The 2021 National Hockey League Draft will be held virtually from July 23-24. The Edmonton Oilers hold five picks in the Draft, beginning with the 20th-overall selection. Stay tuned to EdmontonOilers.com from now until the event for consistent coverage.
EDMONTON, AB - Two titles in a pandemic-shortened season is nothing to scoff at; neither is the repertoire of Kitchener Rangers forward Francesco Pinelli.
The 15th-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting showed similar flexibility navigating the lack of a 2020-21 OHL season to that of his own on-ice skillset as an intelligent two-way and special-teams contributor with exceptional hockey sense.
The benefits could show at Friday's Draft for Pinelli in a selection ceremony ripe with risk and reward for general managers and scouting departments around the NHL - including those of the Edmonton Oilers - with less data and in-person observations to go off than seasons prior.
A high hockey IQ, excellent positional play and work ethic affords Pinelli plenty of ability as a defensively sound player in his own end cutting off passes and winning puck battles.
"He has the small-area skills to make checkers miss and the vision to make plays off the flank and under pressure," said The Athletic NHL Prospect Writer Corey Pronman. "He competes well enough to win puck battles even if he's not overly physical."
The strength of his skating ability comes from his direct approach of driving at defenders when attacking the offensive zone in transition, taking shots off the rush and showing that innate hockey sense to make quick passes to teammates and occupy the right areas when not in possession.
"He may not be real explosive off the mark, but he's super slippery and deceptive, especially with the puck," Rangers GM and head coach Mike McKenzie said to The Athletic's Scott Wheeler.
"His strength is his offensive ability: his shooting, his scoring ability, the accuracy of his shot, his hockey sense. He's a really smart player who understands the game and really knows where to go to create offence," McKenzie said.
Pinelli also boasts the talent to play centre or on the wing, with the latter of which not being his natural position and taking up the bulk of his duties during a rookie 2019-20 OHL campaign with the Rangers of 18 goals and 41 points in 59 games.
"We always have the mentality, especially with our first-round picks, that we want them to show us they can't do it rather than they can do it," added McKenzie.
"That was one thing we talked to him about right away was really giving him a chance to play with some older guys in our top group. And he just ran with it."
The impressive total put him third for points for under-17 talent to only 2022-eligible standout Shane Wright (60) and fellow 2021 draft-eligible prospect Mason McTavish (42).
Pinelli garnered extra game time in Europe during the OHL shutdown with Slovenian side HDD Jesenice, where he'd tally five goals and 11 points in 13 games in the Alps Hockey League - a professional circuit consisting of teams scattered through Slovenia, Austria and Italy. The six-foot, 185-pound forward would play two more playoff games for Jesenice in the Slovenian Hockey League, scoring one goal, as the side earned its fourth domestic title in seven seasons.
He would not have time for celebrations, however, as he was back on North American soil in Plano, Texas to play a key role in Canada's National Men's Under-18 Team's first gold medal at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship since 2013.
Pinelli was slotted back into his natural centre position by Team Canada head coach Dave Barr and finished tied for seventh in tournament scoring with four goals and 11 points in seven games, including a hat-trick Player of the Game performance in Canada's final round-robin matchup against Switzerland that saw him bury two rebounds, a powerful wrister, and record an assist.
"He cares," Barr said post-game. "He's a good, skilled player who cares about what he's doing for the team, how he's affecting things. He's always willing to try to do what we're asking him. He understands the role of centremen - in d-zone coverage when it's in our zone - and the importance of what his role will be."
A less than stellar defensive game from Pinelli and his country in the prior contest against Latvia, where its forecheck smothered Canada for most of the game despite the 4-2 result, made the response that much more impressive.
"I stayed focused, I stayed positive, and if coach called on me today, I was ready to play," said Pinelli. "I just came out, skated well, moved pucks, and my mindset was a good one going into this game."
Pinelli is expected to return to Kitchener next season with high expectations as an important centre in the club's top-six, but where he goes in the Draft - and what NHL team takes a chance on him from what they've seen in limited sample sizes - remains in question.
"It's our job to, as a scout and as an organization, go out and find these players - whether you're playing right now or not," said Oilers Director of Amateur Scouting Tyler Wright. "If that means you go through the Draft or get taken later in the rounds, everybody wants to be as high as you possibly can go, but this doesn't define you as a player or as a person. This is just the starting process.
"Everybody that we're picking hits a criterion for us, and now it's our responsibility to make sure we give them all the resources to be able to exploit that. To become a better, physically and mentally, player and get them ready for the Edmonton Oilers."
Images courtesy of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.