Above all else, the 2021 NHL Draft was a lesson in the unexpected. Beyond the University of Michigan's Owen Power being almost guaranteed to go first overall (no surprise, he did), most mock drafts varied wildly on predicting the remainder of the beginning round's pick order.
Amidst the uncertainty, the Predators managed to finesse two picks in the first round after trading their 40th and 51st picks to Carolina for the 27th pick. The Preds had three remaining selections in the draft, one in the third round, two in the fourth, and a final one in the sixth.
If you know anything about professional sports, you know that evaluating draft picks' potential based on, a) where they were selected in the draft, and b) their amateur hockey stats, is often just extrapolation. With a handful of teenagers who likely won't make their NHL debuts until at least 2022-23, it would be irresponsible to measure them at a professional level.
Let's look at the Preds' 2021 selections and see what they've done so far in their young careers.
FYODOR SVECHKOV - CENTER
No, not Svechnikov, of Andrei fame. 18-year old Svechkov was the Preds' first pick in this year's draft and is expected to spend at least the 2021-22 season with SKA St. Petersburg of Russia's KHL. Svechkov has built up an impressive resume in Russia's junior hockey circuits; his 2020-21 season was spent playing in the KHL's lower leagues with his hometown Lada Togliatti, amassing nine goals and 21 assists in 53 games. During the U-18 World Junior Championship in April/May, Svechkov notched four goals and six assists in Russia's seven-game stint.
For a forward, Svechkov's defensive abilities are what set him apart from other prospects. He has a knack for decoding opponents' body language and adjusting accordingly so as to prevent scoring chances from even beginning to crystalize. In a lot of ways, his defensive skills outperform his offense and are largely what raised his draft stock to the first round. Spending time in the elite KHL this next season will only benefit him, however. Svechkov will have the opportunity to play in front of the Preds' 2020 first round pick, goalie Yaroslav Askarov, while growing into a professionally paced competition pool.
ZACHARY L'HEUREUX - LEFT WING
L'Heureux raises a few more questions than he does answers, but the Preds front office clearly felt strongly enough about him to trade up the draft board in order to nab him at 27th overall and sign him to an entry-level contract worth $2,775,000 five days later. The main concern with L'Heureux is his penchant for penalties. Over the last two seasons in the QMJHL, he has sat in the box for 117 total minutes and served four suspensions, earning him a menacing reputation and devaluing his draft stock. If L'Heureux can rein in his troublemaking tendencies, however, he will be an undeniable force on the ice.
In 2019-20 with Montcon, 16-year old L'Heureux led all QMJHL rookies with 20 goals and 33 assists in 55 games, finishing with a +34 on-ice rating. Last season in Halifax, L'Heureux once again scored at an over point-per-game pace; in 33 games, he tallied 19 goals and 20 assists. L'Heureux is an explosive skater and tenacious to the bone- during the pre-draft process, he was vocal about his ability to win puck battles in tight corners. He is an incredibly strong prospect all around, but it is absolutely vital that he becomes more disciplined before making any sort of professional jump.
ANTON OLSSON - DEFENSE
Sometime in the next few years, Olsson will hopefully join Alex Carrier, David Farrance, and Frederic Allard in the Preds' blue line youth revival. Olsson spent 39 games playing for Malmo of the Swedish Hockey League and put up just four assists, but it was his performance in 2019-20 for Malmo's U20 squad that caught attention. In 26 games, Olsson- who was 16 at the time- scored six goals and 11 assists with a +11 on-ice rating. Playing for Sweden in the U17 World Hockey Challenge, Olsson posted three assists and helped his team to a bronze medal.
Olsson's slap shot isn't the strongest, but he makes up for it with a wicked wrist shot. He's an exceptional stickhandler and is able to cut down opponents' passing lanes on the backcheck. Offensively, Olsson isn't the most creative guy and could benefit from taking his time at the blue line, setting up fewer hastily-formed plays. Olsson will remain in the SHL for the 2021-22 season.
RYAN UFKO - DEFENSE
Ufko, who was 17 during the entirety of the 2020-21 season, played an absolutely crucial role in the Chicago Steel's Clark Cup win. Ufko finished the season with 10 goals and 29 assists, making him the Steel's highest scoring defenseman. Ufko's primary detractor is his lack of size and general passiveness, but he should be able to improve both if he sticks to his commitment to play for the University of Massachusetts on 2022-23 and the Steel in the meantime.
With several defensemen who are closer to being NHL-ready in the Preds' system, Ufko's arrival likely won't be for another few seasons. Ufko does possess a strong edge on the forecheck; his deceptive shot and playmaking ability separate him from the pack in the offensive zone. Above all, Ufko's lack of confidence with physicality needs to change. With a little more muscle, he can use his body to better shut down opponents.
JACK MATIER - DEFENSE
In contrast to Ryan Ufko, 6'4, 205-pound Matier excels in the defensive zone and uses his size to his advantage. With the Ottawa 67's in 2019-20, the 16-year old rookie was paired up with Maple Leafs' prospect Noel Hoefenmayer on the top defensive line and racking up serious minutes. Matier was able to hang with the big boys on the backcheck, but wasn't able to do a lot offensively, recording only nine assists in 56 games.
Matier is very smart at the blue line and, for better or for worse, he's not a huge risk taker. The thing with Matier is that he's generally a safe bet. The Preds arguably didn't lose anything by drafting him, and his ceiling is only going to get higher. Unfortunately for Matier, the pipeline for D-men in the Preds' system is a bit clogged, so he's going to need to start putting up points if he wants to make any noise.
SIMON KNAK - RIGHT WING
The only 19-year old in the Preds' 2021 draft class is another guy that is eligible to surprise in the future. Knak spent most of last season with Portland in the WHL, where he recorded 16 goals and 13 assists in 24 games and even outscored highly-touted Hurricanes prospect Seth Jarvis. In 2019-20, Knak potted nine goals and 25 assists in 49 games with the Winterhawks.
The Zurich native is offensively gifted, but has trouble staying focused when he doesn't have the puck. Night to night, he tends to waver in terms of production, but he comes equipped with a great shot and great awareness of where his teammates are in a given moment. Knak has great potential and could easily make significant strides in his game.