Zadorov tops a solid group of NHL-drafted OHL defensemen

By Jason Menard

Nikita Zadorov - London Knights

Photo: London Knights defenseman and Buffalo Sabres prospect Nikita Zadorov didn’t look out of place during seven NHL games played in the early portion of the 2013-14 season, but returned to the Knights following the 2014 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The OHL has long been known for its ability to pump out marquee offensive talent, but don’t sell the league short on the blueline. This year’s elite draft-eligible defensemen, like Aaron Ekblad and Roland McKeown, have a number of role models within the league whose path they can follow to the draft podium and beyond.

1. Nikita Zadorov, London Knights
NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres (1st round, 16th overall, 2013)

The Moscow-born Russian may have spent the least amount of time in the OHL, but it’s safe to say he’s made the biggest impact — both literally and figuratively.

Zadorov spent the better part of the first half of the OHL season on the Buffalo Sabres roster. While he only saw action in seven games, he didn’t look out of place at the NHL level. However, a regime change shifted the focus from the Sabres’ youth movement, and Zadorov was amongst a number of players sent back to the minor leagues.

Returned to the Knights, he’s played a key role on the OHL squad with seven goals and 10 assists in 22 games. But before he returned to The Forest City of London, ON, he made a pit stop in Malmo, Sweden where he led the Russian squad to a bronze-medal performance at the World Junior Championship, where he also earned all-star recognition.

At the World Juniors, he scored four goals and added one assist in Russia’s seven games. Zadorov showed an increased offensive component to his game — shooting more and jumping into the rush, which he’s continued to do at the OHL level since his return to the Knights.

At 6’5" and 220 pounds, Zadorov has NHL size, an accurate shot, and is surprisingly mobile despite his bulk. He has always been solid in his own end, but he’s grown increasingly confident in the offensive end. He’s well liked by teammates, is extremely confident, and has a great command of English, which has helped his transition to North America.

2. Darnell Nurse, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers (1st round, seventh overall, 2013)

Through no fault of his own, the 6’4”, 200-pound Nurse made the headlines for all the wrong reasons earlier this year when he was a controversial omission from Team Canada’s World Junior roster. It seems people forget he’s still only 18 (for a tournament that’s dominated by 19-year-old players), but Nurse handled it with the class and poise for which he’s long been known.

On the ice, the Hamilton-born Nurse has played extremely well despite what some boo-birds in the Soo would have you believe. Nurse has captained a Greyhound squad that is a legitimate OHL championship contender. He’s playing nearly half of each game and has scored 42 points in 54 games to date, which is a career high.

Nurse has had some ups and downs defensively during the year, but he’s been generally solid in his own end. Combine that with his size, offensive ability, and character, and it’s safe to say that most OHL squads would have loved to acquire him at the deadline had the Soo put him on the market.

3. Slater Koekkoek, Windsor Spitfires
NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning (1st round, 10th overall, 2012)

Many thought Koekkoek would be on the move, especially after the departure of Kerby Rychel and Nick Ebert from the Spitfires at the trade deadline. But with Windsor in that odd space between contender and rebuilding (currently fifth in the western conference), the club chose to hang on to the 6’2” defender.

The biggest challenge Koekkoek faced this year was proving that he could remain healthy. In the previous two seasons, he’s been limited to 66 games — including only a pair with the Spitfires after they acquired him at last year’s deadline.

This season, he’s played a key, top-pairing role in 52 games so far. He’s accounted for 46 points, including 13 goals, and is a very impressive +42 on the season. But beyond the offensive and defensive numbers, Koekkoek’s season has been a success merely as he’s been able to compete and, hopefully, put his injury history behind him.

4. Adam Pelech, Erie Otters
NHL Rights: New York Islanders (3rd round, 65th overall, 2012)

It’s been a long time since the Erie Otters have made the playoffs. In fact, only one player has playoff experience with the squad — the 6’2”, 210-pound Pelech, who was a rookie during Erie’s last foray into the post-season.

Pelech was a bit player in that campaign, but he’s taken on a much more vital role on the resurgent Otters. Pelech’s progression has been impressive. The youngest of three NHL-drafted brothers, Pelech has scored nine goals and added 36 assists in 45 games. But more reflective of his value to the squad is that he’s gone from a -16 last year to a +41.

Despite his size, though, Pelech doesn’t play an overly physical game. He’s a solid, two-way player who is extremely responsible in his own end. The quality of his game has been noticed at all levels, including by the brass of Team Canada who brought him aboard for the World Junior Championship.

5. Trevor Carrick, Sudbury Wolves
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes (4th round, 115th overall, 2012)

Carrick earned a reputation as a power-play specialist with the Mississauga Steelheads, which is why he was such an attractive commodity for Sudbury to obtain in its playoff run.

It’s been a bit of a slow transition, however; in the 14 games he has played with Sudbury since the deadline, he’s got five assists. But he’s playing an extremely balanced game, already at +5 after being -8 in 41 games with the rebuilding Steelheads.

Last year, Carrick scored 10 goals and added 21 assists in 56 games. This year, he’s surpassed those totals by far, with 16 goals and 20 assists in 55 games with Mississauga and Sudbury combined.

At 6’2”, 175 pounds, the Stouffville, ON has some size to him, but doesn’t play an overly physical game. Instead, he’s a solid facilitator from the point, excellent on the power-play, and — along with addition Radek Faksa — will make the Wolves a far more dangerous and multi-dimensional squad in the OHL's wide-open Eastern Conference.

6. Matt Finn, Guelph Storm
NHL Rights: Toronto Maple Leafs (2nd round, 35th overall, 2012)

The fourth-year Storm blueliner has captained his Guelph squad to lofty heights. The club sits atop the OHL standings, is consistently ranked at the top of the CHL team rankings, and has a real chance to interrupt London’s attempt to be a three-time OHL champion.

Finn leads a veteran squad that’s built to win this year — especially in light of the aforementioned trade deadline additions.

Not only is this year Finn’s best ever, but it’s a welcome change from last year’s injury and illness-filled campaign. Finn missed six weeks last year with mono, yet still finished with 11 goals and 20 assists.

This year, he’s scored 13 goals and added 39 assists in 51 games. He’s also a +46. Finn is also consistent: three straight years of 10 or more goals along with seasons of 48, 31, and now 52 points.

At 6’  and 200 pounds Finns has average size from the point, but plays a solid overall game. He’s not flashy in any particular area, but comfortable in all zones and in all situations.

7. Nick Ebert, Guelph Storm
NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings (7th round, 211th overall, 2012)

You know what you’re going to get with Ebert — he’s a model of consistency who is responsible in his own end and can contribute regularly in the opposition’s zone. That’s why he was so attractive to a Guelph Storm squad with an eye on a Memorial Cup bid.

Ebert accompanied Kerby Rychel from the Windsor Spitfires at the deadline and he has made an immediate impact with the Storm. In 25 games since the trade, he’s scored four goals, added 12 assists, and is a +8. Overall this year, he’s scored eight goals and racked up 36 points and a +35 in 52 games with the Spitfires and Storm.

The production is not surprising. Since his rookie campaign in 2010-11 where he scored 11 goals and 41 points in 64 games, Ebert has scored 39, 38, and now 36 points in 66, 68, and 52 games respectively.

At 6’1, 210 pounds, Ebert isn’t the biggest player out there, nor is he the flashiest or most noticeable. But what he does well is avoid mistakes while doing the little things that may not show up on the scoresheet. And when you look at that scoresheet, you’ll find he’s quietly contributed both offensively and defensively.

Ebert is a traditional OHL veteran who is going to pay dividends in the playoffs.

8. Jesse Graham, Saginaw Spirit
NHL Rights: New York Islanders (6th round, 155th overall, 2012)

Graham was a big part of the Niagara IceDogs’ successes a couple of years back, but with the club going through a transition, he was dealt to the Saginaw Spirit to bolster their playoff run.

It took a few weeks for him to effectively transition to the Spirit’s style, especially when he was pretty much given free reign with Niagara. But he’s settled in and given Saginaw exactly what they’ve needed — an offensive quarterback on a revamped, veteran blueline.

The goals were slow to come in Saginaw – he scored six in 24 games with Niagara, but had only one in an equal number of games with the Spirit – but he now has four goals in 29 games with his new club. Graham has also been effective at setting up the offense from the back end; in 29 games, he’s handed out 20 assists (in addition to the 11 he notched with Niagara).

Graham also has significant playoff experience and success. He played in 39 playoff games in his first two OHL campaigns, served as the IceDogs’ captain this year, and will be a welcome and steadying influence for the Spirit down the stretch.

9. Jordan Subban, Belleville Bulls
NHL Rights: Vancouver Canucks (4th round, 115th overall, 2013)

The youngest of the Subban brothers has slowly but surely continued his development this year. Just outside the top 10 in OHL defensive scoring, Subban has been an effective contributor for a Belleville squad that is going through a rebuilding phase.

Without the quality of talent around him, Subban’s numbers have suffered. Last year he scored 15 goals and added 36 assists, while finishing with a +22 rating. This year, he’s approaching that pace with 11 goals and 24 assists in 51 games to date.

Though not overly large at 5’9” and 175 pounds, Subban has shown a bit more of an edge to his game and has almost surpassed his career high in penalties. Subban is a long-term project and will benefit from another year in junior.

10. Zac Leslie, Guelph Storm
NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings (6th round, 178th overall, 2013)

Leslie is another vital part of a very deep Storm squad and is a solid minute-eater for the first-overall Guelph squad.

The Ottawa-born blueliner has scored 11 goals and added 30 assists for the Storm. More importantly, he’s a +26 and has shown solid play in zones.

At 6’ and 170 pounds Leslie has some space to grow on his frame but is never going to be a physical player. He’s a consistent offensive producer and has shown consistency in all aspects of his game. He’s a premium depth defenseman for the Storm and likely will grow into that depth role long-term.

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