Greyhounds’ Nurse the class of this season’s NHL-drafted OHL defensemen

By Jason Menard

Darnell Nurse - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Photo: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman and Edmonton Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse won gold with Team Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship, and he is poised to make a run at the OHL championship with the Greyhounds (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

 

The OHL has long been known for providing elite offensive forward talent to the NHL. Defensemen facing that type of player on a regular basis should result in a comparable coterie of elite defensive prospects whose talents have been honed by facing such formidable opposition.

While there are some premier defensive talents at the top of the list of drafted OHL defensemen, the overall quality of talent isn’t comparable to its forward brethren. There is some quality and depth, but the elite quality is concentrated at the very top — and questionable afterwards.

1. Darnell Nurse – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (EDM)
Chosen in the first round (7th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

The way Darnell Nurse is playing this season, he’s going to make it hard for the Edmonton Oilers to keep him off their 2015-16 opening-day roster. But while a trip the AHL may be in his future, it’s safe to say that he’s trying to go out with a bang in what is his final season in the Soo.

The 6’5” Nurse has led the Greyhounds to the top of the OHL’s Western Conference, with a 10-point lead on the second-place Erie Otters. He’s scored nine goals and added 22 assists in 33 games. He’s a +12, but more importantly, he’s played a leadership role not only on the OHL championship-caliber Soo Greyhounds, but also for Team Canada at the world juniors, helping to lead his country to gold.

2. Chris Bigras – Owen Sound Attack (COL)
Chosen in the second round (32nd overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

Bigras has made a quantum leap in his development this season. After finishing last year with four goals and 23 points in 55 games, the 6’1” defender has increased his production and versatility on the Attack blueline.

This season, Bigras has become one of the league’s dynamic offensive forces from the back end. The Colorado Avalanche prospect has scored 17 goals and added 44 assists. He has played a key role in the Attack’s playoff positioning and will be counted on to provide a steadying leadership and savvy from his three prior years of playoff experience.

3. Anthony DeAngelo – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (TBL)
Chosen in the first round (19th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft

Anthony DeAngelo’s skill has never been in question; his attitude and maturity, though, were allegedly cause for concern for some teams, which is why the Sewell, NJ native dropped to the Tampa Bay Lightning at 19th overall in the 2014 draft.

This year, DeAngelo has worked to put his suspensions and attitude issues behind him. He was obtained by the Soo Greyhounds earlier this season to play a key role in the club’s all-in approach for this year’s playoffs.

In 47 games combined between the Sarnia Sting and Sault Ste. Marie, DeAngelo has amassed 16 goals and 69 points. He’s on pace to exceed his career high of 71 points and, most impressively, he’s gone from being a minus player over his OHL career to a +19 in 18 games with the Greyhounds.

4. Jordan Subban – Belleville Bulls (VAN)
Chosen in the fourth round (115th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

The third brother in the emerging Subban hockey dynasty (eldest brother P.K. currently stars for the Montreal Candiens, while middle brother Malcolm recently was called up by the Boston Bruins), Jordan Subban is trying to prove that his size will not be an issue when it comes to production.

At 5’9” and 175 pounds, Subban is on the smaller end of the defensive scale, but his 22 goals are an undeniable testament to his skill and offensive proficiency. In total, Subban has reached his third straight 40-plus point season. He’s also continued to display the grit and edge that’s been a hallmark of his game, with 60 penalty minutes in 54 games to date.

5. Zac Leslie – Guelph Storm (LAK)
Chosen in the sixth round (178th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

Following a season in which the Storm had loaded up for a shot at the Memorial Cup, Zac Leslie was going to be counted on this year to step up his responsibility and make up for lost production. He has lived up to those expectations and responsibilities.

The 6′ Ottawa native has been a steadying presence on the blueline this season for the Storm, eating up minutes and contributing at his expected 40-50 point level, with 11 goals and 46 points to date in 53 games. The Los Angeles Kings prospect has also remained a plus player during the Storm’s transition, although his +1 rating is a significant drop from his gaudy +40 rating last season.

6. Kyle Wood – North Bay Battalion (COL)
Chosen in the third round (84th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

As the North Bay Battalion battle for a first-round, home-ice advantage in this year’s playoffs, they’ve come to rely upon Wood’s offensive contributions from the blueline.

With 16 goals (which includes a recent hat trick) and 20 assists, he’s been a consistent performer in his 55 games. In addition to his offensive abilities, Wood has solid, NHL-ready size at 6’5” and 220 pounds. Despite that size, Wood is not a physical defenseman and, while solid positionally, he doesn’t use his size aggressively as attested by his 16 penalty minutes this season.

7. Julius Bergman – London Knights (SJS)
Chosen in the second round (46th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft

Julius Bergman came to the OHL this season to help his transition to the North American game following his selection by the San Jose Sharks. His opportunity — not to mention his importance to the Knights — increased dramatically after Nikita Zadorov was retained by the Buffalo Sabres.

It’s been a slow-but-steady progression for the Karlskrona, Sweden native. He’s increased his offensive production as of late, scoring nine goals and 33 points in 48 games so far. He’s also shown a willingness to use his 6’2, 195-pound size to his advantage, and has eaten a lot of minutes for the rebuilding Knights.

8. Ben Harpur – Barrie Colts (OTT)
Chosen in the fourth round (109th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

The very same intangibles that appealed to the Ottawa Senators also appealed to the Barrie Colts, who obtained the 6’6 defender from the Guelph Storm in advance of the OHL trade deadline. Ben Harpur is a proven leader with significant OHL playoff experience. With the Colts second only to the Oshawa Generals in the East, he’s been relied on to be a steadying influence on the Colts.

His on-ice production is solid, but not overwhelming. In his 18 games since the trade, Harpur has scored one goal and added seven assists. In total, he’s scored five, which is on par with his career production numbers, and added 23 assists.

9. Blake Siebenaler – Niagara IceDogs (CBJ)
Chosen in the third round (77th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft

The Fort Wayne, IN product has continued his development with a focus on improving his overall game.

Blake Siebenaler is known for his puck-moving abilities and offensive prowess, but this season he’s found a better balance between leading the club offensively while ensuring that his positioning remains solid.

In 56 games to date, Siebenaler has scored 11 goals and added 20 assists. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect’s plus-minus rating is solidly at +1, which is a marked improvement over his -16 production last year.

10. Miles Liberati – North Bay Battalion (VAN)
Chosen in the seventh round (205th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft

Miles Liberati joined the Battalion last season after spending his first season-and-a-half in London. He’s embraced the added responsibility and has rounded into a solid, two-way defenseman in North Bay.

The six-foot, 200-pound defender has scored nine goals and added 19 assists in 55 games. He’s a +11 and has provided North Bay with a steadying, veteran presence on the blueline.

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard