We have reached the end and it is time to conclude my Top 10 for the 2021 NHL Draft.
1. Brandt Clarke - Defense - Barrie Colts
In all honesty, I really did consider moving McTavish to number one on my list. I have been that impressed with his progression this year (both in Switzerland and at the U18's). I think the gap between them has closed considerably and it wouldn't shock me one bit to see McTavish taken first. That said, I'm going to stick with my guns and keep Clarke first. Am I concerned about his skating mechanics? A little bit. Having talked to some people who really understand skating fundamentals (like the terrific Josh Mallory), his knock kneed approach will be difficult to correct in order to give him more than average quickness and agility. However, I just think that Clarke processes the game so well that he will overcome this...in a similar way that Adam Fox has overcome some of his limitations to become an elite NHL defender. It is just so rare to see Clarke make a mistake with the puck and his vision inside the offensive zone really is elite. He takes what the defense gives him and has enough dynamic movement laterally to create those exploitable lanes, especially when you combine it with his hands and creativity. I think Clarke's defensive game is also very underrated. This is such an intelligent kid, and it will be easy for him to adapt to whatever defensive system is utilized by his future team. He holds his ground well and has a terrific stick, which helps him to overcome some of those instances where he loses a step defending pace. As he gets stronger, I actually think we will see him develop more of a physical side to his game too. Other than the gold medal game against Russia, Clarke was a defensive rock at the U18's, on the ice for only one even strength goal through the first six games (he was on the ice for two against Russia). An NHL team may need to be patient with him as he works to improve his quickness and agility, but there are so many things to like here. It is hard to see Clarke not becoming a top four NHL defender and powerplay QB.
2. Mason McTavish - Center - Peterborough Petes
As mentioned, I was really close to ranking McTavish number one. This kid has improved so much in the last calendar year. In his rookie season with Peterborough, I had some concerns over his skating, decision making with the puck, and the consistency of his engagement level in all three zones. I no longer have concerns about any of those three things. McTavish has worked to become both a more powerful skater and a more dynamic mover in every direction. Sure, he'll never be confused with Cale Makar or Connor McDavid. But, for the 6'2, 200lbs power center, the added balance, power, and confidence on his edges has only made him a more effective and unpredictable attacker in transition. Many good defenders at the U18's had trouble tying up McTavish or stopping him from reaching the net. McTavish is also such an intelligent player with the puck. He's just a lot more poised and confident this year and he makes so many little subtle plays to set up linemates or keep plays alive. I went back and couldn't really find a single offensive zone turnover of significance at the U18's. Lastly, his commitment to using his size and strength to be a three zone player has been much improved this year, to the point where he has to be considered one of the top two-way forwards available for this draft. And that was just me discussing the improvements he has made in the last year, ignoring his previous strengths. One of those is his shot. He generates so much velocity in his wrist shot, even with a lightning quick release; his shot is "heavy." Without question, I would not hesitate to use a top 6-7 selection on McTavish this year as I think he is a slam dunk to at least develop into a second line power center who can play in all situations.
3. Brennan Othmann - Wing - Flint Firebirds
I have made my affinity towards Othmann no secret on social media. This is my kind of winger. I think his shot is a major weapon and can even be developed further. He has that touch and the hands to use a one timer when working that half wall area on the powerplay not unlike Steve Stamkos or Alex Ovechkin. However, Othmann also has an excellent wrist shot, which he disguises well and releases quickly. Othmann is also a physical player and someone who prides himself on being difficult to match up against. He is, by very definition, a power winger. Additionally, Othmann projects as a capable two-way player who can play in any situation. As I mentioned with Jack Quinn last year, potential top six goal scorers who do not have to have their zone starts and minutes sheltered are difficult to find. Perhaps the area that has grown the most in Othmann's game this year is his playmaking ability. This was extremely noticeable at the U18's. I don't think I realized that he had that kind of vision with the puck and it has really added another layer to his offensive approach. Opponents will have to respect his ability to make passes and this should open up more ice for him to find scoring chances in the future. The area of Othmann's game that does seem to be most criticized is his skating. He's never going to be an elite NHL mover, but I think the concerns are overblown. It is obvious that he has worked hard on improving his explosiveness and his ability to build speed (much like Mason McTavish). This was something that I really looked closely at in his U18 appearances and not once did I notice him behind the play or unable to find space because of his feet. I can't remember who I saw compare Othmann to Brendan Morrow, but that is a very fitting comparison and it represents the kind of upside I see in him.
4. Francesco Pinelli - Center - Kitchener Rangers
You would be hard pressed to find a more complete forward this year than Pinelli. He competes hard in all three zones, but also is extremely intelligent, both in his positioning and anticipation. I think his attention to detail, especially in the defensive end, was especially apparent at the U18's this year. As an offensive player, he is equal parts goal scorer and playmaker, showing an ability to play with pace or slow the game down depending on what the situation calls for. I really like how he takes care of the puck in the offensive end and is willing to work to make plays, never taking short cuts. He will take a hit to hold on to the puck long enough to open up a passing lane and is almost always precise in his feeds. His shot is heavy, especially his wrist shot, and I do believe that he projects as a goal scorer at the next level too. In a lot of ways, I see former Rangers standout Mike Richards in Pinelli. The issue of course, is how much can Pinelli's skating improve? The fantastic Josh Mallory did a breakdown of Pinelli's skating for us at McKeen's Hockey and what he found is that Pinelli's top speed is actually strong and it allows him to push pace when he has the runway. However, he lacks that explosiveness and dynamic ability to alter direction at full speed, making him a very linear (North/South) attacker. However, Josh believes that Pinelli's deficiencies are actually very correctable (working to add strength to his lower body and limiting upper body movement). I think this assessment is bang on and it is why I would not hesitate to use a mid to late first on Pinelli. At best, you have a top six center who can play in all situations. At worst, you probably have a solid third line center who can anchor your penalty kill with the right adjustments to his stride.
5. Ben Gaudreau - Goaltender - Sarnia Sting
Gaudreau is easily one of the most technically sound and intelligent netminders that I have seen come through the OHL in recent years. This is a kid who is so rarely caught out of position and who maximizes his athletic gifts to be steady and reliable in the crease. His pushes laterally and North/South are just so calculated. He has such terrific body control and that is often one of the last things young goaltenders master. I think that really speaks volumes of the kind of work ethic and mental focus that he possesses. When we think back to last OHL season, Gaudreau was hung out to dry so often and constantly peppered with shots. And at the U18's, he had to remain laser focused during stretches without a shot or high end scoring chance. His effectiveness in both situations is evidence to his mental toughness; a necessary characteristic for all starting goaltenders in the NHL. I really only see two areas of weakness. The first is that Gaudreau tends to give some openings to shooters when he is moving. This is especially true for five hole, which can lead to some "softer" goals against. The second is his rebound control on lower shots. I think Gaudreau does a great job of challenging shooters and fighting through traffic to make saves. But too often does he kick rebounds back into the slot on lower shots. That said, his control of body shots and his glove hand have both improved mightily in the last year, so progress has already been made. Dating back to his OHL Priority Selection year, I had scouts (not just one, but multiple) stating that Gaudreau was the best goaltending prospect to come through the OHL in a long time. And now...it is easy to see why. IMO, he deserves to be in the first round conversation with Wallstedt and Cossa.
6. Chase Stillman - Wing - Sudbury Wolves
How can you not love the energy and physicality that Stillman brings to the ice? Much like his brother Riley (a former OHL Champion with Hamilton), Chase just lives for the big hit and to make his presence felt physically. This is most effective on the forecheck where he forces a lot of turnovers through big hits or his very presence and ability to rush decisions. Defenders certainly know when he is on the ice. I think a big part of why Stillman was able to take his game to another level this year is his improved speed and quickness. By adding more of a speed element to his game, he has been able to play that physical role more consistently, without the fear of taking himself out of the play. Additionally, that speed is allowing him to be someone who can lead the attack in transition and not just follow. One thing that I really look for in wingers like Stillman is their ability to make reads and passes in the offensive zone to get the most out of their puck touches. Stillman is not the most creative player or the most skilled player on the ice. However, he really takes care of the puck in the offensive zone and is the perfect complimentary piece because of it. He is low maintenance, but effective none the less. Two factors will determine whether Stillman becomes a fourth liner or a high end middle six player at the NHL. The first is his shot and confidence in it. Too often does he hesitate or look to pass first, and his ability to catch and release under pressure is currently not up to par. Given the kind of game he plays, he is going to make his living near the net and in the slot. He is going to get his share of scoring chances. He just needs to bury more of them. The second is his ability to receive passes and maintain possession at full speed. A faster player without the puck than with it, Stillman's ability to improve the finer component of his dynamic puck control will be key for him. But I am very happy if I can add Stillman to my stable of prospects in the second round as he destined to be a fan favourite and the type of kid who will help you win playoff games.
7. Ethan Del Mastro - Defense - Mississauga Steelheads
If you recall, in my initial draft rankings for this year (back before we knew that there wouldn't be a season), I mentioned how impressed I was with Del Mastro's progression in his rookie season. He really settled in late and impressed with his growing confidence at both ends. This year, while our only viewing was at the U18's, I think we saw a similar trend. Del Mastro started the U18's a little shaky (naturally given the rust) and in a limited role, but by tournament's end he had emerged as a very steady presence and a regular rotation player, playing over 20 minutes in the gold medal game. To me that says something about his "coachability" and IQ. A highly intelligent player off the ice (a multiple Academic Player of the Month in the OHL), Del Mastro seems capable of making the necessary adjustments, learning on the fly. The two biggest selling points for Del Mastro among NHL scouts are his size/mobility combination, and his physicality. Despite being 6'4 and 200lbs, Del Mastro has a real smooth stride in all four directions and he generates a fair amount of speed moving North/South. This not only gives him some potential as an offensive player, but also allows him to play more aggressively defensively because he knows that he can recover with his big, long strides and ability to chew up space. Speaking of his aggressiveness, Del Mastro is a mean defender. This is a kid who is suffocating in the defensive end and who just loves to engage and take away space. He is not shy about stepping up early too, squashing attacks in the neutral zone before they even materialize. Del Mastro has some things to work on though. His exits need work. He can be forced into bad passes or turnovers when pressured by forecheckers...when he is not given a runway to skate with the puck. The offensive upside remains a mystery too, given the kind of role he was asked to play at the U18's. Is Del Mastro a Jake Muzzin in your top four? Or is he more of a steady, third pairing type? I would have loved to have seen him anchor the second pairing in Mississauga this year (behind Thomas Harley), but c'est la vie. I have a lot of time for Del Mastro as a player though and I think he will make an excellent selection in the second round.
8. Ryan Winterton - Center - Hamilton Bulldogs
I am really glad that we got a chance to see Winterton play at the U18's, showcasing his improvements as a player this season as he was someone that I really liked in the second half of the last OHL season. I think he has made some terrific strides with his skating ability, allowing him to be more involved in transition and more effective without the puck. While his edgework and overall agility will still need to be improved, his speed is now an asset for him. At 6'2, 190lbs, and one of the youngest players available this year (September 4th birthday), I don't think he is finished maturing physically either. The two things I love most about Winterton's game are his shot and his two-way awareness. He has a really quick and deceptive wrist shot and he does a great job of creating space for himself to shoot with his hands. I think he possesses a lot of potential as a goal scorer in this league and at the next level. Winterton, given his size and speed, is also an asset in all three zones and has a really good stick in the neutral zone. I also really like how he controls the wall and spins of checks in the offensive zone. His vision deep in the offensive zone is a major asset, especially given his ability to force turnovers or recover dump ins. Truthfully, there really isn't anything I dislike about Winterton's game. I think he's just a very well rounded player. I guess the million dollar question is...what is the upside here as an NHL player? To me, I see a potential middle six forward who can be a consistent 20 goal scorer and provide versatility to his future coaches.
9. Wyatt Johnston - Center - Windsor SpitfiresI think Johnston is one of the most intelligent players available from the OHL this year. His attention to detail in all three zones is going to make him a coaches' favourite. And he is tenacious in pursuit of the puck. When he does get his touches, he maximizes their effectiveness with his terrific vision and quick thinking. I thought he was excellent for Canada at the U18's in a support role and was most definitely great in the second half of the 2019/20 OHL season. I do have some concerns about his skating. I have seen the term "elite" or "excellent" used to describe his skating ability and I just don't agree with that. I think Johnston has a smooth stride, it's low maintenance. I think he pivots well and is elusive in the offensive zone because of confidence playing on his edges. I also think he has the potential to be a real bull because of how strong he is on his skates already. However, I think that North/South, he lacks power. I think he struggles to create separation and it limits his effectiveness in transition. I think this was noticeable last year and at the U18's, suggesting minimal gains have been made thus far. He could easily be the next Ryan O'Reilly or Mike Richards, similar cerebral, two-way centers. However, those two are the exception to the rule and not the norm. In today's NHL, teams are looking for that combination of speed and power from their centers. This is especially true for those occupying those middle spots in the lineup, where I think Johnston ultimately ends up. I would have no problem with him in that 50-75 range; in fact I would vouch for it. But higher than that, I do see some limitations.
10. Daniil Chayka - Defense - Guelph Storm
It has been a really difficult year to evaluate Chayka's play. I know that sounds silly given that he was one of the fortunate ones that was able to get into game action this year (playing in Russia), however I do think it is the truth. He was just not very good at the World Junior Championships. His ice time and responsibility fluctuated in the KHL. And he looked strong playing out of the MHL. I wrote a piece earlier this year for McKeen's, looking at Chayka's development and I do believe that it has plateaued to a certain degree and that is why I have him nearly outside my Top 10. If he were an '03, I would be less concerned about the plateau, but as a late born '02, I would have really liked to have seen a larger step forward. Chayka does project well as a defensive player at the NHL level. I think he has a high panic threshold with the puck in the defensive end and largely has good vision and understanding of how to exit the zone (even if the WJC's were not the greatest example of that). I also think he defends transitional attacks well because he moves well laterally and backwards, allowing him to maintain tight gaps and angle forwards to the corners or force dump ins. He generally takes good routes to retrieve pucks and, although I would like to see him be a little bit more physically intense, he does do a good job of winning those 50/50 battles that he needs to in order to flip possession. Where I see some limitations is in the offensive end. Chayka has a big point shot, no doubt. But his footwork inside the offensive blueline is not terrific and he gets himself bottled up quite consistently, lacking the skill and creativity to evade pressure at the point. I believe that this will prevent him from continuing as a powerplay QB at the NHL level. Additionally, I do not believe that his vision and creativity in exiting the zone by carrying the puck is high end enough for him to be a consistent offensive contributor at the NHL level. Do I think Chayka can be a long time NHL defender? Yes, one hundred percent. However, I do not believe that he has the upside of some of the other defenders in this draft and probably settles into more of a 4-5, PK role at the next level. Because he's a safe defender, I do expect him to go higher than where I have him ranked though.
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