Any other year, National Hockey League teams looking to draft in the top five (or even top three) are looking for a transformational talent - a player that can come in and help turn things around for a franchise that struggle-bussed their way into a high draft pick. Or, in some teams’ cases, take a team that just missed the playoffs but lucked into winning the lottery and make them a deep-run playoff contender in a few short seasons.
Unfortunately for teams like Buffalo, Seattle and Anaheim, the 2021 draft is short on those can’t-miss talents from years past like Alexis Lafreniere, Tim Stuetzle, or Jack Hughes. That’s not to say there aren’t some potentially elite-level players to be had - just that there may be a few more question marks surrounding their development than normally you’d like to see in a lottery pick.
Enter Canadian defenseman Brandt Clarke of the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts, and in 2021, of HC Nove Zamky of Slovakia’s national league. Most scouts believe that Clarke has what it takes to be a top-pairing, potentially elite No. 1 defenseman for a team that can draft and develop him. And while many that lay eyes on him or watch his tape marvel at his ability to move the puck, contribute on the offensive rush and use his assertive instincts and active stick to break up plays in the defensive zone, scouts seem to have a huge level of disagreement when it comes to his skating, some calling it “outstanding” and “elite”, while others use phrases like “needs improvement” and “not yet NHL ready.”
The most succinct phrase uttered by a scout regarding Clarke’s ability is the one Wild fans will likely be the most hesitant to hear: “Boom or Bust.”
But you can’t teach “elite”, and the right situation could see Clarke add strength, skill and mechanics to his game. The question is, which team will be the first to see the bright, shining diamond laying beneath a very thin layer of rough? And would the knocks on Clarke game be enough to make him a targetable player for the Wild?
No. 7 (NA skaters) by NHL Central Scouting
No. 5 by Future Considerations
No. 6 by Dobber Prospects
No. 3 by Wheeler/The Athletic (midseason)
No. 3 by Sportsnet
What Scouts Are Saying
With a gangly frame, some knee-knocking in his forward and backward skating stride, he has work to be done building strength and power through his lower and upper body. On the ice, he plays an extremely loose, free-flowing, roving style, which blends excellent side-to-side cuts with impressive head-fake deception that allows him to freeze opposing players and get to spots to make plays. Clarke is a fearless, aggressive defender who isn’t afraid to try things (flip passes, spins, etc.) and has the puck skill needed to execute once he has attacked into the slot or carried the puck low into the offensive zone. He’s a tough player to confidently project, but he’s got a fascinating set of skills, the assertiveness needed to continue to play that style regardless of what’s thrown at him, and a decent defensive game despite built around an active stick and good timing. There’s a boom or bust element to his projection, but I can’t take my eyes off of him when he’s out there and he still has so much room for growth. It has been nice to see him play his game with Nove Zamky, where he has forced the issue while playing more than 19 minutes a night.
Clarke went to Slovakia because there was no OHL season and was quite good. He is a dynamic player with the puck because of his puck skills and playmaking ability. He has the poise and vision to make tough plays from both ends of the rink. He can beat opponents with his skill consistently and looks unique with the puck on his stick, with true first power-play unit potential in the NHL. The concern on Clarke is his skating as he’s a somewhat knock-kneed skater without great quickness. He defends well in junior due to his sense and having decent reach, but the pace will be a concern in that regard as he advances levels. In a sentence, Clarke projects as a second or third defenseman who can be on a top NHL power-play unit but may not be able to face top opponents defensively.
With Brandt Clarke, you can expect a defender that plays the rush extremely well, blocks lanes and pushes the attack to the corners. Clarke gets in your face, gives you as little room as possible and looks for the best moment to pounce on the puck. But, what I really like about Clarke is that you can’t read him like an open book. With every situation, there is a different strategy with Clarke. You can not predict when Clarke will pounce and there is no way of telling how Clarke will try to strip the puck away from you.
While Clarke has shown that he possesses a strong defensive game, I’ve noticed that Clarke’s skating needs further improvement in order to become NHL ready. For instance, he will have difficulty keeping his balance when deploying outside edges. When defending a puck carrier who is looking to find a gap and can be rather shifty, Clarke will have to deploy outside edges to keep pace, but don’t be surprised if he puts his hand directly on the ice surface to try to keep his balance.
When it comes to skating in transition, Clarke’s extension and placement is exactly where you want it to be. He does not take long extensions and his skates are not too wide apart. However, you will see that Clarke can struggle with his ankle flexion. His ankle won’t line up with the toes of his skates. But, he also will struggle with a knocked knee extension...
In the offensive zone, Clarke does not just stick to playing the point. Instead, he prefers to be all over the offensive zone. Clarke will pinch and shuffle between the low slot, perimeter and blue-line. On the power play, his puck distribution as a power play quarterback is on point. The delivery is quick and accurate.
Clarke’s game is based on his outstanding skating ability. This allows him to get forward in the offensive zone as well as join the rush, and still get back defensively. He has an outstanding first step and great acceleration. His ability to change speeds allows him to avoid forecheckers and get past defenders. His top-end speed is also very good. Clarke’s edgework and agility are elite. He can turn on a dime, and can also walk the line, opening up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone. Clarke could stand to get a bit stronger in his core though. This will help improve his balance and strength on his skates. It will help him to win battles in the defensive zone and clear the front of the net.
Clarke pairs his outstanding skating ability with great hands. This allows him to skate the puck up the ice and control it while moving at top speed. He can avoid forecheckers and clear the defensive zone. Clarke is also good at leading the rush through the neutral zone, creating odd-man opportunities. He can also move the puck with a strong first pass. Clarke is effective at gaining the zone, especially on the power play. The ability to enter the offensive zone cleanly and set things up is invaluable. Clarke has high-end vision and passing skills. He can feather the pass through a tight area. Clarke uses his mobility and quick hands to create passing lanes and set up teammates on the power play.
Would He Fit In With The Wild?
Smart, skilled defenseman who can break up the play in the defensive zone, create the rush into the neutral zone and quarterback the power play? Yeah, that kind of player would do just fine in Minnesota along side Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin or Calen Addison.
And considering the amount of regret still lingering in the organization and fanbase about letting an elite-level talent like Brent Burns go... if Brandt Clarke was the pick and he hit his ceiling while actually still with the Wild, that would go a long way to putting some of those what-ifs behind us.
Could The Wild Get Him?
Unlikely, but considering the questions surrounding Clarke’s skating mechanics, scouts and prognosticators alike aren’t sure where Clarke will be taken. Most mock drafts have Clarke going to either the New Jersey Devils at four or the San Jose Sharks at seven. No mock draft I’ve seen so far has him going lower than nine to the Los Angeles Kings, so even if Clarke was a talent that they’d want to trade up for, it would certainly cost them both their 21st and 25th-overall picks. Consulting various NHL draft pick value charts, that could only concievably get them up to somewhere around picks 8-10 (assuming they find a trade partner), and that might not be enough to nab Clarke.
A Minnesota Relation
Clarke is a versatile defenseman, to be sure - and one that the Wild have yet to see in their organization over it’s history. Sure, they’ve seen blueliners like Brodin or Spurgeon who had strong defensive acumen, but you wouldn’t consider them elite in the offensive zone. They’ve developed offensive dynamos like Burns and Dumba, but while with the Wild both were (at least at times) considered to be defensive liabilities.
The closest current comparible would be Calen Addison, whose scouting report has also noted strong skating, puck moving and strong play in both the offensive and defensive zone. Addison’s biggest knock has been his size, which isn’t an issue for Clarke at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds. So, imagine a bigger, stronger Addision with a higher offensive ceiling, and you’ve basically described Brandt Clarke.