Puck Movers of the 2020 NHL Draft

What really is a puckmoving defenceman? Depends on who you ask.

A lot of the time, puckmovers and offensive-leaning blueliners get lumped together. And while the top of the offensive leaderboards for defencemen is usually populated with players that can be classified as “puckmovers”– Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Mark Giordano, and Morgan Reilly are a few– the category is far from limited to those who put a lot of points on the board. While puckmoving and offensive play often call for overlapping skillsets, they deal with completely different areas of the game.

Offensive play, as the name suggests, takes place in the attacking zone. Puckmoving– better described as “transitional” play– occurs in the defensive zone and through the neutral area. Puckmoving, in my eyes at least, is the ability to start the breakout and get the puck moving forwards in transition.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The beginning of a breakout isn’t just completing a pass– it’s recognizing pressure, escaping the frequently 200+ pound forecheckers bearing down on them at breakneck speed and often absorbing a hit from them in order to make a play, and then finally making that pass. At its core, a breakout is about time and space; more specifically, the ability to find soft ice and create the time to make a play.

There’s no specific, defined skillset of a puckmover– strong transitional play can come in many forms. Intelligence (hockey IQ) is the only skill that I would consider paramount, but it’s a specific intelligence– the ability to get your head up, read the forecheck, and find open ice– not the general, “make smart plays” definition we usually go by. Players like Jake Gardiner– or on a more recent prospect level: Bode Wilde and Thomas Harley– can be subject of the occasional bonehead play or decision, but all three qualify as exceptional movers of the puck. High-level skating is common, but not necessary– Sherwood Park Crusaders’ defenceman Michael Benning, who we’ll take a deeper look at later on in this article, is an excellent example of how a player can be efficient through the neutral zone without outstanding mobility.

Which players from the talent-heavy 2020 NHL Draft fit this niche?

Jamie Drysdale (RHD, Erie Otters– OHL)

The consensus top defenceman in the draft, Drysdale is a skillful two-way defender with ability in all three zones. His calling card is his offensive play, where he’s able to create offence in spades from the point with his ability to walk the blueline with his terrific edgework and cleverly activate into the offensive zone for passing and shooting opportunities, but Drysdale is more than capable on the breakout as well.

His skating– the same thing that enables so much of his offensive impact– is an extremely valuable tool for Drysdale in the transition game. He can make a consistent outlet and, if the passing option isn’t available, skate it all the way through the neutral zone himself.

As much talent as he has, Drysdale can sometimes struggle to move the puck under pressure. He allows the forecheck to dictate his options instead of creating his own outlets with his awareness and mobility.

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The forecheck works perfectly, funneling Drysdale up the near flank right into heavy pressure. We can see four London Knights in the frame concentrated around the boards when Drysdale plays the puck forwards. The breakout fails.

In Drysdale’s defence, this a tough play– going from a full stop off a faceoff to collecting the puck and trying to make a play with the puck is probably one of the most difficult plays in the course of a regular game to make a positive play out of as a defenceman. But Drysdale has options here– his partner is wide open if he reverses the play back behind the net; he could attempt to spin off the forechecker and take it back around the net; or as a very last resort, go high off the glass to at least clear the zone.

Drysdale has the tools– the skating, first step, and vision– to become a consistent positive asset in transitional play. He just has to refine his creativity and awareness on the breakout first.

Lukas Cormier (LHD, Charlottetown Islanders– QMJHL)

A quick, undersized puckmover who has drawn comparisons to Samuel Girard and Torey Krug, Cormier oozes creativity and upside as a transition-focused defenceman. Cormier’s only real spotlighted showing was at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup where he didn’t stand out, so he’s flown a little under the radar early.

A terrific skater (probably one of the best in the draft), Cormier is the definition of mobile. Cormier might have a real argument as the most capable transitional defender in the draft, even if his status as a potential first rounder is unclear at this point in time. Drysdale is developing in this area, but at this point Cormier might be the only player that has shown a consistent ability to successfully identify pressure, create space for themselves and their teammates, and use that space to exit the zone with possession.

The play above is a fun look at how Cormier can impact the transition game. Cormier is chased behind the net by a forechecker; he spins off the check and holds the player off while his teammate collects the loose puck. It’s a small play– Cormier isn’t even the one who carries the puck out. But he’s the one who “starts” the breakout by creating space for his teammate.

Cormier’s intelligence, skating, and possession-focused mindset goes a long way in the pursuit of consistent controlled exits. The on-ice impact of his play is obvious– so far this season, Cormier boasts an absolutely dominant 82% goal share– last year (in a much larger sample), he controlled 62% of the goals as a 16 year old.

Michael Benning (RHD, Sherwood Park Crusaders– AJHL)

One of the more underrated players in the class, Benning managed 61 points in 60 games as a draft-minus-one– very similar to the 1.02 points-per-game Cale Makar put up back in 2015-16. Benning was a controversial cut from the Canadian Hlinka-Gretzky roster this summer– I believe he would have been one of the better blueliners on that team– but he’s off to an exceptional start to his draft year with 15 points through 10 games thus far. Makar had 1.39 points/game in his draft year– it’s early, but Benning is on pace so far to outproduce that mark by a fair margin.

An ultra-intelligent defenceman, Benning is an outstanding distributor with terrific vision and passing ability. He isn’t the greatest skater, but his anticipation and ability to read the play allow him to be impactful in transition even without elite-level mobility. Benning possesses a calmness under pressure and is on his way to making an art of the short pass in transition; slipping the puck past the forecheck and onto the sticks of speeding forwards through the neutral zone. Here are three examples of that ability:

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Even with his hot start, Benning isn’t getting a lot of attention– nothing close to the recognition his teammate Carter Savoie, a forward, has received for his 23 points through ten contests so far. A good showing at the Hlinka could have done wonders for his draft stock; let’s not allow Hockey Canada’s disappointing decision to omit him from that roster to force him under the radar.

Jérémie Poirier (LHD, Saint John Sea Dogs– QMJHL)

With a very raw game, Poirier has potential to become one of the most divisive players in the class. An intelligent offensive defenceman, Poirier has tremendous capacity to impact the game– particularly in transition. But Poirier can be susceptible to a high volume of mistakes– turnovers, especially– that cancel out some of that positive influence. This archetype– defencemen who, despite their overall positive impact, can be painful to watch at times–  isn’t overly uncommon; former Toronto Maple Leafs defender Jake Gardiner (especially in the playoffs!) embodies the player mold very well.

We’re going to get into all of that right here, particularly as it relates to the transitional aspect of the game. Let’s start with the good: Poirier is an above-average skater with creativity, confidence, and exceptional puck skills. He makes excellent decisions, identifying unmarked lanes and teammates and managing a consistently strong first pass. Here’s a quick look at what he can do:

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That’s a terrific base to work with– probably close to the ideal skillset for consistent transitional play– but like most good things, it comes with some bad. Any player that plays a high-skill, high-risk game with plenty of time on the puck like Poirier does is bound to turn the puck over sometimes, and Poirier is no different.

I always respect a high-skill play, but there are certain situations where a player needs to recognize that it isn’t the time to try to beat a player one-on-one and look to distribute the puck instead. Poirier can overhandle the puck and take it into high density areas, usually ending with a turnover.

There’s no doubt that the tools of a true high-impact defender are present, but there’s a lot of refinement that needs to happen for Poirier to realize his greatest upside. I’m confident that will happen– Poirier is on the younger side of the class, and risk management is something that is frequently developed later on in a player’s maturation process– but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Helge Grans (RHD, Malmö Redhawks J20– SuperElit)

There’s plenty to like about Helge Grans’ game— to start, he’s a smooth skating right-shot defenceman in a hockey climate where it seems like you can never get enough of those— but there’s also an inconsistency and rawness to his game that could plague him moving forwards.

Grans is a terrific skater, getting around the ice with powerful strides and smooth pivots and transitions. He can evade forechecking pressure with quick stops, directional changes, and accelerations. With the amount of power he’s able to generate with each stride, Grans is able to quickly reach his top speed and pull away from forecheckers.

Grans’ intelligence is somewhat of a question mark for me. It’s not that he isn’t capable of intelligent plays, but the consistency on the breakout doesn’t quite seem to be there yet. There are times where he’ll make a clean outlet and jump into the rush for an odd-man opportunity, but there are also moments where he seems to have tunnel vision, overhandling the puck, bringing it into pressure, and typically turning it over.

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Grans is quite unrefined as a prospect, but as a smooth skating, right-shot defender, he has an excellent base to work with as a prospect. He might be a little more of a project, but I like his chances at becoming a capable NHL defenceman.

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