Unlike last year, the top of the draft doesn’t have a ton in the way of big defenseman prospects projected to go high. But for a team like the Devils who could use a bolstering of their defensive pipeline, will there be good opportunities for value later? And is Drew Helleson of the USNTDP one of those opportunities?
Who is Drew Helleson?
Drew Helleson is a defenseman who has developed through USA Hockey’s U.S. National Team Development Program over the past couple seasons alongside some of the biggest names in the 2019 NHL Draft. Listed at 6’-3” and 193 pounds, Helleson has a big frame that stands to fill out even more as he develops in the next few years. A native of Minnesota, Helleson spent a couple years at prep hockey powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary’s before advancing on to the USNTDP for the 2017-18 season. Helleson was recently a part of team USA at the Men’s U18 World Championships, where the team took home the bronze medal.
As a player, Helleson is best-regarded for his abilities to move the puck along the blue line. He doesn’t get the shine of his teammates projected to potentially go in the first round like Cam York and Marshall Warren, but he is regarded as a solid player in his own right. While he is big, Helleson’s physical game is not necessarily his calling card at the moment. Rather, the profiles on him laud his strong decision-making with the puck and ability to distribute to his teammates with quiet effectiveness. His numbers aren’t immediately eye-popping on the score sheet, but he can certainly contribute on the offensive end. His stats to date from Elite Prospects are in the screenshot below.
So while Helleson may not necessarily light up the offensive stat line, he contributes enough on a crowded Team USA blueline that it doesn’t necessarily jump out as a major red flag. Helleson’s abilities as a puck-mover are praised consistently in profiles, so he clearly has some skills handling the puck and enough to project as a strong two-way threat at the next level.
As far as rankings, Helleson doesn’t figure into any of the big publicly available top-31s, but he does tend to show up in the late second, early third round range. The NHL’s Central Scouting has him as their 46th-ranked North American skater. Bob McKenzie put him at #60 overall in his mid-term scouting consensus rankings. Steve Kourninos put him at 45th in his April rankings at his site the Draft Analyst. So Helleson seems to comfortably slot into the top-three rounds, or even top-two.
What Others Say About Drew Helleson
Helleson may not be seen as one of the top prospects in the draft like some of his USNTDP counterparts, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have plenty of good things to say about the big defenseman. The profiles out there on Helleson depict a player who isn’t necessarily flashy, but is by no means devoid of skill carrying and distributing the puck.
We’ll start first with this profile on Helleson from Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst. Kournianos likes Hellson’s puck management skills and feels that the blueliner is very effective despite his stats not being eye-popping. From the profile:
Helleson is the most reliable puck manager on a very talented NTDP blue line and is capable of maintaining control while being tightly checked or double teamed. He plays in all situations, and he is most effective when he is orchestrating a lengthy possession inside the opposing zone. Helleson does not play like he hungers for his name on the stat sheet — he’s an unselfish rearguard who is comfortable distributing the puck, and one who involves himself in the play as much as possible.
I particularly like to see that he can maintain his composure under duress, an immensely important component of being a good puck-mover at both ends of the ice. The comment on him always being involved in the play is good to see as well, as it indicates that he will potentially jump into plays when the opportunity presents itself and keep possessions alive when necessary.
Kournianos also actually mocked Helleson to the Devils in the mock draft he did for the Sporting News in March. Here’s what he had to say there:
Exceptional stretch passer that leads to a lot of breakaways and odd-man rushes.
Transition play is so crucial in the modern NHL and having a defender who can make strong breakout passes is a major part of that. Helleson may not be the top defensive prospect out of the NTDP, but he seems to possess some of the skills you really want to see in a player.
Elsewhere, Allan Mitchell (aka Oilers blogger Lowetide) refers to Helleson as an “Impressive puck moving defender,” in a quick rundown of his top 62 prospects for the 2019 Draft at his site Lowetide.ca. The explanation is of course limited, but it builds on what Kournianos said on Helleson above. Mitchell put Helleson at #48 overall in his linked March list.
From Drew Placzek at Draft Site, this short profile also builds on the comments from other locations:
Tall USA National Development defenseman with excellent mobility, playmaking prowess, passing ability, and calmness to his game. Moves the biscuit well and will activate from his defensive position. Capable as a power play quarterback and smart and able to get penalty kill time. Very responsible at reading the developing attack and as adept at being part of the attack. Needs a bit more time to get stronger and develop fully.
The more you read, even in the limited bits and chunks that are publicly available, the more you see the type of player that Helleson seems to be emerges. Clearly he is a smart player, and given his size and the fact that nobody seems to ding his skating or mobility, that makes for the type of player who can thrive under the radar if he continues to develop.
Beyond just the publicly available profiles, which are admittedly somewhat limited, AAtJ was able to reach out to Cole and Jeff of the blog Stars n’ Stripes Hockey, a site on USNTDP prospects which is in the process of being established. Jeff and Cole follow the NTDP U17 and U18 teams closely and, as such, have some good insight into the prospects on the NTDP, including some of the lesser-known ones like Helleson. Below are some questions I was able to pose to Jeff, who offered some really good responses.
All About the Jersey: Helleson is listed as a big player at 6’-3” and 191, but most of the discussion around him is in regard to his puck-moving abilities. How would you describe his physical game and how much does his size currently figure into the way he plays?
Stars n’ Stripes Hockey: Listed At 6’3” and 193 pounds, Drew Helleson has the size you are looking for in a defenseman and he is only going to get bigger and stronger and that is a huge plus. Despite his size, Helleson is not a physical defenseman, but he utilizes his size and his skating ability to be very efficient in his own zone. He does a great job of taking away space and has a very active stick. Combine that with his puck moving abilities and Helleson quite often spearheads the exceptional transition game that exists on the U18s. I haven’t seen many teams that go from defense to offense like the U18s and Helleson has a skill set that lends itself well to that type of play.
Like I previously stated, Helleson is by no means a physical presence on the backend. He won’t shy away from contact, but he prefers to play a more positional type game, centered around his skating ability. I believe, as he matures, Helleson’s physical side will become more prominent.
AAtJ: Helleson’s offensive numbers don’t immediately jump off the page but he is described generally as a strong puck mover. In what ways does he most impact the game via his ability to move the puck?
SSH: There was a decrease in Helleson’s numbers this past season as opposed to the previous year spent with the U17s. I won’t attribute all of the falloff to this, but I believe diminished opportunity on the power play had some effect on Helleson’s decreased output. The U18s number one unit on the power play consisted of four forwards and one defenseman, Cam York. Helleson did see some action, but his opportunities on special teams were definitely not as prevalent.
Helleson still is a strong puck mover and has power play capabilities. He is more than capable of carrying the puck, a skill that I believe often gets overlooked on this team due to the number of players that just excel in that area. It’s kind of tough to stand out when you are playing on a team that sports five forwards who may go in the top ten of the upcoming draft and also dynamic defenders like Cam York, Marshall Warren and Domenick Fensore.
AAtJ: Are there any areas in his game the Helleson might need to target for improvement as he advances to the college and perhaps professional ranks in the upcoming years?
SSH: First and foremost, Helleson will need to get bigger and stronger and build on his already impressive frame as he heads to the next level. That is quite common for most players in Helleson’s age group. Other than that Helleson just needs to continue to round out his game as he heads to Boston College.
Despite his numbers dropping and falling on more than a few draft boards, I believe Helleson remains a very good prospect and should find himself being selected somewhere in the late 2nd, early 3rd round of the 2019 NHL Draft. I believe he is coming off a good World Championship for the U18s, where he was very strong for Team USA, and that should solidify his status.
Lastly, the one thing that stands out for me about Drew Helleson, is that quite often he goes unnoticed when watching a U18s game and I mean that in a very good way. Don’t get me wrong, any scout watching Helleson’s game will find plenty of things to like, but if you aren’t focused on Helleson specifically, he can fly under the radar.
He tends to quietly go about his business, being very efficient and does an excellent job of limiting mistakes. Making a highlight reel play is always nice, but those types of things go both ways, and quite often a player gets noticed for a negative play rather than a positive one. Drew Helleson rarely finds himself in that category.
Huge thanks to Jeff from Stars n’ Stripes Hockey (follow their Twitter at @StarsStripesHKY for more insights) for the responses to my questions. Overall, it makes sense that Helleson has been overshadowed a bit by an insane USNTDP roster. He seems to do a lot of the right things well to be an effective defenseman in the modern NHL, though. Being able to move the puck, and particularly being able to move it in transition, are among the most crucial skills for a defenseman to have these days. The lack of obvious game-breaking skill on the back end seems to keep him from first round consideration, but Helleson’s size, steady game, and well-regarded decision-making with the puck make him someone who can potentially be an effective part of a solid NHL defensive group.
A Little Video
Unfortunately, due to Helleson not being a highlight-reel type (and the relatively reduced amount of video available for the USNTDP’s games). There isn’t a ton in the way of video out there for him right now. There are a couple game highlight packages that Helleson is featured in, though. First is a game from when he was part of the U17 NTDP team where Helleson picked up two assists.
Then is a game from this season, where Helleson picked up a nice shorthanded goal on the break. On the first goal in the video, Helleson drives to the net, collects a nice feed in stride, and finishes with a pretty backhand to pick up the shorthanded tally.
An Opinion of Sorts
Drew Helleson doesn’t come across as the flashiest of prospects, particularly on a USNTDP team absolutely loaded with them this year, but there is a lot to like from the big defenseman. To me, he seems to fit the mold of a modern two-way/defensive defenseman type. Rather than the stay-at-home bruisers of yesteryear, the type of defensemen you need to fill out a blue line these days are ones who can move the puck well, particularly in transition. Helleson seems to have this skill in some abundance. Add to that his size, which is already quite big just past his 18th birthday, and you have a big defenseman who is smart and can distribute the puck, which is a solid profile to me. The Devils are poised to take an elite forward at first overall, so a solid puck-moving D like Helleson would be a nice complement to that if they take him in the late second or early third round.
What are your thoughts on Drew Helleson? Is he a player you would like to see the Devils draft with one of their second round picks in the upcoming draft? What do you like about his game? Is there anything about him, such as his relatively lower point total, that concerns you? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.