Photo Credit: Keith Hershmiller / Swift Current Broncos
Scouting Report written by Matthew Somma
Any time I’ve watched Owen Pickering this season, I’ve been blown away by the pace he can play at given the fact that he’s 6’4″ and just starting to get used to his frame. There’s legitimate upside in his game, too. Pickering can see the ice better than most defensemen his size and his play in transition leads me to believe that he can play in the modern NHL. That being said, he’s raw in a lot of areas and will need a lot of polishing before he can earn a consistent NHL role. The overall uncertainty about his game led myself and the rest of the Smaht crew to rank Pickering 50th in our Winter Rankings. There’s plenty of room for him to move up, especially if he continues to develop over the course of the final months of the season.
Pickering has the potential to become one of the best defensemen out of the WHL in this draft class. He’s just starting to put the pieces together and figure out how to be an effective puck mover and defender at his size, and while there can be hiccups, the prospect of what Pickering can become is going to entice NHL teams. To me, Pickering is one of the biggest “what if” players in this draft class, and I’ll be highlighting those “what if” areas in this report.
D.O.B – January 27, 2004
Nationality – Canada
Draft Eligibility – 2022
Weight –179 lbs
Position – Defense
Handedness – Left
Pickering’s Style of Play
As I mentioned earlier, the defining trait in Pickering’s game is his skating. His straight line speed allows for him to carry the puck out of the zone and initiate a breakout at a fast pace. His stride is unlike most of the players I’ve watched in the past. He’ll get up to speed and will occasionally stop moving his feet for a split second. Then, he winds back up with a few strides and he’s able to move through the neutral zone with ease. His speed never changes, but it’s fascinating to watch. Here’s a rush on the power play.
And here’s an example of how he can carry the puck at even strength. His stride is clean and it doesn’t take him very long to get up to top speed.
Pickering does tend to glide, especially when carrying the puck into the offensive zone. He loses a lot of his momentum with the puck and needs to work to get that momentum back, which can lead to turnovers or rushed decisions. You can see it towards the tail end of this clip. He stops moving his feet on two occasions and moves his feet to reestablish the momentum that he lost in that split second of hesitation.
Pickering’s turns can be a little choppy and his backwards skating could use some refinement, but these appear to be due to Pickering adjusting to his height. A lot of taller defensemen have what I’d call “giraffe legs,” where they have a bit of a wonky stride due to the length of their legs. Pickering has those same issues, and a lot are able to be worked out of his game after time with an NHL skating coach. Right now, I’d consider Pickering’s skating to be above average. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, especially with his backwards skating. Pickering can get burned when matched up against quicker forwards because his backwards skating is nowhere near as strong as his forward skating is. I’ve noticed improvements throughout the season, and once again, NHL skating coaches can help Pickering improve in that regard.
Throughout the year, I’ve been up and down on Pickering’s game. Most nights, he’ll make some great plays with the puck on this stick, have some fantastic reads in the defensive zone and be a consistent threat. But he’ll also have those moments where you see the raw aspects of his game start to make their presence known. Those can derail some of his shifts, so I’ve grown to call Pickering a “Jekyll and Hyde” type player. I’ve noticed that there are two areas of his game that can be great one moment and not as great the next: puck skills/passing and defensive awareness.
First, let’s talk about the good parts of Pickering’s puck skills and passing. A lot of the time, he’s a confident puck carrier that sees the ice well. He spots open areas of ice to thread a pass to and can usually do so without the opposition picking up on what he’s trying to do. Pickering isn’t limited to simple passes and I appreciate that he actively seeks to thread passes through a defender or two. His success rate on those is still a little iffy, but as he grows more confident in his abilities, there’s a good chance that he’ll see improvement in that regard. I’ve seen Pickering protect the puck when pressured and moving the puck to a teammate if he cannot press on further down the ice. A lot of the time, Pickering will take the safest option. It’s not always the most exciting option, but I appreciate a player that knows what the safest option is. As a fan of a team whose defense made many, many errant passes in front of their own net in the early 2010s, sometimes it’s nice to see a safer pass.
Take a look at this pass, for example.
Pickering receives a pass and immediately looks up the ice after he notices that they’ve caught Edmonton making a bad change. Then, he makes a great stretch pass to a teammate for a primary assist. It’s a great play.
Now, the good in his defensive positioning. I’ve noticed that Pickering once again leans heavily on what he believes to be the safest position. He’ll try to battle in front of the net and move a player out of the way, he’ll put his stick in passing and shooting lanes and he’ll move to intercept a pass if he sees an opportunity. There are shifts where he’ll think two or three steps ahead of the opposition and time his movements perfectly, moving at the right time to block a shot or intercept a pass. He’ll safely move the puck out of harm’s way, nullifying potential scoring chance and changing possession. There’s also the fact that Pickering is a great stick checker and has an active stick in the defensive zone. He’ll disrupt passes and rushes using his stick, changing possession and getting in the way of the opponent’s rhythm in the offensive zone. Pickering relies heavily on his stick in the defensive zone due to the fact that he’s only average in puck battles. A lot of this is due to the fact that Pickering is still filling out. He’s 179 pounds according to Elite Prospects, which is light for a defenseman his height. Once he adds about 10-15 pounds to his frame, he’ll win more puck battles and improve in that aspect in the defensive zone. Here’s an example of Pickering being too reliant on his stick in the defensive zone.
Pickering freezes here and attempts a poke check much too late. It’s a tough play because you can see where he hesitates to play the body and instead decides to use the poke check.
Before I get into the bad, I feel that I should say that every time I watch Pickering, I can tell that he knows what he needs to do in each situation. The problem is that his execution is off. The fact that he is smart enough to know what to do in these situations leads me to believe that a lot of the problems I have with his game will slowly disappear as he continues to develop. Last year, Pickering played in 23 WHL games, just over a third of what he would have played in a normal season. Had Pickering played in a normal year, one would imagine that he would be further along in his development than he is now.
So, let’s talk about Pickering’s execution of his passes. It’s the crux of his issues in transition. Often times, he’ll initiate a rush up the ice and will look to dish the puck off to his wingers. He’ll either connect, miss the player entirely, or make a slow pass that’s easy for an opponent to intercept. Those turnovers can frustrate the hell out of you because you can see that his intentions are good and that the decision he makes is the right one. Again, it boils down to the fact that Pickering is in the early stages of his development. Those passes are costly now, but once he grows more confident he’ll make less of those mistakes.
The same can be said for Pickering in the defensive zone. Often, I notice that he’s at least considering attacking the puck, but he either prefers to play it safe or he decides to push a split second too late, resulting in him getting caught out of position. Swift Current as a whole is prone to defensive mistakes since they’re such a young team, but it doesn’t excuse Pickering’s defensive lapses.
I would argue that Pickering’s hockey sense is above average. Sure, he makes mistakes and can have some moments where you question his decision making. That happens with most players. What stands out to me is that more often than not, Pickering knows what to do in all three zones. He reads the play well and can usually react accordingly. Those mistakes can be worked out of his game as he gets older. I’d much rather have him struggle with mistakes in execution rather than mistakes on the mental side of the game. Physical mistakes are a lot easier to correct.
The final aspect of Pickering’s game that stands out is his shot. Pickering has a booming shot that is utilized both as a scoring and playmaking option. That’s when I find him to be at his best in the offensive zone. He’ll shoot low to the ice and create a rebound for one of his teammates to put in the back of the net. Pickering can unleash some absolute scorchers, though. Out of the defensemen I’ve watched this season, Pickering’s shot stands out as the best. It’s not the end all be all to his game, but it’s a nice asset that allows for Pickering to be a more effective player in the offensive zone.
Had Pickering gotten the opportunity to play in a full season last year, it’s possible that his game would be a little more refined. As it stands right now, however, he’s a raw prospect with a lot of potential. Admittedly, we were harsh on Pickering in our Winter Rankings. Pickering’s passing is a major concern, causing me to be more cautious of ranking him too high on our board. It’s my belief that, in order to be a top defenseman in the NHL today, defensemen have to be able to move the puck in transition and in the offensive zone. I get glimpses of that from Pickering, but nothing on a consistent basis. That and his average defensive zone play have me worried about his odds of becoming an NHL player.
Still, it’s unfair to talk about the bad aspects of Pickering’s game without also acknowledging that most, if not all of these areas are teachable. Pickering can be molded into a top four defenseman capable of seeing time on a power play unit and, with enough development, maybe even the penalty kill. I mentioned at the beginning of this report that Pickering was one of the biggest “what if” players in this draft class, and it’s true. What if he becomes a better passer? What if he becomes a dominant force in transition? What if Pickering becomes an elite two way defender? All of these are possible when you look at his current skill set. It’s going to take the right team and the right development path for Pickering to get to that point, though.
Teams should avoid trying to turn Pickering into a shutdown or stay at home defender. That’s not how he plays, and he’ll plateau in the minors if that happens. The team that will get the most out of Pickering is the team that lets him continue to move the puck in transition and quarterback a power play unit. Keep teaching him defensive responsibility and work with him on his passing and you’ll reap the rewards in four to five years.
So, what does Pickering’s projection look like? I see a 4+ year timeline to the NHL. At his peak, Pickering can be a top four defenseman seeing power play time for an NHL team, providing solid two way play and roughly 30-40 points. This timeline is contingent on Pickering improving on his passing and defensive positioning while climbing the ranks in the pros, however. It’s a good reminder that development isn’t linear. If a player is drafted in the top 50, it doesn’t mean that they need to be ready for the NHL immediately after juniors or after one pro season. Sometimes, it takes more time than that. Pickering’s development will be a slow cook but the team that drafts him will be very glad they waited.
February 9, 2022
stats from InStat and EliteProspects
Prospect report written by Matthew Somma. If you would like to follow Matthew on Twitter, his handle is @Mattsomma12.
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