It's a month later than usual, but after a season like none other the 2021 NHL Draft might be the biggest indicator yet that normal is just a few months away.
Here are 5 things to keep in mind ahead of the first selections on Friday night.
1. The Class
Excluding goaltenders in this category (more on that at No. 3), there are between 10 and 12 prospects who have separated themselves from the rest of the Draft. The Devils, of course, picking at No. 4, will get one of those players. The next dozen or so is more volatile but it's in the 20s when things will start to get interesting. The pandemic has had a one-off effect on the evaluation process that has given rise to the feeling to expect the unexpected from about No. 22 onwards on Friday night and all day on Saturday. It's not that NHL clubs are guessing - quite the contrary - it's that there is little consensus this season. Throw in the effect of an expansion draft a few days before and a flat salary cap, there could also be more trades. In the near-term, the players taken this year will require patience. "I don't think any players taken this year will be ready for the NHL next year," said Red Line Report chief scout, Kyle Woodlief. But consider one of Woodlief's other comments during a recent chat: "There are going to be players this year taken later, the fourth, fifth round, when we look back in a couple years, we are all going to say, 'this player should have been taken a lot earlier, (even) in the first round for some guys,'" opined Woodlief.
2. Family Ties
Written about in this space last month, the tendency for sons of former NHLers, and brothers in the League, is at an all-time high. On top of that, the Devils have one half of the most brother combinations playing in the NHL by a wide margin. Both lists will grow this weekend; Cole Sillinger (Mike) and Mason McTavish (Dale) will be the first two in the father-son category; Mike Sillinger was a long-time NHLer, while Dale McTavish played mostly in Switzerland but also briefly for the Calgary Flames. It's not a complete list but a sampling of other sons who should be picked on Friday/Saturday includes Josh Doan (Shane), Justin Robidas (Stephane), Red Savage (Brian), Ryan St. Louis (Martin) and Chase Stillman (dad Corey, brother Riley). As for other brothers, Luke Hughes (Jack) and Brandt Clarke (Graeme) have Devils-connections and should both go in the top 10, while from around the League Colton Dach (Kirby) is expected is to be drafted early on Saturday.
The Stanley Cup Final had an interesting contrast in the crease. For Montreal, the Canadiens were backstopped by Carey Price, who was taken fifth overall in 2005. Andrei Vasilevskiy was in net for Tampa Bay and won the Conn Smythe Trophy. He went at 19 in 2012 and wasn't even the Lightning's first selection that year (they took Slater Koekkoek at No. 10). Think some GMs and scouting directors wouldn't mind a do-over from nine years ago? From a Devils perspective, getting Mackenzie Blackwood at No. 42 in 2015 was a shrewd selection and another example of a goalie who, frankly, should have went higher. This year, there are two outstanding goalie prospects in Jesper Wallstedt and Sebastian Cossa. How will things break on Friday night - will the recent trend of goalies falling down the board continue? Or will it be more like 16 years ago, when a future star such as Price was taken much earlier?
4. Injuries and late-2002 birthdays
The 2012 NHL Draft also had another oddity to it that hampered clubs scouting efforts: an unusual number of top prospects were injured, many for long stretches. It made evaluation difficult and there was an increased risk in a process that is always dicey even in a normal year. Though not as extensive, the injured/COVID list this season was significant. Luke Hughes missed time, including the World Under-18 Championship. William Eklund missed both the World Junior and the senior Worlds. Hughes' USNTDP teammate, Chaz Lucius, lost most of the season. Two Canadians, Cole Sillinger and Carson Lambos, were slam dunks to play in the U18s but ended up missing the tournament. And there was another element that was amplified because of the pandemic: late-born 2002 players who couldn't play in the U18s because they had outgrown the competition. Given that the U18s was the most prominent live-viewing opportunity in a season with so many interruptions, it deprived scouts another chance to see some top prospects in the flesh as much as they would normally like. If that weren't enough, the Michigan Big Three - Owen Power, Matthew Beniers and Kent Johnson - had their Frozen Four hopes dashed on the eve of the tournament because of COVID protocols, though Power (Canada) and Beniers (USA) got to play for their country at the senior worlds.
5. Canadian Hockey League's (interrupted) season
Canada got hammered with an unexpectedly chaotic second and third wave of COVID-19. As a result, the Ontario Hockey League cancelled its season and the Western and Quebec leagues had drastically reduced schedules. The CHL's Memorial Cup tournament - an interleague national championship - was scrubbed for the second straight season. Scouting the 60-team, three-circuit league was not easy and made worse by a closed Canada-U.S. land border. Consider that 20 of 50 Devils picks since 2015 came from the CHL and that about half of club's NHL roster came through either the OHL, QMJHL or WHL, it's easy to see the short-term negative effect on that talent pipeline. In the short term, it's not unreasonable to assume that there will be fewer selections out of the CHL in 2021, and more from U.S. college (of schools that played), the USHL and in Europe. But on the flip side, as pandemic restrictions in Canada ease and with the expectation of a return to normal for 2021-22, there could be some interesting re-entry prospects next year at the Draft in Montreal, or even the potential for unheralded free agents to "bubble up" in development/training camps later this summer.