June 25, 2023

Ranking the top defense options at the 2023 NHL Draft

The defense crop heading into the 2023 NHL Draft may not rival the depth available at forward, but there are still plenty of blueliners capable of becoming go-to options for their respective future clubs.

Axel Sandin Pellikka, the top-slotted blueliner in FCHockey’s Final ranking for the 2023 draft, has his sights set on being the first defenseman selected. Followed closely behind is David Reinbacher, who will very likely become the first rearguard from Austria to be drafted in the first round.

Though only four defensemen are ranked in the top 32 at FCHockey, there certainly is potential for more to come off the board, with 16 of the following 32 ranked players outside of the opening round making their living along the blue line. There is quality to be had, to say the least.

Over the last two dozen years, the team hoisting the Stanley Cup at season’s end had a high-end defenseman to turn to in all situations. This year, in Nashville, teams will be in search of what they hope to be their defensive anchor for the foreseeable future.

Here’s a look at the defense position at the NHL Draft, in recent history:

2022: 31 in the top 100, 66 in the top 200. 72 taken overall.
2021: 34 in the top 100, 72 in the top 200. 81 taken overall.
2020: 30 in the top 100, 59 in the top 200. 61 taken overall.
2019: 36 in the top 100, 63 in the top 200. 66 taken overall.
2018: 35 in the top 100, 66 in the top 200. 70 taken overall.

Here’s a look at the top 10 candidates to go at the 2023 draft, as projected by FCHockey’s scouting staff:

2023 NHL Draft Guide A

Axel Sandin Pellikka | Skelleftea (SWE Jr.) | 5’11″ | 176
31 GP | 16 G | 20 A | 36 P
FCHockey rank: 8

Sandin Pellikka is a poised, intelligent defenseman with superior skating skills and a reliable shot. Renowned for his calmness and exceptional decision-making, he excels with the puck, showcasing mastery in power play and puck breakout from his end. His excellent player positioning and accurate shooting earmark him as a top defense option in this class. Sandin Pellikka’s outstanding first pass and hockey IQ allow him to effectively counter aggressive forecheck and pressure. Though he needs to improve in board and net-front battles, he is expected to enhance these areas with increased strength and size. He’s thrived against older opponents, promising immense potential as he continues to develop.

Scout’s quote: “Sandin Pellikka is extremely poised with the puck, and just the right amount of flash. Despite having extremely impressive puckhandling, he rarely tries to do too much with the puck. He’s probably my favorite player in this draft class.” – FCHockey regional scout Rasmus Tornqvist

David Reinbacher | Kloten (SUI) | 6’2″ | 185
46 GP | 3 G | 19 A | 22 P
FCHockey rank: 10

Reinbacher is a sizeable defenseman distinguished by robust skating ability and confidence all areas of the ice. He exhibits a keen sense of awareness and problem-solving in defensive and neutral zones, and his solid puck skills enable precise passes under various situations. Reinbacher uses his size and agility effectively to counter forecheckers. Defensively, he employs an active stick and keen reads, and off the puck, he adeptly supports, offering options or creating space. His strong gap control and powerful shot set him apart as a complete two-way defenseman.

Scout’s quote: “Reinbacher had an impressive season. He’s probably the best shutdown defenseman in the draft class and remains a very good skater and strong in transition. He may lack some elite offensive talent but the offensive production in this season was incredibly strong, all things considered.” – FCHockey chief European scout Miroslav Simurka

Mikhail Gulyayev | Omsk (RUS Jr.) | 5’10″ | 171
22 GP | 2 G | 23 A | 25 P
FCHockey rank: 16

Mikhail Gulyayev is an offensive defenseman with superior puckhandling skills, adept passing abilities, and effective mobility. His edgework and proficiency as a power play quarterback contribute to his reputation as an electric offensive player. However, his defensive play, notably struggles in winning puck battles and maintaining coverage, requires improvement. Additionally, his smaller stature can leave him vulnerable to being overpowered. To maximize his potential, Gulyayev needs to address his defensive issues, make better decisions under pressure, and improve his shot. Despite these areas of improvement, his combination of skating, puck skills, and offensive capabilities render him an appealing prospect.

Scout’s quote: “Gulyayev is a highly mobile and offensively dangerous blueliner. The combination of his mobility and on-ice awareness makes him a threat to create offense whenever the puck is on his stick.” – FCHockey crossover scout Jake Janso

Dmitri Simashev |Yaroslavl (RUS Jr.) | 6’4″ | 198
33 GP | 1 G | 11 A | 12 P
FCHockey rank: 24

Dmitri Simashev‘s blend of size, reach, and mobility leaves a significant mark on his gameplay. He displays strong decision-making, opting for simple, effective plays, and uses his solid first pass to efficiently transition possession. His occasional displays of puck skills and subtle offense are promising, though he tends to limit his offensive threat. While his size allows for physical involvement, he often depends on positioning and stickwork to displace puck carriers. His skating abilities are strong, but he could improve his acceleration. While it would be beneficial for him to become a more consistent two-way threat, Simashev’s unique blend of physicality and mobility make him a noteworthy defensive prospect.

Scout’s quote: “Simashev is a mature two-way defenseman with some sneaky offensive potential. His advanced athleticism and fundamental maturity makes him a sound defender but flashes of offensive dynamism provide an intriguing glimpse into his upside.” – Janso

Etienne Morin | Moncton (QMJHL) | 6’0″ | 180
67 GP | 21 G | 51 A | 72 P
FCHockey rank: 33

Etienne Morin has developed into a versatile, 200-foot defenseman with an aptitude for puckhandling, decision-making, and accurate passing. His strength lies in initiating breakouts, supporting offensive plays, and effectively anchoring the point. His offensive potential is evident in his eagerness to join rushes and his clever tactics at the blue line. Defensively, his fluid mobility and deceptive puckhandling stand out, though he struggles to handle opponents attacking with speed. However, he offsets this weakness with timely puck checking skills. His ability to involve himself offensively without sacrificing his defensive duties makes him a valuable prospect.

Scout’s quote: “Morin is an incredibly talented offensive defenseman. Not only does he have the speed and agility to bait and escape forecheckers but his vision and passing is so clever that he can pierce a crisp pass through a team’s defensive structure and trap opponents behind the play. Watching Morin maneuver along the offensive blue line makes me chuckle because it’s just not fair to expect a winger to close in and contain him.” – FCHockey chief Eastern scout Shaun Richardson

Tanner Molendyk | Saskatoon (WHL) | 6’0″ | 182
67 GP | 9 G |28 A | 37 P
FCHockey rank: 34

Tanner Molendyk, known for his skating, decision-making, and puck-carrying abilities, excels as a two-way force on the ice. His defense is marked by his ability to effectively limit opponents’ space during the rush and win puck battles along the boards, while his offensive side stands out for his quick, clean puck distribution and efficient transition into the offensive zone. Although he doesn’t excel in any one area, his overall confidence and solid gameplay make him a valuable prospect. His springy stride and excellent agility, paired with his quick and efficient puck handling, paint the picture of a potential middle-pairing defenseman with the ability to impact all areas of the game at the NHL level.

Scout’s quote: “Molendyk has really separated himself as the top defensive prospect out of the West in my eyes. His four-direction mobility and power through his stride is among the best in the draft and he uses his skating talents to be a disruptive force all over the ice. He still hasn’t quite figured out how to tap into that potential on the offensive side of the puck, but even if he never quite develops into a point producer at the next level his two way game and physicality will make him a solid middle-pairing option.” – FCHockey chief Western scout Donesh Mazloum

Tom Willander | Rogle (SWE Jr. ) | 6’1″ | 180
39 GP | 4 G | 21 A | 25 P
FCHockey rank: 37

Tom Willander is a highly mobile defenseman whose offensive abilities are bolstered by his excellent vision and ability to create opportunities from the point. His above-average skating and puckhandling skills make him an intriguing package. He displays vision with his accurate stretch passes and quick decision-making, but could benefit from increased strength to better handle defensive aspects of his responsibilities. Despite some areas for improvement, his size, skill, and mobility present significant upside and potential.

Scout’s quote: “Extremely intriguing package. Willander is both agile and fast, and he uses his skating to his advantage both when running the play from the blue line in the offensive zone and when defending against the rush. He’s also very effective at getting the puck out of his own zone onto his teammates sticks.” – Tornqvist

Beau Akey | Barrie (OHL ) | 6’0″ | 1673
66 GP | 11 G | 36 A | 47 P
FCHockey rank: 38

Beau Akey is a strong two-way defenseman known for his excellent hockey IQ and mobility across all zones. He controls the game pace with his quick coverage and is reliable on the ice. Offensively, he’s intuitive about joining attacking rushes, using his speed effectively. His patience and mobility enable him to create opportunities and execute high-risk passes from the blue line. However, he needs to improve his defense against rushes and general gap control. With enhanced passing strength and defensive play, Akey, a well-rounded defenseman, could transition smoothly to higher competition levels, making him a significant asset in the draft.

Scout’s quote: “A solid two-way defender who has a high hockey IQ and great mobility. Offensively, he demonstrates a good understanding of when to join the rush, selecting the right lane and using his speed to attack. He needs to be more aggressive while defending, but the foundation is there for him to be a steady blueliner at the next level for a long time.” – FCHockey chief Ontario scout Austin Broad

Caden Price | Kelowna (WHL) | 6’1″ | 185
65 GP | 5 G | 35 A | 40 P
FCHockey rank: 42

Caden Price has emerged as a reliable talent with potential to become a middle-pairing defenseman. He has significantly improved his skating, turning a former weakness into a strength. Highly active in possession and defense, he disrupts counterattacks effectively and displays smart stick handling. His calm demeanor under pressure and ability to support in odd-man rush opportunities instills confidence in his team. Though he occasionally lacks precision with the puck, adding size and strength should optimize his defensive potential. His aggressive style has improved with better footwork, enhancing his ability to counterattack. He successfully neutralizes opponents and allows his defensive partner to focus on offense, but needs to simplify decision-making with possession. Continued development could make Price a valuable prospect in the 2023 draft.

Scout’s quote: “Price is one of the most improved players in the region as his footwork and transitions have caught up to his natural athleticism. Price doesn’t do a lot that will wow you but his engaged two way play means that he is always in the thick of the action. He likely doesn’t do anything at the elite level required to be a top pairing defenseman but I think he has the tools to round out an NHL defensive corps.” — Mazloum

Oliver Bonk | London (OHL) | 6’2″ | 180
67 GP | 10 G | 30 A | 40 P
FCHockey rank: 43

Oliver Bonk is a smooth-skating, quick-thinking defenseman with adept puckhandling. His long stride and lateral agility allow for speed and elusiveness. Bonk excels under pressure, maintaining possession effectively, and showcases strong positioning and gap control in defensive transition. He must enhance his physicality, stride power, and foot speed to fulfill his top-four, two-way defenseman potential. Though his skating could improve, Bonk effectively anticipates plays and shuts down rushes. He displays solid puck control and shot accuracy in the offensive zone, but needs to develop strength. His defensive abilities show promise, and Bonk’s potential positions him as a top blueliner for this class.

Scout’s quote: “Bonk is a gifted offensive defenseman who can process the game quickly which helps him transition from defense to offense. He’s a smart player and has the ability to be a steady two-way presence from the back end, but does need to work on his physical play in order to be consistent.” – Broad

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