In anticipation of the 2013 NHL Draft on June 30, Kris Baker of SabresProspects.com provides analysis of the top 10 defenseman available, including three who could prove to be very attractive to the Sabres on draft day.
SETH JONES – 6’4”, 208 lbs. (Portland, WHL), #1 North American skater
The top-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, Jones has the rare blend of size, skill and mobility that project to an elite top-pairing defender. His athleticism is off the charts, allowing him to cover a lot of ice in a two-way capacity, and his long stick and strength are major factors in front of his net. The fact that he is a coveted right-handed shot makes the prized package all the more compelling.
Developing in the WHL by way of the United States National Team Development Program, Jones has always stood out due to his skating. He legs the puck up ice with ease, uses great vision and crisp passing to set up the offense, and displays a calm, steady demeanor in his own zone. Jones is close to ready for NHL duty, so now he just needs to find a team to begin his on-the-job training.
RASMUS RISTOLAINEN – 6’3”, 203 lbs. (TPS Turku, Finland), #4 European skater
Ristolainen enters the draft as a confident, consistent right-hander who has already logged two years of professional experience with TPS. A powerful skater with good range, Ristolainen has made a mark with two-way intelligence and an imposing physical style in the mold of Flyers captain Chris Pronger. He makes quick, decisive plays with the puck on his stick, and lines up the big hit without it.
The rugged veteran of two World Junior Championships can also bring the heat on the power play, using a low, hard shot to get pucks through to the net with regularity. There is little doubt that his complete set of tools will quickly translate to NHL success, making him a likely top-10 pick on June 30.
DARNELL NURSE – 6’4”, 189 lbs. (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL), #4 North American skater
Nurse proved himself as a talented three-zone force in 2012-13, leveraging his size and speed to collect 41 points (12+29) and a plus-15 rating as a second-pair defender in Sault Ste. Marie. While his offensive side emerged versus his junior peers (he scored just one goal in 2011-12), so did an intimidating posture that represents the most appealing part of his overall upside.
Even if Nurse doesn’t post the same offensive numbers when he hits the NHL, he’ll still have plenty of long-term value. His huge frame and long reach offer key shutdown components, while his excellent skating and strong first pass out of the zone can spark the transition game. Continued strength development is the key to unlocking all of the potential that Nurse brings.
NIKITA ZADOROV – 6’5”, 230 lbs. (London, OHL), #22 North American skater
A massive skater with upside as huge as his wingspan, Zadorov is a hard-hitting motor with good sense for the offensive game. The bruising Russian gradually worked his way into big minutes on a stacked blue line this past season, posting 25 points (6+19) and a sturdy plus-33 rating for the OHL champion Knights.
Zadorov enjoyed a rise in stock during London’s playoff run, demonstrating poise, toughness and skilled offensive instincts in pressure situations. With many questions about his potential answered, teams near the top of the draft will have a hard time passing up the physicality and blistering point shot that Zadorov brings when on patrol.
STEVEN SANTINI – 6’2”, 207 lbs. (USA U-18 Team), #47 North American skater
A native of Mahopac, NY, Santini offers a high-end package of skating and physical play to any team looking to fortify their blue line. It’s not often that a player wins the honor of best defenseman at an international event without registering a single point, but Santini did just that by shutting down top forwards to compile a plus-eight rating for Team USA at the 2013 IIHF U-18 World Championship.
Committed to Boston College for the fall, Santini’s defense-first style emulates that of Eagles product (and Buffalo native) Brooks Orpik. He gives little room to forwards on the rush, intimidates with his hitting game and quickly moves the puck out of trouble. With a hard-working approach, the USA Hockey standout has all of the ingredients worthy of a first-round NHL selection.
RYAN PULOCK – 6’1”, 211 lbs. (Brandon, WHL), #12 North American skater
A legitimate point producer thanks to his booming shot, Pulock has impressed scouts by gathering 147 points (41+106) in his first three WHL seasons while managing a disciplined, defensive game. The Wheat Kings captain doesn’t bring a wow factor physically, but his patience and calculated play at both ends of the rink makes him an attractive package to club looking for a power play boost.
Aside from the obvious passing and shooting skills, Pulock competes smartly along the walls, plugs lanes between the circles, and anticipates like a pro. With a productive resume and two-way reliability, Pulock is considered a dark horse candidate to be fast-tracked into immediate NHL work depending on the team that drafts him.
JOSH MORRISSEY – 6’, 182 lbs. (Prince Albert, WHL), #27 North American skater
Morrissey’s superior skating and vision provide a rock-solid foundation for a quality puck mover and power play quarterback at the NHL level. After netting 47 points (15+32) in Prince Albert, the Calgary native saw his stock skyrocket with three goals, seven points and plus-10 rating in Canada’s run to U-18 gold.
Undersized but aggressive, Morrissey’s freewheeling rushing ability and willingness to throw his weight around make him a wild card come draft day. He’ll want to improve his intensity in front of his own net, but teams are always looking for true offensive defensemen, and Morrissey is among the best in his class.
SHEA THEODORE – 6’2”, 182 lbs. (Seattle, WHL), #11 North American skater
A highly-skilled offensive specialist, Theodore made excellent strides in his second WHL season with an eye-popping 19 goals and 50 points to thrust the Thunderbirds into a rare playoff berth. The Albergrove, B.C.-native is a smooth, speedy skater with a great handle on the puck, making him a legitimate threat any time he gains control in open ice.
Theodore’s ability to push the pace is well documented. He models his game after fellow Western League product Mike Green and the results show it. The next steps of his development will take shape in the weight room, where beefing up his long frame will help absorb the professional grind and make him a more impactful defender.
ROBERT HAGG – 6’2”, 204 lbs. (MODO, Sweden), #8 European skater
Hagg’s combination of size and patient execution is a commodity for teams in the market for quality two-way depth. The rangy lefty worked his way into a regular role with MODO’s top club in 2012-13, showing an emerging physical style to complement the offensive sense previously demonstrated during his time in the junior ranks.
A strong skater with good playmaking ability and a heavy shot, Hagg will be charged with developing a more consistent defensive fire before arriving in North America. For now, though, he represents an intriguing mix of skills that is sure to catch a team’s eye early come draft day.
MIRCO MUELLER – 6’3”, 176 lbs. (Everett, WHL), #9 North American skater
The Swiss rearguard made a successful North American entry in 2012-13, amassing 31 points (6+25) while gaining a reputation as a composed, two-way battler. Mueller adapted well to the physical rigors of the WHL, and with a history playing on larger rinks, stood out with his ability to move the puck in transition.
Confidence was bred from a successful stint with Team Switzerland at the IIHF World Junior Championship, where Mueller was quick to read plays en route to racking up two assists and a team-best plus-seven rating. He's not an overly physical defender, but his excellent stride and reach are noticeable on a nightly basis, making him an ideal pick midway through the first round.
THE THREE BEST FITS FOR BUFFALO?
Santini – Like current Sabres prospect Jake McCabe before him, Santini leaves the U.S. NTDP as a highly conditioned athlete with great leadership qualities. His well-rounded skill and right-handed stick could someday fill an important role for the Sabres, and with him logically being available with the 16th pick, they likely wouldn’t need to burn any additional assets to acquire him.
Ristolainen – With a talented Finnish winger already on the books (Joel Armia), the Sabres could realistically strengthen the future core with his World Junior teammate. Another right-hander, Ristolainen would make the future D corps bigger and meaner while giving Sabres assistant coach Teppo Numminen a young countryman to share his 1,372 games of NHL experience with.
Zadorov – At the 2012 draft, Sabres Director of Amateur Scouting Kevin Devine stated the team’s wishes of getting bigger, stronger, faster, and meaner. If that mantra carries over to 2013, it’s realistic to think that the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder caught their attention with a strong showing at the 2013 Memorial Cup.
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