Every team needs good defensemen and in order for them to become NHL-caliber blueliners, you need draft prospects that you can develop and integrate within the system. The entry-level draft is the easiest way to pick potential starters who could become the next Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Roman Josi, or Victor Hedman of the NHL. Just for fun: Karlsson was selected #15 overall by Ottawa in 2008, Burns was selected #20 overall by Minnesota in 2003, Josi was selected #38 overall by the Predators in 2008, and Hedman was selected #2 overall by Tampa Bay in 2009.
But where or when you’re selected doesn’t really matter. Some of the best defensemen in the league right now weren’t picked in the first round. Take a look at Sami Vatanen, who was drafted 106th overall by the Ducks, or Dustin Byfuglien, who was drafted 245th overall by the Blackhawks, or Shayne Gostisbehere, who was selected 78th overall by the Flyers, or even 3-time Stanley Cup Champion Kris Letang, who was selected 62nd overall by the Penguins. Good draft prospects develop into even better NHL defensemen and all of these names prove that point. So it doesn’t matter where you’re taken. Let’s take a look at some of the defensemen in this year’s draft.
The highest-ranked European defensemen are Miro Heiskanen, Timothy Liljegreen, and Urho Vaakanainen. Heiskanen and Liljegreen are both slated to go Top 10 in this year’s draft, and one of them could potentially go Top 3 depending on Dallas’s draft needs (or whether or not they trade the third overall pick).
Heiskanen (174 lbs, 6′ 0″) is arguably the best defenseman in this year’s draft; there’s really nothing not to like about his defensive game. He knows how to move the puck, and transition in and out of zones. He isn’t afraid to be aggressive and is already a pretty big guy. He’s played the past few years with HIFK in the Finnish Liiga and has played for Finland at the international level his entire hockey career.
Liljegren (190 lbs, 6′ 0″) has the size and should be the second defensemen off the board come draft day. He played in both Sweden’s SuperElit and SHL last year, and has played international hockey for his home country. He’s a solid defenseman and can help out offensively as well; he’s also a strong and fluid skater, and has a deadly accurate shot.
Vaakanainen (187 lbs, 6′ 1″) is also a big, strong defenseman and has also played in the Finnish Liiga; he’s also played internationally for several years. He can chip in with an assist every now and then but he isn’t offensive-minded. He’s a good two-way defensemen who can skate and see the ice well. He could be a first-rounder but with the defensemen on the North American side, he could very well slip into the second.
On the North American side, your highest-ranked defensemen are Cale Makar, Juuso Välimäki, and Callan Foote. Makar (179 lbs, 5′ 11″) is on the smaller side but is also an all-around defenseman. He’s slated to play for the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) (NCAA) in the fall and has spent the past few years playing for the Brooks Bandits (AJHL). He’s definitely an offensive defenseman: he has 135 regular season points (111 games) and 37 playoff points (46 games). He helped the Bandits win the AJHL Championship and in doing so, he was named the Most Outstanding Defenseman, Most Valuable Player, and Playoff MVP; he also had the most points by a defenseman with 75. There’s nothing to dislike about his game and he has the talent and the work ethic to justify being the first defenseman taken.
Välimäki (201 lbs, 6′ 1″) is one of the bigger, stronger defenseman in the draft and has played for the Tri-City Americans (WHL) the past two years. He’s also played for his home country of Finland at the international level. He’s an underrated blueliner who can also produce offensively and he plays a smart, two-way game. He has 93 points (26 goals and 67 assists) in 116 regular season WHL games, and just one in four playoff games. He’s also definitely a first-rounder.
Foote (209 lbs, 6′ 3″) is also a big, strong, and underrated defenseman, and plays a consistent, two-way game. He’s played the last two years with the Kelowna Rockets (WHL) and has 93 points in 142 regular season games, 16 points in 32 playoff games. He has a ton of talent and hockey sense, and is someone who’s fun to watch on the ice. He should also be a first-rounder but will definitely be taken in the second round.
Some other names on the European side are Erik Brännstrõm, Filip Westerlund, Robin Salo, Gustav Lindstrom, and Jakub Galvas. The names on the North American side are a bit more familiar: Conor Timmins, Henri Jokiharju, Nicolas Hague (who I’ve watched all season long), Pierre-Olivier-Joseph, Eemeli Rasanen, and Ian Mitchell. You should also keep an eye out for Jack Rathbone and Cale Fleury.
So this is the end of a short round-up of some of the top defensive prospects in this year’s entry-level draft and every team needs good defensive prospects to develop. Defensemen don’t need to be drafted in the first round to be good; NHL players and fans of the sport know that all too well.
The blog series ends tomorrow with a post on the top goaltending prospects in this year’s draft! The draft takes place next Friday and Saturday so be sure to tune in!