In part two of our early NHL Draft preview, we take a look at a position that the Canes have been stockpiling over the past few years, but as we learned last year, that doesn’t mean they won’t do it again in Chicago at the end of June.
Wait....another defenseman? What sense would that make? In short, young, high-ceiling defensemen are huge assets once they reach the NHL level. You can never have too many dynamic players on the back-end, especially given the price that organizations will pay in the trade market to acquire them. As surprised as I would be to see the Hurricanes draft another defenseman with their first round pick, sometimes “best player available, regardless of position” is the best policy. Here are some of the candidates.
Cale Makar - D - Brooks (AJHL) - 5’11”, 180 pounds
In a year where defensemen are all over the board in terms of mock drafts and consensus, Makar has made the biggest jump and should now be firmly in the top 10. Playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where he was the leading scorer among defensemen by a staggering 23 points, allowed him to keep his NCAA eligibility and he is committed to play for UMass (Amherst) next season.
Makar is dynamic with the puck, possessing high-end skill offensively and the ability to control the game from the back-end. He does everything with pace, whether it be transitioning the puck or joining in the rush as a secondary option for his teammates. He rarely gets caught out of position because when he does make those rushes up ice, he has the awareness and skating ability to get back to cover his defensive responsibilities. Down the road, Makar projects as a top-four NHL defenseman with a top-two ceiling who will be a power play asset for whichever team drafts him.
Miro Heiskanen - D - HIFK (FIN) - 6’0”, 170 pounds
Heiskanen is the first of a solid group of European-born defensemen highlighted here who should be drafted on day one of the 2017 NHL Draft. Playing for HIFK in Helsinki, Heiskanen has been a solid point producer for a 17 year-old in Finland’s top professional league. His 10 points in 37 games rank fourth on his club in scoring among defensemen, with his five goals tied for first.
The 6’0” rearguard is a excellent puck mover, who excels in the transition game distributing to his teammates to jump start offense when the puck is turned over. Heiskanen plays a smart, simple game, relying on his above-average skating and intelligence to make high-percentage plays while in possession. Although he doesn’t have a booming shot from the point, he gets pucks on net for deflections and rebounds. Given his success against professionals in Finland at such a young age, he could be ready for the NHL game more quickly than some of his more raw peers assuming his transition to the North American game goes smoothly. He has all the makings of a minute-munching top-four defender in the future.
Timothy Liljegren - D - Rogle (SWE) - 6’0”, 190 pounds
There is perhaps no prospect who has had a more tumultuous draft year then Liljegren. Entering the season, the Sweden-born Liljegren was the undisputed number one defenseman expected to come off the board at the 2017 Draft. However, missing time for various injuries, being left off Sweden’s World Junior team and the inability to get consistent playing time for his SHL team in Rogle has caused a slide down many draft rankings. In the 19 games he has played for Rogle in the top division, the 17 year-old has produced a goal and four assists.
What you notice first about Liljegren is his skating ability, which is the reason he will likely still be drafted in the top half of the first round, despite his struggles. He’s an NHL-level skater already, possessing terrific agility and acceleration, but the rest of his game will need to catch up if he is to reach his full potential. It will be crucial that Liljegen be given the opportunity to grow within a system and find consistency in his game. His ceiling is likely still the highest among the available defensemen in the 2017 NHL Draft, with top-pairing upside.
Juuso Valimaki - D - Tri-City (WHL) - 6’2”, 205 pounds
Valimaki is a Finnish-born blueliner currently playing for Tri-City in the Western Hockey League. A bit older than some of his counterparts in the 2017 Draft due to an October 1998 birth date, Valimaki is a bit more developed from a strength and size standpoint. In his second season in North America, the young defenseman has taken a step forward in the offensive side of his game, jumping from a .57 points-per-game rate in 2015-16 to a 1.02 points-per-game rate this season. His 61 points currently rank him seventh among WHL defensemen. Point-per-game defensemen in their draft year are a rarity in the WHL, which showcases Valimaki’s exciting upside.
In the future, Valimaki has the ceiling of a top-pairing defenseman who plays a solid, two-way game and contributes on the power play. He possesses a big shot from the point, which has led to 19 goals on the season. Like many prospects, the defensive side of his game will need to continue to evolve and strengthen, but he is the type of player that we could look back at down the road and wonder why he didn’t go higher on draft day.
For part one of this series, click here to see the forward prospects you should know going into June’s draft.
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