Sources: The Athletic, Dobber Prospects, Elite Prospects, FC Hockey, Last Word on Sports, Lines, Recruit Scouting, Scouching Report, Smaht Scouting, The Draft Analyst, The Hockey News, The Hockey Writers
The Blackhawks clearly went for size in the 2021 draft. The only small player is the last pick Jalen Luypen in the 7th round who is 5'10" 155 pounds. While similar in height, Victor Stjernborg is much heavier at over 200 pounds. Regardless of size, both play with a ton of moxie.
Kirby Dach's younger brother Colton is just as big as the former 3rd overall pick but more of a power forward with a cannon of a shot. Russian pivot Ilya Safonov has an almost identical frame as Colton Dach but plays more like Brandon Hagel with less offensive talent.
Including 1st round pick Nolan Allan, the Hawks also went for massive and strong shutdown defenders to balance out the puck movers in the system. Taige Harding, Ethan Del Mastro, and Connor Kelley play with giddyup and gumption to manage gaps, disrupt plays, and battle 1-on-1.
All four of them are able to contribute to a transition game with at least a strong pass out to clear the zone or a carry to the far blueline. From there, though, don't expect much from any of them offensively besides the occasional assist or point shot for a tally.
If I had to select a gem from the 2021 draft class, it would be Del Mastro by virtue of his potential of having the highest ceiling. He's by no means a #1 defenseman in waiting due to sparse offensive contributions but could emerge as the team's premier shutdown defender.
Colton Dach (C/W)
Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Like 2020 1st rounder Lukas Reichel, Dach can play all forward positions. Dach gravitates to the net and can wreak havoc there or wherever there's traffic. He has a knack of knowing where to be in the offensive zone and engaging himself in puck wars to gain possession.
In interviews Colton admits that he's shoot-first while Kirby is pass-first. Colton not only gets a lot of power behind his shots but he also has pinpoint accuracy especially when trying to fool the goalie. Despite having a shooter's mentality, his passing is on the mark, too.
Where Colton needs improvement are his skating and play without the puck but fixing the former should address the latter as he's already willing to engage defensively but gets beat by more agile opponents. Enhanced acceleration and edge work would amp up his skating.
Like Kirby, Colton can also struggle with stickhandling around defenders. When pressured he can be forced easily into fumbling the puck so it may help to simplify his entries and rushes. Using his body to barrel through checks as he chips the puck ahead could help, too.
Taige Harding (D)
Fort McMurray Oil Barons (AJHL)
The Hawks traded up by sending one of their three 2022 3rd round picks to the Hurricanes to gain a 2021 3rd round pick that they lacked. With that new pick, the Hawks selected a behemoth in Harding who adds even more size in the D pipeline along with Alex Vlasic and Louis Crevier.
The Scotsman is simply huge using that size to his advantage on defense. Add his abrasive style and he's a lot for the opposition to get around in order to create offense. Despite mediocre skating, he's somehow an escape artist evading forecheckers and moving the puck out.
Harding is able to utilize his long wingspan to cover a large swath of any zone whether to block passing lanes, force the puck carrier to the outside, reach for and poke pucks, and disrupt developing plays. On offense, his main weapon is a booming howitzer from the point.
His father Mike Harding has an extensive hockey background. Mike was drafted in 1991 by the Hartford Whalers but never played in the NHL. He played 4 years in the NCAA at Northern Michigan University and a few seasons in the AHL and ECHL before playing in British leagues.
Ethan Del Mastro (D)
Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
Del Mastro is viewed as one of the best defensive defenseman in the draft. He can log loads of ice time and be charged with neutralizing the other team's offensive lines. While not fast, he's a powerful skater with superb edges which aid in his escability with the puck.
With his mobility Del Mastro is able to take away time and space while adding a layer of intimidation with his physicality. He's equally adept at wielding an active stick to disrupt plays, rubbing players out along the boards, blocking shots, and keeping plays to the outside.
Even though his offense is sparse, Del Mastro has sufficient skill to be part of a mobile D corps by making passes to clear the zone or skating the puck out by himself. He defers a little too much to teammates on offense but he gets his shots low for tips and redirects.
One area for improvement for Del Mastro is sadly a hallmark of the Blackhawks current team defensive play: chasing the puck too much rather than focusing on protecting the high danger areas like the faceoff circles and slot.
Victor Stjernborg (C/W)
Vaxjo Lakers (Sweden)
Stjernborg doesn't play a big game but executes on the small things to help teams win: manage gaps, contain the rush, disrupt plays, dish out hits, block shots, and win faceoffs. He oozes leadership capacity as a foot soldier willing to do whatever is asked of him and get results.
A prototypical 4th liner, Stjernborg is someone who coaches lean on in key defensive situations. One of his greatest attributes is playing with control so he can smartly defend any type of play, sometimes in unorthodox ways. It's also no surprise that he's a PK specialist.
While he may be a shade under 6 foot, Stjernborg is built like a fire hydrant and strong as a bull. He can wrestle opponents off of pucks or just lay somebody out. Quick and nimble on his skates, Stjernborg uses his endless motor to attack in waves at both ends of the ice.
Even though he's deficient in playmaking and finishing ability, Stjernborg makes up for it in creating space, engaging along the boards, and digging out pucks. He gives his all each shift leveraging his speed to hustle on defense and play with pace offensively.
Ilya Safonov (C)
Kazan Ak-Bars (KHL)
An overager at 20, Safonov may be finally hitting his stride towards developing into an impact player. He's strong on the puck, skates fluidly, and owns underrated vision and hockey sense demonstrated by his cerebral playmaking that's starting to pay dividends.
Play in Safonov's own end could use refinement but he at least exhibits a gritty competitiveness to make an impact no matter where he is on the ice. Despite having limited offense that relegates him to a 4th line role, Safonov is relied upon by coaches in key game situations.
An example of how he's grown and amplified his value to a team is his performance at the most recent World Junior Championships. While he wasn't any of Team Russia's star players, he proved to be one of the coaches' trusted go-to players.
Connor Kelley (D)
University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCAA)
Kelley plays on the UMD blueline with 2020 draftee Wyatt Kaiser. As far as strengths, Kelley is swift of foot with extra gears and excellent edge work that he uses to his advantage to manage gaps, employ angles, nullify plays early, and retreat back if the puck gets in deep.
Similar to Chad Krys, Kelley is willing to battle down low in his end but lacks strength to consistently win those contests. Despite being outmuscled much of the time, he's still fearless and composed finding other ways to defend including having an active stick.
Offensively, Kelley leverages creativity and hockey sense to generate chances. He processes the game quickly to scan for options whether it's making outlet passes, initiating rushes, pinching to get open for teammates, and putting shots on net.
Jalen Luypen (C)
Edmonton Oil King (WHL)
Similar to Safonov, Luypen is improving with age rather than hitting a plateau and not busting through it. That motivation and dedication to reach new levels of growth is what made him attractive this time around after a few years of not getting selected in prior drafts.
Luypen's strengths are shooting and generating offense. While he can flex those muscles in juniors, his calling card in the pros will be his fierce competitiveness to get after pucks and agitate the opposition. He'll also need to be dependable away from the puck to get more notice.
His small size will always be a criticism but Luypen possesses frenetic energy and fearlessness to crash the rough-n-tumble areas and get his hands dirty. He also is willing to throw down as he has several fights to his credit.
No goalie was selected in this year's draft after taking one in each of the previous three drafts: Drew Commesso (2020), Dominic Basse (2019), and Alexis Gravel (2018). Perhaps the ones who the Hawks coveted weren't available when it was their turn to pick.
Regardless, the Hawks already got a good one in Arvid Soderblom via free agency a few months ago. Soderblom has an advantage over goalies drafted this year: he's further along already under NHL contract and poised to start out as the 2nd string in Rockford behind Cale Morris.
Prior to the pandemic, the Blackhawks were regular participants in the annual prospect tournament in Traverse City but don't appear to be headed to Northern Michigan next month. However, a new exhibition with the Wild prospects will take place in September in Minnesota.
See you on the boards!