Étienne Morin sat in the interview area last Saturday at the National League evaluation camp, chatting with a handful of Quebec journalists. He seemed relaxed in his answers, but his left leg was shaking incessantly.
Until Dan Marr, vice-president of the NHL Central Scouting, came to put his hand on his left knee, looking amused. “The best defender in the draft!” “says Marr.
“I’m hyperactive, I can’t help it!” Morin replies.
The name of this Quebec defender became popular last weekend in Buffalo. The day before the anecdote recounted above, Marr had been asked who was the best prospect among the defenders in the 2023 draft.
“I can’t say who will be the first defender to go. It could be David Reinbacher or Axel Sandin Pellikka,” he said first.
Morin’s reaction: “If someone had told me that three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it! It’s amazing, I don’t realize it. »
The Campivallensien has been well seen all year round. From 24th among North American skaters according to NHL Central at mid-season, he climbed to 19th in the final standings, one spot behind Lukas Dragicevic (18th), the only one higher-ranked than him among defensemen, and one rank ahead of Oliver Bonk.
With 21 goals and 51 assists in 67 games, Morin ranked third among QMJHL guards in points (72).
Marr and NHL Central Scouting are the ones who value Morin the most. And they’re not rocket science; they are just one group of recruiters among many. Fellow TSN player Craig Button, for example, ranks Morin 54th among prospects, 11th among defensemen.
“As much as I love him, I can’t put him in the same group as the Europeans,” an NHL scout told us on condition of anonymity. And I’m sure several other teams have the same thing. Morin himself says he was never an offensive quarterback. »
Leading analysts see him more as a second-round or late-first-round pick, at best, in a year of top defenders performing in Europe.
Reinbacher is one of them. The good-sized Austrian (6’2″, 194 lbs) has been playing in Switzerland for years and spent the last season in the Swiss first division, playing against men. In 46 games, he had 22 points. He may have turned 18 in October (a late, in the jargon), the value of what he has achieved is not trivial. As a bonus, he’s right-handed.
Zurich Lions head coach Marc Crawford has seen Reinbacher up close. “Like any 18-year-old player, he had difficulty in individual battles, but it won’t stay like that for long,” said the last Nordiques driver. We had Jonas Siegenthaler at 17 and they’re similar, but David is more attacking. I don’t think he will become a number 1 defender, but he could become a number 2 or 3.”
Reinbacher does not only have admirers. The limits of his potential are uncertain and, without having been bad in interviewing the teams, he has not wowed the gallery like Sandin Pellikka, praised by many. However, they have very different styles, with Sandin Pellikka much more attacking, as evidenced by his 11 points in 7 games at the U18 World Championship.
Swede Tom Willander is another who could know his fate quickly. And like Matvei Michkov at the forwards, Dmitriy Simashev occupies the role of the joker, to a lesser extent. The 6’4″ colossus is seen as a possible top 10 pick by some trade publications (HockeyProspect, The Athletic), but since he plays in Russia, only regional scouts have seen him in person.
How will teams short on defenders deal with the situation?
There’s an interesting parallel to be drawn with the 2018 draft. In 2023, defenders are in short supply; in 2018, it was thin in the middle. And those who were seen as the two best centers, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Barrett Hayton, were claimed at 3rd and 5th respectively, by the Canadiens and the Coyotes.
It’s been said a few times, but after 319 NHL games, it seems clear that Kotkaniemi wasn’t the smartest choice at No. 3. Brady Tkachuk (4th), Quinn Hughes (7th), Evan Bouchard (10th), Noah Dobson (12th) and K’Andre Miller (22nd) would certainly find takers before him if the exercise were to be repeated. Hayton meanwhile has only two seasons behind the tie; the jury is still deliberating.
“Too specific orders early in the draft can lead to mistakes,” warns an NHL scout. This year, there are so few defenders that once one is drafted, the others could go out quickly, because the quality will drop quickly. »
A warning to remember if your favorite team pounces on a defender on June 28.