In a draft that was well stocked with them, a record 14 defenseman were picked in the first round on Friday night in Dallas.
Half of those, however, were blueliners that stand under six feet tall, signifying a growing premium on fast, puck-moving defenders.
The Canucks, who struggled with getting points from their defensemen—their 122 during the 2017-18 season ranked 30th—made Quinn Hughes (5’10”) the highest-picked sub-six-footer with the No. 7 pick. The Orlando, Fla., native recorded five goals and 29 points as a freshman for the University of Michigan, a total that led all first-year blueliners in the Big Ten.
He was followed by Adam Boqvist (5’11”) going to the Blackhawks at No. 8, and they also added Nicolas Beaudin (5’11”) with the 27th pick. Chicago, which finished 21st in defensive scoring last season with 154 points, had to enjoy reading the scouting reports of Boqvist and Beaudin, both of which are rife with terms like “mobile,” “speed,” “offense” and “hockey IQ.”
“Adam’s got elite offensive abilities. He compares himself to Erik Karlsson and I think style-wise, they play a very similar game,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told NBCSN. As for Beaudin, he was equally effusive. “He really came on strong this year, especially the second half of the year. … He can do it all. He’s so efficient with the way he plays.”
That trio was joined by Ty Smith (No. 17/NJD, 5’11”), Ryan Merkley (No. 21/SJS, 5’11”), Nils Lundkvist (No. 28/NYR, 5’11”) and Rasmus Sandin (No. 29/TOR, 5’11”).
“He’s got high-end talent. We think he’s a difference-maker,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said of Merkley. “The game has changed a little bit. Finding a puck-moving defenseman like this that’s got a little risk-reward to him, we think it’s a good thing for us.”
A run on smaller defenseman represent a big change from recent years at the draft; no defenseman under six feet tall were selected in 2015 or 2016, while four of the nine blueliners picked in 2017 stood under 6’0”.
“Getting a defenseman who can get the puck back and move it quickly out of your zone is paramount,” Vancouver GM Jim Benning said. Smaller, speedier defensemen have proven to be key to the transition game, something he sees in his pick Hughes. “He can beat the first forechecker with speed and can get the puck through the neutral zone.”
There were 45 defensemen at 5’11” or under who saw action during the 2017-18 season, with nine of them eclipsing the 30-point plateau. The Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere (5’11”) led the way with 13 goals and 65 points, while Torey Krug (5’9”) posted 59 points for the Bruins. Krug’s importance was on display during the second round of the playoffs, where the Bruins struggled in transition against the Lightning after he missed the final three games of the series with an ankle injury. Defenseman Will Butcher, lauded for his ability to push the play up ice with his passing ability during his Hobey Baker-winning senior season at Denver in 2016, posted 44 points for the Devils as a rookie.
It’s part of a trend, one that continued to progress rapidly in the first round of the 2018 draft.
“If you’re watching the games, it’s fast, it’s puck-moving, it’s competitive kids that are coming into the league and they’re playing pretty quickly,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, who selected the smooth-skating Swede Lundkvist, told NBCSN. “It’s exciting.”