For the second straight year, the most talked about prospect leading up to the NHL draft is a defenseman.
Aaron Ekblad of the OHL’s Barrie Colts is the top-ranked player and like Seth Jones last season, has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone defenseman with an all-around skill set.
Unfortunately for teams that would prefer to draft a defenseman in Round 1, there are very few top-tier blueliners available after Ekblad is taken. We might not even see two defensemen selected in the top 10.
Let’s take a look at the top five blueliners in this class.
1) Aaron Ekblad
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 207 Shoots: Right
Team: Barrie (OHL)
2013-14 stats: 58 GP, 23 G, 30 A
Ekblad was just the second player ever to be granted “exceptional status” to join the OHL at an early age and won the 2013-14 OHL Defeseman of the Year award.
The 18-year-old has tremendous size, uses his strength to his advantage and plays a physical game in all three zones. He blocks shots, plays against opposing teams’ top players and kills penalties. Ekblad also is well-positioned in his own zone, is able to skate his way out of trouble and makes a good first pass out of the defensive zone to start the break out.
From an offensive standpoint, his powerful shot from the point is a huge weapon on the power play and his playmaking skills (specifically his passing) really improved over the last two years. His decision-making also is impressive and he rarely makes mistakes.
In regard to a pro player comparison, Ekblad’s ceiling is Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber, but he also reminds me of Chicago Blackahawks veteran Brent Seabrook.
He’s one of the few players in this draft class ready to play a meaningful role at the NHL level next season.
2) Haydn Fleury
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 198 Shoots: Left
Team: Red Deer (WHL)
2013-14 stats: 70 GP, 8 G, 38 A
Expect Fleury to be the second defenseman that will be selected in this draft, and the only player other than Ekblad who has the potential to be a top-pairing blueliner.
He’s a confident player with the puck on his stick and shows great poise under pressure in his own zone. Fleury is an offensive D-man skill set that includes great speed, good passing skills, tremendous vision and a hard, accurate shot from the point. He’s smart about when to join the rush and maintain a good defensive position, which should help him earn consistent ice time as a rookie.
The Anaheim Ducks (pick No. 10) and Washington Capitals (pick No. 13) are two teams that would be smart to draft Fleury if he’s still available.
3) Roland McKeown
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 186 Shoots: Right
Team: Kingston (OHL)
2013-14 stats: 62 GP, 11 G, 32 A
McKeown projects to be a quality offensive defeseman because he’s a great skater, exhibits excellent playmaking skills on the power play and he consistently finds a way to get his heavy shot from the point through traffic and on net.
McKewon’s best attribute is moving the puck to start the rush up ice. His vision is incredible and he makes accurate passes out of his own zone and under pressure.
He does need to keep improving defensively because the 18-year-old tends to be out of position at times, but the tenacity he’s added to his game over the last year has really helped him. McKeown isn’t a liability defensively and he’s shown a willingness to get better in this area of his game, which is encouraging.
4) Travis Sanheim
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 189 Shoots: Left
Team: Calgary (WHL)
2013-14 stats: 67 GP, 5 G, 24 A
Sanheim is a coveted prospect because he blends great size with excellent skating. His shot is powerful and accurate, and he’s also an effective playmaker on the power play with his vision and ability to enter the attacking zone cleanly.
He projects to be a second-pairing puck-moving defenseman. With that said, his defensive skills have really improved over the last two years, which has earned him more ice time against opposing teams’ top-six forwards.
Sanheim also is one of the most NHL-ready defensemen in this draft, and could be a player taken earlier than expected given his size and impressive offensive talent.
5) Julius Honka
Height: 5’11″ Weight: 174 Shoots: Right
Team: Swift Current (WHL)
2013-14 stats: 62 GP, 16 G, 40 A
Honka is a joy to watch on the power play. He walks the blue line with precision, unleashes a powerful shot from the point and makes quick, accurate passes to open up shooting lanes for teammates. He’s also a talented skater and shows good poise with possession of the puck.
The obvious concern with Honka is his lack of size and strength. He needs to bulk up before arriving to the NHL because he won’t win many 1-on-1 battles along the boards with his current frame.
Right now, Honka is projected to be a late first-round pick. He’s a talented player, but not someone ready to make an impact at the NHL level for another two-to-three seasons.