By Kirk Luedeke
If NHL teams are looking to add smarts, toughness and character, Saskatoon Blades defenseman Dalton Thrower could one of the better options in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh June 22-23.
|Dalton Thrower jumped from 20 points in his second year with Saskatoon to 54 this past season. (Getty Images)|
The 6-feet, 195-pounder from Squamish, B.C. is a rugged, two-way defender who put up some impressive numbers for the Blades this season while playing his brand of hard-nosed hockey. Thrower’s projections have him going anywhere from the second half of the opening round to the early second, and if you factor in his strong leadership ability, he could establish himself solidly within the top-30 picks.
“I’m not going to shy away from the tough stuff,” Thrower told New England Hockey Journal from his current home in Vancouver. “I like to drop the gloves with anyone at anytime. If it needs to happen to defend my teammates, then it will happen. “
Beyond his embrace of the harder edges of hockey, Thrower is also developing into an intriguing option in a defense-rich lottery class for his production in Saskatoon at the right time.
“I’m a two-way defenseman who can get pucks up the ice effectively. I consider myself a pretty good passer who can make the quick outlet and will join the rush when I can.”
The 18-year-old and 26th-ranked North American skater by Central Scouting, who was born in December 1993, just completed his third WHL season with Saskatoon. After scoring 18 goals and 54 points in 66 games, while adding 103 penalty minutes, he is poised to make an interesting splash at the draft. A right-handed shooter, Thrower enjoyed an offensive renaissance given he scored just six goals and 27 points in 123 games over his first two major junior campaigns
“As a 15-year-old I had the opportunity to play with Stefan Elliott,” he said of the second-round selection of the Colorado Avalanche who saw 39 games in the NHL this season. “He really showed me the ropes and taught me what I needed to do to be a successful player at this level. There have been so many good ‘D’ I’ve been fortunate to play with and learn from here in Saskatoon. ”
Thrower also cited Tampa Bay prospect Teigan Zahn as a defense partner who greatly impacted his own development with the team in terms of providing a steadying influence and strong example to follow on and off the ice.
From an offensive standpoint, some NHL scouts are divided on Thrower, however.
“I love his toughness and character, but I don’t see him as a point producer at the NHL level,” said one Western Canada-based NHL scout. “He brings a lot of the characteristics you want on your hockey club including smarts, tenacity and a will to win. That isn’t enough for him to be in play for us in the first round, but he is the kind of player you win with.”
Another NHL scout for a Western Conference team sees similarities to Kevin Bieksa, defenseman for Thrower’s favorite NHL team, the Vancouver Canucks.
“He’s got some Bieksa in him and I think Thrower’s offensive abilities are underrated,” the scout said. “He’s still developing, but put him in the right system and I think he’s capable of being a top-three defender capable of giving you 40 to 50 points one day. Some will say that he’s not skilled enough to be a natural point producer, but he’s a smart, hard-working kid who looked pretty effective to me this season.”
Thrower is no stranger to adversity. Both of his parents, Murray and Melanie, battled cancer during Dalton’s minor hockey days and last season, when he was with the Blades. His parents’ strength in being able to overcome their illness shines through in their son, who isn’t the most physically-imposing player in the league, but plays a good deal larger than his modest frame.
As what is considered these days to be pretty average-sized for the position he plays, the pugnacious rearguard often finds himself going against some of the bigger, stronger power forwards in the WHL, whether it is defending his net from their skill, or dropping the gloves. Thrower is pretty matter-of-fact about his situation when asked about his size. In a tone that is all confidence, not arrogance, he makes a compelling case for why he believes he can excel at the highest level.
“I don’t consider myself ‘small’ at all,” he said. “I’m 6-feet and can throw my body around effectively, even if a guy has four inches on me. I’ve always heard people say that about me, though, and I’ve just gone out to show that I can go up against any big guy.”
Thrower’s fight card certainly backs up that assertion, as he even went toe-to-toe with arguably the 2012 draft class’s toughest fighter in Plymouth Whalers (OHL) winger Tom Wilson during the CHL Top Prospects Game in January. While more than holding his own in that bout, Thrower has also fought some tough customers in the rough-and-tumble WHL.
“I would say Darren Kramer is the toughest guy I fought this year,” Thrower said of the Spokane Chiefs winger and Ottawa Senators sixth-round selection from a year ago. “Brett Lyon, who played with Moose Jaw and then Kelowna, is also a guy who can really throw ‘em. He’s a very tough player who’s not the biggest guy out there, but is strong and difficult to handle.”
While Thrower’s willingness to battle for his team cannot be questioned, he knows that his defensive play must improve before he’s ready to take that next step.
“I need to work on my gap through the neutral zone and be able to tighten up on guys more,” he said. “I think my positioning is sound, but it’s more a case of being able to pressure up on guys and not give them the time and space to make plays, especially when the play is in my own end.”
When asked to cite some of the more skilled opponents who posed memorable challenges for him to defend this past season, Thrower did not stop at just one.
“Mark Stone comes to mind right away,” he said of the former Brandon Wheat Kings scoring ace who made his NHL debut with Ottawa in the playoffs. “He’s not the fastest guy but he’s going to get into the right position to generate some quality scoring chances. He’s a big body with a real good shot and is just so smart—he gets in behind you and is real tough to defend against.”
Thrower also looked to Medicine Hat and American winger Emerson Etem as one of his more difficult marks to contain when the 2010 first-rounder comes screaming into the Blades zone off the wing.
“He really took it to us in the playoffs,” he said of the Anaheim Ducks prospect. “He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever faced and does things with the puck I’ve never seen. He has speed and attacks the net relentlessly. You have to really take his speed into account in terms of your gap or positioning with him or it’s over—he’s on his way to the net and has a good chance to score.”
Thrower also gave a nod to Regina Pats center Jordan Weal, a third-round pick of the Kings two years ago, as one of his bigger challenges keeping off the score sheet.
“There are so many skilled players in this league,” he said. “I think it has been huge in my development and I know I still have work to do so I can continue to improve my overall game and defensive play.”
Headed to the NHL’s draft combine in Toronto about a week from now, Thrower has heard the stories from friends and teammates who have been through the process in the past. He is now ready to take his turn at selling big league clubs on his ability and potential to be an impact player at the highest level.
“I’m very excited for the experience,” he said of his next month, which culminates on draft weekend in the Steel City. “I can’t wait.”
Given his fiery temperament and two-way ability, when fans of the NHL club that grabs Thrower in June see what he’s capable of, expect him to receive a full embrace, just as the good folks in Saskatoon have done.