As the NHL heads toward the end of the 2019-20 campaign, those in the playoff picture have visions of deep runs and Stanley Cup glory. Those on the outside looking in, however, have their sights set on a draft lottery victory and the chance to select one of the supremely talented youngsters available at the top end of the 2020 draft.
But once the draft is through and one lucky club walks away with Alexis Lafrenière or Quinton Byfield, the attention of clubs who are in for another campaign spent at the bottom of the NHL's standings will shift to the 2021 draft and the talented prospects who could hear their name called early that June. And several of those players are suiting up in the CHL, most of them skating in their rookie campaigns. Generally, a player has one season to play in the CHL before their draft-eligible year, a chance to get their feet wet before the formal audition process of the draft year.
So, who are those players? Here's a look at nine of the top CHL rookies who will be draft-eligible in 2021, which means they were born between Sept. 16, 2002 and Sept. 15, 2003. That means arguably the best rookie in the CHL, Shane Wright, won't be found below. He won't be draft eligible until 2022.
Brandt Clarke, D, Barrie Colts
Considering no other defenseman in his draft class has more than 11 points on the season, Clarke's 35-point total is elite. He made his mark in the U17 World Hockey Championship in November, tying for second among all defensemen with six points in five games. He also has flashes of defensive brilliance, but Clarke will need to become most consistent in his own zone next season while maintaining his offensive prowess. Clarke draws comparisons to another Colt great, Aaron Ekblad.
Mason McTavish, F, Peterborough Petes
McTavish hasn’t found a consistent spot within the Petes lineup, instead bounced around from line to line. Whatever line he is on, though, he tends to score. Although he’s cooled slightly in the second half of the season as a result of the Petes gaining more scoring depth at the deadline, McTavish remains a big part of their future. A natural goal scorer, he potted 47 last season to lead his AAA league and has continued that trend this season with 24 goals prior to Jan. 1 this season. Consistency will be key for the youngster moving forward.
Francesco Pinelli, LW, Kitchener Rangers
Pinelli has been a big part of a strong Kitchener Rangers team this season. He’s found himself at home on the left side of the ice, playing mainly on the first or third line. He started to heat up in the new year and has been a game-in and game-out contributor. Pinelli plays well in all three zones and is working to become a more complete player. With the potential for a long run in the playoffs this spring, Pinelli will have a chance to step up when the lights are brightest.
Isaac Belliveau, D, Rimouski Oceanic
Belliveau has been a dynamo for the Oceanic. He has quarterbacked the league’s top power play and leads all defensemen in points on the man advantage. His hockey IQ is through the roof, which is part of the reason he’s found so much time on that top unit with Alexis Lafreniere and Cedric Pare. Next season’s progress will be key for Belliveau, if only to see how much his stats were influenced by the presence of projected top pick Lafreniere.
Zachary L'Heureux, LW, Moncton Wildcats
Moncton has been on fire in the second half of the season and their offense has been a big part of that. But it has led L’Heureux to being slightly overshadowed. He sits seventh in team scoring, despite scoring at a rate just below one point-per-game. L’Heureux has bounced around the lineup and recently saw time on the fourth line, but he's still finding ways to produce. He’ll see an increased role next season when key pieces depart and a deep playoff run this season is all but guaranteed. He’s primed to have quite the resume heading into draft day.
Joshua Roy, C, Saint John Sea Dogs
The first-overall pick in the 2019 QMJHL draft has proven worthy of that selection. Roy is poised to become a leader on a team in Saint John that recently clinched a playoff berth. His hands are silky smooth and he never gives up on a play. He is elusive in the offensive zone, finding the right place to be in the right time. More points will come next season as confidence and his role on the team grow.
Dylan Guenther, RW, Edmonton Oil Kings
The WHL’s first-overall pick in 2018 has been exquisite this season for the league-leading Edmonton Oil Kings. Guenther has been a fixture on a line with overager Riley Sawchuk and Jake Neighbours, who is set to go in the first or second round of this year’s draft. Guenther has been remarkably consistent for a player his age. Only once since early October has Guenther gone two consecutive games without a point. He’s got incredible hockey sense and a shot to match. He’s likely to be selected in the top half of the first round of the 2021 NHL draft.
Carson Lambos, D, Winnipeg Ice
Lambos is a rock defensively. He leads the Ice in plus-minus and his defensive IQ is high. Lambos credits his off-ice training as the main factor of his on-ice success. He had a strong showing at theU17 Hockey Challenge, recording five points in six games. His production in the WHL has slowed since he posted 10 points through his first 12 games, but he's been a fixture in the top-four this season. He will be looking to blossom into Winnipeg's No. 1 defenseman next season.
Cole Sillinger, LW, Medicine Hat Tigers
The youngest son of the player who suited up for the most NHL teams in history, Mike Sillinger, has looked brilliant in Medicine Hat. Sillinger missed 10 games due to injury, but returned to great fanfare with a three-point performance in Regina. He's primarily played on the second line and is the third-highest scorer on that line. He is working on cracking the 20-goal and 50-point plateaus.
Brett Harrison, C, Oshawa Generals, OHL
At 6-foot-3, Harrison is a big boy, but he needs to fill out his frame. Confidence is growing in the goal-scoring centre; he was the third rookie to hit 20-goals this year in the 'O.' A potential Memorial Cup berth could help his stock.
Xavier Bourgault, C, Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL
Not a rookie, but Bourgault won't be drafted until 2021 due to his late birthday. He’s got more than 30 goals and 30 assists in his sophomore campaign after a seven-goal, 20-point freshman season.
Conner Roulette, LW, Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL
Roulette has been one of the bright spots for a mediocre Thunderbirds squad. He’ll likely be only one of three twenty goal scorers on the roster and is the lone player with a plus-minus that's in the double digits.
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