NHL Draft

Skating sets IceDog apart

By Jim Wallace, The Standard

Jesse Graham of the Niagara IceDogs uses his skating ability to track down an Ottawa 67's player in action last season.

Jesse Graham of the Niagara IceDogs uses his skating ability to track down an Ottawa 67's player in action last season.

Watching Jesse Graham rush the puck, it’s pretty easy to forget he’s a defenceman.

Picked the best skater in the OHL Eastern Conference coaches poll, the Toronto native often effortlessly gets the puck out to the Niagara IceDogs blue-line, then shifts into another gear to move into the opposition’s end.

The 18-year-old Toronto native is ranked 125th heading into this weekend’s NHL draft in Pittsburgh, but there has never been any talk of him moving to a forward position because of his 5-foot-11, 160-pound frame.

“Nothing has ever come up like that,” he said, almost bristling over the telephone line at the thought. “In the NHL right now, there are a lot of smaller defecemen who are good skaters and puck movers, so I think that’s my role and I think I play it pretty well.

“My skating definitely is a big part of my game, for sure.”

The NHL scouts have also noticed that part of his game, he said of discussions he and his agent have had in advance of the draft.

“Most teams like my skating ability and my strong play with the puck — I’m a good puck mover,” he said with confidence. “They’d kind of like to see me work on my size and get stronger, just add some muscle to my body.”

When he’s in flight, “bobbing and weaving” as head coach/general manager Marty Williamson likes to say, it’s easy to overlook the defensive side of his game that has left him with big numbers on the plus side of things (+27 in his rookie year and +25 in the 2011-12 season).

“He’s a puck-moving defenceman,” said defence coach Jason Brooks. “He’s got great speed and, defensively, he does his job very well.

“He does a very good job and doesn’t get the attention he deserves.”

As part of a Mutt-and-Jeff duo teamed with 6-foot-7 Jamie Oleksiak after the trade deadline, Graham often found himself standing up to the opposition’s top lines — and doing it well.

“The only comparison I can give — and I’m not saying he’s a Drew Doughty — but when I coached Drew in Guelph, they said the same thing. He’s an offensive defenceman, he wheels the puck so well and moves the puck so well and they lost sight of the fact he was a great defender,” Brooks said.

“Dougie (Hamilton) could be put in the same category. They’re great offensive defencemen and (people) forget about how good defensively they really are. Yeah, he’s not a big kid, but … for probably 90% of the season, he was matched up against the top two lines of the opposition.”

If there’s one fault, Brooks said, it may be that sometimes the young rearguard may take a penalty for being too aggressive, which comes along with his confidence in his ability.

“But I think as coaches, we love the fact he has competability and will lay it on the line like that for the team.”

And for now, waiting for the weekend is the worst part of the draft.

“Just talking to the guys on the team, (Ryan) Strome and Oleksiak always gave me advice,” he said. “They told me not to get caught up in it all and just kind of wait for your time — and it’s going to come.”

As for his team of choice, it doesn’t matter.

“It doesn’t matter to me. Anybody who wants me is where I want to be.”

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