February 9, 2024

Loaded defense class adds plenty of intrigue to the 2024 draft

There’s no question Macklin Celebrini heads the 2024 NHL Draft class. But don’t be shy to look back at the blue line, too.

Because the real intrigue in 2024 starts on the back end with six defensemen ranked inside the top-15 and a potential case to be made for each of the sextet boasting top-10 potential when 32 teams converge in June.

There’s little consensus in the scouting community about how to order the likes of Anton Silayev of Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in the KHL, Sam Dickinson of the London Knights and Zayne Parekh of the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League, Zeev Buium of Denver and Artyom Levshunov of Michigan State in the NCAA, and Carter Yakemchuk of the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League.

There’s a case to be made, for the most part, for slotting each in any particular order when it comes time to call them to the stage on June 28th at the Sphere in Las Vegas.

Silayev, No. 3 in FCHockey’s Midterm ranking for the 2024 draft, might have the insight track at the top spot amongst blueliners in the draft class, having skated a regular shift in one of the world’s top circuits in the KHL.

The 17-year-old defenseman happens to stand head and shoulders above the rest literally, with a 6-foot-7, 211-pound frame that’ll have teams drooling on the draft floor. Couple his size with a Jay Bouwmeester-like stride, and certainly intrigue will follow the Russian rearguard.

“The aspects of Silayev’s game that I like the most are his defensive maturity and his fluid four-way mobility,” FCHockey regional scout Jake Janso said. “He’s exceptional at maintaining tight gaps on opponents and smothering opportunities before they’re able to develop in the neutral zone, using his great skating to keep pace and his long reach to pester puck carriers.”

But, as Janso pointed out, he’s no lock to be the first off the board unless he’s somehow able to unlock his offensive potential, which currently sits lower than the rest of the bunch.

“The total lack of offensive involvement is what I like least about his game,” Janso said of Silayev, who has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 55 games this season.

Dickinson, slotted in at No. 6 overall, might be the best overall package amongst the blueliners in the draft class. He’s got size at 6-foot-3, 195-pounds, and blends his two-way game better than anyone else in the class.

“What I like most about Dickinson’s game is his distinct ability to contribute in all important facets of the game,” FCHockey regional scout Mike Kennedy said. “He excels in a shutdown role, delivers punishing body checks, and his offensive instincts are beginning to shine. He is the type of player you win with.”

Dickinson, who has 47 points (14 goals, 33 assists) in 49 games with London this season and gives notes of Jacob Trouba, might have his overall ceiling come into question, though.

“I have yet to see any action of Anton Silayev but he obviously is garnering a lot of attention and is widely the top ranked defenseman available for a reason,” Kennedy said. “What’s holding Dickinson back from being the top defenseman in this draft class, in my mind, is perhaps that he could clean up some of his puck management. Sometimes he will hang onto the puck a little long and it can result in occasional turnovers or disjointed plays.”

Buium, also on initial lists for both the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey and the Tim Taylor Award as rookie of the year, doesn’t have that problem. In fact, the 6-foot, 183-pound rearguard is lauded for his puckhandling ability and shades of Cale Makar, and is the Nation’s top-scoring defenseman this season with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 26 games at the University of Denver.

Even then, though, there are still a few elements holding Buium, No. 8 on the FCHockey list, back from being the toast of the class on defense.

“I love the way Buium activates off the line,” FCHockey scout David Phillips said. “He is deceptive and quick with his fakes and drives towards the net with purpose. If Buium works more on his top-end speed and his overall defensive game, he could be the best defenseman from this years class.”

The same could be said for Yakemchuk, who has had a monster year in Western Canada to the tune of 51 points (23 goals, 28 assists) in 45 games with Calgary. Yakemchuk, an offense-first fixture on the blue line, is a top-30 goal-scorer in the league — also leading all defensemen — and his overall production pace has been matched by just a select few.

“What stands out most for me in Yakemchuk’s game is his problem solving and ability to break down defensive structures from the back end,” FCHockey head Western scout Donesh Mazloum said. “You will never find him going through the motions as he is constantly probing interior, moving his feet to create passing lanes, and testing the weak points in coverage. From an offensive standpoint I think he is already one of the most accomplished and highest potential defenders in this draft class.

The flaws, however, lie mostly at the other end of the ice for the 6-foot-2, 194-pounder who reminds a bit of Shea Theodore.

“There are certainly defenders further along in their development available in this draft but I think there is a chance that we look at Yakemchuk as the best defender from this class 10 years down the line,” Mazloum said. “When discussing the top blueliners available in 2024, Yakemchuk belongs in the discussion.

“While his defensive game needs more polish there is certainly a top pairing ceiling in his game.”

Similar sentiments have been echoed for Levshunov, six spots ahead of Yakemchuk at No. 9.

“Levshunov’s aggressiveness, as much of a selling point it is, is also what gives me some reservations about him as the No. 1 defenseman in the class when it comes to his decision-making,” FCHockey crossover scout Brandon Holmes said. “In pursuit of offense, his decision-making can be downright reckless at times, choosing ill-advised times to pinch at the blue line or make risky plays in the neutral zone, which I’ve seen burn his team at the other end of the ice.”

Still, there’s plenty of upside in Levshunov’s Noah Dobson-like package, as highlighted by his 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) and NCAA-leading plus-34 mark through 28 games this season and Hobey and Taylor nods.

“He’s not a timid player whatsoever and is constantly looking to make plays and probe for offense when he’s on the ice,” Holmes said. “His offensive tools are very well-rounded as he’s a strong skater, passes the puck well, can make plays with his hands, and has a good point shot as well.”

Offensive ability is an element shared across several blueliners in the class, including the No. 11-ranked Parekh — the slightest of the bunch at 6-foot and 170 pounds.

“His ability to activate from the back end and lead the attack is second to none in this OHL class,” FCHockey head Ontario scout Austin Broad said. ” I like his aggressiveness and willingness to be the the offensive driver whenever he is on the ice, despite being a defender. In terms of skills, his shot and passing ability are amongst the best from any defender in the draft class.”

His OHL opponents are certainly aware. Parekh has torched the league in the offensive zone to the tune of 69 point (23 goals, 46 assists) in just 46 games. He’s tied for fifth overall in league scoring, as a draft-eligible defenseman, as a result.

But, like Levshunov, Parekh might have an element that’ll give teams pause, according to Broad.

“If there is anything holding him back from being the top defender I would say it’s his riskiness and ‘gambler’ attitude,” Broad said. “I love it about Parekh, but he still needs to mature and grow in terms of his decision-making on when to push the envelope because he can put his team in some precarious situations by choosing to attack at the wrong moment.

“I think as he gets older and plays more he will learn when to pick his spots better.”

There are others who could creep into the conversation in the remaining months of the draft season, too.

Henry Mews of the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL is ranked No. 16, and Adam Jiricek, who was injured at the World Junior Championship, is ranked No. 19 and could be a draft-day climber out of Czechia. Jesse Pulkkinen, ranked No. 24 after being passed over at the 2023 draft, has exploded thanks to his size and offensive development, and could throw a wrench into things, too.

So while none of the aforementioned group are a threat to Celebrini and that No. 1 spot, the blue line is going to offer up plenty of intrigue as it relates to the 2024 draft — starting at No. 2.

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