20 Most Exciting NHL Prospects Among Defensemen

Al DanielCorrespondent IISeptember 4, 2013

20 Most Exciting NHL Prospects Among Defensemen

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    After three teams passed him by even though he had the makings of a first overall NHL draft pick, Seth Jones now has the potential to prove himself a steal for the Nashville Predators. While the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning all opted for offense two months ago, the Preds made him the highest pick among defensemen with the fourth overall selection.

    Selection order aside, Jones is advancing his professional career with as little hesitation as possible. In addition to signing his entry-level deal, he accepted an invitation to Team USA’s Olympic Orientation Camp, making him one of a handful of 2014 roster candidates who have yet to play an NHL game.

    In terms of excitement, making the final cut and garnering a passport to Sochi, Russia, would be syrup and whipped cream on Jones’ rookie sundae. Nashville management has noticeably spent its summer clearing roster space to ensure that the point-patrolling prodigy is with the club this autumn.

    Those efforts are easy to understand since Jones does not have much, if anything, left to prove in the amateur ranks. He was nearly a point-per-gamer with the Portland Winterhawks and the United States World Junior team, and he should blossom into an effective defender of his own zone as he fills out his 6'4" frame.

    Per Elite Prospects, he will also offer plenty in the other zones with “excellent mobility…puck-handling and a very dangerous slap shot.”

    Jones leads off a list of 20 defensemen who by 2020 can all be bona fide NHL elites at their position. Here are the other 19 in alphabetical order.

Cody Ceci

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    Despite spending the majority of 2012-13 with the last place Ottawa 67s, Cody Ceci finished second among Ontario Hockey League defensemen with 19 goals and 64 points. That included 40 points in 42 appearances with the 67s, who effectively forced him to endure the only “minus” campaign in his four-year major junior career so far.

    That season was briefly interrupted when he practiced with the Ottawa Senators during the week leading up to the belated NHL season.

    Termed “a potentially complete package” by Hockey’s Future and an all-around defenseman who can impact both sides of the special teams’ spectrum, Ceci can keep testing his offense and refining his defense at lower levels for another year or two. Four of Ottawa’s seven NHL-rostered blueliners are 25 years of age or younger at the moment.

    At the same time, for the immediate future, Ceci is an integral part of keeping the Sens’ revolving door churning through the pipeline.

Adam Clendening

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    At 5'11" and unlikely to reach 200 pounds at any point, Adam Clendening is anything but imposing. However, for everything he lacks in size, he makes up for with a radiant threat from his perch on the point when his team is in the attacking zone.

    In that regard, he achieved no small feat as he seamlessly transitioned from Boston University to the AHL. Upon turning pro when he was 19, he posted a 9-37-46 scoring log in 73 games and went to the 2013 AHL All-Star Classic as a Rockford rookie.

    Chicago’s second-round draft pick in 2011, Clendening should get his chance to start a somewhat long process of gradually elevating to the foremost frontier this season. Blackhawks amateur scout Mark Kelley indicated as much to NHL.com, and it will make sense considering the short, celebratory summer the established blue-line corps has had.

Danny DeKeyser

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    Although he has already seen action in 11 regular season and two playoff games with Detroit, Danny DeKeyser still has the right to bear the prospect label as he has yet to embark on his first full professional season.

    Coming out of the collegiate ranks means potentially needing a little more minor league seasoning to acclimate to the more game-heavy professional itinerary. Other than that, the skill set is unmistakably there and poised for cultivation.

    As a sophomore and junior at Western Michigan, DeKeyser won back-to-back Best Defensive Defenseman accolades from the CCHA. That kind of transcript covers what matters most at this position, but The Hockey News adds that he also has the makings of “an excellent puck-moving defenseman with great mobility.”

    Less than three months after signing out of school and getting an early glimpse of NHL action, he joined the Grand Rapids Griffins for their six-game, Calder Cup championship victory.

Matt Dumba

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    Although he saw no extramural action, Matt Dumba made enough of an impression in his first post-draft year to skate with the Minnesota Wild in January and again after his Western League season concluded.

    To underscore the unripe Dumba’s compete level, Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr told Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “I don’t think you’re going to corner him out. He’s a dynamic kid the way he plays the game. We’re not putting any pressure on him, but if you ask him, I’m sure he’s coming to camp to make the team.”

    Considering his current listing at 6'0" and 185 pounds, Dumba makes more out of less with his body. Elite Prospects lists “a strong physical game,” “cannon of a shot” and “an impressive open ice hitter” among his qualities.

    So far, in three-plus seasons with the Red Deer Rebels' major junior program, those qualities have translated to an output of 51 goals, 125 points and a plus-28 rating in 199 games. Having just turned 19 in late July, he has an opportunity for a fireworks finale, complete with World Junior participation, before becoming a permanent pro.

Jani Hakanpaa

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    The physical maturity of Jani Hakanpaa speaks for itself with his 6'5", 218-pound build. His maturity in other senses of the word, though, doubles his appeal, particularly since he has worn a captain’s “C” for one team or another in four different seasons.

    The highlights of his leadership resume begin with two straight seasons as captain of the Kiekko-Vantaa U18 team. He followed that up by serving in the same position for the Finnish U19 national team in 2011 and the country’s World Junior squad in 2012, his final year of eligibility for that tournament.

    In the midst of that, he played two full seasons in his country’s top professional league, sprinkling 17 points over 75 games and retaining a cumulative plus-eight rating. He subsequently came across the pond to close out 2012-13 with the St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate, where he laid a personal foundation of four points in 14 outings.

Hampus Lindholm

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    Upon recovering from a midseason concussion, Hampus Lindholm returned to play 25 games over the final two months of the AHL schedule with the Norfolk Admirals. Shortly thereafter, the parent Anaheim Ducks summoned him as one of their postseason taxis.

    Lindholm, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, will still be a teenager until Jan. 20 of this season. Yet with his early experience at the second-best North American level and his skill set, he might crack the top club out of this month’s training camp.

    Of his first impression of Lindholm on this continent, Anaheim general manager Bob Murray told the team’s website, “Lindholm, he’s only going to be 19 years old, but he was really coming gangbusters.”

    For the record, Merriam-Webster formally recognizes the expression “gangbusters” with the definition of “outstandingly excellent or successful.” It is rare that an executive cites an unripe player’s outlook with exceptional connotations despite his inexperience.

Olli Maatta

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    First and foremost, Olli Maatta emits an offensive defenseman vibe. His transcript through two Ontario Hockey League seasons verifies as much with 57 assists and 70 points through 115 regular-season games with the London Knights.

    His postseason output of 37 points in 40 games is even more impressive. However, perhaps more to the point, Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently noted that both Maatta and fellow Penguins prospect Scott Harrington “have become shutdown defensemen under the tutelage of coach Dale Hunter in London.”

    In the process, Maatta has played a prominent role in back-to-back OHL playoff championship runs, emboldening the proud tradition of the Knights program. That makes for a great simulation of what he will later step into with the Penguins, who have established a victory-or-bust mentality with their celestial core of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin.

Dylan McIlrath

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    On Wednesday morning, Tal Pinchevsky of NHL.com posted a feature on one not-too-distant future specimen of Blueshirt bruising, Dylan McIlrath, learning from a past incarnation in Jeff Beukeboom.

    In Pinchevsky’s own words, “McIlrath can work his way into a deep defensive corps and provide the kind of size New York has lacked.” The author adds that the 21-year-old blueliner “doesn't just initiate contact, he loves it.”

    The embedded video, from preseason NHL action in 2011, provides a small yet telling glimpse as to McIlrath’s grasp on the fundamentals of his position. He followed that training camp with one final year in junior hockey before logging 45 games last season in the AHL, where he picked up invaluable experience against more mature competition.

    His first full professional season would have been longer if not for a knee injury, but he appears to be past that and has been enhancing his effectiveness through sounder skating over the summer.

Samuel Morin

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    Leading up to his No. 11 overall selection by the Philadelphia Flyers, Samuel Morin blazed up the board in the eyes of Central Scouting. Among North American skaters, he stood at No. 76 at the 2012-13 season midterm, only to finish at No. 23 in the final predraft ranking.

    He has accelerated his stock primarily through opportunistic use of his size, which stands out in the form of his 6’6" stature.

    Morin barely tips the scale north of 200 pounds at this time, meaning he has more to pad onto his towering frame before he is braced to make an NHL-caliber impact. That, however, should come with little difficulty as he continues to develop at the amateur level.

Mirco Mueller

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    A Swiss import by the Everett Silvertips and first-round 2013 choice by the San Jose Sharks, Mirco Mueller did not have a particularly flashy first season in North America. Then again, the surface of his performance was clouded by the fact that his team barely made the playoffs and earned less than 40 percent of its allotted points.

    A 25-assist, 31-point campaign leaves something to build on over what should be another year or two of refinement in major junior. In addition, at 6’3" and 184 pounds, Mueller could stand to broaden his brawn for good measure.

    Even so, as one scouting report by Neate Sager of Yahoo! Sports mentions, “His physical play…progressed as he adapted to the WHL.”

    Look for that to keep trending upward in the coming years as he continues to log more minutes in major junior. In between, he will pick up and apply lessons from Sharks rookie and prospect camps, the first of which earned him nothing but solid feedback from scouting director Tim Burke through Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area.

Ryan Murray

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    Coming back from a prolonged injury to his shoulder in time for Columbus’ summer prospects camp, Ryan Murray started issuing reminders of the second overall 2012 draft pick that he was beforehand.

    In one written account for Fox Sports Ohio’s website, reporter Rick Gethin quoted NBC television analyst Pierre McGuire, who said that Murray is “one of those shut-down guys you have to have if you are going to be successful. He’s got character...he’s got grace under fire. He really handles all of these mature situations really well.”

    Even before the 2012 draft, the lockout and the injury, Hockey’s Future considered him to be ready to step into the NHL without delay. That website’s “Talent Analysis” of the up-and-coming Jacket notes that he "already has good command in the defensive zone, and can contribute offensively with both good passing skills and a hard, accurate shot.”

    When he was last healthy during a team’s game schedule, Murray translated his passing proficiency to 15 assists and 17 points in 23 appearances with the Everett Silvertips.

    If he can pick up where he left off in that regard and keep defending with poise despite his size (185 pounds)—if not build on thatthen all will go according to plan in the coming years.

Darnell Nurse

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    Last week, Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal summed up Darnell Nurse, the Oilers’ latest first-round draft choice, as “a big mean defenceman who according to the scouts can skate, plays strong positional defence, and has offensive upside.”

    Nearly three years ago, a then 15-year-old Nurse was likened to Chris Pronger at a time when he was weighing in at 176 pounds. Fast-forward to the present and he has added another nine pounds to reach 185.

    Could he stand to pad on more to complement his 6’4" stature? Sure, but he is generating plenty of encouragement in the meantime by making the most of what he has at his disposal.

    Coming from an athlete-laden family that includes an uncle in former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, Nurse had James O’Brien of NBC Sports Pro Hockey Talk terming him “a bruising blueliner with prototypical size and the kind of bloodlines that imply something special.”

    He is special not only for sheer physical genes but also a bottomless barrel of competitive drive, which he put on display for two OHL seasons and will likely do so again in a leadership capacity. According to his Elite Prospects profile, Nurse is slated to captain this year’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds as he continues to refine his game.

Derrick Pouliot

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    In the regular season and playoffs combined, the offensive-minded Derrick Pouliot retained an exact point-per-game average with 65 for the Portland Winterhawks. It was as good as a career campaign despite playing 28 fewer regular-season games than in 2011-12, with the missed time primarily owed to an ankle injury.

    He is among the first to admit that he still needs improve his efficiency on the home front, which he has one more year to do at the junior level.

    Still, his future is already standing on a thick patch of ice as Hockey’s Future ranks him first among a stable of defensive Pittsburgh Penguins prospects. His repeat candidacy for Canada’s World Junior roster is nothing to sneeze at either.

Griffin Reinhart

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    CBS New York columnist Daniel Friedman observed at the New York Islanders prospects camp that Griffin Reinhart’s “skating was noticeably better.”

    This comes after Reinhart had spent his first post-draft season as captain of the Western League’s Edmonton Oil Kings. It also comes less than three months after he had suffered a gruesome foot injury that required surgery.

    Furthermore, this is coming on top of an established repertoire of excelling in all of the so-called “little things,” which are encapsulated in the embedded video.

    There is also an element of physicality and competitive gusto to Reinhart’s game, which has occasionally incurred suspensions but is useful more often than not.

Morgan Rielly

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    Toronto’s top-ranked prospect in the eyes of NHL.com and Hockey's Future, Morgan Rielly is considered to be up in the air between breaking into The Show or utilizing his final year of junior eligibility in 2013-14.

    The latter would not necessarily hurt given that he spent all of last season replenishing his game after sitting out the bulk of 2011-12 with an ACL injury. On the other hand, he may be removed from that far enough that a mind-blowing impression at training camp is not out of the question.

    Renowned primarily for his offensive prowess (though he is hardly a slouch in his day job), Rielly had enough in him post recovery to play 60 games for Moose Jaw and amass 54 points. The chief reason he missed some of his Western League schedule was because he represented Canada at the 2013 World Juniors.

    Still eligible for an additional junior season, he saw substantial AHL playoff action with the Toronto Marlies after Moose Jaw’s most recent campaign ended. His first performances among pros, more than anything else, have spawned the speculation among local pundits that he may have outgrown the amateur ranks.

     

Rasmus Ristolainen

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    Like the aforementioned Nurse, his fellow 2013 first-rounder, Rasmus Ristolainen has drawn Pronger parallels. To take that a step further, he has embraced that idea by telling the likes of NHL.com’s Mike G. Morreale that he takes Pronger as his blue-line blueprint.

    Matias Strozyk of Elite Prospects highlights the following elements of Ristolainen’s skill set

    He is a calm player with good two-way ability and a mature style of play…moves the puck with confidence, has a good shot from the point…has an NHL-ready frame and has gained a lot of strength while playing in SM-liiga.

    SM-Liiga is Finland’s top professional circuit, which Ristolainen has competed in for two seasons and 92 games.

    This league also had such notable names as Aleksander Barkov, Mikkel Boedker, Erik Karlsson and Ville Nieminen competing for all or part of 2012-13. In addition, during the lockout, Ristolainen practiced with such TPS teammates as Mikko Koivu, Lauri Korpikoski, Alec Martinez, Kris Russell and Kevin Shattenkirk.

    With that much advanced seasoning by playing among men as a boy, he should bring an outstanding compete level across the pond once he is set to join the Buffalo Sabres.

Jarred Tinordi

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    In late April, it appeared that Jarred Tinordi would be moving up from Hamilton to Montreal as a Black Ace for the Northeast Division champion Canadiens’ playoff run.

    As it happened, that run lasted only five games, but he got in on the action against Ottawa and gave everyone a glimpse of what he can do down the road. Seasoned reporters who were on the scene for that series, particularly ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun, likened the imposing youngster to his father, Mark Tinordi, a former brawny blueliner who played 663 NHL games in 12 seasons.

    The younger Tinordi, born in Minnesota during his father’s North Star days, is two inches taller and two pounds heavier at 6'6", 215 pounds.

    Besides the AHL debut and 2013 NHL postseason where he left off, he has battle tested that body with the U.S. National Team Development Program and the London Knights. He capped off his amateur career by captaining the latter team to the 2012 OHL playoff title.

Jacob Trouba

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    Like Jones, Jacob Trouba helped Team USA to gold at the last World Juniors and followed that up with an invitation to the Olympic team’s recent camp. In addition, upon turning pro at the conclusion of his freshman campaign at the University of Michigan, he intermingled with NHL-caliber competition at the 2013 World Championships.

    During the WJC in December and January, in an interview with the Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan, Team USA coach Phil Housley complimented Trouba’s mean streak and physicality. Meanwhile, teammate J.T. Miller remarked that the young blueliner was “becoming a man out there.”

    When he played in the more mature version of the tournament less than five months later, Trouba garnered a similar report card as he helped the Americans to bronze. Considering his age and his team’s overall performance, he stamped a respectable stat line of three points and a nightly average ice time of 12:59 in seven appearances.

Nikita Zadorov

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    London Knights defenseman Nikita Zadorov has a wingspan that had London Free Press reporter Morris Dalla Costa evoking the classic “albatross” metaphor to describe his impact on Memorial Cup action.

    That wingspan is the by-product of a 6’5" stature already accompanied by more than 220 pounds, which he has utilized by all accounts. In fact, on the day of this past summer’s draft, as you will hear in the embedded video, TSN guru Bob McKenzie concluded that Zadorov was the “hardest-hitting defenseman available.”

    Elsewhere, in an interview with Patrick King of Sportsnet.ca, Ross MacLean of the International Scouting Services said “Zadorov could potentially become the Russian Shea Weber, but will still require a few years of development before that potential becomes close to reality.”

    The latter clause in that assessment is understandable, but that is what makes him worth following in 2013-14. He may be looking at a greater role with the Knights while craving a Russia roster spot at the World Juniors, which he barely missed out on last season.