Recently, we did a goaltender roundtable, which featured comments from several scouts, analysts and bloggers. This time around, we have decided to do a defensemen roundtable. In this roundtable, Will Scouch (Scouching.ca, McKeen’s Hockey), Mitch Brown (Elite Prospects Rinkside, The Athletic), Tony Ferrari (Dobber Prospects, Future Considerations Hockey), Brock Otten (OHL Prospects, McKeen’s Hockey), Colin Cudmore (SB Nation’s Silver Seven Sens) and Josh Tessler (Smaht Scouting, Future Considerations Hockey).
What are the traits that you look for in your ideal defenseman?
Will Scouch (@Scouching): The biggest thing I look for in a young defender is mobility. Four directional skating with an ability to change directions quickly to adapt to breakouts as they happen. The best defensemen are the defensemen who never have to defend, so I look for players that break play up across bluelines and turn play around effectively. Closing gaps, playing with your stick primarily, and quickly spotting routes out of pressure situations. With good, mobile defenders who can shut play down in transition effectively, you can develop the DZ positioning and physical strength to round things out much easier than getting them comfortable with the natural flow of the game. Offense is nice, but I’m all about that mobility and transition defense.
Mitch Brown (@MitchLBrown): My ideal defenceman shoots like Shea Weber, passes like Andrei Markov, defends the rush like Nik Lidstrom, and skates like Paul Coffey. But beyond the obvious tools, here are three of many traits I value in defencemen.
First, risk-mitigating footwork while defending. “Stepping up” on attackers, whether that’s by literally striding towards the attacker, stopping entirely, or committing weight (with a crossover, pivot, etc.) in one direction too early, introduces unnecessary risk. Even in junior, players who defend the rush with these techniques are prone to conceding the middle spectacularly (see: Villeneuve and Cotton). Instead, the best rush defenders backpedal toward the middle, then close the gap while moving backwards, steadily removing the attacker’s options. With the attacker’s options reduced to gaining the zone on the outside lane, the defender’s free to hunt the breakup – provided they continue to maintain backwards momentum.
Second, rush activation. Successful rush activation isn’t just about becoming a forward in transition; it’s about always being able to join the offence and give teammates another passing option. Maintaining stride/crossovers through passes or accelerating out of the breakout pass gives defenders the option of joining the rush. Rush activation habits bleed into rush defence, too: if a turnover occurs, a properly activated defender already has their gap closed.
Third, layered breakout passes. The first layer is hitting the tape of a stationary target – most CHL defencemen do this regularly. The next layer is hitting a moving target with a pass into space. That is, passes into areas where the recipient keeps these feet moving through the pass reception, creating speed advantages for the attacker and increasing the likelihood of a controlled entry and scoring chance. The third layer is connecting with passes through sticks/skates, often setting up the pass with fakes or eye deception (look offs) to increase the likelihood of success. The final layer, characteristic of top transition players in the NHL, is seeking out forechecking pressure. They try to engage as much attention as possible – as if they have a gravitational pull – with a combination of skill, routes, and deception. By diverting attention away from their teammates, these defenders create advantages (i.e., speed differentials, space, time) for their teammates up the ice – provided they have the skill to execute.
Tony Ferrari (@TheTonyFerrari): When evaluating defenseman, I try to initially focus on three things. Intelligence, skating and spatial awareness. Intelligence is most important in my mind, but is often the last of the traits that I get a grasp on because it takes a few viewings to see how consistent, how intelligent and how aware of their surroundings the defender is. When the puck is on his stick, what does he do with it? Does the rearguard see the passing options consistently or do they go with their first read on every breakout? Where is defensive positioning as a play develops in the defensive zone? There are many questions that you have to answer to come up with a true understanding of where the player’s ‘hockey IQ’ is.
In the time it takes to evaluate the defenders mind, the opportunity to evaluate their raw tools and skills arises. Skating is always one of the more important traits as the game is evolving more and more towards a speed and skill approach. For defenseman, top speed is of less importance to me. I look for strong edge work and agility, specifically in small spaces. I look to see if the defender has a quick first step because the ability to separate early is more important than his ability to win a long race. Can the d-man get out of trouble with his skating?
I look to see how a defender moves the puck ice and how patient he is with it. If a defender uses his passing as his primary vehicle in transition, how effective is he?. Does he go for the homerun stretch pass too often or can he recognize when the opposition is giving him a shorter pass to the neutral zone. For defenders who are carry-out transitional players, what kind of skating paths do they take? This is where top-speed can be more of an asset but is again not necessary. Puck handling becomes more of a question here as well. If a defender skates like the wind, is agile in traffic and reads the opposition well, it’s all for not if they like holding onto the puck but don’t have the hands to do it competently.
There are obviously many more things that I look at in a defenseman’s game. I didn’t even mention their actual defensive game but if they show high-IQ habits, it generally means that they have a bit more room for progression and defense can be taught. High intelligence, good skating and spatial awareness can get a defender ahead of the game before they even know it. Whether it be angling defenders properly to the outside, using their pivots correctly without crossing over and becoming unbalanced or the ability to contribute offensively, the traits mentioned above can be the building blocks of a complete defensive game.
Brock Otten (@BrockOtten): In today’s NHL, I think mobility, processing speed, and physical intensity level are the three qualities that I would really look for.
Mobility has to be number one. Ideally, I not only want my defender to have an explosive first few strides to help him evade forecheckers and activate offensively, but I want his overall four way mobility to be strong. In particular, his transition from backward to forward stride, and his lateral mobility are critical. This allows for cleaner exits because he can be quicker to dump ins, and also helps to defend in transition by maintaining quality gap control.
Processing speed is integral because of the pace that the NHL plays at now. I want a defender who keeps their head up in the defensive end and who can make a clean exit even with intense pressure barreling down at him. Additionally, using those same instincts working inside the opposing blueline can help said defender to be an asset offensively; making quick decisions with the puck before the defense is able to truly set up. A quick thinker can quarterback a powerplay without elite level hands or creativity.
Lastly, I’m probably still old school in that I think a high physical intensity level in the defensive end is important. I want a defender who is hard to play against. A guy who takes away your space and forces you to make poor decisions by suffocating you. A guy who punishes you for wanting to play near the crease, and who makes you hesitate coming across the blueline. The game has changed, but if you look at the Stanley Cup winners in recent years, they still have defenders like this.
Colin Cudmore (@CudmoreColin): I’m not a scout, so take my word last when it comes to the scouting side. I personally like looking at data, which is a challenge for analyzing prospect defencemen — it’s very limited for most leagues outside the NHL, and the only globally-available stats (points, PIM, plus-minus) really aren’t helpful in determining which defencemen achieve positive results. There’s a handful of excellent resources, though, most notably Dave MacPherson’s Pick224.com which includes stats like estimated TOI, primary points and on-ice goals, as well as Mitch Brown’s Patreon-backed microtracking. This answers questions like which defencemen are better at zone transitions, making high-danger passes, preventing entries against, etc.
My philosophy when it comes to prospect analysis is that the vast majority of the game’s defensive aspects are learned, through participating in team systems and/or practicing with coaches. High-end offensive tools are much harder to perfect and tend to be more innately ingrained in prospects, so my ideal young blueliner has elite offensive acumen — someone who can process the game at a very high speed and creatively drive play. The defence can be a nice bonus, but when looking at U20 players, I have much more leniency for those aspects to come later. Statistically this means giving weight to stats like P1/60 and relative GF%, and xP1/60 on the microtracking side.
If a player isn’t able to drive play against junior competition (taking into account contextual factors), it’ll be even harder later in their career. Data obviously doesn’t tell the whole story, and caution is always needed given the limitations. But as someone who presumably doesn’t watch as much hockey as everyone else in this roundtable, it’s extremely useful, especially as a starting point to figure out which players know how to get results.
Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_): When it comes to choosing my ideal defenseman, I tend to look for the following traits: puck movement, decision-making, skating, strong first pass, gap control, physicality.
My defensemen does not need to be a controlled puck moving defenseman. I do not need my defensemen to move the puck up the ice by himself. If the defenseman tends to prefer making a breakout pass and having his forwards carry the puck up the ice that works for me. But, I do like defensemen who can take the reigns and carry the puck up the ice. Either approach works for me.
My ideal defensemen has a wide stride and can accelerate up and down the ice. I prefer defensemen who can quick transition from forwards to backwards skating. While it seems that all defensemen should be able to transition quickly, there are defensemen who are quicker at transitioning at a moment’s notice.
In the defensive and neutral zone, I want my ideal defenseman deploying a tight gap control. I do not need my defenseman to deliver booming body checks at open ice or along the boards, but I want him to be a robust poke-checker and not allowing his opponent to have too much room.
In the offensive zone, I always love defensemen who can help cycle the puck/pinch and support the offensive attack. If they are not comfortable pinch, I want my defenseman to be defensive responsible and watch his teammates movement closely. He needs to ready to move across the blue line and provide support on the other side of the ice incase his defensive partner pinches and no forward drops back.
Who are some defensemen (draft eligible or drafted, just not playing in the NHL) who exemplify those traits?
Will Scouch: Since I don’t track data for or watch nearly enough of the the NHL, I can’t say for certain players that exemplify those traits, but guys like Ryan Ellis are defenders I love watching play. He overcomes his size exceptionally well through his skating and intelligence and it shows defensively. Adam Fox would be another defender I value for his intelligence and mobility. Draft eligible defenders that follow this trend are guys like Jake Sanderson, Emil Andrae, Joni Jurmo, and even Kaiden Guhle all fit that trend.
Mitch Brown: Bypassing the top prospects, some of these year’s draft eligibles who fit the mould are Daemon Hunt and Ethan Edwards. Between injuries and an awful team, Hunt’s draft season didn’t go to plan. While his offensive upside is questionable, he leads all draft-eligible CHL defencemen in Controlled Exit Percentage (Pressured + Relative to Team), and he’s one of the best neutral zone defenders in junior hockey. He almost always passes into space, accelerates out of his passes, and isn’t afraid to suck in additional forecheckers to create advantages for his teammates in the neutral zone. What separates Hunt (as well as Guhle and Schneider) from other impressive CHL rush defenders isn’t just the risk-mitigating footwork – it’s how quickly they recognize and capitalize on the breakup opportunities that their footwork patterns and gap control creates.
Ethan Edwards didn’t score much in the AJHL, he’s 5’10”, and his skating suffers from a wide stride recovery and heel kick (characteristic of short extensions). But he recognizes that his small-area quickness and passing are his best traits, so he leans on engaging as much forechecking pressure as possible, then hitting a moving teammate with a pass into space. As he continues to add look offs and fakes into his passing, he’ll only become more effective. He, too, relies on risk-mitigating footwork while defending. And he’s always in the rush by keeping those feet moving through his passes, so if there’s a turnover, his gap is already closed.
Tony Ferrari: One defender from this draft that really seems to fit the mould of a player I like is Jake Sanderson. He’s been in my first round all year and despite my consistent stance that there isn’t a truly elite defenseman in this class, Sanderson plays the game the way I like it played. He shows so much room for growth offensively on top of his stout defensive game. The reason he shows that room for growth is that he excels in the three traits I mentioned above as well as adding a physical element to his game and a burgeoning offensive game that may not transition fully to the pro game but there is certainly second powerplay upside if given the opportunity.
As for a drafted defender that fits the mould, Moritz Seider has been a favourite of mine for a while now. I had him ranked 11th last year and wanted to put him higher. He has good size and excellent skating. He shows incredible intelligence and is one of the rare few that I don’t mind taking liberties by throwing big open ice hits because he chooses his spots so well. His intelligence allows him to utilize his superb skating and his transition to the AHL was virtually seamless last year. ‘German Lidstrom’, as some Red Wings fans have playfully referred to him, is going to be a very good NHL defenseman and if he can take the next step in his development and show that the tools he has can lead to being an excellent supporting cast member in the offensive zone, he could become truly special.
Brock Otten: I’ll give you three defenders; two draft eligible and one already drafted.
1. DRAFTED – Moritz Seider
I absolutely love the way that this guy plays. I thought he was the best defender at the most recent World Juniors. He suffocates you defensively, but is a presence offensively because of his mobility. He is the prototype of the modern day shutdown defender because he can play both ends, handle pace, and packs a physical punch. The Detroit Red Wings look like geniuses in jumping up to take this guy earlier than people were projecting last year.
2. DRAFT ELIGIBLE – Jake Sanderson
For the reasons that I love Seider, I also love Sanderson. He is just such an explosive skater. He takes away space so quickly. Even when you think he’s out of a play, he takes two strides and he’s closed the gap. He’s also a physical presence and has a strong defensive mind. Offensively, I think his game is underrated by those who choose to discredit him. He is terrific exiting the zone and shows good vision with the puck even while in full stride. I don’t hesitate to take him inside the top 7-8 this year.
3. DRAFT ELIGIBLE – Jamie Drysdale
Everything I said about mobility and processing speed applies to Drysdale 1000x times over. He is just such a smooth player and is IMO, the best and most promising defender that I have seen in the OHL since Drew Doughty. Obviously, he is lacking in the physical intensity department that I mentioned, but his first two traits (mobility and brain) are so elite that I’m not the least bit worried about him being able to defend in the NHL. He soaks up information like a sponge and continues to progress, even as a high end player already.
Colin Cudmore: My focus has been mostly on the 2020 draft for the past year, and Jamie Drysdale is the perfect example. He flat out pushed play offensively whenever he hit the ice, combining his high-end vision with his refined playmaking abilities to create dangerous chances for Erie. He generated shot assists last season at a rate better than everyone in the CHL not named Ryan Merkley (another player who exemplifies a lot of what I love), and his team was scoring far more goals when he was on the ice compared to off. His skillset is especially rare in this draft class, hence why he’s so highly coveted.
Josh Tessler: There are quite a few defensive draft prospects who have caught my eye. Jake Sanderson and Kaiden Guhle deploys exceptional gap control and can be physical at both ends of the ice. Jacob Dion and Joni Jurmo will pinch and help run the cycle. Jamie Drysdale is an extremely talented skater and his lateral movements allow him to dance around the blue line, which is quite useful on the power play. Eamon Powell is a strong puck moving defenseman, who seems to thrive at weaving through traffic.