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2020 NHL Draft Profiles: CHL Defencemen

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We start with the QMJHL quartet and end with six honourable mentions that might make for intriguing options in a Sens system that lacks depth on defence.

2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

After spending three posts exploring at a wide selection of forwards playing in the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL, we’ve decided to combine our look at the defenders into one post.

This primarily reflects the relative weakness of the talent available at defence as compared to forwards at the CHL level. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll see a below-average amount of defencemen taken over the course of the first two-rounds, or during the draft as a whole, because they’re rare players and a top-four talent provides a ton of value to a team. In fact, we fully expect there to be some reaches on defencemen as teams trade up or clamour for their favourites in a class with limited all-around players.

Don’t let this mild introduction confuse you: there’s definitely talent available; just, as you’ll see, a fair amount of caution needed as well.

That conversation starts with the four we’re going deep on below: the QMJHL quartet. Instead of us writing individual profiles, we thought it’d be better to group them together to allow for the maximal comparisons between four players who played in the same league, and came into the year with a similar pedigree.

Afterwards, we’ll touch on six honourable mentions — more than usual — from across the CHL. Enjoy!

QMJHL Defencemen

Player Pos Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Player Pos Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Jérémie Poirier LD Saint John Sea Dogs QMJHL 6'0" 192 lbs 25 - 61 #18 (NA)
Lukas Cormier LD Charlottetown Islanders QMJHL 5'10" 179 lbs 27 - 56 #32 (NA)
Justin Barron RD Halifax Mooseheads QMJHL 6'2" 187 lbs 28 - 73 #16 (NA)
William Villeneuve RD Saint John Sea Dogs QMJHL 6'1" 163 lbs 34 - 91 #99 (NA)

Career-To-Date

William Villeneuve, Lukas Cormier, and Jérémie Poirier have been been compared to each other for years. In fact, they were drafted in that order as the second, fourth, and eight overall picks in the 2018 QMJHL Entry Draft. All three are slight in stature — 6-foot-1, 5-foot-10, and 6-foot-0 respectively — and while Poirier has a 192-pound frame, all three could serve to add strength in muscle as they move up to the next level. Adding Justin Barron into the mix with this group is fascinating, as he’s set-up the opposite physically. The 13th overall pick in 2017, Barron brings pro size (6-foot-2, 187-pounds) and more importantly, strength to his two-way game.

In their minor-midget hockey days, Cormier (NBPEIMMHL), Barron (NSMMHL), and Villeneuve (QMAAA) all took home some form of “Best Defenceman” honours before being drafted into the QMJHL. Poirier played in the QMAAA as well, but had less points than Villeneuve, who led the Magog Cantonniers to a Telus Cup appearance.

The 2018-19 season gives us a nice ~60 game sample where the quartet played in top-four roles (eTOI ~20 minutes) for their respective clubs. The data supports the play of the older Barron and the diminutive Cormier, with Barron edging the latter out in terms of even-strength production (EV P1/60) and his penalty kill ability, while Cormier put up nearly 0.40 primary points per game and excelled on Charlottetown’s power play. Both featured EV GF% in the 60% range, with Cormier having stronger relative numbers given the Islanders’ lack of strong players compared to Barron’s Halifax Mooseheads. The Saint John duo of Poirier and Villeneuve struggled, with EV GF% numbers in the 30s on a putrid Sea Dogs team, and their offensive numbers around 20 points. Villeneuve especially struggled, only recording 67 shots on goal.

This past season has almost been the complete opposite in every sense of the word. First, Barron only played 34 games this season, as he was diagnosed with a blood clot in early December that forced him to miss a big chunk of the season pre-COVID-19 cancellation. Cormier, who had 21 points in his first 25 games of the season, also ran into injury trouble around the same time as an errant blocked shot forced him to miss six weeks.

While Cormier was able to grow his point totals (0.49 P1/60) and maintain an EV GF% around 58%, Barron struggled in expanded minutes, putting up worse point totals and a 35% EV GF%. Barron noted that the blood clot issue he sustained was something nagging from the start of the year, and that’ll be the question for the teams looking to draft him. His 2018-19 game projected as a dependable, all-situations, two-way right-shot defender that’s extremely valuable, whereas in 2019-20 his game would not see him in the NHL.

While all four defenders played in excess of 25-minutes a night, the Saint John pairing of Villeneuve and Poirier did their best to showcase their offensive game. Outside of overager Nathan Larose, the duo led the league in almost every point metric at even-strength. When looking at primary points-per-game, their mark of 0.60 is only lower than Samuel Girard and Noah Dobson over the last five-years among draft eligible defencemen; Thomas Chabot’s 0.44 was closer to Cormier’s 0.47. However, they are also the only two players in this cohort to feature an EV GF% below 50%, meaning the defence still has a ways to go.

Internationally, all four have played for Team Canada at the U17 World Hockey Championships — Barron a year before the others. Poirier is the offensive stand-out, garnering the most points among defencemen (6) in this year’s five-game tournament. Cormier, Poirier, and Barron have also played at the Hlinka Gretzky tournament, with Barron appearing as a stand-out in last year’s tournament with five points in five games, and Poirier putting up three points in five games this past year.

Scouting Report

Let’s start with the most controversial of the bunch in Poirier. If the draft were simply about grading a player’s offensive toolkit, Poirier would be easily be in consideration for the top 20, maybe even top 10. I don’t want to sell that short — his dynamism as an offensive weapon is on a similar level to Jamie Drysdale and easily stands out as the best in the QMJHL.

He plays with an extremely high pace with phenomenal puck skills, possessing all the confidence in the world when he’s stickhandling through opponents. His shot is fantastic and enviable for even many forwards. This all translates especially on the power play, which I’m convinced he could even quarterback at the NHL level next season as a specialist given the fast, skilled and high-energy style at which he can control the puck. He won’t be in the NHL next season, to be clear. But that’s the level of skill we’re dealing with.

When it comes to the defensive side of the game, however, Poirier’s lack of consistency has held him back massively. His decision-making is frequently suspect in his own end, with a stark contrast on his engagement level when the puck is in the other team’s hands. It’s surely put him on plenty of teams’ Do-Not-Draft list for that reason alone, although his ceiling of offensive potential is un-ignorable.

While he works at a high pace, there’s still plenty of room for refinement in his offensive game. Whoever drafts him will have to be very patient to fit him into a defensive system that works for him — Poirier’s a player that his teammates conform to when he’s on the ice, not the other way around. But his raw abilities have already been putting on a show in the QMJHL, where he could one day be one of the NHL’s more lethal offensive weapons.

While Poirier represents the extreme end of the spectrum between offensive and defensive prowess, Cormier isn’t that far off in terms of assessment either, albeit to a less polarizing degree. He’s smaller than Poirier (a generous 5’10” versus 6’0”) and has some strength to build up to fit his slightly more physical edge, but like Poirier he’s a fantastic defenceman in transition with superb abilities while running his team’s power play. He’s always a threat on attack, with excellent mobility to navigate in enemy territory and pull off some stellar plays, with his shot being the centrepiece.

The downsides are also very similar to those of Poirier, but again not as extreme a degree. Cormier is noticeably more consistent when it comes to his foundational defensive positioning whereas Poirier will often just leave your head scratching. But that’s the area where Cormier’s diminutive size starts to really show, with little ability to put much pressure and take away pucks in board battles. The potential for growth is there if he can build out his frame, but overall he still represents a gamble as a defenceman who doesn’t really excel yet at the defence part, but can still push play forward.

Moving on to Barron, he’s sort of on an island when we’re just talking about these players’ toolkits. He was the most lauded player of the bunch before the injuries unfortunately took over his season, but unlike Poirier and Cormier who are always zipping around the ice making coaches pull their hair out, Barron is the calmer, sturdier, more reliable defender who can be used in all situations. As the tallest and strongest of the bunch he consistently pressured his QMJHL opponents into puck battles where he’d come out ahead.

It’d be a disservice to label Barron as a pure defensive player, as he’s a committed offensive force who can make solid plays under pressure. He’s not the most confident puck-mover or playmaker — two elements that arguably took a step back for him this season — although part of that could be due to the limited time he was able to hit the ice for Halifax this year. His steadiness as a defensive and penalty killing option makes me easily see a scenario where he’s the first off the board from this group come draft day, despite lacking in the high-end offensive tools that make Poirier and Cormier special.

The final player to look at from the bunch is Villeneuve, who ranks lowest in the group from the consensus despite being the highest QMJHL draft pick. He plays on the same team as Poirier who naturally soaked up most of the spotlight, but Villeneuve takes a more cerebral and collected approach to offence that also landed him success with Saint John. He’s a creative playmaker who can be dangerous right out of the gate in a transitional play, striking a balance between making risks and utilizing his teammates in effective and consistent ways. He has a fluidity with the way he works the puck around the ice, but without the spark factor of Poirier or Cormier.

But as you might’ve guessed, we’ve moved back into the familiar territory of “great offensive defencemen who have questions defensively”, and Villeneuve is no exception. His lack of physical strength is a downside at this point in his development, as even in his 6’1” frame he can often play smaller than he is, almost like Cormier when it comes to their defensive deficiencies. His offensive intelligence hasn’t translated in the same way to the opposite end of the ice, and part of that just comes down to the lack of physical tools to maneuver himself effectively. He’s still firmly placed himself within this group of defencemen for a reason, and could look like a smart pickup especially if he ends up falling to the later rounds.

Something I haven’t touched on yet is each players’ skating, and this is where some scouts tend to find their preferences between these players. It isn’t exactly a straightforward aspect to analyze with plenty of room for nuance, but if I were to choose who I believe as the strongest skater of the group it’d be Cormier. He uses his feet to make up a lot for his lack of size as he’s always buzzing around the ice, with phenomenal mobility to make quick adjustments under high pressure. The way he’s able to blend it with his stickhandling is alone a super enticing combination.

A notch down for me would be Poirier, who although may be the most explosive of the bunch is plagued by the overarching issue of consistency. Seeing him navigate a power play is a treat to watch, matching the rest of his game as a potential game-breaking offensive force. But again, it’s off the puck where that seems to dissipate and the concerns begin to creep in.

Barron can’t be forgotten in this conversation as I’m sure there are some scouts who would place him first in this category. He has great speed to help him build pressure offensively and is the strongest of the bunch when it comes to moving backwards and using his feet to push his opponents off the puck. It’s a huge reason why he’s been successful for three straight seasons in the QMJHL, with an element of poise that’s rare for a player his age.

That brings us to Villeneuve, whose skating is generally classified as his biggest weakness and is the reason some have bumped him outside of the first two or even three rounds. When he gets going he can fly down the ice, but his acceleration is super clunky which loses him a few steps in transition in both directions. There are technical aspects to his skating stride that just look awkward and would need to be worked with closely alongside a skating coach, making his placement at fourth here the easiest of the group.

In a league characterized by high-flying, fast-paced offence with little regard for defensive pressure, the QMJHL really lived up to that this year with their prospects, with Barron being the exception. It may be a tough atmosphere to work in for those who need to refine their game, but offensive skills are also the hardest to learn down the road, and the league has produced some spectacular talents. Some teams will approach the risk assessment different than others, but we’re left with four players with intriguing toolkits. How does the data stack up?

The Data

Let’s start with point totals — who was able to convert their skills the most? Using Pick224’s estimated ice time metric and looking at primary points (goals + primary assists), we find that the leader is surprisingly Villeneuve, whose 1.56 P1/60 ended up higher than his teammate Poirier at 1.46. Cormier is a step underneath at 1.11 with Barron even further below at 0.77, although it should be noted that it was a step down for Barron this season who posted 1.13 P1/60 in 2018-19.

The other Pick224 stat we’ll look at is relative GF%, which is just a plain indicator of which side of the ice goals were going more often for each player, compared to their teammates. Cormier is the leader in this category at +9.31, followed by Villeneuve at +6.46, Poirier at -0.65 and Barron at -12.52. It’s an interesting angle to look at it despite some of the players’ similar profiles, as it’s evident Poirier’s lack of two-way abilities played a bigger factor than Cormier and Villeneuve. It’s a tough look for Barron as well, especially given the overall weakness of Halifax this year. But again this was a far cry from his +5.80 relative GF% in the season prior. Injuries were obviously a factor, but results that poor may raise the concern of his seemingly lost development season.

Our saviour of these posts has often been Mitch Brown and his treasure trove of tracking data, which as always we recommend supporting on Patreon. He includes a handy comparison tool — below I’ve posted the results of all four defenders.

Keeping in mind that this is only 8-12 games worth of hand-tracked data, there are a bunch of elements here that are really intriguing. First and foremost is the sheer generation of offence provided by Poirier and Cormier, especially Poirier whose 1.30 expected primary points per game ranks as the highest in the 2020 draft for defencemen, even above Drysdale (1.20) and Jake Sanderson (1.19).

Cormier isn’t that far behind either, especially when it comes to expected goals where he ranks as the best draft-eligible player in the database. This is somewhat expected as he was far and away the league leader in shots on goal among defencemen, although he was making those shots count.

More surprising to me was how strong Barron graded in those same categories despite everything I’d previously mentioned with his lowered production and detrimental on-ice impact. Villeneuve also fares decently well here — his xG is lower due to him taking most of his shots from the point compared to Poirier who loves to jump into the play and Cormier who just loves to take fire at nearly every instance. But this also paints Villeneuve as a more effective playmaker, with his rate of shot assists second to Poirier amidst this group.

Shot locations for Jérémie Poirier in 2019-20

Moving further down the graphs we see the metrics for zone transitions, and immediately it’s clear that this is where Poirier and Cormier stand out from the crowd. Both players were relied upon heavily to carry the load for their team on both exits and entries and saw a massive amount of success doing so. I found it fascinating to see such a massive difference between their Transition Shot Assists/60, which I think is an excellent way to frame the differences in their style of play — Poirier will hold onto the puck and get himself setup in the offensive zone to do something spectacular, whereas Cormier will simply create a quick and dangerous chance out of thin air.

The fact that both players managed to hold up just as well in the centre lane I think could be a decent sign that the QMJHL’s weaker defence may not hold them back at higher levels. The same can’t exactly be said about Barron & Villeneuve, with both grading significantly lower in terms of their success rates versus the amount of times they were relied on being the puck carrier. This is especially true for Barron with zone exits and Villeneuve with zone entries, who despite both being workhorses seemed to have some trouble finding consistent success.

The bottom of the charts show some defensive stats, and while I tend not to put as much weight on this part of a prospect’s game I think it’s still interesting to examine. All four saw good results at breaking up pucks from the opposition, with Barron undoubtedly the best in both that category and in terms of breaking up zone transitions. The only one of the four who came away looking poor is Villeneuve, which to me was a bit surprising more so because Poirier and Cormier did decently well at breaking up entries against. Where those two end up struggling more is getting their opponents off the puck and stopping them from getting high-danger chances, although those are two prospects where you draft them with the expectation of having some of that baggage.

Once again, it will come down to personal preference of the team drafting based on their assessment of risk or what they want for their roster. I personally came away from this analysis as even more a fan of Poirier and Cormier being that they were two of the most dominant offensive defencemen the QMJHL has seen in a while. But obviously there are still areas to work on with all four of these players if they want to translate this success to the NHL.

Fit with Ottawa

Every team will have room for a capable, top-four blueliner who can reliably defend and be an integrated part of the team’s offence. Among this group, there’s the potential for all four to get there, but also some sustained development time needed. To start, we’re not looking to see any of these players in Belleville for another two years, and at that time, there’s likely consistent AHL time needed. That puts anyone from this group in the next generation of Sens defenders, with Lassi Thomson presumably arriving to North America this year, and Jacob Bernard-Docker turning pro the season after. With two strong right-handed prospects, not to mention 20-year-old Erik Brännström and Thomas Chabot on the left-side, the Sens’ relative quality at these positions might allow any of these players the time needed to patiently improve their skills.

With the powerplay minutes likely eaten up, I’m tempted to prioritize the right-handed Barron or the intelligent Cormier as more likely “pros” for the next level. Cormier’s size has limited him in best-on-best tournaments, but he’s been something the others haven’t been — consistent — and that means something for an evaluator at this level. If Barron is able to regain is form, and that’s a big if after missing a big chunk of important development time, he looks to be neck-and-neck with Cormier without the same size limitations.

Who do you think is the best fit for the Ottawa Senators?

Highlights

All videos are courtesy of HSD Prospects on YouTube, a complete source for aggregating prospect clips & highlights.


Honourable Mentions

Player Pos Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Player Pos Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Ryan O'Rourke LD Soo Greyhounds OHL 6'2" 181 lbs 31 - 71 #27 (NA)
Daemon Hunt LD Moose Jaw Warriors WHL 6'0" 198 lbs 53 - 96 #25 (NA)
Alex Cotton RD Lethbridge Hurricanes WHL 6'2" 183 lbs 90 - 117 #79 (NA)
Ronan Seeley LD Everett Silvertips WHL 5'11" 176 lbs 85 - 179 #75 (NA)
Landon Kosior RD Prince Albert Raiders WHL 5'11" 190 lbs 154 - 209 #98 (NA)
Thimo Nickl RD Drummondville Voltigeurs QMJHL 6'3" 187 lbs 86 - 111 #74 (NA)
  • There’s a decent to strong chance that Ryan O’Rourke is off the board before any of the four QMJHLers above. When a prospect’s most talked about traits are defensive prowess, shot blocking and leadership, you can count me skeptical given all the important things that aren’t mentioned. And while I’m still skeptical to an extent given his lack of mobility and offensive tools, O’Rourke was still a strong play driver for the Soo Greyhounds with a relative GF% of +8.48, serving as one of the OHL’s more effective transitional players while deployed in long and tough minutes.
  • Held to only 28 games this season after he was cut by a skate in December, Daemon Hunt was fortunate enough to make a comeback for five games before the season’s abrupt end. He’s another defence-first prospect like O’Rourke, and has been one of the weirder players to analyze statistically — just compare his estimated 0.74 P1/60 to his 0.89 expected P1/60. What stands out most to me is his skating and the fast pace at which he consistently plays, which was especially evident playing for a very weak Moose Jaw roster.
  • Another WHLer who impressed me for very different reasons is Alex Cotton, an overage prospect who exploded onto the scene this year for Lethbridge leading the league’s blueliners with 67 points in 64 games. It’s the 10th highest P/GP for a D+1 defenceman in the past decade, hovering around players such as Juuso Välimäki, Jake Bean and Henri Jokiharju. He outplayed last year’s 53rd overall pick Calen Addison on the same team, as Cotton’s offensive instincts grew to a whole new level this season. He’s effective with his shot from the point making him an effective power play option along with being one of the WHL’s best offensive creators, period.
  • One of the youngest players in this year’s draft as an August birthdate, Everett’s Ronan Seeley is a smooth skating transition defender who excels in Everett’s strong defensive system. The Silvertips have produced both Carter Hart and Dustin Wolf over the last five seasons, and this past season, Seeley grew into a role among a vaunted defence corps that are known to play an intelligent blend of coverage.
  • Kaiden Guhle’s defensive partner this season as a rookie, Landon Kosior is an intelligent right-shot defender who’s able to both put up points and play against top competition. Winner of top defenceman honours at the league- and national-level last season, Kosior is a late bloomer who his coaches love. A likely late-round pick in this year’s draft due to the extra year of midget, he’s a great bet to continue to get reps on a Prince Albert team that’s set up to compete, and could skyrocket in terms of potential as the years go on.
  • A name that kept popping up for us when doing our research on the four QMJHLers was Drummondville’s Thimo Nickl. The 6-foot-3 defender was the QMJHL’s best in terms of primary points on the powerplay this season, and still had half of his points come at even-strength. Internationally, Nickl’s been a leader for Austria. He put up nine points in five games as team captain at the U18 D1B level, and helped Austria be promoted at the U20 D1A level this past season. Offensively, he’s a strong, accurate passer with a shot that he’s able to get through consistently. Defensively, he’s not scared to be physical and close out plays along the half wall.

More Draft Coverage

--- Individual Profiles --- --- Grouped Profiles ---
--- Individual Profiles --- --- Grouped Profiles ---
Alexis Lafrenière First Round Forwards
Quinton Byfield First Round Defencemen
Lucas Raymond OHL Forwards
Tim Stützle WHL Forwards
Jamie Drysdale QMJHL Forwards
Marco Rossi Next week: USDP Skaters
Cole Perfetti
Alexander Holtz
Jake Sanderson
Anton Lundell
Yaroslav Askarov