Deep Dive: A Look Into Jamie Drysdale’s Game
At the start of the 2020 NHL Draft season, Jamie Drysdale was considered to be the undisputed top defensive prospect.
And while this draft’s top-15 is absolutely loaded with high end forward talent, he has worked his way into the top-10, and for some draft watchers is even getting into the top-5 conversation.
Early in the season Drysdale had created a clear separation between himself and the other top defensive prospects in this range of the draft including Jeremie Poirier and Jake Sanderson. After an impressive showing at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, collecting three points (one goal, two assists) in seven games, Drysdale further improved his draft stock and appeared to be a lock as the top defender.
As the draft approaches though, as often happens debate has picked up around whether Sanderson should be the top defender of this class.
While Sanderson has certainly made a case for himself through the back half of the season, the two players have vastly different styles.
Drysdale is the new-age style of defender, much more of a rover or a back, than a traditional defenseman, and at 5-foot-11, 170-pounds, he’s likely not going to be able to physically dominate his opponents at the pro level. In the modern game, however, Drysdale doesn’t need to be physical to be an effective contributor, as he has an impressive array of tools at his disposal that make him incredibly dangerous through transition with the puck on his stick. Whether it’s a slick pass through transition, or a solo effort to advance the puck from blue line to blue line, Drysdale’s smarts and skating could propel him into a top-4 role in the NHL.
Let’s break down each of his tools one by one to see what really sets him apart and also what could be improved to take his game to the next level.
When breaking down Drysdale’s game it would be a disservice to not start with his skating, as this is really the basis of what makes him an offensive difference-maker. Drysdale is a gifted skater who is capable of mixing in a number of different aspects and skills while on the move to effectively create space between himself and his opponent.
While his top speed isn’t elite, his acceleration in his first three steps, at times, can help him jump up into the rush where he really shines. When in motion these quick steps can really propel Drysdale through the neutral zone in a flash, creating solid separation between himself and the trailing back checkers. The key to his transition ability though, is the straight away crossovers.
Drysdale utilizes the straightaway crossovers often when transitioning the puck allowing him to be incredibly agile with his choice of lane to drive. This also enables him to change up his offensive zone entry point with relative ease as the options open and close in front of him. While usually speeding up the wall and entering the zone from the wing, he is also capable of entering centre ice through transition when given the window and driving the centre lane from the blue line in.
Drysdale’s mobility is really on display when he has his head up and the puck on his stick as he creates lanes with his ability to adjust his East-West motion quickly in combination with his solid North-South speed. This four-way mobility really makes him a dangerous transition player, as he’s able to punch through the neutral zone and break the puck deep into the offensive zone while being incredibly difficult to pin down or get the beat him positionally.
The deception created by his expert use of crossovers is what makes it hard for his opponents to try and predict the route he’s going to take. Here’s a prime example of that deception.
As he exits the defensive zone with speed he stutter steps, fakes to the center and then adjusts to the outside, using crossovers to burst into the space he created and explode up the wing. With this subtle movement he’s forced the forward to slightly change his approach, and give him extra space and time to work through the neutral zone, make an effective pass and then get to the front of the net.
Not only was he able to make the space he needed to be able to rapidly advance the puck, but towards the end of the play he’s also made himself an option in the slot with a great cut to middle ice including gaining positional advantage on the inside shoulder of his coverage.
His agility and directional mobility also comes in handy when in transition without the puck.
On occasion, Drysdale will flip around to skate backwards through the neutral zone, flashing his stick calling for a trailing pass. His ability to quickly catch a pass in this position and reorient himself to attacking the opponents net head on makes him highly versatile on attack and enables his teammates to feed him passes within a stick length in front and behind him depending on what the play calls for. The trust in his skating ability to quickly pivot on the fly gives him a fairly large range of open space to catch the pass.
Drysdale increases his mobility and deceptive skating even further when he occasionally flips into a 10-and-2 skating stance. When he does this, he’s able to slip through tighter space, creating deception, and defenders really struggle to read a players speed and intentions in this position. While some players rely on the 10-and-2 skating too much, Drysdale’s use of it is limited and really only when he’s in transition and needs to create some space for himself.
His excellent mobility is largely thanks to an ever ready stance Drysdale has, in combination with being incredibly light on his feet. He keeps his knees bent and head up and is able to read the play and see what is required of him to be effective. Once he makes a quick judgement of the various options, he can drop into a much faster stance, lean forward, pump his arms and put the pedal to the metal for a few strides to explode into space.
As a smaller player in the defensive position, Drysdale is really going to need to utilize his skating at the NHL level to be able to compete with the bigger bodies. The high-end offensive instincts combine extremely well with Drysdale’s effortless, and agile, skating to make for some elite playmaking abilities.
While skating is likely his best asset, in combination with his intelligence really helps take him to the next level.
As you have likely seen, some players have the feet to really blow you away but lack the cognitive multi-tasking tools to make the speed or agility count for much. Brains and/or hands can’t keep up with the feet. Drysdale doesn’t suffer from this and is highly intelligent, specifically on the offensive side of the puck, though he is by no means flawless here either.
Drysdale combines the smarts of reading his opponents with his agile skating ability to create tons of deception around his movements which turns into time and space to make decisions. Here is the first example of this clever deception.
While this isn’t a great example of tough defense by Finland, Drysdale creates some deception in motion with a juke left forcing the Finnish forward to respect that Drysdale may take the lane to the net. When the other forward abandons his position to retrieve his stick, Drysdale capitalizes on the open ice and is rewarded with a goal.
Similar to the first video, Drysdale uses his body language to fool his opponents about his intentions. He understands what each subtle movement will make them believe he is about to do, and then he knows he’s capable of changing direction at a moment’s notice.
He’s able to make these subtle plays consistently all over the ice and it allows him to really open up a number of options to either skate or pass the puck into the openings he creates. The other thing that Drysdale does well is recognize when he doesn’t have a lane, or can see that his opponents are closing off his options. The combination of his smarts and skating make him an awesome playmaker with the ability to make you say ‘wow’ at least once a game.
Drysdale has the capability to see the ice extremely well which allows him to make some excellent stretch passes, as well as indirect passes to send teammates on breaks. He executes routine passes with incredible precision, but he also utilizes his vision well to find tight passing lanes on the fly. His quick decision making can sometimes get him in trouble by making riskier passes than he should, or not taking the full opportunity to seek out all of his options, but his first pass is almost always right on the money.
Here we can see Drysdale deep in the corner of the offensive zone. He’s able to jump on a loose puck as it comes out of the scrum. While under pressure he’s able to make a slick backhand pass to his passing teammate, who is headed straight for the house and hits his mark.
All of this makes Drysdale sound pretty fantastic as an offensive defenseman.
But there are flaws in his offensive game, too.
With only six even-strength goals this OHL season, goalscoring is not one of the skills Drysdale is really able to ever reliably flex. While he has the ability to put the puck in the net, he is absolutely more suited to be a playmaker rather than a goal scorer. Especially at the next level, it is doubtful that Drysdale will ever be a dual shot/pass threat as his shot would need to improve significantly to beat an NHL goalie.
He relies very heavily on his passing ability to create offense and while he took over 130 shots this season, he had a very poor shooting percentage of just over 6 percent. While that is lower than average and may regress, for Drysdale specifically, he will likely be a low percentage shooter his entire career.
As previously mentioned, Drysdale needs to put on some size and muscle to be able to compete at the pro level, and this increase in muscle could also benefit his goal scoring ability, especially at a distance. Currently, his shot doesn’t have the strength behind it to be much of a threat to goaltenders that are set up and in position and have clear sight lines, especially from distance. His shot does not have enough weight behind it to be threatening from the perimeter where he took most of his shots this season.
Much of the problem with Drysdale’s shots this season seemed to be that it took too much time to get off his stick, and really lacks the power and accuracy to be dangerous from distance. While he’s generally an intelligent player, his shot selection and decision-making definitely need some work.
Now for the defensive side of the puck. This is where Drysdale has most difficulty.
He generally keeps a good gap on the attacking player but can definitely give his opponents too much leeway to make a move from the perimeter. He permits attackers to do whatever they want with the puck outside of the dots, while he maintains good body and stick positioning. Drysdale does make it difficult to find any passing or shooting lanes for his opponents, but also doesn’t have the physical tools to shut down the drive and force his opponents against the side wall for a turnover.
That’s not to say he isn’t physical. In fact, Drysdale could stand to become better at reducing his physicality on his man and rely more heavily on stick lifts and poke checks in the defensive zone to separate opponents from the puck. Drysdale will often throw ineffective hits, or try and seal off the puck from attackers using his body and positioning alone. This has some effect at the OHL level, but as he moves up this has proven to be less and less effective.
Here’s a good example of Drysdale being overpowered physically by his opponents in key situations at the World Juniors.
Granted these are fairly solid examples of what Drysdale is supposed to do in these situations, he still gets overpowered physically twice on the same shift. He has body positioning, he’s smarter, and faster than the players he’s engaged with in both occasions, however he opts to try and win the physical battle in the first video rather than utilize his mobility to escape quickly and get the puck out of the zone. He needs to begin to trust his own abilities in these aspects more often in order to have more success in these 1-on-1 defensive battles.
When he isn’t throwing the body, Drysdale can be a bit too passive, and can be found reacting to the play rather than anticipating it. The ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ of his defensive game make him hard to read in this aspect, but either way it needs significant improvement to be trusted at the next level.
At the end of the day, the smarts and skating ability overshadow almost all of the flaws in his game and make him a tantalizing defensive prospect in a draft class overflowing with elite offensive talent. That combination makes it a possibility that he’s overlooked in the top and some lucky team picks him up in the 5 to 10 spot. In today’s game Drysdale’s smarts, skill and skating can’t be overvalued and give him the tools to be given the opportunities to reach the height of his ceiling.
If he can be surrounded by the right influences, and the right players that will more effectively finish the gifts he provides to them, there’s little doubt Drysdale will be a highly effective top-4, even top-2, offensive defenseman in the NHL.
Sooner rather than later, too.