Welcome back to our continuation of the top five players available at every position in the upcoming draft. Previously we have covered centers, wings, and goaltenders.
So, the only position left to talk about is the blueliners, better known as defensemen. Now, what attributes teams consider in determining whether one defenseman is better than another has all become relative to the type of defender they are looking for. Some NHL executives may be looking for more of an old school defensively responsible defenseman like the great Larry Robinson, whose career +722 average helped him hoist the Stanley Cup on six separate occasions. Others may prefer one more offensive-minded, like the legendary Ray Bourque, who netted 410 goals in his career. Not saying that one type is better than the other it just depends on what type a general manager may need or want to add to his club at the present time. I’m an old goaltender, so I like my defensemen to take care of things in their own end before they go jumping up into the play in the offensive zone. Remember, a player can score 50 goals a year, but if he’s on the ice when his opponent scores 60, is he really being that effective?
Keeping that philosophy in mind, I constructed this list of the following players.
5. Luca Cagnoni
The first player on my list comes from the Western Hockey League’s (WHL’s) Portland Winterhawks, and his name is Luca Cagnoni. Luca is an 18-year-old left-hand shot defender who stands at just 5’10 and weighs 172 pounds. With this season being Cagnoni’s third in the WHL, he has more than proven that he can excel at both ends of the ice. For example, offensively, Luca is scoring at a rate of 1.00 points per game (P.P.G.), totaling 15 goals and 45 assists for 60 points in 60 games played. What may be more impressive, though, is what he has been able to do defensively, considering the talent he faces on a nightly basis in the WHL. Through 133 total regular season games played with the Winterhawks, Cagnoni has averaged a career +45. Because of these traits mentioned, Luca is projected by many to hear his name called in the second round. So, if this two-way defender can hit the gym and get a little stronger in the future, he has the chance to be a top-four defender in the NHL.
4. Lukas Dragicevic
Is a 17-year-old right-hand-shot defenseman who currently is playing in the WHL for the Tri-City Americans. He is 6’2 and 181 pounds and is on this list purely because of his offensive abilities. Throughout 61 games played this season, Lukas has scored 15 goals and an incredible 53 assists to achieve 68 points. Folks, that’s a defenseman who is scoring at a rate of 1.11 points per game right now! From his long outlet passes, he puts right on the tape of a teammate in full stride. To his ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone, I guarantee you Dragicevic’s skill set has more than one NHL executive dreaming of what he could do on his franchise’s power play unit right now. The only problem is Lukas has to learn when to go and when to stay at home, seeing that he, unlike others on this list, is a minus player. And once again, I reiterate it doesn’t matter how many points you score if you’re out on the ice when the other team scores more.
3. Etienne Morin
In the third slot, I have possibly my favorite defender in this draft, 18-year-old Etienne Morin. Morin, who is also expected to go in the second round this summer, plays for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). He is another responsible left-hand shot two-way defender who excels at both ends of the ice, but where his game differs from Cagnoni’s is that Etienne can bring the physical aspect. You wouldn’t know that from looking at him, seeing that he’s only 6’0 and 183 pounds, but I bet if you asked the opposition’s winger who is having trouble skating back to the bench after colliding with him at the blue line, they would swear to you it felt as though they were just hit by their team bus. But, as impressive as Etienne’s open-ice hip checks in the defensive zone are, he has shown that he can also get it done in the offensive zone by filling up the stat sheet. Morin has recorded 17 goals, and 40 assists for 57 points in 60 games played this season. All while averaging a +21. With all these intangibles at his disposal, it’s no surprise that Morin’s name has been shooting up teams’ draft boards this season.
2. David Reinbacher
Next up on my list is the 18-year-old Austrian-born David Reinbacher. Standing at 6’2 and 187 pounds, this coveted right-hand-shot defender has been impressive this year playing for the EHC Kloton in Switzerland’s National League (top pro league). A kid who is holding his own playing against men, Reinbacher has demonstrated that he is not afraid to use his size to his advantage. Whether it be to knock his opponents off the puck, matching his forward’s stride for stride as he joins them on the rush, or unloading an accurate shot on net that the goaltender will still feel after the game, David has proven he belongs at the pro level, and thus will likely get selected somewhere in the later part of the first round of the NHL Draft this summer.
1. Axel Sandin Pellikka
Finally, we’ve arrived at who I think is the top consensus defenseman available in the draft, Axel Sandin Pellikka. Pellikka is an 18-year-old right-hand-shot blueliner in Sweden’s top professional league, the SHL. He is 5’11 and 181 pounds and is signed to play for the Skelleftea AIK until the end of the 24/25 season. Now, while Axel’s SHL’s stats of two goals and three assists for five points in 22 games played may not look that impressive compared to others on this list. His point totals from him playing in the J20 (the top junior league in Sweden) do. Before moving up to play in the SHL, this season, Pellikka was dominating the J20 by scoring 15 goals and 18 assists for 33 points in just 28 games. Paired with that 1.17 points per game pace in juniors, he maintained a +16 average. You may be asking what traits Axel has over the other talented young players on this list. He has the hands and accuracy that very few skilled forwards in the NHL have right now. So much so that if he was implemented into an NHL team’s roster today, I assure you he would be taking a veteran’s place in the shootout if the game went to overtime.
Again, this list was constructed based on my own preferences and biases. Each one of these players has distinct characteristics that certain clubs are looking for. Feel free to let me know which player from this list is your favorite. I’m sure, despite the order I choose to rank them in, it will not matter soon enough, as I can almost guarantee they all will make excellent pros in the years to come.