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Blue Line Help Abundant In Draft

Wednesday, 05.29.2013 / 4:57 PM / Features
By Mark Pukalo

Eight defensemen were selected in the Top 10 of the NHL draft last year, most of them with top-end offensive credentials.

The next crop of blue-liners could be as deep overall, but won’t be as prominent early in the first round. However, one very special defenseman could have his name called first.

Seth Jones, a 6-foot-4, 203-pound, two-way defenseman from Portland of the Western Hockey League, is expected to go in the first few picks June 30 in Newark, N.J. Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, grew up playing hockey in Denver and would seem a natural selection for Colorado at No. 1.

“He’s the most unique defenseman I’ve seen since Chris Pronger,” Former Calgary Flames general manager and current TSN scout Craig Button said. “He’s not like Chris Pronger. He’s unique like him. He’s big, can skate, and plays in every situation. Is he going to be an 80-point guy? I don’t think so. But he can record 50 points and play in all the demanding moments of a game. I just don’t see an abundance of players like that.”

Jones likely won’t be around when the Tampa Bay’s turn comes up at No. 3, but Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray compares him to young emerging St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo for his versatility.

“He’s a big, right-shot defenseman who can skate for days, so he is able to play lots of minutes,” Murray said. “Like [Pietrangelo], he needs some work in his own end as far as his positioning and his commitment defensively, but he’s a very skilled player and he’s going to be a very good addition to any team.”

The next group of top defensemen may not have flash, but can be just as valuable down the road.

Sault Ste. Marie’s Darnell Nurse, at 6-5, Rimouski’s Samuel Morin, at 6-7, Russian Nikita Zadorov of London, at 6-5 and 6-4 Fin Rasmus Ristolainen aren’t likely to stay on the board long.

The 2013 NHL Entry Draft takes place on Sunday, June 30 at New Jersey's Prudential Center. Follow on-going updates on TampaBayLightning.com

“They’re all big men, they can skate and make plays,” Button said. “You just don’t see defensemen that size with ability walking around.

“I worked with Bob Clarke. He used to say that he hated playing against big defensemen. If a Hall-of-Fame player hated playing against big defenseman, I can guarantee all those players under him did, too. I’m sure [Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman] would say the same thing.”

Murray said this group might not produce many defensemen that will run a power play, but it is filled with guys that will “make people pay a price.”

Nurse is a good skater, very athletic and is willing to drop the gloves. Morin also can throw his fists, is very mobile for his size and has been progressing quickly. Zadorov is an imposing 230 pounds and may need extra time to fully develop, but could be a monster down the road. Ristolainen has shown to be a steady, two-way defenseman playing against much older men.

“I don’t think there’s a wide gap between any of them,” Button said.

Button said the top talent goes deep into the second round and there will be good players available in the third and later.

“I see the quality of this draft being as good as it was in 2003,” he said.

That’s saying a lot. Of the 30 players picked in the first round that year, 28 have played at least 192 NHL games. Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Brown, Brent Burns, Jeff Carter, Brent Seabrook, Nathan Horton, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Milan Michalek, Mike Richards and Corey Perry were among that group.

Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Matt Carle, Shea Weber, B.J. Crombeen, David Backes and Jimmy Howard were selected in the second round of the 2003 draft. Many other solid NHL players were picked later, such as Joe Pavelski, Dustin Byfuglien, Matt Moulson and Lightning center Nate Thompson.

“They’ve talked for a long time about this year’s draft,” Murray said. “I don’t think it is exaggerated.”

Between the pipes

There were three goalies picked in the top 31 last year, including Andrey Vasilevskiy by the Lightning. That is unlikely to happen in 2013.

However, one decorated netminder may draw enough interest to be scooped up as high as the middle of the first round. Zach Fucale recently led Halifax to the Memorial Cup and is likely high on some lists.

“If he isn’t picked in the first round, it’s a mistake,” Button said. “I think he’s an elite No. 1 goaltender projection. In all my years of watching and scouting players, I have never seen a goalie at 16 and 17 dominate like Zach Fucale. The only other player I saw dominate at his position at 16 and 17 like him, was a guy named Sidney Crosby.”

Button said Fucale, who is 6-1 and 181 pounds, has great athleticism, mental toughness and hockey intelligence to go along with strong technique.

Tri-City’s Eric Comrie and Spencer Martin of Mississauga are also listed in The Hockey News’ Top 60.