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NHL Draft Preview: Could it be defense for the Penguins in the first round?

An unexplored possibility looms large, that Pittsburgh might look to add a defenseman at pick 21

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Ottawa 67s v Mississauga Steelheads Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

Almost all of my scouting and the talk we’ve had here for the 2019 NHL draft has revolved around the idea of the Penguins selecting a forward with their first round pick. The rationale being that forwards usually can get to the NHL level quicker, which matters greatly for a club like Pittsburgh that needs to maximize value early as much as possible, if possible.

Then again, as The Athletic’s Corey Pronman pointed out - Pittsburgh is really more beggars than choosers considering they don’t have much at all in the way of high-end NHL talent.

The Penguins need everything, be it forward or defense, in the pipeline, so the most talented player should be their pick. Teams have speculated they are in on the two European defensemen in Bjornfot and Heinola.

In Pronman’s latest draft, with forwards like Raphael Lavoie, Ryan Suzuki and Nils Hoglander on the board, he elected to mock select Tobias Bjornfot for Pittsburgh. (Ville Heinola was mock selected at pick 20).

Since Bjornfot to the Pens has picked up a bit of traction - on the internet world at least - here’s a nice bit of detail from Habs Eyes on the Prize with quotes from his coach in Sweden:

“He might not be spectacular, but he makes it easy for his partner. He is calm, collected, and secure, and he will do the dirty work, too. It is very easy to play beside a player like that.”

The problem for a defender coming out of Sweden nowadays is that everyone is looking for the next Erik Karlsson. In some ways he is shaped in the mould of the new Swedish defender, but he compares more to Nicklas Lidström than Karlsson. Björnfot is strong in the battles along the boards and in open ice. He is not always spectacular, but Mr. Ohlsson points out that “sometimes the hard thing is to do the simple thing right.”

“Björnfot is that player,” he continues. “He doesn’t have to do the spectacular thing all the time, but he knows he can do it. He is happy to hit the blade of the player with speed. He gets others to shine, rather than shine himself.”

Other names who make sense and might be in the mix include Thomas Harley and Matthew Robertson. It seems like Bjornfot, Heinola and Robertson are all relatively safe but lower ceiling type of defenders and Harley has more boom/bust potential.

Drafting defense high wouldn’t be shocking under Jim Rutherford - his Carolina Hurricanes used high picks over the years on players like Brian Dumoulin (51st overall in 2009), Justin Faulk (37th overall in 2010) and Ryan Murphy (12th overall in 2011). The remaining scouts in place from Rutherford also took Haydn Fleury seventh overall in 2014 a few weeks after he left the Canes.

It’s also interesting since, as mentioned a bit yesterday, that this is the early days of Patrick Allvin as the Pens’ lead scout. Allvin was aggressive in 2018 adding high-end boom or bust type of prospect in Calen Addison with the Pens’ first pick in the second round, then Pittsburgh traded up back into the second to get a potential high-end skill forward prospect in Filip Hallander.

And as our bud Jesse put it about Bjornfot:

In fact, seven picks in the last three years have been made directly out of Sweden or Finland. For that reason, Tobias Bjornfot makes a lot of sense for the Penguins. Bjornfot wouldn’t be considered a great reach here, and I’d go as far as to call him a relatively safe pick. He’s a steady, unassuming defenseman who plays big minutes and skates about as well as anyone in this draft class.

Any trends? Tough to say without a first round pick history to draw off of recently, and the 21st pick in the draft is certainly late enough to where any of several possibilities could play out. High end center prospect like Suzuki? Sure. Speed and size like Lavoie? Perhaps. But I probably shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility that Pittsburgh looks to defense in the form of a player like Bjornfot or Heinola that would finally give the Pens a left handed defenseman with NHL potential.