2013 Draft: Nine Potential Defense Candidates for Rounds 1 and 2
Before I delve into the crop of defensemen who could be candidates for the Flyers to select with the 11th and/or 41st overall picks of the 2013 NHL Draft, let me issue my three standard qualifiers:
1) The Flyers will take the best available player, regardless of position. If the candidate they view as the best player is a center then, yes, they will take another center.
2) I have no idea which specific player(s) will be atop their internal rankings and who might unexpectedly drop to them. All I can do is pass along what contacts have told me and use my own research and judgment to suggest what direction I think they might want to go.
3) If they do select a defenseman in round one, do not expect him to be an immediate NHL impact player even if he makes his NHL debut within a season or two of the Draft. With defensemen especially, the learning curve and development phase to realizing potential is a protracted one that can often last until the player nears his mid-20s. There are also zero guarantees the player (at any position) will ultimately fulfill that promise.
OK, with those redundancies aside, here are six defensemen the team may opt for if they are available and match up to the team's best-available-prospect draft list in rounds one or two. I have listed them in order of my personal preference rather than their Central Scouting or ISS rankings. I have also omitted likely first overall pick Seth Jones.
Please note that I consider the differences to be miniscule among the top three listed players. I would feel comfortable and confident with the Flyers taking any of top three with the 11th pick, would be happy if the traded down just a couple spots and took any of the next three and would consider any the rest to be promising upper second-round possibilities.
Ryan Pulock: In my opinion, Pulock is the defenseman in the Draft with the highest all-around upside after Jones. He may not be the second or even the third defenseman off the draft board, but he'd be the blueliner I'd have the highest after Jones.
As I see it, the primary reason why Pulock is not the consensus second-ranked D-man in the 2013 Draft is the chip fracture in his wrist that caused him to miss time this season and knocked him out of the Top Prospects Game. Even after he returned to the Wheat Kings' lineup, he was not quite at 100 percent for several weeks.
Looking beyond the injury, which is now fully healed, there is a lot to like about Pulock's potential. Start with his shooting. He possesses a rocket of a shot, which has been clocked at over 100 miles per hour. More importantly, he gets his shots on the net and doesn't have a long, slow windup. As such, he stands a very good chance of becoming a top-unit power play point man as he develops in the professional ranks.
Pulock is also fairly reliable on the defensive side of the puck. Forget his plus-minus ranking this year. His minus-seven was a reflection of playing on a bad Brandon club. His defensive game is not yet NHL caliber but is evolving at a satisfactory clip toward that status. In limited viewing exposures, I saw him routinely make a good first pass out of the defensive zone and generally makes the right reads on opposing rushes. All the tools are there to become a dependable two-way defenseman.
Pulock is not the speediest defenseman in the draft class in foot races, but he's not a deficient skater. Likewise, he's not always mean or physical but has it in him to play that way when the situation dictates it. In a mid-November game against Kootenay that I caught via webcast, he threw a pair of crushing hits on a single shift with his team trailing 2-0 early in the game. The Wheaties lost the game, 5-3, but Pulock had nothing to do with any of the Ice's goals and was easily the best defenseman on the ice for either side in that match. He also contributed a power play goal to the effort.
In an age of behemoth defensemen who can also skate well, Pulock's frame (6-feet, 210 pounds) is average sized but far from small. He will continue to fill out.
A late 1994 birthday player, Pulock was too young for the eligibility cutoff last year. As such, he is one of the older and more experienced (three WHL seasons) first-year-eligible members of the 2013 Draft class. Some may view that as something that works against him but I disagree. He is still plenty early in his projectability cycle, and it's silly to say that a difference of less than a year in a teenage player's birthdate is a significant issue in downgrading his potential relative to his peers.
Pulock probably won't be ready for the NHL next season, but the extra lower-level development time and chance at playing for Canada at the World Junior Championships won't hurt him a bit. He is already the captain of the Wheat Kings, and is considered a hard-worker with future leadership potential in the pro ranks.
When the total package is weighed, I view the righthanded-shooting Pulock as a relatively safe pick (as teenage defensemen go) with NHL first-pairing caliber offensive upside and middle-pairing defensive upside. I don't view any of the other candidates as having the equivalent combination of the two. As such, he'd be my top player after Jones.
Rasmus Ristolainen: SM-liiga games are very hard to view on the Web in North America apart from daily highlight packages from each of the games around the league. As such, the only live-game action I have personally seen Ristolainen play was two of his World Junior Championship games, where he captained the team and looked very solid. The other information comes from a longtime contact in Finland and research.
Ristolainen has played in SM-liiga for two seasons, albeit for a needy TPS Turku squad. He is ranked as a potential top-10 pick in this year's draft because he has a combination of size, speed and two-way upside. He is a safe pick because of strong potential to play in the NHL in the near future. From there, it remains to be seen how he high he can rise on the depth chart as he goes through the learning curve.
Despite what you may have seen in an oft-circulated highlight package, Ristolainen is more puck-mover than a razzle-dazzle offensive defenseman. He is a high-end puckhandler with good east-west movement but offensive upside is more theoretical than actually demostrated at any level. He's also not this "big, mean physical presence" but he doesn't shy away from delivering or taking hits.
While it is possible his offensive game could surge, he is not on a standard track that one typically sees of a future NHL power play quarterback. Ristolainen did not dominate offensive at even the junior ranks (going as far back as the Under-16 level). He is supposedly equal or better than Pulock in making accurate breakout passes and superior in leading the rush himself. Defensively, his upside is similar to Pulock's -- not quite on a future shutdown defenseman track but someone who projects as generally steady and reliable. Right now, Ristolainen is the more polished defensive player and definitely the smoother skater.
The lone reason I have Pulock slightly ahead of Ristolainen is Pulock's superior offensive upside. If one of the two is going to evolve into a top pairing NHL player, I think it will be Pulock. On the flip side, Ristolainen can attain a number three or four puck-moving and two-way role in the NHL through a fairly linear process with a normal rate of improvement through experience and continued physical strength-building.
Darnell Nurse: Many folks seem to have Nurse as the top defenseman after Jones. There is a good chance, in fact, that he will be the second defenseman off the board and will be gone multiple spots ahead of where the Flyers pick.
The reason: Nurse's combination of physical tools, size, athleticism and work ethic are nearly of the same quality as Jones. His offensive game and puck skills are nowhere close to Jones' at this stage, but that's almost an unfair standard for comparison. The one area where Nurse has a decided edge on Jones is physical play. Nurse routinely plays with a mean streak and loves to initiate contact. Jones does so sporadically.
Those who favor Nurse as the second defenseman off the board point first to his potential to be a big-bodied, aggressive shutdown defenseman who can also skate well. Secondarily, supporters point to the fact that he showed significant puck skill improvement this year; not only in his increased point production but also in terms of poise and execution in working the puck to safety under forechecking pressure.
Three of the four NHL scouts with whom I spoke, however, do not think Nurse projects as much of a point-producer or first unit power play option in the NHL. He does not have particularly keen offensive instincts and he misses the net quite a bit with his heavy shot. That said, he showed significant improvement this past year and seems determined to keep working at it. He has the physical tools for continued betterment, although the offensive side of the game may not come as naturally to him as other facets.
Defensively, Nurse has shutdown defenseman potential but is very raw. Through over-zealousness still gets out of position a fair amount and overplays the puck carrier at times. He makes some tremendous plays but is also prone to some low-percentage gambles -- with and without the puck -- that end up in the back of his team's net. He takes more than his share of bad penalties, and can pretty easily be goaded at this early phase of his career. These things can be improved over time and it often said that it's easier to coach a player to tone down over-aggressiveness than it is to get a timid, indecisive or unmotivated player to be assertive.
Nurse is already big and strong, with considerable strength packed on his lean 6-foot-5 frame and the potential to turn into physical monster as he continues to fill out. That is the mental image that drives the projections of him as a top-six to top-10 pick. Even at his current sub-200-pound weight, the towering blueliner could probably handle the physical rigors of the NHL right away.
I have Nurse third after Jones because he is a riskier pick than either Ristolainen or Pulock, requiring the biggest leap of faith in raw physical potential turning into a bonafide NHL game worthy of a high-end first round pick. I strongly suspect he will have a protracted learning curve ahead of him. However, he is one of the two most physically intimidating draft candidates out there and it's easy to see why many are excited about his potential.
Josh Morrissey: Morrissey has a high offensive upside, somewhat comparable to Pulock's. Although he doesn't have Morrissey's howitzer of a shot, Morrissey has a quick shot release and gets pucks on net with above-average regularity. He is arguably the best pure skating defenseman among the players listed here. He also makes some tremendous head-man passes that catch forwards in stride.
Morrissey's size is average, and he has a lot more filling out to do to stand up to the pounding he'll take in the pro game. Defensively, he was considered a little below-average heading into the 2012-13 season but put a lot of those fears aside this year. He plays with some chippiness to his game but his style of play is more finesse-oriented than anything else. He is coming off a very strong Under-18 World Championship tournament for gold medal winning Team Canada.
General projections for Morrissey's draft position fall in the middle portion of the first round. It is possible that the Flyers could successfully move down a few places in round one, pick up an additional pick. and still have Morrissey on the board for their selection. It is just as possible that some NHL team has Morrissey higher than on their list and he's gone. I do think he'll be there at number 11 regardless -- and would not be a significantly off-the-board pick in any spot after the top 10.
Robert Hägg: During the World Junior Championships, former Flyers forward Mikael Renberg (now a hockey commentator on SVT) said on Swedish television that Flyers scouts had approached him to get his opinions on Hägg. Renberg did not otherwise disclose what information had been shared but it is at the very least evident that the Swedish blueliner is on Philly's radar screen.
Most draft projections and rankings peg Hägg as a late first-round pick or even an early second-rounder. However, one Swedish-based NHL scouting contact and one of the NHL.com mock drafts have Hägg ranked as a potential top-10 pick in the draft.
Hägg, who split the 2012-13 season roughly in half between Modo's J20 and Elitserien rosters, has a combination of size, mobility and puck skills. I watched a fair amount of Elitserien hockey this season and Hägg looked good in limited ice time in several Modo games plus Sweden's WJC games that I caught.
Although one of the scouting reports I've read likened his physical game to feared Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall, I saw more of a traditional Swedish two-way puck-mover from my observations. Perhaps the nasty edge came out in other games, but Hägg to me seemed to be more in the Kim Johnsson or Kenny Jönsson mold than a Kronwall type who makes opposing players skate with their head on a swivel apart from his other skills.
Hägg was too good for SuperElit level this season, averaging nearly a point per game at the J20 level. He had one assist in 27 Elitserien games but that had more to do with ice time and focus on improving all around than it did a lack of potential to produce at higher levels as he continues to grow and mature.
The defenseman played admirably at U20 WJC and was easily Sweden's best defenseman on an otherwise underachieving U18 WJC squad. He will not be NHL ready within the next year or two. However, the mutual benefit of the new NHL-SIF transfer agreement, which enables NHL teams to hold onto the signing rights of 18-year-old draftees for four years, is that it will enable Hägg to develop at his own pace without being rushed to the pros.
The NHL team that drafts Hägg may very well have to wait for him until he's 21 or 22 to be ready to play over here. But if he develops the way he's capable of developing, the NHL team would be getting a young player with potential to step into a significant role by his second or third North American season.
Nikita Zadorov: Projections for Zadorov are all over the map. I've seen him projected as high as a top-10 pick and as low as a late first-rounder. I have him sixth among defensemen because I don't think he has the offensive upside to justify his selection unless the Flyers move down a few spots.
Zadorov is already a monster physically, standing at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds at age 18. He can sometimes play a very physical brand of hockey and his skating is not at all deficient despite his huge frame. Although he could stand to become more consistent, Zadorov likes to hit and sometimes tries to intimate with his size. He's even dropped the gloves a few times when others have taken exception to his manhandling of teammates.
In terms of offensive upside, well, there isn't a whole lot. While some optimistic supporters look at his collection of tools and wonder if perhaps he could be a late-blooming offensive standout as well as shutdown defender in the Zdeno Chara mold, I think his more realistic upside is as an even bigger version of New Jersey's Anton Volchenkov.
While there probably won't be too many defensemen available later in the draft with the same combination of size and athleticism, I would prefer to select a player with a little more offensive game in the top half of the first round. Others, including the only people that really matter -- Paul Holmgren and the Flyers scouts -- may disagree and be someday proven right that he will be a top-pairing defenseman.
Shea Theodore: A run-and-gun offensive defenseman in the WHL, Theodore has very good skating, passing and shooting skills. He needs to fill out -- a lot -- and still needs considerable work on the defensive side of the game (even forgetting the ugly plus-minus ratings that have been part and parcel to playing on defensively challenged Seattle teams the last two seasons). Those question marks may push him to the lower end of the first round or early second.
Samuel Morin: Former NHL executive and scout Craig Button loves Morin, so much so that his mock draft for TSN projected the Flyers going way off the board to take Morin with the 11th overall pick. The general projections on Morin have him going anywhere from the late 1st round to the middle of the second round. It made me wonder if Button had either had a tip-off on the Flyers' interest in the player or if he was simply projecting his own fondness for the player onto the Flyers' still-existing image as a team that values toughness above all else.
Morin is a rawhide tough defensive defenseman whose upside some like Button have likened to a less hyped version of Zadorov or even current Flyers blueliner Luke Schenn. The offensive upside is modest at best but he is very aggressive and physical with a 6-foot-6 frame to back it up.
Unless Button knows something about Philly's intentions, Morin would seem to be candidate for a trade-down pick later in the first round and would be a low-risk selection come round two if he makes it down that far.
Steve Santini: Holmgren, an active advisory voice in USA Hockey, is a believer in the work of the US National Team Development Program and likes big-framed players in general. NTD product Santini has the potential to be a puck mover with a physical edge to his game as well. I liked what I saw of him in the three U18 Worlds games I watched. Santini is a collegiate-track player, committed to Boston College next season. If the Flyers were to draft him in the second round, they'd have up to four years to sign him, although most of the college players do not play more than one or two more NCAA seasons after being drafted. Santini could probably use at least three college seasons, in my opinion.