We’re a few months into the season, and as expected, after a banner year for American/NCAA prospects in the 2019 NHL Draft, the 2020 NHL Draft is shaping up to be a quieter year, at least as far as first round prospects are concerned.
The good news is that the 2021 NHL Draft is already shaping up to be much stronger for future NCAA players. With the completion of last week’s World U17 Challenge, real scouts are starting to get their first looks at the top players in the world competing against their peer group and the group of players that will be followed closely next year is starting to take shape.
Among the scouts starting to make their projections is the venerable Craig Button of TSN, who posted his top 21 prospects for the 2021 Draft last week. Five players currently with ties to NCAA schools—coincidentally all in the Big Ten—crack the list, including four of the top 10. There’s a long ways to go, and there will be significant changes over the coming 19 months before these players are selected, but to have so many players rated so highly is significant.
Here’s a closer look at those five prospects, who will likely become the next wave of top NHL prospects to play in the NCAA.
Owen Power, Defenseman, Chicago Steel(USHL), Michigan commitment
The avalanche of verbal commitments Michigan has taken over the past few years has included quite a few players that have later opted to sign in the OHL, most notably 2020 projected first round draft picks Cole Perfetti and Antonio Stranges. But one those gambles appears to have paid off in Power.
Power is listed at just above 6’4” and 212 lbs., but what makes him unique is his above average athleticism and skillset to go along with his size. Power is an excellent skater and has shown impressive playmaking abilities in his second season in the USHL, averaging a point-per-game through 14 games this season.
The most obvious comparison, and a player Power has said he has tried to model his game after, is Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s a lofty comparison for anyone just shy of their 17th birthday, and there are definitely some of the finer points of defending fthat Power will need to develop before he reaches that level. But from a pure talent standpoint, the pieces are all there for a player of Hedman’s immense capabilities.
Though Power is a late ‘02 birthday, indications are that he will be enrolling at the University of Michigan next season, playing his NHL draft year in the NCAA. Before that happens, there will likely be a strong push from the OHL to sign Power. In his OHL draft year, Power was projected as one of the top players available, but announced a commitment to Michigan shortly before the draft to show his interest in following the NCAA route. Power fell to the second round of the OHL draft and was taken by Flint, who isn’t exactly known as a big spender in the OHL, but, for what it’s worth, is currently leading their division in the OHL this season. The Firebirds may make a strong push to add Power if they think they can realistically compete for a title, or could use him as trade bait to acquire some help for a run from one of the Usual Suspects like London or Windsor.
That said, Power and family seem interested enough in the school route, and the fact that he’d be playing his draft year in the NCAA likely helps as well.
Corson Ceulemans, Defenseman, Brooks(AJHL), Committed to Wisconsin
Corson Ceulemans committed to the Badgers in April of 2018 as a Bantam player, and this appears to be the rare case of one of those super early commitments actually working out.
Ceulemans is listed at 6’1 or 6’2” and 188 lbs. with exceptional skating and playmaking ability. He has 12 points in 14 games with Brooks this season, and had a standout showing at the World U17 Challenge, where he registered four assists in four games for Team Canada Black.
Again, this is a dangerous comparison to make, but a smooth skating defenseman playing for Brooks in the AJHL immediately brings to mind Cale Makar, who starred for the Bandits before being selected fourth overall in the NHL Draft. Ceulemans isn’t the relative-late bloomer that Makar was; he’s been on the radar for quite some time as one of the best in his age group. But he has the potential to be the same type of impact player from the blue line that can control the game with his skating and puck movement.
Ceulemans made it known from an early age that he was interested in pursuing the NCAA route, and chose Wisconsin over a couple other powerhouse programs. The only real concern is that as an ‘03 birthday, he likely will need to play one more year of juniors before enrolling at Wisconsin, and some may try to convince him a second year in Brooks would be spinning his wheels. Also, with him being drafted before playing for Wisconsin, there is a chance, however slim, that if he goes in the top-five as projected, he may sign an NHL contract before playing in the NCAA. It seems likely he’ll play at least one year for the Badgers though, and as Makar showed at UMass, a second season isn’t necessarily bad either.
Luke Hughes, Defenseman, US NTDP U17, Committed to Michigan
By now, the hockey world is well-acquainted with the Hughes family. Luke’s older brothers Quinn and Jack are two of the best young prospects in the NHL. Early conventional wisdom was that Luke might not be in the same lofty category as the other two—as it is, Button has him ranked 8th, which would put him below Quinn(7th overall) and Jack(1st overall). But I’m not entirely convinced that is the case. Having watched him a couple times over the past two years, I think he’s a lot farther ahead of Quinn at the same age.
The big thing that separates Luke from his peers, no surprise given his name, is his elite skating and edgework. The ability to create space for himself with the puck by turning on a dime, or with a quick first step makes him impossible to defend against. His vision and playmaking ability has already made him an offensive driver on the NTDP U17s, and has even shown more ability to shoot the puck than Quinn has to this point in his career. A Quinn Hughes that scores more points is a very exciting prospect.
Add in that he’ll be one of the youngest players in the draft—nearly 10 months younger than Power—and I think there is a lot of potential for him to move up in the draft as the next 18 months progress.
Kent Johnson, Forward, Trail(BCHL), Committed to Michigan
Johnson has been tearing up the scoring-heavy BCHL this season with 47 points in 25 games as a late-2002 birthdate, which leads the league by 10 points.
As you’d expect from the gaudy stats, Johnson is a smooth, skilled offensive player with great hands and a nice shot. You can get some idea for it here:
Here's why Kent Johnson got the nod for this week's #BCHLPOW@BCHLSmokeEaters @19kjohnson pic.twitter.com/l2WrSg4Dts— BC Hockey League (@GoBCHL) September 23, 2019
The closest comparison to Johnson in terms of BCHL prospects is probably Kyle Turris, who tallied 121 points in 53 games in his final year in the BCHL. That was Turris’ draft year, while Johnson is in his Draft-1 year, though Johnson is only two months younger than Turris was at the time.
Johnson is an October 2002 birthdate, so he just misses the cut for this year’s draft and will fall to the 2021 draft. Indications are that he will be enrolling at Michigan next season and playing his draft year in the NCAA.
Chaz Lucius, Forward, US NTDP U17, Committed to Minnesota
The elder half of the infamous Lucius brothers, whose parents took the perfectly normal step of building an indoor hockey rink at their house and also starting a hockey-focused private school, as one does, to help the boys become the youngest commits in University of Minnesota history.
Lucius has emerged as the top forward scoring threat on the NTDP U17s this season, putting up a Cy Young-worthy scoring line of 22-6-28 in 21 games so far this season. As the unique scoring line suggests, Lucius will be an interesting, and possibly divisive prospect in his draft year. His overall 200-foot game is not spectacular, and he doesn’t create a lot of offensive opportunities for himself or others, but he is excellent at getting himself into good positions to score, can shoot the puck well, and has excellent hands in tight areas to make plays near the goal. Nobody is going to complain too much about what a guy does on the other ends of the ice if he comes away with a goal of his own every night, and if he is paired with a skilled playmaker, he has the potential to put up big numbers.