Back to (Development) School for the ’21 Draft Class

Not since 1996 has a draft class gone without a top-five selection playing in the NHL in the next upcoming season. That, being the year in which Ottawa nabbed defenseman, Chris Phillips first overall–he’d debut his all-Sens 1,179-game career in 1997-98. Andrei Zyuzin made his first appearance that same season with San Jose and the three subsequent picks wouldn’t crack the big league til at least 1998-99.

But, the trend of draftees jumping straight to the NHL might be coming to an end. The top prospects in the 2021 crop provide a perfect storm of European skaters wanting to develop another season back home and North American skaters looking to do the same, including a trio of high-ranked prospects with unfinished business in the NCAA.

Owen Power, the 18-year-old consensus top-ranked prospect did not absolutely commit to a return to the University of Michigan Wolverines next season, but indicated that is the direction he’s presently leaning.

“I wouldn’t say I’m committed to going back to school,” Power said at his pre-draft media availability on Tuesday. “I’m probably leaning towards it right now, but that’s obviously something that I have to talk to with whichever team drafts me. It will kind of be something I look into more once I get drafted.”

If Power is selected first overall with the pick currently owned by the Buffalo Sabres and decides to pursue an additional season at Michigan, he’ll be the first number not to play in the NHL in the following season since Erik Johnson opted to pursue his freshman season of college hockey at Minnesota in 2006-07.

Unlike Johnson, Power has managed to play a season of NCAA hockey prior to his draft, but with massive regulations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, his experience has hardly felt like the college-athlete one.

“To just be able to experience the true college experience, especially at Michigan with Yost and all the fans there playing for them would be pretty special,” he said when adding to the reasons he is leaning toward playing his sophomore season. “Actually going to class and not just doing online; being able to do stuff other than go to the rink and home would be something that I would like to do.”

A return to school would also provide Power with the opportunity to represent Canada at the U-20 World Junior Championships next winter. Though Power was largely considered among the top players in his age bracket, the blueliner was not released by Michigan to play in the tournament, held inside the Edmonton bubble thus requiring additional time away from the University and program for quarantine.

“I think for sure that’s always been a dream of mine to play World Juniors,” he said. “That’s just another reason. That kind of goes into just looking at going back to school. That definitely plays a part.”

Power confirmed he’ll meet with the Sabres for the first time later this week. That conversation could pave the way for Buffalo, who finished with the league’s worst record last season, to once again use the first overall pick on defense, having picked Rasmus Dahlin first in 2018.

That chain of events might suit Kevyn Adams’ team just fine as the Sabres continue to navigate through their rebuild with former second overall picks, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart likely moving on this offseason. There’s no glaring urgency to get better right away. Meanwhile, Power could return to a Wolverine roster with the likes of 2021-eligible forwards, Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers (also expressing desire on Tuesday to return) as well as former first rounder, Brendan Brisson. A return would also mean he’ll be part of a very mobile defense with highly-touted Luke Hughes set to begin his freshman season in the fall.

Regardless of who selects him later this month, the reasons for one more season of NCAA development are starting to add up.

Elsewhere, both Simon Edvinsson and William Eklund indicated they think another season of hockey in the SHL, Sweden’s top professional league, would be the best for their development.

“The plan right now is to play with Frolunda and play for them the whole year out,” Edvinsson, ranked second among European skaters, said. “I don’t know what the team that drafts me (will) say, but I’m pretty open actually.”

Eklund, who ranked top among European skaters after registering 23 points in 40 games as the youngest regular on Djurgardens roster says he thinks his development will benefit from an additional season overseas.

“I have to improve my shooting,” Eklund said. “I have to get that shot faster an better in tight areas. I have to have better top speed–I’m more of a quick player than fast in the long-term.”

Again, that commitment to develop outside North America shouldn’t disrupt the plans for those clubs inside the top-five: Seattle, Anaheim, New Jersey and Columbus. All of which are continuing their own rebuilding process and one is starting from scratch.

Dylan Guenther, the WHL winger who spent parts of last season in the WHL and AJHL, could make the jump and be one of the few outliers in his class. Currently ranked second by TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Guenther managed to score 24 points in 12 games with the Edmonton Oil Kings and added another 7 points in as many games representing Canada at the U18 World Championship tournament, held in Dallas earlier this year. It wasn’t always ideal, but in a season in which many prospects saw dramatic decreases in in-game competition, he managed to put together some showings.

“I was sitting at home for a long period of time,” Guenther said. “You know, other countries and players were able to play and kind of continue to get better through a normal season. I was unable to do that and I had to find ways to continue to get better and work on my game–even sometimes that weren’t on the ice. You know, the rinks were closed.

“I had to continue to push and find ways to do stuff off the ice that would translate on-ice play. I think I did a good job of that and then during the season, I think just taking advantage of every game you play and taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Some leagues including the OHL didn’t even run due to concerns stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Though the WHL did manage to play, it still resulted in a limited showing for some of the CHL’s top-ranked skaters including Guenther and Carson Lambos (Winnipeg, WHL). It also forced draft-eligible OHLer’s like Brandt Clarke, Mason McTavish and Brennan Othmann to play overseas, in many cases as just-turned 18-year-old’s away from their home provinces for an extended length for first time in their life. That could mean even CHL players who got a taste of a regular season, might still need some further development.

The draft has always been about the future and the 2021 proceedings later this month might drive that point home even more.