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2022 NHL Draft Profile: Owen Pickering

I like Owen Pickering because he experienced the same growing pains I did

2022 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

If Gleb Trikozov is my sentimental favourite prospect in this year’s draft, Owen Pickering is the one I am most fascinated by in terms of his potential. That’s because of how much of his value as a possible draft pick in this draft is tied to that future potential, compared to how much of it he has already realized.

It all comes to down to that age old question of size. Pickering is currently quite a tall lad, one of the tallest in the draft. But his weight is probably close to average overall, not accounting for height. That means he is quite (read: very) lanky — he is listed as 6’5” and 179 lbs.

The reason why is so lanky is because he has experienced quite a large and late growth spurt. When he was drafted into the WHL in 2019, he was listed as 5’7” and 131 lbs. So in the past three years he has grown 10 inches and put on almost 50 lbs. And he still needs to fill out!

Having experienced such an aggressive growth spurt in my life, I know there are some drawbacks that come with it. Literal growing pains in my joints, bones and muscles that kept me up at night are the more memorable. But there was also having my physical coordination being thrown out of whack until I re-learned how to move in a suddenly larger/longer body. Coordination, as you can imagine, is very important for high-level athletics.

At this point Pickering is arguably still learning how to best move around in his body. He won’t even stop developing physically, as he will be adding more weight and muscle if he doesn’t grow another inch or two — he started this season listed as 6’3” after all.

And this is why he is fascinating. He is already a top defenseman in the WHL and in this draft, but most prospects do not experience such a dramatic growth spurt at the same ages that Pickering has. They’ve had more time to refine their mechanics and physical coordination, where Pickering is likely still adjusting. That’s why he seems more likely to still have a bigger leap in his development than his peers in this year’s draft.

I say ‘likely’ here for a reason. It is impossible to really know. He could further refine his mechanics at a significant level, fill out his frame with muscle to get stronger and more explosive, and turn into one of the best overall defensemen in this draft. Or he could only develop it a bit, and he winds up being a useful but not as impactful defenseman as others taken in the first two rounds.

That’s the risk in betting so much on potential, but it does not make Pickering any less enticing as a potential Leafs’ first round pick.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Position: LD
League: WHL
Height: 6’5”
Weight: 179 lbs
Birth date: January 27th, 2004

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: 36th
  • Will Scouch: 26th
  • Scott Wheeler: 60th
  • Elite Prospects: 15th
  • Dobber Prospects: 44th
  • Smaht Scouting: 33rd

Let’s dig into the details. Pickering was drafted by Swift Current in the 9th round back in 2019, after putting up 17 points in 35 games in AAA. Those point totals are... okay, but not top prospect level — and combined with his smaller size at the time, it was why he was picked in the 9th round, and not in the 1st. The next year, he had 21 points in 34 games at the next level up, so a slight improvement. That season was also shortened by the start of the pandemic and the early shut down of all hockey leagues.

But in an interview with EP Rinkside, he mentioned how that was a bit of a blessing for him. This was the time when he was experiencing the most of his literal growing pains:

I missed the last couple of months of the previous year when I was at the U18. Just kind of growth spurt stuff — knee issues, back [issues]. I kind of expected to be scratched most of the time. It was kind of crazy to even be in the Western Hockey League. I didn’t expect to be there as a 16-year-old.

Entering what would be his rookie year in the WHL for Swift Current as a 16 year old, he was not expected to play much. But Swift Current was a younger, rebuilding (read: not very good) team and had some injuries very early in the bubble-season. As a result, Pickering wound up being thrust into the lineup sooner than expected, where he turned into one of their top defensemen playing heavy minutes in all situations. The pandemic kept the WHL season short, so he played in only 23 games. Which proved to be a blessing in disguise for him, as he was still dealing with pains and injuries caused by his growth spurt.

Owen Pickering used the shortened season last year to heal some injuries from a growth spurt.

And an introduction to the Western Hockey League with 23 games played in 2020-2021 helped ease the transition into a full season this year.

“It was huge for me,” Pickering told Guy Flaming of The Pipeline Show. “I know some guys may disagree. Their experience was negative, but for me, honestly I think it was the best possible situation. The ability to come to the bubble and get thrown in for 21, 22 minutes a night. I got scratched the first game, but after that we had a couple of injuries and I was thrown into just a good spot in the lineup and after that I think I earned it.

Pickering played a lot of minutes in all situations — he averaged around 25 minutes per game — and finished with 9 points in those 23 games. This season, Pickering returned to Swift Current as a 17 year old and their top defenseman. The team was younger, rebuilding, and not very good. He was used in all situations, on the top PP unit and on the PK, and heavily at even strength. He had 33 points in 62 WHL games.

And because Swift Current missed the playoffs, Pickering was one of the few top Canadian defensemen available to join a not very good Team Canada squad at the U18 championship. There he was used in the same kind of role, their clear number one defenseman and leaned on heavily to play lots of minutes in all situations. He played in all four games and had two points.

While his performance this year is not at the same high level as other top defensemen in this draft, it all comes back to that potential. Let’s dig into what his potential is, by looking at how good he already is.

THE GOOD: SIZE, MOBILITY, TWO-WAY POTENTIAL

Potential itself is not that valuable. What makes Pickering’s potential exciting is that he’s already one of the better defensemen in this draft. It is the fact that he may have all of this room to get even better that makes him a worthy top pick in the draft.

In that EP Rinkside interview, Pickering touched on some important elements of his game that has come from his late growth spurt — basically, even though he’s quite tall now, he carried with him a lot of the skills and playstyle that comes from being a smaller player

“Growing up, I could always see the game. I could always process it. The one thing I would say that helped me was when I was 5-foot-7 or even 5-foot-10 or 6-feet-tall, ‘if you want to be a smaller defenceman you need to be extremely mobile. You need to be able to move the puck fast.’ So I was trying to mould my game into that to have success at the size that I was.”

What’s noteworthy is that even at 6’5”, and even though he may have to still adjust to and refine his mechanics as a much taller player, he is already a good skater and very mobile. He can cover a lot of ground with his feet, which helps his size play up even more. Outside of his points and time on ice, let’s look at some of his tracking data (courtesy of Mitch Brown) to see how his game profiles right now:

From Mitch Brown’s Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/posts/new-player-cards-62778012

So what we see is a pretty balanced defenseman, whose strengths seem to lie in driving transitions and specifically with zone exits. This comes back to Pickering’s mobility and puck handling. Here’s what one scout had to say on why his zone exits are already so good:

The way he can get back and retrieve the puck while under pressure is really impressive. He can maintain possession around a tight net turn or shake the forechecker with a quick cut back and a few quick strides for separation. He has NHL-level retrieval ability already.

Having watched a fair amount of his games, that holds up with what I’ve seen. He is not someone who usually tried to dangle through the other team, end to end. He’d get past the first layer or two of forecheckers then pass it off, which did help his team get it into the offensive zone quicker.

Then there is his defense. He gets a good rating for his transition defense, and retrieving dump ins. With his skating and reach, he covers a lot of ground very quickly as other players try and enter the zone with control. He manages a pretty tight gap thanks to both, and forces a lot of dump ins. When the other team does dump it in, he is able to retrieve it and turn it back up the ice at a pretty good success rate. Here is a good example of both. He is #27 in white, the defenseman on the near side of the camera defending the rush. He swats the puck away, forces him to the perimeter all the way around the net and uses his reach to cause a turnover. Then he is one of the first players on his team up the ice for the counter attack.

Overall, his defense rates out as strong but not elite. But once again, it’s the potential you can see in him based on how far he’s already improved the past two years and how much better you think he can be. Here’s a quote from McKeen’s Draft Guide:

In fact, Pickering’s quickness and overall four-way mobility is a standout quality for him. It allows him to play aggressively defensively, as he is quick to close gaps both just inside the blueline, or behind his net as he races to take away time and space. Given how strong of a mover he is already, it makes one wonder if his mobility could improve even further as he adds power to his lanky frame. There is a raw quality to his physical tools.

Pickering’s potential as a defensive player is the most alluring because of his reach, physicality, and quickness. There is a Jake Sanderson like quality to his approach in the defensive end. At only 180lbs currently, the potential for Pickering to develop into a physical beast is extremely high as he adds muscle upon the completion of his growth spurt.

The strength element is the area where he will still see a lot of development, as he fills out and adds muscle and weight. It will help him add greater explosive elements to his skating and defense. He will more easily be able to just neutralize opponents physically. His defensive reads for now are mostly good, with the occasional head scratcher or just poor execution. Those can be refined in time, especially as he gets more comfortable with that frame.

Offensively is where Pickering shows as the most raw. He has great mobility, not even just for his size, and he has a good shot already. After that, we are talking purely about potential. His offense can be inconsistent. He is capable of using his size and skating to effectively elude defenders on retrievals already, and his background as a smaller offensively minded defenseman helps him spot and complete high difficulty passes like this:

But I have seen several scouts talk about his offensive development right now as being “experimental”. He is trying a lot, and succeeding inconsistently. He can make those brilliant looking passes or dangle through the opposition like this, even in tight spaces. Below (he’s the left defenseman at the top left of the screen), he toe drags past one defender, then pulls it out wide the other way with his reach to get beyond the stick of the next defender, and passes around him to a wide open teammate for a great give and go.

He can also be very active in his team’s offense. At times he is not afraid to jump into the rush, or switch off in the offensive zone to the point he is playing like a forward on a cycle. He’ll try all kinds of dekes, pivots, puck protection maneuvers, passes, delays, and so on. As of right now, I will be open and say they don’t work a lot of the time. But a lot of the time, they do work. Like I said, it’s very inconsistent right now.

The interesting part is his potential. A big, mobile defenseman with a good shot has some offensive potential on its own. What will be interesting is how much he learns from the experimentation. Learn what works for him and what doesn’t. Refine his tricks and skills so he can pull more of it off more consistently. This is a similar process that worked out very well for Simon Edvinsson, a tall Swedish defenseman who was taken by Detroit very high in last year’s draft. There were similar questions around his offense, in part because he tried a lot of things that wasn’t working. Until this season, they started working and he became one of the better SHL defensemen as a 19 year old.

THE FLAWS: OFFENSIVE CEILING & RISK

Potential is all well and good. But the thing about it is that, sometimes, players never fully realize it. Often, they may not even realize most of it. We can all think of a prospect who just seemed to have so many exciting elements of his skill or toolset at his disposal who just.... never took big enough steps forward in their development to really cut it.

It is possible that Pickering remains more or less as he is now, even after he has fully physically matured and filled out. A guy who can skate well, has a good shot, play decent defense, and help transitions nicely. That could make him a guy who gets played on third pairs because big. But he won’t have consistent defense despite his size, and he won’t add a lot offensively with moments that make you frustrated at times.

The biggest questions will be around his offense, because it is the most raw part of his game. There are enough elements to his transitions and his defense that are already at a high level that you can somewhat safely project him to the pros. But missing a lot of passes and not adding a lot of dynamic puck handling or playmaking in the offensive zone would limit his utility. Coaches may love big defenseman, but they also hate turnovers.

It’s risky. And many NHL teams don’t really like risk, not in how they draft or in how their players — especially defensemen — play the game.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

Pickering’s game is equal parts safe and risky, as are his projections. It’s why he has a pretty wide range of rankings. Many scouts have said they have heard from NHL teams that they have Pickering in their top 10. Others have him outside the first round. The same trend holds among public rankings, where some have him as high as 13th and others as low as the late second round.

Pickering is very much a prospect where I want to see Bob McKenzie’s final rankings to get a better idea of where NHL teams see him, now that his season is over. He did well in the WHL, but has those risks. He played a top role for Team Canada at the U18s, but while I thought he was good the team overall really lacked defensively and maybe that’s held against him.

Because there are other defensemen who have a similar profile as his, who I’ve also heard some teams have in their top 10s. Lian Bichsel, Maveric Lamoureaux, Tristan Luneau, Kevin Korchinski, Pavel Mintyukov, Elias Salomonsson, Sam Rinzel... all of these guys are bigger defensemen who Bob had ranked around or ahead of Pickering, who teams may choose based on other criteria. They have better offense, they’re stronger, they may profile close to as good as Pickering but are already more developed and have less risk.

So there’s no guarantee he will be available when Toronto picks, but if you average out all his rankings right now it comes exactly at 25th overall. It will all depend on if the teams that have Pickering that high are the ones picking ahead of Toronto, or if they have others ranked even higher available when they choose.

For myself, this is the kind of pick I would love for Toronto. It has some potential risk, but the Leafs are not one of those teams who shies away from that. His activation and experimentation-heavy game right now seems like exactly the kind of thing they would love to nurture. He could turn into another Jake Muzzin kind of defenseman who has strong two-way impacts, plays a lot of minutes in all situations, and knows how to make use of his size. Except Pickering will likely wind up even bigger than Muzzin, and a better skater.

And, interestingly, Pickering is one of the players the Leafs were reportedly confirmed to have spoken to at the Draft Combine. Although since he reportedly spoke with EVERY team in the league, that doesn’t mean as much as you might think.

His offense is not likely to ever compete with other top offensive defensemen in this draft, but it can be capable. He can drive offense by pushing the puck up the ice, by moving the puck capably in the offensive zone, by stepping in and using his shot when he has the chances. And despite the potential risk, he does already have that element of safety where his floor does seem like a player that can still make the NHL and be useful.

Poll

Would you draft Pickering with Toronto’s 25th overall pick?

  • 63%
    Hell yes, let Toronto’s development team turn him into a monster and laugh all day
    (116 votes)
  • 32%
    Ehhh maybe, depending on who else was available but I’m worried about that risk
    (59 votes)
  • 4%
    No way, maybe if they trade down but that’s too much risk for me
    (9 votes)
184 votes total Vote Now