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2020 NHL Draft Profiles: European Defencemen

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A look at 14 rearguards playing across Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Germany.

KHL Western Conference Quarterfinal, Leg 1: Dynamo Moscow vs Spartak Moscow
Best buddies :) — while not one of our personal favourites, there’s no denying that Alexander Nikishin is one tough competitor.
Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images

After spending the last month exploring our favourite forwards applying their trade in Europe, we now turn our attention to defenders.

Fair warning: this is a long post — our longest to date — but we decided to collapse our profiles into a long-read because we’re still following our usual format of highlighting four players with a collection of honourable mentions. It just so happens that we have ten players we couldn’t stop ourselves from discussing, and given the Sens’ propensity to occasionally draft European-born players in the later rounds of the draft, we figured this was a good use of our time. We hope you enjoy!


Helge Grans (RD)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Malmö Redhawks J20 SuperElit 6'3" 192 lbs 21 - 46 #6 (Euro)

Maybe you’ve been waiting for this, but I’ve been certainly waiting for this. Since ranking him at #2 in my list of the draft’s most underrated prospects, Helge Grans has emerged as a bit of a Sens-fan favourite to select with the New York Islanders’ first round pick. You can count me in the group, provided that Grans will still be available that late. Let’s dive into what makes him an exciting and enticing prospect.

There are plenty of immediate tools that make Grans appealing to NHL scouts — he’s a coveted right-shot defender, and his combination of size (6’3”) and strong skating ability is extremely uncommon to find outside the top ten in any draft year, let alone one with as thin a crop as 2020. NHL Central Scouting is obviously a fan of this, placing him as their 6th best European skater, ahead of fellow Swedes William Wallinder and Emil Andrae who as a trio are rated fairly similarly in the public eye (in terms of their expected draft range, not skillset). We previously covered Wallinder and Andrae in our piece on potential first round defencemen, although realistically any of the three could fall into the Sens’ lap with one of their early second round picks.

Grans’ size, speed and overall agility around the ice alone have him vault up my list, but there’s a lot more to like. He’s one of the draft’s most consistent defencemen when it comes to zone transitions, as he can use his motor to swiftly get the puck from one end of the ice to the other. He’s also excellent at evading defenders in the process — his size definitely gave him a large advantage in that sense playing against U20 competition in the SuperElit, although it was an ability that also seemed to translate in his 21-game stint in the SHL last season.

Taking a look at Grans’ offensive upside, it’s been a slight point of contention amidst the scouting community. He had a really poor showing at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup at the beginning of the season, although showed strong progression afterwards to the point of him being a regular offensive contributor, one who was trusted to play over 20 games in the SHL. He sees the ice really well, and while he’s not one to pinch deep into the zone he likes to make risky plays in tight with opposition — fortunately for Grans, he’s a talented stickhandler which often allows him to pull it off. He can make strong passes which has helped him especially on the powerplay, usually opting to make the play instead of taking the shot himself.

With 27 points in 27 games in the SuperElit, Grans tied for the third highest scoring draft-eligible defenceman to come out of the league in the last decade, behind Erik Brännström and another 2020 draft-eligible who we’re also covering below (hint hint). Even only playing a bit over half the season (with the rest in the SHL), that total was still good for fifth on his team. While he may not be a game-breaking players offensively to the same degree as Jamie Drysdale or Jérémie Poirier, the production is certainly there to suggest an offensive defenceman who is already a step up by feeling comfortable against stronger competition.

A common term used to describe Grans is “high risk, high reward”, and the term is justified. There are times where he’ll try to do too much, leading to a turnover in an extremely obvious way that scouts will remember for the rest of the game. Frustrating things like skating directly into opponents, or making a pass through too much traffic — in an instant these can make one question whether he has offensive potential at all, if those are the types of decision he sometimes makes. In this sense Grans still has a very raw and unrefined toolkit, with his rare combination of size, speed and puck skills still needing to expand so that he can further dominate in other facets of the game. His vision in the neutral zone is terrific, for example, but I’d love to see that ability to find space also be applied to how he works in the offensive zone, rather than opting to work through smaller gaps. He hasn’t struck the perfect balance yet, and given how well he was able to produce at this stage makes me more excited to see how high his ceiling can go.

Right now he uses his toolkit to be too aggressive which leads to some eye-widening errors. But in this stage of development, I’d much rather a prospect be over-applying his toolkit than under-applying, the latter of which usually gives me pause as to whether a prospect will be able to develop their toolkit at all. It’ll be a unique case for how the drafting team will work with Grans, but moulded correctly the potential is there to be a fantastic defenceman.

I still want to emphasize that Grans frequently showed that he can make smarter creative decisions — his ability to successfully bring the puck from one end of the ice to the other was easily tops among European defencemen last season. But the high risk is still very existent, and that’ll be up to teams to decide whether they want to work with Grans to turn all his tools into that complete package.

My personal verdict on the matter: he’s my fourth favourite defenceman in this draft class, behind Drysdale, Sanderson and Poirier. The upside is tremendous, and while at times he can be frustrating, these are issues I’m less worried for Grans to work out down the line compared to others, especially when he won’t have to focus as much on surviving against stronger competition given his size advantage. When he’s on his game he has the ability to completely take over the ice, and it’s in those moments where all the surrounding risk becomes completely worth it to me.

Maybe NHL teams value his skillset differently, and historically they have been — there are a handful of less risky defencemen who will be available in the same range, including Braden Schneider, Kaiden Guhle and Ryan O’Rourke. Grans’ Swedish counterparts are also intriguing in their own ways too, each boasting their unique sets of tools. But the Senators need high-end talent, which should make Grans a prime target.

Highlights


Anton Johannesson (LD)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
HV71 J20 SuperElit 5'9" 154 lbs 39 - 87 #31 (Euro)

Lovingly known as just “A N T O N” online, Johannesson is a charismatic defender who’s always looking to push the pace of play on offence. His size and defensive warts with in-zone pressure mirrored with his high-octane offensive toolkit and passing ability results in a wide expected range, with most outlets having Johannesson somewhere between the second and third round. Where he goes will ultimately be an indication of whether that team feels like he has the sense to improve on his weaknesses and the ability to translate his style of play to the next level.

The last time Johannesson played a full season of hockey was two years ago, when the 15-year-old dominated the U16 level with 32 points in 14 games — tops among all defencemen that season. He was shuffled around the U18 and U20 levels as a 16-year-old, but was held to only eleven games due to injury troubles. He was healthy enough to play for Sweden at the U17s, and had a respectable three points in five games en route to a bronze medal.

This season, Johannesson only lasted five games at the U18 level (six points) before putting up above a point-per-game at the U20 level. Remember HV71’s Emil Andrae? Well, Anton Johannesson was HV71’s J20 team’s best point-scoring rearguard on a per-minute basis, with higher even-strength production than Andrae and the best primary-points-per-game rate at even-strength among draft-eligible defenders in the entire SuperElit (0.45).

Let’s talk about what we like so much about his offensive game. Johannesson loves to pass the puck to dangerous areas of the ice, and has both the vision and mobility to open up the lanes that he sees to do this successfully. He activates smartly off the rush, and when he’s in the offensive zone, he’s adept at manipulating layers of defenders with his skating and patience until he can do what he wants. That’s unlike some of the other European-born defenders we’ve profiled in this post and in our earlier articles, and the sign of an advanced offensive thinker. While his size is going to scare off some folks, his mobility really helps him prevent controlled entries against and to retrieve pucks on zone entries — two great skills.

Johannesson struggles with sustained pressure in the defensive zone, often ineffective along the boards and in front of the net. Those injuries I mentioned earlier? They’ve led to the loss of key development time, hence why it’ll be extremely important for Johannesson to fill out physically this upcoming season.

Johannesson is an extremely agile skater, but could also stand to improve on his top speed and initial two-step acceleration, as it might give him another weapon to utilize in the defensive zone, especially for a player his size. It means something to me that Johannesson still rocked a 58% GF% at even-strength, meaning that despite struggling in his own zone he does enough to be a net positive most of the time he was on the ice. That number was +9.49 percentage points relative to his team, so it’s not like he was incubated on HV71 either.

While Ottawa has a plethora of left-shot defencemen in the system, someone with Johannesson’s talent — especially relative to where he’s likely going to be drafted — is a great bet. If he makes it, he’s likely going to add enough value that could push this team over the top in three or four years.

Highlights

You can also watch Johannesson’s profile on Scouching here.


Joni Jurmo (LD)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Jokerit U20 U20 SM-sarja 6'4" 198 lbs 39 - 79 #20 (Euro)

If you thought Helge Grans was the epitome of a raw and toolsy defenceman, let me introduce you to Joni Jurmo, another of my personal favourite players in this year’s draft.

The left-shot defender has been making waves in prospect circles for two big reasons — his size and speed. Sound familiar? Standing at 6’4”, he already looks monstrous compared to the rest of the U20 league. But Jurmo is anything but sluggish — in fact, his feet are some of the most gifted among this year’s draft-eligible defencemen. His top-end speed is so ridiculous for a player his size that it’ll occasionally make me do a double take. He’s smooth on his edges with some electric footwork on his crossovers, but the hallmark is how purely explosive he is dashing from one end of the ice to the other.

Jurmo is fully aware of this strength and uses it with full confidence. As a transitional defender he can at times be flat out unstoppable against competition, which is easier to say when the competition is six inches shorter than him. But he’s also versatile in his options, especially on the breakout. He can make an accurate and powerful first pass, whether it be a simple play to the rushing forward or finding a seam through the middle with a stretch pass.

The rest of Jurmo’s game is where the questions begin to arise. He doesn’t involve himself too often when his team has full possession in the offensive zone, being more of the initiator only when he’s the one carrying the puck past the opposition’s blue line. Even in those scenarios his decision-making can be suspect, occasionally being too confident with the puck on his stick and losing it before he can find a decent passing option. His hands are smooth which can get himself out of trouble, but sometimes he’ll skate into spots that just aren’t conducive to creating dangerous chances for his teammates. This puts a cap on his potential as a power play option, even though he can be phenomenal on his feet and has the pure size to add power to his shot.

His defensive play could also use some work, as he’s still learning how to properly use his body when it comes to gap control and boxing out players in front of the net. He’s much better at defending with the long reach of his stick, which can help him compensate for when he’s not positioned in an optimal spot.

So what does Jurmo project to be going forward? He’s exceptional in transition with his incredible speed and deception, but his offensive and defensive skills still leave a lot to be desired in spite of his size and puck skills. I personally see him adopting more of a defensive role going forward, as the ability to create offence will be much more difficult to teach going forward. He scored 28 points in 43 games last season, which was right near the top for draft-eligible defencemen, but is less impressive compared to historical comparisons especially with the relative weakness of Finland’s U20 league.

On the defensive side, however, the raw tools are there to make himself more effective. If Jurmo can learn how to use his size to trap opposition and become more consistent with retrieving pucks in the defensive zone, combining that with his top notch neutral zone play could make him a really dangerous player at higher levels. Maybe his drafting team will have a different idea, but regardless the mouldable tools are there with the potential to one day break into the NHL.

Highlights


Samuel Knazko (LD)

Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
TPS U20 U20 SM-sarja 6'1" 190 lbs 76 - 110 #42 (Euro)

The top Slovakian-born defenceman among his age group for years, Samuel Knazko blends a balanced offensive toolkit with a modern defensive game for a mature package — something to be expected for a defender who has had to play above his age group for many seasons.

Take his 2016-17 season for instance. As a 14-year-old, Knazko put up 23 points in 43 games at the U18 level in Slovakia. As a 15-year-old, he was near a point-per-game at the U18 level, splitting half of his season at the U20s while putting up three points in five games at the U18 World Championships. Knazko was 16 when he made the choice that many young, talented Slovak hockey players unfortunately have to make — move to another country to play against better competition and maximize his chances of being drafted. He chose Finland — Markus Nurmi’s old TPS squad in particular — and has spent the last two seasons refining his game in the top U20 league in the country.

That doesn’t mean that Knazko doesn’t represent Slovakia anymore. In fact, over the last three seasons he’s suited up in a remarkable 51 games for his country at the U18 level and another 25 at the U20 level. In simple terms, Knazko’s been “thrown into the fire” on many occasions, and has in turn, developed a skillset that helps him firefight.

While Knazko isn’t the dynamic puck rusher like William Wallinder is, he’s extremely poised with his rushes, with every movement looking intentional until he sees what he wants. Check out this rush and primary assist, where he turns away from pressure, takes the puck to a dangerous area, and eventually sets-up a teammate for a goal. Here’s another example where he takes the puck in a pressure situation, and calmly processes his options before... walking the entire team. He’s a fantastic passer, able to execute cross-ice seam plays without looking against top opponents. And while not much of a goal-scorer, he’s able to pull off creative moves like this when needed. In all of the plays I linked above, you can notice his quick feet, with an explosive first few steps and the agility to manoeuvre around defenders with a quick gear or direction change.

Compared to his peers, including likely second-rounders Eemil Viro and Joni Jurmo, Knazko generates significantly more scoring chances and is involved with setting them up at higher rates.

Why is he ranked in the third or fourth round? With Knazko, your guess is as good as mine. It might come down to some poor performances internationally, where his Slovakian squad is often overwhelmed against more talented components, leading Knazko to make poor decisions with the puck. It could also be his modest point totals despite rocking a 55% GF% at even-strength, because 28 points in 48 games doesn’t look sexy. It definitely isn’t his defence like we’ve seen with other defenders with his offensive impacts, as the reports are clear that Knazko has actually been able to apply his skating and sense to snuff out opposing breakouts or entries at high rates.

Knazko could aim to improve his initial quickness with the puck, adding acceleration to help him break away from opponents or to catch up to them quicker in the defensive and neutral zones. Defenders could always be more consistent, especially in the grimy areas of the ice like in front of their own net, but there aren’t any red flags to note here. Offensively, someone with his style of play could always look to make decisions quicker as the time he’s able to buy himself at his current level likely won’t be there as he moves up the ranks.

All in all, it sets the August-born left-shot defender up to be a potential steal in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft. Knazko is currently playing his third season at the U20 level in Finland, but was drafted by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the CHL Import Draft. He turned down an offer from the Vancouver Giants last season, and with COVID-19, it’s uncertain whether he’ll cross over to North American ice.

Highlights

Check out his report on Scouching here, and read this detailed breakdown of his game over at Pension Plan Puppets here.


Honourable Mentions

Player Pos Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Player Pos Team League Height Weight Expected Range NHL Rank
Topi Niemelä RD Kärpät Liiga 6'0" 163 lbs 31 - 53 #8 (Euro)
Eemil Viro LD TPS Liiga 6'0" 168 lbs 47 - 88 #16 (Euro)
Tomi Niku LD JYP U20 U20 SM-sarja 5'9" 154 lbs 176 - 217 NR
Shakir Mukhamadullin LD Salavat Yulaev Ufa KHL 6'4" 179 lbs 41 - 101 #17 (Euro)
Alexander Nikishin LD Spartak Moskva KHL 6'3" 196 lbs 59 - 109 #24 (Euro)
Hugo Styf LD MODO Hockey J20 SuperElit 6'1" 190 lbs 90 - 153 #88 (Euro)
Victor Mancini RD Frölunda HC J20 SuperElit 6'3" 201 lbs 92 - 196 #82 (Euro)
Måns Forsfjäll LD Skellefteå AIK J20 SuperElit 5'11" 179 lbs 164 - 170 #96 (Euro)
Adam Wilsby LD Södertälje SK Allsvenskan 6'0" 183 lbs 104 - 153 #40 (Euro)
Maximilian Glötzl LD Kölner Junghaie U20 DNL U20 6'2" 198 lbs 137 - 156 #79 (Euro)
  • It feels a bit odd to profile two Finnish defencemen with neither of them were the highest ranked Topi Niemelä, who spent the entirety of last season in the Liiga with Kärpät. He’s played ahead of his age group for years now, although this season was a particularly impressive achievement given the depth of talent in Kärpät’s system. While Niemelä doesn’t have the electric speed of Jurmo or the offensive instincts of Grans and Johannesson, he’s much more comfortable as a traditional stay-at-home defender who plays strong positionally in the defensive zone. He’s a smooth skater too, and is overall very sound in his decision making. But although that may give him a higher floor and a better chance to make it to the NHL, he can be capped in his vision and creativity which may keep him from being more than a bottom-pairing player.
  • The other defenceman who spent significant time in the Liiga last season is Eemil Viro, playing 29 games with TPS and another 15 for their U20 team at the start of the season. Viro excels in numerous aspects, most notably his skating where he has a powerful stride in transition. He can see the offensive zone well and commits himself to the backcheck, but these are all things he’ll need to do with more consistency to succeed at higher levels.
  • The last Finn on my list is Tomi Niku, who caught my eye while perusing stats for the U20 SM-sarja — he led all draft-year defencemen in his rate of scoring primary points by a sizeable margin, and posted a relative GF% of +17.27, all while on the league’s weakest team. I put the question to Twitter as he’s received virtually zero attention, and the resulting scouting report wasn’t all that promising. His lack of size, footspeed and overall pace is on its own very worrying, but his reads in all three zones were often questionable too. Maybe he’s worth a flyer in the 7th round with the bet that his production maybe hints at something we’re missing, but it seems doubtful that a team takes the risk.
  • Moving to Russia, this year’s defensive class is marked by two players who received a surprising amount of games in the KHL, and that starts with Shakir Mukhamadullin. I’ve already made it clear that I’m not a fan of Mukhamadullin placing him as my close runner-up for the Jared Cowen award. And while I understand that the combination of his 6’4” size and decent skating ability is enticing, he gets caught way too often making wrong reads in all three zones, frequently turning over the puck especially in his neutral zone play. The raw tools are there to one day be a sound defensive defenceman with his size and stick work, plus an excellent point shot that he rarely used in-game last season. But too often has his team’s puck possession died on his stick, and I don’t see how that changes going forward without some significant adjustments.
  • Like Mukhamadullin, Alexander Nikishin played limited minutes in the KHL last season, which makes him especially tough to judge since he didn’t receive any opportunities for Russia’s international rosters either. But from what I can gather, the most appealing part of Nikishin’s game boils down to his physical strength and his confidence in using it to his advantage. He’s not afraid to close gaps, toss big hits and push opposing forwards off the puck. He just plays with an edge that way. The rest of his game has a ways to go, as he can play sluggish with the puck on his stick between his below-average footspeed and unpolished decision-making. But if a team is looking for a player with the possibility of being their next Nikita Zadorov, Nikishin could be a target.
  • A bronze medalist at the U17s and the Hlinka Gretzky, Swedish rearguard Hugo Styf has pro size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds), a foundational offensive toolkit, and time on his side as a late August birthday. Styf’s primary points-per-game at even-strength was second among draft-eligible defenders in the SuperElit (to Johannesson) and while his defensive game needs some work, playing with a more stable partner than the time he spent with chaos incarnate (William Wallinder) might help with that. It was notable how much the two struggled in-zone when playing together, with Wallinder often making the first poor decision and forcing Styf to improvise as his partner. That’s tough for anyone, especially a just-turned 17-year-old playing in the country’s top U20 league.
  • A 6-foot-3 right-handed rearguard out of Frölunda’s deep system, Victor Mancini is an American-born defender who played minor hockey in Michigan, but trekked across the pond for the last two seasons. Expected to suit up for Jonny Tychonick’s Nebraska-Omaha squad in 2021-22, Mancini has the profile of an all-situations defender who has the feet to rush the puck, and the size to be physical in the defensive zone. With so much talent on Frölunda this season, Mancini didn’t see much time on the powerplay, but still scored at a respectable rate at even-strength while being trusted with defensive minutes. He’d be a fascinating late-round pickup — you can read a more detailed profile of his game here.
  • When Måns Forsfjäll was on the ice, Skellefteå’s J20 team had an EV GF% of nearly 64% — tops among draft-eligible defenders. That the July-born defender also scored at a decent rate himself (0.5 P/GP) is a bonus, because it’s clear that something’s working for him. He’s only 5-foot-10, but plays a stout defensive game built on quick decisions with the puck. A captain of his U18 squad despite his age relative to his peers, it’s clear that he’s a trusted, valued member of his team. The Sens have opted for Swedish defenders with seventh round picks before, and a smart defensive player with some offence is always needed in their system.
  • We have yet to mention any overagers in this post, and my favourite of the limited crop this year is Adam Wilsby, a third-year eligible player who’s on the younger side of his age group with an August birthday. He was the leading scorer in the Allsvenskan last year for U20 defencemen, leading all defencemen in estimated P1/60 (from Pick224). He’s a late bloomer, having gained significant height and added to his skillset in the past two seasons. He sees the ice really well and can be a quarterback to his team’s offence, and even defensively has shown he can be a responsible player. Some scouts are concerned about his skating, although it’s not a big detriment to the point where he loses ground to his Allsvenskan peers. He has the scoring, and he has the tools to eventually make the jump to the NHL. It’s tough to figure out where to draft overagers compared to players two years younger, but if Wilsby is available in the mid-to-late rounds he may be a player worth taking a chance on.
  • Let’s end this with a wild card, shall we? Tim Stützle, Lukas Reichel and John-Jason Peterka are the obvious Big Three coming from Germany’s historic group of players this year, but Maximilian Glötzl could be the fourth one off the board in the later rounds. He led all defencemen in the German U20 league in P/GP (minimum 20 GP), and at 6’2” and 198 lbs he has the physical tools to be a strong two-way defender. How that’ll fare against better competition is the big question surrounding Glötzl, although he’s appeared to hold his own at international tournaments. But it’s the year of the Germans anyways, might as well take a shot in this year’s phenomenal group.