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Owen Pickering's Towering Presence Shouldn't Go Unnoticed

Owen Pickering grew nearly 10 inches over a three-year span, going from a scrawny, easily pushed-around defender to one of the most feared blueliners in the draft class. And he's only going up from there.
Owen Pickering

MONTREAL - At the NHL draft combine in Buffalo last month, no prospect had a bigger smile than Owen Pickering. 

It's not hard to understand why. It's a great feeling to feel wanted, and all 32 teams talked to Pickering during the combine weekend. So few players even come close to a full slate. And, literally, this was the first combine weekend where that was even possible. 

"If you told me a year ago I'd be here, I'd probably say you were crazy," Pickering said. "I definitely don't take it for granted."

It's also a sign of just how far Pickering has come in his game over the years.

The WHL drafts players earlier than any other major junior league, taking players after just turning 15 following their bantam seasons. They're still in their early development stage, and don't become WHL full-timers for another year after that. But Pickering was a definite longshot: Pickering was taken 177th overall in the ninth round in 2019 by Swift Current as a 5-foot-7, 130-pound defender after putting up just 17 points in 35 games with Rink Academy. For reference, projected first-rounder Denton Mateychuk -- also a defenseman, and Pickering's second cousin -- led the team in scoring with 61.

Owen Pickering is 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds now. Seriously.

"When I was really young, I'd be the taller kid, but everyone developed around me. I didn't start developing until I was 15." 

Pickering's parents aren't especially tall -- he said his dad is 6-foot-1 and his mom is 5-foot-6 -- but he has some relatives in the 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-9 range. So he wasn't too surprised that he eventually became a human giraffe overnight.

Owen Pickering

Something called puberty will do that to you. And at 15, you're hardly done growing, so you always see growth spurts. You just typically don't see teenagers grow 10 inches in a three-year span.

And, like anyone who has a major growth spurt, he has had his challenges along the way trying to fill out his frame. But there's a reason he went from an afterthought at the WHL draft to a near sure-thing to go in the first round on Thursday. 

He's the definition of a late-bloomer, and an NHL team is going to benefit in such a big way for it. 

Pickering, a former AAA baseball player that made it to the national level with Manitoba, always viewed hockey as the most important sport in his life. But he only really saw himself as a legitimate NHL prospect this season, and his ability to really play to his strengths while smoothing the deficiencies in his game quite quickly allowed him to skyrocket up draft boards.

It's common for players with an abnormal growth spurt to struggle in the skating department, but that's an avenue Pickering feels he excels in now. At the CHL Top Prospects Game, he was one of the better moving defensemen overall, and he used his speed and mobility to blast by opponents at the U-18 World Hockey Championship as one of Canada's biggest bright spots in an otherwise tough tournament for Canada. 

Pickering finished the WHL season with 33 points in 62 games -- a very respectable number for a team that missed the playoffs altogether. Playing on a poor team as a draft prospect can have its benefits, though, and Pickering played 25 minutes a night as an 18-year-old. He rarely had off nights as a whole, and when his team needed him to step up at both ends of the ice, he did.

"What's he going to do over the next two years as the Broncos become an even bigger force?" a western scout said. "He eats minutes, and is only going up from here."

Pickering was more of a shutdown defender in his pre-WHL draft days, but he has started to get more comfortable with his offensive game and should take a nice step forward next season. While it's still fair to label Pickering a project player -- his size jump is abnormal, and his overall game needs some ironing out still -- he's strong defensively, continues to get better on the rush, has good footwork and his decision-making in the offensive zone has gotten much better.

The team that drafts Pickering isn't looking for someone to be a big offensive contributor. Could 30-point seasons be the norm? That sounds safe. Perhaps he evolves into a true shutdown center when he makes the NHL, but a more mobile one at that.

"I wasn't the greatest skater growing up, I wasn't a super powerful kid, I developed late obviously," Pickering said. "So I think when I grew got more powerful, my stride got much better. I played a lot of sports growing up, obviously. So I feel like my coordination is good."

There's no shortage of teams needing big, mobile defenders that can be a dominant presence on the ice, and that's why every team took part in the Owen Pickering show in Buffalo last month. He might not have an immediate impact in the NHL, and teams will have to be patient as he forms his game even more, but early signs are pointing towards it all being worth it one day.

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