LA Kings scout Chris Byrne weighed in on the team’s 2021 first-round selection in Brandt Clarke and where he needs to improve the most.
When the LA Kings selected Brandt Clarke with the eighth-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the organization added a true blue-chip defenseman to arguably the league’s best prospect pool. However, there’s no denying that the Kings pipeline was top-heavy offensively with players, such as Quinton Byfield, Rasmus Kupari, Alex Turcotte, and Arthur Kaliyev, among others.
Los Angeles would have likely preferred a left-shot defenseman, a position with the least depth, at least with dynamic playmakers. Clarke, a right-shot defenseman, gives the team a long-term top-pairing defenseman to eventually replace Drew Doughty.
“Definitely excited about getting him and evening out our prospect pool a little bit with a defenseman,” LA Kings amateur scout Chris Byrne said on the All The Kings Men podcast. “We’re not picking for position, obviously, but the fact that a defenseman was in the wheelhouse where we were was a good fit for us as well. And we like the player — we obviously liked him to go over our list. It was the type of year where it wasn’t surprising who went in that first group of 8 or 10…We were happy to get him at [No.] 8, and now it’s our development crew and our coaches that are going to get to mold him going forward.”
With highly skilled forward William Eklund taken one pick earlier to San Jose, the Kings had a plethora of talent to choose from, including Dylan Guenther, Jesper Wallstedt, and Clarke. But the latter made the most sense in terms of organizational need.
Byrne noted that the Kings first got a look at the Nepean, Ontario, native when he was just 16 years of age, identifying his offensive ability to score at will in the OHL exhibition games. Clarke got off to a slow start in his first year with the Barrie Colts during the regular season but once the calendar flipped to 2020, though, the young defenseman collected six goals and 24 points over the final 28 games.
His strengths were in the defensive zone breakouts with a keen sense to skate the puck up-ice while using his vision to get his teammates involved in the scoring, particularly on special teams. While he didn’t light the lamp himself on the powerplay during the 2019-20 season, Clarke proved to be a valuable facilitator, logging nine assists on the man advantage.
Entering the NHL Draft this year, scouts concurred that the 18-year-old’s primary fault was his skating ability. While he displayed a strong first step and excellent ability to carry the puck into the attacking zone, Clarke skated a bit knock-kneed.
“When we did go back-and-forth with our group, it was ‘Okay, let’s go back over his games and his video and the video we have from his last year and the video we have from him in Europe and the video we have from him at the Under-18 championships, and show me instances where his skating hurt him or where his skating limited him from making plays or being able to defend,'” Byrne said of the Kings’ thorough review of Clarke’s skating. “So, when we went back, there weren’t quite as many as we thought there were. For us, it’s a bit wonky, but yeah, he gets there. He’s willing to work on his deficiencies; he’s willing to put the time in. I think once he gets stronger in his core, he’s going to be able to skate harder and longer. He isn’t going to be a pretty skater, but I think his sense and skill and compete level are going to allow him to still be a really good NHL player.”
Oddly enough, because he’s not a prototypical smooth-skating defenseman, his movement aids towards his deception, where his ability to get out of tight spots has been lauded.
It was fairly obvious when Clarke spoke with the Kings’ media for the first time how intelligent the young blueliner is. He exuded a sense of confidence while speaking at a lightning-fast pace, playing into his elite hockey IQ. And for being such a young player, Clarke already has a refined sense of accountability in his mistakes on the ice.
During the pre-draft interviews, Clarke walked teams through several plays, describing what he was thinking at particular moments — even owning mistakes he made and what he would have done differently.
“He thinks [the game] very quickly, and that helps him in both zones,” said Byrne. “Obviously, he has work to do with the defensive positioning, gaps, some of the angles that he takes into corners — some of the fine work defensively – but his instincts, defensively, are very good. You worry about an offensive player that he’s not willing to compete defensively, and I think he competes very well. He’s willing to use his body; he wants to defend, he wants to break up plays with his stick.”
Thus far, Clarke’s compete level has made him into a competent defender, often using his body to defend or to position himself into tighter spots and to get into tighter or tougher spots offensively. And without an OHL season last year, both Clarke and Kings’ second-round pick Francesco Pinelli played in Europe to avoid being idle for the season. For Clarke, he played for HC Nove Zamky of the Slovakian League, tallying five goals and 15 points in only 26 games, playing against grown men.
Clarke finished with the second-most points among defensemen despite playing in roughly 15 fewer games than his teammates. He returned to North America to play for Team Canada at the U18s in Frisco, Texas, scoring seven points in seven games en route to the gold medal while separating himself as a top-tier defenseman in the draft class.
“I think the experience and the maturity they gained going over there, forget about the hockey side things; I think that was a big aspect for both players. Those guys last year, especially from the OHL, were just scrambling to get games and to be competitive. It was a tough year,” Byrne concluded.
Clarke is expected to return to Barrie for the 2021-22 season, but will the Kings give him a few games early in the year?