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Eight Candidates for the Sabres Eventual Top 3 selection in the 2021 Draft

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NCAA Hockey: Big Ten Hockey Tournament-Michigan vs Ohio State South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

After last night’s game with the Penguins the Sabres are sitting in dead last and the #1 spot for the 2021 draft based off point percentage and actual points. Jack Eichel has been sidelined with an injury, and now the media vultures are throwing him in any mock trade they can think of. Linus Ullmark hasn’t been seen in weeks. Carter Hutton is now hurt. Jake McCabe is out for the year. Taylor Hall is publicly saying he’s open for a trade. The Buffalo Sabres are destined to miss the playoffs for the tenth season in a row, and picking within the top 10 again for ninth straight year. Not to mention we have a top 3 pick pretty much locked up as well.

So why not try to look forward to the draft?

2021 Draft In a Nutshell

This year has been pretty disappointing as a whole in terms of the depth and development. A lot of players I was really excited to dive into going into the year didn’t live up to the hype, and outside of a couple obvious names, there haven’t been any big breakthroughs from players who were on the cusp. The production metrics are way down compared to last year, and it’s not just a result of the pandemic. The strength of this class falls off a cliff somewhere between the 15th-18th ranked prospect on my list with the rest of the class having potential, but with some serious concerns about their NHL upside.

With the changes in the draft lottery fully going into effect next year; the only one going into play this year will be that the lottery will be for the top two picks and not the top three. So barring any movement where we don’t end up in last place the Sabres will most likely be picking anywhere in the top three.

8 Candidates for the Sabres Top 3 Selection (and one wildcard)

I used EliteProspects Consolidated Rankings to get an idea who is seriously going to be considered for the top 8 of this draft. While the Wildcard in this selection is currently sitting at #5 on my own ranks: I didn’t include him in the initial 8 as he sits outside the top 10 in consolidated rankings.

1.) Matty Beniers, C, NCAA (10/5/02)

6’1, 174lbs

24gp, 10g, 24pts

There is no player that is going to eclipse Beniers for the number one spot on top of my draft board this year. He is a dream come true as a prospect in my eyes. He’s a relentless, puck hounding, transition king who owns the middle of the ice every time he steps on the ice. He is almost never out of position, is always supporting his teammates on the puck, and has boatloads of skill to go with it.

He excels in the small areas of the ice and consistently is able to make unbelievable plays under pressure. He isn’t dependent on one trait to move the puck up the ice as he can just as easily stick handle his way through the neutral zone as well as he can hit a teammate for a controlled entry. He lives looking to pass in the medium-high danger areas of the ice, and isn’t afraid to make his way there to look for his own shot or to take the puck there to generate a chance on his own.

While he possesses very good playmaking ability; he plays a very gritty game. He is the type of player that championship teams are made of: he wants to ram the puck down your throat and is relentless in trying to get the puck back if his team doesn’t have it.

On a Michigan team that had Kent Johnson, Bordeleau, Brisson, and Beecher all vying to play center: he outplayed Brisson and Johnson to play down the middle. He looks like the best center on that team as a draft eligible player.

While he may never be the catalyst on your PP1 (recently playing the bumper role on the PP) or an elite level point producer; I see him projecting as the ideal #2 center on a team and the potential to be one of the best second line centers in the NHL if his game continues to progress.

For a Sabres team that is desperate to have players outside of Eichel to transition the puck; he’s an easy call for the number one preference for the Sabres in this draft.

2.) Jesper Wallstedt, G, SHL (11/14/02)

6’3, 214lbs

22gp, 2.23 GAA, .908 SV%, 2 shutouts

I am breaking my own rules and putting a goalie as a potential lottery selection. For a team that has struggled to get any sort of competent and consistent goaltending the past two years...this one makes too much sense. Wallstedt plays a very technical and fluid game. He isn’t as athletic as 2019 elite goaltending prospect Yaroslav Askarov in the net, but you don’t watch him and see the glaring technical mistakes either.

He’s big, agile, and doesn’t seem to have any sort of weakness when looking to beat him. Getting a Vezina caliber prospect and one of the surest bets to be at least a very good NHL talent in this draft class when there’s so much uncertainty of ceiling after Beniers (to me at least) makes the most sense if Beniers isn’t available. Wallstedt looked to be the better goalie in the World Juniors for Sweden despite playing the backup role, and has the potential to put up a .930 save percentage in the SHL as soon as next year. He’s not very far off from being an NHL goalie.

I will take time to address the counter arguments of drafting Wallstedt. First, I know we have Portillo and UPL in the pipeline. However, neither show the promise or development that Wallstedt does. Having assets to move for other pieces is never a bad thing. Second, there are a few good goalie prospects in this draft that can be had with our second round pick (why hello there, Sebastian Cossa!) or even some Russian goalies I’m a big fan of that I imagine will be available in the mid-late rounds. Lastly, goalies are enigmas. There are few scouts doing quality public scouting of goalies, there isn’t much data (outside of Josh Tessler at Smaht Scouting) about goalies to base decisions on, and the rise and fall of goalies are quick and unexpected. To further this point: at one time Wallstedt was hovering at a .930 goalie in the SHL as a draft eligible (never been done before) and has had some clunkers recently...especially the last two games where he’s given up four goals on fifteen shots and five goals on twenty four shots.

In a draft where I see glaring holes in many of the other prospects...Wallstedt stands with Beniers as the only two I feel confident about. Rules are meant to be broken, and I wouldn’t mind the Sabres breaking one of my own cardinal rules of drafting and taking Wallstedt with a top three pick.

3.) Luke Hughes, LHD, USNTDP (9/9/03)

6’2, 176 lbs

38gp, 6g, 34pts

When it comes to the many defensive prospects that are pegged to go in the top half of this year’s draft: none have impressed me like Luke Hughes has. He’s six days shy of being a 2022 draft eligible, skates like the wind, and has offensive talent that is among the best in this draft class. Despite reportedly tearing multiple ligaments in his foot thus ending his season; I’d still take the Michigan committed Hughes in the top three of this year’s draft.

The youngest of the the three Hughes brothers he plays a similar albeit different style than his elder brothers. He’s a smooth skating defensemen that doesn’t have the small area puck skills that his brother Quinn has, but instead looks like a tier-down version of Dahlin during his draft eligible year with the puck on his stick.

He transitions the puck very effectively on his stick or with a pass. He is very smart in the offensive zone on when to pick his spots to move up from the blue line and has my most coveted trait for an offensive defensemen in that he utilizes space very well at the blue line. He’s not dependent on rushes and odd-man situations to gather his offense, and is an engine from the blue line for the NTDP in generating offense when he’s on the ice.

He does have some defensive lapses in his own end, specifically with gap control on rushes and spatial awareness in the cycle game that can catch him out of position which generates either great scoring chances or getting beat on the rush (or in this instance...a penalty).

His mobility, offensive acumen, and birthdate give him the edge over the other blueliners in this year’s group for me. His defensive ability, while not consistent, has loads of potential and the tools are there for him to be on a team’s top-pair as well as their PP1 quarterback. Not to mention...he may have a little Trevor Zegras in his game:

4.) William Eklund, LW, SHL (10/12/02)

5’10, 172lbs

39gp, 11g, 22pts

William Eklund is just good at everything. He’s a fantastic transition player who facilitates the puck up-and-down the ice and consistently is the player who facilitates the play that leads to controlled entries and exits at the SHL level. He’s a very good skater who separates well and has an extremely gifted ability to separate laterally on his edges.

Like Beniers, his brain is top-end. Despite being somewhat undersized he’s able to maneuver along the boards to create plays and finds open seems and spaces on the ice to generate his offence.

While he doesn’t possess an elite level shot: his passing ability is what makes him a high-end offensive talent. He’s able to make quick, accurate passes into high-danger areas and occasionally will be able to get to the dangerous parts of the ice on his own to generate his own shot. When you watch Eklund play with the puck on his stick you have the calming feeling that he’s about to find a teammate and put them in a situation to score.

He’s been given ample opportunity with ice time and linemates (playing with NHL draft picks Holtz and Josefson) and has shown that he’s not only able to play with them; at times he looks like the engine on the line.

Undersized, European wingers are usually undervalued in the NHL draft and fall farther than normally would. He should be picked in the top 5 (and I would argue should be in contention for the #1 pick of the 2021 NHL Draft), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him fall into the second half of the top 10 based on position, where he’s playing, and his size.

5.) Fabian Lysell, RW, SHL (1/19/03)

5’10, 168lbs

26gp, 2g, 3pts

You have no idea how bad I wanted to put Lysell at number two on this list. An absolute rocket on the ice who has the best combination of puck skill and speed in this class. Lysell is going to make teams look silly who pass on him if he gets out of the top five of this draft. With the NHL trending towards favoring forwards who play at high pace: Lysell is the cream-of-the-crop when it comes to generating offence off the rush and being able to play at a high-octane pace.

His wrist shot is lethal. It’s quick and deceptive and catches goalies off guard more often than not. He works his tail off in the defensive zone and is positionally sound as a winger and engages in puck battles and will work to get the puck back in the defensive end.

It’s a razor thin margin between Eklund and Lysell for the Sabres and you could argue either of them to me and I’d shrug and say “I love them both.” Lysell is going to have to bulk up as he gets pushed off the puck more than Eklund. He’s playing minimal minutes for his SHL club which explains the low production numbers, but his impact on the ice during those minutes is extremely positive. I like Eklund’s brain a bit more than Lysell which is why I gave him the edge. However, given his combination of speed and skill, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Lysell be the best player to come out of this year’s draft.

6.) Brandt Clarke, RHD, Slovakia (2/9/03)

6’1, 181lbs

26gp, 5g, 15pts

At the start of this draft year I had Clarke as my number one prospect. A lot of the reasons why still hold true. He’s the most dynamic offensive defensemen in this class and at times will look like he’s a fourth forward on the ice the way he contributes in the offensive zone.

His lateral mobility is top-end. He’s able to walk the blue line at an elite level, and his shiftiness on his edges allows for him to generate space with the puck on his stick. I love his passing ability and his transition data is very good, albeit he’s done less of it with the puck on his stick than I’d thought he’d do in the Slovakian league. Recently he’s started to really turn a corner in this department, though.

His defensive ability is better than I thought it would be, and his positioning has gotten better compared to where he was last year.

To me his slide is mostly due to his decision making with the puck on his stick this year and his lack of forward mobility. He’s tried to make impossible passes too much this year, which could be attributed to his transition outside of the OHL to the Slovakian pro league. However, his lack of an above average straight line skating is going to hinder his true offensive upside in the NHL given the type of game he plays. He needs to get a step or two faster in order to really be able to produce like an elite-level offensive defensemen to justify the draft capital of selecting him in the top three.

7.) Owen Power, LHD, NCAA (11/22/02)

6’5, 214lbs

26gp, 3g, 16pts

The consensus number one pick this year falls to number seven on my own list. I get it...I may be an outlier. However, when it comes to defensemen I really, REALLY value a defensemen’s ability to defend the blue line and stop controlled entries from happening. Owen Power’s backward mobility is going to be a huge problem if it doesn’t get better as he allows players to walk in on rushes with control far too often.

Another example:

His size is attractive, but he doesn’t use it very effectively in the defensive zone. He can be too cemented in his place, relying too often on his reach and stick checking ability to separate the man from the puck or to make up for his lack of foot speed.

However, with the puck on his stick he is a monster...especially when he gets going with some speed. The Minnesota game before the World Juniors will forever be burned into my memory for Power as Minnesota threw out the three best forecheckers in college hockey at him all game and he just shrugged them aside to make plays.

There is no denying his offensive gift, his physical tools, and the production he was able to have as a defensemen in his draft eligible year playing college hockey. The skating is worrisome for me, and why I don’t see the Victor Hedman comparisons at all. Will Scouch has said a couple of times on his livestream he sees Tyler Myers and I can’t shake that comparison. I agree with it.

8.) Simon Edvinsson, LHD, HockeyAllsvenskan (2/5/03)

6’5, 203lbs

14gp, 0g, 5pts

First, I’d encourage you to read Sam Happi’s breakdown on Edvinsson because it’s the premier comprehensive breakdown of Edvinsson and I largely agree with everything Happi says. Edvinsson is a big, extremely mobile defender who excels at shutting plays down at the defensive blue line with his size and mobility.

He excels with the puck on his stick when exiting the zone. His puck skill, size, and mobility make him a fun watch when he’s on his game at generating rushes. When he activates off the blue line he can be a dynamic offensive defensemen as well.

However, Edvinsson reminds me of a more athletic and less nasty version of Ristolainen. His biggest weakness, and it’s a glaring weakness, is his inability to be able to generate transition under pressure and through his passes. He is a terrible passer and oftentimes fails to be able to generate simple breakout plays. When under duress he lacks the ability to find teammates. For me, that is one the most important traits for a defensemen to have in the draft process. Not having it means, despite shutting play down in defensively, he just gives it back for the opposing team to regroup and come right back at them. Furthermore, it keeps the forwards playing in their own end much longer than needed and hinders offensive leaning forwards from being able to use their own strengths.

While there are some raw tools here that are certainly attractive (size, skating, defensive zone entry defense, offense when moving up off the blue line) the lack of transition ability puts Edvinsson in a Do Not Draft zone when it comes to having a top three pick.

Wildcard

Dylan Guenther, W, WHL (4/10/03)

6’1, 181lbs

6gp, 8g, 15pts

The sample size is small, and his stock slid after failing to blow the AJHL roof off in his four game stint to start the year, but there is no ignoring the absolutely scorching pace Guenther has started the WHL season since it resumed. He’s failed to score less than two points in a game just once so far, and has scored two goals in four of his first six games to start the season.

He’s a strong transitional winger with good top end speed but lacks high end three-step agility. He’s a great playmaker with the puck on his stick and possesses a very, very good slap shot as well. He’s been an elite level point producer the past few years in all levels of hockey he’s played.

An exceptional playmaker with a deadly shot with size, very good top end speed, and playing in the CHL? Guenther will be sky rocketing up lists in the near future and should end up in the top 5 if his production stays somewhere near what it’s been to start the year.

For me he’s sitting right behind Lysell in the tier II of Eklund/Lysell/Guenther. With a larger data sample and with some games against different competition I can see him rising right up to the top of that tier, but given his position and the Sabres needs, he’ll need to far outplay Beniers in my mind to seriously consider him for our top three pick.