Defensive Posture: 2018 Draft Class Shines on Back End

(Photo Credit: Smith – Larry Brunt / Woo – Marc Smith / Dobson & MacIsaac – David Chan)

The 2018 Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game is often the first time a major junior player takes to the national stage.

All 40 players offer their own personal story but the 12 defencemen who are taking part in this year’s event are of collective interest because as a group they are the strength of the 2018 class of Canadian Hockey League players.

“It’s exactly the opposite of last year,” said Red Line Report chief scout Kyle Woodlief. “Last year it was hard to find a North American-based defenceman…it was all forwards at the top of the draft.”

Ryan Merkley of the host Guelph Storm headlines the defence that also includes Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs, Noah Dobson of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, Evan Bouchard of the London Knights, Alexander Alexeyev of the Red Deer Rebels, Jett Woo of the Moose Jaw Warriors, Jared McIsaac of the Halifax Mooseheads and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ Rasmus Sandin.

“Merkley is magic with the puck,” said Moncton Wildcats head coach Darren Rumble, who had Merkley in camp last spring in preparation for the World U-18 Championship in Slovakia. “He makes plays that 99 per cent of players don’t see.”

With Team Canada’s gold-medal winning team graduating all seven d-men, it’s not unreasonable to expect a handful of the emerging crop to form the core of the home country’s defence corps at next year’s tournament in Victoria and Vancouver.

Smith, McIsaac and Woo earned under-age spots on last spring’s U-18 and then were joined by Merkley, Dobson and Kevin Bahl at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament that saw Canada win gold a few months later.

An 18-year-old late-birthday, Bouchard was not eligible for the Hlinka event, but he was the leading-scoring OHL defenceman as the calendar turned to 2018. The right-handed shooting blueliner was one of four NHL-Draft eligible Canadian defencemen to take part in the 2017 CIBC Canada-Russia Series.

“I love Bouchard,” said Woodlief, “He plays big and the (right) way.”

Two QMJHL defenders – McIsaac and Dobson – are now firmly entrenched in first-round status and their rise up the Draft charts is reminiscent of another QMJHLer, Pierre-Olivier Joseph of the Charlottetown Islanders, last year in Quebec City. Joseph, in part due to a strong showing in the Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, eventually earned a first-round (23rd overall) selection by the Arizona Coyotes.

How this bumper crop of CHL rearguards will play out on June 22 in Dallas is still difficult to pin down.

One player who has earned high praise since he was 16 and who continues to impress is Smith.

“He’s a stud,” said Rumble, whose staff made the difficult decision to keep Smith, McIsaac and Woo over Merkley on last spring’s U-18 team. “He plays a 200-foot game, he can skate, shoot and pass. He’s not big but that won’t hurt him in pro hockey.”

Another WHL blueliner, Woo, is also very likely to earn a first-round selection. Woo first broke into the Warriors lineup as under-age player two seasons ago and he became a fixture last year. He’s missed a significant stretch this season to injury, but he remains an enticing prospect due to his defensive capabilities on one of the CHL’s best teams.

“He’s big and strong and plays a very solid two-way game,” said Woodlief, adding that there are some questions how his offensive instincts will translate to the NHL.

Written for the CHL by Peter Robinson

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