Red Wings 2024 Draft Targets: 5 Defensemen

The Hockey Writers

The 2024 NHL Draft is just under two weeks away and teams are beginning to make their final preparations for the yearly event. The Detroit Red Wings are no different, but their standing heading into the draft is a lot different than it has been in years past.

Not only did the Red Wings finish just outside of the playoff picture this season, but their prospect pool has also as deep as any in the NHL. Their first pick in this year’s draft comes outside of the top-10, marking the first time since 2016 that has been the case. A handful of prospects are expected to push for roster spots next season, and that should start to become an annual occurrence as their prospect pool continues to yield NHL talent.

Defense is where the Red Wings have the most depth in their prospect pool. Their top prospect, Simon Edvinsson, is a defenseman, they drafted Axel Sandin Pellikka 17th overall in last year’s draft, and there are several other defenders in the organization that show a ton of promise. That being said, it is never a bad idea to add talent on the blue line whenever you can, and the Red Wings should continue to do so at this year’s draft.

Here are some defenders worth the Red Wings’ consideration.

Stian Solberg

Stian Solberg is Norwegian defensemen that is mostly known for the physicality in his game, but he shows flashes of being more than a guy that hits people at the NHL level. Because of those flashes, including how he played while representing Norway at the World Championships back in April and May, he is shooting up people’s rankings. If the Red Wings are interested, they probably have to take him at 15th overall to make it happen.

Solberg, who says he models his game after Red Wings defender Moritz Seider as well as Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, is a defensive defenseman that prides himself in knocking the opposition off the puck with his body and stick positioning. He isn’t as big as some of the other guys in Detroit’s system, but at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, he isn’t lacking in size. With the way he plays, you’d be forgiven if you thought he was a few inches bigger.

Related: Red Wings 2024 First Round Draft Targets: 5 Forwards

But make no mistake, Solberg is more than just a ferocious defender. He makes simple plays to get the puck out of the defensive zone, and his shot is good enough to beat NHL goaltenders, especially with a few years of development. He won’t be dynamic in the offensive end, but he would be a good partner for a defender that is. The Red Wings could march into the future with a future top-four of Seider, Solberg, Sandin Pellikka and Edvinsson – that looks pretty darn good to me.

EJ Emery

EJ Emery is the son of a former Canadian Football League linebacker, and those genes are present in how he pursues the puck. At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, he already makes himself big in the defensive zone, and he should get even bigger in the coming years. It’s not hard to envision this player one day becoming a defensive tank that takes on a lot of tough minutes in the NHL.

Emery’s skating is particularly strong. While he’s not a blazer like Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes, he glides around the ice and is rarely late to an assignment due to his smooth stride and long reach. He makes a good first pass, but he moves himself better than he moves the puck. He is committed to the University of North Dakota next season, and that’s a program with a history of producing NHL talent, so I’m not worried about his opportunity to hone and refine his game.

EJ Emery USNTDP
EJ Emery, USNTDP (Rena Laverty / USA Hockey’s NTDP)

Emery might be one of the most purely athletic players available in this year’s draft. He finished at or near the top of several events at the NHL Scouting Combine and, as has been noted, he still has a lot of room to add strength to his frame. He projects as a physical shutdown defender that can provide a little bit of offense from the blue line. With his build, profile, and the fact that he is right-handed, there’s a decent chance he won’t be available when the Red Wings pick at 47th overall. If he is, however, he is an excellent candidate to be the organization’s next project defenseman selected in the second round.

Cole Hutson

If Cole Hutson’s name rings a bell, it’s probably because his brother Lane is widely considered to be the Montreal Canadiens’ best prospect. Like his brother, Cole is an undersized, left-handed defenseman with a ton of skill. Most pundits expect that he will be selected late in the second round, also like his brother.

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Hutson’s game is one of movement. He is a silky-smooth skater, and that allows him to maneuver his way up the ice with and without the puck. When he has the puck, he facilitates play with crisp passes and a strong awareness of where everyone is on the ice. In other words, he fits the profile of what you want from an undersized defenseman (high skill and mobility), and his compete level is high at both ends of the ice. His game is very similar to his brother’s, but the physical aspects of Cole’s game are a bit more noticeable than Lane’s were in his draft season.

There seems to be a consensus that Cole’s offense won’t pop the same way that Lane’s does, but I think the tools are certainly there. After spending years drafting a cast of towering defensemen, Detroit switched things up by drafting the 5-foot-11 Sandin Pellikka in last year’s draft, with Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman noting that he provides “something different” to their prospect pool. In that same vein, drafting Hutson would give the Red Wings a left-handed option alongside Sandin Pellikka that lacks size but oozes skill. The Canadiens got a steal when they drafted Lane at 62nd overall in 2022; the Red Wings would be wise to consider Cole at 47th overall.

Alfons Freij

Another prospect that fits the mold of a second-round “project” defenseman, Alfons Freij is a raw but talented defender out of Sweden that flashed a lot of tools while playing in the Swedish J20 league this season. Like most projects the Red Wings have taken on, he has a good eye for offense and there were plenty of moments throughout the season where he looked like a first round talent.

When Freij is at his best, he plays like he knows he’s one of the best players on the ice. His talent and confidence allows him to see and execute plays that others simply can’t. Of course, that confidence sometimes gets him into trouble as there is a lot of risk attached to making the big play rather than the safe one. Without a doubt, his potential as an everyday NHL defenseman is tied to his ability to improve his defensive game and better identify when it is time to make the safe play rather than the explosive one. Still, not every defenseman can make the explosive play – he can.

Make no mistake, Freij is not horrible defensively, but it is clearest part of his game that needs work. Walking that line between confidence and competence will be a key focus for him, but the team that drafts him will want to harness his talents rather than dull them out. The Red Wings have plenty of experience working with these types of defensemen, and their organizational presence in Sweden would come in handy as they monitor his development. He’s a candidate for Detroit at 47th overall, but it should not come as a surprise if his potential appeals to a team picking late in the first round or early in the second.

Adam Kleber

Adam Kleber is one of the more impressive defenders in this year’s class from a physical perspective. He stands at 6-foot-5, 207 pounds, and he’ll probably get even bigger by the time he’s pushing for NHL minutes. The Red Wings constructed their defensive prospect pool around players that are built like him, so it would not be surprising if Detroit’s scouting team likes what he has to offer.

Kleber fits the stereotypical description of a big-bodied defender. His offense is secondary to his play in the defensive zone, and he uses his size and reach to break up plays in his own end. If nothing else, he probably has a future as a “big dude that blocks shots”, but there is enough talent here to believe he can be something more. He doesn’t overcomplicate things with the puck on his stick, and his shot is good enough to cause trouble for goaltenders at the pro level. I think he would be an excellent partner for a more offensively-gifted defender like Hutson or Freij as he would ease the burden defensively while also making simple plays that allow those guys to do their thing in the offensive zone.

Kleber will likely be seen as one of the more enticing defensive prospects available outside of the top-15 picks due to his physical tools. The Red Wings aren’t the only organization that values size on the blue line, especially when that prospect uses their size to become a pain in the you-know-what to play against. Like Brady Cleveland last year, Kleber would be a good bet to add size and physicality to Detroit’s prospect pool. He is committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, one of the top collegiate hockey programs in the country, for next season.

Honorable Mentions

  • Sam Dickinson is my “if he’s falling” trade-up target of the year. My guess is that he doesn’t make it past the Seattle Kraken at eighth overall, but if he is still on the board after the first 10 picks, the Red Wings should absolutely start investigating the possibility of moving up from 15th overall. I think people would lose their marbles if Detroit traded up to snag a defenseman, but I love his potential as a future two-way, minute-munching defender.
  • Lukas Fischer, son of former Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer, would be a great feel-good story coming out of the draft if Detroit ends up taking him. He still has a lot of work to do to become more than just a good story, but as one of the youngest players available in this draft, there’s a lot of runway to work with here. He projects as a two-way, third-pairing defender, a perfect target for the Red Wings in the third round.

Final Word

Based on the names I’ve listed here (not including honorable mentions), this is the order in which I would prioritize picking them:

  1. Solberg
  2. Emery
  3. Freij
  4. Hutson
  5. Kleber

I think the Red Wings should ultimately prioritize selecting a forward at 15th overall, but there are a few defenders worth some consideration at that spot, Solberg being one of them. Even though their pool of defensive prospects is particularly deep on the left side, that should not prevent them from adding talent in that area, especially if they can take a swing on Freij or Hutson’s upside. If I could hand pick one of Detroit’s selections, it may very well be Emery at 47th overall; I think he would add something new to their pipeline while also possessing a lot of traits the Red Wings look for on the draft floor.

Regardless of how things shake out, you can expect the Red Wings to leave the draft with at least a couple of new defensive prospects. As has been said, blue line depth is a strength of their prospect pool, and the only way to maintain that is to continue to add talent at that position when the opportunity is there – even in a draft where it seems like a given that the Red Wings should focus on adding forward talent.

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