Should the NHL Delay the 2021 Draft?

Gary Bettman wearing mask
By Jeff Watters

March 2, 2021

Steve Yzerman has been one of the more vocal proponents for delaying the 2021 draft in some form or fashion. Naturally, it would be fair to assume that many Red Wings fans would be on board with this option as well. But is there a solution that can appease the league, its teams/scouts, and the players association?

If the GM of your team is advocating for a delayed 2021 draft, it can be taken as a sign he’s not convinced his scouts have gathered enough information on this year’s crop of prospects. 

It’s not unreasonable to think the Detroit Red Wings could be among those affected most by a July 2021 draft.

And not in a good way.

Steve Yzerman and the Wings are currently set to pick four times in the first two rounds — including a likely top 5 overall pick — and really need to make these picks count. The murkier the waters, the more difficult it’ll be for the Wings to make fully informed decisions and take advantage of this stable of high draft picks.

Considering the 2021 class is as muddled at the top as it’s ever been, a top 3 pick might not be that much more valuable than a pick in the 4-12 range at this stage. A delayed draft could allow for some separation at the top and make the Red Wings that much more confident in their first pick. As we sit here today, it’s anyone’s guess who will land in the top 5 or 6 as an argument for 10-12 players could easily be made.

So, how will the NHL proceed? Will they stick with the tentatively scheduled July draft or appease the Wings’ GM and give teams more time to do their due diligence.

To date, we’ve heard of 3 options:

  • NHL draft: July 23-24, 2021
  • Delay the NHL draft: December 2021
  • Delay the NHL draft: Summer, 2022 (two drafts, one summer)

NHL draft: July 23-24, 2021

Why it works

Even with COVID-19 restrictions, most 2021 eligibles have played a lot of hockey this season. Most European leagues, the NCAA, and the USHL have all been back in action for some time. 

Sure, video scouting has suddenly become more prevalent than ever — out of necessity — but you could argue this is where scouting is headed anyway. Whether or not it is as effective as traditional, in-person viewings is definitely up for debate — but I won’t get into that here.

Matthew Beniers Michigan Wolverines
Matthew Beniers (2021) has been one of the most impressive rookies in the NCAA this season. | Photo: Michigan Photography

Although there have been fewer scouting trips and in-person viewings, scouts have still been able to watch a lot of film. For analytics departments, there’s been plenty of data to parse through.

It’s also important to remember that this year’s crop of prospects has been scouted long before the conclusion of the 2020 draft. Teams got plenty of looks at a lot of these guys in their draft-minus-1 and draft-minus-2 seasons. Obviously, a lot can change in a year, but it’s not as if these guys are completely unknown commodities.  

With the U18 World Championships still on track to commence April 26 in Friso and Plano, Texas, and talks of some kind of spring/summer showcase for North American prospects, teams should be able to get some more viewings of this year’s top talent.

Probably the most important factor to look at here is the minimal disruption a July draft would cause.

It won’t be easy to delay the 2021 draft. As Elliotte Friedman pointed out in last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, you have to consider how a delayed draft would affect player rights and NHL service time. The NHLPA isn’t going to sit back and let the NHL determine how this all plays out.

There are far-reaching implications here and a July draft may be the path of least resistance (don’t tell that to Steve Yzerman).

Why it doesn’t

I find it unlikely Steve Yzerman doesn’t have some support around the league. It’s clear that a number of NHL teams share the belief that the lack of in-person scouting and the glaring absence of OHL and WHL hockey has been a huge blow this year. 

For talent evaluators, you can watch all of the video you want — but it doesn’t show you the whole picture. There are a lot of video resources out there for professional organizations to take advantage of, but scouts like to see more than just the on-ice action.

How do players act on the bench? Are they vocal? Easily frustrated? Upbeat? Down on their teammates? Watching a player away from the puck when you’re at the mercy of video can be challenging.

Hakan Andersson European Scouting Director Red Wings
Hakan Andersson and the Red Wings’ European scouts have had to rely on video much more this season. | Photo:

Then there’s the OHL and WHL. The OHL has yet to resume play (the plan is a 24 game schedule beginning in April) and the WHL has been in action for less than a week. We’re looking at a fraction of what we’d typically see from the majority of Canadian junior players. Additionally, a lot can change between now and April for the OHL and there’s no guarantee things don’t go awry out west.

A lot of NHL talent comes from these two leagues, and just a handful of games have been played as of March 2nd. That’s a real issue.

Some CHLers have been loaned to teams in Europe (Brandt Clarke in Slovakia, Carson Lambos in Finland, etc.) and others to different junior leagues (Dylan Guenther played 4 games for the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders), but it’s been a huge challenge for NHL teams to fully evaluate CHL talent this season. There’s been a lot of reliance on past reports and year-old video. 

Many players haven’t been given an opportunity to wow scouts and solidify themselves as early-round draft picks. That doesn’t well with people around the league.

Delay the draft: December 2021 Draft

Why it works

A December draft would kick the can down the road a few months and give teams the ability to (hopefully) gather some more in-person insights. The WHL and OHL will surely be in full swing next fall, so NHL teams will be able to more accurately gauge where many Canadian prospects slot onto their draft board.

Scouts who’ve been kept out of arenas would get the chance to return to their natural habitat and away from the computer screen. While some teams who’ve grown accustomed to video and analytics may feel like they’ve lost an edge here, many teams would be thrilled to get back into the rink.

A December draft would not be dissimilar from last year’s October draft in that prospects would actually be playing in what would ultimately be their draft-plus-1 season before being drafted. This would appear to be an enticing option for this reason. The NHL and NHL teams would have a similar blueprint to go off of.

Kind of.

Why it doesn’t

The December draft may seem like a solid middle-ground, but I actually find it the most unlikely outcome here.

Having to determine when to start a player’s clock halfway through an NHL season seems like the most convoluted scenario I can imagine. Yes, the NHL held an October 6-7 draft in 2020, but a December draft would be 2 months later. We’d be approaching the halfway point of the 2021-22 season.

Would CHL players have just 1.5 years to sign with their NHL teams in this case (instead of the usual 2)? Does the deadline to sign these draft picks move from June 1, 2023, to December 1, 2023?

What if a player like Matty Beniers is NHL ready when drafted? Does he get credit for a full year of service time in 2021-22? This affects arbitration eligibility, years to free agency, etc.

There’s a lot going on here, and a December draft would appear to be the option with the biggest hurdles to overcome.

Delay the draft: Summer, 2022

Why it works

This is perhaps the option with the most going both for and against it.

While it would be torture for teams like the Red Wings, Senators, Sabres, etc. to wait another 16 months to add more talent to their pipeline, from an entertainment standpoint this would be a grand slam.

Could you imagine something like a June 21-22, 2022 (Tuesday-Wednesday) 19-year-old draft followed by a June 24-25, 2022 (Friday-Saturday) 2022 draft?

The Red Wings would likely be adding upwards of 20 prospects to their system over a 5-day span. The excitement level would be off the charts.

I would venture to guess even the most fair-weather fans would tune in for some of the action. 

Trevor Zegras drafted by Anaheim Ducks
Trevor Zegras, drafted 9th overall in 2019, would’ve been taken much higher in a 2020 draft. | Photo:

From a scouting perspective, you’d obviously be getting another full year to have eyes on the 19-year-old class. Gone would be the concerns of teams lacking information. If anything, they would now have more information than ever.

Look no further than Trevor Zegras as a prime example of the difference a year can make,

If the 2019 draft was pushed to the summer of 2020 you better believe Zegras would’ve become a top 5 pick (he was taken 9th overall by the Ducks). More time means more viewings and further development.

Here’s another interesting thought (not a real suggestion or possibility):

Over the past few years, I’ve heard some chatter of the potential benefits of changing the entire draft from an 18-year-old to a 19-year-old draft. While the NHL certainly has a lot on its plate at the moment, and there is almost a 0% chance of this happening, wouldn’t this year be the perfect year to make the change?

Skip this year entirely and 2022 becomes the first 19-year-old draft. The Shane Wright class then gets pushed to 2023, the Matvei Michkov draft to 2024, etc.

Again, this is just me looking at every angle here. There would be lots of options for the NHL to consider with a 19-year-old draft next year. 

Sounds great, right? Just push the draft back to 2022 and be done with it. 

Well, not so fast.

Why it doesn’t

First, let’s consider the scouts.

A back-to-back draft in the summer of 2022 would mean that, for the next year and a half, scouts would be on double duty. 

Forget how difficult it is to discover and evaluate one draft class, now they would be forced to prepare for two drafts simultaneously. It would be a big ask — and a task I’m sure the majority of scouts would not be up for.

Second, a year-long delay would be unprecedented for the draft. What would this mean for the 19-year-old class?

Consider they would be missing an entire year of development within an NHL organization. That’s a year of individualized coaching, nutrition, strength training, etc. What should have been their draft-plus-1 season would essentially become their 2nd consecutive draft year.  

If you’re someone who believes in the benefits of a 19-year-old draft, this would be a non-issue. Still, it’s something to consider.

Teams want to get their hands on drafted prospects immediately. A lot of times they see something that can be brought out with proper coaching and training. In this situation, these players would be going an additional year without this guidance.

Again, the issues with the NHLPA would be relevant here. 

Any 2021 draft eligibles who look to be NHL-ready next season would have to wait an entire year before getting the opportunity to play in the NHL. That’s, of course, an extra year before arbitration and free agency.

What are the chances of a delay?

There’s some momentum building towards pushing the draft back. How much momentum is unclear, but when Steve Yzerman is willing to publicly state his support for such a drastic change you know it’s not the first time it’s become a topic of conversation.

Without seeing the entire picture of what a delayed draft would look like, it’s difficult to say what would be best for not only the Red Wings but the entire class of 2021.

Of course, we want to see things shake out in the most favorable way possible for the Wings, but there are very clearly a number of challenges the league must consider before moving forward with an alternative plan.

From service-time issues to the monumental task of preparing for two drafts simultaneously, it won’t be easy to iron out all of the nuances of a December or Summer of 2022 draft.

The longer the league goes without an update here, the more I’m inclined to believe they’re doing everything in their power to stay the course and have the draft this July.

But Steve Yzerman has a voice — and a powerful one at that.

Final Thoughts

Changes to the draft lottery have been discussed.

Now, we’re hearing chatter about potentially delaying the NHL draft itself.

From a Red Wings’ perspective, it seems like any shake-up would be good news. Anything to get the ping pong balls to take a more favorable bounce for Detroit.

It’s really anyone’s guess at this point. Would the NHL consider another October draft? Would teams be ok with this? It wouldn’t cut into the 2021-22 season nearly as much as a December draft even if held a few weeks into the NHL season.

One thing is for certain. There’s going to be a group of people that feels like they were wronged when all is said and done. Whether that’s some NHL front offices, scouts, or players, some are going to feel their concerns fell on deaf ears.

Ultimately, whatever Stevie Y. wants, I want. That may seem short-sighted, but I do want what’s best for the Detroit Red Wings.

Someone’s going to get the short-end of the stick here.

For once, it shouldn’t be the Wings.

Featured Image: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

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