With the 2021 NHL Entry Draft in the books, we can finally bid farewell to the most bizarre lead-in year ever, of which we hopefully never experience again. Cancelled or shortened seasons, scuttled tournaments, limitations on travel, and a host of other pandemic-related challenges laid out a tough landscape to navigate for many eligible players. However, now on the other side, it's occasion to look forward. Including at some up and coming prospects through the fantasy lens.
With few exceptions - while knowing a surprise or two is undoubtedly to fall out in training camp - we're largely looking at most recent draftees blossoming in seasons beyond 2021-22. But that doesn't mean only dynasty/keeper managers should hold interest. Even in re-draft or limited keeper leagues, it's never too early to look ahead, or remain prepared in case some promising player makes a unexpectedly premature debut.
In that spirit, here's a selection of first-rounders with fantasy promise, including draft-day analysis provided by Senior NHL Writer Greg Wyshynski. Additional scouting reports are included in our pre-draft Top-50 rankings.
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Wyshynski: "It's not often that a team gets the first overall pick in the draft in two out of four seasons. It's also not often that a team uses those two No. 1 picks to then select defensemen, but that's how the draft classes have worked out for the Sabres. Rasmus Dahlin, No. 1 overall in 2018, hasn't quite leveled up to franchise defenseman status yet, but he's only 21 years old. Now Power joins him as another left-side defenseman who Buffalo can build around in the next decade -- perhaps using the pieces it gets for an eventual Jack Eichel trade, for example."
While the consensus ranked No. 1 pick will be a formidable blue-line force in Buffalo for years to come, fantasy managers shouldn't expect the flashiest production numbers. He isn't that guy. A valuable asset in all three zones, Power does everything well. So, sure, the large-framed defenseman will contribute to the scoresheet at even-strength and on the power play regularly enough, but he'll also play heavy minutes and tick other boxes, fantasy-related and otherwise. Again though, an elite scoring defenseman Power is not. Not at present, anyway. He should be drafted accordingly, whether he opts to play another year at Michigan or chooses to dive right into the NHL pool.
Wyshynski: "Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol told me that his general manager, Ron Francis, wanted to acquire players who reminded the Hall of Famer of the way he played. Well, he just drafted a two-way center with great skating ability, dynamic offense and a "leads-by-example" work ethic, which should be familiar to Francis. Beniers is a great building block for the NHL's newest franchise. He fancied Patrice Bergeron growing up, but Beniers may end up becoming the Kraken's own version of Jonathan Toews one day."
While another year at Michigan is more likely in the cards, I'm not 100% convinced Beniers doesn't immediately take the NHL plunge with the league's newest franchise. Whenever the start date, the Kraken's future No. 1 center isn't going to put up scoring numbers like others in this draft class, but instead serve as solid contributor for many, many years. The well-rounded forward will shine particularly bright in leagues that reward assists equally to goals, and include non-scoring categories like average-time-on-ice and faceoffs won.
Mason McTavish, C, Anaheim Ducks, Peterborough (OHL) Selected: 3, Draft board ranking: 9
Wyshynski: "As the Ryan Getzlaf era fades into memory, the Ducks get themselves another talented center who plays a power game. McTavish's stock shot up the draft board in the past few weeks, and you can see why: He has an NHL shot, plays strong and has drawn comparisons to Ryan O'Reilly. Anaheim has a solid foundation building with forward Trevor Zegras, defenseman Jamie Drysdale and now McTavish."
A power forward with a nose for the net, McTavish is going to score often, at even-strength and on Anaheim's top power play. Fantasy managers in leagues that value goals at a premium should be all over the versatile forward who's likely to launch his NHL career on the wing. As with both aforementioned Michigan skaters, McTavish isn't a slam dunk to make his big-league debut this year, but might merit an immediate shot with a rebuilding Ducks' squad. Goodness knows he already has the size to compete at that level.
Wyshynski: "The Blue Jackets have chased a franchise center for years. They thought they had ones in Ryan Johansen and Pierre-Luc Dubois, before trading both. Now comes Johnson, a late-bloomer who had an absolutely tremendous, highlight-generating freshman season at Michigan. One issue: He might be better on the wing, where many draft analysts believe he'll put up huge numbers in the NHL. Wherever he plays, he'll be an elite playmaker."
Whether he settles in at center or on the wing, Johnson is easy to pencil in as an eventual top-six forward and power-play asset in Columbus. Averaging a hair more than a point-per-game his freshman season at Michigan, the gifted playmaker ranked second in rookie scoring in the Big Ten. No Wolverine potted more power-play goals. Along with Cole Sillinger - Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL) scoring forward selected 12th overall - Johnson should eventually help break the conservative defense-first blue Jackets mold to which we're accustomed. Managers in deeper dynasty leagues are advised to invest in both promising Columbus prospects before it's too late.
Wyshynski: "This is the first top-10 pick the Sharks have had since taking Timo Meier at No. 9 overall in 2015. Eklund gives the Sharks a silky smooth offensive player who also takes care of business at the other end of the rink. The Sharks don't exactly have a robust prospect pool and don't have anyone at the forward spot at the caliber of Eklund."
Already on record in predicting that Eklund will be an NHL star one day soon, I'm not wavering a titch. A gifted skater with excellent hands and a great shot, he's intelligent and exceptionally determined. I also like the fit with the Sharks - a team that could undoubtedly use some pop up front. Scoring 11 goals and 12 assists in his first full SHL season, the (still) diminutive skater is already proving he can keep up with fully-grown men. He's only going to grow bigger and better. And the Swedish forward is going to produce, pleasing his fantasy managers with regularity. Perhaps on Logan Couture's wing (barring a trade involving the captain) in a season or two from now.
Wyshynski: "Clarke joins arguably the deepest prospect pool in the NHL with the Kings. But as deep as that pool is, it has more big fish at center and wing than on the blue line. Given that need, and GM Rob Blake's legacy as a Hall of Fame defenseman, this was one of the draft's most predictable picks. Given his hockey sense and offensive awareness, there have already been comparisons for Clarke to the kind of impact Adam Fox has had early in his NHL career with the Rangers. Fox just won the Norris Trophy. No pressure, Brandt."
If the Fox comparison isn't enticing enough, fantasy managers should know that this gifted offensive-defenseman often serves as an extra forward on the ice. An archetypal power-play quarterback, Clarke already held his own with pros this past season in Slovakia. He's a blue-line dreamboat in fantasy leagues heavy on scoring, without question, and should be acquired ASAP in deeper, dynasty competition.
Wyshynski: "... He was projected by many to go as high as No. 3 overall to the Ducks. He drops here to the Coyotes, who get the kind of goal scorer their prospect pipeline lacks. His shot is great, but his ability to find spaces to get that shot off is equally impressive."
As soon as he's NHL ready, Guenther should be slotted into Arizona's top-six and power play without reservation. Potting 36 points (19 goals) in 23 games split between the Oil Kings, Sherwood Park Crusaders, and under-18 Team Canada in 2020-21, the smooth-skating winger shoots often and hard. A persistent presence in the bottom-third of the league in scoring, the Coyotes would benefit from encouraging and equipping Guenther to be his best. If so, he'll serve as a valuable fantasy commodity for many seasons to come.
Wyshynski: "Yet another place where many felt goalies Jesper Wallstedt or Sebastian Cossa could have been selected. But the Flames opted for Coronato, a player with an absolute nose for the net as a goal scorer. He's Harvard bound and had 48 goals in 51 games in the USHL last season. If the Flames didn't believe either goalie was the future for them, then this is a nice pick."
All he does is score. After a year or two with the Crimson, Coronato will do just that as a regular presence at right wing within the Flames top-six. A role with the extra skater is equally unquestionable. Fantasy managers who deal in PIM should be additionally enamored with the feisty and tenacious forward. No stranger to the penalty box, he doesn't appear willing to give up that approach to the game anytime soon.
Isak Rosen, RW, Buffalo Sabres, Leksand (Sweden) Selected: 14, Draft board ranking: 25
Wyshynski: "Another franchise that needs a goalie, another franchise that opted not to take one. Instead the Sabres select a terrific offensive forward in Rosen. The modern NHL game demands the ability to make plays at a high velocity. Rosen has the skating ability to create separation from defenders. His ability to shoot the puck at full stride has earned him Nikolaj Ehlers' comparisons. The Sabres could certainly use that, too."
While his more diminutive size concerns me, too many other smaller players have thrived at the highest level. I do want to see more from Rosen in his next turn with his pro team in Sweden before getting overly excited, but the raw talent is there. This young man is ridiculously fast. And the Ehlers comparison makes him all the more attractive as a much-needed contributor in Buffalo.
Sebastian Cossa, G, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton (WHL) Selected: 15, Draft board ranking: 14
Wyshynski: "... Cossa stands 6-foot-6 and has good agility in the crease. He went 17-1-1 with a .941 save percentage for the Edmonton Oil Kings. After Keith Petruzzelli opted not to sign with the Red Wings, the team didn't really have anyone in the mold of a goalie of the future. Cossa fits that mold, and fits the M.O. of GM Steve Yzerman. Back in 2012, he didn't have a goalie of the future with the Lightning, so he drafted a kid from the Russian juniors in the first round. That kid just won the Conn Smythe and his second straight Stanley Cup: Andrei Vasilevskiy."
One of the more obvious no-brainer fantasy selections available, Cossa is pegged to be the starting netminder for an Yzerman-built team that should emerge from its re-building cocoon in the not-too-distant future. There should be a fight over this prospect in every dynasty league on the planet. Any goalie can fall short of expectations for different reasons, but Cossa feels as near a sure-bet as one could ask. With so few performing at an elite level with true consistency, such a promising figure is worth the gamble. But patience is in order. Cossa isn't starting for the Wings tomorrow.
Jesper Wallstedt, G, Minnesota Wild, Lulea (Sweden) Selected: 20, Draft board ranking: 11
Wyshynski: "The Wild acquired this pick by flipping the 22nd and 90th overall selections to the Oilers -- another trade-up to get a goalie. There's proof of concept here with Wallstedt in both international play and in one season in the Swedish Hockey League. He's slightly smaller than Sebastian Cossa but no slouch at 6-foot-3. He has the tools for become a No. 1 in the NHL. The best goalie prospect in the system is already on the roster: Kaapo Kahkonen, 24, was most recently seen exposed in the Seattle expansion draft. Wallstedt has a higher ceiling."
Like Cossa, Wallstedt is poised to become a regular starting netminder in the NHL some day, and considering his experience in the Swedish pro league, perhaps relatively sooner rather than later. Impressive physical tools aside, his cucumber-cool approach and smarts offer extra appeal. In truth, I would probably select the Wild's future No. 1 over Yzerman's pick in Detroit in most dynasty leagues. But as fantasy assets with ultrabright futures, I like both Wallstedt and Cossa a lot.
Zachary L'Heureux, LW, Nashville Predators, Halifax (QMJHL) Selected: 27, Draft board ranking: 30
Wyshynski: "The Predators traded up to this spot, sending the Nos. 40 and 51 picks to the Hurricanes. The guy they targeted is one of the single most divisive players in the first round. He hits. He fights. But he also has strong offensive chops to go along with his tenacious game. He has some Brad Marchand DNA in his game. Nice pick."
If L'Heureux can keep his nose somewhat clean he's going to make his respective fantasy managers very happy - especially in leagues that reward penalty minutes. However, as discussed in the pre-draft rankings, four suspensions in a condensed season is four too many. The left-shooting winger needs to mature and figure out how to keep his temper in check. If so, he'll quickly endear himself to the Nashville faithful as an agitating presence and productive forward. Boston fans and invested fantasy managers adore Brad Marchand. It's everyone else around the NHL that can't stand him. I anticipate a similar league-wide relationship with L'Heureux.
Other first-round selections with perceived fantasy upside: Chaz Lucius, C, Winnipeg Jets; Fabien Lysell, RW, Boston Bruins; Xavier Bourgault, C, Edmonton Oilers; Mackie Samoskevich, RW, Florida Panthers; Carson Lambos, D, Minnesota Wild