As the NHL has adapted to include more skilled forwards, the countermeasure is more mobile defencemen who can close down their attacks. It’s rare that you see a big, immobile, stay-at-home players finding success in the league now, because skilled players will just go around them. It’s also difficult for small defencemen who are good skaters to defend only by keeping up with forwards, because some of those attackers can simply outmuscle them in front of the net.
There is now a premium on defencemen who are big enough to hold their ground and nimble enough to keep space limited for the opposition, and those are the types of players we see selected the highest on draft day.
Owen Pickering didn’t tick all of those boxes as he was developing through his teenage years. He had worked to get a good defensive base, using an active stick and confident play with possession to defend against his peers with his 5’7” frame.
In the past few years, he’s undergone a significant growth spurt. The 5’7” shutdown defender is now a 6’4” force in his own zone. Having become adept at a style used by a smaller player, that added physical development has piqued the interest of a lot of scouts.
Birthplace: St. Adolphe, Manitoba
Date of birth: January 27, 2004
Weight: 179 lbs.
Team: Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
There’s a lot more maturation needed as he adjusts to his larger frame, which is apparent from his 179-pound mass. He’s been figuring out how his new body reacts on the ice, but the defending he became so competent at is now done with greater reach and a longer stick. Confidently pulling the puck around opponents as he always has now moves it a larger distance to keep it out of their grasp. As he puts on muscle mass he’s going to be an imposing figure in puck battles, making his job much easier than it was when he first started working toward making it to the NHL.
Many of the tools he has on the defensive side should also work on offence, but he’s rarely been featured on the scoresheet throughout his playing days. The poise with possession should allow him to deal with pressuring forwards near the offensive blue line, and his handling skills should help him open up lanes to teammates or find a seam to net to at least generate rebounds. Never approaching a point-per-game rate at any level, that’s simply not the case for him.
He did lead the defence corps in points on a bad Swift Current Broncos team that had no point-per-game players this season. Perhaps more of his offensive plays would have become points in a better system with more skilled teammates. It’s possible that he was solely focused on perfecting the defensive side of his game and was never encouraged to work on his offensive skills.
The tracked stats found him very rarely creating offensive plays this season, but when he did they were quite effective. The typical pattern is to find players making a large amount of attempts with less success, but Pickering’s case is the opposite. He’s hesitant to make a high-risk play in the opponent’s end, and his various talents that appear in glimpses stay mostly dormant.
Analysts are divided on how to interpret his meagre offensive game. It could be from a desire to stay in sound defensive position and not risk getting caught up ice. It could be a virtually untapped aspect of his game that could come to the fore with more nurturing, which would dramatically change his outlook as a prospect and significantly boost his value. Or perhaps he’s simply unable to process the game at a high enough level to recognize when those offensive opportunities are developing.
Elite Prospects: #16
Hockey Prospect: #19
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #23
NHL Central Scouting: #15 (North American skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) #24
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #53
From the rankings, most outlets appear to be in the untapped potential camp, envisioning a player who will be an all-around defencemen after a few more years of development. But those who worry about his hockey sense have some evidence to back up their claims.
He does show great poise and confidence with the puck, but can get chased down and lose possession to an opponent he wasn’t aware of. He’s very skilled at preventing zone entries when he can focus all of his abilities on a forward in one-on-one situations, but can have difficulty keeping track of multiple attackers at once. A great transition defenceman, it’s noted that many of his passes tend to be simple ones to the nearest teammate rather than riskier but more effective transition plays; there’s division on which of those styles is more coveted by an NHL team as well.
Without any further progression in his overall game, he still projects as a competent shutdown defenceman, not as a player tethered to the post, but one who can initiate battles along the boards, break up cycles, and come away with possession the majority of the time. In a well-structured system, his simple passes would be the ideal execution for a team that works as a five-man unit to advance the puck up the ice.
Part of his physical development will need to be directed at improving his skating stride. He’s quite mobile as is, but would benefit from better acceleration and more fluid movement as he’s patrolling his half of the defensive zone.
Perhaps he’ll gain more confidence for offensive adventures if he knows he can easily get back into a defensive position after improving his speed. The fantasy of a 6’4” defenceman who can cover the entire ice surface will be in the mind of every general manager on the draft floor, and one of them is likely going to be compelled to select him relatively early.
When that team does call Pickering’s name, it’s committing to a long-term development strategy. It will probably be a rebuilding team that gambles on the future promise he holds, and, hopefully for his sake, one with the development team in place to help him gradually correct his deficiencies.
That prospect staff will need to see him improve his on-ice awareness so he has a better understanding of his surroundings. It’s a difficult thing to teach, and one many toolsy defence prospects have failed to grasp. Every team has its stories of players brimming with raw talent who never could put those skills together into a complete package.
In Pickering’s case, he at least has the defensive base to fall back on, so it’s unlikely he ends up like those blue-line busts. It’s possible he blossoms into an effective first-pairing option with few weaknesses, helping out his team in all three zones. It’s also possible that he remains mostly a defensive specialist, carving out a decent NHL career, with people left wondering what could have been.