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Brandt Clarke: 2021 NHL Draft Prospect Profile; The Other Top-Tier Defenseman with Devils Family Ties

Brandt Clarke is a defenseman who has the dynamic offensive instincts of a skilled forward while still maintaining some strong defensive ability and a relatively complete end-to-end game. Could he be the best player available when the Devils pick at #4?

Barrie Colts v Oshawa Generals Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

The most famous “brother of a player in the Devils organization” prospect at the top of this year’s draft was profiled yesterday when Brian took a look at Luke Hughes, brother of 2019 first-overall pick, Jack. For the uninitiated, there is another high-level defenseman prospect with a brother who is a forward in the Devils organization who is projected to be one of the top picks in this draft. That player is Brandt Clarke, hugely talented blue liner whose brother, Graeme, led the Devils’ AHL affiliate in goals this past season as a first-year pro. Yes, the Devils could very well be picking between two elite defensive prospects with brothers on the team when they are on the clock at fourth overall in July. Today, we take a look at Brandt Clarke, perhaps the most dynamic blueliner in this year’s draft.

Who is Brandt Clarke?

Brandt Clarke is a highly talented defenseman from Ottawa, Ontario who is currently listed at 6’-2” and 190 pounds on his Elite Prospects page. The Canadian defenseman is middle of the pack in age for this year’s draft, with a February 2003 birthday, and has spent a season in the OHL (2019-20) as well as a season overseas in Slovakia’s top professional league (2020-21) with the OHL shut down for this season. Clarke played in the same league as his older brother Graeme in his draft-minus-1 season, putting up impressive numbers as a 16/17 year old defender for the Barrie Colts. This season in Slovakia, he played his full season on loan HC Nove Zamky and also suited up for Canada’s gold-medal winning U18 team as their top defender.

Brandt Clarke’s production across all leagues and competitions is very strong for a defender. He was dominant in the GTHL U16 AAA before he made the jump to major juniors where he was an immediate impact player for Barrie when he made that leap. No other defender was even close to his production as a U17 OHL player in 2019-20 and then when he headed to Slovakia to play during the pandemic, he led that league in scoring among U20 defensemen. He is a dynamic skater and puck-mover and has the ability/potential to make an NHL impact in all three zones. The most highly rated portions of his game are definitely his work in transition and in the offensive zone, though. He appears to be a sure NHLer with a very high ceiling to boot, making it clear why he could go top-five in this draft.

Where is Brandt Clarke Ranked?

As is the case for a lot of the players projected to go in the top 10 of the NHL Draft this year (including Hughes, as seen yesterday), the rankings are a bit all over the place for Clarke. He is ranked as high as #2 by a couple outlets and in the back half of the top 10 (and as low as #12) by some others. The rest fall somewhere in between. In terms of consensus, he seems likely to go somewhere in the top five or six picks of this draft but where he ultimately lands is anybody’s guess.

What Others Say About Brandt Clarke

Reading the profiles out there on Clarke, there is one thing he undeniably excels at, and that is moving the puck. His ability to breakout, transition, and work the offensive zone are all almost universally highly-touted. His skating is also generally considered high-end, though there are some who have some questions on his form. On defense is where the praise is a little more equivocal, with gap control and one-on-one defense both pretty highly-regarded but some issues with over-commitment and getting out of position being noted. Overall, the profiles project him as a potential top-tier puck moving defenseman in the league.

This excerpt, from this profile from Ben Kerr at Last Word on Sports, describes what Kerr believes to be Clarke’s best asset: his skating.

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.

The combination of speed, acceleration, and agility noted would give him an elite skating package. The profile from Kerr also talks about his great hands and vision that allow him to avoid opposing skaters, create on the rush, and find passing lanes. The only minor ding on him in the profile is on defense where he can overcommit at times and could also use just a bit more strength. Overall, the profile is glowing, though.

Moving on to this profile from the fall of last year from Josh Tessler at Smaht Scouting, some of the same highlights of of his game were similar, but with a higher opinion of his defense and a lower opinion of his general skating ability. On his defense, Tessler praises Clarke’s abilities to defend the rush, as well as his gap control, and has this to say about his play in his own zone:

In the defensive zone when defending the cycle, Clarke tends to either sit net-front or play a tight game along the corners. By sitting net-front, Clarke uses his elite gap control to limit the amount of high danger opportunities. He sits right at the crease to minimize lanes for his opponents and adds a secondary shield for his goaltender. As I said, he will alternate from net-front to the corners and when he is on the corners, he plays you man-on-man and puts pressure on you. The pressure that he puts on you is overwhelming and in most cases leads to the cycle dying.

Here’s some of what he has to say about Clarke’s skating:

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.

While the need for some fixes to his skating motion are noted, it’s also clear that Clarke has no problem moving as his transition and offensive games are also highly praised in the profile. Given that this profile is from last fall, it’s possible that Clarke has further built up his skating ability in the offseason and while in Slovakia.

To wit, this profile from Mathieu Sheridan from February at The Hockey Writers again highly praises Clarke’s skating, noting that is a huge factor in what separates him from the pack.

Blessed with a powerful stride, Clarke is able to effectively use crossovers to get to top speed quickly. He loves to jump into the rush and has a great motor to be able to get back as well. He is able to close gaps with his skating ability and can really open up space for his teammates when given the time to do so.

Defense is again where the praise comes with caveats in this profile. The closing speed and one-on-one defending again are noted as strong, but it’s mentioned he perhaps isn’t always exactly where he needs to be.

While there is no denying the fact that he needs to improve his defensive game, he is good at closing gaps and limits opponents’ angles so they don’t have a good chance at creating a scoring chance near the net. Yes, he can get caught watching the play sometimes and that has hurt his team but that is easily fixable and Clarke will only continue to get better as time goes on.

It is interesting how the opinions seem to diverge a bit on his defensive game, and it probably comes down to the fact that he’s likely a bit of a risk-taker in order to generate transition opportunities. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a lack of ability at that end of the ice and with his transition and offensive game getting heaping praise everywhere, the occasional blown assignment is reduced to almost a nitpick.

Clarke had a lot of expectations going into U18s as Canada’s top defenseman, and when Elite Prospects’ EP Rinkside site previewed the tournament, the marked Clarke as one of the top players to watch for draft purposes. The full preview is only available to subscribers, but they talk about his high skill level and willingness to drive offense, plus this bit about his defensive game this past season:

His defensive zone coverage looked great in Slovakia, where he killed heaps of plays and diffused tricky situations.

That’s a very encouraging tidbit, and there is enough praise out there for his defensive game that I do think he has serious potential to be the total package, not just a purely offensive defenseman.

In the aftermath of the U18 tourney, Will over at Scouching had this to say about Clarke in his post-mortem on all of the teams:

Brandt Clarke had the great performance I was looking for, and while his performance in the gold medal game wasn’t particularly spectacular in my tracking, his control of the game, passing skill, and deception with offensive zone production all showed why he’s a top player in this year’s draft.

Scouching also rated Clarke the best defenseman of the whole U18 tournament, so it seems like he stacked up to the hype and would be a very worthy selection high in this draft.

A Little Video

Below are video highlights from Clarke’s time in Slovakia, the OHL, and at the U18s. He willingness to get involved on offense (and effectiveness when doing so) is on full display in all three. One thing I also noted a couple times is that he keeps his feet moving on the attack and is able to force opposing players into taking penalties. If he can draw close to as many calls as he takes as a defender, that would represent a big plus as well.

An Opinion of Sorts

With Owen Power probably being the only player with little chance of dropping past #3, Brandt Clarke fits into a pretty extensive group of both defensemen and forwards who could end up as the best choice at the fourth-overall selection. With none of the top prospects truly separating themselves from the pack this year (perhaps partially due to the events of the past year-plus), the chances of landing someone who ends up the best player in the draft at fourth-overall are relatively high, and Clarke is one of those players who could conceivably be the best player to emerge from this draft but could also be drafted anywhere in the top seven or eight picks.

As a player, Clarke seems like he has big time potential as a top-pairing/#1 defender who can drive offense but also be relied on in big minutes. Some stylistic comparisons that are floated in his profiles, which should always be taken with a grain of salt but sill provide some insight, include Erik Karlsson and Dougie Hamilton. If the Devils can get a player of that caliber who can play a role that includes big minutes with big impact, well, there are few things they need more right now. If Clarke’s name is the one that the Devils call when they walk up to the podium at #4 it would be pretty hard to be disappointed in that.

Your Take

What are your thoughts on Brandt Clarke? Where does he rank for you among the top defensemen available in this draft? Do you have a preference between the two brothers of current Devils projected at the top of this draft? Do you think Clarke will be available at #4? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!