on a yearly basis. Although we’ve talked ourselves in circles to the point that we’re convinced there might be a semblance of order, that’s likely far from the truth.
Here’s what we do know: The only consensus player in the draft is at No. 1. That’d probably help establish some sense of security. But given that the team drafting first is among the least likely to make the consensus choice, some of that structure is lost.
There will be mayhem. Expect to be surprised. But also count on having a lot of fun.