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2022 NHL Draft preview: the Penguins could sure use some defenders

A look at which defenders might make sense for the Penguins at pick #21

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2022 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

As part of the meandering series of NHL draft previews on Pensburgh, here’s some of the previous work to get up to speed about the upcoming entry draft:

-The NHL’s legendary 2003 draft class
-Examining possible US National team products for Pittsburgh at pick 21
-Logan Cooley is raising the bar for Western PA hockey players
-Ron Hextall’s historical first round drafting tendencies
-A decade review of when Pittsburgh hosted the 2012 NHL draft
-The “higher risk, higher reward” candidates in the 2022 first round

When Corey Pronman at The Athletic recently reviewed what every organization needs the most heading into the 2022 NHL draft, he chose the defense position for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Aside from goaltender, he could have easily chosen centers or scoring wingers as well. Pittsburgh lacks depth and quality throughout their organizational prospect pool, but that certainly applies at defense as much as anywhere else.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph may be getting close to NHL minutes, but other than that, the Pens don’t have any prospects in the system that currently look like they’re on a track for the NHL. Perhaps in time a long-shot prospect will emerge from a late round pick or a free agent signing, but as of now, the cupboard is very bare and not very encouraging. Even Joseph himself has completed his draft+5 season, turns 23 this summer and is far from established as an NHL player, appearing in just four games this season in the big league. It is true there are some contracts and players blocking Joseph beyond his control, but the team also played with four right-handed shots at times, indicating they felt Mark Friedman was a better NHL option. When that’s the case, it’s not exactly the mark of a hot prospect.

NHL teams should prioritize the best player they think is around in the draft, but the eye for need can not be ignored either. For the Pens, it would be a good idea to emphasize defense as one of their many areas of need if prospects are seen as close to even when it comes time to pick in the first round on draft day.

With that in mind, there could be several good candidates for the Pens to consider with the 21st pick in the draft. The top four defensemen in this class will surely be off the board when it comes time to pick (Simon Nemec, David Jiricek, Kevin Korchinski, Denton Mateychuk) and perhaps a fifth will be gone in Pavel Mintyukov as well. That still leaves some intriguing targets around when Pittsburgh picks, here are some names that are worthy of consideration.

Lian Bichsel, LHD

Various draft rankings compiled by Elite Prospects:

Bischel is a mountain of a man already at 6’5, 225 pounds and has been rising up draft rankings this year. A lot of the rankings you see above don’t accurately capture the upward momentum of his stock. The Swiss born player is plying his craft in the Swedish league and has emerged as a potential K’Andre Miller/Darnell Nurse type of rugged defensive defender that could be a 20+ minute a night player in the NHL.

Pronman wrote of Bischel:

He has good hands but there isn’t much playmaking or poise in his puck play. Defensively he’s quite good due to his reach, feet and physicality. He closes gaps like a pro and can be trusted to play hard minutes as he advances levels.

Questions remain about how Bischel’s offensive hockey sense and ability will project in the NHL. He also suffered a concussion that ended his season this year, which might be a minor footnote in the big picture, but could also be a troubling sign.

Overall though, 6’5 physical defenders who can skate are a very rare breed in the modern NHL and carry significant value. Bischel has the profile of literally becoming an impact player at least on the defensive end of the ice. The Pens have absolutely no one like Bischel in the organization right now, which makes him an intriguing consideration.

However, that could also present the issue for the Penguins — because almost no teams have a prospect that is like Bischel. He has been rising from the 30’s and 40’s in most rankings from the beginning of the season to around the 20’s now, and could easily be taken on draft day in the picks before Pittsburgh is on the clock due to his physical gift and his towering presence.

Owen Pickering, LHD

Various draft rankings compiled by Elite prospects:

Pickering is another player who is moving up the boards and growing, quite literally. He’s recently measuring in at 6’4, making him a much different player and prospect then he was a few years ago. Despite being just a ninth round pick in the WHL bantam draft, Pickering grew a few more inches and played a huge role for Swift Current this year and really turned heads when he was among Canada’s top-3 players at the U-18 tournament. He has been dramatically improving and progressing in recent times and also is seeing his stock on a big rise.

As the Winged Wheel Podcast wrote:

He had a growth spurt later in development after being an undersized mobile defenseman on his way to the WHL. The traits of a being an undersized puck mover are largely still there and Pickering values the time he spent undersized because as he put it, “It gave me the ability to develop the skill side of the game and now I am physically maturing and can bring that element as well.” If he can continue working on his coordination and maintain the mobility and puck skill that he shows at times, the Swift Current defender could make some team look very smart for selecting him on day one of the draft.

Another positive could be that Pickering fits the mold incredibly well for what a traditional “Ron Hextall fist round pick” is. Pickering was compared by Pronman to Travis Sanheim as the style of player he most resembles. Sanheim also happened to be a tall, lanky WHL defender that Hextall drafted and developed into a top-four NHL player.

This could be a classic pick of a defender with good puck skills and now a 6’4 frame to go along with being a nice skater. At just 180 pounds, he still needs to fill out more, which naturally just about any 18-year old prospect will still do as they track towards becoming a professional.

For perhaps as much as any player we’ve focused on lately, Owen Pickering is a name that sticks out to circle and make a mental note to remember on draft night. He checks an awful lot of boxes for the direction that Pittsburgh may well be looking towards, and one that also likely will be on the board when it’s their turn to make a selection.

Ryan Chesley (RHD) and Lane Hutson (LHD)

Both of these players were talked about in detail in the above link about the US National team players. Funny enough, they are opposite in nature despite coming from the same team. Chesley projects to be about as safe as an NHL pick can be as a well-rounded defensive defender with good size and a right shot. He also comes with a limited ceiling of a middle-pair player due to his offensive ability and vision/ability with the puck on his stick. Hutson is very skilled but very small, creating a narrow path to NHL success but not one without comparables in the modern game (Torey Krug, Jared Spurgeon excelling despite a lack of size).

Both of these players might be considered a bit of a reach at 21, and Hextall has traded down in the first round in his past job. Could the Pens have the possibility to move down 5-10 picks and look for one of these rearguards there while picking up an additional (needed) draft pick? Could be a possibility.

Pittsburgh has not drafted a defenseman in the first round in now a decade since 2012 (Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot). This is mainly since they haven’t had a lot of first round picks in the last decade, and as a result it shows through horribly at this point when looking at their organizational depth chart as far as having impressive prospects right now.

Talented defenders with bright futures are badly needed by the Pens, and this year’s draft should provide an opportunity to go in that direction if the team chooses to do so. It likely will not be another decade before they take another blueliner high in the draft, and 2022 might just break that streak if the right guy is still around at pick No. 21.