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  • Joshua Rosa

Axel Sandin Pellikka: Fun Personified

Photo by Pär Bäckström / Freelance

Axel Sandin Pellikka is probably the most fun player to watch in this year's draft. Note I say most fun, not best. Sandin Pellikka is probably not the best defender in the draft. There's Mikhail Gulyayev of Omskie Yastreby, or maybe Caden Price of Kelowna, or Dmitri Simashev of Yaroslavl. It's not a particularly great year for defenders, and one of the most hyped defensive prospects, Cam Allen of the Guelph Storm, has fallen off.

That doesn't mean that Sandin Pellikka is a low-quality defensive prospect. In fact, he's very good at what he does. The problem is that he really struggles in his areas of weakness. Sandin Pellikka's greatest strengths lie in the offensive zone. He is an exceptionally smooth skater and that aspect of his game is the one that brings me the most joy while watching him. His strides are fluid and he makes gliding on the ice look effortless.

ASP also has a deceptively good shot, like the bite of the venomous asp snake (his namesake I am sure) that he can weave through defenders from the blue line either looking for tips for a screen past the goalie. He has also shown excellent creativity in the offensive zone when creating passes for his teammates or cutting to the net on the offside to create an easy tap-in goal.

These three aspects of his game create a dynamic offensive player that can be a struggle to contain. He can walk the blue line with ease, dangle around defenders with some soft hands, find a good pass to teammates or work a shot through from the point. This versatility gives him great deceptiveness in the offensive zone, something that he exhibits well. Watching from the stands it's hard to predict what he will do next. It keeps opponents guessing and he almost always finds a way to make something happen with the puck on his stick.

The problem with ASP's game lies entirely within the defensive zone. And that's really no surprise. There are a lot of offensive defensemen that have historically struggled in the defence zone themselves, but their offensive output is well worth the risk and if you pair them with the right defensive partner, a lot of those problems can be mitigated. ASP is quite passive in the defensive zone. You can often find him floating in soft zones where he doesn't do much good or a step behind opposing forwards giving them better chances than should be.

This is less of a lack of drive and determination but a lack of defensive hockey sense in my opinion. From what I've seen, Sandin Pellikka is always more reactive in the defensive zone than proactive, which is a bit of a problem especially when you get to the highest levels of play. You just can't be giving NHL quality players that step ahead of you and you really need to be proactive in your defending.

Now the area where A.S.P. is most interesting when compared to other prospects or players of his ilk is the physicality of his play. When you hear of an offensive defenseman that can walk the blue line, provide good offence and not much defensive worth, you think of guys like Cale Makar, Lane Hudson or a PK Subban/Chris Wideman style of player. If you are good enough offensively the team can trust you to make up for your mistakes in the opponent's zone, or you could be paired with a defensive defenseman who will help when you get pinched up in the play and try to produce more offence.

The best example of this, in a Montreal Canadiens way of speaking, is when the top pair was PK Subban and Andrei Markov. The two complimented each other because Markov was clearly a more defensive-minded player, but could also dish the puck to Subban so that he could produce magic in the offensive zone.

None of the guys that I previously mentioned as being offensive defencemen are particularly known for their physicality skills. Generally, those two things are kept quite far apart from each other.

When mentioning good physical defencemen, names that come to mind in a Montreal Canadians scope would be Alexei Emelin or Alexander Romanov, who provided good physical presences on the ice but failed to produce anything in the offensive zone much of the time. That's not exactly the case with Sandin Pellikka.

While he is not great in the defensive zone, he is great at just bashing the crap out of people with his body. Now, body checks aren't exactly the mark of a great defender. You really need to know how to use them and when to be at your most effective. Chasing big hits often leads to odd man chances and even if you connect with the man, the puck can often be shovelled out and moved to a different scoring chance. The positive thing is that this can be learned and it isn't a fundamental flaw in his game, especially when you are offensively gifted.

It makes Sandin Pellikka a little bit of a minor unicorn in a sense. Unicorns are generally reserved for some of the best players in the world like Ovechkin's combination of grit and scoring ability and so on and so forth. And Sandin Pellikka isn't a high-end top-five prospect, especially in this deep of a draft. However, this combination of skills makes him quite unique in the hockey world because you just don't see very many physically offensive defencemen like this. The possibility of him becoming that electrifying player either with a big hit or offensive prowess is there.

I'm just not sure how much draft upside there is with ASP. To get the most out of him you need the right partner on his offside. Because Sandin Pellikka really likes the offensive zone and jumping in on the rush or making that big hit, so he needs a partner that can handle the defensive pressure that he leaves. To me, that doesn't scream top-five draft potential. Especially when you consider this year and how deep and great the top end of this draft is. I could see him easily being top 10 and maybe even top five and last year's draft just simply because last year's draft was way less deep than this one's. That being said, ASP is still a fantastic defensive prospect who, with the right nourishment and development, could easily become a top-four Defender for a long time in the league and be a guaranteed fan favourite wherever he lands

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