2024 NHL Entry Draft Coverage: NCAA Defencemen

Artyom Levshunov and Zeev Buium should both be top-10 picks

2024 NHL Entry Draft Coverage: NCAA Defencemen
Photo by Ben Hershey / Unsplash

We kick off our 2024 NHL Entry Draft Coverage today with the top-ranked defencemen who played in the NCAA. In the weeks leading up to the draft, we'll get through a bunch of other categories of players who may be available where the Ottawa Senators are slated to pick in the first round (at 7 and 25). For this piece, the focus is on defencemen playing college hockey in the US who may be available in the #7 spot.

Artyom Levshunov, D (Michigan State Univ.)

6'2", 209 lbs, shoots right

Let's get something straight right off the bat: it's unlikely that the Belarusian defenceman is available at #7. The NHL experts have him going at #2, Elite Prospects' consolidated rankings has him at #3, and of EP's 17 reports that are compiled into the consolidated rankings, only five of them have him still around for the Sens. He's a right-handed, puck-moving defenceman that's over 6-feet tall; it seems next to impossible for the teams in #2-#6 to say no to that. But, five rankings do have him lower, and teams do weird things on draft day, not to mention that trades can happen. So, in the offchance he becomes a Sens prospect, here's what you need to know.

Background: Levshunov is from Belarus, a small enough hockey market that scouts don't get set on 12 year olds, so we don't know much from his early days other than his international play. We know that, as a defenceman, he had 3 goals and 1 assist in 7 games at the world U13s, and followed it up with 4 goals and 2 assists in 6 games at the U14s. He drew more attention at ages 17 and 18, playing on the Belarus U17 and then U18 teams in the Belarus Vysshaya league, which interestingly pits teams entirely of youth against the pro teams. He had 10 goals and 16 assists in in 46 games on the U17 team, and then had 25 goals and 38 assists in 46 games on the U18 team, good enough to be tied for seventh in league-wide scoring (and first among defencemen). He also had 7 goals and 10 assists in 13 playoff games, which put him second in league-wide scoring. He notched 2 assists in 5 games for Belarus at the World Juniors, and even suited up for 2 games for the adult Team Belarus at the World Championships. From there, he garnered the attention of the USHL, where he was drafted in the 8th round (111th overall) and then signing with the Green Bay Gamblers. This earned him a college contract, and he signed with Michigan State, where he's now played one season.

Scouting: So what makes Levshunov so attractive? After his handedness and over-six-footed-ness, it's not hard to see what else has scouts excited. His game is fairly offence-first, in the mould of a Cale Makar, Adam Fox, or Evan Bouchard. Many scouts claim that, after Macklin Celebrini, Levshunov might be the most NHL-ready player in this draft. His poise with the puck, his skating, his hand-eye coordination, his ability to keep the puck in at the blue line, his first-pass/transition, and his ability to get shots through from the point are all seen as strengths. He can run a powerplay, lead a breakout, and keep a cycle going. The other thing that's been exciting with him is his adaptability and growth, in that he's gone from the Belarusian league to the USHL to the NCAA in consecutive seasons, and has seemingly gotten better each team. With two years of North American hockey under his belt, he seems poised to make a difference in the NHL sooner rather than later.

His weaknesses are also what you'd probably expect from a defensive prospect who's billed as offensive, in that his defence leaves something to be desired. He is actually known for throwing some big hits in the NCAA, but sometimes putting himself out of position to make the hit, possibly, ironically, as a way to prove that he's defensively capable. He does seem to get thrown off mentally after making a mistake or when someone gets under his skin. He's also been known to lock in on the high-risk breakout pass, causing unnecessary icings.

Overall, though, scouts have observed that his defensive game grew over his time in the USHL and then again in the NCAA. It seems he could be only on the cusp of his potential as he continues to adjust and grow to the level of his competition.

Stats: The main stats we have on Levshunov are for his couple years in the North America. With the Green Bay Gamblers, in his draft-minus-2 season, he posted 13 goals and 29 assists in 62 games. Solid numbers for a player coming from overseas, but nothing that screams first-round pick. In college, he had 9 goals and 26 assists in 38 games. That was good enough for 9th among all defencemen, and second among rookie defencemen (behind fellow top prospect Zeev Buium, who will be discussed next). Overall, his point totals reflect what we hear: that he's an offence-first defenceman. I would look for his numbers to grow even more next year — unless he makes the jump to the NHL, which, if he's drafted by Chicago or Columbus as projected, he very well could.

Other Resources: For a good overview of his abilities, this video from NHL Draft Pros is your best bet, as well as this one from Simon St-Laurent. I found that Davy Jones Locker Room also had a great overview.

Zeev Buium (D, University of Denver)

6'0", 183 lbs, shoots left

Unlike Levshunov, Buium (pronounced "BOO-yum") is likely to be around when the Sens pick. He's #8 on EP's consolidated rankings, and his highest ranking (Craig Button's most-recent ones) has him at #4. McKeen's has him the lowest, at #15, and that really seems to be a product of the fact that he's shot so far up the rankings so fast—pre-season rankings had him as a borderline first-round pick. It's a testament to how good of a season he's had that he's now projected to go around 5-10.

Background: Buium grew up in California, part of what might be considered the second wave of California hockey: he was just 6-and-a-half years old when the Kings won their first Stanley Cup. He was a standout from a young age, playing in the Brick Invitational (a tournament for 9- and 10-year-olds) at age 9 for Team California—a tournament that included one Connor Bedard, playing for the BC Junior Canucks. Buium laced ‘em up for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks at the Québec International Pee-Wee tournament in 2018 (which was led in scoring by 2023 top-pick Will Smith) and then for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings U13 triple-A team. His 36 points in 56 games as a 13-year-old earned him entrance to Shattuck-St. Mary's, a prep school in Minnesota that has churned out a number of notable hockey players, with a list too long to mention all but that includes some guys named Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, and Jonathan Toews; a few former Senators in Joe Corvo, Patrick Eaves, and Derek Stepan; and some of the biggest names in US women's hockey—Amanda Kessel, Brianna Decker, and Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux. So it's clear SSM is a big hockey location. After 2 years there, he joined the US National Team Development Program, with 4 goals, 9 assists in 49 games as a U17 and 5 goals, 35 assists in 63 games for the U18 team. He also had a goal and 5 assists at the world U18s. His freshman year at University of Denver was a roaring success, with 11 goals and 39 assists in just 42 games, leading all defencemen (not just rookies) across the NCAA. He also had 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games for the US at the World Juniors. He also won't be the first NHL prospect in his family, with his older brother Shai having been a second-round pick of the Red Wings in 2021; Shai rapped up his junior season at Denver this past year, and has now turned pro, playing one game for Grand Rapids in the AHL before his offseason.

Scouting: As you might expect for a defenceman who puts up a lot of points, his strengths are his skating, his passing, his shooting, and his vision. Many credit his surge in points (and consequent leap in draft standing) to his hockey IQ—he has the ability to see a play develop before most others on the ice, a skill shared by all of the best offensive defencemen. He is one of the most versatile skaters of this draft class, though some scouts are worried about the effectiveness of his stride—he does seems to look like he's working harder than necessary to get up to speed. He's able to create a breakout himself with his speed, and he's just as comfortable moving laterally to make a play, making him a great PP quarterback. Having the ability to both skate the puck and make a pass means that opposing defences are guessing on how best to defend him. The Hockey News did a little feature in which they used Hockey Prospecting's tool to show he compares pretty well to Quinn Hughes at the same age.

Zeev Buium being compared to Quinn Hughes on Hockey Prospecting.

On the weakness side, probably the biggest concern people have is his size. He's right at 6 feet, and though he's become great as a stick-checker, generating turnovers with his smarts, he can get muscled off the puck. He will likely continue to put on muscle, but it remains to be seen if he can be the kind of smaller offensive defenceman like Erik Karlsson for whom size isn't an issue, or more like Justin Schultz, who peaked as a third-pairing offensive specialist. His skating, as mentioned, isn't the smoothest, so this will have to be something that gets worked on. While he's great at picking the spots for his shot, the shot itself is average, without much in the way of deceptiveness. He will need to improve his shot if he's going to become a serious weapon on an NHL powerplay. Though he's a left shot, he does play regularly on the right side, but his handedness likely bumps him down a couple notches in many scouts' books.

Stats: As noted in the image above, his stats are really, really good as a rookie defenceman. He finished first among defencemen in points, and second in points-per-game behind Habs prospect Lane Hutson. He's slightly off Hutson's pace of 1.23 points-per-game from his rookie season, but he's beat out the rookies season of other notable recent grades like Adam Fox (1.14 PPG), Luke Hughes (0.95), Quinn Hughes (0.78), or Cale Makar (0.62). Obviously points aren't everything, but you want to see an offensive defenceman dominate on offence. It's also noteworthy that Denver was the national champion, and (Zeev, not Shai) Buium was second on the team in points. He was a standout star on a dominant team. Given his slightly smaller stature, he will likely get at least another season after his draft year to develop physically in the AHL, and we'll see if his stats continue to blossom the way those other guys did in the Draft+1 seasons.

Further Reading: McKeen's has a super thorough scouting report from January, with multiple videos to show his skating, shot, and physicality. NHL Draft Pros also has a great in-depth video. The Hockey News and The Rink Live had some good narrative pieces about his journey to the draft.

Credit to Elite Prospects, TSN's Bob McKenzie and Craig Button, DraftNation, Davy Jones Locker Room, McKeen's, The Hockey Writers, Dobber, NHL Draft Pros, Sportsnet's Jason Bukala, and NHL.com's Adam Kimmelman and Mike Morreale for scouting information.

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