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2017 NHL Draft Preview: Defence

Director of Central Scouting says blue line crop is full of versatility and variety

by Mitchell Clinton @MClinton007 / WinnipegJets.com

There are 12 defencemen ranked inside the NHL Central Scouting's top 50 North American skaters, and where each of them sit on any NHL club's list is anyone's guess.

But Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, can provide a bit of clarity on that. He says each blue liner brings a different skill set to the table.

"It depends on what type of player you're looking for," he said at the NHL Combine. "It's just a different package that you get with each player."

Take Cale Makar for example. The highest ranked defencemen on the North American list led all Alberta Junior Hockey League defencemen in goals (24), assists (51), and points (75) in the 54 games he played with the Brooks Bandits this season. On top of that, he was named the Canadian Junior Hockey League's Most Valuable Player, chosen from five finalists of the 132 teams in the CJHL.

In the post season, he earned MVP honours after averaging more than a point-per-game all the way to an AJHL championship. His team would fall just short of a national title, falling to the host Cobourg Cougars at the Royal Bank Cup.

Makar's style of play reminds Marr of Erik Karlsson.

"To get compared to a guy of that calibre now that he's been solidified as one of the top D-men in the NHL, it's pretty humbling," said the 18-year-old Makar. "The game has got a lot more offensive. (Teams are) bringing in higher skilled, speedy guys on the back end. Just in terms of being up in the rush, or being more agile in the zone, all over the place with movement and mobility."

While everything about Makar's game is built on speed, he's in no rush to jump right into pro hockey. He's committed to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for the 2017-18 season.

"They were one of the first colleges to come and talk to me when I was called up as an AP in Brooks my first year. I just went through the process with them," he said. "They had very personable coaches at the time, and I felt it was the right place for me. I wanted to be in Hockey East because I knew it was a very competitive conference."

If teams are looking for something slightly different, Marr points out that defencemen like Callan Foote (the son of former NHLer Adam Foote) and Juuso Valimaki bring "different dimensions to the game and different styles, even though their numbers are quite similar."

Those two defencemen sit at 11 and 12 on the North American skaters list. At 6'4" and 212 pounds, Foote led the entire Kelowna Rockets back end in scoring with 57 points.

The Rockets have produced a number of NHL defencemen, including Winnipeg Jets Tyler Myers and Josh Morrissey.

"It was definitely a goal of mine to be a part of that group that have moved on and had a successful career," said Foote, who interviewed with over 20 teams at the Combine, adding he's a bit more offensive than his two-time Stanley Cup champion father.

Foote's family also hosted a current NHLer as he was cutting his teeth in the league - Matt Duchene.

"It's pretty cool for sure. He lived with us for two years as he was coming into the league. We have a pretty good relationship," said Foote. "He throws me a text every so often just to say 'good luck.' He's been nothing but great to me."

At number 20 on Central Scouting's list is 6'6", 215-pound Nicolas Hague, who helped the Mississauga Steelheads to the OHL Final, where they fell in five games to the Memorial Cup finalist Erie Otters.

Hague's 12 points in 18 playoff games was the fourth most in the OHL among defencemen in the postseason. But he says one of the biggest things he learned under Mississauga coach James Richmond was the importance of gap control.

"It's huge. It's something that I focus on every game. It always runs through my head," said Hague. "Especially with the system that we played this year with JR, we wanted to stop other teams at the blue line. We really prided ourselves as a D-corps to make sure we denied zone entries. I thought that was huge for my game and the team in general."

Video: COMBINE | Nicolas Hague

Even with the demands on the ice, Hague has never lost sight of the importance of education. He was named the 2015-16 Bobby Smith Trophy recipient as the OHL's Scholastic Player of the Year, and this season, was named to the league's Scholastic Team. He was one of only five players to be named make the list in back-to-back seasons.

"I was raised that way to make sure I kept my grades up and get my education," he said. "For me, it's just managing my time and making sure I leave enough time to get my work done, and also have enough time for hockey at the rink and then my friends as well. If I can plan out a week, I find I can stay on top of things, stay organized, and that's how I managed to do well in hockey and school."

This year's NHL Draft goes June 23-24 at United Center in Chicago, IL.

Full list of defencemen in Top 50 North American Skaters: Cale Makar, Juuso Valimaki, Callan Foote, Conor Timmins, Henri Jokiharju, Nicolas Hague, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Eemeli Rasanen, Ian Mitchell, Jarret Tyszka, David Farrance, Brady Lyle, Josh Brook.

Full list of defencemen in Top 50 European Skaters: Miro Heiskanen, Timothy Liljegren, Urho Vaakanainen, Erik Brannstrom, Filip Westerlund, Robin Salo, Gustav Lindstrom, Jakub Galvas, Tobias Geisser, David Kvasnicka, Dmitry Rodionychev, Pavel Yelshansky, Gleb Shutov, Jonatan Asplund, Venyamin Baranov, Grigory Afonkin, Otto Latvala, Mark Pavlikov, Calle Sjalin.

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