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Coyotes may play numbers game to augment prospect pool of defensemen at NHL Draft

Craig Morgan Avatar
June 21, 2023

When the Coyotes opted not to sign Emil Martinsen Lilleberg, it drained a promising player from an already shallow defensive prospect pool. The Coyotes really like Lilleberg. They like his size, his poise, his skating and they love his character. They think he can be a very good NHL player, but a concerning health issue felt too risky so the club cut ties with him, allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning to swoop in and sign him.

Defensive prospects develop at a slower rate than forwards. They rarely show up to their first pro camp ready for NHL action. Even so, there is no Coyotes defensive prospect in the system who easily projects as a top-four defenseman at this stage of his development, let alone a top-pair D-man. The team needs more prospects at a position so vital to playoff success, and the numbers in the ranks aren’t great enough to play the odds and hope that two or three will fully pan out.

“The Coyotes are in such a weird spot as a franchise,” Flo Hockey senior content creator and prospect analyst Chris Peters said. “The off-ice stuff aside, you wonder: Is this a prospect pool that you can see a future contender come out of? I think they are still in the midst of building that. 

“Dylan Guenther is good. Logan Cooley is really good, but beyond that, there are a lot of unknowns. Is there enough balance? Is there enough in every position? Do you have a defenseman that you can say, ‘There’s our defenseman of the future?’ Same for a goalie. Probably not. There are still plenty of missing pieces where having more picks can only help.”

JJ Moser made a quick leap to the NHL club in 2022, and Juuso Välimäki showed promise after the Coyotes claimed him off waivers from Calgary last season, but a look at some of the key defensemen still in the pipeline shows a dearth of numbers and a lot of uncertainty about ceilings.

PlayerDraft year/draft slotCurrent team
Victor Söderström2019, No. 11Tucson (AHL)
Maveric Lamoureux2022, No. 29Drummondville (QMJHL)
Artyom Duda2022, No. 36*Maine (NCAA)
Vladislav Kolyachonok#2019, No. 52Tucson (AHL)
Cam Crotty2017, No. 82Tucson (AHL)
Jérémy Langlois2022, No. 94Québec (QMJHL)
Maksymilian Szuber2022, No. 163Tucson (AHL)
Michael Kesselring+2018, No. 164Tucson (AHL)
Cal Thomas2021, No. 171Minnesota (NCAA)
* Duda’s enrollment at Maine hasn’t been finalized
# Drafted by Florida
+ Drafted by Edmonton

The challenge that the Coyotes face is that the 2023 NHL Draft is not loaded with sure-fire, top-four NHL defensemen. In its final rankings before the draft, NHL Central Scouting listed 17 forwards before Tri-City’s (WHL) Lukas Dragicevic, Moncton’s Étienne Morin (QMJHL) and London’s Oliver Bonk (OHL) appeared at Nos. 18-20. Three of Central Scouting’s top 10 European skaters were defensemen: Kloten’s David Reinbacher at No. 5; Skelleftea’s Axel Sandin Pellikka at No. 7; and Omsk’s Mikhail Gulyayev at No. 10.

It’s hard to know whether those evaluations are accurate portrayals of the talent in the draft, or a product of changes at the position.

“If you go back to 2011, there were seven straight defenseman taken between four and 10, but I think what we’re seeing now is a huge shift towards the belief that there’s less risk with forwards while there’s a bit of more risk with defenseman,” Coyotes associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski said. “I think what’s happening now is that defensemen are becoming closer to goaltenders, where it just takes longer to develop.

“There’s definitely more of a priority on young defensemen to be offensive, to rush the puck, which not many get the opportunity to do in the NHL. So it’s a huge learning curve for a lot of defenseman when they turn pro where it just takes longer.”

Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, provided more insight on that learning curve.

“All of these first- and second-rounders are the go-to defenseman on their team and they’re going to be expected to contribute offensively,” Marr said. “What they don’t have time to learn — because they’re competing, they’re trying to win, they’re trying to be their best, and they’re trying to get a contract — is how to play without the puck.

“It’s hard to play without the puck but that’s just as important in the NHL. Junior hockey is very exciting because they make lots of mistakes. In the NHL when you make a mistake, the puck’s in your net. So they just need the experience to learn how to play effectively without the puck without taking away from their offensive skills.”

Marr is among those who believe that all of the variables inherent in the evaluation of modern-day defensemen produce incomplete reports. There may be more talent in this draft than the scouts realize; it just requires a lot more projection, and a comfort with greater uncertainty. 

“The defensemen in this year’s draft class are a really intriguing group because they all bring something a little different to the table, but I don’t know that the talent level is that much different from one year to the next when all is said and done, aside from maybe one or two guys,” Marr said. “A lot of defensemen that get taken ahead of some players never play a game in the NHL and then a player taken behind them has a long career. Again, you’re drafting 17- and 18-year-olds so it just depends on where they’re at in their development physically, mentally, where they’re at with their skill set, their strength — the whole gamut — to see what you’re going to have two, three, four years down the road.”

Team Austria defenseman David Reinbacher skates against Germany during the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship in Halifax, Canada. (Getty Images)

Most draft analysts believe that this a forward-heavy draft and it would not be a surprise if the Coyotes used the No. 6 and No. 12 picks on forwards, but there is an acknowledgement that they will need to bolster their defensive pool, whether that comes at this year’s draft, or next year’s when evaluations suggest there will be more high-end blue liners. Having 10 picks beyond the first round could help in that regard.

“We’ve got a lot of really good, solid parts. They’re all good prospects that we think have a chance to play, but we don’t have that high-end guy yet,” Jankowski said. “Saying that, we’re not going to take a guy way ahead of where we should because he’s a defenseman. As the draft goes on, if we’ve drafted two forwards with picks six and 12, then sure, we might be looking at a defenseman at 38 or at 70.

“It’s challenging this year. At the start of the year, I’m not sure we had a defenseman that we thought was gonna go in the top 10. Some guys have taken steps while some other guys have fallen off, but I think we’ll see again in the top 20 that there’s not going to be a lot of defenseman taken. It looks to be a bit better next year and yet saying that, we have no idea what’s gonna happen next year, where we’re going to be picking, so you just have to make the most of each year as it comes and hopefully you maximize your picks in whichever way you can.”

Here is a list of some of the top-rated defenseman in this year’s draft.

PlayerCurrent teamNHL Central Scouting rank
David ReinbacherKloten (Swiss NL)No. 5 European skater
Axel Sandin PellikkaSkellefteå (SHL, Sweden)No. 7 European skater
Mikhail GulyayevOmskie, (Russian MHL)No. 10 European skater
Tom WillanderRogle (Sweden U20)No. 12 European skater
Theo LindsteinBrynäs (SHL)No. 14 European skater
Jakub DvorakLiberec (Czech Extraliga)No. 15 European skater
Dmitri SimashevLokomotiv Yaroslavl (KHL)No. 19 European skater
Lukas DragicevicTri-City (WHL)No. 18 N. American skater
Étienne MorinMoncton (QMJHL)No. 19 N. American skater
Oliver BonkLondon (OHL) No. 20 N. American skater
Tanner MolendykSaskatoon (WHL)No. 28 N. American skater
Andrew GibsonSault Ste. Marie (OHL)No. 31 N. American skater
Tristan BertucciFlint (OHL)No. 32 N. American skater
Beau AkeyBarrie (OHL)No. 33 N. American skater

Top photo of Sweden’s Tom Willander via Getty Images

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