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NCAA free agents: 5 right-handed defencemen the Canucks could target

The Vancouver Canucks’ best right-side defenceman in recent years was a free agent signing out of the NCAA.
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Zach Metsa is one of the most intriguing undrafted free agents in the NCAA.

The Vancouver Canucks’ best right-side defenceman in recent years was a free agent signing out of the NCAA.

Chris Tanev was a classic late bloomer — he didn’t even play Junior A hockey until he was 19. That’s primarily because he had a late growth spurt. He grew 12 inches between grade 11 and grade 12, from 5’0” to 6’0”, then added another couple of inches to his final height of 6’2”.

“When you’re 16, 17 years old and you’re five-feet-tall? People aren’t too keen on taking you,” said Tanev to The Athletic. “I got cut from quite a few teams. But I ended up growing and playing junior hockey after that. Then everything worked out.”

And how. The Canucks signed Tanev after one year at the Rochester Institute of Technology and he quickly became one of the best purely defensive defencemen in the NHL, using his top-tier hockey sense, strong skating, and willingness to throw his body in front of any shot to play on the Canucks’ top pairing for years. Just when his play seemed to be declining, he’s found new life with the Calgary Flames, elevating the game of his partner, Oliver Kylington, and playing a key role on one of the best penalty kills in the NHL.

The Canucks could really use another Tanev — a stalwart right-side defenceman who can play on the top-pairing with Quinn Hughes — but they honestly need right-side defencemen in general. 

Tyler Myers is their best defenceman on the right side, then Luke Schenn. Both of them are 32 and likely to decline in the years to come. Travis Hamonic and Tucker Poolman have been inconsistent at best and are both better on a third-pairing than in a top-four role. Besides, Hamonic is already 31 and Poolman is 28. 

The Canucks don’t really have any young defencemen on the right side who can be expected to take the next step into the NHL in the years to come. 

Jett Woo is probably the Canucks’ top prospect at right defence but he’s been merely okay in the AHL this season and looks like he’ll need more time. Madison Bowey and Noah Juulsen are reclamation projects aging out of being considered prospects. Brady Keeper will be intriguing to watch as he returns from a broken leg, but he’s also already 25 and has yet to break through to the NHL.

Viktor Persson’s potential is uncertain, Jonathan Myrenberg hasn't done much in the SHL in his post-draft season, and, well, that’s it. That’s what the Canucks have on the right side in their prospect pool — not a single defenceman with a certain NHL future and certainly no one that could be expected to play a top-four role.

With all of that in mind, the Canucks could look to the NCAA to bolster their prospect pool and potentially find an impact defenceman that can make a difference on their right side.

Honestly, the Canucks should be in on every one of these defencemen. It’s not like they just need one — they need a long-term partner for Quinn Hughes on the top pairing but they also need depth on the right side all the way down to the AHL.

1 | Jake Livingstone - Minnesota State University (Mankato)

There is a lot to commend Jake Livingstone to the Canucks. He’s a 6’3”, 205 lbs right-handed defenceman and is exactly the type of mobile, defensive player that might be a good fit with someone like Quinn Hughes or, if he’s not quite top-pairing caliber, with Jack Rathbone.

As an added bonus, Livingstone has the local connection. He was born in Creston, BC and played his BCHL hockey just down the road from the Canucks with the Langley Rivermen

In his second year at Minnesota State, the 22-year-old Livingstone has blossomed into one of the best defencemen in the NCAA, adding more offensive upside to his repertoire. He has 9 goals and 29 points in 39 games, tied for 11th in the nation among defencemen.

Livingstone plays in all situations for Minnesota State — a go-to defenceman on the penalty kill and a facilitator at the point on the power play. At even-strength, he’s a big, physical stopper, forcing opponents to the outside with his skating and reach, and getting position in net-front battles.

“I’m a big body, so I’ve gotta use that to my advantage with my long stick,” said Livingstone in an interview with Mike Halford and Jason Brough. “Obviously, I love the offensive game but I definitely take pride in the defensive side of things, helping the goalies out.” 

More than that, Livingstone can break the puck out with both his passing and his skating. As he’s grown as a player, he’s developed a strong sense of when to activate and jump up in the rush to provide an extra attacking layer without giving up anything defensively.

This end-to-end rush from last season illustrated his potential in this area, as he evaded two opponents at the blue line, got the puck in deep, and attracted attention before sliding a great backhand feed out front for the goal.

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Livingstone also knows how to find soft spots in coverage, jumping up from the point for this goal from earlier this season.

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Here’s another example of Livingstone activating into space, as he rotates from the top of the zone into the middle of the ice. Then, with the goaltender selling out to stop him, Livingstone instead slips the puck across to his teammate for the wide-open net.

There are a few things to keep in mind with Livingstone. One is that he’s turning 23 in April, so it’s not like he’s a teenager lighting up the NCAA. With that in mind, expectations for his potential should be kept in check — he has less room to grow than a younger player.

Another important factor is that he’s just a sophomore at Mankato, so he has the option of returning for another year or two if he feels he’s not ready to jump to the NHL.

Finally, Livingstone has a lot of attention from NHL teams, so the Canucks could have a lot of competition for his services if they’re interested in signing him. Of course, the local connection and the lack of depth on the right side of their defence could both be pretty big selling points.

Or maybe the local connection won’t help. In his interview with Halford and Brough, he admitted to being a Calgary Flames fan growing up. 

2 | Nick Blankenburg - University of Michigan

In his Senior year at the University of Michigan, Nick Blankenburg is thriving as his team’s captain. He has 14 goals and 28 points in 33 games, second in goalscoring among NCAA defencemen behind his teammate, New Jersey Devils prospect Luke Hughes.

Blankenburg is adept at jumping up in the play, using his excellent skating to either lead or join the rush.

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He can also fire the puck from the point on the power play.

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Despite the point totals, however, offence isn’t Blankenburg’s calling card. Although he’s just 5’9”, Blankenburg is excellent in the defensive zone. 

“Don’t be fooled by Blankenburg’s stature; he’s one of the better defenders in the NCAA,” says Elite Prospects. “He gets on his check early, drives them to the outside, and then forces the dump-in. He’s such an active defender – scanning, moving, and communicating non-stop. What he lacks in strength, he makes up in craft.” 

Still, that size could be an issue. While Jared Spurgeon has proved that you don’t have to be huge to be an effective defensive defenceman — plus he has some offence to his game — NHL teams are still reluctant to rely on smaller defencemen. With Quinn Hughes in the lineup and the similarly slight Jack Rathbone on his way on the left side, is there room for another small defenceman on the right side?

There’s another caveat as well: he’s been playing with 2021 1st overall pick Owen Power as his partner and on a dominant Michigan team with other top prospects like Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson. That has likely helped his offensive production a great deal.

Also, like Livingstone, Blankenburg is already 23.

Still, even with those things in mind, Blankenburg would be a very intriguing prospect to target.

3 | Zach Metsa - Quinnipiac University

23-year-old Zach Metsa is another undersized defenceman at 5’9”, but his offensive upside is significant.

Metsa is third among NCAA defencemen with 34 points in 38 games. His transition game is elite and he can create offense with his skating, as in this goal against Colgate University, where he breaks the puck out himself, then executes a give-and-go before finishing with an unreal backhand top shelf.

“Stacking deception onto his first touch, sending false signals to create passing lanes, middle-lane use, and the tendency to find the best option rather than settling for the first one create endless breakout opportunities,” says Elite Prospects of Metsa’s transition game.  

Metsa is also adept at creating offence inside the offensive zone, activating into space and using his quick hands to evade opponents in close quarters. 

This assist illustrates it nicely: from the right point, he baits in his check, then jumps into space as he moves the puck down the boards. The return pass is almost out of his reach, but Metsa controls it anyway, evades a check, and gifts a tap-in at the top of the crease.

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Metsa has all the offensive tools you could want. He controls the pace of play with his patience and decisive passing, he has an excellent shot, he jumps up in the rush effectively, and is constantly pushing possession in the right direction.

As with all smaller players, question marks will be raised about his defence, but he’s a plus player on that side of the ice.

Metsa's proactive defensive approach offers some hope that he'll be able to punch above his weight — his 5-foot-9 frame, specifically — in the defensive zone,” says Elite Prospects. “Coupled with a great sense of how to get underneath opponents and wield leverage to win loose pucks, he has as good a chance of making it work as anyone at the professional level.”

Metsa also has an incredible Twitter handle: @MetsaWorldPeace, a reference to Metta World Peace, the former NBA player formerly known as Ron Artest. The Canucks should sign him just for that, really.

4 | Ethan Frisch - University of North Dakota

21-year-old Ethan Frisch does not have the offensive upside of some of the other defencemen on this list but he’s a little bit younger and boasts a strong defensive game.

Frisch is a superb skater, using his mobility to shut down rushes in the neutral zone and to disrupt plays in the defensive zone. 

“He establishes his gap early to force dump-ins or steal possession,” says Elite Prospects. “With smooth, powerful pivots, he closes space quickly and rarely over-extends.”

Frisch has never produced much offensively but he does have 9 goals and 15 points in 34 games this season. He’s a decent passer and he has a decent shot, even scoring North Dakota’s first goal of the season off a Niagara turnover.

Still, his puck skills are a touch below where you’d want them to be. With his mobility and defensive game, however, he could have an NHL future.

Frisch has a previous connection with the Canucks, as he was an invitee at the Canucks’ 2019 development camp after he went undrafted

“He plays a calm, cerebral game so his plus skating isn’t always on full display,” reads his 2019 scouting report from Hockey Prospect. “Instead, he relies more on subtle angle adjustments.”

With his mature defensive game and work ethic, Frisch is an intriguing prospect. He might not put up points in the NHL but he fits the template of the modern defensive defenceman — less physical, but more intelligent, with great mobility.

“He's one of those kids that I tell my [kids] just to watch how he works, and watch how he plays," said veteran NHLer Matt Cullen, who trains with Frisch in the offseason, in 2019. "He's as good of a kid and as good of a person as you're going to see in the game of hockey, and he comes from a great family. Great people. Just a really hard-working kid, honest kid. Good person. He's really grounded, I would say. Very mature for a kid his age."

5 | Colin Felix - University of Massachusetts

If Frisch is a modern day defensive defenceman, Colin Felix is a bit more of a throwback. He’s a heavy, physical shutdown defenceman, who makes life miserable for forwards in front of the net and throws heavy hits along the boards.

“Colin is a big, strong, stay-at-home defenseman,” said Felix’s former teammate, Colin Briere, back in 2019. “He can chip in here and there, but the biggest thing is he plays with a mean streak. He’s got that leadership quality about him that really differentiates him from most other kids. He’s a natural leader. You see him in the dressing room and he’s always bringing guys to do the right things, to play the right way to lead by example.”

Offensively, Felix doesn’t offer much. He has just 9 points in 33 games as a Senior, which is not the best sign. He did have one thrilling goal early in the season, however, picking off a puck in the neutral zone, moving it quickly cross-ice to start the counter-attack, then following up as the trailer to fire a quick shot for the game-winning goal with five seconds left.

For the most part, however, Felix knows his game is based on being a stay-at-home defenceman. He’s a competitive and aggressive defenceman, who plays a selfless game and oozes character and leadership. NHL teams typically have a lot of time for players like that.

“My whole game from the time I was in AAA until now has been trying to prove people wrong and trying to belong in the places that I’ve put myself in,” said Felix in a Daily Collegian profile. “I pride myself on being a really hard worker and I know my role; I know my game…at the end of the day it comes down to how hard I push myself and how hard I work, and then let the chips fall where they may.”

Felix’s biggest weakness is his skating but it hasn’t held him back at Massachusetts, where their home rink is 10 feet wider than in the NHL.

“A lot of people questioned my choice there to go to the bigger rink,” said Felix while attending a Philadelphia Flyers camp. “I think it actually helped me in the long run to go to that bigger rink and adjust to the foot speed.”

The 23-year-old Felix might not be the most exciting prospect but he has the attributes of a role player that a coach will love.

Other right-handed defencemen to keep an eye on

Sam Malinski, Cornell - The 23-year-old defenceman has 23 points in 32 games after missing all of last season when Cornell’s season was canceled due to COVID-19.

Aidan Fulp, Western Michigan - The 22-year-old Fulp is 6’3”, 209 lbs is praised for his leadership ability and his skating, emphasizing the defensive side of the game over the offensive.

Michael Joyaux, Western Michigan - One of the top-scoring defencemen in the NCAA with 31 points in 35 games but is already 25 years old. 

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