Top 10 OHL Defensemen

By Jason Menard
Photo: Though the OHL has many talented defensemen, few if any bring the unique combination of size, skill, and skating that Dougie Hamilton (BOS) does. (Photo courtesy of Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Over the past few years, the Ontario Hockey League has been well known for its ability to send talented forwards to the professional ranks. But their blue line-production prowess – possibly aided by playing against that proliferation of elite forwards – has been nothing to shake a stick at.

In fact, it's safe to say that NHL-drafted blueliners have made a big impression this season – of the top 10 blueliners listed below, seven are listed at 6'4 or greater.

Without further ado, here are the top drafted blueliners in the OHL.

1) Dougie Hamilton, Niagara IceDogs
NHL Rights: Boston Bruins
Drafted: 1st round, 9th overall, 2011

Hamilton entered this season as the marquee blueliner in the OHL and did nothing to dispel that ranking with a superlative season.

The 6'4 blueliner set career highs in goals, assists, and plus/minus this season, finishing the regular season with 17 goals and 72 points. He found himself amongst the league leaders at plus-37 and has continued that standard of play with a superlative performance in the OHL playoffs — leading the Ice Dogs to a second consecutive berth in the Eastern Conference finals.

The only blip in Hamilton's season came after the World Junior Championships when he was suspended 10 games for a hit to the head of Sudbury winger Michael MacDonald.

Hamilton has long been highly regarded for his defensive prowess, but he's become equally proficient in his own end. Last year, buoyed in part by his offensive abilities and the strength of the Niagara roster – not to mention the presence of Mark Visentin (PHX) between the pipes – he finished the year with 58 points and a plus-35 rating. He powered the club through the playoffs with 16 points in 14 games. This year, again, he's performing at a better-than-point-per-game pace.

Hamilton, far and away, has proven himself to be the elite blueliner in the OHL this season and could find himself with the Bruins' sooner rather than later.

2) Ryan Murphy, Kitchener Rangers
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted: 1st round, 12th overall, 2011

Landing at second on this list is Carolina Hurricanes prospect Ryan Murphy. The Aurora, ON native suffered through an injury-shortened season but has come back in full force to propel the Kitchener Rangers into the OHL Western Conference finals.

The injury was caused by a head shot from Tom Kuhnhackl (PIT), which resulted in the Niagara forward receiving a 20-game suspension. The resulting concussion caused the blueliner to miss a month's worth of games and cost him a shot at playing in the WJC. But when healthy, Murphy did lead his upstart Rangers through a suprisingly solid regular season.

In all, Murphy appeared in 49 regular-season games, finishing with 11 goals and 54 points. He also posted a respectable plus-14 rating. His value has been highlighted in the playoffs where he has performed at a better-than-point-per-game rate so far.

Known for his offensive abilities, the 5'11 defenseman was on pace to match his superlative 2010-11 performance where he scored 26 goals and added 53 assists in 63 games.

3) Ryan Sproul, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
NHL Rights: Detroit Red Wings
Drafted: 2nd round, 55th overall, 2011

 

Sproul takes up a lot of room on the Soo blue line, but has plenty of time – and space – to grow. At 6'4, Sproul uses his reach effectively and combines that with a hard, accurate shot from the point. At 185 pounds, he has plenty of room on his frame to grow.

The Mississauga, ON native showed flashes of his potential in his breakout 2010-11 campaign, where he finished the season with 14 goals and 33 points in 61 games. However, his minus-15 rating reflected his transition to the OHL – and the challenges that the Greyhounds faced last year.

This season, buoyed by the arrival of Jack Campbell (DAL) in a mid-season trade, Sproul showed the refinement of his game. He improved all of his offensive numbers, finishing the year with 23 goals and 31 assists, but the greatest improvement came in his own end, where he completely turned around his plus-minus totals to finish plus-16.

Sproul combines solid skating with good positioning. Although some questions remain about his defensive abilities, he did manage to answer many of his critics with a solid season.

4) Jarred Tinordi, London Knights
NHL Rights: Montreal Canadiens
Drafted: 1st round, 22nd overall, 2010

The path to the NHL for Tinordi is clear. With the trade of Hal Gill earlier this season and a crying need for size on the NHL roster, the 6'7 blueliner is tailor-made to make the leap. And this season, he showed marked development in his overall game.

Tinordi led all OHL in plus/minus at plus-39, which is an accomplishment considering his lack of offensive production and the fact that he plays against the opposition's top lines. Last year, Tinordi showed no reluctance in throwing around his ample frame, racking up 140 penalty minutes. This year, due to an injury, the Millersville, MD native was limited to 48 games. Understanding his value to the squad, Tinordi spent less time in the penalty box and played less of an enforcer role.

Offensively, you get what you get with Tinordi. He's never going to be a power-play mainstay; nor is he going to be emulating Serge Savard with rushes and spin-a-ramas. But if he can play a similar styled game to Savard's Big Three teammate – Larry Robinson – he'll occupy a key spot on the Habs' blue line in the near future.

5) Scott Harrington, London Knights
NHL Rights: Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted: 2nd round, 55th overall, 2011

Tinordi's blue line partner on the London Knights is an interesting player to watch. At first glance, he doesn't stand out, but that's exactly what's appealing about this mature, effective blueliner.

In fact, if it weren't for a tour-de-force all-around performance at the World Junior Championship, it's safe to say that Harrington could have continued to slide under the radar.

A shoulder injury delayed Harrington's post-WJC return, but he worked himself back into game shape and proved what a vital – albeit overlooked – cog his is on the surprising London Knights. Like Tinordi, Harrington won't dazzle you with his offensive play, but probably has a little more offensive upside.

Where he shines is in doing all the little things that don't show up on the scoresheet, but show up in the final score. He's a master of positioning, excellent at making the smart outlet pass, and while he won't impress with high-risk/high-reward moves, he also rarely makes dumb plays.

Harrington is a solid, safe, defensively sound blueliner who will fit in nicely on any second or third pairing in the NHL. For the high-flying Penguins, he may be the perfect fit as a defensively responsible catch-all in a couple of years.

6) Jamie Oleksiak, Niagara Ice Dogs
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Drafted: 1st round, 14th overall, 2011

The Dallas Stars' first-rounder made the jump to the OHL following one season at the collegiate level and it's safe to say that he found the junior league to his liking — even if it took him a couple of stops to find an OHL home.

The 6'7 blueliner started the season with Saginaw before finding his way to the Niagara Ice Dogs in a mid-season trade.

Oleksiak really picked up his defensive game playing for the powerhouse Ice Dog. He was a plus-four through 31 games with Saginaw, but by the time he finished the season with Niagara, he was a plus-31.

At 240 pounds, the Toronto, ON native obviously has the size to play right now in the NHL and the jump to the OHL from Northeastern University has accelerated that development. However, Oleksiak needs to learn to better use his massive size and be that dominant crease-clearer that all NHL squads salivate over.

7) Cody Sol, Kitchener Rangers
NHL Rights: Winnipeg Jets
Drafted: 5th round (by the Atlanta Thrashers) 125th overall, 2009

Touted as a stay-at-home defenseman, Sol found his way down the draft boards in 2009, but if he continues his offensive progression, it's safe to say that the Jets/Thrashers franchise may have discovered a diamond in the rough.

Sol, who signed an entry-level deal with Winnipeg in June 2011, is highly regarded by his peers. In the recent Western Conference coaches poll, he was designated as the third-hardest shot and the third-best defensive defenseman in the conference.

And while his defensive prowess has not come into question, he's managed to improve upon his offensive game since a 2010 trade from the Saginaw Spirit to the Kitchener Rangers. His offensive game, balanced by a comprehensive understanding defensive play, has played a key role in driving the Kitchener Rangers to the OHL Western Conference final.

Another massive blueliner in the OHL, Sol enjoyed a breakthrough campaign this season, netting 15 goals and adding 23 assists in 62 games – numbers far eclipsing his previous campaigns. He's also shown a willingness to throw his 242-pound frame around, earning 180 minutes in penalties this season – up from 114 last year.

The biggest growth in Sol's game has been related to overall team defense. Although long considered a solid individual defensive player, this year he meshed well with the overall team dynamic en route to posting a plus-35.

Like Oleksiak, Sol has NHL-ready size right now. He may be a little further along in his development, but that's also factoring his age, four full years of OHL experience, and a taste of the pro ranks with the Chicago Wolves in 2009-10.

8) Julian Melchiori, Oshawa Generals
NHL Rights: Winnipeg Jets
Drafted: 3rd round (by the Atlanta Thrashers) 87th overall, 2010

The 6'4 Melchiori played a huge role – both literally and figuratively – for the Oshawa Generals following his mid-season trade from the Kitchener Rangers. Although not considered an elite offensive talent, he's shown a solid appreciation for defensive play, evidenced by his plus-24 rating last year and plus-10 cumulative rating this season.

Melchiori is smart with the puck and able to headman it effectively. This season, he increased his assist totals to 34 over 61 games. In two full seasons in the OHL he's only accounted for three goals – none since arriving in Oshawa.

In March 2012, the Jets signed Melchiori to a three-year entry-level contract, but the blueliner likely needs another season at the junior level before considering the jump – this despite getting a one-game cup of coffee with the AHL's St. John's IceCaps in 2011-12.

9) Andrey Pedan, Guelph Storm
NHL Rights: New York Islanders
Drafted: 3rd round 63rd overall, 2011

Pedan offers an enticing combination of size and skating ability, combined with a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude.

At 6'4, the Moscow native is not easy to move out of the crease and uses his size effectively to clear shooting lanes. This season, he's also shown a surprising aptitude for offensive play, finishing the year with 10 goals and 30 assists.

Where he shines, though, is in the physical game – and that's despite being a little slight at 196 pounds. He still has plenty of room to add a couple of dozen pounds of muscle on his frame and projects well as a depth defenseman within the New York Islanders' system.

10) Dylan DeMelo, Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks
Drafted: 6th round 179th overall, 2011

In his second full season in the OHL, the 6' London, ON native has grown markedly in his offensive development. Playing an increased role in a post-Memorial-Cup built Majors' squad, DeMelo took full advantage of the added ice time and responsibility.

He finished the year with seven goals and 40 assists in 67 games – marked increases from his rookie totals of three goals and 27 points in 63 regular-season games last year. He has also shown an ability to play solid hockey in high-pressure situations, playing in 20 games during the Majors' 2010-11 Memorial Cup run and playing four games with the AHL's Worcester Sharks.

DeMelo brings a solid, but unspectacular, game to the table and should continue to develop nicely into a respectable depth blueliner and potential third-pairing guy in the NHL.

 

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