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Meltzer's Musings: Honka, Wednesday Quick Hits

June 11, 2014, 8:28 AM ET [551 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
HONKA OVERCOMING CONCERNS ABOUT SIZE

If Swift Current Broncos defenseman Julius Honka stood three inches taller, he would stand a good chance of challenging Red Deer Rebels blueliner Haydn Fleury to be the concensus top 2014 Draft-eligible defenseman after Aaron Ekblad. As it is, Honka is still considered a strong candidate to be a first-round pick despite his lack of size.

A Finnish import who left the JYP system to come to North America after Swift Current took him in the first round of the 2013 CHL Import Draft, Honka made an immediate impact this season in the Western Hockey League. He posted 16 goals and 56 points in 62 games, while also dressing for Finland at the World Junior Championships. Honka turned 18 on Dec. 3.

Honka adapted very quickly to the North American rink, displaying an above-average level of two-way hockey sense. He is also one of the best-skating defensemen available in this year's Draft and has a heavy and accurate shot as well as a deft passing touch.

One Western Conference NHL scout said that Honka makes intelligent reads on when to pinch in the offensive zone and shows a quick stick and good positioning in his own end of the ice. An excellent skater, even when he does misjudge a play and get caught up ice, he was frequently able to recover and get back in time to break up the play.

Honka benefited from playing with Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Dylan Heatherington (a second-round pick in 2013) as a frequent defensive partner. The left-shooting, 6-foot-4, 210-pound Heatherington meshed very well with the right shooting, 5-foot-11, 174-pound Honka.

Swift Current was coached this season by Mark Lamb, a former defensive forward who played parts of two seasons with the Flyers in the mid-1990s. Assistant coach Jamie Heward was a high-scoring offensive defenseman who captured the Eddie Shore Award as a member of the Philadelphia Phantoms' Calder Cup winning team of 1997-98.

At his introductory press conference as the Flyers' new general manager, Ron Hextall opined that while quick puck movement is at a premium around the NHL nowadays, "if you look at the best defensemen in the league, they're not small puck movers. They're bigger guys that you have some physical play, you have puck movers, you have smart guys."

While the Flyers will give preference to bigger-framed defensemen in the Draft if other things are relatively equal, they would not rule out a smaller player if he was clearly the superior player in most other ways. It remains to seen if Honka will prove to be among the exceptions -- such as Kimmo Timonen, St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk or Philadelphia prospect defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere -- but the potential is there.

If Honka is available at the 17th overall spot in the Draft and the Flyers deem him to be the best available player, he would join an increasingly promising and diverse pool of blueline prospects in the Flyers system. The fact that a fellow smallish, offensive-minded defenseman like Gostisbehere is in the system should not -- and would not -- be a deterrent. There is no such thing as having too many talented prospects in the system.

By the sheer distribution of this year's likely first-round Draft crop, the odds favor the Flyers taking a forward. Nevertheless, a defenseman like Honka could make for an intriguing alternative if the Draft plays out that way.

Central Scouting rated Honka as the 11th top skater -- and third defenseman -- on its final North American rankings. The Hockey News projected the Finn 21st on its mid-season Draft rankings. Craig Button had Honka 18th on his final Craig's List for TSN. A Western Conference NHL scout said that he thinks Honka "could go anywhere from the top 12 or so to 25th as a guesstimate", while International Scouting Services did not rank Honka in its top 30.

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WEDNESDAY QUICK HITS

* Alumni Birthdays: Power forward Scott Mellanby turns 48 today. Serge Lajeunesse, a farmhand defenseman, who dressed in one regular season game for the 1973-74 Stanley Cup champions and five games for the repeat titlists of 1975-75, turns 64.

* Today in Flyers history: On this day in 1995, the Flyers suffered one of their more heartbreaking playoff losses. In what was arguably the single play that had the biggest effect on deciding the outcome of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals, Claude Lemieux's long-distance, side-angle goal in the final minute of Game 5 gave the New Jersey Devils a 3-2 win and a three games to two lead in the series. Kevin Dineen scored a pair of goals in a losing cause for Philadelphia.

* The Flyers' annual Trial on the Isle in Stone Harbor, NJ, will take place on Mon. July 14.
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