Could Brandt Clarke be a #1 defenceman in the NHL?

Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

Introduction

Brandt Clarke, an Ontario-born defenceman, put up record-setting numbers for the Don Mills Flyers in the GTHL back in 2018-19. He absolutely blew by the point per game mark, tallying 113 points in only 73 games from the blueline. Clarke’s OHL transition wasn’t flawless– the since fired Warren Rychel didn’t always give him the minutes he deserved in Barrie– but his 38 points in 57 games for the Colts was more than solid for an OHL rookie. We don’t have the same understanding of how the consensus generally sees this draft at this point in time as we normally would at this time most years, but I’d consider Clarke to be the fairly clear-cut best defenceman in the draft based on what we’ve seen thus far (with that said, I should note that Corey Pronman, for one, ranked him 15th overall recently so it may not be as agreed upon as I assume).

Clarke’s statistical profile as an OHL rookie is very similar to Jamie’s Drysdale’s back in 2018-19. Both players produced points at a clip of about 0.65 per game, and recorded primary points (goals + first assists) at a rate of about half that. The only notable difference was in their on-ice goal numbers– Clarke boosted Barrie’s goals-for percentage by over 3% when he was on the ice, whereas Drysdale was actually a 2% drag. Drysdale became a +10 positive the season after, so that wouldn’t appear to be particularly relevant at this stage, but it’s worth acknowledging that Clarke’s statistical base is a little stronger than Drysdale’s was at the same point. It’s also worth noting that Clarke absolutely blew Drysdale’s GTHL totals out of the water, clearing the point per game mark by a good 40 points while Drysdale finished 7 points under. 

The video in this article is from InStat Hockey, an amazing platform that made the level of detail that I get into in this piece possible.

Skating

The defenceman is a willing and aggressive puck carrier, seeking to gain the zone with control of the puck whenever he has a lane. He models his game after Erik Karlsson and it shows– Clarke manages to join the play on a frequent basis as a puckcarrier or rush option with his smooth, effortless skating stride. The Barrie defenceman doesn’t have the explosive first step of a Quinn Hughes (neither does Karlsson), but he finds opportunities to involve himself with his feet often. When I said “effortless” earlier, I meant it– look at how easily Clarke keeps up with the puck carrier and ahead of the backchecker on this play.

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When Clarke has time to wind the puck up, his top speed with the puck is exceptional. That’s largely a result of the defenceman’s crossovers, which are the definition of smooth– he’ll string together a few quick crossovers, ride an edge as he cuts laterally, and follow up with a few more even to continue gaining speed even as he steps around opposing players in the neutral zone. Just look at how easily he gains the zone on this play:

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This next clip is similarly excellent– when the opposing team gives him room to wheel, he’s nearly impossible to stop coming through the neutral zone. He doesn’t always get enough space to do that consistently at even-strength, but just imagine the versatility he could give an NHL team on their powerplay zone entry with that kind of ability.

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Clarke’s stride is ultra-efficient– he rarely has both feet in contact with the ice at a time, limiting unnecessary glide and friction to an absolute minimum. Here’s a good angle– notice how synchronous his stride is, with his gliding foot touching the ice just as he completes his ankle extension on his push leg and lifts it off the ice:

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Clarke’s stride is a mechanical masterpiece. The still below shows how aligned his body is as he finishes his stride: his head is positioned directly over his knee which is positioned directly over his toe on his glide leg, and Clarke achieves full extension through his other leg and ankle on the pushoff. There’s no wasted or unnecessary movement in Clarke’s stride, allowing him to convert force to power and speed at an extremely high level.

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Breakout

Despite his gaudy bantam point totals for Don Mills, Clarke’s greatest impact lies in his neutral zone play, not what he can do inside the offensive zone. The defender has terrific up-ice vision and excels at finding open teammates even while under heavy forechecking pressure himself, allowing him to create space for others on the breakout and greatly improve his team’s chances of exiting the offensive zone with control. In its most simple form, that can be a basic chip up the boards into space for his teammates before absorbing a hit.

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He displays tremendous intelligence and posie on this breakout, waiting for his forward to swing into the middle of the ice even as a forechecker bears down on him.

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A player that can blow up the dump and chase game by getting back on pucks before the forechecker, get his head up, and punish the opposition for overcommitting below the blueline is a tremendously valuable addition to any blueline. Clarke has the four-way mobility and vision on the breakout to be that player; Ottawa sends two guys in deep on this forecheck, but Clarke makes a long pass to keep the pace high and create a nice rush opportunity for his team.

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Clarke is at his best in a system that stretches the neutral zone and creates those long options. The forwards can fly the zone with speed, and Clarke is talented to find them. Notice how he plays the puck past all three opposing forwards on the forecheck– this ability to create rush opportunities out of nothing is what I mean when I talk about Clarke’s prowess at accelerating the pace.

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This next one is just a perfect pass, laying the puck off the boards and into space for his forward to skate onto. Again, he creates a 3-on-2 entering the zone with his stretch ability.

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And of course, the gold standard of transition offence. Whoever was working the camera at this game robbed us of a view, but it’s quite obvious that this pass to send his teammate in for a breakaway was a Brandt Clarke masterpiece. If you aren’t seeing the Erik Karlsson in his game yet, you should now.

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Even when an opposing player is physically preventing him from making a good play on the puck, Clarke can sometimes manage to move it to space anyway. He makes this pass as he falls to the ice.

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And he rescues a nice move that nearly goes bad with a one-hand jab pass to a teammate in this clip.

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Everything we’ve seen so far has been extremely encouraging, but it’s important to note the one common denominator on all of the plays we just saw: a wide open neutral zone. At the end of the day, we’re attempting to project Clarke’s transitional ability to the NHL level, where he’ll have to deal with neutral zone traps, tight assignments, and forecheckers that are both bigger and faster. He excels at identifying open teammates, however far they may be, absolutely. But what about when he doesn’t have any? To be an elite transitional NHLer, which I believe to be Clarke’s ceiling, he’ll need to be able to adapt. In situations where he doesn’t have a clear cut option, Clarke has struggled so far in his OHL career.

This next one is a tough read, but it’s one you want a potential first overall pick to be able to make. Ottawa has four players on the far half of the ice and the single player in the near bisection is all the way back near his own blueline. Returning the D-to-D pass would open up all kinds of space for his defensive partner to make a controlled play; instead, Clarke forces the puck up the boards for an uncontrolled entry. That isn’t a *bad* result, but it isn’t the best available read.

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This is a similar play. The 67’s really like to overload the strong side and punish defencemen that can’t make advanced reads under pressure (which, in the OHL, is most of them). This worked well for them, but it generally leaves one wide-open option: the defenceman without the puck. Playing the puck back behind his own net to his d-partner would have created plenty of time for Barrie to make a controlled play on this breakout. Instead, Clarke goes off the glass for an uncontrolled exit.

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Defensive zone faceoff wins are really tough plays for defencemen (as a defenceman myself, I would often hope my centre would actually lose the draw rather than forcing me to try to collect the puck from a dead stop while the opposing winger bears in on me), but this glass-and-out play just allows Kitchener to wind up for another attack whereas circling behind his own net or hesitating another half second before moving the puck to his d-partner might have resulted in a controlled breakout for Clarke.

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This is another tough play without any real option that I would necessarily say is a “good” one, but that’s the nature of the transitional game, especially at the NHL level. Clarke decides to make a short pass to his winger on the boards. Any short pass on the breakout tends to be a poor play, more or less just dumping the responsibility on your teammate while sacrificing precious space (not saying that that’s Clarke’s intention here). The best play here would be a backhand chip out towards the near side of the ice– Clarke has #11 streaking down the middle and another forward on the near boards. This is against Ottawa again, so the strong stride is very crowded but the weak side has plenty of space.

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One development that could greatly boost Clarke’s overall transitional versatility and effectiveness in tough situations like these is to learn when to play a slower style of game. His fast, linear style can be a real benefit when he has forwards streaking into space, but is less so when the opposing forecheck, like we saw with Ottawa, succeeds in clogging up the neutral zone and taking away those wide open passing lanes. The ability to play more east-west and eat up some time evading forechecking pressure while giving teammates the opportunity to find space for themselves is an incredibly valuable element for a defenceman to possess, but it’s something Clarke has only demonstrated in brief flashes thus far. This next clip starts off textbook with Clarke using that four-way mobility to buy himself time and throw off the forechecker, but he cancels out all the space that he creates with another pointless, short pass to his defensive partner that puts them in a bad spot. I want to see more of the first half of that clip, none of the second.

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Here’s a more basic example, but exactly what you want to see in this type of situation. 4-on-4 situation and Kitchener is playing a conservative system that takes away passing options but leaves tons of room for Clarke to skate, so he takes advantage and gets the controlled exit.

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I absolutely love how Clarke recognizes that the forechecker is taking an inside route to this puck and just leaves him in the dust with a quick change of direction.

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Clarke’s breakout game is still very much an area of development, but the Ottawa-born defenceman possesses the all-direction mobility, up-ice vision, and intelligence to one day become a legitimately elite transitional force if he can continue to expand his repertoire in these situations as he develops. He’s one of the best I’ve seen for his age at making stretch passes, able to identify open teammates far up ice and jumpstart his team’s offence with long passes. He excels in a fast style where he consistently has wingers breaking into space on the zone exit. Next season with Barrie, I’d like to see Clarke add a second, “slower” element to his game in situations where the opposing team effectively limits his passing options, allowing his team to regroup, move the puck towards space, and find a controlled option rather than forcing the puck forwards into the opposition’s well-executed coverage. The Ottawa 67’s, the best team in the OHL, were especially good at highlighting this current weakness in Clarke’s transitional package by overloading the strong side and “encouraging” him to play the puck back into pressure to the best of their ability. That’s the type of coverage and scheming Clarke will be facing in the NHL, so the clips above from Barrie-Ottawa games (and his overall body of work against the 67’s this past season), are an excellent glimpse at what development will be necessary for Clarke to eventually translate his game to the highest level of competition.

Zone Entries

I want to dedicate a pretty significant chunk of this breakdown to another major element of transition– offence off the zone entry– for two reasons: one, it’s an especially important source of value for a player of Clarke’s ilk, and two, it might be the most volatile part of his game. There are times where Clarke will bring the puck in the zone and show off all the offensive talent that made him a record-breaking point getter back in Bantam, but his decision-making, awareness, and understanding of how to effectively use space on the entry. Turnovers are normal for defencemen as offensively involved as Clarke, but he needs to cut the particularly egregious ones out of his game.

We’ve already seen a few examples of Clarke’s end-to-end ability. That hasn’t been a consistent feature of his game so far in his OHL career, but it’s definitely something he has in his bag. He’s most dangerous when he can build up speed coming out of his own zone, allowing him to push the defence back with his pace and open up space to put his puck skills to work and try to dangle his way to the net. When he’s able to do that, he’s a terrifying rush threat, even if it didn’t translate into many goals for him (Clarke only scored six times for Barrie).

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Another fake Clarke has in his arsenal is something that I can best describe as a “skate hesitation”, with it being not dissimilar to a basketball hesi move. When executed properly, it can be a really excellent way to expose sluggish defenders and create an outside lane to the net.

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He doesn’t have the burst out of that move to use it to beat agile defenders, but it’s a rather effective way to create space against larger players that would probably overpower him rather easily if they manage to properly angle him into the corner. Here it is not working for him, but he circles outside and starts the cycle instead.

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Clarke’s rush attacks weren’t a big source of offence for him this past season simply because his finishing ability is still catching up to the OHL level– he converted on less than 7% of his 2.12 shots/game. Considering that he scored 35 goals back in 2018-19, I don’t think many were expecting his scoring to dry up quite this much on the transition to junior. Clarke’s offensive game will jump forwards this season and improved scoring touch could be a significant contributor to that– I expect that he’ll find himself jumping up in the play and trying to take the puck to the net more frequently and his comfort finishing the play at the end should improve with repetition.

Another factor that limited his effectiveness in rush scenarios was a high turnover rate on the zone entry. Clarke has excellent hands, but can be quite susceptible to biting off more than he can chew in certain situations, sometimes trying to attack multiple defenders with his puck skills. Yes, the guy can dangle, but he’s no Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane, and that’s something Clarke will learn with time.

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Clarke also lacks the explosiveness to beat most defenders outside and can even get caught by eager backcheckers at times. He’s an excellent skater, but adding one more top gear should be high on his skill development priority list. Zayde Wisdom, recently drafted by Philadelphia, does an excellent job catching up to him on this play and forcing the turnover.

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The Ottawa backchecker makes up enough ground here to take away the inside lane and force him outside for an uncontrolled entry.

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Clarke forces a turnover on the backcheck here and has the Windsor defenders in a bad spot having to pivot and quickly match his speed, but the defenceman is able to recover quickly enough to contain him outside fairly easily.

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I don’t expect Clarke to ever be able to burn many defenders outside as an NHLer (the list of players that can do that consistently is close to none), so this isn’t a major concern, but an improved first step could really pay dividends on the breakout and in certain offensive situations. It’s more important that he learns how to effectively use space and look to distribute the puck off the entry, which is something Clarke has already shown flashes of. I already used this clip way back at the start of this breakdown, but it’s a terrific example of how he can attack with speed, push the defence back, and then pass off to a teammate with room to create.

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Stopping up allows his teammate to drive the net for a good tip chance here.

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And one more, really nice puck move to lose the backchecker here as well.

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This one is a similar concept, different execution. Clarke drives the defence back himself and drops the puck back for a teammate, still creating that space behind him for his teammates to work.

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Clarke is still learning exactly when a stop-up or drop pass is a viable option. Sneaky backcheckers were able to disrupt some of those plays.

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This upcoming OHL season, I’m hoping Clarke will demonstrate increased awareness and a better understanding of when to drive wide, stop up, or defer to a teammate on these zone entries. It’s a developing area of his game that should come with experience. His finishing talent, which is currently limiting his rush value somewhat, should also improve as he continues to get reps and learns how to quickly corral pucks and get into a shooting position. His skating might be a more long-term, technical area of development, but I think Clarke needs to improve his first step and acceleration to realize his NHL ceiling as one of the best transitional players in the league. He’s absolutely devastating when he has time to wind up to top speed with crossovers coming out of his own zone, but adding the ability to reach that speed when he doesn’t have the time or space to wind up like that would raise his offensive ceiling by a significant margin.

Rush Play

There’s one last area that can be classified as part of the “transition” game where Clarke makes a massive impact, and that’s his ability to use his mobility to jump up into the rush and bolster Barrie’s offensive numbers on the attack. Clarke is an aggressive offensive player that shows no hesitation in playing like a forward on the counterattack and will commit deep in the offensive zone when he senses that there’s an opportunity to be had. He scores as the high man in a 3-on-1 here.

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On this play, he gets rewarded for his offensive involvement with a juicy rebound right out in front for the easy finish. That’s a rebound that would have been quickly swept up by the opposition had Clarke not been aggressive in driving the net here.

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Here’s one for the highlight reel: he jumps up as the late option in the rush, receives a pass at the attacking blueline, steps around a defender, and finishes.

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This play is very similar. Clarke might’ve been better off trying to finish himself, but the puck ends up in net and he records the primary assist.

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What about this one from the U17 World Hockey Challenge: starts the breakout on one end, catches up to the puck, very nearly walks his way all the way to a beautiful goal. Teammate cleans up, Clarke gets the assist. Just textbook offensive creation from a blueliner.

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The Barrie defender is super effective as a rush option: he’s fast enough to catch up to most players and make himself an option, he can combine that speed that he just built up with his puck skills to blow by defenders, and he has enough talent to convert those chances into goals for his team at a reasonable rate, whether it be himself or after a quick pass for an assist. If he can pick his finishing talent up a notch, Clarke will be devastating in these situations.

Offensive Zone Creation

I mentioned earlier how Clarke scored just six goals for Barrie after potting 35 the year before for Don Mills; I want to circle back to that observation and dive into a little more depth. Clarke didn’t score a single goal on the powerplay despite playing regular minutes and recording 29 shots on the man advantage over the year. That’s weird– especially considering that Clarke has a heavy slapper from the point:

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Clarke will dominate Barrie’s powerplay minutes next season as their top-unit QB. As he gets more opportunities to use that shot, his luck should turn and the man advantage tallies should start flowing a little more than they did this year for him. Clarke did have nine assists on the powerplay, largely a product of his ability to keep the puck moving around the offensive zone as the quarterback and feed Barrie snipers Tyson Foerster and Ethan Cardwell for shots from the top of the circle.

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At 5v5, Clarke’s offensive zone creation isn’t a major facet of his game, but he’s shown flashes of impressive upside in that area. His excellent vision should allow the defenceman to find forwards in the slot for tips or quick shots, like he does with this backdoor feed here:

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The ability to identify teammates as they dart into space in the slot, even while corralling a puck like he does on this next play, is a very encouraging sign of Clarke’s playmaking and ability to process what’s going on in front of him on the point.

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Brandt does a good job getting his point shots past the first defender and they can occasionally create rebound or deflection opportunities. 

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I expect Clarke to activate down the offensive wall and make a nice pass into the slot on occasion as an NHLer, but his offensive-zone creation isn’t much of a fixture of his even-strength offence. His impact comes in transition, whether it’s making a good breakout pass, skating it into the offensive zone, or presenting himself as an option on the rush.

By now, I would hope it’s quite apparent that Clarke could be an elite offensive defenceman in an NHL. He excels at playing high-tempo hockey, accelerating the breakout with long passes and exiting his own zone with possession more often than not. I’d like to see him add a slower gear to his breakout game, learning when to hold onto the puck and let his teammates find space for themselves, but the framework to be one of the NHL’s best defenders at moving the puck out of their own zone is already there. On the zone entry, Clarke can attack defenders with his puck skills and gets more than his fair share of slot chances because of it. The finishing talent is a work in progress and so is his situational awareness in that facet of the game, but those are typical issues for 17 year old defencemen. He uses those same skills when joining the rush, but takes advantage of the extra track to build up speed and really threaten to go right by defenders and take the puck right to the net.

That’s plenty about offence, let’s take a quick look at Clarke’s defensive play. 

Defensive Play

The first thing I noticed about Clarke’s defensive game is that he tends to sit back while the opposing team attempts to enter his zone, often conceding the controlled zone entry without applying any pressure at all to make things difficult. Ideally, he’d be right up near the goalscorer in the neutral zone here, denying the pass completely. Instead, he’s way back below his own blueline and he gives up enough space for the opposing player to walk in and score off the rush.

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This time, Clarke eventually forces the turnover when the attacker tries to go right through him, but why is he making it so easy for the forward to wheel right down his wing?

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Giving an attacker a wide gap on the zone entry means that a defender has to set his speed slower than the attacking player to close that gap, which lets the attacker dictate the pace and potentially catch the defender flat footed with a sudden burst. Even if the defender doesn’t get beat one-on-one, you don’t want to let the offence dictate the pace– the opposing player is able to push back Clarke because his initial gap was massive, which creates the space for this drop pass and eventual opportunity.

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The best time to make a play for the puck as a defender is right as the attacker crosses the blueline– that’s when they have the fewest options to make a play. They can’t drop the puck or reverse course because that would take the puck out of the zone and stall the entire attack, so they can only go forward. And if the defender has appropriately matched their speed (and Clarke is easily a good enough skater to keep up with pretty much every forward, so he has no excuses there), the forward shouldn’t have space to make a play toward the net either.

Clarke showed instances of more aggressive play on the opponent’s zone entry, but he was still quite reluctant to establish a gap high in the neutral zone like he ideally would on many plays.

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He’s definitely capable of matching speed with fast forwards and playing a better gap, he just isn’t doing it consistently yet. He does really well on this play:

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And he made things really tough for Quinton Byfield on this occasion, further proof that he can keep up with even the best forwards with a tighter gap.

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Better gap control should be a fairly straightforward implementation into Clarke’s game. He has the backwards mobility to be a smothering force through the neutral zone, but needs to up his aggressiveness and establish his gap way earlier to realize that. Clarke really does have all the qualities to deny entries at a high rate: his four-way mobility, he has pretty good reach at 6’1”, and he should be able to stand up bigger players once he bulks up (he’s listed at 181 pounds right now, his NHL weight will probably be around 200 pounds). He just needs to get the mental game there and put himself in the right situations.

The other issue that stands out about Clarke’s d-zone play is his tendency to get caught in “no-man’s land” defensively, where he isn’t guarding an attacking player or really obstructing their offensive plays. I’m talking about plays like this one– he isn’t helping anyone by drifting up into the mid-slot while Ottawa has two forwards planted in front of the net.

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Clarke pursues his brother, Devils pick Graeme Clarke, behind the net and does a good job taking away the middle and forcing him to move the puck back out to the slot. But when Graeme cuts back towards the net, Brandt drifts out towards the faceoff dot and nearly leaves Graeme open for a back-door tip as his Ottawa teammate takes a shot on net.

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Frankly, I don’t tend to care much about a player’s defensive ability– especially at this stage in the draft process, but also at draft time as well. It’s natural for a 17 year old that’s been cast in a highly offensive role for the entirety of his hockey career so far (which is the majority of first round level players) to be quite raw in his own zone. Defensive ability is quite teachable to the extent that a player’s physical tools allow, too. A very mobile, mid-sized defenceman– like Clarke– should be capable of playing a tight gap through the neutral zone and denying controlled zone entries at a high rate. If he isn’t doing that consistently at 17, I’d wager that’s more of a fault of his focus and coaching (not saying that Clarke has been poorly coached, just that his coaches have rightfully been focusing on developing his offensive tools and not harping on defensive details) than any actual deficiency of his. That’s the same with his positioning– unless a team’s pre-draft vetting process identifies Clarke as a very unteachable player, it shouldn’t be much of an issue to get him to stick to his man defensively and avoid drifting into areas where he isn’t obstructing the opponent’s offensive plans whatsoever. That’s just a mental thing; he just needs to nail in his defensive focus. 

That’s enough video for one breakdown, let’s summarize.

Summary

Clarke is an excellent skater that moves very smoothly in every direction. He shows a lot of promise in the transition game because of his exceptional ability to make long passes and move the puck under pressure. The defenceman excels in a fast-paced system with wingers that are encouraged to get out ahead of the play in the neutral zone, where Clarke can hit them with passes and create rush opportunities. Clarke models his game after Erik Karlsson and it shows in his passing vision and high-paced style of game. However, the NHL-fashion neutral zone system of the Ottawa 67’s, where they overloaded the strong side of the ice and attempted to force players to move the puck into pressure, caused some problems for Clarke because of his north-south style and constant focus on moving the puck forwards. Clarke needs to learn when to slow his game down and make lateral plays like D-to-D passes when the opposing team clogs the neutral zone. When Clarke has room to accelerate with crossovers and reach his full speed coming out of his own zone, he’s pretty much a guaranteed controlled zone entry. That doesn’t happen often at 5v5, but it should be a valuable tool to have as a powerplay quarterback. His situational awareness of exactly what to do after entering the zone is inconsistent– he makes plays into pressure and turns the puck over more than I, or a future coach, would like. He’s shown some really excellent flashes of ability in those situations, but his consistency on those plays is definitely something to monitor over the upcoming season. Without the puck, Clarke is eager to join the rush and create out of those situations. He’s fast enough to catch up to the play even after starting out below his own goal line and Clarke is a lot more advanced in those situations than most defencemen– he doesn’t just hang back looking for a pass back for a shot; Clarke will go to the net, take advantage of space in front of him with his puck skills, or shoot when he has a good opportunity. Clarke’s offensive-zone play isn’t as advanced as the rest of his game– he has a good shot from the point and can make good passes into the slot, but just doesn’t activate deep into the offensive zone as much as he could, especially considering that he has the skating ability to get back when required. Another factor limiting his offensive impact right now is that Clarke’s finishing talent has been inconsistent at the OHL level after he scored 35 goals in bantam, but that seems to be a product of inexperience at this level of play and poor luck over the year. In his own zone, Clarke has the mobility and frame to be an average to above-average defender, but needs a fair amount of refinement to get there. He’s way too passive with his neutral zone defence despite having the skating and decent enough reach to be a smothering force in the neutral zone. As well, he has a tendency to drift off of his man and lose coverage in the defensive zone, allowing the opposing team to create mini odd-man situations while Clarke is off in no-man’s land. That’s a mental focus issue that should be very coachable, but it’s something he needs to be cognizant of. 

Projection

Let’s talk outcomes.

Clarke’s ceiling is an elite transitional force– I’m talking 90+ percentile controlled zone exits and 80+ percentile on entries– and consistent offensive contributor all in a top-pairing role, top powerplay-unit role. He could be a possession beast, driving play towards the offensive zone with his transitional ability and using his smothering upside as a neutral zone defender to limit the opponent’s offensive possessions to a minimum. At his ceiling, Clarke should be spending way more time on offence than he does in the defensive zone. He could be the blueline leader of a team playing a modern, high-paced style– Clarke could be the Morgan Rielly for a team like the Leafs, ideally with a better supporting cast behind him on the blueline and at least an average individual defensive impact. To reach that level, Clarke will need to be add that east-west element to his transitional game, limit his turnovers on zone entries, become that smothering neutral zone defender, and probably add another step to his acceleration to add some versatility to his breakout game when the opposing team has a fast, effective forecheck.

That’s a lot of things that have to break right for him. I think his most likely outcome– not his absolute ceiling– is still a very valuable top-four defenceman, but not the clear-cut number-one option on a blueline. I think a reasonable projection is sort of a fringe top-pair player. He should be able to play big minutes and go up against the opponent’s best players some night, but won’t be the dependable, consistent force to be an elite-level #1. That’s just because there’s inconsistency in multiple areas of his game and it’s a tough bet to count on him cutting it out of all of those areas. His propensity to turning the puck over on entries could limit his dependability; his defensive play could limit his dependability; his lack of a second dimension on the breakout could limit his dependability– there are just all these factors that could potentially knock him off of that clear-cut elite level.

As for a low projection? Probably an above-average bottom-pairing defenceman that does really well in sheltered minutes and can step into a top-four role when needed, but not on a consistent basis. If we stick to the Leafs comparisons (I’m not a Leafs fan but they’re a good team to look at just because their fast style seems like the type of system Clarke could excel in), his low-end projection is probably a Travis Dermott type. If he fails to develop the transitional versatility to appropriately respond to NHL-style breakouts like the Ottawa 67’s on a consistent basis, that could limit him to this projection. A combination of his other weaknesses right now– probably his defensive play and lack of situational awareness/frequent turnovers on zone entries– could keep him from being dependable enough for a consistent top-four role as well.

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