Top 10 NCAA defensemen

By DJ Powers
Photo: Harvard blueliner Danny Biega is among the top ranked defensemen currently playing in the NCAA. Biega was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Kellner)

This season, the NCAA features 75 defensemen that have already been NHL-drafted, representing nearly every NHL team. The 12 players (there's a three-way tie for 10th) represented here are ranked based on development and NHL potential. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of February 10th.

1. Justin Schultz, Junior, University of Wisconsin
NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks
Drafted: 2nd Round, 43rd overall, 2008

The question about Justin Schultz isn't if he'll be in the NHL, but when he will. As good as he was last season, Schultz has proven to be even better this season. He currently leads the nation in defenseman scoring with 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists) and points per game (1.36) playing in all 28 games to date. His 38 points also rank sixth overall nationally. One of the more impressive aspects about Schultz this season has been his offensive consistency. He has been held pointless in only eight games thus far.

The West Kelowna, BC native has already etched his name into the Wisconsin record books. Schultz reached a milestone on January 6th versus RIT when he posted his 100th career point, becoming the first Badgers rearguard to accomplish the feat since Brian Rafalski did it in 1994-95. Schultz is also within striking distance of becoming Wisconsin's top career goal scorer among defensemen. He currently sits tied for third all time with 36. Craig Norwich (1974-77) holds the record with 42.

This past summer, Schultz turned down a contract offer by Anaheim to return to Wisconsin. And that could pay big dividends for the Ducks organization down the road, particularly in regards to the strides that he has made in rounding out his game. While much has been said about Schultz's offensive prowess, what has been severely overlooked is how much his defensive side has developed. The increasingly effective use of his 6'2, 185 pound frame, and improved stick have made him a difficult player to go up against, particularly in one-on-one situations.

2. Jon Merrill, Sophomore, University of Michigan
NHL Rights: New Jersey Devils
Drafted: 2nd Round, 38th overall, 2010

After missing Michigan's first 22 games due to suspension, Merrill finally made his season debut on January 6th versus Lake Superior State. In that game, Merrill posted two assists and showed that he hasn't missed a step. The Brighton, MI native's return also adds to the Wolverines' active defense that has contributed greatly to their success. To date, Merrill has played in 10 games and has posted seven assists.

Merrill's offensive contributions continue to be significant, but it's his increased focus on the defensive end of the ice that is equally notable here. While he can often be found joining the play, Merrill's decisions in when to do so improves with each game. His solid defensive zone play, particularly in one-on-one situations, is also showing some improvement as well.

Character however remains the biggest issue with Merrill. If he is able to put his past behind him and move forward without further incidents, it will benefit not only his Michigan team, but his future with the New Jersey Devils organization as well.

3. Brian Dumoulin, Junior, Boston College
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted: 2nd Round, 51st overall, 2009

The Carolina Hurricanes have just three prospects currently playing in the NCAA, all of whom are defensemen. The one that could potentially be the most successful at the NHL level is Boston College's Brian Dumoulin. Carolina had offered the Biddeford, ME native a contact this past off-season, but he opted to return to Chestnut Hill. And by doing so, the Hurricanes organization will benefit greatly by his development this season.

Dumoulin currently leads the Eagles in defensemen scoring with 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) through 30 games, while his plus-seven co-leads the team. Dumoulin is also on pace to better his 33 points from last season as well.

One area where Dumoulin has continued to make great strides is on the defensive side. He has vastly improved the use of his 6'4, 225 pound frame in clearing bodies from the front of net and moving players off the puck. What is notable here is the fact that Dumoulin's defensive development hasn't come at the expense of his vital offensive contributions either.

4. Derek Forbort, Sophomore, University of North Dakota
NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings
Drafted: 1st Round, 15th overall, 2010

After a successful freshman campaign, Forbort returned to North Dakota this season stronger and better. He has played in 21 games to date, posting five points (one goal, four assists). In the season-opening Icebreaker Tournament championship game versus Boston College on October 8th, Forbort posted his first (and thus far only) collegiate goal. Forbort suffered a lower body injury in the recent World Junior Championship and returned to the lineup on February 10th versus Minnesota-Duluth.

Forbort added roughly ten pounds to his enormous 6'5 frame over the summer. And that has really enhanced his skating. There is more power in his strides without taking anything away from his excellent mobility.

While Forbort is known for his offensive abilities, it's the progress that he has made on the defensive side this season that is noteworthy. His positional and one-on-one play has vastly improved from last season, and he has also added a bit of grit to his game as well. Forbort isn't likely to develop into an overly physical player, but the grit he has begun to show will simply add to his overall skill set. The one area where Forbort will need to continue to improve however is his gap control.

With Forbort's development coming along nicely at North Dakota, it'll only be a matter of time before the Los Angeles Kings will move to sign the Duluth, MN native. It remains to be seen if Forbort will return for his junior season in the fall.

5. Scott Mayfield, Freshman, University of Denver
NHL Rights: New York Islanders
Drafted: 2nd Round, 34th overall, 2011

Someone once said that through adversity comes opportunity. And it's a fitting description for Scott Mayfield's freshman campaign thus far.

The St. Louis, MO native's season got off to a strong start to his 2011-12 campaign. He posted his first collegiate career point (an assist) in the Pioneers' season-opener versus Boston College on October 14th and posted his first goal a week later versus Minnesota State-Mankato on October 22nd. On the season thus far, Mayfield has posted seven points (two goals, six assists) playing in 29 games.

Two of Mayfield's attributes that were noticeable almost immediately were his rugged style and strong skating ability. As his season progressed, Mayfield's use of his 6'4, 200 pound frame became increasingly evident, particularly in protecting the puck.

When the Pioneers were hit with injuries to two of their key defensemen in senior John Ryder and sophomore David Makowski, that opened the door for Mayfield to have an expanded role and increased ice time, particularly on the power play. Mayfield displays great poise with the puck, but his sometime ill-advised decisions with it, such as holding on to the puck too long, were also apparent. However, it's an area that should gradually improve as his collegiate career and development progresses.

6. Danny Biega, Junior, Harvard University
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted: 3rd Round, 67th overall, 2010

After leading Harvard last season with 30 points, Biega has continued his excellent play again this season. The Montreal, QC native currently ranks second on the team and leads all Crimson rearguards with 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) playing in all 25 games thus far.

As good as his older brother Alex was during his career at Harvard, the younger Biega could potentially be the more successful of the two at the pro level. Danny Biega brings a nice combination of superb puck-moving ability, great transitioning, and grit to his game. And with each successive year, he has utilized those assets more effectively. Two areas where Biega has vastly improved are in his one-on-one play and decision-making. His added physical strength allows him to take opposing players off the puck more easily in all areas of the ice. Biega's decisions have become smarter in knowing when to jump into developing plays.

Like Dumoulin, Biega also had the opportunity to sign with Carolina this past summer. Biega chose to return to Harvard and has been a stabilizing presence on a predominantly young Crimson blue line this season. If he is able to bring to Carolina what has brought to Harvard, Biega could become an impact player at the pro level.

7. Adam Clendening, Sophomore, Boston University
NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks
Drafted: 2nd Round, 36th overall, 2011

After a terrific freshman season, Clendening has followed it up with an even better sophomore year. He currently leads Boston University in defensemen scoring with 24 points (two goals, 23 assists) in 27 games to date. Where Clendening has really stood out this season has been in Hockey East play, where he currently ranks second among all defensemen in conference scoring with 17 points (one goal, 16 assists) in 20 conference games.

Clendening combines tremendous offensive instincts with great vision and grittiness, and he has taken all of that up to a new level this season. While he still brings an element of intensity to his game, Clendening has also been able to temper it. His decisions are smarter without taking away from the physical nature of his game.

Over the summer, Clendening added some strength to his 6'0, 195 pound frame. And the one area where it has can be seen is in his increased foot speed. His transitioning is noticeably better and his ability to jump into plays is quicker. While Clendening isn't completely there yet, it's an area of his game that should continue to develop as his collegiate career progresses.

8. Stephen Johns, Sophomore, University of Notre Dame
NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks
Drafted: 2nd Round, 60th overall, 2010

After an outstanding rookie season last year, Johns continues to make his mark with Notre Dame again this season. And it's not just his size (6'4, 230 pounds) and physicality that's noticeable either. The Waupum, PA native has made some great strides in his development that is paying dividends for the Fighting Irish this season.

The most significant improvement is in his puck-moving ability. This season, Johns looks more confident and is displaying greater patience. That, in turn, has led to better passes and more quality shots. It has also led to an increase in offensive production.

Johns currently has 10 points (four goals, five assists) in 31 games on the season. Not surprisingly, he also leads the team with 65 penalty minutes. In his collegiate career thus far, Johns has missed only one (non-exhibition) game, which was against Boston University on December 31st, 2011 due to the World Junior Championships.

While Johns still has a ways to go in his overall development, the progress he has made thus far, coupled with his existing strengths, will bode well for his future with the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

9. Will Weber, Senior, Miami University
NHL Rights: Columbus Blue Jackets
Drafted: 2nd Round, 53rd overall, 2007

The reigning CCHA Defensive Defenseman of the Year is showing again this season what made him so valuable to Miami last season. Weber is the prototypical shutdown defenseman and that role probably won't change much at the pro level.

Weber logs upwards of 25-30 minutes per game, anchoring the RedHawks' excellent defense and serving as team captain this season. Thus far, he has posted three points (all assists) in 31 games.

The Gaylord, MI native is a strapping 6'4, 226 pound rearguard that can be difficult to play against because of his punishing style and his tremendous strength. Weber is very effective in his positioning and taking opposing players off of the puck. While he did get off to a somewhat slow start for Miami this season, Weber has since returned to form as one of the nation's toughest defensemen. One area of concern this season is the number of unnecessary penalties he has taken, some of which have led to opposition goals.

Weber will likely never be much of a point producer, but his strong defensive zone play and hard-hitting style are assets that will serve him well with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, who will likely offer him a contract at season's end.

10a. Mark Alt, Sophomore, University of Minnesota
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted: 2nd Round, 53rd overall, 2010

After an outstanding rookie campaign last season playing more of an offensive defenseman role, Alt is focused on the defensive side this season. However, his offensive contributions continue to be there. The St. Paul, MN native has posted 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) playing in all 31 games thus far. Alt has already surpassed his point total from last season (10). His plus-16 is currently tied for third on the team and he has seen time playing in all situations.

Alt added about ten pounds to his 6'3 frame over the summer and that's enhanced both his skating and his defensive game. He has noticeably more power in his strides and his ability to shut down opposing have improved. Another addition to Alt's game this season is his increasing physical play. The two areas that Alt will need to continue to improve are his gap control and his decision-making in joining plays.

While he is still in a work in progress, Alt has great potential for success at the next level. And if what he has shown at Minnesota thus far is any indication, Alt will simply add to an existing talent-rich defensive group of prospects in the Carolina Hurricanes pipeline.

10b. Ben Blood, Senior, University of North Dakota
NHL Rights: Ottawa Senators
Drafted: 4th Round, 120th overall, 2007

Blood is having the best year of his collegiate career right now, but a recent incident versus the University of Minnesota on January 14th has somewhat tainted that. The result was Blood being stripped of his assistant captaincy (He did issue an apology for his actions). Nevertheless, Blood is a player with excellent potential for success at the pro level.

The Plymouth, MN native has played in all 29 games thus far, posting 14 points (two goals, 12 assists). His 14 points tie a career-best, which was set in his sophomore year two seasons ago. Despite the Minnesota incident, Blood has been a strong leader on North Dakota's predominantly young blue line this season.

One area that has developed quite nicely during Blood's collegiate career is his offensive side. He has shown to be an adept puck-handler that can help run the power play as well as set up and finish plays. While it is unlikely that he'll post big numbers at the next level, Blood has the ability to be a solid offensive contributor from the blue line.

Blood was offered a contract by Ottawa at the end of last season, but opted to return to North Dakota to finish out his collegiate career. Barring anything unexpected, the Senators will likely offer him another contract at the end of the season.

10c. Patrick Wey, Junior, Boston College
NHL Rights: Washington Capitals
Drafted: 4th Round, 115th overall, 2009

After an impressive sophomore campaign last season, Patrick Wey has followed up with an equally solid junior season. Despite having missed much of the first half of 2011-12 due to a severed tendon, Wey's development hasn't faltered. He's simply picked up from where he left off and has continued to round out his game.

The Pittsburgh, PA native has played in 18 games to date, posting just one assist. What Wey lacks in point production; he makes up for his with his strong two-way play. He has worked his way up Boston College's defensive chart and is now one of the Eagles' top four defensemen. Since making his return to the Boston College lineup in late December, Wey has been paired with fellow junior Brian Dumoulin (CAR), making for one of the most skilled defensive duos in the nation.

One area where Wey's development has been particularly noticeable this season is his ability to utilize his assets consistently and successfully. He uses his combination of size, strength, and reach to effectively take away time and space. Wey is also the Eagles' most physical defenseman and that has enabled him to significantly improve his ability to shut down opposing players. If Wey can strike a balance between his offensive capabilities and his defensive side, it'll go a long way to making him a complete player and a great future addition to the Washington Capitals organization.

Other notables: Seth Helgeson (NJ) – Jr., University of Minnesota; Patrick McNally (VAN) – Fr., Harvard University; Lee Moffie (SJ) – Jr., University of Michigan; Will O'Neill (WPG) – Sr., University of Maine; Greg Pateryn (MON) – Sr., University of Michigan; Dillon Simpson (EDM) – Soph., University of North Dakota