Now that we've finished talking about the forwards, it's time to take a look at the seven defensemen competing for a spot in the Thrashers' training camp. With the news that Dustin Byfuglien will be starting camp on defense, it's highly unlikely that any of these prospects will see NHL ice time this year. Still, it's worth taking the time to see how our prospects are shaping up.
Of all the defensemen in my prospect rankings, Ben Chiarot saw the biggest boost in his year-over-year rankings. Chiarot is a big (6-3, 222lb) defenseman who plays tough. He's never contributed much offense, though he improved from 2 to 8 goals this past season in the OHL. When he was drafted in 2009, our very own Falconer caught up with Ben and asked a few questions.
When I saw him in prospect camp, I could tell the difference. His skating had improved considerably since last year and his shot looked decent as well. Perhaps most importantly, he looked more comfortable than most on the ice. He simply played solid the whole time. Chiarot won't be an offensive dynamo, but he's developing the skills that will allow him to play in the NHL.
Chiarot's chance to make the NHL would be as a 3rd-pairing stay-at-home defenseman who can stand up for his teammates. Right now, the Thrashers have quite a few young defensive prospects who can fit that role (Valabik and Kulda come to mind), so it will be a bit of a waiting game for Chiarot. He's got a chance to receive an invite to camp this year, but he'll be returning to Sudbury for another year of juniors. He'll likely compete for a spot with the Wolves next year.
One of the prospects drafted this year, Kendall McFaull is a lanky (6-2, 187lbs) stay-at-home defensemen drafted out of the WHL. He's not a flashy player at all, but I saw him doing a lot of "the right things" at prospect camp. As a late-round pick who was just drafted, McFaull has a long road of development before we can judge whether or not he'll make the Thrashers. His top potential seems to be as a 3rd-pairing/7th defenseman. He'll play at least two more years of junior hockey.
Melchiori sounds like the second coming of Paul Postma: tall but thin-as-a-rail, solid skater, great stickhandling, and offensive upside. I got that same impression of him during prospect camp, though he's quite a bit more raw than Paul Postma was a year or two ago. Melchiori was originally headed to play college hockey at UMass-Lowell, but he changed his mind and will be heading to Kitchener instead.
The decision was made because he feels that Kitchener will offer him the best path to the NHL. I tend to agree. They've got a great program up there, and if Melchiori can play a couple solid years with the Rangers, we could be talking about him in the same way we do Paul Postma: he's ready to go, he just needs a spot to open up.
Melchiori projects to be a 2nd-pairing (or strong 3rd-pairing) defenseman with solid offensive upside. It's just a matter of filling out and honing his skills in the OHL. Melchiori could earn an invite to the Thrashers main camp, but he won't likely stick around for long. Still, keep an eye on this one.
Owuya is another big defenseman (6-3, 194lbs is the median, but it varies by source) who played last year in Sweden for Timra in both the SuperElit and Elitserien. Owuya plays a physical game and doesn't contribute much offensive, but he already has a huge frame for an 18-year-old. Owuya was an easy guy to spot on the ice at prospect camp: he's considerably larger than most of the Thrashers' other prospects.
Owuya will be coming to North America next season to play for Medicine Hat of the WHL. We'll be better able to evaluate him (and how he'll transition to the North American game) throughout the course of the year. For now, he looks as though he could be a bottom-pairing defenseman.
I've never kept it much of a secret that I'm a huge fan of Paul Postma's: he's your prototypical offensive defenseman. Postma is quick on his feet and has a booming slapshot. (I've taken to calling him "The Postman" at times for the great shots he delivers from the point.) The only thing that's ever been a concern is his size: while he's tall enough at 6-3 to play defense in the NHL, he was rail-thin when he was drafted by Atlanta. Since then, he's bulked up a bit (to 190lbs, according to the Wolves), though he still may have a bit to go before he's ready to survive a season in the NHL.
As a defenseman in the WHL, Postma had 5 goals and 19 assists in 2006-2007 with Swift Current. We drafted him in 2007 and he returned to Swift Current for just 2 games before being traded to the Calgary Hitmen where he scored 14 goals and 28 assists. The next year he exploded for 23 goals and 61 assists. Yes, 84 points in 70 games as a defenseman. That was good enough to put him T-4th on the team in goals. Oh, and he as +67.
Admittedly, that Calgary Hitmen squad was extremely strong and Postma benefited from the quality of his teammates. Last year, he played for the not-as-dominant Chicago Wolves and scored 15G/14A in 63 games to go along with a +5. While not exactly as eye-popping as his numbers with the Hitmen, for a rookie in the AHL, he played well. With the depth the Thrashers have at defense, there simply isn't room for him in the NHL yet. He could use some more time in the AHL to continue to add weight and develop his skills.
I would expect Postma to come to training camp and play several preseason games this year.
Sol is another big defenseman who plays with an edge. (We seem to have a lot of those, no?) He's 6-4, 215lbs, and nasty. Like Chiarot and Owuya, he's not much of a contributer on offense, though he did jump from 1 to 7 goals between he past two years in the OHL. His 15 points with Saginaw last year were some of the lowest for a defenseman on the squad, though his +20 led the blueline and was near a team-best +24.
While Sol has the size to be an NHLer, the big question mark is his skating. Without some significant improvement, he just won't have the speed to keep up. Since Sol was just drafted last year, he has time to work on it. He'll likely head back to Saginaw at the end of rookie camp.
Andrey [the correct spelling of his first name] Zubarev is one of those Russians We Gave Up On. You know, like the other Ilya? The Thrashers drafted him in 2005 but didn't sign him to a contract until last month. Prior to that, he was playing with Atlant of the KHL where he put up 7G 9A in 55GP. That was good enough to put him first in goals and just shy of the lead for points (18) among Atlant's defensemen. He's got decent size (6-1, 200lbs), good mobility, and some offensive ability, though he's certainly not in the same range as guys like Enstrom, Bogosian, or Postma.
Zubarev has established himself as a solid defenseman in the KHL, though it'll take a bit of work for him to make this Thrashers team. With Byfuglien's move to defense, the only open spot on the blueline is as a 7th defenseman. Zubarev would not likely stay with the Thrashers to be a healthy scratch, so he'd have to beat out one of Bogosian, Enstrom, Hainsey, Oduya, Sopel, or Byfuglien to earn a spot (in addition to fighting off Boris Valabik and Arturs Kulda). While Zubarev has 2nd- or 3rd-pairing potential, it seems unlikely he'd be able to make the team this season.
He has said that he's willing to play with the Chicago Wolves in order to work his way to the AHL. In all likelihood, that's what will happen. I expect Zubarev to be invited to training camp and play a few preseason games. He'll spend a year with the Wolves and likely challenge for an empty spot on the blueline next season (if any are available).