Why COVID-19 Made the 2021 Draft Class the Toughest to Scout in Years

Some prospects could only be scouted on video. Others didn't get to play organized hockey at all this past season. The 2021 draft class thus projects to have far more variance than others in recent memory.
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Dylan Guenther

Imagine you’re the Anaheim Ducks, fresh off a third consecutive playoff miss and having posted the lowest points percentage in franchise history in 2020-21. You’re desperate for reinforcements, clutching to the third-overall pick in the 2021 draft. You use that selection on, for instance, right winger Dylan Guenther, whose 2020-21 sample size in the WHL was 12 games. Yes, 12 games. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHL had no playoffs and reduced its season to 24 games, half of which Guenther played, with games also sprinkled between the Albert Junior League and under-18 World Championship. So a franchise pins its hopes on what it believes is a great player with a miniscule recent sample size.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning saunter into the virtual draft on day 2 after a lovely, long night of sleep, not making their first selection until the end of the third round, having traded their top two picks in 2021. They select a player few scouts got to see much of this year, perhaps because he plays in the OHL, which had no season. Since there’s no draft combine, either, most teams don’t realize how much stronger this kid has gotten over the past year. He turns out to be a sleeping giant, and the Lightning steal a star in the mid rounds. Sorry, Anaheim. This is awkward.

That kind of scenario could play out in the 2021 draft because the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented impact on scouting. With fewer games to study and more difficulty attending games, it’s never been harder to corral accurate information, and we could therefore see unpredictable results.

“I grew so much between 17 and 18 – ­I changed dramatically,” said Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis. “And a lot of these kids will do that, so you’d like to have that opportunity to see not only where they are physically but where they are on the ice, and we’re not going to have that opportunity. I was talking with some of the GMs, and they’re saying you might get a better player in the fourth round than you get in the first round based on these unfortunate circumstances.”

Pretty much every element of scouting is impacted by COVID. The most obvious obstacle is the inability to see as many games live. Not only have many prospects around the world played far fewer games, but safety measures have made it more difficult to travel from venue to venue and gain traditional arena access. Head scouts have to trust their area scouts far more than normal to champion certain players, one NHL team executive explains, because it’s tougher for the top dogs to travel to games. Teams obviously have to rely on video analysis far more than usual, too. The good news: the quality is better than ever even compared to just five years ago, with crystal-clear streams available even for the KHL, Swedish League and Finnish league overseas, and one NHL scout estimates every single game that was played was filmed this season. But certain nuances get missed when a scout can’t see a player live – especially when evaluating defensemen, who often do important work behind the play.

“It's hard sometimes to see the whole ice, and that’s the problem with video,” said one NHL team executive. “The puck could be in the other team’s end, and you probably don't have all 12 players on the ice in the picture. You might have five or six or you might have seven or eight, depending on where the puck is.”

Even if some teams are able to have their scouts physically present, there is still far less hockey to watch. It was less of a problem in Europe, where the KHL, SHL and Liiga teams overcame some COVID-19 stoppages to complete full regular-season schedules with the exceptions of a few teams and finished their playoffs. In North America, however? Plenty of NCAA programs cancelled their seasons altogether, including the entire Ivy League. In the QMJHL, teams played anywhere from 27 to 40 games before the playoffs commenced. The WHL had no playoffs, and the OHL had no season. Players from the latter were thus at a significant disadvantage trying to find places to play. Prospects such as Brandt Clarke went to the Slovakian League.

But in general, it wasn’t the elite prospects who were the most impacted this season. According to Octagon Hockey agent and co-managing director Allan Walsh, who represents projected 2021 draftees such as Zachary L’Heureux and Tomas Suchanek, the highly touted kids, on top of whatever season schedules they’re able to play, still get plenty of eyeballs on them thanks to tournament invites such as the world under-18s in Texas, media coverage and the fact teams have been proactive setting up interviews. We’ve also seen North American junior outfits stage prospect showcases in an effort to get the kids more reps. Some OHLers staged their own unofficial showcase, the PBHH Invitational in Erie, Penn, beginning in late May.

But what happens to the kids who don’t get invites to these showcases or elite tournaments? They could slip through the cracks, especially players from the OHL.

“We see it every single year: players will come onto the scene who are not very well known, not highly touted, who come into a showcase, come into a tournament, come into a playoff series, and everyone is like, ‘Wow, look at this kid, where did he come from?’ ” Walsh said. “All of a sudden, they get a lot of attention, get a lot of coverage and maybe people start reading about them, and they’re high risers on all of the draft rankings. That opportunity is much more limited this year.”

As a result, we could see far more ‘Tanner Pearsons,’ a.k.a. prospects passed over as 18-year-olds who get do-overs next season and could rise up the rankings significantly as 19-year-olds. Walsh predicts we’ll see the most 19-year-olds in NHL history chosen in the 2022 draft. It’ll enhance an already strong looking class, one NHL team executive said. We could also get an usually high number of undrafted players showing up at rookie camps to compete for jobs. There’s just so much more variance this season with far less information by which scouts can judge players. Walsh points out that, with COVID-19 impacting the end of the scouting calendar last year, we had first-round shockers like the Columbus Blue Jackets grabbing Yegor Chinakhov, who was so far off most draft boards that on-air analysts were scrambling in real time to find information on him. We may see similar “surprise” selections in 2021 as talent projections differ widely from team to team depending on how they’ve navigated player evaluation during this abnormal year.

So will the 2021 draft go down as a less accurate year for the scouts than normal? Maybe and maybe not, according to Dallas Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell.

“I don’t think you’re going to see more first-round busts,” he said. “I think through video and the world under-18s, and with your scouts in every region, the first round is going to be pretty good. I think you’re going to see more late-round picks will turn out relatively good, just because of lack of viewings. The later-round names are going to come down to who has more info and viewings on those kids.”

This is an updated version of a feature that appeared in the 2021 Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine.

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