It's almost time for school, kids.
The little ones will grab their cool new backpacks. Teenagers will be looking to navigate another year of high school with a mix of excitement and nerves. College students will be eager to discover themselves and start their lives.
Only one student in the world will be able to boast that he was the number one pick in the NHL draft, however. That’s Owen Power as he attends his sophomore year at the University of Michigan hoping to help the Wolverines hockey team achieve the goal of winning a National Championship.
This marks the first time since 2006 that a first overall pick does not play in the NHL right away. Back then, top pick Erik Johnson elected to attend the University of Minnesota, with the Blues bringing him in the following season after a successful freshman campaign registering 24 points in 41 games.
While some in both media and fandom have latched onto the conspiracy theory-esque storyline that Power is avoiding the Buffalo Sabres as a whole, this isn’t the case. The patient approach may be exactly what the young Canadian defenseman needs.
Power was very good, but not truly dominant, at the University of Michigan last season thanks to his outstanding skating and an impressive variety of tools in all three zones. His 6’6” frame is what immediately attracts talent evaluators but it is his ability to turn up ice with control of the puck that makes him special. Power generates - get this - power through his stride, working through the neutral zone with a commanding presence.
Power has a willingness to make passes into high danger in the offensive zone that many defenders avoid out of fear of making a mistake. He has a good shot from the blueline but is truly at his most effective when penetrating from the point. He plays fearlessly which can at times lead to some mistakes. There has been moments where Power has a bit of a concerning giveaway or he skates himself into the corner with no escape plan.
Power's defensive game follows much of the same theme of toolsy yet incomplete. He has the sense of mind to utilize his frame and length defending the rush but can get caught leaning forward a bit at times. This can lead to unbalance which speedy, skilled forwards will - and have - taken advantage of.
With that said, he is more than happy to lean into a player along the boards or put himself in the skater's path with his mobility. He has shown the ability to outmuscle players in the corners as well but the propensity for having the knowledge of what to do ‘next’ has been the biggest question in his game.
All of this is to say that Power has all of the tools that you would like to see in a top-flight prospect. He just needs to organize his toolbox. He is an excellent skater. His passing is crisp and clean. His size and strength are certainly not lacking. He defends well, using his size and speed to cut plays down quickly. He just needs to bring it all together at once.
This is precisely why it was a great move by Power, his team and the Buffalo Sabres to make the decision for him to stay in college. Refinement is key. 18-year-old defenders rarely make the impact that they are expected to because defending at the NHL level requires an incredible level of nuance and understanding of the game.
On top of the added development time at a level he’s shown well at, Power is getting the chance to chase down the elusive national title after Michigan was forced out of the NCAA Tournament before playing a game due to COVID popping up in the locker room.
Power being able establish a winning culture for himself will do him a service as he enters the Sabres organization, in need of turning their culture around.
There are also the contractual benefits for the Sabres that become possible. Should Power decide not to sign with the Sabres after the NCAA season, he would be pushing his rights as an unrestricted free agent back a year as well. This effectively means that Power would be under team control a year longer than most first overall picks. Depending on how far the Wolverines go this season, he may run out of time to sign his entry-level deal.
If he does sign at the end of the season, we could see a situation similar to Quinn Hughes, another former Wolverine, where he plays in a few games towards the end of the season which could burn a year of his entry-level contract. This saves the team on performance bonuses and escalators that they won’t have to payout. In a pandemic where most owners are scrambling to save any bit of money, this could be a win for the club.
We’ve come to expect first overall picks to walk into the NHL and become dominant players. Fans and media alike have thrown development out the window in search of instant gratification in recent years. When that gratification isn’t provided, observers becomes impatient. Progress isn’t linear. Patience is key.
Blessed with recent phenoms such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the NHL has become spoiled. Not every first overall pick is going to be those players. Jack Hughes rebounded with a strong sophomore year after a rookie year that looked shaky. Alexis Lafreniere had an up-and-down rookie season last year. Dominance as a teenager is a rarity.
Power made the right decision to head back to school. He will have the opportunity to experience a year playing college athletics with a bit more normalcy, he furthers his education, and at the end of the day, he’s not forced into a situation with the sky-high expectations that he will surely have placed on him.
He will develop and refine his skills with the Wolverines. He will likely play for Canada at the World Junior Championship over the holidays. He will have the opportunity to win a national championship. At the end of the day, we could even see him in a few NHL contests to end the season.
There isn’t much more a player in Power’s position could ask for, so back to school he goes with his Buffalo Sabres lunchbox.