You've got a good one, Kings fans.
The Los Angeles Kings signed defenseman Brandt Clarke to a three-year entry-level contract on Tuesday, just a month after making him the No. 4 pick of the 2021 draft.
Some scouts believe Clarke could become the best defenseman out of a draft with a handful of high-end blueline talents. Others are concerned some of the magical plays he pulled off against kids won't be close to possible at the next step.
Regardless, he's ready for a shot at making the team out of camp, and there's so much to like about his game.
Clarke only had a season of OHL hockey before the pandemic but looked great for a mid-pack Colts squad. Things were expected to be better for 2020-21, but nothing came of it. If Clarke returns to the Colts this season as expected, we could be talking about an 18-year old placing an absolute beating on the rest of the league as one of the top offensive defensemen in major junior.
With no OHL action, Clarke went overseas to join his brother, Graeme, with Slovakia's HC Nove Zamky. Early on, you could tell there was a true learning curve associated with the move - both in a literal culture-shock sense, but as a player, too. For the first time, he was playing against men. His first few games took some getting used to, but by around the third or fourth game, that's when the former Don Mills Flyers defensive star really shone through.
Clarke, known for his inexplicable ability to make things happen offensively, had five goals and 15 points in 26 games. That might not seem like much, but only 2022 draft star Simon Nemec had more points (19) than Clarke among U-18 defensemen in Slovak league history - and he did it this season, too.
Heading into the season, scouts really wanted to see improvement in Clarke's skating. It wasn't that he isn't a good skater, because he has proven he can skate circles around attackers on a regular basis. It's just... awkward, and sometimes he could get pushed off the puck due to his lack of balance. But the opportunity to play against older competition on the larger European ice surfaces definitely did him favors as the concern in that department started to dwindle as the season went on.
“Going over to the big ice was good for him, it created more of an emphasis on his skating, which is probably the area he needed to focus on the most,” a scout told The Hockey News in our annual Draft Preview issue. “A right-shot defenseman with that kind of vision and power-play ability is going to be a coveted player for sure.”
In a depth chart full of solid young talent, Clarke is already the No. 1 defensive prospect in the system. Few players his age can run find forwards on the rush like he can and his decision-making makes him look like a seasoned veteran already. When rushing the puck down the ice, Clarke doesn't tend to get pressured too much and back in his own zone, he does a nice job of forcing forwards to the perimeter and putting his defensive partner in a position to just block the lane.
"He's as special as they come at producing offense from the blueline," an Ontario scout said. "And with the forward group they're assembling (in LA), that'll be a huge bonus, especially as Drew Doughty nears the end of his career."
There's no rush to get Clarke into NHL action. He's just 18 and has a chance to be a leader on Canada's World Junior Championship team in a few months. Heck, if the NHL doesn't send players to the Olympics, maybe Clarke will find himself representing his nation at the highest stage of all in international hockey.
But by signing him to a contract when they did, the Kings clearly think Clarke has a shot to make the team out of training camp, so don't count him out of getting a shot immediately just yet.