5 NHL Prospects on the Rise at the Start of the 2021-22 NHL Season
Analyzing hockey prospects in any context is an exercise in discipline. There is inherent uncertainty in predicting the future for a bunch of young, developing players still trying to find their way, and it can be easy to get suckered into drawing too many conclusions over a small run of games.
The NHL season has begun, while many other leagues started even earlier. The season is a marathon, not a sprint, so players performing well at the start still have a lot left to prove, while those struggling have more than enough time to gain ground. There have been enough games played in most leagues to analyze first impressions and short-list a handful of players who have started strong and are trending upward, even under a cautious lens.
Here are five NHL prospects on the rise at the start of the 2021-22 season.
Anton Lundell, Center, Florida Panthers
With Lundell, the future is now. The 2020 first-round pick made Florida's roster out of training camp and has not only earned his spot, but become a crucial contributor to the Panthers' 7-0-0 start to the season. Lundell has scored twice and added three assists through five games, with two games missed with an injury.
Expect Lundell's production to slow down because he's not that type of player, and he padded his numbers with an empty-net goal and a cheap assist.
Even still, Lundell's impact has been immediate. A rookie who turned 20 in October is typically subjected to sheltered minutes, but Florida's coaching staff uses the Finnish forward like a veteran. He's killing penalties, going out for defensive-zone faceoffs, facing capable players on the other team, holding the puck with confidence and looking for attacking options.
Lundell has always had upside as a top-six, two-way center, but he was never supposed to make this kind of impact so soon. He was an afterthought for the Calder Trophy, but if he keeps this up, then he'll force his way into the mix.
Oskar Olausson, Right Wing, Colorado Avalanche
It was a little bit surprising that the Colorado Avalanche snagged Oskar Olausson at 28th overall in the 2021 draft; at the time, we gave the pick an A grade.
The Swedish winger signed his entry-level contract with the Avalanche and was assigned to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. For the most part, the 18-year-old's transition to North American hockey has been seamless. He has scored seven goals in seven games, including a hat trick on Oct. 21, and his play is deserving of more than the two assists he's been credited with.
There was little doubt that Olausson's high-caliber shot would translate in the smaller rinks, but the rest of his game following has been the true bellwether for his future success. Even in less space, Olausson continues to attack in the offensive zone with speed, putting defenders on their heels and confusing them with misdirections. He's creating his own shooting opportunities and has made some creative passes into high-percentage areas that his teammates will start converting as they learn to expect them.
The one area of needed adjustment is in the physical department, as he's relying solely on escaping pressure with his feet and losing battles or turning over the puck when engaged physically. But that can come with time, and his play otherwise has been everything the Avalanche could have hoped for.
Brett Berard, Left Wing, New York Rangers
Brett Berard was a mini-revelation at the 2021 World Junior Championship, forcing his way into the lineup and becoming a key part of a buzzsaw third line that helped Team USA earn gold.
Despite his height (5'9"), Berard is a force on the ice. He's hungry to win every loose puck, isn't afraid to hit bigger players and generally annoys the opposition with a clean but persistent presence. His offensive production as an NCAA freshman at Providence was simply OK, notching five goals and five assists in 19 games. It was a notable area that needed improvement to reach that next level as a serious NHL prospect.
So far this season, the 2020 fifth-round pick is delivering. He's continuing his energetic style of play but is matching it with sublime offensive presence. Berard's six goals are twice the number of the next-highest Providence player, and he also has four assists in seven games. If he continues to match his all-around game with this type of production, then he'll firmly upgrade from an intriguing dark-horse prospect to one with a serious future to consider in New York.
Elmer Soderblom, Left Wing, Detroit Red Wings
There are many more prominent names at the center of the Detroit Red Wings' rebuild than 2019 sixth-round pick Elmer Soderblom. In fact, EP Rinkside did not even consider him one of Detroit's top 15 prospects entering the season. It's hard to blame the outlet.
Soderblom was a fringe prospect who showed flashes of ability but otherwise presented as raw and awkward. Last season, he produced three goals and two assists across 28 games in the Swedish Hockey League and was just OK at the World Junior Championship.
Soderblom is starting to put his abilities to use on a more consistent basis, though, as he leads Frolunda with six goals to go with his three assists through 14 games this term. Despite what his 6'8" frame might suggest, Soderblum is not a physical player and instead relies on his hands. He's a good stick-handler in smaller spaces, finds the soft areas of the ice for shooting opportunities and has a quick release off his blade. He's an agile skater who won't have a problem keeping up with the play.
The 20-year-old is still a massive work in progress. He has been scoring largely on the power play, but he's not particularly effective outside the offensive zone. He spends too much time around the perimeter, often losing battles he shouldn't. That Soderblom is making plays somewhat consistently for a good team in a top pro league is a start, and he has at least put himself on the radar as a more legitimate NHL prospect.
Dmitri Rashevsky, Right Wing, Winnipeg Jets
There are prospects who bump their stock, and then there's Winnipeg Jets prospect Dmitri Rashevsky's rapid ascent in the KHL.
NHL teams passed on the 21-year-old in back-to-back drafts before the Winnipeg Jets took a flier on him in the 2021 fifth round. Rashevsky did lead the MHL, Russia's junior league, in goals as a 19-year-old during the 2019-20 season but otherwise didn't have much of a resume. His experience in the KHL was limited, his scoring output in the VHL (Russian minor league) didn't stand out, and the last time Russia picked him for any meaningful international games was five years prior.
Now, Rashevsky has not only established himself in the KHL for Dynamo Moscow for the first time in his career, but he is outright dominating. He has registered an impressive 21 points in 22 games and is tied for second in the league with 12 goals.
Rashevsky creates offense with a combination of smooth hands and outstanding patience. His head, hands and body are all working in sync yet suggest different decisions he's about to make. Defenders struggle sorting the truth from the bluff on where he's going and what he plans to do with the puck. They'll think pass when he's shooting and vice versa, and he has the poise to read the players in front of him and adjust accordingly.
It seems unlikely that Rashevsky will keep up this level of production, but the talent is undeniable, and the offense he is creating is repeatable and could translate well to the NHL. With the investment of a fifth-round pick, the Jets have to be thrilled about a player displaying top-six potential. Without a doubt, no NHL prospect has increased his stock more since the summer than Rashevsky.