Even though there’s still a ton of focus on the Stanley Cup Final and if Alex Ovechkin can finally bring home that elusive NHL championship he's so longed for his entire professional career, our eyes are set on the upcoming 2018 Entry Draft starting June 22, where GM Jim Rutherford and the Penguins seriously need to do their homework to find a decent second/mid-to-late round pick.
Defense should be at the the forefront of Rutherford’s mind, because as of right now, the Penguins are seriously lacking in that department prospect-wise. The organization has Kevin Czuczman, Andrey Pedan (who’s probably not returning and off to a different country), and Lukas Bengsston (who probably won’t be staying either) down with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins right now, but they’ll never move up to the NHL. Apart from them, things are dicey.
Rutherford went on to bring in Matt Hunwick in the 2017 offseason, but went out and make a trade for Jamie Oleksiak in the latter half of the season. Rutherford also turned to his scouts and signed Finnish defenseman Juuso Riikola, whom we drew up a scouting report for a couple weeks ago. As we all know, Hunwick was a massive bust, but Oleksiak, even given his less than impressive past with the Dallas Stars, has really found his stride working with Sergei Gonchar and the rest of the coaching staff. That was a big move on Rutherford’s part, but he obviously isn’t done yet. Riikola was the first step; he now has many more to complete.
Thanks to the understandably hard push to build a three-time, consecutive Stanley Cup-hopeful team, all of Pittsburgh’s first round draft picks were sent to other teams for big returns (well...other than that questionable Ryan Reaves deal). Now, Rutherford has to not only deal with the scraps left after the first round, he also has to wait until picks 54 and 64 to get a crack at the remaining players left in the draft pool. That’s the price you pay for consistent success in this league.
What I’m going to try to do is, using The Athletic’s master prospect guru Corey Pronman’s Top-74 Prospects list as a guide, narrow down the top defensive prospects the Penguins might have a chance at snagging when their name is finally called in Dallas. Of course I won’t be naming Rasmus Dahlin or Quinn Hughes, and I also won’t even be listing Bode Wilde, Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson, or Ty Smith — all guys expected to get taken in the first round. My goal is to try to keep things relatively realistic in my endeavor to bulk up Pittsburgh’s defensive talent. Some will be hopefuls potentially out of Rutherford’s reach, and some might not be the prettiest of names, but the goal is to point out names he should definitely keep in consideration.
Second Round Hopefuls
Assets: Swedish, 5-foot-11, 184 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: There seems to be another Rasmus showing scouts how good of a defensive prospect he is, and Sandin has really fit the bill. His coaches and major media analysts have complimented his “hockey sense.” For the layman, that just means that Sandin is able to anticipate plays in development — he can see something happen before it actually does, so he plays his game one step ahead of everyone else’s. Though many forwards are gifted with these types of abilities, Sandin, as a defenseman, can utilize this skill from an offensive standpoint. He’s a notable puck-moving player, and he creates chances often through outlet passes and as the offense is attacking up the ice.
However, his speed and size counteract all of that. Luckily, the 18-year-old has decent hands that highlight an elusive ability with possession of the puck, and Sandin uses that to fizzle out any pressure put on him. His gap control is good as well, which is something Pittsburgh struggled with last season. But at only 5-foot-11, Sandin isn’t that physical, and his stature could be a worrisome feature.
Assets: American, 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: Even though Miller just recently switched his forward skill set for that of defense, this kid is massive and incredibly athletic. And not only does Miller have an intimidating frame, he has a pretty impressive skating ability — probably thanks to his past position. His big body allows him to play very physical, and you can see that physicality on display during his checks. Miller is pretty speedy too and uses his closing speed on the attack quite often. Because he was a forward, his offensive ability is there to provide scoring or high-level passing in the opponent’s zone. Miller’s coach gave him tons of praise on his ability work asa shut-down defender that hits hard and can also contribute on offense, making his ceiling a little higher. That’s the Penguins’ music right there. This would be a tough get, but there’s no doubt Miller’s acquisition be a home run for Pittsburgh.
Assets: American, 5-foot-9, 172 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: This could be Rutherford’s chance to take advantage of the college hockey pool once again and grab Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Perunovich. He’s gone undrafted before, but after his stint in one of the NCAA’s best hockey conferences, the NCHC, and with all the experience gained in the World Junior Championship, Perunovich has really rounded into form. He’s also coming off a Frozen Four championship just this past year, and a runner-up placement in the tourney in 2017. His puck skills and hockey sense are his best assets, and he uses them often to set up plays in the offensive end. Perunovich’s main concerns are his size — he doesn’t really possess that much of a physical game, but that might not matter much to the Penguins, especially considering how well he uses his stick to break up plays.
Getting More Realistic: Mid-Round Picks
Assets: Canadian, 6-foot-0, 173 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: What sets Tychonick apart from the other guys within the same skill level is how well-rounded he is. His name may not jump off the board, but he balances all the attributes of a good hockey player very well and has a good confidence about him. Tychonick has been said have extremely smooth skating and footwork, and he excels at getting the puck to his teammates in scoring opportunities. He can also generate quick zone exits with his vision on the ice, which is a good quality to have form an analytical standpoint. Unfortunately, despite his height, he gets pushed around a bit, and that’s a big concern moving forward in the NHL where guys are two-to-three times bigger than the ones he’s faced in junior hockey.
Assets: Canadian, 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: Skating in this kid’s best trait, and boy, is he incredibly smooth. Because of that McIssac is confident in handling the puck and will help bring it up ice if needed. Apparently he has a high enough offensive ceiling that pits his great vision and passing together to create a potential fit on an NHL club’s second power play unit. McIssac has good size for a defenseman and will hit guys in stride. He does however make a lot of costly on-ice mistakes. Maybe Gonchar can serve up some more magic and turn him into a dynamic player. McIssac has the body to do it.
Assets: Russian, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: This kid is big, and he plays big too. Alexeyev’s physical game is unquestionably useful in the NHL, as he uses him frame to beat his opponents in puck battles, and though they aren’t the most dynamic in his draft class, his puck skills and confidence with possession of the puck are decent as well. But Alexeyev possesses question marks alongside his offensive numbers recorded in the WHL. While they were good enough to be one of the leaders for his club, it’s hard to say if they'll translate to the big league. That might be okay to Rutherford, because while you can’t teach a kid to be more physical (he’s already tough), you can groom skills and speed to a certain extent.
Assets: Canadian, 6-foot-0, 195 pounds, right-handed shot
Spin: Finally, our first right-handed prospect appears. Durzi is in his second year of draft eligibility and has been doing work for the Owen Sound in the OHL this past season. He tallied a whopping 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) as a defenseman, and showed time after time how skilled of a puck-mover he is, obviously backed by his number of recorded helpers. Durzi is said to have a “pro pace” about him with good vision and high offensive skill, and was trusted with quarterbacking the top power play unit for the Sound that was just loaded with talent. Kris Letting and Justin Schultz have these duties for Pittsburgh, and they’re right-handed shots as well, which might bode well for him. His physical game does suffer a bit, and he doesn’t possess perfect explosiveness, but Durzi’s other attributes are so fantastic, it’s easy to look past it.
If I was Rutherford, this kid would be high on my radar, as this type of defenseman is Mike Sullivan’s bread and butter when it comes to his deploying his system.
Assets: Canadian, 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: Beaudin’s biggest plus is his incredible hockey sense and I.Q. While on the ice, you’ll notice how much awareness he has, and that translates to a sort of calmness in his game. Beaudin’s vision is a product of that calmness, allowing him to set up and make plays with a good pace. He also has had success quarterbacking a talented power play unit, and scouts expect him to play the same role up in the NHL. What’s lacking is size and physicality, for which Beaudin really doesn’t have much of. Concerns lie in whether or not he'll bulk up in order to not get thrown around like a rag doll during each shift and be able to win puck battles.
What’s Left: Late-Round Picks
Assets: American, 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: This could be another diamond in the rough, home run college hockey gets by Rutherford down the line. Demin spent a lot of his younger years sharping up his skills in the Anaheim Ducks youth program in the Bantam leagues and then subsequently in the U16 and high school leagues in Washington state. Demin also had stints in the BCHL, where he proved that his specific set of tools are all evenly spaced out. He’s a very well-rounded player, but he still has a it of tuning up to do before he can make an NHL-level impact.
Enter the University of Denver hockey program. Demin will play for the storied Pioneers this coming 2018-19 season, where he’ll undoubtedly find a lot of success. Denver’s program is known for winning NCAA championships, amassing Hobey Baker nominees and awardees, and pumping out NHL talent. Demin will find a home there.
Assets: American/Swedish, 6-foot-4, 217 pounds, left-handed shot
Spin: Samuelsson has a dominant physical game, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his stature. If you follow U.S. Hockey intricately, you may recognize his name. Samuelsson captained the USNTDP this season and served as the team’s “tough-minutes” defenseman. As a complement to his toughness, he also works his ass off. You'll always see him winning puck battles after sprinting to the corners, leading breakouts in transition, and sacrificing his body to gain or re-gain possession often. Samuelsson’s puck skills are where this kid gets a little humanized — they’re nothing special. In fact, they’re pretty subpar. Fortunately, Samuelsson is pretty mobile for his size and hustle never goes unnoticed in this game. Hopefully he’ll improve his hands during his college hockey career with the Western Michigan Broncos.
Assets: Canadian, 6-foot-0, 181 pounds, right-handed shot
Spin: Overall, Bernard-Docker is average at best. He’s a decent evasive skater, and his hockey sense is good enough to get scouts to look at him. His most eye-popping trait is his puck skills, as he has a great ability of moving it in the offensive zone, as well as clearing it in his own zone. Bernard-Docker is just one of those names that, like I mentioned above, won’t jump off the board, but he’ll be a reasonable pick if he can utilize his ceiling. Plus, he’ll be making a splash in the college ranks with the University of North Dakota, a team starving for a comeback.
Assets: Swedish, 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, right-handed shot
Spin: Johansson didn’t get picked in his first year of draft eligibility, but that ended up being a really good thing for this Swedish prospect, as he ended up being one of the most lethal offensive defenseman in the top junior circuit. Johansson’s puck skills and movement are very surprising, and it immediately gets al eyes drawn to him when he’s on the ice. He protects the puck well has great hands. One thing that stood out to me though was his height-to-weight ratio. He’s a little light for how tall he is, and that raises concerns on if his physical game will be able to translate to the NHL’s menacing size. If Johansson stays lanky and frail, that’ll be detrimental to his upside and ceiling, so he’ll have to bulk up if he wants a legitimate shot as a pro.