Welcome to the first edition of the Sabremetrix List. I will take a quick run through some of my best value players who should be available outside of the 1st round in the 2021 NHL Draft. These players may see their names further down draft lists for a variety of reasons, whether it be height, age, lack of dynamic abilities, etc. I will try my best to uncover these hidden gems and make the case for why they should be selected.
There are three things I looked for when creating this list. It is not a requirement for the prospects on this list to check all three boxes (most only check one, sometimes two):
Take a look at some past NHL Draft steals and you may notice that age is a common theme among some of those players. Sure, age is not a pre-requisite to becoming a draft steal, but it certainly helps.
The birthdate cutoff for first time draft eligibles in the 2021 NHL Draft is September 15, 2003. So, the closer a prospect’s birthdate is to that date, the younger they are relative to their draft class. Any player born after September 16, 2002 is also a first time draft eligible. So, the closer a prospect’s birthdate is to that date, the older they are relative to the first time draft eligibles in their draft class (there are still older players who are second or third time draft eligibles). There can be close to a year difference (!) in age among first time draft eligibles.
Depending on the cutoff dates for prospects’ respective junior leagues, they can have a one less season at a higher junior level relative to their peers. Also, younger players tend to be less physically developed. Suppressed draft year stats along with a greater runway for growth (both in strength and overall hockey ability) make for some great undervalued talent.
#2. Dynamic Ability
I love taking a bet on skill in the middle rounds of the draft. The players that show dynamic ability and some semblance of hockey sense will always be intriguing. These may be your boom-bust prospects, but it’s always fun to take some high risk bets from time to time.
There are always flaws with the dynamic players available in the middle rounds (“elite skater but can’t figure out the offensive zone” or “elite end-to-end rush ability, but inconsistent” or “great hands/shot, but bad feet”). Hey, that’s why they are available in the middle rounds. If their issues are fixable or are purely a result of scout overthink, then I am taking that player 10 times out of 10.
#3. Offensive/Defensive Impacts
Thanks to some great tracking resources (InStat, Mitch Brown, Lassi Alanen, and Will Scouch to name a few) we now have the ability to further dive into a prospect’s game with more data. It is great to be able to see the data and ask, “Why?” Why is this prospect getting elite playdriving results? Why is this prospect so good in transition, but bad in the offensive zone? The data helps refocus your eye when watching prospects. It helps you determine if the way a prospect creates offense and prevents danger is projectable to the NHL level.
The data also takes us away from getting lost in the technicalities of a player’s mechanics. This can sometimes be a good thing. There are not many players who carve out elite careers with severe mechanical deficiencies, but we have seen players like Corey Perry turn into a high-end offensive threat with far-from-great skating. The data helps us uncover the guys whose game shouldn’t work, but just does.
So, after that long-winded introduction it is now time to hop into the list:
RW | Kamloops (WHL) | 5’8″ | 170 lbs
Projected Draft Range: Late 1st to Early 2nd
Any conversation about Logan Stankoven has to start with his motor. He may only be 5’8”, but he has a relentless push to his game. He’s always getting to the areas of the ice he wants to and he is driving danger when he gets there. He plays that type of game that will make him a fan favorite wherever he goes.
Due to the pace and intensity that Stankoven plays with, his skating deficiencies are masked a bit. His short, inefficient strides do inhibit his quickness which is a bit concerning when projecting a 5’8” player into an NHL role. However, it is difficult not to love the package that he brings to the table. If there were a 5’8” player with inefficient skating that became an impact NHLer it may very well be Logan Stankoven.
He’s just a natural play driver. His great hockey sense that allows him to detect the soft areas on the ice. He has the willingness to take the puck into the middle of the ice. He has the pace and effort that allows him to outwork opponents along the boards. Toss in his ‘plus’ shooting ability that allows him to rip deceptive shots in traffic and you are left with a very good offensive prospect. I am willing to look past his size and skating a bit because he is just that good at everything else.
It will be interesting to see where Logan Stankoven falls in the 2021 NHL Draft. He may be a player who does not hear their name called until the second day of the draft and I would love Logan Stankoven if he were my team’s second pick. Bet on his motor, shot, and play driving to propel him into an effective middle six NHL role someday.
LHD | Everett (WHL) | 5’10” | 174 lbs
Projected Draft Range: 2nd round
If you gave Olen Zellweger a full WHL season, you would be hearing his name a lot more often. However, he still made the most out of his ice time this season, stringing together some great performances for Everett and the Canada U18 team.
Zellweger may only be 5’10”, but he certainly has the skating ability to make up for his lack of size. He may very well be one of the most technically sound skaters in this draft class and he really knows how to use this to his advantage in the neutral zone. He is one of the premier transition players in this draft as he can carry the puck himself or hit his teammate with a nice stretch pass. Defensively, he loves surfing the neutral zone and suffocating opponents’ zone entry attempts. That’s just something you love to see from a smaller defenseman.
While Zellweger excels in the transition department due to his skillset, there is still some things left to be desired with his play in the offensive zone. He tends to settle for point shots or point passes too often, not really controlling the middle of the ice like he should (and can with his skillset). That’s a bit of a different tune than most of these players on this list.
His production was certainly not an issue at the WHL level this year (it was fantastic), albeit it was only an 11-game sample. Whatever team drafts him will not be faced with a skill issue, but a “how do I translate this skill into more projectable NHL play driving results.” That may scare some teams away while leaving others intrigued.
I think the average outcome you will get from Zellweger is a transition-heavy, complementary defenseman at the NHL level. There is still so much runway left in his development as a September birthday that I believe there is more to unearth within his game. There could be a very good, offensive top 4 defenseman here if some details are improved upon.
LHD | US NTDP (USHL) | 5’10” | 176 lbs
Projected Draft Range: Mid to Late 2nd
Are you looking for a fun, playmaking defenseman in the 2021 NHL Draft? If so, Sean Behrens is a name you need to be taking a look at. He had all eyes on him with the NTDP this season, he got a lot of time with top prospect Luke Hughes, and did nothing but impress. Electric would be the best way to describe the play when those two were on the ice together.
Mitch Brown’s tracking data showed really well for Behrens this past USHL season:
His xA1 (expected primary assists) were the best of any tracked USHL or CHL defenseman in this draft class. Behrens just has that innate ability to turn every puck that touches his stick into a dangerous opportunity for a teammate. He has the skill to evade opponents and the mind to manipulate space. This dangerous blend of mind and skill makes him a very intriguing prospect, especially for one not projected to go until the 2nd round or 3rd round. There is NHL projectability to his offensive game and that is not something that can be said about every small, playmaking junior defenseman.
Defensively, Behrens may struggle with his lack of size as he is barely pushing 5’10”. However, he is not a passive player by any means. He knows his angles that allow him to prevent zone entries and win puck battles. Behrens may have even been the more defensively responsible one on his pair with Luke Hughes. He has that mobility that allows him to be effective despite his physical shortcomings. Jared Spurgeon has shown us that one can be an elite quality suppressor even at 5’9” due to his great gap control. I am not saying that he will become Spurgeon by any means, but they do share some similar traits.
His skating rates out as average and this largely due to suffering from a heel kick on his forward stride. How many average to below-average skating 5’10” defensemen are in the NHL? Not many. How many prospects have the same playmaking profile as Behrens? Once again, not many. Fix his stride with a skating coach and you are looking at a very fun 2nd or 3rd pair defenseman in the NHL.
Sean Behrens will be heading off to Denver University this fall and will certainly benefit from being a part of their storied program. He will get to spend some time with exciting talents in Bobby Brink, Carter Savoie, Jack Devine and Michael Benning. The Pioneers love their deceptive playmakers, so I expect Behrens’ game to thrive there. Overall, he’s a nice little talent bet in the 2nd round or 3rd round for any team looking for some more pop in their prospect pool.
RW | Chicago (USHL) | 5’10” | 148 lbs
Projected Draft Range: 3rd to 5th round
Jackson Blake, son of former NHLer Jason Blake, had himself a pretty great 2020/21 season. He kicked things off with the Chicago Steel of the USHL, returned to Edina High School where he recorded 58 points in 19 games including the double overtime goal to win the Minnesota Class 2A state championship, and then finished the season up as a Clark Cup champion with Chicago.
If you are looking for more of a raw prospect with some NHL traits, Blake is your guy. As an August 2003 birthday, he finds himself just two seasons removed from playing JV hockey at Eden Prairie. He possesses great stickhandling ability, allowing him to draw defenders to open passing lanes. He loves dishing the pucks to the dangerous areas of the ice, an area he excelled in during my viewings.
Blake’s intelligence combined with his skill level is really what makes him such an intriguing prospect for me. There are certainly a good amount of deficiencies in his overall game that may scare some NHL teams away on draft day. He can get lost in the moment when the puck is not on his stick at times. At under 160 pounds, he can be easily outmuscled when battling for 50/50 pucks.
However, we are talking about someone who played JV hockey in 2018/19. There is still so much runway left in his development that I think you take his positive traits and hope the negative traits (which largely stem from his “raw-ness” as a prospect) are fixed as he develops. He will get another season with the Chicago Steel and then will head to the University of North Dakota for the 2022/23 season. His development will certainly be in great hands and he will have more than enough time to build strength on a workout regimen.
G | SKA Varyagi (MHL) | 6’2″ | 179 lbs
Projected Draft Range: 3rd round or later
I am not going to pretend to be a goalie whisperer here, but I do know that Russian goalies have provided some great value in previous drafts (Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin come to mind). I also know that Kirill Gerasimyuk put up some impressive numbers in Russia’s junior league while playing on a bad team, recording a .931 SV% across 27 games. He even saw some pro hockey minutes in the VHL where he posted a respectable .913 SV% in 5 games.
Another intriguing thing about Gerasimyuk is his August birthdate, which makes him one of the youngest goalies available in the 2021 NHL Draft. There is still a lot of runway left in his development and SKA is certainly a great organization for that. So just take a flyer on Gerasimyuk in the middle rounds and hope he turns into a gem down the road.
C | Saint John (QMJHL) | 5’10” | 168 lbs
Projected Draft Range: 3rd round to 5th round
I was really debating whether or not to include Peter Reynolds on this list. After not cracking the top 100 on Bob McKenzie’s list, I knew I had to include him on here. He was one of the more interesting players I had the pleasure of watching this season and he brings a very unique game to the table.
Let me start off by saying that Reynolds is a 5’10” center who does not have many dynamic qualities to this game. He is not going to beat defenders 1-on-1 with fancy stickhandling. He has a bit of a wonky shot that will not consistently beat goalies at the pro level. There are a lot of things about his game that may scare NHL teams away. So why do I have him on this list?
Reynolds is very good at moving the puck from a non-dangerous situation to a dangerous situation with his passing and off-the-puck movement. Watching him play, you see a player that knows both where his teammates are and where they will be at all times. When he is on his game, it can be a magical experience. Reynolds loves the give-and-go, it’s almost soccer-like as he uses it to break inside the defensive structure of his opponents. His style of play also led to some fantastic results in Mitch Brown’s tracked data:
He’s no slouch on the defensive side of the puck either. He is a solid backchecker who competes hard for pucks and uses his spatial awareness to be extra effective in his own end. He has a lot of projectable center-like traits to his game outside of being 5’10” (maybe Tampa put the big center theory to rest?).
At the end of the day, there are many reasons why I could see Reynolds falling on draft day and there are many reasons why I think that is a mistake. I think his hockey IQ and his natural danger-driving habits make him a very projectable NHLer despite his lack of dynamic skill. Slot him in your bottom 9 and you will get a solid contributor on both sides of the puck, maybe even a penalty killer as well.
LHD | Regina (WHL) | 5’11” | 181 lbs
Projected Draft Range: 5th round to undrafted
Ryker Evans is an overager whose name has not been generating much buzz leading up to the draft. He’s been getting some love from draft outlets like EliteProspects, FC Hockey, and McKeen’s. He cracked NHL Central Scouting’s rankings, but as the 192nd ranked North American skater (typically undrafted range). Corey Pronman’s 7-round mock draft for the Athletic did not even have Evans as a selection.
Where is the love? Ryker Evans had a great, albeit short, WHL season with Regina. He excelled in nearly every area of the game: offense creation, transition play, zone entry prevention. If he was just a few inches taller and got to play on a better team in his draft year, I do not think we would still be talking about Evans as a draft prospect because he would have been selected in 2020.
Evans is one of the best transition players in the draft. He’s great at skating up ice, identifying passing options, and looking off defenders. It’s fun watching him play in transition because he just makes it look so easy, it’s like he has it down to a science. It is less flash than it is just plain, old-fashioned efficiency.
Evans also makes zone entry prevention look easy as well. He keeps a tight gap on his opponents and keeps plays out on the perimeter. He knows when to strike and suffocate his opponent moving up the ice. His great work rate in the defensive zone is also a treat to watch, allowing him to quickly recover from mistakes.
The key thing with Evans is working on a more projectable offensive game because his o-zone game is pretty simple as it stands today. He will get to play a full season with wunderkind Connor Bedard in Regina in 2021/22, so maybe that will help his offensive zone development come along. At worst, any team that selects him is getting a defenseman who is defensively sound and strong transitionally. I believe he has the base to be a safe NHL bet, especially for a player not expected to go until the 5th round or later.
Here are a few more players who just missed my list in one way or another:
Jack Peart, LHD, Fargo (USHL)
Honestly, the only reason Peart did not make my main list is because I believe he will be a 1st round pick on Friday. He is one of the smartest blueliners in this draft class. A small defensive defenseman with good puckmoving skills.
Ville Koivunen, RW, Kärpät U20 (Finland U20)
Koivunen is a very smart hockey player with great skill who is held back by below average skating ability. I think he becomes a fantastic talent bet if/when he falls out of the 1st round. There won’t be many forwards with his level of mind and skill available in that area of the draft.
Aleksi Heimosalmi, RHD, Ässät U20 (Finland U20)
There are only a few defensemen in this draft class who can rush the puck from end-to-end with jaw dropping grace like Heimosalmi. The only issue is that these beautiful plays are few and far between. He’s a player who could be a decent talent bet if he falls into the 3rd round.
Trevor Wong, C, Kelowna (WHL)
Wong is a fun player to watch because he just loves to get beat up out there. He always plays with great energy and has a knack for creating scoring chances. The production finally started to come in this year, so I think he could be a fun bottom six forward down the road.
Connor Kurth, RW, Dubuque (USHL)
There are some parts of the game that Kurth struggle with: skating, accurate/timely passing. But man, does this guy play with some fire and have a hard shot. He is far from a finished product, but he could develop into a sandpaper guy with a scoring touch who could feature in any NHL team’s bottom six.
Tyler Haskins, LW, Sioux Falls (USHL)
I had to include Haskins in here because he was a player I really enjoyed watching early in the USHL season. His point totals (and ice time) dried up a bit as the season went on, but I still think there’s a potential bottom six guy there. He probably won’t get drafted, but he’s a player to keep an eye on in the USHL. He’ll be heading to University of Michigan in 2022.