Top defensemen make their case at the draft combine

Olli Juolevi, Jakob Chychrun and Mikhail Sergachev are all fantastic prospects, but one of them has to be the first off the board in Buffalo. The city got a preview at the draft combine.

BUFFALO – There was a lot of interest among the local media in defensemen this morning. With Buffalo hosting the draft combine, camera crews and reporters got a chance to quiz a number of potential future Sabres and several of those candidates were blueliners. With Buffalo picking eighth, a top D-man will surely be available, but which one?

That’s the big question right now. London’s Olli Juolevi, Sarnia’s Jakob Chychrun and Windsor’s Mikhail Sergachev are all in the mix. Sergachev has bragging rights on one level, as he was named OHL defenseman of the year over the other two.

But Juolevi won world junior gold with Finland and a Memorial Cup with the Knights. He was also pretty confident when asked about his position today:

“Yeah, I’m the first defenseman,” he said.

What is most remarkable about Juolevi and Sergachev is how good they were as rookies. It’s not easy moving across an ocean to an entirely different culture and maintain an elite level of play, but both kids pulled it off.

“My season had some ups and downs,” Sergachev said. “But the OHL is the best junior league in the world, so it was great.”

A powerful two-way defender with great offensive skills, Sergachev got a pick-me-up when his parents and sister visited him in January. His billet family and Russian-born teammate Daniil Vertiy were big helps and Sergachev took two hours of English lessons per week. And other than mixing up the terms “lots” and “too many,” Sergachev has very little problem with the language; quite impressive for someone in his situation.

Chychrun came into the year as the consensus top defenseman and was originally thought to be a top-3 pick. While he certainly didn’t crater with his performance in Sarnia, he was surpassed by Juolevi and perhaps even Sergachev, but it’s really not something to be concerned about. Chychrun is still a beast of a prospect, with NHL size already and a two-way game that will translate well. And he’s keeping perspective. How much does it matter for him to be the first blueliner taken?

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“Not as much as it (once) did,” he said. “I didn’t have the ideal year I wanted and the other two D-men had great years. I don’t want to stress about it, I want to enjoy my draft day.”

That maturity is another good checkmark for Chychrun, who comes from NHL bloodlines and had already dealt with the hype of being the No. 1 pick in the OHL draft. Sure, he didn’t make Canada’s world junior squad this year, but the tentativeness he showed at camp surely won’t happen again and I’d be shocked if we don’t see him in Montreal for the tournament next season.

Meanwhile, Sergachev will almost assuredly get the call for Russia. He bailed out the national program when the players slated to go to the world under-18s were pulled due to a drug scandal. Sergachev and fellow CHLer Vladimir Kuznetsov teamed up with a bunch of under-17s and gave their all in North Dakota, falling in the quarterfinal.

“They were good guys,” he said. “It was tough, but it was cool that we had all those ‘young guns.’ And we didn’t go down to Group B, so it was cool.”

Indeed, the Russians avoided relegation, which would have compounded the program’s embarrassment ten-fold. But there will be no such concerns over the world junior team, which will once again be strong. Of course, Canada and Russia will both have to be on guard for Juolevi and Finland. He was an all-star at this year’s tourney in hometown Helsinki and got the opportunity to win gold at the famous Hartwall Arena.

“My dream when I was young was to play there for the Jokerit pro team,” he said. “So to win the world junior championship there was pretty great.”

Another gold would be pretty sweet, but if it doesn’t happen, Juolevi – and Chychrun and Sergachev – will have a long NHL career to bask in, as well. Who gets their NHL rights? That’s the fun part now.