It’s official, the NHL is coming back eventually to finish the 2019-20 season. The playoff format has some interesting wrinkles, such as the best-of-five qualifying round and the four-team round-robin involving the top-four seeded teams in each conference. With the return to action looming, scouts around the league breathe a sigh of relief, undoubtedly thankful for the additional vetting time.
The Philadelphia Flyers will be picking somewhere in the back half of the first round, but we won’t know exactly where until the dust settles and a champion emerges. Having already explored a few options at wing, as well as center, here are some defensemen that the Flyers should consider with their first pick.
2019-20 Team: Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
2019-20 Stats: 64 Games Played, 11 Goals, 29 Assists, 40 Points
Weight: 186 pounds
A big defender with a lot of upside, Kaiden Guhle was a workhorse this past year for the Prince Albert Raiders. He is an efficient skater, effortlessly tracking back into his own zone with a long stride. He looked especially good in one-on-one situations through the neutral zone, utilizing a big reach to shut down plays before they materialize. He is also a bruiser on the ice, capable of laying big, open-ice hits.
His offense has some nice elements to it, but some fine-tuning will be required. He has a strong shot and uses his skating to generate rushes from the back end, though he does at times force the issue a bit too much, trying to drive to the net. His stickhandling could use some work as well, but he is a player that played in all situations for one of the best defensive teams in the CHL this season.
His biggest flaw is turning the puck over in his own zone. He had moments where he struggled to find passing lanes and had difficulty breaking the puck out of his own end. Issues aside, he has good size, good skating and can be a terror in the neutral zone. A player comparison for Kaiden Guhle would be Brent Seabrook; however, it will take a lot of hard work for him to reach this potential.
2019-20 Team: Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
2019-20 Stats: 60 Games Played, 7 Goals, 35 Assists, 42 Points
Weight: 202 pounds
Braden Schneider checks a lot of the same boxes as Guhle — he is big, physical and a capable shutdown defender. Where the separation between the two appears is in their overall upside; in my eyes, Guhle is superior. Schneider is a quality skater who maintains good gap control and is excellent in board battles. He also looked impressive breaking up rushes in the neutral zone.
On offense, he has good instincts but his tools aren’t super polished — his shot is just ok for a big man and his passing is average. One thing that showed up a lot in his highlight reel is that he likes to joins the rush, playing the fourth-man-in, trailer role. He is effective at it but it can lead to getting caught too deep in the offensive zone.
Another desirable trait of Schneider’s is that he is the ever-sought-after right-handed shot defender. His ceiling to me would be another righty, Matt Niskanen, who is a versatile, physical defenseman and a competent offensive presence.
2019-20 Team: Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
2019-20 Stats: 64 Games Played, 20 Goals, 33 Assists, 53 Points
Weight: 196 pounds
Jeremie Poirier is one of the most polarizing prospects in this draft, regardless of position. If you watch his offensive highlights, you would think he is a high-upside dynamo destined to go in the top-15 picks. However, when you throw on the film reel of his defensive game, you see a player that looks like he may not belong even in the AHL.
Poirier is a fluid skater, capable of taking the puck end to end, showing off some razor-sharp stickhandling along the way. His shot is above average, allowing him to finish on the rushes he starts. He is also a strong power play presence. That is the good. The bad? He got downright picked on in his own end this season, on the ice for over 100 of the 280 goals allowed by his team. He is often caught puck watching, making him regularly late to react and his overall play diagnosis has shown to be poor. To make matters worse, his backward skating is subpar, causing him to have some gap issues as well. He is the definition of a boom-or-bust prospect.
If he cannot clean up the issues in his own end, even marginally, it is difficult to see him playing any significant minutes in the NHL. If he can get to the point where he is no longer a liability in his own end, he could be a second or third-pairing defenseman that doubles as a power play specialist. His ceiling in the NHL, to me, is that of Mike Green.
2019-20 Team: Malmo Redhawks (SHL), Malmo Jr. Redhawks (J20 SuperElit)
2019-20 Stats: 21 Games Played, 1 Goal, 2 Assists, 3 Points (SHL), 27 Games Played, 4 Goals, 23 Assists, 27 Points (J20 SuperElit)
Weight: 206 pounds
The top-rated European defenseman in this class, Helge Grans is a rangy, two-way defender with a smooth all-around game. He played in all situations for Malmo of Sweden’s J20 SuperElit league, able to quarterback a power play and play a shutdown role. He also factored into a fair number of games at Sweden’s highest level, but in a much different role. He has a nice blend of size and skating acumen; he has an effortless stride, covering a lot of ground quickly, which in turn gives him plus recover-ability. He has solid passing ability, but his shot is so-so, especially for a larger player.
Both his neutral zone and transition play are decent, but his biggest flaw appears in his own end of the ice. Grans became prone to turnovers when his team was hemmed in to their own zone, which led to prolonged defensive sequences and subsequent goals against. He is not overly physical, but his large frame should aid his durability at the higher levels.
Related: NHL Dream Team
He compares well to fellow Swede Alexander Edler, who has long been a top-four defender with offensive skills and power play prowess. Edler also has his issues in his own end from time to time, but the good far outweighs the bad. The biggest differences between their respective styles are Edler’s physicality and left shot next to Grans’ as a righty.
2019-20 Team: Kapat (SM-Liiga)
2019-20 Stats: 43 Games Played, 1 Goal, 6 Assists, 7 Points
Weight: 156 pounds
Finally, we conclude with my favorite among the second tier of defensemen in this draft, Topi Niemela. He profiles as a two-way defenseman, relying on impressive skating to join the rush as well as strong backward skating to keep opposing forwards in front of him. The traits that stood out the most from what little film I could find of him was his vision and passing. He is a good passer in the offensive zone, but where he really shines is with his breakout passes.
He seamlessly glides below his own goal line to recover a loose puck, carries it around the back of the net to hit a streaking teammate at the opposing blue line for a fast break. This full ice vision and awareness can lead to quick-strike offense, something that Alain Vigneault-coached teams have historically excelled at. His shot is fine but he will definitely need to add strength to succeed in the pros as one of the smaller players in the draft.
He is well-rounded, reliable in all situations and should have 40-point potential in the NHL. He is comparable to his retired Finnish countryman Kimmo Timonen, who could join the rush, had sound defensive positioning, and played on both the power play and the penalty kill.
Recent Organizational Philosophy
The Flyers had neglected their organizational depth and development of defensemen for decades. Under former general manager Ron Hextall, the back end was heavily invested in via the draft. Chuck Fletcher continued the trend last year when he took Cam York with the 14th-overall pick. With some of the upside present in this crop of defenders, when the Flyers are on the clock, the value may be too good to pass up.