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NHL Combine: Defense prospects poised to steal spotlight

by Adam Kimelman / Columbus Blue Jackets

BUFFALO -- There is the potential for some breakout stars to emerge from a group of defense prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft that has been overshadowed by the top-end forwards who have dominated the attention during the buildup to the draft.

The top three in that group of defensemen are Noah Hanifin of Boston College, No. 3 on NHL Central Skating's final ranking of North American skaters for the draft; Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League (No. 7); and Zachary Werenski of the University of Michigan (No. 9).

Though six spots in the rankings separate the three players, there's little difference in talent level.

"To separate these guys a few years down the road is going to be very difficult," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said Friday.

Hanifin, a 6-foot-3, 203-pound left-hand shot, had five goals and 23 points in 37 games. He also played for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"The way he understands the game, it's exceptional for his age," Marr said. "He can transition from defense to offense with very little effort. He understands the position so well."

Provorov, a left-hand shot in his first season in the WHL, led rookies and was fourth among defensemen with 61 points in 60 games. He also helped Russia win the silver medal at the 2015 WJC. Werenski, also a left-hand shot, was the youngest player in NCAA hockey this season. He had nine goals and 25 points in 35 games and joined Hanifin on the U.S. team at the WJC.

"Provorov came in and did some exceptional things," Marr said. "Werenski goes in as the youngest [defensemen] in college hockey, one of the youngest players in college hockey. You saw him at the start of the year where he had to learn how to play the game a little better without the puck. You saw what he could do with the puck, the strong points. And he improved at the things that he needed to show the scouts at the end of the year, so they all remain top-10 players."

Six more defensemen are ranked in Central Scouting's top 30: Saint John Sea Dogs teammates Jakub Zboril (No. 12) and Thomas Chabot (No. 16), Jeremy Roy of the Sherbrooke Phoenix (No. 21), Noah Juulsen of the Everett Silvertips (No. 22), Brandon's Ryan Pilon (No. 24), and Brandon Carlo of the Tri-City Americans (No. 25).

"I think what's good about them is they're now what you would call the prototypical [defensemen] that play the way the game is," Marr said. "They all can skate, they're all good with the puck, they all have decent smarts and they all compete. You got some pretty complete packages here. Normally you get more offensive defensemen or that stay-at-home guy you don't want to step up for right away but you think he'll play a lot of minutes. There are guys here that have good games with and without the puck, and they'll play big minutes."

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