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The Leafs and the 2017 NHL Draft: Defensemen to watch

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Get to know the draft-eligible defensemen you should keep an eye on in the second half of the season.

Mississauga Steelheads v Guelph Storm Courtesy Getty Images.

It’s no secret the Leafs’ pool of prospects is decidedly thin on the backend.

Andrew Nielsen, a 2015 NHL Draft overaged third rounder, has turned into a real prospect. Travis Dermott, taken 34th overall, is off to a strong start in his professional career with the Marlies and remains a potential NHL option down the line. Marlies defenseman Rinat Valiev might become a candidate for an NHL job but he’s turning 22 in May and hasn’t yet separated himself as a lock. Others, including James Greenway, Stephen Desrocher, and Jesper Lindgren are long-shots while Viktor Loov, Nicolas Mattinen, and Keaton Middleton likely never make the jump.

As a result, this season, ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft, the most common question I’ve been asked is which draft-eligible defensemen the Leafs might be prudent to target.

And while the Leafs likely won’t be in the sweepstakes for Timothy Liljegren, a projected top-5 pick in this year’s draft, there are several intriguing options in this class.*

Here are five top draft-eligible defensemen the Leafs may look to target with a first round pick and one option they should consider as a potential steal.

Nicolas Hague, Mississauga (OHL), 6’6, 215 Ibs — FC Rank: No. 9

There’s little that makes NHL scouts, coaches, and executives drool more over a prospect than when he’s big and he can play. I have often been vocal about my concerns with drafting for size, but Hague skates well enough that he puts most concerns at ease. Hague isn’t an outstanding skater, but he’s capable with the puck and an elite defender with a shot that will allow him to be a threat on at even-strength and with the man-advantage at the next level. He’s on pace for 23 goals this season, six more than the OHL’s highest scoring defensemen in 2015-2016 (Mikhail Sergachev).

If the Leafs miss the playoffs, Hague will likely be in their range.

Jusso Valimaki, Tri City (WHL), 6’2, 200 Ibs — FC Rank: No. 13

It’s impossible to talk about the 2017 NHL Draft’s top defensemen without mentioning Jusso Valimaki, who is undoubtedly one of the more exciting young D prospects on the planet. After leaving Finland for the WHL when he was taken 14th overall in the CHL Import Draft, Valimaki has played at a more than point per game pace as the league’s highest scoring draft-eligible defensemen. Valimaki is the poised, calculated defender who picks his spots to jump up into the play that most teams are constantly in search of. With Tri City, he has played steady, big minutes on the second pairing away from New York Islanders prospect Parker Wotherspoon.

A better skater and carrier than Hague, Valimaki also has presence as a shooting option and scorer. If Finland’s World Juniors performance hurt his perception (he had two goals in six games while playing with Red Wings third rounder Villi Saarijarvi), Valimaki could become a steal.

Miro Heiskanen, HIFK (Liiga), 6’0, 170 Ibs — FC Rank: No. 16

Last season, after being named the Rookie of the Year in Finland’s top junior league, Heiskanen has taken on a regular role with one of Liiga’s top teams — where Heiskanen plays the sixth most minutes on HIFK at 19:28 per game. He ranks first among all under-18 players and second among all under-19 defensemen in scoring in Liiga with seven points in 25 games. After spending most of the World Juniors on Finland’s top pairing with Canucks first rounder Olli Juolevi, Heiskanen has been thrust into the spotlight.

He’s not an imposing defender, and he’s certainly not a physical one (and rarely takes penalties as a result), but Heiskanen makes effective stick-on-stick plays on the puck defensively and can transition the other way with high-end skating and mobility.

Cale Makar, Brooks (AJHL), 5’10, 180 Ibs — FC Rank: No. 18

Recency bias is certainly at play for Makar, the recent top defensemen at the World Junior A Challenge — and the AJHL isn’t even the strongest of the sub-CHL junior leagues — but his resume speaks for itself.

The WJAC standout performance in December (where he posted eight points in four games) wasn’t an anomaly for a player who was also the AJHL’s top rookie and the RBC Cup’s MVP and top scorer last year.

Despite lacking size, Makar is the best player in the AJHL this year and dictates games offensively and defensively. There are few defensemen in this class, or any class, who play with the same kind of pace. When Makar is on the ice, play moves faster.

Callan Foote, Kelowna (WHL), 6’4, 210 — FC Rank: No. 22

NHL bloodlines aside, Cal doesn’t play the physical, overpowering game his father Adam did. Instead, he plays a cerebral, patient, calculated two-way game. With the puck, he’s a smoothe-in-transition passer and excellent, elegant skater for his size. Without it, he uses an incredibly long stick to disrupt plays defensively and reach in on puck battles.

Don’t let lazy Luke Schenn comparables fool you, Foote is a more gifted playmaker and skater, whose draft year production (0.77 points per game) far exceeds Schenn’s in 2007-2008 (0.44 PPG).

Robin Salo, Sport (Liiga), 6’1, 190 Ibs — FC Rank: No. 32

Salo is one of the very few prospects in this draft class who I believe we have ranked too low at FC. The lone U19 defensemen in Liiga with more points than Heiskanen, Salo has 11 points in 35 games, including just one goal on 116 shots (0.9%) with Sport, while playing huge minutes (19:50). Salo should have made Finland’s World Juniors team and should (in my opinion) be regarded as a top-20 prospect in this class.

If he falls because he missed out on the recency bias created by the World Juniors, you’re looking at a prospect with top-4 upside and near-NHL readiness.

Other draft-eligible defensemen to keep an eye on: Urho Vaakanainen (FC: No. 27), Erik Brannstrom (No. 28), Henri Jokiharju (No. 40), Artyom Minulin (No. 54), Pierre-Olivier Joseph (No. 59)