The 2020 NHL Draft was surrounded by uncertainty. With the COVID-19 pandemic taking over the world, the when, where and how regarding the draft was put into question. However, who would go No. 1 overall was never in doubt. Alexis Lafrenière came into the season as the top pick, and that’s exactly where he went.
Now, the 2021 edition faces many of the same obstacles — and more. Plus, it couldn’t be any more different at the top end. Looking towards the July draft, uncertainty abounds on and off the ice. Once again, the when, where and how appear to be up in the air. This time around, however, there’s also a question of who.
Depending on who you ask and where you look, the race for No. 1 in 2021 is wide open. Coming into the season, Finland’s Aatu Räty seemed to carry the frontrunner position but by no means had it locked down. Months into the season, he’s not only lost his grip on that spot but it appears to be out of his grasp. Today, there are as many as 10 players who have emerged as candidates. Some may be more likely than others but at this point none of these names going No. 1 would be shocking.
Here are FCHockey’s 10 candidates (alphabetically) for the No. 1 spot at the 2021 NHL Draft.
2021 NHL Draft: 10 prospects for No. 1
Matthew Beniers, C, University of Michigan (NCAA)
FCHockey’s 2021 NHL Draft ranking: 7
Beniers has broken into the NCAA with the Michigan Wolverines and is forcing the hockey world to take notice alongside two other draft-eligibles that are also on this list. For years, Beniers has been quietly impressive, often serving as the youngest player on his team while being a key figure. An example of this was his standout performance at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, where Beniers was the lone draft-eligible on Team USA and helped lead the squad to the gold medal.
For those that hadn’t seen him play in the NCAA, this was a coming-out party for the centerman.
WORLD JUNIORS 2021: USA shocks Canada for gold
He’s a big riser in FCHockey’s updated draft rankings thanks in part to performances at both the college level and World Juniors stage.
“Whether on the kill or at even strength, his ability to carry the puck out of his own zone, through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone is superb,” FCHockey’s Derek Neumeier said in a recent scouting report. “It’s rare to see someone so competitive and defensively detailed have such a good pair of hands. He never seems to be out of position or thinking a step behind the play in any zone or in any situation.
“His offensive vision is well above average, as he can open up rush space in conjunction with his teammates and make nice little passes in full flight.”
Brandt Clarke, D, Barrie Colts (OHL) on loan with HC Nove Zamky (Slovakia)
FCHockey rank: 6
One of the leading contenders to hear his name called first in the 2021 NHL Draft, Clarke hasn’t earned much discussion this season with the Ontario Hockey League yet to drop the puck. To keep himself on the radar, he headed to Slovakia’s HC Nove Zamsky where he’s been a standout at age 17. Early on, he’s shown some impressive flashes in the men’s league.
A lot of Clarke’s pedigree comes in what he was able to accomplish the past two seasons, though. In 2019-20, Clarke led all rookies with 38 points (six goals, 32 assists) and being named to the league’s First All-Rookie Team.
“His passing transition game is wonderful,”noted FCHockey’s regional scout Joel Henderson. “When the puck is on his stick, he has his head up and often showed his ability to make tape to tape passes look easy whether they were crisp or softer and weighted.
“Combining his puck protection in the offensive zone with his ability to see passing lanes open up and he can be very dangerous by joining that rush.”
Simon Edvinsson, D, Frölunda HC (SHL)
FCHockey rank: 4
After starting the season as a leader in the J20 Nationell with Frölunda HC J20, Edvinsson has carved out a role for himself at the SHL level — granted in a limited role most games. Sweden cancelled the J20 leagues for the season, so Edvinsson making himself at home in one of the best leagues in the world is promising.
Often left behind some of the other defenders in this class, Edvinsson has become a serious contender for the top of the 2021 draft. The mobile blueliner shows promise in his own end and extraordinary skill in the other two zones. First overall is very much within his reach.
“Edvinsson is able to generate speed quickly and effortlessly with just a few long strides while also demonstrating great control with his edges, using crossovers to quickly change direction while carrying the puck or walking the blue line,” Brandon Holmes, a video scout with FCHockey, said. “The transitional upside with Edvinsson is enormous, as he’s most effective on the ice at moving pucks up the ice and securing zone exits and entries with control.
“He consistently has his head up while handling the puck and does a superb job at evading pressure from oncoming forecheckers, using his edge work, puck skills, and long reach to turn away from opposing attackers.”
William Eklund, C, Djurgårdens (SHL)
FCHockey rank: 5
Another Swedish player that has been turning heads this season, Eklund may just be the biggest draft-eligible riser early in the season. He’s been stellar in his play, carving out a top-six role for himself with the SHL’s Djurgårdens, an extremely impressive achievement.
Eklund would have furthered his rise up draft boards with a spot at the 2021 World Juniors, but a positive COVID-19 test held him out. Instead, he returned to Djurgårdens and continued to impress in one of the best leagues in the world.
“(Eklund) has taken huge strides forward in his game since last season, which is always a good sign for a prospect’s long-term development,” said Neumeier. “He’s a very skilled, versatile, and reliable player, who has many different elements to his game.
“His hockey sense is probably his single best asset, as he looks right at home at the professional level against players much older than him. He never seems to be lost in the play or overwhelmed by it, so he’s rarely a liability.”
Dylan Guenther, LW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) on loan with Sherwood Park Crusaders (AJHL)
FCHockey rank: 9
There’s an argument to be made that Guenther’s spot on this list is most impressive, due to the fact that he’s played just four games this season with the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Both the WHL and the AJHL aren’t playing right now, making it very difficult for him to boost his draft stock.
The left winger’s 2019-20 campaign — and four AJHL matches — have earned him recognition as one of the top players in this class. With the Edmonton Oil Kings last season, he racked up 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 58 games, earning the Jim Piggott Trophy as the Rookie of the Year.
“He’s a high-octane offensive player who carries pucks in good positions and the hands to break ankles by knowing how to deceive opponents and exploit weaknesses,” reported FCHockey’s head Western scout Justin Froese. “He can create plays at speed with the puck and has the layers to his game that allow him to situationally be in great spots to make plays or get open to time a route.
“Defensively there’s a hunger to get the puck and turn over play which he uses a good stick and sprinkles in some physicality to do so.”
Luke Hughes, D, US-NTDP (USHL)
FCHockey rank: 1
The name Hughes has earned some clout in the NHL already, thanks to the high selections of Quinn and Jack — Luke’s older brothers. The youngest Hughes has a very good chance to hear his name closer to Jack’s draft spot (No. 1 in 2019) than Quinn’s (No. 7 in 2018). Luke is even one of the youngest players eligible in this draft, just days away from being 2022-eligible.
A leader on the U.S. Under-18 National Team, Hughes stands out as a puck-moving defenseman that the NHL has seen taking over the league in recent years. The University of Michigan commit is playing at over a point-per-game pace this season, and at the very least looks like a top-five pick in this class.
“Hughes is a smooth-skating, skilled offensive back who shows an incredible ability to be a high-end playmaker and puck mover,” said Dylan Galloway, FCHockey’s head Eastern scout. “He plays a dynamic offensively minded game showing a penchant to jump up into the play and drive the transition with controlled exits and entries.
“Hughes’ skating is quite agile and fluid. He changes edges frequently and can twist and turn to avoid opponents with relative ease.”
Kent Johnson, LW, University of Michigan (NCAA)
FCHockey rank: 8
There were some questions about Johnson coming into the season, centering around his making the move from the second-tier BCHL to the NCAA — a very big jump in terms of competition. Johnson has quickly put those questions to bed, impressing with highlight reel-level plays against the tough competition.
Johnson might just be the most skilled forward in this class. He oozes creativity with the hands and feet that can keep up with his mind. His instincts are through the roof and for that, he could be the top forward in the class.
“Highly creative winger who excels at being dynamic offensively and making highly skilled plays look effortless,” Galloway wrote. “The best word to describe Jonson is creative, his ability to make accurate behind the back passes look normal and easy was impressive.
“Johnson’s ability to create these plays is through his innate ability to see the ice and how players are moving around it.”
Carson Lambos, D, Winnipeg Ice (WHL) on loan with JYP U20 (U20 SM-sarja)
FCHockey rank: 16
Another prospect that was looking for ice this season, Lambos headed overseas to Finland to join JYP U20 in the U20 SM-sarja. Lambos might be a bit more of a dark horse at this point, but with a strong second half to his season, he could very well find himself atop the draft board.
Coming into 2020-21, Lambos earned his spot as one of the top defenders in the class thanks to 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 57 games as a rookie last season with the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice. He also had a strong performance at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
“His game is centered around his mobility which allows him to control the tempo of transitions and pare down offensive options for opponents,” said Froese. “He’s got deceptive layers within his game and can con opponents into taking poor routes to pin him down.
“While his offensive play is at times explosive and he can manipulate space with his mobility and false information, he plays rather responsible within reason and simply manages the game.”
Owen Power, D, University of Michigan (NCAA)
FCHockey rank: 3
Beniers and Johnson aren’t the only draft-eligibles turning heads with the Wolverines. Power, 6-5 and 214 pounds, is right there with them — and arguably above them. The defenseman came into the season as one of the top prospects thanks to his 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) and defenseman of the year performance with the USHL’s Chicago Steel in 2019-20.
Now in the NCAA, Power has slid into the stronger, faster competition well, holding on to his spot as a top prospect in this class. Along with Clarke, Power could very well be a front runner for the first-overall selection.
“He is an outstanding skater, not just for his mammoth frame, showing great dynamic posture and smooth edgework to build and maintain his speed,” reported FCHockey scout Joseph Aleong. “Confident and efficient while moving the puck, keeping it simple with quick outlets and showing good patience while under pressure.
“His awareness shines through in his ability to jump into open ice on offense and is great at controlling the puck along the blue line and changing the angle of his shot to open up a lane to the net.
Jesper Wallstedt, G, Lulea HF (SHL)
FCHockey rank: 2
After Spencer Knight and Yaroslav Askarov flirted with the top-10 in the last two drafts, Wallstedt might just be the one to do it in 2021. The goaltender is not just spending his draft-eligible season in the SHL, but he’s stolen the starting role and has been excelling in it.
Goaltenders playing in men’s leagues in their draft-eligible seasons tend to do very well in their NHL careers, and it’s not often that the league they’re playing in is one of the best in the world. There’s a strong possibility Wallstedt will be the first name off the board in the 2021 draft — not just the first goaltender selected.
“His huge size and tight positioning allow him to naturally cover a huge portion of the net, even when he drops to his knees,” Neumeier said in a scouting report from the World Juniors. “There are no wasted movements, and he doesn’t get scrambly when traffic comes to his crease.
“He holds his posts well and covers the lower net to deny jam plays. His rebound control is incredibly advanced for a goaltender of his age.”
Josh Bell is a scout and the director of content for FCHockey.