NHL Draft

Breaking down the biggest issue that could change the outcomes of the 2021 NHL draft

While it feels as though the COVID-19 pandemic is being effectively curbed, the impacts that it will have on the world will reverberate for years to come. This is no different for the world of sports and hockey. We have already broken down how this will impact the Calgary Flames, especially in terms of how they are looking to plan for next season, the biggest impact will likely be seen when looking back at this year’s draft.

Most leagues paused their 2019–20 seasons when the pandemic first hit, reducing the number of games that season. Then this season, there was a wide discrepancy between leagues in terms of whether they were able to play, and if so, how many games. Some leagues like the SHL and most Russian leagues were able to play close to a full season, while the OHL, parts of the NCAA, and others did not get a single game in. Here is how they all broke down

LeagueLatest season outcome due to COVID
OHLCompletely Cancelled
WHLApproximately 20 games per team
QMJHLClose to a full season with some closures, particularly in the Maritimes
AJHLPlayed a handful of games before the league was canceled
BCHLPlayed 20 games this season
USHLNearly a full season, approximately 50 games per team
USHSUSHS-MN played close to a full season, USHS-Prep did not have much of a season
NCAASome teams had close to a full season, other teams (particularly Ivey League teams) were suspended
Russian LeaguesHad a full season with some games cancelled
Swedish LeaguesSHL and Allsvenskan played close to a full season, J20 cancelled mid-season
Finnish LeaguesLiiga played a full season with some cancellations, Metsis had a shortened season

Impact on their development

There are two big reasons why this is a major issue. The first is the development of younger players. It’s said that to become a master of a craft, it takes about 10,000 hours of work at it, and that is no different for hockey players. While most are able to continue working out off the ice, the inability to get into meaningful game action can be incredibly detrimental to their development.

Heading overseas to play hockey

Some players were able to mitigate this, at least partially. A handful of draft eligible OHLers were able to play in Europe this past season, including Francesco Pinelli in the AlpsHL and Mason McTavish in the Swiss National League. However opportunities were few and far between given the sheer number of players going abroad. A number of NHLers and AHLers were competing for a limited number of spots, and teams valued players with experience over 16- and 17-year-old junior players.

On top of that, it is an enormous transition to move from junior hockey to playing against men. Leaving aside the emotional toll it takes to leave your family at 16 to move to a country where you may not speak the language and play on a team where the average player is a decade older than you, the competition level is an enormous step up.

The opposing players have been playing the game far longer, and given they are older, they are also often much bigger than the youths that come across the pond from North America. This is not to say that players like McTavish are small, which they are not, but McTavish at 16 is much smaller than he will be in his mid-20s when he is ready to crack an NHL lineup.

AHL opportunities

The same could be seen especially for OHL players who got opportunities at the AHL level midway through the season. The Flames brought sixth-round pick Rory Kerins to play for the Heat this season given the OHL’s pause, and while he got to train with the team, he only featured in four games.

For a guy who in a normal season would have featured in 60+ games, this is incredibly detrimental to his development. It’s not reasonable to expect that Kerins would have been ready for the AHL this season after just two seasons of junior hockey, but the fact that he had no other option is incredibly detrimental to his development as a player.

Players were caught in a bind by the pandemic. If their league was unable to play, they were stuck trying to decide between moving around the world to play in a new country with the risk that they wouldn’t be big enough or strong enough to hold their own in the new league or holding out hope that their league would begin again or risk that the season would be cancelled. An impossible choice.

Impact on their draft rankings

Kerins was one of the lucky ones who was able to at least get practice time in with an OHL club at all. There are 20 teams in the OHL, each comprising around 30 skaters. Most players did not get into any game action at all. On TWC’s consolidated draft rankings, we have 30 draft-eligible OHLers who were unable to get into any game action this season, and while we do not yet know where they will be drafted, we do know that they missed out on the opportunity to improve their ranking this season.

Rankings fluctuate over time depending on how a player performs, and while they do have a chance to go down, because these players did not get into a single game this season, they had absolutely no chance to even show their worth. This leaves scouts with only one or at most two seasons of junior hockey to go off of. Looking at how a player performed in U16 or elsewhere is nice, but it is not indicative of how they will perform in the substantial step-up which is major junior hockey.

For teams, this is a risk as well. One great or poor season in major junior is not a representative sample from which to base future success, and while teams have no doubt scouted players for specific attributes like skating ability, offensive prowess, or more, how these will translate going forward or against tougher competition is anyone’s guess.

This is an issue especially for players like Corson Ceulemans, who played the eight game season in the AJHL. Scouts had little to say negatively about him, noting he has all the attributes that would make him a potential top-four defenceman, but worry that he has not seen enough quality competition to know how he stacks up. He has been compared to Cale Makar in terms of his skills and trajectory, but likely will be taken towards the tail end of the first round simply due to a lack of games.

Maybe in a non-pandemic world, this season was an absolute bust and he turned out to be nothing or he could have cemented his draft ranking as a top-tier player. All that is lost due to the small sample, and further, think of all the players that—given ideal circumstances—could have taken a huge leap forward.

The Flames have a prime example in their fifth-round pick Ryan Francis of the Saint John Sea Dogs. In his first two seasons in the QMJHL with Cape Breton, he put up 34 and 32 points respectively, and then in his draft season, he exploded for 72 points in 61 games, good for third on his team. This year, Francis was fifth in the league in points-per-game, and sixth in scoring, ahead of first round picks like Mavrik Bourque, Hendrix LaPierre, and the Flames’ Jakob Pelletier.

Had last season been cancelled and Francis not have had the chance to show that he could be a point-per-game player in junior hockey, there is a very strong chance that he would not have been drafted at all. One year can make all the difference as to whether a player gets drafted or whether they are passed over, which could shape their entire career trajectory.

What to look for at this year’s draft and beyond

There will be a lot of uncertainty in this year’s draft, but only time can resolve them, with all else out of everyone’s control. There are a few questions worth asking about this year’s draft class.

How many players get drafted from leagues that did not play this season?

The OHL is a powerhouse at the draft. Over 25% of players taken in the first round have come from the Ontario league, more than any other league. Seven of the last fifteen first overall picks have come from there as well, and average 7.75 players drafted in the first round each year. This year in our consolidated draft ranking, there are only five OHL players in the top-31, and all five played overseas this season. Among the players who did not play overseas this year, the highest ranked OHLer is Artyom Grushnikov at 49th. A big drop off from the rest of the crop.

It will be interesting to see how many of the players who did not get a game in get drafted this year. Between the 30 OHL players who did not go overseas, a number from across the USHS-Prep, and beyond, there will be prospects who are selected when they would have not been otherwise, and vice versa. This is going to be a key to watch for this year.

How many over-agers are drafted next season and beyond?

It will also be interesting to look at how many of those who are on the board for this year do not get selected this season, but have a strong season next year and end up being selected next year. It is almost a guarantee that there will be more over-agers drafted next season simply because of the way that this season went, which will create a bit of an oversupply in draft-eligible players for the next few seasons. Overage prospects are usually selected in later rounds, like sixth-round pick Andrew Mangiapane, but this may change next season given the number of prospects who did not get a season in this year.

How players who get drafted do next season?

The final big question to watch for is how the prospects who get selected this year do going into next season. This will be particularly pronounced for prospects who went overseas this year and will be back in the OHL next year. Having spent the year overseas and going into a league where most players have not been on the ice for a year will be interesting to watch.

The other thing to watch is the inverse: those who did not play at all or had a very short season this year yet still end up getting drafted. These prospects have spent a good amount of time in the gyms, but will have not faced heavy competition this past season at all. Some will be back in their regular leagues, like the OHL, while others like Corson Ceulemans, will be heading to the NCAA next year. Having been off the ice for most of the season, it will be interesting to see if he can perform as well as some scouts think he can.

No matter what way you look at it, this year’s draft is going to be one of the most memorable, both at the draft and beyond. With the ongoing pandemic and its impact on hockey leagues and their abilities to operate, how this impacts prospects is going to be incredibly interesting regarding who gets drafted and in which round. If there was ever a draft to watch with the video on one screen and a spreadsheet on the other, it’s this one.

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