Without doubt, the 2012 NHL Entry Draft belongs to the blueliners.
Scouts, media and even fans of the game have been talking about the impressive talent available on the blueline that the 2012 draft holds for the past couple season and that depth has only grown as these prospects enter their pivotal draft seasons.
There is a handful of future top pairing NHL defenseman in this bunch, a couple who could develop into the NHL’s elite, as well as those who will likely find employment on a NHL squads the second and third defensive pairings for the next 15 seasons.
So who are these prospects?
Future Considerations’ choice as well as most of the NHL teams top draft eligible defenseman early in the season is Everett Silvertips captain and two-way force Ryan Murray. Murray is a super posed and calm puck mover who also plays as close to a mistake free game as you will find.
Murray skates well and controls the game from the backend like few 17-year-old defenseman ever have. His poise with the puck and vision up ice make him a danger to hit a teammate no matter where they are on the ice. He also has the ability to use his strong positioning and a quick stick to negate an opponents attack.
Murray has been chased down a bit already this summer by fellow Western Hockey Leaguers Mathew Dumba and Morgan Rielly. Both made big time contributions at the summers U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament for the gold medal winning Canadian squad and made big impacts on scouts in attendance at the NHL’s Research, Development and Orientation camp in Toronto.
Scouts are excited about the explosive offensive ability shown by Red Deer’s Dumba, who skates extremely well and has a lethal shot. His ability to physically shut down opponents as well as his perfectly timed open ice hits are also another area that has some scouts thinking he could end up being selected towards the top of the 2012 NHL draft.
Moose Jaw Warriors two-way defenseman Morgan Rielly is less of a wild stallion type and more of a controlled, refined puck mover/solid defensive presence than the aforementioned Dumba, Rielly sees the ice very well, has great instincts and plays a pretty well rounded game in all zones.
While Rielly is not a physical threat like his Rebels counterpart, he does have the skills that NHL team covet in the faster transitions of the NHL game.
Windsor Spitfires two-way threat Nick Ebert is another prospect who will likely jump up the draft board early in the season as he becomes the club’s top defenseman after Ryan Ellis’ graduation to the professional ranks.
Ebert is as close to a do-everything type defenseman as there is in the draft. He is smart, has good size, plays physical, skates well, shows some strong offensive instincts and with a little more work on his defensive reads, can also be a shutdown blueliner in his own zone in the not to distant future.
Griffin Reinhart is a big, powerful defender playing with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League this season. He has one of the hardest shots in the draft and plays an aggressive physical style that NHL teams covet.
The only drawback going forward for young Reinhart, who is the middle son of former NHLer Paul, has to do with his skating and foot speed. He can be caught by some of the WHL’s faster forwards and needs to work on his lumbering stride. Hindering this is the fact Reinhart missed a large chunk of hockey last season, but if corrected, he could be a real riser this year.
One prospect that has so much untapped potential and will likely cause some heated debate among scouts all season as to what his future holds is United States Development Program Under-18 squad defender Jacob Trouba.
He is also big, strong and willing to play a physical role. Trouba skates very well and can deliver some of the most devastating open ice hits of all these defensemen. He shows strong offensive skills as well as he makes a good outlet pass and also can contribute with a strong point shot.
The one problem that observers see with Trouba, and one that will likely be corrected as he matures in his understanding of the game, is his defensive positioning. He can sometimes misread the oppositions attacking speed or that often he will pull himself out of position looking for that big open ice hit.
Joining the other Western Hockey League defenseman to make it a ‘big five from the Dub’ is Portland offensive minded defender Derek Pouliot. Pouliot moves the puck extremely well, joining and often times leading the rush from the backend. His smooth skating stride, smarts with the puck and impressive offensive creativity have scouts making Portland again a regular stop this season. Opinions on Pouliot range from late first rounder to knocking on the door of a top-five prospect.
After the above top dogs on the backend there are still plenty to like about the potential future NHL defenseman that the 2012 draft has to offer.
One of the more polished defenders available has to be Ottawa 67’s two-way threat Cody Ceci. Ceci, with his pro size, impressive strength, and mature, keep-it-safe game along with his physical play has to be a strong choice to stick in the NHL right out of the draft next June. Ceci has mastered the ability to pinch at the proper times and knows when to hang back. He has already improved his mobility this season and should look to add more on the offensive side as his defensive game is already a strong point. Ceci’s potential might not be as high as some of the others in his draft class, but he is a good bet to make it to the show because of his smarts and size.
Big and offensively talented United States Hockey League defender Jordan Schmaltz is pushing on the door to get into the upper echelon of defensemen for this draft. His size at six-foot-two and impressive offensive creativity make him a likely NHL point producer from the backend. Schmaltz effectively uses his good mobility and impressive vision to open up lanes for himself.
Slater Koekkoek of the Peterborough Petes displays a strong all-round game that blends strong defensive zone coverage and an offensive flare as part of his impressive future potential. While he is not naturally aggressive, Koekkoek will stick up for himself as well as use his frame to cause puck separation. He is strong in his own zone not often allowing attackers the time and space needed to generate offense.
One dark horse favorite to make a big jump up the rankings as the season wears on is Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound two-way defenseman Gianluca Curcuruto. His strong two-way game, smooth skating stride and vision from the backend make him dangerous on the rush. He can also play strong defensively, especially in his own zone, using his size and strength to eliminate attackers along the wall and keeping strong gaps.
The first overall pick in the Import Draft this past summer, London Knights Finnish defender Olli Maatta possesses a safe yet exciting two-way game that allows him to be a physical defense first type guy but also contribute offensive with strong outlet passes and the odd rush up ice. Despite all his strengths and size, Maatta’s skating ability has been called into question as he can be heavy booted evidenced especially against the faster attackers ability to beat him around the outside.
Dubuque rearguard Michael Matheson, has impressed early as scouts were all a chatter with regards to his poise and calm play with the puck at the NHL Research, Development and Orientation camp last August. His smooth skating ability and consistent effort level have many thinking he has future top four NHL potential.
Some wildcards who could sneak into the top round as the season progresses include the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dog’s creative puck rusher Jesse Graham, US NTDP under-18 squad two-way defender Brady Skjei, the Quebec leagues Dominic Poulin of Chicoutimi and Dillion Fournier of Rouyn-Noranda both of whom has some good offensive skills.
Do-it-all type Brain Cooper of the USHL’s Fargo Force as well as European defenders Ville Pokka, an offensively skilled defender with Finland’s Karpat, and Ludvig Bystrom, who impressed at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, are all ones to watch.
While this is how things look with regards to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft rearguards at the beginning of the season, the scouting game is a marathon, not a sprint. Much can and undoubtedly will change over the course of the next eight or nine months. There is a whole season ahead for these prospects to step up and challenge that top grouping.
And who steps up, or slides, remains to be seen.
Dan Stewart is the scouting director of Future Considerations and can be found on Twitter. For all the latest Future Considerations news and posts, follow FC’s Official Twitter Feed, on YouTube and on Facebook!