The 2021 NHL Draft is being damned as one of the worst classes in recent memory. And while there is some truth to that, with the 2022 and 2023 Draft classes boasting some of the best future-talent the league has seen in years, there is still a lot of potential in this years class. Players that are hitting mid-season slumps could come out of them with a level of development and maturity that exceeds their years. And nobody exemplifies that more than Brandt Clarke.
Quite simply, Brandt Clarke has the makings of the next Erik Karlsson. Thanks to a unique style, some lucky developing, and great adaptability, Clarke’s ceiling has effectively become that of the two-time Norris winner.
A quick disclaimer before I dive in, Clarke’s floor is fairly low. He has a lot of growth to be had. But this article will dive into the truly incredible potential that his ceiling brings, thanks to his great playing style. Thanks to Joel Henderson, Matej Deraj, and Daniel Gee for the videos for this article.
Brandt Clarke has the Ability to Become a New Erik Karlsson
The Identical Styles
The most important thing linking Brandt Clarke and Erik Karlsson is, of course, their style of play. Things are eerily similar, with both players basing their entire being around terrific skating. Through their great agility and ability, they’re able to fulfill the “Offensive Defenceman” prototype perfectly. They rely on a fast-paced style of hockey, reliant on quick rushes and the confidence to dip deep into the offensive zone while still being able to get back on defence and stay reliable.
It’s a fun style that’s becoming more-and-more prominent but only a few players can truly thrive with it. Those players need the instinct to be able to dart into the offensive end, create dangerous chances, and dart back quickly. They have to have top-notch awareness and — in order to be able to thrive in the offensive end — they also need a uniquely-strong defensive instinct.
Clarke has all of those traits, although they’re all a bit raw currently. Still, playing in Slovakia’s top professional league is really refining Clarke’s play. He’s no longer able to dominate play in the same way that he did in the OHL. It’s forced him to refine his play into a more mature, professionally-adapted manner, something he’s done perfectly.
Learning New Ways
#2021NHLDraft top prospect 🇨🇦 Brandt Clarke has just scored his 1st goal of the season. The 17 y.o. defenseman showed off his skills and scored on the rebound.
Clarke is currently on loan in Slovak top tier league. He’s playing his 9th game with HC Nové Zámky.
🎥: Tipsport TV pic.twitter.com/h2Lp0DAOCo
— Matej Deraj (@MatoDeraj) January 22, 2021
Clarke sets up the basis of his game very, very well in this play. In the OHL, we would’ve seen Clarke work the puck low into the corner and try to exploit any open lanes. This was a favourite move of his in years past, using a great passing vision or great agility to jump into open lanes and create scoring chances.
But Clarke can’t do that as much in Slovakia. His play has become much more positional. But he’s found new ways to exploit lazy lapses in the defence. He shows this off here, using great patience, positional-awareness, and stickhandling to draw in and then beat the defending winger. This gave Clarke plenty of time and space, something that should never be given to a player with his style. Even as the lane clogged up, Clarke was able to get a gorgeous backhand shot off and crash the net for a terrific goal.
But Still Staying True to Form
Of course, old habits die hard. And with Clarke, that’s a great trait. He still has the ability to, really, do it all. And while his play in Slovakia has taken strides in become more mature and NHL-ready, he has maintained the uniquely-dynamic offence that truly places him in the conversation as the next Karlsson.
Brandt Clarke (65 white)
— ❄️Joel Henderson❄️ (@dathockeydoe) January 22, 2021
It’s hard to believe that this play features Brandt Clarke. He’s practically playing as a winger here. But he’s able to do that thanks to his great offensive toolset. Here, he notices the breakup of the play and immediately jumps into action. After easily winning the puck and gaining space, he goes for the cheeky “Michigan” goal but can’t get the puck on his stick (but if he had, he would’ve scored).
And while the “Michigan” might not have been the best choice to end this play, Clarke showed exquisite puck control and offensive IQ on this play. He knew when to jump in and when he did, he was able to easily create space and control the puck, while his teammates changed. That’s a trait that makes forwards stand-out. So to see such smarts and reliability from a defenceman is incredible.
Applying It In Both Ends
These abilities — great skating, hockey IQ, and overall instinct — help Clarke thrive in both ends. It’s his defensive game that’s really come along in Slovakia, as made perfectly evident by the below clip:
Check out this wild shift from Brandt Clarke (2021 Draft – RHD) from his game on January 22nd. Risk-assessment, puck handling, processing, and vision on display. #2021NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/z7KaWNEfCj
— Daniel Gee (@DanielGScouting) January 24, 2021
In this, Clarke is playing a bit high for a defenceman defending the rush. But he’s able to do this because his innate awareness of lanes, and how to shut them down, make him a formidable force to get around. Here, he uses his body to shut down the passing lane and great “stick-on-puck” awareness to shut down the shot. Once he denied all options for his opponent, he steps in and takes the body, separating the player from the puck and ultimately winning possession.
In this one play, Clarke highlighted so many different defensive fundamentals and orchestrated them all beautifully. It’s a play that would bring a tear to any old-fashion, collegiate coach’s eye, as Clarke simply does everything right. And while his defensive play isn’t always flawless, he always shows off terrific IQ and knowledge of the lanes around him. He’s aware of his own position and where opponents may be breaking to try and get around him. It’s a trait that can’t really be taught. It’s innate and the players who have it can thrive at any level.
The 2008 Draft
So, it’s proven that Clarke has the god-given, innate ability to thrive as an offensive defenceman, thanks to great skating, IQ, and plenty of other tools. But comparing him to Karlsson is still a very tough thing to do.
But Karlsson’s old scouting reports help hammer in the comparison. An old Bleacher Report article from mid-July of 2008 hits home the package that got Karlsson selected 15th overall.
Karlsson is a very offensive minded defenceman. He is blessed with excellent hockey sense, confidence and coolness. Everything looks so easy and natural when Karlsson has the puck under control in the offensive zone. He is a true power specialist that usually gets the puck on net and also delivers very good passes. Furthermore, he is mobile and a capable skater with good agility and technical skills.
This quote, of course, highlights the innate ability that made Karlsson stand out. It’s the same verbiage that can describe Clarke. Both players use great skating and puck control to get the puck where it needs to be, on the back of a level of calm that’s so rarely seen in teenagers. Karlsson used this cool to dominate the Swedish U20 league in his Draft Year. Brandt Clarke is using it to look perfectly-capable in a professional hockey league.
Of course, there were knocks against Karlsson moving into the draft. The same Bleacher Report article spoke down on Karlsson’s defensive abilities, saying that he often put himself into difficult situations, instead of using the same cool that helped him thrive offensively to keep him level-minded defensively. And it was very warranted criticism. Karlsson was an incredibly aggressive defenceman, who could stray out of position to chase the play at times. Becoming more mature defensively was paramount to Karlsson’s future in the NHL, in addition to rounding out and maturing his offence.
The Blessing in Disguise
The same concerns about over-aggressive defence fit Brandt Clarke perfectly last season. But unlike Karlsson, Clarke won’t have to wait until after he’s drafted to fix those issues. While Covid-19, and the shutdown of the OHL season, is an awful situation, it has provided an ever-so-slight silver lining in Clarke’s move to Slovakia.
Playing in the Tipsport Extraliga has given Clarke the chance to mature every facet of his play, in the face of much more difficult competition. While Clarke has yet to light-up the Slovakian scoresheets (only two points in 11 games), he has shown serious growth, through his struggles.
Getting shut down on rushes, exploited for his over-aggressive defence, and the overall nerves that have shown through his game have all been incredibly valuable when it comes to Clarke’s development. After only 11 Slovakian games, he’s already shown incredible growth. His offence has adapted into a more positional, exploitative style, rather than a rush-based-only setup. He can’t use his speed to destroy the competition anymore, so he’s found new ways to take advantage of his great awareness and IQ.
The same can be said about his defence. He’s become much more positional, even already, and has looked much better defensively as a result.
It’s a fast-pace maturing that very, very few North American players are lucky enough to get before their draft. But it’s worked wonders on Clarke’s play already. He looks much more capable in a professional setting, which is great news for the NHL team that’s likely to spend a top-three pick on him this coming draft. What’s better is the fact that Clarke’s Slovakian team, HC Nove Zamky, still has 16 games left in their season. With so much growth already showing through, the prospects of more rapid-development in Clarke’s style is very, very exciting.
In the End
Brandt Clarke’s likelihood of becoming a 20-goal, 80-point, two-time Norris Trophy winner… are slim. He has a lot of improving to do and, even then, that ceiling is a long ways away. Expecting that out of any player is a tall order, much less the premiere star of one of the weakest drafts in recent memory. But he has the potential to do that. His ceiling is astronomically high, thanks to so many different things. The incredibly unique, innate skillset that Clarke has is one that so few NHL defencemen possess. And that’s not from any sort of low success rate; the style is just that special.
What’s more, Clarke’s development has been blessed with professional league play, helping him hit strides that some players don’t hit until years after they’re drafted, and after ample work with an NHL system.
It’s important to remember, as well, that Karlsson’s rise to such emphatic glory was far from expected. In terms of NHLe, a statistic that translates performances in other leagues into NHL-scoring, Clarke and Karlsson’s pre-draft play looks very similar. But a terrific skillset, unique mindset, and adaptability has carried Karlsson to success.
Primed for Success
Clarke has those same traits. And above all else, he has shown an amazing adaptability. Looking at how smart he is on the ice, it makes sense that his smarts would translate off-ice too. Clarke is built different, poised to thrive no matter what situation he’s put into. It’s the icing on the cake for a player that’s poised for a lot of success.
Ultimately, Brandt Clarke is… not the safest pick in the draft. We’ve seen similar players fall to the way side as they jump to the NHL. But he has shown an adaptability and maturity that very few players have ever flaunted before their draft. This comes in tandem with a skillset that continues to find new ways to amaze. Clarke may not have the highest floor of all defencemen in the 2021 Draft class. But his ceiling, and his showings in professional hockey so far, could make him well worth a First Overall pick.