What should the NHL do about the 2021 Draft? Scouts weigh in

PLUS Draft Spotlight: Cole Sillinger; College Spotlight: Dylan Holloway; Notes on Trevor Zegras' NHL debut

And here… we… go.

Welcome to the first of many posts/newsletters/offerings from Hockey Sense with Chris Peters. Let’s dive right in.

The buildup to the 2021 NHL Entry Draft has been fraught to say the least. Nothing has been easy for anyone involved – not the leagues, not the players and not the scouts. The uncertainty and the lack of continuity in the season has made this the most difficult year to get a read on players.

In recent weeks, the debate on what to do with the draft timing has intensified. Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman expressed his desire to have the draft pushed back to a later date, be it midway through next season or summer 2022.

“I personally hope they push it back and give us a chance to watch these kids and give them a chance to play and put their best foot forward leading up to their draft,” Yzerman said during a virtual event Monday.

A huge reason for the current holding pattern is that the WHL and OHL have still not had any games yet. We’re getting closer to portions of the WHL getting underway here, but the OHL’s future remains murky at best. I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation if either of those two leagues had any semblance of a season right now.

It’s not exactly unreasonable. A lot of players get picked out of those leagues every single season and even if and when both resume, it won’t be anything close to normal as the seasons will be abbreviated and the players who haven’t been able to find somewhere else to play will be coming off of a layoff of more than a year.

The idea of having two drafts on separate dates in summer 2022 has been floated, as has a mid-season draft by December, but the wave of CBA complications that could create may prevent that from being a viable option. Agents have raised the concern of labor issues in preventing players who would be 18 by the start of NHL training camps from being eligible to play in the league.

As Elliotte Friedman recently noted in 31 Thoughts, there’s also a host of other CBA-related challenges including the timeline for a player to reach unrestricted free agency, when a player from the CHL’s draft rights would expire. It’s messy and probably overcomplicates a problem for the benefit of a few dozen players and the teams themselves.

The situation the sport is in right now is unfortunate. The only options available to the NHL are not great ones. But it’s important to remember that while two big feeder leagues are stalled, the vast majority of players eligible for this draft have resumed their seasons in some shape or form. Those seasons have been frequently stalled or paused, but largely the players that need to be seen for this draft are playing. Several top players in the WHL and OHL have managed to find alternative teams, with some finding roster spots in the USHL and others going overseas to get game reps in.

We have heard from a few general managers and agents publicly, but I wanted to take the temperature of the scouting community, contacting NHL scouts that are U.S. based, and particularly a few from Western Canada and Ontario, which are the areas most directly impacted by lack of live viewings.

The idea of having two drafts during the same summer was roundly rejected by almost a dozen scouts I spoke with. Every single one said their preference was to keep it in July. That tells me that they’re extremely comfortable with the way things have transpired and are confident enough in what they’re seeing and what the schedule will look like for the remainder of the season.

The idea of trying to keep track of two classes in the same draft year was not something they were eager to take on. You’re dealing with two sets of players that are at different stages in their development. While the information provided would likely be more comprehensive for the 2021 class and lead to more informed decisions, there is reasonable concern that 2022 views could suffer as a result.

At this point, the WHL is about to get off the ground in some provinces. Additionally, the 2021 World U18 Championship has been officially scheduled for May in Texas. That’s a huge deal in this whole decision. Having a significant scouting event on the calendar that will become a late-season clearing house for live viewings of top European players likely will help put general managers’ minds at ease as they should have access to that event.

“Both drafts together would be messy,” said one scout, who prefers to keep it in July but said the 2021 draft should be held no later than December. “The WHL will be going, the OHL might be and the U18s will happen. No reason to have it later.”

There is also talk of scouting events where they’re able to get top prospects in the same building for a few games. Sources indicated that there will at least be an All-American Prospects Game this spring. There could be other such games depending on what happens with the CHL leagues starting back up.

All of this is not to say Yzerman’s hope is completely unreasonable. There is a ton riding on this particular draft for a Red Wings team that is on track to finish near the bottom of the league. The lottery pick they manage to get could help change the trajectory of the franchise in some way, even though this draft is not as impressive at the very top as it has been in recent years.

One respondent noted that his opinion of preferring the July draft could be swayed if their team was on track for a higher pick since there’s so much more riding on getting that one right.

I also think the second part of Yzerman’s quote is pretty important, too. Have players been able to put their best foot forward?

The idea of fairness to players is a very valid one. It’s the one thing that gives agents some pause on fighting against a delayed draft. The players that haven’t played yet obviously don’t have the chance to leave whatever impression they normally would. We’re still hopeful that the season won’t be a complete loss. However, as one scout noted, draft years aren’t always going to be fair to every player.

“How is this any different than scouting a player who misses time with injury? You use what resources you have and trust your staff [in that situation],” said the scout.

When you put it that way, it does make a lot of sense. The vast majority of players that are eligible for the draft have played somewhere so far. You’re missing a few dozen – which is not an insignificant number in a 217-player draft – but you’ve got enough to make your draft boards. Does that give you the best possible picture of the players available? No, but teams have the resources to do the due diligence based on the information that is available to them to make a decision. In the end, if the team feels such a player is not worth the risk in whatever round, that’s a decision they make all the time anyway and deal with the consequences later.

Video has become an integral part of teams’ scouting and the less time scouts have spent on the road, the more they’ve spent in front of computer screens watching games. They’re able to go back and take extra looks from last season to compare and contrast how a player is progressing or isn’t. For those that haven’t played yet, there’s a lot more projecting based on that draft-minus-one season, but players that have had success at earlier ages in leagues like the WHL and OHL are often on a favorable trajectory.

Looking at the last 10 years of draft-minus-one scorers in both the WHL and OHL, many NHL impact players are found at the tops of those lists. While there are fewer, there are still enough players that didn’t amount to great NHL prospects in that group that reminds you that there are no sure things based on the numbers they put up.

The other reason not to worry too much about lack of views this year? NHL teams are starting to take much longer looks at second- and third-year draft-eligible players. Those that don’t get selected in 2021 are still going to be in the mix in 2022 and might have a chance to go even higher. So while fairness could be an issue, they’re still granted a chance to make an impression and force their way into the conversation.

When taking into consideration all angles, it seems like the best course of action for all parties is to keep the draft as scheduled in July.

Draft Spotlight

Cole Sillinger, C, Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)

Speaking of 2021 displaced draft eligibles, Cole Sillinger has found himself a favorable draft-year home with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. The 17-year-old centerman and son of former NHLer Mike Sillinger spent last season with the Medicine Hat Tigers where he racked up 53 points in 48 games.

Though Medicine Hat will be back in action Friday as they play in the WHL’s long-awaited season opener, Sillinger will be staying with Sioux Falls for the remainder of the USHL season. Sillinger would be able to return to Medicine Hat if the Tigers are still going after the Stampede’s season has ended.

The sniper has made himself right at home in the USHL, though, with 12 goals through 14 games. With impressive creativity and elite release, Sillinger has made things difficult for opposing defenders and goalies. Take a look at this goal he scored against the Tri-City Storm last Saturday.

The best goal scorers in the league right now are doing so many cool things with changing the angle of their shot. When Sillinger draws the puck back, he could be passing or shooting and it looks like the goalie may be guessing shot here. He’s down before Sillinger releases the puck and as soon as that happens, see ya.

Sillinger is averaging close to four shots on goal per game, but he’s also an especially good passer. You have to respect that dual-threat nature when defending him and he’s got the offensive sense to make the right choices with the puck on his stick. Sillinger has 10 assists this season. On that goal against Tri-City he had a teammate driving to the middle, but used that elite shot of his when the space was there. You want your best goal scorers taking that shot when it’s available to him.

The USHL has traditionally not been a league that is easy to score in, though many young players in recent years have put that to the test. Sillinger trails only Chicago’s Matthew Coronato, who leads the entire USHL in scoring, in points-per-game among first-year draft eligible players with a 1.57 points per game mark.

It could not have been an easy decision to leave Medicine Hat where he’s coached by former NHL bench boss Willie Desjardins, but finding a soft landing spot in Sioux Falls where he’s allowed to play his game and still be challenged, is going to make him that much better when he returns to the Dub next season. It also looks like it should land him in the first round of this year’s draft.

College Hockey Spotlight

Dylan Holloway, C, University of Wisconsin (Edmonton Oilers)

Anyone that saw Dylan Holloway in his AJHL days and on Canadian national teams at the U18 level knew that what he showed as a freshman last season was not close to the player he could be. He had 17 points in 35 games and there were genuine and valid concerns about his ability to be a center at the collegiate level.

Despite being an excellent skater and a hard-working player, he was behind the play a bit too much last season. I had him as a potential Top-10 pick coming into the season and was concerned that maybe I misread his hockey sense a season before. The processing speed wasn’t quite there to play at the collegiate pace. I still couldn’t get past seeing a player who was dominant at previous levels and showcase an intelligence and maturity in his game. It had to be in there somewhere.

Oh it was in there alright. Holloway has been a revelation in the second half of the season. I think we can understand Tony Granato’s frustration with losing the talented center for most of the first half of the season while preparing for the World Junior Championship with Canada. UW went 3-4-0 in his absence, but boast a 12-3-1 record with him in the lineup.

After two goals in his first two games against Notre Dame before leaving for Canada’s camp, Holloway returned from Edmonton a better player. He was held off the score sheet in his first two games back, but since then has points in 11 of his last 12 games as the Badgers have ascended to the top of the Big Ten, currently sitting second.

Despite missing eight games, Holloway is third in the country with 29 points. His 1.81 points per game rate puts him ahead of national scoring leader and teammate Cole Caufield (MTL) who has 1.54 points per game.

What I’ve personally noticed is that Holloway has tacked on the necessary strength to become a more explosive player. The experience he’s gained allows him to play at the appropriate pace. He’s pushing play instead of being behind it. When the puck is on his stick, he’s a threat to create a scoring chance. He no longer has the difficulty of getting to the middle of the ice to make plays and his vision has been on point. It helps to have some high-end finishers on Wisconsin’s club, but Holloway plays more regularly with Caufield on the power play than at evens. He’s driving the bus on a line with Roman Ahcan and Brock Caufield who are on pace for and have already achieved career-best numbers.

Holloway still has more development time ahead, but what a leap he’s taken this season.

NHL Rookie Spotlight

Trevor Zegras, LW, Anaheim Ducks

I took in Trevor Zegras’s NHL debut Monday night and was unsurprised to find a player that looked every bit like he belonged. The World Junior Championship MVP started the season in the AHL and wasted absolutely no time making his presence felt. He had nine points through his first eight professional games with the San Diego Gulls.

So the lowest-scoring team in the league had no choice but to call him up.

Over the course of Zegras’s debut, he had a few scoring chances of his own and set up a golden one for Rickard Rakell on the power play that Rakell didn’t get everything on.

One thing I was looking for is how Zegras would handle the pace and the physicality. He’s been working on managing the more physical elements of the game over the last few years and said that his board battles and down-low play were big focuses as he started his journey in the pros. There were not a ton of contested pucks for him, but there were a few instances where he had to take contact to make a play and was able to do it.

The weight that Zegras tacked on in the offseason definitely has helped him. There were a few moments in the game that the Ducks ultimately lost 4-3 after blowing a 3-0 lead, where you could see Zegras chasing the game a little more. But those were a few shifts out of the whole picture.

In the end, Zegras played 13:14 including 4:37 on the power play. The pass he made to Rakell through a tight space showed his pinpoint passing ability.

At five-on-five, Zegras primarily skated with Sam Steel and Jakob Silfverberg. According to Natural Stat Trick, Anaheim generated six shot attempts for and allowed just one at five-on-five. Additionally, the Ducks had four scoring chances with Zegras on the ice, two of which were high-danger and zero against at five-on-five. It will be interesting to see how Zegras’s usage fluctuates after a largely successful debut.

The thing that always strikes me about Zegras is how confident he is. It did not matter that he was playing in his first NHL game. There were no nerves, or if there were they were not apparent. There’s a bit of arrogance to his game and I mean that as a compliment. There are very few things he doesn’t think he can do. That may get him in trouble more in the NHL than it did in his pervious stops, but the tools are all there for him to be a special player and I certainly wouldn’t want him to lose that confidence.

Hockey Sense Book Shelf

Two of my favorite players ever to wear the USA crest recently announced their retirement from hockey, but they’re not going to be far. Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson officially released the book they co-authored Dare to Make History: Chasing a Dream and Fighting for Equity on Tuesday.

Beyond being two of the key figures in USA’s thrilling shootout victory over Canada at the 2018 Olympics, the Lamoureux twins were heart-and-soul players. They had such tremendous skill, but that was far outweighed by their competitive fire, toughness and the aggressive way they played the game. Any hockey player can learn a lot from watching them play on the biggest stages. If they weren’t going to hit the score sheet, they were going to make their presence known another way. If they lost a board battle in the last Olympics, it has been erased from my memory because I’m pretty positive it never happened. Then they each scored the two biggest goals in USA Hockey’s last 20 years. Legends, both.

I remember being enthralled by their family’s story as so brilliantly told by legendary feature writer Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated back in 2010. I was familiar with them before that, but it was just such a neat look at how they grew into Olympians on natural ice. If you followed the women’s national team program from Vancouver to PyeongChang, you essentially saw them grow up as players and people. I’m so glad they got to go out with Olympic gold and I can’t wait to read their story in their own words.

The sport is better for their presence and I’m so glad they’ve chosen to continue to inspire as they enter the next chapter of their lives off the ice. Thanks for the memories.

More fresh content is coming your way this week with an extended men’s college hockey roundup complete with the Hockey Sense Power Rankings, awards watch lists and more. If you haven’t subscribed yet, now’s a good time. The button is right there, so it really couldn’t be easier. Go ahead, just click it.