Player: Ben Brinkman, Defenseman, University of Minnesota(NCAA)
Measurables: 6-1, 210 lbs, left shot
2018-2019 stats: 38 games played, 1 goal, 6 assists, 7 points
Ben Brinkman is a player that has been on the radar for a while. A big and naturally-gifted athlete, Brinkman committed to the University of Minnesota as a ninth-grader with an agreement that he could potentially join the Gophers a year early if he finished high school in three years. Though Minnesota made a head coaching change in the interval, Brinkman did graduate from high school a year early, and spent last season as the youngest player in college hockey. Playing against players as much as six years older meant a quiet draft year for Brinkman, but he remains an extremely viable NHL Draft candidate.
What I Like:
-Size and athleticism
Minnesota listed Brinkman at 6-1 210 lbs., which seems slightly exaggerated by my eye test, but regardless, he’s a strong, solidly-built kid that is going to have no problem holding up physically against anyone in the NHL. Prior to focusing on hockey full-time as a junior in high school, Brinkman was also a good high school football player, playing safety and running back for Edina High School. He’s a smooth, fluid athlete with good agility.
-Advanced level of play
As a late-2000 birthdate, Brinkman was the youngest player in men’s college hockey this season. And while he was by no means a dominant force, he more than held his own against competition that was, in some cases, as much as five or six years older than him. He deserves to be graded on a much different curve than players playing a level below him in junior hockey, or multiple levels below him still in high school.
Brinkman brings some of his football instincts to the rink. He’s not a big open-ice hitter, but definitely does not shy away from contact
Brinkman’s scoring line doesn’t jump off the page, but the one notable stat from his freshman season at Minnesota was a +11 +/- rating on a team with an overall +/- of -1. Next highest on the team was Tampa Bay draft pick Sammy Walker, who had a sensational freshman season. Everyone knows +/- is a deeply imperfect, even flawed stat, but it’s tough to believe it got it that wrong. You could factor in a pretty wide margin for error and Brinkman still comes out looking pretty good. He wasn’t shouldering top pairing responsibility, but Minnesota also wasn’t sheltering him with match-ups either.
What I Don’t Like
-Lack of offensive production
Brinkman finished his freshman season with a 1-6-7 scoring line. For some players, especially one in Brinkman’s situation, this can be explained away by a lack of opportunity as the youngest player on an older, more experienced roster. But that really isn’t the case here. Minnesota was in desperate need of an offensive defenseman to drive their scoring attack, especially on the power play this year, and nobody, Brinkman included, was able to step up.
Brinkman has all the physical tools, but there is significant, legitimate concern that he may not have the ice vision and hockey sense to play at the NHL level.
As a draft prospect, Brinkman’s timing could not be worse. At nearly any other point in the NHL Draft’s history, Brinkman’s combination of strength and athleticism would have had teams fighting to get him, possibly even in the first round. But in this current moment, when everyone is still trying to draft the next Erik Karlsson, the excitement over Brinkman is considerably subdued. As it stands now, Brinkman is likely to be picked somewhere between the third round on the high end to fifth/sixth round on the low end. I’d personally lean more towards the high-end, depending on who else was still available in the third round, but can also understand why some other teams may be more cautious.
I tend to take a more optimisitc view of Brinkman than the general consensus. Yes, he’s never going to be a 60-70 point guy like Erik Karlsson. But not every NHL defenseman is going to be that, nor do they necessarily need to be. There’s considerable room between that and ‘effective NHL defenseman’ and I believe Brinkman will one day fall into that range, though closer to a 5th/6th defenseman than a top pairing guy. I think he has the athletic upside to be a dependable, physically imposing defense-first defenseman at the pro level.
Brinkman will return to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season, where he will likely handle an increased role on the Gopher blue line. If his development continues, he could become a top pairing, shutdown defenseman, and also play a valuable role providing cover for some of the talented offensive-minded defensemen Minnesota will bring in next season.
Because he has already played college hockey, and because he is already physically developed, Brinkman should be on a more compressed timeline than many other draft prospects, especially in the later rounds of the draft. Assuming things progress as hoped, Brinkman would most likely be ready for a pro contract in two years, after completing his junior season.