Re-Grading Notable Picks from the 2021 NHL Draft
Predicting the fates of teenagers eligible for the NHL entry draft is an exercise in futility. History eventually exposes everyone as frauds who got a lot of assessments wrong. The best scouts are the ones who consistently are wrong a little bit less often than everyone else.
The chaos brought on by COVID-19 made evaluations all the more difficult, with players forced into limited schedules, sometimes with unfamiliar teams. A handful of players barely saw competition action altogether.
While the 2021-22 hockey calendar has seen its share of hardships—the cancellation of the World Junior Championship chief among them—most leagues have returned to at least some semblance of normal. Player development is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will be years before the full consequences of the 2021 draft will be understood. But given the fog of war hanging over the draft class last July, there is a whole lot to be gleaned from the run of games these players have partaken in over the past six months.
Bleacher Report live-graded all 31 players selected in the first round of the 2021 NHL draft in July (Arizona forfeited a pick for combine testing violations). I've chosen nine prospects of note in order to assess their progress and re-grade their teams' selections.
Owen Power, Buffalo Sabres (1st Overall)
Original Grade: B
Owen Power was the consensus top player available at the time but that opinion was hardly unanimous, with some (myself included) valuing Matt Beniers, William Eklund or Kent Johnson above him.
There was a lot to like about Power at the time. He had size (6'6", 213 pounds) and high-caliber skating ability. He was fantastic carrying the puck up the ice and made intelligent plays on and off the puck. My concern at the time was that, while he was a good offensive player, he lacked the hands to push into the upper echelon of point-producing defensemen.
He has made sizable gains in that area this season. He has 26 points in 24 games for Michigan and scored a hat-trick in the World Juniors opener against the Czechia.
It's still very difficult to see him ever matching the likes of Cale Makar, Adam Fox or Roman Josi as point producers in the NHL, but I no longer have lingering doubts about his potential to produce like a No. 1 defenseman and power-play quarterback. Beniers or Eklund could still end up the top player in this class when all is said and done, but I have to concede that Power has, for now, clearly separated himself from the pack.
New Grade: A
Luke Hughes, New Jersey Devils (4th Overall)
Original Grade: C+
Though he shares the same elite skating ability as his brothers, Quinn and Jack, Luke Hughes was viewed as distinctly different. Standing at 6'2", he already had size and strength that his brothers will never match, but his ability to produce offense was nowhere near what they showed at the same age. Luke could skate the puck up the ice incredibly well, but he had difficulties penetrating the middle area of the offensive zone either himself or with passes.
Luke has seemingly blown those criticisms out of the water this season, producing nine goals and 13 assists in his freshman season at Michigan. Still, it's a little hard to come to terms with what it all means. Michigan has become to college hockey what Alabama has done to college football, recruiting an absurd amount of high-end talent. He is generating a lot of assists as an incidental part of a machine, but to his credit, he is penetrating the more dangerous areas of the ice and his shot has improved.
From the onset, Hughes was viewed as a high-upside player whose rawness cast doubt. Nobody's fears will be fully assuaged until he does it at the pro level, but he's so far mitigated some doubt.
New Grade: B
Simon Edvinsson, Detroit Red Wings (6th Overall)
Original Grade: D+
I caught a lot of flak from Red Wings fans upon publishing such a negative grade of this pick, and the optics don't admittedly favor me at the moment.
Simon Edvinsson is averaging a bit over 19 minutes per night on defense for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League and has an impressive one goal and 11 assists in 26 games. Per Elite Prospects, that pace of production is the best by an SHL defenseman in his post-draft season since former NHLer Mattias Ohlund put up similar numbers in 1995-96. What's more, Edvinsson dominated Sweden's opening game against Russia in the World Junior Championship.
On the whole, I still stand by my main concerns with Edvinsson. He is already physically mature and relies on his size and straight-line skating ability on the large European ice surface to get out of trouble. His passing and decision-making still causes him issues, and his shot does not threaten from the point.
I'd still bet on him topping out as a second-pairing defenseman with a shutdown mindset, but I have to admit I'm less confident of that prediction than I was in July and can see a path toward a top-pair role.
New Grade: B-
Tyler Boucher, Ottawa Senators (10th Overall)
Original Grade: D-
Tyler Boucher had his fans, but the overwhelming consensus at the time of the draft was that Ottawa reached for Boucher at 10th overall. If there was a silver lining for Sens fans, it's that Boucher is at least a fun player. The 6'1" winger is incredibly strong and is an overwhelming physical presence. The hits he throws can be felt through the TV screen, and his physicality translates into creating turnovers and establishing a cycle offense. However, his offensive abilities are otherwise nondescript. His hands are decent, and he's a solid net-front presence. In July, Boucher appeared as a prospect whose upside was that of a third-line grinder.
The selection doesn't look any better six months later. Boucher looked overwhelmed in his freshman season at Boston University and registered just two goals and an assist in 17 games. Boucher, who felt he needed a change of scenery, left college hockey to sign with the Ottawa Senators and has since been loaned to the Ottawa 67's of the Ontario Hockey League, where he is working his way back from an injury.
In the big picture, not much has changed here. He's still a quality prospect with a good foundation for his game and plenty of time to work on the rest. It's easy to envision him in the Senators' bottom-six in a few years. But it's increasingly difficult to defend his selection in the first round altogether, let alone 10th overall.
New Grade: D-
Sebastian Cossa, Detroit Red Wings (15th Overall)
Original Grade: D
General manager Steve Yzerman traded up to grab Sebastian Cossa 15th overall, perhaps mesmerized by the goaltender's 6'6" frame and the dominant 17-1-1 record he posted for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League.
I questioned the pick not only because of general skepticism about drafting most goaltenders this early in the draft, but also because of holes in Cossa's game. He has great hands, and the big frame allows him to cover a lot of net while in the butterfly position. However, his feet let him down, and that's becoming an increasingly important part of goaltending as movement within the crease is needed to counter modern offense.
Cossa's save percentage in the WHL this season stands at .918, which is still very good but a far cry from the .941 he posted in 19 games behind a dominant team last season. He began the World Junior Championship as Canada's third-string goaltender, and while I'm a fan of Canada's starter, Dylan Garand, he's a goaltender that a truly elite prospect would have beat out for the job.
Development takes a long time, and that's especially true for goaltenders. If in five years Cossa sticks the landing as Detroit's starting goaltender, then that's all anyone will care about. But it's rough to look at some of the players Detroit could have had instead, and even isolating for goaltenders, the Red Wings would have been much better off selecting Jesper Wallstedt.
New Grade: D
Brennan Othmann, New York Rangers (16th Overall)
Original Grade: B-
There was instant pushback from parts of the Blueshirts fanbase as they heard Brennan Othmann described as yet another "physical" player added to the team's cupboard, and while Othmann definitely has an edge to his game, it's not even his prime trait.
Othmann has made that abundantly clear in the first half of the OHL season. He has registered an astounding 27 goals and 26 assists in 33 games for the Flint Firebirds, and what's equally important is how he's producing. Prior to the draft, Othmann was largely a complementary player to superior linemates, allowing him to be a cog in the system and find his way into scoring positions off the puck until someone found him in the slot or backdoor. This season, the lack of talent around him in Flint has forced him into a more involved role. He's carrying the puck up the ice, creating his own shots and making massive gains as a playmaker.
I liked the pick at the time but mentioned that there were a few players I might have taken otherwise. If anything, Othmann would now move up a couple of slots in a redraft. He's risen to the challenge his environment has provided him and has become a complete winger.
New Grade: A-
Jesper Wallstedt, Minnesota Wild (20th Overall)
Original Grade: A
The Wild needed a goaltender in the organization and probably could not believe their luck when he was available at 20th overall, prompting their trade up from the No. 22 spot. If there are two sins at the NHL draft, it's trading up and selecting a goaltender in the first round. At the time, I saw Jesper Wallstedt as an exception to the rule.
Teenage goaltenders are incredibly fickle, but Wallstedt has done nothing but prove Minnesota right so far. Despite being just 19, he has established himself as Lulea's starting goaltender in the Swedish Elite League, posting a .918 save percentage for the top team in the league. His performances were good enough to jump over a couple of older goaltenders to win the starting job for Sweden at the World Junior Championship. Prior to the tournament's premature end, he gave one of the most memorable goaltender performances the tournament has seen with a 48-save shutout against Slovakia.
Ignoring positional need, Wallstedt wouldn't go any later than 15th in a redraft, and with Spencer Knight graduated to the NHL, he is arguably the top goaltending prospect in the world. Minnesota's grade holds up.
New Grade: A
Wyatt Johnston, Dallas Stars (23rd Overall)
Original Grade: C
Wyatt Johnston was a player I saw as a second-round talent in July—a player who did a lot of things pretty well but had no individual abilities that could boost him into more than a depth role at the NHL level.
Well, so much for that. The description of his style still fits, but it turns out that the sum of his parts creates a hell of a hockey player. With 21 goals and 42 assists in 33 games, Johnston leads all OHL players in points. And while he is surrounded by some solid players, he is clearly the engine that makes the Windsor Spitfires go. Johnston is at the center of every play, forcing turnovers, holding on to pucks, finding teammates in scoring positions and scoring from his own shot creation.
Johnston could still very well top out as a bottom-six forward, but he is a relatively safe bet to reach that floor and his upside maybe stretches into second-line range. In my defense, the entire OHL season was canceled in 2020-21. I'm pretty OK with having gotten this one wrong given the lack of information at my disposal, and full credit goes to the Stars for having done their homework to get this pick right, at least as it appears now.
New Grade: A
Corson Ceulemans, Columbus Blue Jackets (25th Overall)
Original Grade: D+
There wasn't much debate about what kind of player Corson Ceulemans was at the time of the draft. He's big, he can skate, and he could shoot hard. On raw tools, he looked every part of a first-round pick. The problem was his decision-making. He was reckless with the puck and hyper-aggressive when closing on the puck defensively, leaving him exposed or out of position often. Everyone agreed he had tools, but there were differing opinions on whether he could learn to rein it in and productively use his abilities against stiffer competition than a second-tier junior league like the AJHL.
Columbus has proved adept at developing young talent, making it perhaps an ideal landing spot for Ceulemans, and he's so far played well at the University of Wisconsin, producing five goals and 12 assists in 23 games.
His game is still untamed, but whereas a lot of players struggle out of the gate in the NCAA, he has proved effective even if imperfect. There's still a lot for him to figure out in order to become even an NHL defenseman, let alone an impactful one, but credit has to be given here. He's no longer dominating weak competition but instead holding his own against older, more mature teams.
New Grade: C+