2008 prospects: Aaron Ness

By DJ Powers

Position: Defense
2007-08 Team: Roseau
Shoots: Left
Ht/Wt: 5’10/157 lbs.
DOB: 5/18/90

There are high school defensemen and then there is Aaron Ness. While he may not be the biggest among this year’s crop of top draft-eligible defensemen coming out of the state of Minnesota, he may be the most electrifying. His dazzling display of elite-level skill certainly hasn’t been lost on the scouting community.

2007-08 season

Ness has just completed a stellar junior season at Roseau High School that culminated with being named the recipient of the 2008 Mr. Hockey award as the top high school player in the state of Minnesota. He served as one of the team’s alternate captains, leading the Rams to another Section 8AA Championship and a berth in the Minnesota state high school tournament.

He led Roseau with 72 points (28 goals, 44 assists), averaging 2.32 points per game. His 28 goals, 16 power-play goals and eight game-winning goals also led the Rams. Ness’ 72 points led the entire state of Minnesota in defenseman scoring. He was also an astounding plus-67 this season as well.

Ness was the first player in the storied history of the Roseau High School hockey program to win the coveted Mr. Hockey award. He was also named the 2008 Associated Press Minnesota High School Player of the Year, as well as earned All-AP First Team honors. Among his other accolades were selections to the Class AA All-Tournament team and the Pioneer Press All-State First Team.

Most recently, Ness was a member of Team USA’s bronze-medal winning U-18 squad that played in Russia. He was one of only two non-National Team Development Program players on the team. In the tournament, he posted six assists.

Ness is the son of former University of North Dakota defenseman and 1982 Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Jay Ness. The younger Ness was heavily recruited by a number of schools including North Dakota. But it was the Fighting Sioux’s archrival at the University of Minnesota that the young defenseman would eventually choose to play for. As Aaron Ness told Hockey’s Future in a recent interview, getting his father’s support for whichever school he would ultimately choose was of the utmost importance.

“It’s kind of a weird story because my dad played at North Dakota. I was recruited by North Dakota pretty heavily when I was younger just through the guys that he knew and he knew all of the coaches. I was actually a Sioux fan when I was growing up. I was always a big fan of my dad and kind of wanted to follow in his footsteps. But when it came time for me to pick a school, he just made sure that having gone to North Dakota himself didn’t have any influence in my decision in choosing what school that I wanted to go to. So it was pretty good on his part to let me just pick the school that I felt comfortable going with.”

Ness is fast tracking his high school education by taking both his junior and senior year classes this year with eight classes at school and three more online in order to arrive in the Twin Cities this fall.

Talent analysis

Ness is an intelligent, instinctive offensive defenseman who has quick hands, tremendous speed and great on-ice vision. He is a fierce competitor who has the ability to make those around him better.

His skating combines quick feet with smooth strides, great acceleration and can get up to speed very quickly. Ness also possesses the ability to make plays at high speeds – a quality that isn’t commonly seen in high school defensemen. Ness utilizes his speed and quickness quite well on both sides of the puck.

Equally as impressive are his quick hands. Ness has demonstrated both great poise and great patience with the puck. His outstanding ability to move with and distribute the puck makes him an excellent quarterback on the power play. He can also make some beautiful tape-to-tape passes as well, and his decisions with the puck are also very good. Ness is not one to shy away from shooting the puck. He’ll shoot as often as the opportunity presents itself and does it with a great shot and an ultra-quick release.

The elite offensive skills that Ness has can be partly attributed to the fact that he is a converted forward. He cites having converted about five years ago along with his father’s guidance as the primary reasons why making the transition to the defensive position was relatively easy for him.

“I was actually a forward until I was about 13. My team at the time was weak on D, so I figured that I’d go try it and see how it goes. I went back there and have been there ever since. I just think that it adds to the game and makes it more fun for me to be able to play both sides of the puck. My dad has always pumped into my head all of the little things such as the pivots, the quickness and go, go, go and never plant my feet and just little stuff like that I’ve been doing all my life. So it wasn’t too bad of an adjustment.”

Perhaps one of Ness’ most underrated attributes is his use of his stick, particularly in defensive situations. He does a very good job of taking away passing and shooting lanes, as well as stripping the puck from opposing players. His combination of great vision and ability to read and react to plays has helped to make Ness a defensive asset to his team as well.

Like all young players, adding size and strength will be crucial to Ness’ success both at the collegiate and pro levels. Another area that should continue to develop nicely is his understanding of how to play in his own end, especially without the puck. While Ness has a very good grasp of the basics of playing the defensive position, continuing to fine tune and round out his overall defensive game will make him an even more effective and dangerous player.

Many look at Ness’ small stature at 5’10 as a negative, but as Roseau head coach Scott Oliver explains, what his star blueliner lacks in size, he more than makes up for in other ways in playing his position effectively.

“I think that there are different ways to defend people and Aaron is going to defend people differently than obviously some other players will. He uses his quickness, his speed and his hand speed. He’s not going to be 6’2, 6’1 or even 6′ tall, but Aaron is very, very explosive and pound for pound he’s probably the strongest player that we have in our program. And he hasn’t filled out yet but he will. Project him as a 21 or 22-year-old with his body type and what he’s able to do physically is going to be different than it is today. I just think that in time, he’s going to be able to answer those people who have a concern about his lack of size right now. I don’t see that being a problem or a concern in order for him to make it at the next level, I really don’t.”

So how does Ness describe himself?

“I’m an offensive defenseman that likes to jump up into the play and not only makes plays out of my end but also make plays offensively, set guys up and play both sides of the puck.”

Though Ness lists Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Ducks and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings as two of his favorite NHL players, he doesn’t necessarily try to pattern his style after any particular NHLer. However, the person who has had and continues to have the greatest influence on him is his father.

“He has by far been the most helpful guy for my development both offensively and defensively. I’ve heard all the little stuff from him since I was four years old just skating. It hasn’t been only the on the ice stuff. He trains me sometimes in the offseason and he does everything for me and I can’t say that enough about him. He is definitely my greatest influence — always has been and always will be.”

For virtually all highly-regarded young players who are draft eligible, the glaring spotlight and seemingly constant attention, particularly from scouts, can be both overwhelming and relentless at times. And it’s no different for the exuberant, soon-to-be 18-year-old rearguard.

“It’s pretty cool, but I try and not look at it too much. To be recognized like that is great, but it’s pretty nerve-racking before the games sometimes because you know that they’re there and you know that they’re going to be there and you want to play as best as you can. The bottom line is that you’ve got to play no matter who is watching and who is there. I just love the game, so it’s not going to change the way I play no matter who is there. I try to treat it like it’s another game. Coach Oliver has told me not worry about all of the outside stuff like who is going to be there. He’s taught me to just go out there, play my game and obviously just have fun. That’s the biggest thing that I think anyone can do for me.”

One characteristic that has served Ness quite well at Roseau has been his undying devotion to his team and his community. His selflessness both on and off the ice has, in turn, earned him that same devotion from both his team and the small northern Minnesota town he calls home. And that devotion was a big reason why Ness opted to decline offers made by both the NTDP and the USHL to remain at Roseau for the duration of his high school playing career.

“I wouldn’t say that it was easy, but it wasn’t the toughest decision that I’ve had to make in my life either. I think that both of those leagues are incredible, but I figured that I could develop here and still get there (college and pros) because the bottom line is you have to want it yourself and push yourself to be the best that you can be. To leave a town like this with all of its hockey tradition is a hard thing to do, but now I feel it’s definitely time to move on and I’m looking forward to next year (at the University of Minnesota)."

“When we won the state tournament last year, Aaron was a sophomore and he could’ve left at anytime after winning that state championship,” Oliver said. “But it was more important to Aaron to come back this year and play with his teammates, his buddies and wear the green and white. That just shows how true blue he is to this community and to the high school hockey program. In our town, hockey is what everyone hangs their hat on and Aaron has been very committed to it.”

Outlook for the draft

Ness is ranked 27th among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final rankings. With his draft stock having steadily risen since the beginning of the 2007-08 season, Ness could be selected high in the draft.