Yet again this year, the NHL draft — both the actual event and its extensive lead-up — is entirely virtual.
For forward Matthew Coronato, whose explosive season with the local Chicago Steel rocketed him up the draft rankings, and defenseman Sean Behrens, a Barrington native molded by two years with the U.S. national team, that means their ongoing meetings with NHL franchises are only through Zoom or phone calls.
“It’s definitely interesting and unique, but at the same time, it’s still really special,” Coronato said.
“I’ve still had a lot of really good conversations, getting to know the personnel of the teams and them asking me questions about my game and giving me pointers,” Behrens said. “I don’t think it has really affected me. It affects the teams a little more.”
Coronato and Behrens headline the list of players with Chicago connections hoping to hear their names announced at this year’s draft, which will be held July 23-24.
Seven players from the Steel — the Geneva-based junior hockey dynasty fresh off another USHL league championship last month — made the NHL Central Scouting Service’s final rankings.
Six players hailing from the Chicago area — but now playing across the continent — also made the final rankings.
Coronato on Blackhawks’ radar
A New York native, Coronato arrived in Chicago before this season brimming with confidence.
That translated into his performance, as his point production more than doubled from his first Steel season. He finished with 85 points (48 goals and 37 assists) in 51 games, ranking second on the team, and added a team-leading 13 points in eight playoff games.
“[I was] just continuing to work on my shot, work on the movement that our team liked to use in the offensive zone,” he said. “But a big part of my offensive production was a result of confidence.”
Coronato also improved defensively, staying goal-side of opposing forwards and using his stick to break up plays. But his biggest assets are his energy and motor; he’s constantly moving on the ice and therefore constantly noticeable.
His draft stock surged up from a projected third or fourth-round pick to a nearly certain first-round selection. He finished ninth among North American skaters in the final CSS rankings.
He’ll most likely go between 10th and 20th overall, which puts him on the Blackhawks’ radar for the 11th pick. He certainly wouldn’t mind being chosen by his adopted hometown team.
“I love Chicago,” he said. “I loved being here the last two years. The Blackhawks are a special team and organization, so that would definitely be a great spot to end up.”
This summer, he plans to work on his skating and strength — he measures at 5-10, 180 pounds right now, but hopes to get to between 185 and 187 pounds — in addition to going through the draft process before heading to Harvard next season.
Behrens benefitted from workload
The commute from Barrington to the United Center is long, but the Behrens family nonetheless made the trek often as Blackhawks season-ticket holders. That fandom jumpstarted their son’s own career.
“[The Hawks] were a big part of my passion for hockey,” Behrens said. “Winning the three [Stanley] Cups in six years was really cool for me to watch as a young kid growing up.”
Now the 24th-ranked North American skater, Behrens hasn’t met with the Hawks yet but could also be on their radar. He’s a projected second- or third-round pick and the Hawks hold two second-round selections.
Behrens is undersized at only 5-10, but his puck-moving skills make him one of the better offensive defensemen available in this year’s draft.
“I‘m a two-way defenseman who loves to join the rush,” he said. “I’m a good skater with good [enough] hockey IQ to find passing lanes and open up my teammates. I’m a really good transition player.”
Many 2021 draft-eligible prospects, especially those in Canadian junior leagues, haven’t played a ton of games over the past two years due to the pandemic. That hasn’t been the case for Behrens, however.
He played 46 games in 2020-21 (in which he tallied 35 points) after appearing in 51 total games in 2019-20.
“I got better as the year went on,” he said. “I was developing my game on both ends of the ice, not only offensively — joining the rush at the right times, making smart reads there — but defensively being strong on guys, being strong on my skates, boxing guys out and closing on pucks quickly, which was a big thing I wanted to work on.”
He’s committed to Denver for next season.
Other Chicago-connected draft prospects
Defenseman Owen Power, a likely bet to go No. 1 overall to the Sabres, played this season at Michigan but developed with the Steel in 2019-20.
Wing Mackie Samoskevich, a natural playmaker bound for Michigan next year, is — as the 26th-ranked North American skater — the second-highest ranked draft prospect from the 2021 Steel.
The other CSS-ranked players from the 2021 Steel are Harvard-bound forward Jack Bar (41st), UMass-committed defenseman Ryan Ufko (43rd), Arizona State-bound forward Josh Doan (87th), Boston University-committed forward Jack Harvey (91st) and Boston College-committed defenseman Lukas Gustafsson (186th).
Meanwhile, Highland Park native Simon Motew played in the OHL last year, then tore up a lower-tier junior league with the local Chicago Cougars this year due to the OHL’s shutdown. He’s the 129th-ranked North American skater.
Wilmette native Cameron Rowe went 9-2-1 with a .933 save percentage as a freshman at Wisconsin and is the 13th-ranked North American goaltender.
Minooka native Josh Lopina (139th), a UMass forward, and Chicago natives Quinn Hutson (177th), a Boston University-bound forward, and Colby Saganiuk (193rd), an OHL-bound forward, are the other CSS-ranked locals.