One week from today, the NHL will conduct the remainder of the 2021 entry draft, with rounds 2-7 taking place online July 24.
Because there is so much expected variance between the 32 clubs with the Seattle Kraken joining the draft fray, the term “sleeper” will likely take on a whole new meaning. Against the backdrop of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, teams have a significantly less sample size across the board than they normally possess going in. This is where scouts with trust and influence within certain regions of the globe can make an impact by making successful cases for players who might not be sure projections to be drafted.
A trifecta of New England forwards could fit that bill in seven days by hearing their names called in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft. Even if it doesn’t happen for them in 2021, all three of Matt Copponi, Tim Delay and JP Turner have the potential to be second-year eligible picks in 2022.
2021 NHL Entry Draft sleepers
Matt Copponi, center, Dexter Southfield/Neponset Valley River Rats 18 (Mansfield, Mass.)
5-11/165, right shot, 6/4/03
NEHJ NHL final draft ranking: 7
Committed to Merrimack, is a prep standout who brings the kind of competitive drive and energy that gets much more out of his average-sized frame than most. The classic “plays bigger than his size” player, Copponi is noticeable for his ability to track, hunt and disrupt. He plays a mature, refined game for one so young, and the plan is for him to go to school right away instead of taking a year of seasoning in juniors. While that might be a cause for concern with some players, just watching the way Copponi hounds pucks and finishes his checks while bringing good details and habits means that he will likely be able to slot into a lower-line role with the Warriors. With a sneaky-good offensive skill set, he has plenty of time to work himself into a more prominent role going forward. He’s been on the radar for a while now.
“I like the way Copponi competes and gets to the middle of the ice,” said one New England-based Western Conference NHL scout. “He plays in straight lines and plays the right way. Good body language, coachable kid.”
NEHJ draft prediction: Prep games were limited in New England, but he got some looks with the Neponset Valley River Rats program. NHL clubs could do far worse than taking a flier pick on a reliable, hard-working and versatile player with upside, which is what Copponi has in spades. Sixth round looks about right.
Tim Delay, center, St. Sebastian’s/Boston Jr. Eagles 18 (Hingham, Mass.)
6-1/170, right shot, 6/16/03
NEHJ NHL final draft ranking: 8
The size and skating combination has opened the NHL draft door for Delay. He’s got an explosive first couple of steps and gets up and down the ice with speed, plus some east-west wiggle. When he’s going, he jumps out at you right away, so the biggest thing for Delay going forward will be to sustain a high pace and effort level, because he has the ability to score consistently off the rush. With a smooth set of hands, he can also finish in tight, but when the game collapses down in the defensive zone, Delay isn’t always able to match that pure, dynamic quickness to find seams and get to the net. He committed to Boston College in 2018.
“He looks like a player,” said an Eastern Conference NHL scout. “Guys who move like he does but also possess the length and puck skills are hard to find. I wonder how well he sees it and thinks it, sometimes. And, the lack of exposure with no prep season hurt his case.”
NEHJ draft prediction: Classic project and boom-or-bust type power forward that NHL teams are more likely to roll the dice on than not. The modern pro game is all about the ability to get up and down the ice, and few from the region do it better than Delay does. If he can up the consistency as he gets stronger, Delay has legitimate long-term potential. Sixth or seventh round…but a wild card to break into the late fifth if a team likes him enough.
JP Turner, center, Sioux Falls/Avon Old Farms (Falmouth, Mass.)
5-11/190, right shot, 1/31/03
NEHJ NHL final draft ranking: 9
Timing is everything, and unfortunately for Turner, playing in the USHL this season was a mixed bag of results for him. The hard-nosed, highly-regarded prep player out of Avon Old Farms was drafted by Sioux Falls in the USHL 2019 futures draft, but came into the team with a new head coach in Marty Murray. With a younger team in 2020-21, Turner had a tougher time out of the gate. He’s not a dynamic skater and had to adjust to the speed/pace of the junior game. The University of New Hampshire-bound Turner has a good shot and competes/goes hard to the net. Even though he got some successful prep games in, with just four goals in 21 USHL games and not a lot of consistent ice time, it was a tough season.
“He was the top guy in prep coming into the fall,” said a Western Conference NHL scout based in the Midwest. “He can score and win battles. He competes hard and is in a lot of plays. I think his time in the USHL showed he will need to upgrade his skating.”
NEHJ draft prediction: If Turner gets drafted it will likely be late in the seventh round. However, he’s the kind of project player scouts tend to be passionate about because he works hard and makes plays despite the lack of skating. With the pure will and effort, he has a chance to be a pro, but realistically, the draft might not be a viable path for him. The USHL was faster and more skilled this past season because of all the college and top major junior and tier II players from Canada who sought refuge from coronavirus restrictions.