Bolt Prospects 2012 NHL Entry Draft Coverage: Defensemen

As uncertain as things have traditionally been for the Lightning between the pipes, the defenseman position may be even more unsettled at this point in the offseason. After cheating father time for much of the 2011-2012 season, age caught up to many of the Lightning's veteran defensemen in 2012-2013. Mattias Ohlund may never play another NHL game after the 35 year old's knee finally gave out after over 900 games of NHL service. Pavel Kubina's lack of foot speed also became a distinct liability and the decision-making of veteran Brett Clark had to leave many wondering if he was going senile in his old age. Kubina was sent to Philadelphia at the deadline for a second round pick and Clark is a UFA who seems unlikely to return.

That leaves the Lightning with blue chip youngster Victor Hedman, heavily paid veteran Eric Brewer, and über-mobile deadline acquisition Brian Lee forming the core of the Lightning's blueline heading into next year. The team should also have promising youngster Brendan Mikkelson, recovering offensive blueliner M.A. Bergeron, and less-mobile deadline acquisition Keith Aulie on the roster. Considering Guy Boucher likes to dress 7 d-men and carry 8 on the roster, that likely means the Lightning will be deploying the bulk of their offseason dollars to signing 2 more defensemen.

That's not to say there isn't promise down on the farm for the Lightning. Mark Barberio was AHL Defenseman of the Year and the team also has a pair of mobile young blueliners on the cusp of NHL service in Radko Gudas and Evan Oberg. However, for various reasons, none of the three prospects appear destined to be more than #4/5 type defensemen at the next level, and each still likely needs more seasoning in the AHL. Beyond them, the team really likes Chelyabinsk defenseman Nikita Nesterov, and the club also has Western Michigan defenseman Luke Witkowski entering his senior season, but neither appears, at this juncture, to be a sure-fire, top-four NHL defenseman either. For all these reasons, defenseman is likely the greatest position of need for the team heading into the draft.

The Norfolk Admirals' historic championship run should be instructive for the Lightning in setting the blueprint for rebuilding their blueline. Norfolk dominated in the playoffs defensively by deploying a corps of defensemen who, for the most part, made up for lack of size with above average mobility, aggression, and hockey sense. Only Aulie and long-time organization member Scott Jackson had below average mobility, with Jackson making up for it with exceptional positioning. Beyond those two, the Admirals had Barberio, Gudas, Oberg, and veterans J.P. Cote and Mike Kostka, all of whom skated well enough to be able to aggressively join the play and still get back with proper gap control in their own third. The Lightning already have young, NHL-level pieces capable of playing that style in Hedman, Lee, and Mikkelson. This year's draft is an opportunity to find 1-2 mobile blue chippers to add to that group. Fortunately for the Lightning, this draft is incredibly deep with that type of player, and with two top-20 picks, the Lightning could walk out of Day One with a lot of their long-term organizational holes addressed:

D Matthew Dumba, 6'0" 183 lbs, Red Deer (WHL), Shoots: Right
CSS #11 North American Skater, ISS #8 Skater, RLR #3 Overall, THN #5 Overall, TSN #6 Overall

Although he's one of the smallest defensemen expected to go early in this year's NHL draft, Dumba may pack the biggest punch both offensively and with his penchant for vicious open-ice hits. His skating is world class, as are his ability to carry the puck and run a power play, making Dumba's offensive game very similar to that of former Lightning star Dan Boyle. Defensively, Dumba is known for relishing the big neutral zone hit, sometimes pulling himself out of position to try to land punishing blows. Make no mistake, he hits to hurt. With that said, though, we believe a player of Dumba's stature might need to think about ratcheting back the killer instincts in order to preserve himself physically. Still, that's a good problem to have, as it tends to be much easier to pull back physically than to try to get someone to play with more jam than they naturally have a taste for. In all likelihood, Dumba will be gone by the time the Lightning pick at 10, but if he does slip because of his size, it may well be cause for a lot of celebration in Tampa Bay down the road.

D Morgan Rielly, 6'0" 190 lbs, Moose Jaw (WHL), Shoots: Left
CSS #5 North American Skater, ISS #7 Skater, RLR #6 Overall, THN #6 Overall, TSN #8 Overall

As good as Dumba is offensively, no blueline prospect in this draft has the offensive abilities of Morgan Rielly. But, because of an ACL injury that cost him all but 18 regular season and 5 playoff games, Rielly enters the draft as one of its biggest wild cards. Like Dumba, Rielly has world class wheels and is a great tempo pusher. However, what sets him apart is his ability to read the play and peel off perfect passes and to unleash a laser-like quick release. Rielly's size is a concern, but he's known for his ability to slip checks and he makes great decisions, rarely turning the puck over. Two drafts ago Steve Yzerman pulled the trigger on Brett Connolly despite much more serious concerns about Connolly's hip. If Rielly somehow falls to 10, don't be surprised if Yzerman does it again.

D Griffin Rienhart, 6'4" 207 lbs, Edmonton (WHL), Shoots: Left
CSS #10 North American Skater, ISS #6 Skater, RLR #9 Overall, THN #8 Overall, TSN #4 Overall

Everyone agrees Griffin Rienhart has excellent wheels and is second perhaps only to Ryan Murray in this draft in terms of play in his own third. The real disagreement, though, is just how high the son of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart's offensive ceiling is. His regular season numbers were modest compared to some of the other available players, but he is a capable puck distributor and he does bring a heavy shot, too. Is he a top unit power play man in the NHL, though? And if not, will the fact he doesn't use his size to his advantage physically become less palatable than it would be if he was a big point producer?

D Jacob Trouba, 6'2" 193 lbs, US U-18 Team (USHL), Shoots: Right
CSS #9 North American Skater, ISS #5 Skater, RLR #11 Overall, THN #9 Overall, TSN #9 Overall

Like Reinhart, the question with Jacob Trouba is what kind of offensive upside he possesses. Trouba's got superb 4-way skating ability, and might be the hardest d-man to beat one-on-one in this draft, but he seems to have less instincts and tools in the offensive third than Reinhart has. The trade-off, however, is that Trouba knows what to do with his size and relishes taking the body in the physical game. Couple that with natural leadership skills, and Trouba, who is committed to the University of Michigan, begins to take on the look of an attractive draft day prospect that could well be available when the Lightning pick at 10.

D Derrick Pouliot, 5'11" 186 lbs, Portland (WHL), Shoots: Left
CSS #12 North American Skater, ISS #22 Skater, RLR #12 Overall, THN #13 Overall, TSN #17 Overall

If Matt Dumba and Morgan Rielly come off the board before 10, have no fear. There's still plenty more offensive from the blueline available in Portland rearguard Derrick Pouliot. Like Dumba and Rielly, Pouliot is a superb skating pace-pusher with excellent puck distributing skills and a bullet shot. Unlike Dumba and Rielly, Pouliot drops because he currently struggles without the puck in his own third. Still, offensive talents like this don't grow on trees, and positioning can be learned in time.

D Olli Maatta, 6'2" 202 lbs, London (OHL), Shoots: Left
CSS #8 North American Skater, ISS #12 Skater, RLR #13 Overall, THN #20 Overall, TSN #10 Overall

With last year's first rounder, Vladislav Namestnikov, in London it stands to reason the Lightning got plenty of opportunity to view Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta. Like much of this class, Maatta has excellent 4-way mobility, but plays a more reserved game centered on his own third of the rink. Maatta competes hard and generally makes good decisions moving the puck. However, he needs to work on his shot and likely tops out as a second PP unit contributor at the next level. In a normal year, Maatta might be a lock for the lottery. But, with so many defensemen with offensive flair available this year, it might be difficult to take the more conservative pick in Maatta at 10th overall.

D Matthew Finn, 6'0" 195 lbs, Guelph (OHL), Shoots: Left
CSS #16 North American Skater, ISS #18 Skater, RLR # 14 Overall, THN #18 Overall, TSN #21 Overall

If you're looking for the Lite version of Matt Dumba, consider Guelph defenseman Matthew Finn. Although not as speedy as classmates Dumba, Rielly, and Pouliot, Finn possesses similar ability to distribute the puck offensively and jump into the play. He won't carry it as much as those other three prospects, but he's as good or better in his own third, and like Dumba he's not shy of contact despite his small size. If you're looking for a good second pair puck mover who can possibly do work on your top PP unit, Finn might be your man.

D Hampus Lindholm, 6'2" 196 lbs, Rogle Jr. (SWE Jr.), Shoots: Left
CSS #4 European Skater, ISS #19 Skater, RLR #18 Overall, THN #15 Overall, TSN #15 Overall

He's not getting as much press as his North American contemporaries, but late bloomer Hampus Lindholm might have as much upside as anyone in this class. Lindholm came into the year primarily content to play a steady, stay-at-home role, at which he excels. However, as the season wore on, Lindholm got more comfortable using his speed, skill, and big shot to carry the puck more and become a real force on the power play. When you couple that with he fact he has good size and is willing to use it, you have a prospect that could turn out to be a better player than the smaller Dumba, Rielly, or Pouliot.

D Cody Ceci, 6'2" 207 lbs, Ottawa (OHL), Shoots: Right
CSS #6 North American Skater, ISS #10 Skater, RLR #19 Overall, THN #10 Overall, TSN #14 Overall

What? You haven't gotten enough offense yet? Try mobile point producer Cody Ceci of Ottawa, who has unbridled zeal for jumping into the play offensively, sometimes to the detriment of his defensive play. The positives are Ceci's wheels, passing ability, and big shot on the power play, as well as his ability to play big minutes. The negatives are his lack of sense in the defensive third and his penchant to cough the puck up under pressure. He also is one of the softer d-men in this class, despite being much bigger than some of his contemporaries. With all that said, much like Pouliot, defensive play can be learned and offensive ability often can't, meaning Ceci could be a good pick, be it at 10 or 19.

D Ludvig Bystrom, 6'1" 208 lbs, MODO Jr. (SWE Jr.), Shoots: Left
CSS #8 European Skater, ISS #29 Skater, RLR # 42 Overall, THN #19 Overall, TSN #34 Overall

Although not as highly rated as some of he Swedes in this class, Ludvig Bystrom got 20 games of Elitserien experience this season and didn't look out of place at his country's highest level. He's got excellent 4-way mobility and plays a pretty simple, mistake-free game, even mixing in some grit, too. But is there offensive upside? He has the speed, skill, and passing ability, but unlike Lindholm has yet to break out of his shell and assert himself. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to get a steady, mobile defenseman like Bystrom, but absent the offensive piece he becomes perhaps more of a Day Two pick, unless you believe he will start to turn it up next year.

D Slater Koekkoek, 6'2" 184 lbs, Peterborough (OHL), Shoots: Left
CSS #23 North American Skater, ISS #21 Skater, RLR #21 Overall, THN #23 Overall, TSN #16 Overall

Like Morgan Rielly, injuries make Peterborough defenseman Slater Koekkoek a wild card in this draft. Koekkoek had a respectable 18 points in 26 games before going out for the season with a shoulder injury. Stop me if you've heard this before, but Koekkoek is an excellent skater who likes to jump in the play and has an above average shot. In his own end, given time, he makes great outlet passes, but is prone to make bad decisions when under duress. He also plays smaller than you'd like for having a 6'2" frame. Still, here's a player who is a bit under the radar who could end up being better than a few of the defensemen who get drafted ahead of him.