The Vancouver Canucks didn’t have many picks in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, so they had to make the most of the ones they had.
In the sixth round, they took a couple of intriguing shots at players who might have some significant upside: a Swedish defenceman who outscored a top-ten pick and an undersized playmaker who no one saw in his draft year.
Hugo Gabrielson and Connor Lockhart were the Canucks’ picks in the sixth round of the draft and there’s reason to believe in both of them.
169th overall: defenceman Hugo Gabrielson
Let’s start with Gabrielson, a 6’1” defenceman with a left-hand shot who the Canucks took 169th overall. There were a few public draft rankings who thought Gabrielson was worth taking even earlier. Draft Prospects had Gabrielson 81st on their board and Smaht Scouting had him at 97.
Draft Prospects describes Gabrielson as a “reliable two-way defender with excellent vision,” praising his shutdown game, penalty killing, and ability to defend the rush. They suggest he can become “a bottom pair defender that can eat tough minutes and kill penalties.”
Smaht calls Gabrielson a “versatile defender,” noting his ability to play on both sides of the ice and sees potential second-pairing upside. They describe him as “quite sound” defensively, particularly in how he covers for his partner.
That’s something the Canucks’ director of scouting, Todd Harvey, also noted. With the Frolunda J20 team, Gabrielson was frequently partnered with Simon Edvinsson, who was selected 6th overall by the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think his defense was a little underrated playing with Edvinsson,” said Harvey. “I think he was doing a little bit of covering up there for him when Edvinsson would be up the ice.”
Intriguingly, Gabrielson outscored Edvinsson in their limited time in the J20 Nationell league. Edvinsson had just 6 points in 14 games, while Gabrielson had 13 points in 17 games. That actually made Gabrielson the top-scoring defenceman among first-time draft-eligible players in the Nationell league.
That immediately makes Gabrielson an intriguing pick. He held his own against men in 24 games with the Halmstaad Hammers in the third-tier HockeyEttan as well, putting up 7 points. There’s a pinch of offensive upside with Gabrielson beyond his defensive game.
“He’s a good passer, he moves the puck well,” said Harvey. “He’s not afraid to jump up into the play...he’s able to push the pace a little bit that way.”
You can see a little bit of that aggressiveness in these clips from prospect analyst Will Scouch. Gabrielson attacks a loose puck and carries it down low to set up behind the net in one clip, then accelerates from behind his own net to start the transition in the next clip.
As with any pick this late in the draft, there are some areas where he needs work. Hockey Prospect points to a tendency for bad shot selections that frequently get blocked, so he doesn’t get the most out of his heavy shot. They also suggest that he’s not physical enough defensively and doesn’t follow up his stick checks with physical engagement.
Still, there are some intriguing tools in Gabrielson’s game that make him well worth the selection in the sixth round.
178th overall: forward Connor Lockhart
With many of the prospects in this year’s draft, the scouts had a small sample size of games to work with. Many players were limited to shortened seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic or had to play in Europe instead of in Canada.
Sample sizes don’t get much smaller than zero games.
Connor Lockhart, who the Canucks took 178th overall, didn’t play a single game in his draft year because the OHL season was cancelled. That makes him a fascinating gamble for the Canucks in the sixth round.
Lockhart was the third-overall choice in the 2019 OHL draft and put up 27 points in 57 games as a 16-year-old rookie with the Erie Otters. That’s respectable production but he didn’t get a chance to build on that season.
Combine that with his smaller stature — he’s listed at just 5’9” — and Lockhart tumbled down and right off draft boards. Those that liked him, however, really liked him. He was ranked as high as 58th overall by FC Hockey.
“I guarantee you he probably would have went earlier if he had a full season,” said Harvey. “He’s a determined kid. I think that he’s gonna grow and he’s gonna fill out a little bit, but he’s tenacious on the puck and he has some real good high-end skill.”
Lockhart is a smart playmaker, who keeps his head up and spots teammates through traffic. He also has a knack for slipping into open ice for his teammates to find him for a quick one-timer. He can get a lot on his shot without much space.
“Thinks the game at an elite level and has the skillset to match,” said Draft Prospects in their draft guide. “Wicked accurate shot that he can let go off either foot.”
The big question is what would he have done in his draft year in the OHL? Perhaps he would have had an underwhelming year and slid all the way out of the draft. On the other hand, maybe he would have lit up the league and inspired a team to take him in the first couple of rounds.
“It’s a really, really high upside pick,” said Elite Prospect’s Rachel Doerrie. “I really like how creative he is. He’s got a deceptive stance with the puck, so you don’t know if he’s shooting or passing.”
The lack of games in his draft year also makes it hard to assess how much he improved on his deficiencies. Scouts pointed to some issues with his skating, particularly his explosiveness. That is always a concern for an undersized player, but perhaps it would have been stronger this season after another year of strength and conditioning.
What we’re left with is focussing on what Lockhart did well in his rookie year in the OHL as a creative playmaker with intriguing upside.
“He sees the ice exceptionally well, uses his teammates really well,” said Doerrie. “So, for me, if you can develop that skating and he becomes a little bit stronger on the puck, I think you’ve got something.”