There are a number of elite defenders available again in this year's NHL entry draft and they have been showcasing their talents for NHL scouts at the U18 tournament in Minsk.
The big names are Canada's Erik Gudbranson, Slovakia's Martin Marinicin, Sweden's Patrik Nemeth and USA's Derek Forbort and Jon Merrill. It's a physically imposing group with Nemeth being the runt of the group standing at 6'3”, while the rest all hover around the 6'4” mark.
At the beginning of the tournament Gudbranson had the inside edge as the potential top defender to be selected this year, battling it out with Windsor's Cam Fowler, but the gap is closing. The play of Merrill, along with the struggles of the Gudbranson-led Canadian team, may have catapulted Merrill into that coveted position and certainly into the overall debate.
Coming into the tournament many even felt Forbort would likely be ranked and selected ahead of Merrill, and even though Forbort has looked strong, the abilities that Merrill has showcased so far during this tournament have pushed him ahead in the eyes of many scouting circles. Merrill is a tall and lanky player with a lot of room to build on his frame. He has tremendous speed and has extremely good intelligence with and around the puck. Merrill has been the kingpin of the US's powerplay and quarterbacks it tremendously well.
Gudbranson shares similar qualities in that he is a strong skater with very good offensive instincts and skills with the ability to run a powerplay as well. What sets Gudbranson apart is that he can also play an extremely mean and intimidating game when he needs to. This is also where Forbort comes into the equation.
Forbort has good offensive skills but is also a rough and tough defender that can make you pay if you attempt to win space against him. With that being said Forbort is slightly more subtle and disciplined about his punishment than Gudbranson.
The top Euros in the mix bring up the rear in this discussion, but both are top level talents with a ton of potential and are definitely worth mentioning in the debate. Marincin is perhaps the most raw of the group and is seen as a project pick, or a work in progress. He is huge and aggressive around his net and can bend the rules slightly and frustrate players who attempt to penetrate. Marincin has the potential to turn into a very good pro but will take time to mould and develop properly.
In comparison, Nemeth is a player that has really climbed the ladder and is seen as a very close to NHL-ready defender after displaying excellent growth and development in Sweden. Nemeth has the ability to fit into roles: he can shut down and play physically but also has good offensive upside, including a good shot and strong passing instincts.
At this point Windsor's Cam Fowler is likely to be the first defender selected but this group is hot on his heels.
Ross MacLean is the head of ISS's European Scouting and a member of the management team.
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