Splitting Hairs: A Look At the CHL’s Best Draft-Eligible Defensemen

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Draft season is upon us, and unfortunately, it’s a little earlier than Hurricanes fans would like. Still, it’s the time of year that is exciting to a lot of prospect nerds out there, myself included. This year, there isn’t much of a debate regarding the best defenseman available in the draft. There’s no doubt that Rasmus Dahlin will be the first defenseman taken, and he’ll likely be the first player selected overall. So who will be the first North American defense-man selected? The answer to this question varies from person to person. Some say that it will be Evan Bouchard, while some say it should be Quinn Hughes. Throw in Noah Dobson, and you have three North American defensemen all projected to go top ten. So who goes first? Are there any sleepers? Who has disappointed scouts the most?

Evan Bouchard

I had heard about Bouchard for a long time, but I was convinced that the Hurricanes didn’t need a defenseman. It’s a shame, because I missed out on the opportunity to watch a really exciting player. Bouchard is a puck-moving defenseman that plays an excellent two way game. He’s great in the defensive zone, and is rarely caught out of position. His shot is average for a defenseman, but what stands out about him is his ability to be an effective power play quarterback. He moves the puck quickly and accurately, then skates to an open area to be set up for another pass if need be. Bouchard isn’t afraid to shoot the puck, but he is smart enough to know when to pass and when to shoot. Before coming to the pros, Bouchard needs to work on his shot wind up. It’s slow, and you can often predict when he’s going to shoot because of it. His wrist shot and backhand are great, and will only get better once he gets stronger. One thing that stands out about Bouchard is his ability to jump in on a play. He can be dangerous on an odd-man rush, and can even sneak in behind the attack to create space for a shot. Don’t sleep on Bouchard’s deking abilities. He’s got a great set of hands, and can deke quickly to make a play. He’s dangerous on the forecheck, too. How many times do you see defensemen forechecking, winning a puck battle, and creating a scoring chance all in one shift? Bouchard seems to do this on a nightly basis. This is a player that put up 87 points on a rebuilding team. Evan Bouchard could very well be the best passer in this draft. He makes stretch passes look easy, and can always find the open man. When you look at his skating, it’s a little underwhelming compared to guys like Hughes or Dahlin. It’s gotten better over the course of the year, and he’s getting a lot more comfortable moving around in all three zones. His size will definitely help his draft stock since he’s 6’2 and 193 pounds. Still, Bouchard seems to have an issue with compete level. It definitely looks as if he’s going through the motions at times, and it affects his skating. When he seems to lose interest, he fails to accelerate as fast as he can. It’s concerning to scouts, especially since he’ll likely be drafted to a struggling team. Will he put forth enough effort to become the player he projects to be? That’s one of the biggest questions about Bouchard so far. The NHL potential is there, and he could be a top pairing RHD in the near future. He’ll likely need another year with London to get stronger, but could be in an NHL lineup as early as 2019. Perhaps the craziest thing about Bouchard is that 52 of his 87 points were at even strength. The next best scorer on his team had 54 points total. 

Noah Dobson

Dobson has risen up every draft board this season, and is now ranked the fifth best North American Skater by NHL Central Scouting. Comparing Dobson and Bouchard is difficult since they play a different style, but both are very good players. Dobson plays a good two-way game, has a great shot, and sees the ice well. He can shut down other teams’ top lines with ease, and is almost never caught out of position. Dobson is a reliable player that a coach can put in almost any situation. He’s definitely one of the best defensemen to come out of the QMJHL in years, and that’s largely thanks to his solid defensive play and quick shot. His shot is excellent across the board, and the release time is great. Dobson is an above average passer, and can find his teammates through defenders. He’s one of the most mature defensemen in his league. His gap control is a little slow at times, and I’d love to see him get more involved physically. He’s much quicker than Bouchard, that’s for sure. Joining the rush isn’t a problem, and he can often cut through defenders for scoring chances. There’s definitely the question of whether or not he’ll be able to do that in the NHL, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on for now. Acadie-Bathurst uses Dobson in every situation. They use him in overtime, at even strength, shorthanded, and even the power play. He’s reliable in any situation, and will rarely make a mistake. The Titan use him on the left side a lot of the time, which is unusual for a defenseman that shoots right. It seems to have worked out well, however, especially since Dobson had 69 points in 67 games this season. Coaches love his style of play. He plays a simple game, but there’s room for finesse every once in a while. Dobson will need to improve on a few things before he makes the transition to the pros. First, he’ll need to bulk up. He’s 6’3, which is great for a team looking for help on the back end. He’s got the height, but he’s still only 180 pounds. In order for Dobson to be effective along the boards at the NHL level, he will need to add at least ten or fifteen pounds. Lastly, he’ll need to move his feet a little more. He tends to get flat-footed in the offensive zone, and that’s when other teams make him pay. A lot of the time, you’ll find Dobson standing at the point waiting for the play to come to him. He’ll occasionally shift, but more often than not he’ll wait for the puck to come to him. Other QMJHL players can’t seem to cover him, but professional players will be able to. His speed is enough to help mask this issue a little bit, but it won’t be the case for long. He’ll need to work on moving his feet a little more before he’s ready for the pros. So all in all, Dobson is an intriguing prospect. He’s got a great shot, good hockey sense, and is good defensively. Another year or two and he’ll be an NHL defenseman. Is he better than Bouchard? Probably not. Dobson has top pairing potential, but it’s more likely that he’ll play on the second pair for most of his career. Still, he plays a very complete game, and that should be enough to get him drafted in the top ten.

Quinn Hughes

Hughes is one player that I was not sold on at the World Juniors. I came in with very high expectations for him, and I left with confusion and disappointment. Hughes was having a great freshman season at the University of Michigan, and there was talk that he could be one of the first North American defensemen chosen. It’s not common to see a young defenseman excel in the NCAA, and Hughes made it look easy. He had 29 points in 37 games for the Wolverines, and was a key member of that team. Hughes is without a doubt one of the fastest defensemen in this draft. He skates so smoothly and effortlessly that it’s brilliant, and most scouts walk away in awe. Hughes is only 5’10, but you wouldn’t know it based on how he plays. He is used in all situations, and Michigan coach Mel Pearson trusts him enough to use him when the opposing team pulls their goalie. When he plays, other teams take notice. Hughes has a natural ability to draw attention to himself, leaving teammates open for passes. He’s such a gifted playmaker that he’s able to draw a couple defenders away from their assignments, and then make a quick accurate pass right to the tape of his teammates. His head is always up, and he always seems to make good decisions with the puck. During the World Juniors, I noticed that he seemed to get pushed around by bigger players. He would turn the puck over, and look lost defensively a few times. He was benched for an extended period during one game, and he took the message to heart. He worked on his play against stronger forwards, and became a force on the back end for Michigan. I noticed during the NCAA tournament that Hughes looked stronger, smarter, and more responsible defensively. Hughes is one of those players that can adapt to anything at all, and it’s due to his smarts. He’s such a smart and creative player that his game is constantly evolving. He’ll only need one more year of college before he’s ready to turn pro, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he steps into the NHL lineup immediately after turning pro. It may take him a little longer to reach his full potential than it will for Dobson and Bouchard, but he’ll be a special player nonetheless. Hughes has top pair potential, and could really be a force on the back end for an NHL team in the near future.

So Who Is Better?

At this point, it’s hard to say. All three players play differently, and none of them seem to have many similarities. As of right now, I’d wager that Bouchard is the best of the three. He’s got the playmaking ability, the hockey IQ, and the defensive capabilities of a top pairing defenseman. Will Bouchard manage to find the compete level necessary to be a top pairing defenseman? Only time will tell. Hopefully being drafted will help him set goals for the future and work hard towards achieving those goals. I’d definitely rank Hughes ahead of Dobson if we’re going solely off of potential. Dobson is good, but it’s hard to rank him ahead of more dynamic players such as Hughes and Bouchard. He’s a more complete player, but still has a few issues of his own to work out. All three should make it to the NHL someday, and all three should be NHL players for a long time.

Sleepers?

Egor Zamula might be a player to watch out for in the later rounds of the 2018 draft. The Russian defenseman has the size and skill needed to play professionally, he just needs to bulk up and adjust a little more to the North American style of play. The Regina Pats waived him after 38 games to make room on their roster, and he was picked up by the Calgary Hitmen. He’s been given a bigger role with Calgary, and has started to improve his play a good bit. He still has a long way to go, but could be an effective player down the road. Zamula is definitely a project, but the offensive skill is there. If a team were to draft him, they might have to wait at least four years before he is ready for the NHL. I like his passing abilities, and I wish that he would use it more often. He holds onto the puck way too long right now, and it causes him to lose the puck a lot of the time. Still, he’s done fairly well for an import player that’s getting used to a completely new style of play. I’d be interested to see if a team takes a chance on him in the later rounds of this draft. NHL Central Scouting has Zamula ranked as the 64th best North American skater, meaning that he’s likely a late fourth round pick.

Whatever Happened to Merkley?

Remember when a lot of people were talking about Ryan Merkley and how amazing of a player he’d be? What happened to him? It seems like the former first overall pick in the OHL priority selection has fallen off the map a little bit. Earlier in the year, many scouts considered Merkley a top ten pick. Over time, his defensive issues became much more prevalent, and scouts started to worry about his game. There’s no doubt that Merkley has offensive talent. He plays on an underwhelming Guelph team and has put up good numbers over two seasons. The biggest issues in his game revolve around defense. He struggles to get in position, he turns the puck over, and he gets pushed around by opposing players. Can he be a successful NHL player? Sure, but it’ll take a lot more work than scouts initially thought. He is a phenomenal skater, and one of the better passers in the draft, right along with Bouchard and Hughes. Merkley is quite simply not good when it comes to defense, which has scouts wondering if he’ll become the next Ryan Murphy. NHL Central Scouting has him as the 45th best North American skater, meaning that he’s likely not picked until the middle of the second round. Still, if he works on defense, he could be an effective power play quarterback in the future. It’ll just be a project.

As you can see, the top three North American defensemen are all going to be good players. No matter who you select, you’re going to get a player that can make an impact in your lineup as soon as the season after you draft them. Next time around, we’ll take a look at some prospects who I believe may be underrated or overrated in this upcoming draft. We’ll look into some more sleeper picks, and go in depth on a few players that aren’t quite as good as they seem. I will also do draft profiles of certain players eligible to be selected in the 2018 NHL draft! If you’d like to have a specific player featured, mention either @CanesNetfront or @CanesProspects on Twitter and I will try my best to make a draft profile of that player.

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