Last year when I did these “draft candidates” pieces, the Detroit Red Wings were poised to select fourth in the 2020 draft, and with that came a certain amount of predictability in regards to who would be available at fourth overall. To that point, Swedish winger Lucas Raymond was the first prospect I covered, and he was ultimately who the Red Wings took with their first pick. However, with just under two months until the 2021 NHL Draft (round one is scheduled for July 23), it’s honestly anyone’s guess as to who will be available for the Red Wings to select at sixth overall.
It’s not just that this year’s draft class has been characterized by its overall unpredictability due to a lack of a true stand-out number one prospect. The Red Wings drafted sixth overall in 2018 and 2019, and both times they took a player that many thought they wouldn’t; Filip Zadina (2018) was in a lot of people’s top-five, and seeing him fall out of that range caught a lot of people by surprise, including then-general manager Ken Holland. The following season, newly-named GM Steve Yzerman sent shockwaves through the draft floor when he announced the pick of German defender Moritz Seider, and the young man’s reaction now lives on in Red Wings lore:
The names Zadina and Seider should be a testament to the fact that Detroit is once again poised to add a top-tier prospect to an already impressive prospect pool, even if we may not be able to guess who that player is. One of those top-tier prospects the Red Wings could add is Canadian defenseman Brandt Clarke, who spent this season playing over in Slovakia due to the pandemic. Ranked anywhere from the number two to number eight prospect in this draft class, he offers a lot of upside that Detroit may be hard-pressed to pass up on.
Make no mistake about it: Clarke is not a no-frills, stay-at-home defender. A right-hander, he likes to be involved with his team’s offense, and he often plays the role of a facilitator from the back-end. He can transport the puck well, and he shows the ability to evade traffic and outwork and/or outmuscle any opposition that may be on his tail. That being said, he isn’t afraid to throw the puck on net or pinch in and become a passing option for a teammate with the puck.
I asked Peter Baracchini from the scouting team here at THW to elaborate on what Detroit would get if they selected Clarke. Baracchini was quick to highlight Clarke’s ability to move and transport the puck.
The most noticeable aspect that stands out with Brandt Clarke— even since his days with the Don Mills Flyers in the GTHL— is his strong offensive awareness and puck moving abilities. He already has great size for the NHL and he has really great mobility, moving the offense forward. He knows when to pick his spots and routes to rush and that’s when he kicks things into high gear. It’s very difficult to contain him whenever he enters the zone as his movement and puck control fools defenders easily.– Peter Baracchini
Growing up as a fan of the Ottawa Senators, it’s easy to see why Clarke seems to have elements of former-Senator Erik Karlsson in his game. THW’s Mathieu Sheridan even mentioned Karlsson as a player that Clarke could potentially project similarly to.
“If I had to compare him to someone, it would be Erik Karlsson. Both of them are great skaters and see the ice exceptionally well. While Karlsson’s game has fallen off over the past few seasons, he was still a dynamic player in his prime,” Sheridan wrote back in February. Clarke projects as a defender that could potentially quarterback an NHL power-play in the future, and his eagerness to contribute offensively makes me think that this is a player that will be a Corsi darling once he hits his stride in the NHL.
With the Karlsson comparison noted, I also see some similarities between Clarke and current Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot. While Karlsson has almost always played like a fourth forward on the blue line, Chabot has a nice blend of defense and offense that makes him useful on both special teams, as well as just about any other situation. For Clarke to fully realize his potential, coaches in the NHL will likely want him to play more like Chabot than Karlsson.
Don’t Get Defensive
It seems a little cheap or cliché to say this, but Clarke rarely seems to play defense because the puck is almost never in the defensive end when he’s on the ice. From my observations, the times that he was stuck in his own zone for a while were not a reflection on him – often times the puck was in the opposite side of the zone from him. However, when he was in a position to actively play defense, he was fine at it. Defense is not this player’s calling card, and even though I wouldn’t necessarily consider his defense to be poor, it certainly needs to be built up if he’s going to have success at the NHL level.
“His defensive play is inconsistent at times, getting caught out of position, but when he’s on his game, he is difficult to play against,” Baracchini said. “At the U18 tournament, he was able to showcase his talent on both sides of the puck. He can provide strong coverage in one on one situations and he’s not afraid to use his size to his advantage. He has a great stick to break up plays and intercept passes.”
The key takeaway here for me is the note about his stick. Just as he is able to stickhandle through the opposition and feather passes through in the offensive zone, his defensive game really comes to life when he’s able to use his stick in an effective manner. Good positioning allows him to intercept passes and obstruct shooting lanes; when Clarke is on his game, these are all things that you can observe on the ice. That’s when this “offensive defenseman” becomes a two-way force.
I’m going to be blunt: I don’t think there’s a single prospect in this draft class that can seamlessly jump into the NHL next season. After all, look at how Alexis Lafrenière – the undisputed top pick of the 2020 draft – fared this season with the New York Rangers (12 goals, 21 points in 56 games). Clarke is no exception, and I think a return to the OHL next season is the most likely outcome.
This will give the team that drafts him, and everyone else for that matter, a good idea of how he compares to his peer group. While he performed well in Slovakia this season (15 points in 26 games), there is a definite talent gap between the Slovakian league and most other leagues. Honestly, the preferred place for him to play would probably be the AHL, but with that not being an option for the 18-year-old, he’ll have to show that he can dominate the OHL as the anchor on the Barrie Colts’ blue line. Following a season in the OHL, Clarke could make an honest push for a roster spot starting the following season, the 2022-23 campaign.
Fit with the Red Wings
With the likes of Seider, Filip Hronek, Troy Stecher, Gustav Lindstrom, Antti Tuomisto and others already in the organization in some capacity, the Red Wings are fairly stacked when it comes to the right side of the blue line. Luckily, in the case of Clarke, that isn’t an inhibitor; he regularly lined up on the left side as a shooting option, and he looked comfortable in that position. With that in mind, it’s easy to start fantasizing about a top pair of Seider and Clarke.
“If the Red Wings are able to get Clarke, they have solidified their defensive core for the future. Imagine the two-way play of Seider and offensive drive of Clarke? That will be a dangerous duo on the blue line,” Baracchini said.
One of the items on my personal “wish-list” for the Red Wings this offseason is to draft/acquire Seider’s future partner at the top of Detroit’s blue line. While my preference would be to add a lefty to fill that role, Clarke offers the offensive spark that perfectly compliments the defensive spark that Seider provides. Sometimes you have to play with the hand you’re dealt, and if Clarke is there to be had with the sixth pick, that’s not a bad hand to be holding.
Best Player Available
Following the draft lottery, Yzerman reaffirmed his team’s plans to simply draft what he and his scouting team thinks is the best player available.
“Our philosophy…will be to pick the best prospect on the board. I don’t think we’re in a position with the sixth pick to say ‘oh, we definitely need this position,'” Yzerman said when asked about any potential targets he has in the draft. To the Hockeytown faithful, this maybe sounds obvious, but it does mean that a guy like Clarke could definitely be taken even though Detroit has a plethora of right-handed defensemen in the organization.
And if Detroit does exit the first night of the draft with Clarke wearing a sweater and hat with the winged wheel on it, the future of the Red Wings, especially on defense, will certainly look a lot brighter.
“While Clarke may not go looking for physical play, he certainly does not back down from it. He battles hard in the corners for the puck and makes good decisions under pressure in the defensive zone. He is capable of battling bigger opponents in front of the net and his teammates can rely on him to clear the net if there is any danger present.” – Mathieu Sheridan, THW
“A dynamic offensive defender who could have the highest ceiling of any player in the 2021 draft class. He has good size but needs to fill out his frame and his skating is elite. A potential number one defenseman in the future.” – Tony Ferrari, Dobber Prospects
“”A smart puck distributor and point producer who plays with a ton of enthusiasm, Clarke is basically neck-and-neck with any defensman in this class in terms of upside.” – Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst
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