The Vancouver Canucks could be making a franchise-altering decision on Friday night.
The team will be picking ninth overall during the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and, based on this year’s crop of prospects, are expected to land a young, talented player, regardless of who lands at their feet.
Unlike most draft years, however, there isn’t a real consensus on where players will be selected. Aside from defenceman Owen Powers, who is projected to go first overall to the Buffalo Sabres, it could very well be a guessing game for picks two to ten.
It appears that most franchises are going for the “best player available” mindset, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if a few of those organizations select someone outside of their general ranking based on positional need. This is likely the case for goaltender Jesper Wallstedt, who has the potential to become the face of a franchise between the pipes, and is considered a legitimate option for a team like Detroit at sixth overall.
Currently, all eyes in Vancouver are on local boy Kent Johnson. The winger-turned-centre dominated with the Trail Smoke Eaters in the BCHL for two seasons, and continued to showcase his creativity, agility and highlight-reel dekes with the Michigan Wolverines during the shortened 2020-21 season. He could be the missing piece for Vancouver’s current third-line centre problem, and has the potential to be an explosive, game-changing top-nine forward in the NHL.
However, given his growing list of strengths and accolades, a few insiders and scouts have Johnson being taken off the board well before ninth overall. If that’s the case, the Canucks will need to go back to their drawing board to see which player would be the next best fit in Vancouver. If that’s the case, General Manager Jim Benning should immediately look to which prospects are available on the blueline.
Outside of Powers, there are three more defencemen that are expected to be selected in the top-ten of tonight’s entry draft – Brandt Clarke, Simon Edvinsson and Luke Hughes. Some scouting/drafting experts have these blueliners ranked as high as first overall, whereas other project them to be selected much lower, once the dust settles. According to The Athletic, Vancouver’s front office already has an internal ranking for the backend trio.
Whatever the situation may be, and however it may unfold, Benning and co. will need to make sure they’ve done all of their research on these prospects before 5pm PST on Friday. If one or more of these players can fall into Vancouver’s lap, they’ll need to be sure that they’re making the best decision possible. The future of their blueline could be at stake.
With that being said, let’s take a deeper dive in Clarke, Edvinnson and Hughes, and what they could bring to the Canucks.
According to multiple reports and sources, Clarke is the most-likely defensive prospect to fall to the Canucks at ninth overall. The right-handed defenceman put up strong offensive numbers in the OHL, registering six goals and 32 assists in 57 games with the Barrie Colts during the 2019-20 season.
Like most other junior/college programs, Clarke’s following season was drastically impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was loaned to HC Nove Zamky in Slovakia for the 2020-21 season, where he was able to put up 15 points and 41 PIM in 26 games, alongside his brother. Clarke also represented his country on the international stage, participating for Team Canada during the 2021 U-18 World Junior Championships in Dallas. Clarke produced at a point-per-game pace in the tournament, posting seven points in seven games, and was a dominant force every time he stepped onto the ice.
According to Elite Prospects, Clarke is regarded as the best offensive defenceman available in the upcoming draft, and his previous point totals support that claim. He has the ability to see the ice very well, especially when going into gritty board battles, and his strengths really shine through once he retrieves the puck.
As an offensively-minded defenceman, Clarke is often found joining the rush up the ice, and will make a point to carry the play from the backend with the puck on his stick. He excels at manoeuvering through defensive formations with slick moves and exceptional vision, as well as anticipating exactly what route his opponents will take to try and force a turnover.
As expected, Clarke’s on-ice enthusiasm can also lead to some flaws.
Because Clarke has a tendency to carry the puck and make explosive plays by himself, he sometimes has trouble making the simple pass to available teammates. He also struggles with speed and edgework, and still has room to develop when it comes to taking on opponents in open space.
Despite these small concerns, there’s no denying Clarke’s high-octane offensive production, creativity, and on-ice spatial awareness. He has a knack for escaping pressure-filled situations with ease, and has the potential to become a lethal top-pairing defenceman in the NHL for years to come.