Best 2021 NHL Draft Fits for Every Lottery Team
The NHL draft is not a great time to address organizational needs. This is not the NFL, where there are many rigid positions and the players available are in their early 20s and ready to make immediate impacts. With few exceptions, teams are drafting 17- and 18-year-olds and are attempting to project how those players will look five years down the line.
Team needs can and will change a lot in the meantime. For that reason, the optimal strategy in the NHL is to draft the best talent regardless of need and sort it all out at a later date. Any excess becomes trade bait to help fill needs elsewhere.
But with the first round of the NHL draft occurring on July 23, it's still worth considering organizational needs. Sometimes serendipity strikes and the best player on the board also happens to be exactly what a team needs. If a particular player is the right fit, it could also make sense to trade up or down the draft board.
Here is the biggest long-term organizational need for each of the 15 lottery teams.
Biggest Need: Offensive Defensemen
When you compile the worst record in the league on your way to missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season, you need help wherever you can get it. Sabres' management isn't going to get picky and will simply choose the prospect it deems the best of the draft class.
The best player in the draft is arguably center Matty Beniers, and if the Sabres agree, then he's their guy. However, center is probably one of Buffalo's relative strengths. Even if Jack Eichel is traded this summer, the Sabres are likely to get a center in return. Former first-round picks Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt are also very much in the mix as potential top-six centers.
Buffalo's biggest long-term need is defensemen with offensive upside. Yes, Rasmus Dahlin is a hell of a talent, but behind him the Sabres' depth chart is filled with players like Ryan Johnson and Mattias Samuelsson who will be, at best, defensive-minded depth.
Michigan defenseman Owen Power is a heavy contender to go first overall, and the 6'5" defenseman has two-way abilities. Brandt Clarke, also in the mix, is the defenseman available with the purest offensive upside.
Biggest Need: Exciting Point Producer
It should be the best player available in almost any situation. That's especially true for the Seattle Kraken, who literally only have one player on the roster right now; center Luke Henman was signed out of the QMJHL as a free agent in May. An empty organization, by definition, needs everything.
If forced to split hairs, then maybe Seattle's biggest need is a creative forward. The team's analytically minded front office is going to have an easier time at the expansion draft finding underrated talent on defense. A young forward capable of highlight-reel plays is harder to find and more likely to capture an initial audience.
Beniers fits the mold here if Buffalo passes on him, but the forward with the highest upside in this draft is Sweden's William Eklund, who is also in range.
Biggest Need: Center
The Ducks have steadily accumulated a number of quality prospects since they somewhat discreetly began rebuilding a couple of years ago. Center Trevor Zegras and defenseman Jamie Drysdale are their blue-chip prospects, while there is a nice spread of talent at each position. This is not a team with any urgent positional or player-type need.
Although they're thin on right-handed defensemen after Drysdale, the Ducks' biggest need is at center.
Zegras is their future first-line center, but behind him their depth chart is uncomfortable. Sam Steel is talented but has struggled at the NHL level and, at 23, is approaching the end of his runway. Isac Lundestrom will top out as a penalty-killing bottom-sixer. Center is not a position a team can patch together and the Ducks' future would be much more secure with a prospect with legitimate top-nine upside. Matty Beniers and William Eklund fit the mold.
New Jersey Devils
Biggest Need: Puck-Moving Defenseman
There's no such thing as having too many centers. Any excess can either be moved to the wing or traded at a premium. But the Devils look well set for the future with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier as the team's spine. Michael McLeod and Jesper Boqvist provide depth.
Although the Kyle Palmieri trade left the Devils devoid of top-six wingers, Yegor Sharangovich aside, the reinforcements are coming. Sniper Alexander Holtz was drafted seventh overall in 2020 and has All-Star potential. He could make his debut next season. Dawson Mercer, also a 2020 first-round pick, shone in the QMJHL and performed well at the 2021 World Junior Championship for Canada. They'll need more, but it's a good start.
Where the Devils need reinforcements is on defense. Ty Smith should be on the top pairing for years to come, but behind him there isn't much. Reilly Walsh and Kevin Bahl are coin flips at best for depth roles in the near future. Picking KHL defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin 20th overall in 2020 was a massive reach. None of those three will provide meaningful offensive prowess even in the best circumstances.
Brandt Clarke and Simon Edvinsson could be options, but the name to watch is Luke Hughes. There is going to be immense pressure, even if unspoken, for the Devils to draft Jack's younger brother. Although he lacks the offensive skill set of Quinn, his other brother, he has upside as a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Biggest Need: Any Defenseman
The Blue Jackets are in a precarious position. In a bid to milk the team's first competitive window, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen traded a number of draft picks over the previous four drafts and lost players like Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene for nothing once their contracts expired. The team struggled massively last season, and Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman has reported Seth Jones wants out. This is an organization that will have no choice but to rebuild and has one of the weakest prospect pools in the league.
Of the little young talent the Blue Jackets have, most exists on the wing, with Patrik Laine joined by four solid prospects in Alex Texier, Emil Bemstrom, Yegor Chinakhov and Kirill Marchenko. At center, Liam Foudy has middle-six upside and that's about it. It's a major position of need. The goaltending pool is also empty.
Yet Columbus is desperate to add a defenseman of any kind. Established 23-year-old Zach Werenski helps them save face long term. If the Blue Jackets draft a center or goaltender, it will be a welcome addition, but Simon Edvinsson or Luke Hughes would instantly become the team's top defensive prospect, and it's not even close.
Detroit Red Wings
Biggest Need: High-End Goaltender
The Red Wings have followed up a three-decade run as a dynasty with a rebuild of equal proportions. A fifth straight season of missing the playoffs would be cataclysmic in most scenarios, but general manager Steve Yzerman inherited a team stuck in the abyss and knew this would a massive project. The Red Wings' prospect pool is loaded with talent across the board. They are multiple numbers deep at every position and boast a nice crop of high-end talents.
Any analysis of need has to be relative to the rest of the team's pool. It's definitely not on the wings, where Lucas Raymond will be the next Detroit star, while Filip Zadina and Jonatan Berggren are merely among their crop of potential top-sixers. On defense, Moritz Seider dominated in the Swedish Hockey League. The Red Wings have centers with upside, such as Joe Veleno and Theodor Niederbach. A high-end center is lacking, perhaps.
But the Red Wings might be in position to take a goaltender, and this is the one area where need can influence decisions in the NHL draft. They do have decent internal options in Keith Petruzzelli and Jan Bednar, but Jesper Wallstedt is a legitimate top goaltending prospect. On talent alone, he's a borderline top-five player in this draft.
San Jose Sharks
Biggest Need: Center
The San Jose Sharks are where the Red Wings were a few years ago: well past their stage of contention but with a number of unmovable vestiges of that era still eating away at their cap space. The 24-year-old Timo Meier is the best the Sharks have in terms of meaningful young talent on the NHL roster, and with his age, that's a stretch.
The prospect pool is bare. The closest the organization has to a strength is on its wings. Ozzy Wiesblatt, Daniil Gushchin and Jonathan Dahlen have the potential to become secondary scorers in the NHL, while John Leonard and Sasha Chmelevski have NHL depth upside. They are thin on defense, with depth defenseman Mario Ferraro in the NHL and Ryan Merkley, whose immense talent is matched by character concerns. They could also be in the market for a young goaltender.
But let's go with center. They took Thomas Bordeleau 38th overall last season, and he has middle-six upside. That's not enough. Talented Canadian Mason McTavish, if he is available at seventh overall, could be a great choice for San Jose.
Los Angeles Kings
Biggest Need: Scoring Winger
The graduation of a few key prospects to the NHL for the Rangers means that the Kings own the best prospect pool in the league. L.A. has an embarrassment of riches at all positions, but particularly center. Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Gabriel Vilardi, Akil Thomas and Rasmus Kupari would each be the top center prospect on a number of teams. A couple will inevitably become trade bait. On defense, the Kings have great depth such as Tobias Bjornfot and Helge Grans but could use a bona fide top-pair defender for the future.
The Kings' biggest need is a top-six winger. Arthur Kaliyev is a good one for the future, and maybe one or two centers can shift positions, but drafting a player like WHL right-winger Dylan Guenther would round out the team's prospect pool. He will become a sniper at the NHL level and could be a great complement to the team's buffet of playmaking centers. Swede Fabian Lysell is also a fit.
Biggest Need: Center
For all of the Canucks' organizational problems, the team has a tremendous foundation for the future. Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Nils Hoglander and Thatcher Demko could be top players for the next seven-plus seasons, while Vasili Podkolzin is a top-tier prospect.
In general, the Canucks need more depth everywhere except in goal to supplement those top players. In particular, though, the cupboard is bare at center behind Pettersson. It's worth wondering about Michigan's Kent Johnson, whose puck-handling is the best in the class but who lacks structure to his game.
Johnson is from Vancouver, and the team is surely familiar with him after he dominated the British Columbian hockey circuit prior to college. He is likely to be around when Vancouver is on the clock at ninth overall.
Biggest Need: Goaltender
While there are many fair questions to ask about the future of the Ottawa Senators, few have anything to do with the team's crop of young talent. They are strong on the wings, with Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle leading the way. On defense, Thomas Chabot is a stud and still only 24, while they will inevitably find a few capable defensemen among Victor Mete, Erik Brannstrom, Jake Sanderson and Jacob Bernard-Docker.
At center, Josh Norris and Shane Pinto are two quality prospects, with Norris particularly excelling in his rookie NHL season. Neither is a likely first-liner, so Ottawa could be a nice landing spot for a player like Mason McTavish or Kent Johnson.
But one has to wonder about their future in net. The Matt Murray acquisition and contract was a disaster from the beginning. There are a few prospects behind him, but none of serious substance. In their range, Swede Jesper Wallstedt would be a phenomenal pickup.
Biggest Need: Skilled Winger
The Blackhawks, last year on the verge of admitting their need for a comprehensive rebuild, have a lot of depth in the prospect pool.
Down the middle, Kirby Dach and Lukas Reichel give the Blackhawks options. There's nobody with No. 1 upside on defense, but Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell and Alex Vlasic give them a trio of probable NHL defensemen for the future. Goaltender is definitely a question long term, with no obvious internal options. They could be in the mix for Jesper Wallstedt or even the 6'6" Sebastian Cossa.
But a high-end winger is the most pressing need. Alex DeBrincat is 23 and set up to be part of the long-term picture, and after him is a deep pool of wingers with depth upside, with Philipp Kurashev among them. But Patrick Kane turns 33 next season, and the team needs an injection of new skill up front. They will hope that Dylan Guenther or Fabian Lysell falls to them, but Oskar Olausson impressed at the professional level in Sweden and is a safer bet to be around for Chicago.
Biggest Need: Right-Handed Defenseman
When talking about prospect needs, the active NHL roster rarely offers solutions, but much of Calgary's future is already there. Matthew Tkachuk (23) should be an All-Star for a long time, and Dillon Dube (22) is a quality winger. Left winger Jakob Pelletier, a first-round pick in 2020, has jumped in value after a tremendous QMJHL season and World Juniors showing. In goal, Dustin Wolf isn't a sure bet because of his small stature but has nonetheless dominated in juniors. They could use another center behind first-rounder Connor Zary.
But defense is where they need the most help. Juuso Valimaki, a 2017 first-round pick, played his first NHL season but struggled with just two goals and nine assists in 49 games. Offensive defenseman Jeremie Poirier was a bargain in the third round last season but is nonetheless a project. The Flames would sure love if Simon Edvinsson or Luke Hughes was available at 12th overall. Neither is the right-hander they desperately need but would still provide a necessary infusion to the defense depth chart.
Biggest Need: Right-Handed Defenseman
The Flyers face a lot of existential questions following a massively disappointing season. But all things considered, their future looks fairly bright. At least in theory.
Joel Farabee is already a top-six forward and will likely be joined by center Morgan Frost soon. Behind them is a strong pool of prospects that includes Tyson Foerster at center and Bobby Brink at right wing. Carter Hart, despite his struggles this season, is the future in net in Philly.
And there are not many teams better stocked at a position than the Flyers are on left defense. Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim are still in their mid-20s. Behind them are prospects Cam York, Egor Zemula and Emil Andrae, who all have top-four upside.
The Flyers' bigger need is a right-handed defenseman. As noted in the Flames' portion, there aren't any realistically within range of Philadelphia's pick. It seems unlikely they will address that need by happenstance. One also has to wonder whether this pick will become trade bait as the Flyers try to reverse course for 2021-22.
Biggest Need: Right Wing
This is not where the Stars hoped to find themselves after making the Stanley Cup Final last season.
While their prospect pool is thin in numbers, the quality is off the scales. Jason Robertson is their top left winger and has a legitimate chance to win the Calder Trophy this summer. At center, Roope Hintz is developing into a borderline star while former first-rounders Ty Dellandrea and Mavrik Bourque are likely to become NHLers in some capacity. On defense, Thomas Harley and Miro Heiskanen could be a top pairing for the next decade. There's nothing to speak of behind them, but those two pull their own weight. Jake Oettinger had a fine rookie season in net.
There is a need at right wing, with little to show behind a good-but-not-great Denis Gurianov. Fabian Lysell would be a dream pickup but is unlikely to fall to 14th overall. While it may be a slight reach at this position, fellow Swede Simon Robertsson possesses a ton of offensive upside and has his believers.
New York Rangers
Biggest Need: Center
As the Rangers progress from a rebuild to a competitive window, they are loaded with young talent basically everywhere. On the wings, Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov are as good of a trio as any team has, and there is still depth behind them. K'Andre Miller and Zac Jones alone would quench any thirst for left defensemen, yet there are others like Matthew Robertson behind them. On the other side, Adam Fox is up for the Norris Trophy, Nils Lundkvist is arguably the best defensive prospect in the world and 2020 first-round pick Braden Schneider is close to NHL-ready.
Their biggest need is at center. Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome are entering their late-20s. Filip Chytil is 21 and their only impact player at the position with a long-term outlook. The remaining prospects either top out as fourth-liners (Justin Richards for example) or are massive projects (Evan Vierling and Oliver Tarnstrom).
Even if they acquire Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel or another big-time center, this is the obvious area the team would love to bolster. USHL center Cole Sillinger is a good bet for them in this range. If the pick isn’t traded for a proven NHLer, that is.