Detroit Red Wings prioritizing talent, not positional needs in ‘most unpredictable’ draft

Detroit Free Press

The first round of the 2021 NHL draft promises to be an interesting one, as the league’s 32 teams — with the addition of the Seattle Kraken this month — have faced pandemic-induced challenges in scouting over the past year and a half.

Those hurdles haven’t altered the approach of Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, though. He holds 10 picks, including two in Friday’s first round. The Wings, even with Thursday’s acquisition of promising young goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, need help at every position. They especially need a player who can give a big boost to the rebuild.

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“We’re going to pick what we think is the best prospect, who has the most potential, with the sixth pick, regardless of position,” Yzerman said. “Where we are at and where we are picking, and the age of the kids — it’s too hard to draft for a specific need.

“I’m not involved in the NFL or maybe even the NBA — well, I’m definitely not involved in them — but I think they’re similar (to each other). Their draft choices are older. They’re 21, 22, 23 years of age. They’re men. They’re not teenagers. You have a better idea of where they are going to play the next year, so you can draft more specifically for a need or a position. I believe in our position, or in the NHL, you take who you feel is the best prospect. And you try to balance it all out with your depth chart of prospects, but ultimately, especially in the first round, you need to go with the best prospect.”

The Wings hold 10 picks. They make their first selection at No. 6, and then again in the first round at No. 23, followed by second rounders at Nos. 38 and 48, a third-rounder at No. 70 and picks Nos. 102, 128, 134, 138 and 166 in the fourth-seventh rounds. (And to add to the process, the NHL penalized the Arizona Coyotes for combine testing violations by taking away their first-round pick, moving every pick but No. 6 for the Wings up one position.)

Yzerman expressed confidence in director of amateur scouting Kris Draper and the myriad of scouts the Wings have spread across North America and Europe. “Kris and his staff have been very diligent and very thorough and really done the best they could,” Yzerman said. “But ultimately, I would guess this draft class is the most unpredictable.”

There is consensus that Michigan defenseman Owen Power will be the No. 1 overall selection by the Buffalo Sabres. Beyond that, who knows?

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Michigan forward Matty Beniers will probably be gone by the time the Wings pick, along with NTDP defenseman Luke Hughes and Swedish defenseman Simon Edvinsson. But there will be a good player available at No. 6.

Michigan’s Kent Johnson (6-feet-1, 184 pounds) is a center/left wing with an offensive flair. He has a sky-high hockey IQ and is a good shooter, passer and skater. Mason McTavish (6-1, 207) is another center/winger; he’s a powerful skater and solid two-way player who isn’t shy about mixing it up. Forward Dylan Guenther (6-1, 175) is an agile scorer who likes to shoot and has a knack for stepping up at key moments. Forward William Eklund (5-10, 176) was named rookie of the year in the Swedish Hockey League. He’s equal parts speed and skill, and reads the the ice well.

Brandt Clarke (6-2, 185) is a skilled defenseman, but if there’s any area in which the Wings have a degree of depth, it’s right-shot defensive prospects.

Jesper Wallstedt (6-3, 214) is projected to be the first goaltender selected. He’s an 18-year-old who played at the top level of the Swedish Hockey League. He potentially is a franchise goalie, but it’s more likely that the Wings use their first pick on a skater.

Over the past week, Yzerman has traded away a third-round pick for Nedeljkovic and a second-round pick for veteran defenseman Nick Leddy. It’s possible Yzerman will use another of his picks to move up in the draft, or add more picks by sliding down. But that usually happens during the draft, as Yzerman noted, “When you see how things are playing out.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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