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2008 Draft Preview: Top 10 Defensemen

June 11, 2008, 8:39 PM ET [ Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The NHL Entry Draft class of 2008 is touted as being the deepest since 2003, thanks largely to a plethora of highly touted defensemen. Some pundits even predict that this year’s draft will someday be remembered as one of the best ever in terms of blueliners who go on to have long, productive NHL careers.

That remains to be seen, of course. Defensemen typically take longer to mature than forwards. There’s a lot of guesswork involved in projecting how a player will mature physically and conquer the mental aspects of the game. But what sets this year’s crop apart – at least on the top end of the draft – is that there are several players who are exceptionally polished for teenaged defenders.

In February, I asked a scout where he thought last year’s top-rated defensemen (such as Karl Alzner, Keaton Ellerby, Jonathan Blum and Nick Petrecki) would be ranked if 2008 were their draft year.

The reply: “They’d be ranked lower than [Zach] Bogosian, [Drew] Doughty, and [Alex] Pietrangelo, and maybe [Luke] Schenn as well. That’s not a knock on the kids who were drafted last year. This is just a special group, and I think we’ll see some of these [2008] guys beat a lot of last year’s picks to the NHL.”

Coincidentally, most of the top players in this year’s draft are righthanded shooting defensemen. In fact, including probable top overall pick Steven Stamkos and winger Nikita Filatov, it’s possible that the top six picks of the draft will all be righthanded shots.

On the whole, how deep is this year’s defense group? There’s a good chance there’ll be a dozen first rounders who play defense. There are no fewer than 16 candidates whom at least some scouts consider potential first-rounders depending on where individual teams have the players ranked.

Coming into the season, Drew Doughty was the consensus top defenseman in the draft. He’s subsequently been leapfrogged by Bogosian in many projections (including Central Scouting’s final rankings). Some scouts also have Pietrangelo ahead of Doughty. I still give Doughty the top spot, however.

1 Drew Doughty (6'0", 219 lbs. Born: December 8, 1989, Shoots: R)

Rankings: Central Scouting #3 North American (#2 defenseman), ISS #4 overall (#2 defenseman), THN #2 overall (#1 defenseman), McKeen’s #4 overall (#3 defenseman), Redline #1 defenseman.

Ontario Hockey League defenseman Doughty (Guelph) and Bogosian (Peterborough) are likely to be compared to each other for years to come. I gave Doughty the nod because, at least in my view, he has the higher offensive upside and the ability to take over games when he has the puck on his stick. There aren’t many defensemen who cause opposing forecheckers to back off, out of fear they’ll get burned. He’s also a superior powerplay defenseman for such a young player.

The biggest gripe about Doughty – his conditioning – has been addressed, although there’s still room for him to improve in order to be ready for the ultra-intense grind of the NHL. While he’s not mistake-proof defensively, his hockey sense jumps out. He’ll have a learning curve, but should emerge as a reliable two-way player. Even now, when he’s at his best, he stops forwards in their tracks and enables his team to clear the zone cleanly.

“He’s still got some work to do away from the puck, but it’s nothing that won’t come with experience,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “If he lacked hockey sense, you’d worry, but he’s got a good head for the game. The conditioning is something that could hold him back if he’s not careful, but he’s not a Pavel Brendl who is lazy and unmotivated about it. Doughty seems to know that it’s something he has to take care of. I still see him as a guy who’s eventually going to be able to play 25 minutes a night in the NHL with no problem.”

2. Zach Bogosian (6’2", 197 lbs. Born: July 15, 1990, Shoots: R)

Rankings: Central Scouting #2 North American (#1 defenseman), ISS #3 overall (#1 defenseman), THN #3 overall (#2 defenseman), McKeen’s #2 overall (#1 defenseman), Redline #2 defenseman.

Easily the premier American prospect in this year’s draft, there are many scouts who think Bogosian caught and passed Doughty this year, and is both the safer short-term selection as well as having slightly higher long-term upside as a two-way defenseman.

“He has almost the same skill as Doughty, without the question marks. The difference is skating and body type,” wrote an Eastern Conference scout. “Bogosian gets from point A to point B a little faster, because he’s smoother on his skates and takes better angles than Doughty. He also has the better NHL frame. In a few years, he’s going to a monster. …He’s physical, he’s fast and he’s a competitor, plus he’s going to play on the powerplay.”

While I would personally lean toward Doughty if I were picking for Los Angeles, I would also love to be in Atlanta’s spot or would be willing to trade value –a good young NHL player and a high-end pick – to get in position to draft Bogosian.

3. Alex Pieterangelo (6’3”, 200 lbs. Born: Jan 18, 1990, Shoots: R)

Rankings: Central Scouting #6 North American (#5 defenseman), ISS #5 overall (#3 defenseman), THN #5 overall (#3 defenseman), McKeen’s #3 overall (#2 defenseman), Redline #4 defenseman.

At the midpoint of the season, many scouts had Pietrangelo as the second or (even the top) defenseman in the Class of 2008 because of his combination of size, poise, skating ability and puck skills. A few even likened Pietrangelo to Chris Pronger, minus the mean streak.

“I think a better comparison is Braydon Coburn with more offensive zip,” said another scout. “He’s only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of his potential. He’s big and smooth now, but he has the chance to really be something special if he puts it all together.”
Inconsistency is what knocked Pietrangelo down a peg in the eyes of some scouts. He also battled mononucleosis and a ruptured spleen, which forced him out of the NHL Scouting Combine.

“He’s a little too laid back sometimes. There are times he backs in when he ought to challenge the guy. I like him but my concern is that he might be a guy who everyone keeps expecting a little more from because of his physical tools,” said a Western Conference scout.

4. Luke Schenn (6’2”, 215 lbs. Born: Nov 2, 1989, Shoots: R)

Rankings: Central Scouting #5 North American (#4 defenseman), ISS #6 overall (#4 defenseman), THN #6 overall (#4 defenseman), McKeen’s #5 overall (#4 defenseman), Redline #3 defenseman.

Schenn is this year’s version of Karl Alzner in that he’s a physically mature player whom many believe will be NHL ready quickly. Neither player has much offensive upside but both have the potential to be shutdown defensemen who can be paired with a more offensive-minded back on a team’s first or second pairing. He’s a punishing hitter who is also sound positionally. Schenn won’t make a lot of dazzling stretch passes but he also won’t get victimized by many giveaways.

Schenn, however, is even more highly regarded than Alzner was a year ago. The Kelowna Rockets back often gets compared to Adam Foote in terms of his defensive potential (The Hockey News, McKeen’s and Red Line Report all used Foote as a comparison player).

However, an Eastern Conference scout with whom I emailed honed in on a younger player:
“I’d compare his potential to Mike Komisarek in terms of being a guy who’s big and real nasty to play against. There’s guys who pull up when he’s on the ice. We saw that at the WJC. That said, I think he can stand to improve his skating.”

5. Luca Sbisa (6’2”, 192 lbs. Born: Jan 30, 1990, Shoots: L)

Rankings: Central Scouting #12 North American (#6 defenseman), ISS #10 overall (#5 defenseman), THN #17 overall (#8 defenseman), McKeen’s #15 overall (#7 defenseman), Redline #8 defenseman.

Some North American scouts scoff at Swiss hockey. While Switzerland has narrowed the gap between itself and the top seven hockey countries, you still hear some who say the Swiss systems create a collection of soft, timid players who play a staid, conservative game and are afraid to play the small-rink game for fear of getting hit.

Sbisa earned points for leaving EV Zug in Switzerland early to play in the WHL for Lethbridge. In general, there’s no evidence that shows players who leave Europe early for the CHL do better in the NHL. It does, however, sometimes make prospects more attractive in the eyes of scouts and speed up off-ice adjustments. In Sbisa’s case, the usual “is the Swiss kid too soft” question mark was erased by the poise he showed in the Western League.

Without question, mobility is the converted forward’s calling card. He covers a lot of ground in a hurry and starts the breakout with smart, crisp passes. Just as important, he’ll take a hit to make a play. He doesn’t do much hitting, but will finish his check in the corners.
Offensively, Sbisa got out of the gates quickly, averaging nearly a point per game over the first 18 games of the season. Thereafter, he produced a modest 18 points over the final 46 games of the regular season.

“I don’t see him as a big powerplay guy, anyway, although people are going to compare him against [Mark] Streit,” said a Western Conference scout. “He’s more of a guy you might see on a second powerplay unit and who plays about 18 minutes a game. He could be more reliable defensively than Streit. As he matures, I think you’ll see a guy who’s pretty good with or without the puck.”

6. Michael Del Zotto (5’11”, 211 lbs. Born: June 24, 1990, Shoots: L)

Rankings: Central Scouting #15 North American (#8 defenseman), ISS #17 overall (#7 defenseman), THN #15 overall (#7 defenseman), McKeen’s #28 overall (#8 defenseman), Redline NR.

Del Zotto is the designated whipping boy in this year’s draft – a preseason consensus top-10 draft pick about whom many scouts soured quickly.

“He’s going to be a high-scoring defenseman someday but it might be in the AHL,” one Eastern Conference scout groused. “Fans will wonder why this guy doesn't get more ice time, but any hockey person will know why. He’s one dimensional, and I don’t even know if he skates well enough to be a big offensive guy in the NHL. Defensively, he’s a nightmare. He turns over pucks and he can’t cover. There are a lot of guys I’d draft before him.”

Nevertheless, there is still a significant contingent who believes that Del Zotto has huge offensive upside and will develop into at least an adequate player in his own zone.

“He’s got skills with the puck you just can’t teach, and a tremendous shot,” wrote another Eastern scout. “There are other areas where he needs work, but I think he’ll get there. I thought he got better as the year went along, but he got off to a bad start and had some rough nights when there were a lot of us watching him. There were other nights where he was took over games with the puck on his stick. I honestly don’t think he’s all that far off where he needs to be. I still think he is going to be a good NHL defenseman.”

From my own point of view, I’d rather swing for the fences and miss with Del Zotto than make a conservative pick on a player with significantly less upside. How many true powerplay trigger man prospects are there? Not many.

A defenseman who averages a point per game (63 points in 64 regular season games), scores 16 goals as a 17-year-old and puts on the sort of shooting display Del Zotto did at the Top Prospects Skills Competition (breaking all four targets in four shots) deserves a long look once you move past the slam-dunk defensemen at the head of the class.

7. Tyler Myers (6’7”, 205 lbs., Born: Feb. 1, 1990, Shoots L)

Rankings: Central Scouting #4 North American (#3 defenseman), ISS #15 overall (#6
defenseman), THN #11 overall (#5 defenseman), McKeen’s #19 overall (#10 defenseman), Redline #5 defenseman.

The reason for Myers’ high ranking is that many scouts look at his rare combination of size and natural athleticism. He’s still raw as a defenseman (Myers played forward until he reached major junior hockey) and has modest offensive upside. He improved significantly from the beginning of the season until the end.

“He can dominate at times, and you have to figure it’s going to take him awhile to unlock all the things he can do with that size and skating ability,” said a Western Conference scout. “He’s not a safe pick necessarily, but I think he’s going to be a very good NHL defenseman as he gains more experience and confidence. …I think that’s the issue more than hockey sense.”

8. Tyler Cuma (6-1, 181 lbs. Born: Jan. 19, 1990, Shoots L)

Rankings: Central Scouting # 19 North American (#11 defenseman), ISS #30, THN#28 (#11 defenseman), McKeen’s #17 overall (#9 defenseman), Redline #7 defenseman.

Cuma is a similar prospect to Sbisa, except his offensive upside may be a tad lower. But he’s a good puck mover who has the potential to be a reliable pro defender. He’s not a high-profile pick because he doesn’t have the flair of the big names, but he’s a shoo-in to a be a first round pick.

“Considering that he’s a converted forward, I think he’s come along pretty far. He can skate and he can take the body. Cuma was a good defenseman on a weak team, which to me says something. He ate a lot of minutes and I think he’ll be that same type of pro player as he gets bigger and stronger. I think he’s a pretty safe pick and he may have a little more offensive game than you might think.” said an Eastern Scout.

9. Erik Karlsson (5-9, 160 lbs. Born: May 31, 1990, Shoots R)

Rankings: Central Scouting #4 European (#1 Euro defenseman), THN #71 overall (#29 defenseman), McKeen’s #10 overall (#5 defenseman)

The Frölunda Indians junior system has been the most prolific development program in Sweden in recent years. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is another one of the fine young prospects to emerge as an NHL candidate (although he only joined Frölunda this year after playing in the Troja Ljungby amd Södertälje SK systems).

In my opinion, if he’d played in North America this year or was bigger physically, he’d have been higher in some of the rankings. Two highly respected European scouts said that his skill level is just a shade below the big names in the draft. Karlsson took Best Defenseman honors at the Under-18 World Championships after posting seven points and a plus-eight rating for a somewhat underachieving Swedish squad. He also had a strong Four Nations tourney.

“I don’t think [his size] will hold him back, but that’s an issue right now,” said a Western Conference Euro scout. “He sees the ice well and he doesn’t back down. He’s very good with the puck and has improved his play away from the puck. His offensive upside is very high.”

At the J20 SuperElit level, Karlsson posted 25 points in 27 games (eight goals, six on the powerplay) during the first phase of the season and was plus-11. In the spring Top 8 phase, he put up 12 points in 11 games (five goals, three on the powerplay, two shorthanded) and was plus-seven. In the J20 playoffs, he suited up for five of the eight games Frölunda played en route to repeating as champions. He had one point (a powerplay goal) and was plus-three.

Karlsson also cracked Elitserien this year, playing in seven games with Frölunda’s senior team. He tallied his first elite league point on a powerplay goal and was plus-two. He wasn’t out for a goal against in his stint with the big club.

10. Colten Teubert (6-3, 190 lbs. Born: March 8, 1990, Shoots R)

Rankings: Central Scouting #18 North American (#10 defenseman), ISS #18 (#8 defenseman), THN #13 overall (#6 defenseman), McKeen’s #14 overall (#6 defenseman), Redline #6 defenseman.

Teubert is this year’s version of Nick Petrecki – a nasty, physical defenseman who is considered a safe pick by almost all scouts. He’s the draft’s most punishing hitter but is also considered a more sound positional player and more mobile than some scouts rated Petrecki a year ago. He’ll drop the gloves when he needs to.

Teubert had a strong U18 WJC for gold medalist Canada, cementing himself as a likely top 20 pick in the draft, even if defensemen with higher upsides are left on the board.

“I think Teubert could have a career like Luke Richardson, where he outlasts the other guys because every team needs a guy like him,” said an Eastern Conference Scout. “Luke stepped right in but it took him a while to simplify his game and pick his spots. Teubert could be that same type of player. He’s a warrior you want on your team.”
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