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Draft Analysis: The Year of the North American Defenseman

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Defensemen Scott Stevens of New Jersey and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom were named Conn Smythe Trophy winners during the time the 2012 draft class was beginning to play hockey.

Whether the two great players with different styles had any influence or not, most of the top players in North America in this age group were more interested in preventing goals than scoring them.

The 2012 class could produce more defensemen picked in the first round than ever before and it’s possible as many as six could go in the top 10 picks – equaling the 1996 draft.

Every draft has its own personality. This year seems to be the year of the North American defenseman. - Al Murray

"Every draft has it's own personality," Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said. “This year seems to be the year of the North American defenseman. The number of high-end offensive players that are forwards in North America is almost zilch.”

There are a couple European defensemen that will be considered in the top 15 as well. The Central Scouting Bureau rates eight defensemen in the top 12 of North American skaters, which includes Europeans playing in Canadian Junior Hockey. TSN Scout Craig Button has eight defensemen in his top 13 and six of the top 10 in the International Scouting Service’s latest ratings are rearguards.

One of the best things about this group is the players are not all the same.

“Everybody’s got a little different attribute,” Murray said. “To some teams, size is more important, skating, playmaking ability. Every one of them has a different package.”

There is no consensus on which was the best draft for defensemen. The 2008 group, in which 12 were picked in the first round, is looking very strong with players such as Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Erik Karlsson, Michael Del Zotto and John Carlson, among others. The 12 defensemen picked in the first round in 2009, led by Lightning ace Victor Hedman, are largely still developing and could match 2008.

In 2005, 12 defensemen were picked in the first round including Lightning’s Brian Lee by Ottawa at No. 9. Bolts defenseman Brendan Mikkelson was picked 31st by Anaheim.

There were 13 defensemen picked in the first round (26 picks) in 1996 and 15 in the first 28. In addition, Zdeno Chara was selected in the third round, Pavel Kubina in the seventh by the Bolts, Tomas Kaberle and Willie Mitchell in the eighth and Sami Salo in the ninth. That matched the 1984 draft in which 11 of 21 first-round picks were defensemen and 15 of the first 28 -- led by Kevin Hatcher.

It will take time to see if the 2012 class will shine, but Button said this is a “banner year for North American defensemen, right through the 20s.”

That is good news for the Lightning, who would like to add depth to the organization on defense. Murray has said the Bolts will pick the best player available with as many as six selections in the first two rounds.

There are many divergent opinions on who will be the best out of this group. Everett Silvertips standout Ryan Murray is the top defenseman on the CSB and ISS lists.

Murray, at 6-0, 205, is a solid two-way player who joined the Canadian national team for the World Championships recently. Button said comparisons to Scott Niedermayer are quite unfair and inaccurate, but he is a dependable, smart player who can be valuable for a team.

There are others that have more flash than Murray, including Morgan Rielly. The 6-foot, 190-pound Moose Jaw defenseman had 18 points in 18 games before suffering a torn ACL in November. Rielly returned recently to play five games in the WHL’s Eastern Conference finals and had three assists.

“He is a dynamic player, thinker,” Button said. “He can make so much happen with his skating ability.”

Button rates Mathew Dumba, a 6-0, 175-pound wrecking machine from Red Deer, as the top defenseman in the draft and second-best player overall. Dumba had 20 goals, 57 points and 67 penalty minutes in 69 games for the Rebels this season.

“He controls the game, skating, offensively, defensively, competitively and physically,” Button said. “He can impact the game in any situation.”

Griffin Reinhart, who played against Rielly in the playoffs with the Edmonton Oil Kings, is a mobile defenseman at 6-3, 202. His father Paul was a defenseman picked 12th overall by the Atlanta Flames in 1979 and played 648 career games, scoring 560 points. Griffin’s older brother Max was a third-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2010 and younger brother Sam plays for Kootenay in the WHL.

“[Reinhart] could be in the argument as one of the best defensemen from this draft in three or four years time,” Button said. “He’s got a blend of skill, hockey sense and power. He’s maturing and growing.”

Cody Ceci has some good size as well at 6-2, 203 and possesses offensive upside, with the ability to quarterback a power play. Ceci, who played for the Ottawa 67s, had 17 goals and 60 points in 64 games during the regular season. He also contributed 15 points in 18 playoff games.

“He moves the puck well and thinks the game,” Button said. “He’s a workhorse type who can play a lot of minutes in every situation. Is there a lot of flash to him? No. But there’s an incredible amount of effectiveness to his game.”

Jacob Trouba is likely to be the top U.S. defenseman to go in the draft. The 6-1, 185-pound Minnesota-born Trouba is headed to the University of Michigan. Many thought Trouba played the best of all the defensemen on the United States team at the World Juniors. Button compares him to a bigger version of Adam Foote.

“He is a terrific competitor,” Button said. “He’s physically tough, mentally tough and makes a difference in a game. He is no fun playing against.”

Button said Swedish defenseman Hampus Lindholm has top-10 potential. Lindholm helped Rogle BK earn promotion to the Sweden’s Elite League as an 18-year old.

“It’s one thing to play as a 17-18 year old in that league,” Button said. “It’s another thing when you’re a significant player on your team and he was.”

Swede Ludvig Bystrom of Hedman’s former team MoDo could also go in the first half of the first round along with Fin Olli Maatta, who plays with Lightning 2011 first-round pick Vladimir Namestnikov on the Memorial Cup-bound London Knights of the OHL. Guelph’s Matt Finn has been rising up the rankings with his all-around play and Portland’s puck-moving defenseman Derrick Pouliot is also highly regarded.

There are plenty more that can help.

The 2012 draft class could break some records on June 22 in Pittsburgh. However, it will take some time to find out which of these defensemen will become all stars.

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