In a year with an exceptionally strong freshman class, especially when it comes to high-end defensemen, one of the early standouts has been Minnesota Duluth rookie defenseman Wyatt Kaiser.
Kaiser was selected in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft, 81st overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, so he was certainly considered a talented and promising young prospect. But the extent to which he has excelled so far this season, and so soon after being drafted, is exceeding all expectations.
I took a closer look at Kaiser in video of some of Minnesota Duluth’s early season games played in the NCHC Pod in Omaha, Nebraska to get a better sense of how he was adjusting to the college game and what his future might be going forward.
Starting with the basics, Kaiser is a 6-0 173 lbs. left shot left defenseman. With the eye test, he’s certainly close to six feet tall, though definitely not over it. The listed weight, though already relatively light, is probably inflated a couple pounds as well. There is certainly room to fill out his frame a little bit with some time spent in the weight room.
Not only is Kaiser a true 18-year-old freshman, increasingly becoming very rare in NCAA hockey, but he’s a young 18-year-old at that, having just turned 18 on July 31st of this year.
Kaiser is playing a lot for Minnesota Duluth. He is playing on UMD’s top defensive pairing, and featuring on both the power play and penalty kill. There are no publicly available time on ice numbers in college hockey, but in one of the game broadcasts, the announcing crew mentioned that UMD clocked Kaiser at 28 minutes of ice time in their previous game, which definitely feels realistic.
His final stats in nine games in the NCHC Pod came out to zero goals and four assists for four points, along with a +4 +/-(Team total was +6), and six penalties for 12 PIMs.
Having followed Kaiser for a few years, I’m not necessarily surprised that he is having the success he is. I don’t think there were any questions about his ceiling as a player. But the speed at which he has developed into a top tier college hockey player has been remarkable.
Prior to this season, Kaiser seemed like a natural candidate to spend an extra year in the USHL. There are just very, very few players these days that can make the jump straight from Minnesota high school hockey to the NCAA level. Kaiser was able to play 11 games with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL in the fall of 2019, but Covid kept him from getting any additional games after his high school season ended. Add in his youth and relative lack of physcial strength, and it seemed to make sense to give him that extra year to develop before bringing him in to play college hockey.
But Minnesota Duluth had space on their blue line, needing to replace major minutes from Hobey Baker winner Scott Perunovich, Dylan Samberg and Nick Wolff, all of whom signed NHL contracts last spring. That gave Kaiser an opportunity at UMD and he has run with it. He has stepped in from Day One to be a major contributor for the Bulldogs.
Because they’re roughly the same size and both overall very talented players, I think there is a bit of a natural inclination from some people to compare Kaiser to Scott Perunovich. I don’t think that’s correct though. Perunovich’s vision and hockey sense made him an otherworldly offensive player, and I don’t really see that from Kaiser. Which is no knock on Kaiser, there aren’t many players in the world on Perunovich’s level when it comes to that. Instead, I think Kaiser is much closer to a smaller version of Dylan Samberg; a player that can contribute offensively, but where he really shines is using his athleticism and skating ability to be an incredibly effective defender.
Here are a couple examples of that in practice. Because he is so quick and so good on his edges, he’s able to play tight gaps defending one-on-one and can be absolutely suffocating.
Sometimes this can get him into trouble. He took a penalty when his stick got caught in the skates of the player he was defending. But the good far outweighs the bad. He’s like an elite NFL cornerback that can just shadow receivers and shut them down.
Here’s another example of his skating ability in the defensive end on a puck retrieval. The forechecker shades Kaiser to the right, because that is the way most defensemen are going to go every time. Kaiser has the ability to hit the brakes, turn his feet the other way and take the puck to the left.
That is a really high-end, NHL-caliber play that not many defensemen can make, and it leads to UMD getting the puck out of their zone.
On this play, a forward tries to chip the puck behind him, but Kaiser is too quick and is able to retrieve the puck and turn it back up the ice.
Another thing that has stood out in a pleasant on the defensive end with Kaiser is his grittiness and competitiveness on the defensive end, which I think plays against the stereotype people have of smaller, fast-skating defenders.
Here’s an example of him hustling back and laying out to clean up a mistake by his defensive partner:
He competes hard in front of his own net to gain position and front the player he is defending. And he has shown tremendous willingness to sacrifice his body and block shots when needed, highlighted by this incredible stretch in the closing moments of Minnesota Duluth’s second game of the season:
And of course, Kaiser ended the game with this highlight reel defensive stretch: pic.twitter.com/yBEK8Tw8cN— Chris Dilks (@ChrisDilks) December 5, 2020
The offensive side of his game is still developing, and where, at times, he’ll look like an 18-year-old freshman with the game moving a little too fast for him. His handle on the puck is just okay, and he sometimes has the tendency to just fling pucks leading to inaccurate passes and turnovers. Some of that might be youth, some of it might be fatigue, as he was playing a lot of minutes in a fairly short amount of time. I’d expect that to get better over time as he gains maturity and confidence and gets better at some of the details in his game.
He does a solid job manning the point on UMD’s power play, though he’s got some veteran playmakers on his wings that are doing most of the creating. There is a lot of room for his shot to improve, as you’d expect from a player that isn’t as physically developed. But if he can develop the ability to change shot angles with his feet, he has potential as a really dangerous player with the man advantage.
The most exciting thing about Kaiser offensively, no surprise, once again comes from his skating ability. He is terrific at turning defense into offense with quick transitions.
On this play, he is aggressive in forcing a turnover at the neutral zone halfboards, then grabs the puck and turns it up ice quickly for a good zone entry.
This is another example of him stepping up to intercept a pass in the defensive zone, and then quickly turning it into a clean zone entry.
Overall, I think the Blackhawks have to be thrilled with the early returns on their third round pick. Kaiser was a bit of a gamble at that early in the draft. Everyone knew the skating was a tremendous tool, but not having had many opportunities to see him against higher levels of competition, there was a lot of uncertainty if he’d be able to make the jump and be as effective at the next level. His performance in the NCHC Pod answered a lot of those questions.
Prior to the season I thought the timeline on Kaiser was going to be a little longer, just because he played high school hockey last season, and was probably going to need some time to adjust to the college game. I still think he could benefit from some time to add a little more bulk to his frame. But the best defenseman on one of the top NCAA teams in the country isn’t that far away from being a pro player. He may be ready to sign with Chicago after two years at UMD.
I don’t know that this early stretch in the Pod changes expectations for the ceiling of Kaiser’s pro potential, but seeing him make the jump to the NCAA level and excelling rather seamlessly should raise the floor on expectations quite a bit. With his defensive abilities, he has the potential to be a steady NHL regular, with upside to possibly be even more than that if he can become better with the puck.