June 25, 2023

Sandin Pellikka or Reinbacher? Debating the top D in the 2023 draft

For the second year in a row, the discussion surrounding the selection of the first defenseman lies between two European blueliners, this year’s subjects being Axel Sandin Pellikka and David Reinbacher.

Throughout the year, Sandin Pellikka has been most commonly associated with the draft’s top defenseman. A right-shot blueliner standing 5-foot-11 from Gallivare, Sweden, Sandin Pellikka found himself between Skellefteå’s junior and senior teams this season, while also representing his country at the World Under-18 Championship and World Junior Championship. He’s No. 8 in FCHockey’s Final ranking for the 2023 NHL Draft.

Reinbacher, also a right-shot defenseman, stands 6-foot-2 and has been honing his craft with EHC Kloten in the Swiss National League. Originally from Hohenems, Austria, Reinbacher also represented his country at this year’s World Juniors and the 2023 IIHF World Championship. He’s ranked No. 10.

While the two don’t necessarily play similar styles, they are both highly sought-after defensemen in this year’s NHL Draft.

Sandin Pellikka made a splash this season with a strong start in the J20 Nationell, accumulating five points in his first four games, earning his first call-up to Skellefteå’s senior team. Despite only having 5:17 of ice time in his first three games, he managed to score his first SHL goal, in his fourth game.

With five separate call-ups throughout the season, Sandin Pellikka registered five points (two goals, three assists) in 22 games. In the J20, Sandin Pellikka was a dominant force among his age group, leading the league in points-per-game by a defenseman, at 1.16.

Taking a different path to prominence in Europe, Reinbacher spent most of the past two seasons playing in the Swiss professional leagues. After appearing in 27 games with EHC Kloten in the Swiss League — the second tier of Swiss hockey — during the 2021-22 season, Reinbacher and his club were crowned champions, earning promotion to the National League — the top tier of Swiss hockey.

“Sandin Pellikka is an offensively gifted D-man that always make difficult things look rather easy when he is in charge of the puck,” Sweden-based FCHockey scout Fredrik Haak said. “The vision and hockey IQ combined with his quick stick makes him a playmaking D man that often starts his teams plays. He is smooth in his skating and could walk the blue line well when he points the powerplay to open up for shots or decisive passes. He has shown during this season that he could be a big asset in both SHL and U20 already.

“If he gets bigger and stronger he will be a complete player in the future and I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a teams interest early or in the middle of the first round.”

In his first season of top-flight hockey, Reinbacher finished among the top 20 National League defensemen in scoring with 22 points (three goals, 19 assists).

Both players have had their fair share of international competition this season, including one head-to-head matchup at the World Juniors. Sandin Pellikka’s Sweden team dominated Reinbacher’s Austrian team 11-0, with neither prospect finding the score sheet.

While Reinbacher and Austria failed to win a single game in the tournament, the larger Austrian outperformed Sandin Pellikka in the points category. And, though Reinbacher’s numbers weren’t impressive, he was notable as the team’s most noteworthy player from the beginning, averaging well over 20 minutes per game.

On the other end of the standings, Sandin Pellikka was part of a medal-contending team, ultimately losing to the United States in the bronze medal match. Sandin Pellikka didn’t register a point until his final game but found himself more effective on the defensive end of the ice – an area where he’s been known to struggle.

After their seasons concluded, the two joined their national teams again, each heading in different directions.

Reinbacher joined the Austrian National Team in the IIHF World Championship, where he logged a single point, an assist, before his team’s elimination.

Sandin Pellikka joined Sweden at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, playing as one of the tournament’s most experienced players. He finished as the second-leading point producer among defensemen with 11 points (two goals, nine assists), but once again lost to the Americans, this time in overtime of the gold medal game.

Though they’ll likely be the first two defensemen selected, the two play the game with very different styles and skill sets.

On the offensive end, Sandin Pellikka is a product of the modern game. Fifteen years ago, it was rare to see a defenseman standing under six feet tall, but today, size has become much less of an obstacle.

Though he averaged a goal every two games while playing in the J20, Sandin Pellikka is unlikely to have similar goal-scoring output at the professional level. What he will do, however, is continue to compile assists. As a puck-moving defenseman, Sandin Pellikka operates as a surgeon from his perch at the top of the offensive zone, piercing pucks through the smallest of windows. His ability to locate teammates all over the ice is unique, as he finds them in optimal scoring positions.

Goal scoring may not be his most substantial attribute, but his shot is still a weapon he’s learned to use effectively. His shot power could improve, but his placement benefits himself and his teammates. Recognizing shooting lanes as he walks the blue line, Sandin Pellikka likes to snap off shots, keeping them between knee and waist height, an ideal location for a screening forward to redirect the puck.

No slouch of his own, Reinbacher has proven to be productive but does so in a different manner. He doesn’t show the same vision when executing passes, typically making the safer play rather than forcing something he feels uncomfortable with.

Reinbacher, not always shooting to score, often sends pucks toward the net, aiming to produce a rebound. He has the potential to uncork a slap shot from the point, but such attempts are typically few and far between.

Where Sandin Pellikka excels on the offensive end, his shortcomings become evident on defense. The physical aspect of the game troubles him as a blueliner needing to add some strength and stature to his game, as it’s the one facet where his size is a hindrance. Larger net-front forwards can cause mismatches he struggles to overcome. The same issue arises while battling for the puck along the boards, causing play to linger in the defensive end longer than necessary. Where he lacks physicality, he typically compensates with good positioning.

Reinbacher is much more equipped for the physical game. When a net-front presence is hounding his goaltender, Reinbacher employs his strength, intending to clear a path and allow his goaltender to track the puck. While he doesn’t use his size to deliver bone-crushing open-ice hits, he uses his body and stick to disengage the puck carrier.

Despite being considered a two-way defenseman, he tends to prefer defense over offense.

As the puck exits the zone, we see more similarities between Sandin Pellikka and Reinbacher. Both are outstanding puck carriers through the neutral zone, effectively turning defense into offense.

Sandin Pellikka may not be the fastest skater, but his edgework is phenomenal. While he doesn’t zip past forwards heading toward the blue line, he maneuvers through them with ease.

Reinbacher is an excellent skater, not just for his size but compared to any defenseman. Speed isn’t the hallmark of his game, but he glides up the ice with a notable calmness. While many skaters appear chaotic trying to dodge oncoming checkers, Reinbacher seems to pay them no mind, operating at his own pace.

“When I watch Reinbacher, I see a very mature player who remains raw in his own game,” said FCHockey scout Aaron Vickers, who saw Reinbacher at the 2023 IIHF World Championship. “He’s smart, moves the puck well, and has a big body to facilitate some of the ways he wants to impact the game. He’s a toolsy player in that he can skate, has size, and can quarterback things from the back end. He’s really well-rounded. He produced in the Swiss league, too, showing perhaps some potential to put up points down the road as well. You can see a bit of Moritz Seider in him from his draft year back in 2019.

“I think he’ll require a bit more seasoning than Seider to reach his full potential, but he’s shown that the package is there — and that should have NHL teams curious in the very least.”

After examining all the physical attributes that put the pair into first-round consideration, the cerebral part of the game sets the two apart from the pack.

There’s a tranquility to both their games which should enable them to excel at the next level. There’s no panic in their play, whether it be a breakout from their own zone or making a split-second decision with the puck as they’re pressured along the blue line.

Comparing the overall game of these two players is like splitting hairs, as both are ranked inside FCHockey’s top-10 for good reason. Determining the better prospect at this point in their progression is nearly impossible as both have top-pairing potential. It boils down to which style is preferred by the team that ultimately selects the first defenseman of the draft.

If a team is looking for someone to quarterback the power play and create offense from the blue line, Sandin Pellikka is the savvy choice. If a team prefers a big-bodied, lock-down defender with occasional offense, Reinbacher is the go-to player.

Who will be drafted first between the two will be one of the stories of the night, and the first won’t wait long to follow the other.

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