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NHL Scouting Combine, Day 2: Defensemen raising stock

Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar among players who could break trend, be selected in top four at 2017 Draft

by Mike G. Morreale @MikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- The 2017 NHL Draft appears to be top-heavy with versatile, skilled forwards, but don't be surprised if a defenseman is selected among the top four picks for the first time in three years.  

There are plenty of interesting candidates, among them Miro Heiskanen (6-foot, 170 pounds) of HIFK in Finland, Cale Makar (5-11, 179) of Brooks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, and Timothy Liljegren (6-0, 191) of Rogle in Sweden.

Juuso Valimaki (6-1, 204) of Tri-City in the Western Hockey League, Callan Foote (6-4, 212) of Kelowna (WHL), and Nicolas Hague (6-5, 206) of Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League are also expected to be chosen at some point in the first round on June 23 at United Center in Chicago.

All six defensemen are taking part in the NHL Scouting Combine this week at KeyBank Center and HarborCenter in Buffalo. The last time a defenseman was selected among the top four at the draft was in 2014 when Aaron Ekblad went No. 1 to the Florida Panthers.

When Heiskanen was asked if he believes he might be the best defenseman of the 2017 draft, he didn't hold back.

"I think that might be possible because I'm a good two-way defenseman who can play offense and defense," he said. "I feel I'm the best of those types of defensemen who are [at the Combine]."

Here are the four intriguing takes from Day 2 at the combine on Tuesday:

 

1. First-round feedback

Hague, No. 20 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, had a career-high 46 points (18 goals, 28 assists) in 65 regular-season games in his second season for the Steelheads. He also had 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) in 18 OHL playoff games. Hague, who has 24 team interviews at the combine this week, believes he had a solid second half to the season.

"I was relied upon in a shutdown role and I feel that was an area of my game that I really improved on," Hague said. "Over the second half I concentrated on being real hard to play against, and not getting scored on. I think that's what I need to do."

 

2. Scouts honor

Is stature of a player the determining factor when debating between two prospects?

"Size is only an asset if you use it correctly," NHL Central Scouting's Matt Ryan said. "The bottom line is that you have to win puck battles. There are a number of ways to do that and there are many different elements that come into play outside of just sheer size and strength."

Said Central Scouting's John Williams, "I can speak from my own experience but every team wants to get bigger if they can. It's always a balancing act for general managers wanting to get bigger. So you want skill, you might have to take the smaller guy. You have to find a balance there."

Video: Cale Makar Q&A from the NHL Scouting Combine

 

3. Top underrated prospect

Defenseman Jack Rathbone, No. 57 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, had 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in 22 games serving as captain at Dexter School in Massachusetts. The left-handed defenseman, who jumped 21 spots from No. 78 on Central Scouting's midterm ranking, will attend Harvard University in 2018-19. Rathbone, who has 18 team interviews at the combine this week, also had one assist and was plus-1 in four games for Youngstown of the United States Hockey League last season. He's a dynamic skater who moves the puck quickly and possesses a good shot, according to David Gregory of Central Scouting.

 

4. Question of the day

Center Shane Bowers of Waterloo in the USHL was asked in a team interview for the name of the bar he went to while on a recent visit to Boston University. Bowers, No. 16 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, will play for the Terriers in 2017-18.

"I told them I didn't go into any bars," he said.

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