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April 24, 2022

The Analysis: Owen Pickering is a unicorn among draft-eligible defensemen

Owen Pickering burst into the junior ranks last year and has continued his sharp upward development curve into this season.

In the process, Pickering has emerged as one of the most exciting prospects out of the West for the 2022 NHL Draft class.

Pickering, selected in the ninth round of the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, is the definition of a late bloomer. Unlike many players his size, he was not blessed with towering physical gifts as a minor hockey player and therefore did not rely on a physical advantage to navigate through those ranks. As his height shot up in the last couple of years, it has allowed his latent skill to first shine through.

While he’s already come a long way, it’s the remaining potential he still has to unlock in his game that is the most enticing. 

It’s easy to see why NHL teams would show interest in a raw 6-foot-4 defender, but what exactly makes Pickering such an intriguing prospect and potential first round selection. I have curated a handful of clips to dive deeper into his game and see exactly what makes Pickering (No. 27 in all videos) tick.

Mobility

The backbone of Pickering’s game and the reason to be most excited for his potential at the NHL level is in the fluidity and athleticism with which he traverses the ice. 

This clip really showcases the explosiveness Pickering brings to the table. He’s already at full gallop as he approaches his own blue line, and his consistent use of linear crossovers allows him to continue to accelerate through the neutral zone as he finds a lane. He also shows the wherewithal to mix in a stutter-step as he approaches traffic to freeze Regina Pats defender Zane Rowan (No. 25). Regina has five players behind the puck, and yet Pickering easily creates a scoring chance singlehandedly with his pace. 

The power he generates through crossovers is a consistent theme for Pickering seen in his backwards stride as well.

Jalen Luypen (No. 23) is one of the quicker forwards in the WHL and is attacking a gap with a head of steam, and yet with two powerful crossovers Pickering has matched his pace and snuffed out the breakout. His ability to get up to speed from a standstill, combined with his reach, gives him true shutdown potential. When you talk about rangy defenders who can disrupt the flow up and down the ice, Pickering is the kind of player you imagine.

Rounding out the totality of Pickering’s skating prowess are his quick feet and flexible hips. He’s incredibly agile for a player his size and can utilize nifty footwork to create lanes for himself. The stutter step in clip one is a good example, as is the following clip.

As Pickering travels east to west, he is consistently opening his hips to face the play and threaten a shot or pass. By keeping the defenders honest and options open, he creates the time he needs to find a lane to the net.

Pickering is one of the best skaters available in the draft and as he adds strength to his frame he only figures to get better.

Puck Control

While Pickering’s skating abilities are what jump off the page first, he wouldn’t be half as effective of a player without the confidence and control with which he carries the puck. He seems to relish his opportunities to jump up offensively and he has great instincts when it comes to maneuvering through traffic. He displays conscious thought when it comes to puck placement and he has a great feel for the space available to him and where opposition weaknesses may lie. 

I really love this clip, as there are so many subtle moments that you wouldn’t see from most players. Pickering recognizes the opportunity to create an odd-man rush, creates time and space with quick hands and lateral movement, makes a point to reach over the blue line early to avoid an offside, and opens his body to threaten a pass to the trailer before creating a high danger opportunity at the net-front.   

Pickering’s offensive instincts may raw at this point, however his willingness to do more than the simple play and his ability to execute gives him a lot of runway to develop his offensive potential. You can’t teach a desire to be a difference-maker, and Pickering already possesses that trait in spades.

Mental Flexibility

Another area where Pickering shows emerging talent is in his mental flexibility and decision-making abilities. He does not always settle for his first thought and shows the capability to make multiple reads and buy time until the right option presents itself.

In this clip, when faced with a fairly resolute Moose Jaw Warriors forecheck, you can see Pickering buying time with lateral passes while keeping his eyes up ice. When forced into a tough spot in the corner, he calmly evades pressure and when a gap in the forecheck finally opens he is quick to take advantage with an outlet.

Pickering is learning to use his mental elasticity more consistently in the service of offense as well.

In this clip, Pickering unleashes a great stretch pass up ice for a goal. It’s the way he takes an extra second to cement the lane that impresses me the most. You can see him identify the stretch pass target early, however instead of immediately firing the pass, he looks off his teammate on the far wall first. This subtle moment with his eyes causes Calgary Hitmen player David Adaszynski (No. 17) to angle that direction, allowing for a clearer lane to make the pass.

Pickering’s game is full of these slight moments of hesitations and fakes and it works to really open up the ice for himself and his teammates. The following clip is yet another example.

He sells the shot enough to freeze the defenders and goaltender in place before teeing up his teammate for the one-timer goal.

There is still work for Pickering to do in being a more consistent offensive catalyst, but he flashes enough moments of advanced awareness that I think he can develop into a possession asset at the NHL level.

Disruptive Stick & Reach

Like many areas of Pickering’s game, there is still room to grow in his defensive play. One aspect that excites me, though, is how he uses his extensive reach and stick control get on attackers early with a pokecheck. He does not rely on his frame alone to ward off the attack, and by using his stick as the initial point of contact he drastically increases his area of coverage.

Arshdeep Bains (No. 20) is the leading scorer in the WHL and just as he starts to attack the net with a stickhandling pattern, Pickering surprises him with a well-timed poke check to nullify the opportunity. Pickering then continues to use his reach to force him up the wall into a low-danger area. 

Pickering’s combination of reach and lateral skating abilities could pose even more problems for the opposition in the neutral zone.

By getting his stick into the mix early he forces Moose Jaw’s Eric Alarie (No. 8) into a quick decision and turns a potential 4-on-3 opportunity into a harmless broken play. 

The ability to influence opponent action away from oneself without selling out body positioning is something that a player like Victor Hedman has mastered. Pickering has the skating abilities and size to have a similar suffocating impact however it is important that he stays committed to taking engagements early. This is the area of his game that needs the most improvement and is what we’ll look at next.

Passivity & Gap

There are times during every game where I wish Pickering was slightly more aggressive in attacking the puck-carrier. Despite the host of skills that he possesses, Pickering doesn’t always make life as difficult for the opposition as he could. His gap control on zone entries in particular is a needed point of improvement.

There is just no need to allow zone entry on this play. There is more than enough defensive support and the Medicine Hat Tigers skater isn’t carrying menacing speed, yet he makes it to the dot before Pickering posits any problems. 

This passivity also creeps in on pseudo odd-man rushes that Pickering fails to properly analyze. That seems like a specific scenario, however there were multiple clips I could have attached that played out almost identically. Here is one example.

Red Deer never truly has an odd-man rush here and yet Pickering gives Jayden Grubbe (No. 9) all the time and space in the world to make a play.

In both of these clips, if Pickering had closed the gap quicker I think there are counter-attack opportunities going the other way. It seems that his defensive game is calibrated too heavily to ‘prevent defense’ when if he was more aggressive on the puck-carrier he’d actually see more effective results.

On the positive side, he is not lacking in the tools necessary to play a more consistently disruptive brand of hockey. With additional development and coaching, I don’t have huge concerns that this will drastically hold him back.

Putting It All Together

While we’ve looked at some of Pickering’s tools in relative isolation, the next clips do a good job of showing the dynamic impact he has when uses all his skills in concert.

Pickering receives the puck at the blue line and immediately gets to work in probing the Rebels defensive structure to see what holes emerge. After drawing two defenders to him, he opens up and slides the puck to his uncovered teammate before exploding into open space with powerful edgework. These are the types of problems Pickering creates when he’s moving his feet. He flips a defensive structure on its head with his proactivity of movement and he has the awareness to capitalize on the opportunities his feet and hands create.

With the weapons in his arsenal and the verve with which Pickering approaches the game with the puck on his stick, it is no surprise that he can be a zone exit and entry machine.

Here, at the CHL Top Prospects Game, Pickering throws in a clever stick fake to get the forechecker to bite the wrong way before surging forward, managing through tight space and slipping a slick pass to his teammate in open ice. When battling against the best of his peers in Canada, he played a formidable role in anchoring a defensive group that only allowed a goal and 20 shots against in the game.

For the last clip of a deep dive, I like to attach I clip that I think gives the full experience of a player, both good and bad to give the total sense of what a player currently brings to the table.

Initially Pickering sags back too much, allowing the Regina Pats player to drive deep. He then uses his excellent reach and stick control to poke the puck away and transition up ice with pace. He continues to dust the puck and probe the defensive structure to see what he can gain before making the adjustment to turn back and find the open man.

Projection

If hockey has a version of a unicorn, Pickering would fit the bill. I feel there are few defenders with a higher ceiling available in this year’s draft class.

You just do not find players of his size that can move and stickhandle the way he can. That there is a hockey mind and competitor behind those physical tools is the cherry on top and the reason that I think he is very likely to be a first rounder when draft day arrives. He is a raw prospect — and he may be further away from NHL games than many of his peers near the top of the draft — but will likely be worth the wait. I think taking a chance on Pickering is a no-brainer, especially if I’m a team with multiple first round picks.

He may not have entered the junior ranks with a ton of fanfare, but his work patrolling the blue line for the Broncos in the last two seasons has been eye-opening. I think his floor is as a middle-pairing defenseman, and if he can maximize his skillset by continuing to develop his decision making at both ends of the ice, I think we could look back at Pickering as one of the better players to come out of this draft class.

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