The Canucks didn’t pick any defencemen at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but Jim Benning and Judd Brackett didn’t seem defensive about it.
“It’s just kind of how the draft fell,” said Benning, before noting the defencemen they added to their prospect pool over the last year in free agency: Brogan Rafferty, Josh Teves, and Mitch Eliot.
Brackett pointed to those free agent signings as well: “We think we addressed defence in college and CHL signings and will continue to do so.”
That starts with the invitees at this week’s prospect development camp. The Canucks invited three unsigned and undrafted defencemen to camp, two of them 18 year olds that just got passed over at the draft, and one 20 year old out of the NCAA. If one of those three defencemen eventually signs with the Canucks, that might make up for the lack of defencemen picked in the draft.
Who could follow in Stecher’s footsteps? Let’s start with another right-handed defenceman heading to the NCAA, Ethan Frisch.
Ethan Frisch – Right Defence
5’11″ – 194 lbs – Oct 29, 2000 (18)
Green Bay Gamblers/Fargo Force, USHL (57-4-13-17)
Frisch was on NHL Central Scouting’s radar during the season, coming in at 109 in their mid-term rankings, but fell off their final list by the end of the year. He started the season with the struggling Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL before getting traded to the Fargo Force, finishing the season with 17 points in 57 games. The Gamblers won just 18 games all season and were outscored by 77 goals.
Fortunately, Frisch is a level-headed, mature young man, and he took the Gamblers’ struggles in stride.
“This was one of my most valuable years of hockey," he said. "I experienced so many different things this year. I had never before been on a team with a losing record. I had never been on a team that had lost 12 games in a year. This year in Green Bay, we had streaks where we lost 12 in a row. I really found out a lot about myself and had to learn how to deal with adversity. This was a great year for me.”
Frisch’s maturity stands out, particularly to Matt Cullen, the long-time NHL veteran, who Frisch trains with in the off-season. Cullen played with Frisch’s father and uncle at Moorhead High School in the 90’s, so he’s an old family friend.
“He's one of those kids that I tell my [kids] just to watch how he works, and watch how he plays," said Cullen in an article for NHL.com. "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."
His coach in Green Bay echoes Cullen’s compliments.
“He's already mature beyond his years,” said Gamblers head coach Pat Mikesch. "He just takes care of himself. That's the kind of kid that he is. He's trying to learn from other people to see how you eat, how you manage travel, how you manage post-games.”
That maturity off-ice extends to on the ice, where he plays a steady defensive game that relies on his intelligence, hockey sense, and smooth skating.
“He plays a calm, cerebral game so his plus skating isn’t always on full display,” reads his scouting report from Hockey Prospect. “Instead, he relies more on subtle angle adjustments.”
Their report also praises Frisch for his unexpected physical game, noting that he can deliver “crunching blows,” though he prefers what they call “tactical truculence” to chasing hits. They note that he’s effective defending in multiple different ways, whether he’s attacking aggressively in the neutral zone or more passively keeping a good gap and directing forwards into less-dangerous areas with his stick.
“He's a very smart, competitive, efficient, responsible defender," said Fargo Force head coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux. "He's a player who can play in all situations for a team. At times, his game can be understated. Most often, he's going to have positive impacts on a game. What gives him an edge over some players of his stature is his competitiveness."
When it comes to role models in the NHL, Frisch looks to Penguins defenceman Kris Letang, which might be a surprising choice given his lack of offence this season. He believes he can do more offensively, but scouts are less sure.
“He was supposed to have more offense in his game,” said an NHL scout to the Grand Forks Herald. “That never really materialized in the USHL.”
His scouting report from Hockey Prospect notes that his lack of production echoes his skill level. While he has a good slap shot, he lacks other elements to his game that would make him a threat offensively. While he can break the puck out effectively with short passes, he’s not going to make the long breakout pass that leads to a quick scoring chance. In the offensive zone, he’ll make clean passes, but is less likely to make a creative play in the offensive zone that sets up a goal.
That said, he’s shown flashes of great stickhandling and an ability to get a shot through traffic. There’s work to be done, but there could be a little untapped potential there, particularly since he spent most of the season on a struggling team.
While that offence could still come as he heads to the University of North Dakota next year, it’s possible that he may need to recalibrate his expectations away from a Kris Letang-type to a Chris Tanev-type: the modern-day defensive defenceman that effectively prevents scoring chances with good reads and mobility, then quickly moves the puck up ice with a clean outlet pass.
For the Canucks, Frisch is an intriguing invite. He won’t get a contract this year, even if he shows well, as he’s heading to the NCAA. They can, however, establish a relationship at this camp that could make it more likely he signs in Vancouver in the future if he thrives at North Dakota and turns pro.
Given Frisch’s maturity and off-ice habits, it’s hard to bet against the young defenceman. He’ll be worth keeping an eye on in the coming years.