Give or take, defensemen should comprise about one-third of the first-round picks in the 2013 NHL draft. It would be less surprising if one or two more go that early than if any fewer do.
At least one blueliner in the pool is a lock for selection among the top three. His track record sets the standard for his fellow prospects, as he has flaunted a thorough skill set for assertive maintenance in his own zone and production at the other end.
A player assuming a defensive assignment with elite offensive instincts is nothing to dismiss, but he's still not the leading specimen in the search for an ideal rearguard. They should rank immediately behind those who, whether subtly or spectacularly, get results on the home front and at least do their part to launch the puck the other way.
In either case, the more generally skilled a player is and the more long-term promise he has hinted at, the more consideration he deserves.
And, naturally, the top class of defensemen consists of those who advance their professional promise with proven performances in the amateur ranks. It is those who are a visible threat with the puck on his stick and equally, if not more so, to opponents when the biscuit is on their blade.
Based on what they have already demonstrated in each key area and what likely lies in their immediate future (namely 2013-14) as their development continues, here are the 10 most promising blueliners in this NHL draft class.
Primarily, if not almost entirely, due to his tremendous offensive flair, Shea Theodore has consistently stood in first-round territory in the draft rankings. He was No. 17 among North American skaters at midterm and then nudged up to No. 11 for the final revision.
But for everything that he can offer on enemy property, Theodore sports no shortage of uncertainty when it comes to the key word in “defenseman.” One of his profiles, posted on thescore.com, assesses that “he does not have the defensive game that so many two-way defenders need in the NHL. At this rate, he would be walked around by many of the top NHL talents.”
Symptoms of that setback have already surfaced in Seattle, where Theodore has spent the last two seasons with the WHL’s Thunderbirds.
Granted, his minus-36 rating in 2011-12 and minus-24 this past year can be partially blamed on Seattle’s wretchedness as a team. But some of it still reflects on defensive deficiency given that he placed third on the team’s scoring chart in both years.
With that said, like all young talent, Theodore can remedy that to at least a respectable degree over time. In a worst-case scenario, with meticulous management, any franchise that selects him can make Theodore an appreciable moving breakout and offensive blue-line specialist.
Ian McCoshen is taking the NCAA route after spending three seasons in the United States League. While that will not do the most to prepare him for an NHL-style season regimen, he ought to be in good developmental hands at perennial powerhouse Boston College.
In some ways, McCoshen is beyond his years. As noted in his Hockey’s Future profile, he was only 15 when he played the vast bulk of the 2010-11 campaign with the Waterloo Black Hawks.
Over time, his output has accelerated at the junior level. He went from a 0-6-6 log and minus-nine rating in his USHL rookie campaign to 8-12-20 and plus-four in 2011-12 to 11-33-44, plus-35 this past year.
That boom in productivity is a tangible sign of McCoshen’s adaptability, but it only does partial justice to his dependability in his day job on defense.
Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of central scouting, told the Montreal Gazette that McCoshen “can make the first pass out of the zone” and “can defend with a physical presence.”
Similarly, Adam French of Hockey Buzz wrote that McCoshen is “already showing that he is more than willing to crush players when he can and will try his best in his own end."
Assuming that aspect of his game sticks and grows, it should leave enough flexibility to make gravy out of whether or not his offense translates to each successive level.
While introducing the transcript of a recent Q&A with Mirco Mueller, Neate Sager of Yahoo! Sports noted that, as Mueller has transferred from his native Switzerland to Canadian junior, “His physical play…progressed as he adapted to the WHL.”
Sager added, “The X factor in how early he hears his name on June 30 might come down to projections about how much of an offensive side he will provide in the NHL.” Meanwhile, Patrick King of Sportsnet asserts, “At six-foot-three and a slight 176 pounds, his next biggest challenge is adding weight to his wiry frame.”
In fairness, Mueller has time to spruce both of those up, along with the rest of his game. He finished his rookie campaign second among defensemen on the Everett Silvertips with 25 assists and 31 points.
He will likely assume more responsibility in the coming campaign, as the Silvertips look to step up from a season that saw them barely scratch into the playoff picture while finishing 15 games below .500.
Early this past season, TSN prospects guru Craig Button saw Ryan Pulock and Seth Jones play on the same Western League sheet and offered his thoughts on each budding blueliner in the embedded video.
Button’s evaluation rules Pulock a top-notch performer in terms of hockey sense, playmaking and shooting. However, everything else looks average, which could be because, as John Vogl of the Buffalo News recently pointed out, “He played forward for much of his life and is still learning the defensive game.”
Therein sits the toss-up. The guess as to whether Pulock can evolve into a more defensively dependable asset or will remain a prolific point-patrolling specialist will not meet a definitive answer for a while.
As a result, he is somewhat of a gamble. Unless, of course, a team picking him later in the first round or early in the second round is expressly keen on fostering what he has already certifiably capable of.
On the team’s website, New York Islanders player development director Trent Klatt said of the sizeable Samuel Morin, “Samuel plays the game well in his own zone, but don’t count out the contributions he could give at the other end.”
Sure, any of the latter would make for a great gain, but the first of Klatt’s points, combined with Morin’s imposing frame, takes an incontestable front seat. He checks in at 6’6” and 202 pounds, meaning he likely has room to fill in the way of weight.
Assuming he takes the requisite steps to max out size and strength potential and continues to impose his will on opposing puck-carriers, Morin ought to be a can’t-miss tower in the making.
Rogert Hagg is a homegrown talent in MODO, where he played at various levels for the last two-plus seasons and is slated to start 2013-14 with the program’s top professional team. He already had a 27-game taste of that level as well as a World Junior rendezvous in 2012-13.
With that big-league and big-game experience to build on, Hagg’s full-fledged baptismal fire should burn with a little less shock in his first post-draft season. In turn, he should be able to move his development along all the more by essentially playing with and against the equivalent of North American minor pro competition.
If he ultimately needs a closer simulation to the NHL game, it would be a stretch to envision Hagg coming overseas to the AHL within a year or two. That was what his countryman Hampus Lindholm, sixth overall pick by Anaheim last year, did this past season, roughly three months before turning 19.
The sizeable Russian left home for 2012-13 and crashed onto the major junior scene in multiple senses of the word. Despite cultivating a somewhat modest 25 points over the regular season, Nikita Zadorov tied Max Domi for the team lead on the perennial powerhouse London Knights with a plus-33 rating.
That combination of data speaks to an effective physical prowess, earning Zadorov his place in the OHL without delay. It speaks to a possibly underrated offensive role as well as an enticing confidence and eagerness to plunge right in and make the most of one’s gifts.
Late in London’s 2013 playoff run, Knights skipper Dale Hunter told the London Free Press, “…you are talking about a huge man who can skate. He’s only going to get better and better. Defenceman that can skate and shoot and handle the puck and hit people that size...it’s hard to find that in the National Hockey League.”
Throw in his clear-cut compete level, and it is safe to assume Zadorov will run out of anything to prove as an amateur no later than when he runs out of major junior eligibility.
Michael Traikos of the National Post classified Darnell Nurse as “a shutdown defenseman” who is “built from the same mould as Chris Pronger.”
Another recent feature by Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times evoked a Pronger parallel as well. In addition, Klein concluded by quoting Nurse as follows: “I can put up offensive numbers, but I think my real strong suit is that I’m hard to play against.”
That self-assurance is easy enough to justify. Nurse’s physical propensities doubtlessly factored into the six scraps on his hockeyfights.com transcript for 2012-13, four more than the previous season and second among individual Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Naturally, those fights are less of a testament to his defining characteristics and more to what will happen on mere occasion when his habitual toughness on the backcheck boils over and flusters the opposition.
Having logged 92 games played with TPS of SM-Liiga over the last two seasons, Rasmus Ristolainen is ahead of the aforementioned Hagg in the sense of facing more mature competition. In addition, he gives the aforementioned Nurse company in the way of Pronger comparisons.
The young Finn himself told nhl.com earlier this season, “I like to play physical and nasty and keep the puck and score,” leading author Adam Kimelman to mention Pronger in the preceding paragraph.
On the whole, Ristolainen’s well-rounded package has not translated to a glamorous output at the professional level. He has amassed only 23 points and a minus-28 rating over two SM-Liiga seasons so far.
In turn, he might take a while to crack the NHL, even compared to a few blueliners with slightly less of an elite skill set. Which is fine, anyway, considering he is under contract with TPS through 2014-15.
With that said, patience and properly managed development should amount to a gratifying force for whatever organization acquires him. By competing with such seasoned adversaries whilst following the Pronger platform, he is learning the hard way early, which might prove to be the best way once he breaks into The Show.
From size to speed to creativity to athletic roots, what else can be noted about Seth Jones that nobody has extensively covered already?
Well, there is this recent nugget of news. In an interview with the Denver Post, Colorado Avalanche executive vice president Joe Sakic dropped a startling hint that the team might not use its first overall pick to nab the promising blueliner.
But again, this particular list is not concerned with which team needs what in the 2013 draft. All that matters is the indisputable fact that Jones is the best all-around defenseman eligible for selection next weekend.
Already, as is the case with all of the NHL’s established players, Jones has an online profile via The Hockey News complete with “assets” and “flaws.” Among the assets, his scouting report notes that he “Can put up good point totals, log a ton of ice time and play a shutdown role if need be. Is a difference-maker.”
That was, more often than not, on full display on the junior game’s most demanding measuring poles this past season. Jones played no small role in helping Team USA cultivate gold at the World Junior Championship and leading the Portland Winterhawks to a Western League playoff title and a spot in the final game of the Memorial Cup.
Having been through each of those challenges, all that remains on his checklist is refining his wealth of skills to an NHL caliber, and there is no substitute for doing that amongst an NHL team.