The Little Engine That Could: Why Olen Zellweger Should Be a First-Round Pick
Profiling the Everett D's game and detailing why he's one of the best blue-liners available in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft
In a draft year like no other, NHL teams are faced with remarkable challenges related to effectively scouting prospects. Inevitably there are going to be players who will fall too low on draft day, go higher than they should due to non-proportional relative viewings, or simply fall through the cracks altogether due to a shortened or lack of competitive season altogether.
Inevitably in any season there will be opinion about players who were picked too early, too late or should have been drafted but weren't.
And as what seems to be tradition every year, one particular player seems to be trending towards ‘under-sized, underrated draft steal’ territory for the 2021 crop: Olen Zellweger.
The 5’9”, 175 pound Everett Silvertips defender is ranked rather modestly across most major scouting outlets, with an aggregate ranking that projects him as a mid-to-late 2nd-rounder.
I had a thing or two to say about his moderate placements among draft rankings with the help of Mitch Brown's prospect micro-stats:
Inarguably Zellweger charts out as one of the best skaters in the draft this year, regardless of position or metric in question. From a box-score perspective, he’s been equally as impressive:
He plays a modern-suited game that to me, will translate much more quickly than his rankings would indicate:
Let’s take a closer look.
Breakouts, Exits and Entries
Zellweger is a fantastic transition player, and he shows an innate ability to generate controlled exits and entries for Everett with his skating and passing. His accompanying willingness and ability to sprint to join the rush is part of what makes him such a dynamic offensive player.
Using InStat Hockey's video scouting platform, I’ve compiled a handful of clips showing Zellweger’s (EVT #48) proficiency in generating exits, entries and sprinting to join the rush for the Silvertips:
Whether it’s jumping off the offensive blue line to retrieve loose pucks and extend possession for Everett, surfing through the NZ to neutralize plays, or holding air-tight gaps on opposing forwards, Zellweger doesn’t give the opposition any room to breathe on the ice. His smothering transition defence promises to fit in well in the modern NHL:
Offensive Zone Play
When playing in the OZ, Zellweger has one of two things in mind that help him generate offence:
Get off the wall
Get off the line
His refusal to remain pasted to the line allows him to create a ton from the middle of the ice and down the offensive zone funnel:
Rather than firing stationary shots from the boards that are destined for shins, Zellweger routinely works to get off the wall in the OZ to improve his shooting lanes, be more of a potential distributing threat, and to get goalies moving laterally:
He’s also incredibly proficient at activating off the line to generate plays from lower in the zone:
And if at first he doesn’t succeed, he’ll try, try again (on the same shift) without thinking twice about it:
Zellweger is equally as impressive on the power play as he is at 5v5. He possesses all of the qualities needed for an effective modern power play quarterback.
He’s able to control the pace of play through the neutral zone to initiate clean entries, and his lateral dexterity and ability to deceive high PK Fs with crisp hip pocket passing makes him difficult to read and thus an immense threat at the top of the zone:
He’s routinely able to mask his intentions up top with his eyes, hands and feet which provides a head start advantage to his flanks in downhill attack situations:
Zellweger’s multi-layer vision on the power play is exemplary too. He’s adept at dictating high PK Fs then finding teammates through layers of coverage with precision passing:
And Zellweger’s not just a distributor at the quarterback position.
He’s able to be a shot threat on the power play not by overpowering goalies or obliterating pucks, but instead by getting to the middle of the ice, getting his head up and lofting well-placed shots that avoid shin pads, provide tip-material for teammates and produce advantageous rebounds for forwards at the goal mouth:
NHL teams are no doubt facing the most challenging and clouded prospect forecasting they’ve ever had to encounter for the upcoming draft. Limited viewings, large swaths of players who outright didn’t play games; you name it, it’s been an obstacle to scouts everywhere this season.
However the teams with robust scouting departments should still be able to find value considering the vast array of resources NHL teams have available to them (should they choose to invest resources to utilize them).
It’s impossible to predict where Olen Zellweger will go in the 2021 Draft, but if his recent NHL Central Scouting ranking of 45th among North American skaters is any indication, he seems more likely to be selected on July 24th rather than the 23rd.
Learning From the Past
Talented players inexcusably fall in the draft all the time due to a lack of physical size, despite holding talent superior to the majority of the field.
The 2015 Draft sees Conor Garland plummet to 123rd overall despite posting 129 points in 67 games in 2014-15. The following season he posts 128 points in 62 games on his way to 257 points in his final 129 QMJHL games. Unsurprisingly, he’s now a difference-maker on the Arizona Coyotes.
In 2016, Alex Debrincat tumbles to 39th overall after back-to-back 51-goal seasons with Erie. Samuel Girard also falls to 47th overall after a 74 point (67GP) QMJHL season that had the scouting community ring his praises from day one.
And as recently as 2019, we see Cole Caufield fall to 15th overall after displaying generational goal-scoring capabilities (72G, 100P in 64GP) with the USNTDP.
In redrafts, all of these players vault far higher than where they were originally picked. The common denominator? Doubts about their physical stature.
They’ve all turned out just fine, I’d say.
And oh, speaking of Samuel Girard, Olen Zellweger and undersized, overlooked, uber-talented defencemen…
While Zellweger’s 10-game WHL sample size is far less than Girard’s 67 in the QMJHL, every player has had to contend with fewer games this year, and Zellweger certainly made the most of his.
Sample size considered, Zellweger’s draft year NHLer probability and star probability also both currently sit higher than Girard’s at the same point in their development in Byron Bader's Player Comparison Tool:
I’m not saying Zellweger will or won’t become a player to the ilk (or better) of Samuel Girard, but the parallels are nonetheless there.
Per Byron’s model, Zellweger currently holds the third highest likelihood of becoming a regular NHLer among *all* 2021 eligible skaters. His 22 percent likelihood of becoming a star is the 13th highest rate among all 2021 draft eligibles.
Per pick224.com, Zellweger’s even-strength primary points-per-game rate sits 3rd among all draft-year defencemen in the site’s system, ahead of notable names like Luke Hughes, Owen Power, Jack Peart and Simon Edvinsson.
He’s also one of the youngest players in the draft this year; he won’t turn 18 until September 10th.
From a relative production standpoint, do with that information what you will.
Where Zellweger’s consensus rankings place him as a mid-to-late second round prospect, his production, projections and on-ice play scream otherwise. If an NHL club heeds Henry Ford’s infamous words, learns from the past and takes Zellweger early, they’ll reap the rewards for years to come.
The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
— Henry Ford
If Zellweger does end up falling in this year’s draft, we’re undoubtedly going to be left wondering how it happened in 3-5 years as we look back on the 2021 class.