Weight: 210 lbs.
Drafted: 3rd Round, 2011
Last Year's Ranking: 17
Coming in at #19 in this year's rankings is defenseman Austin Levi, dropping two spots from last year. Levi is pegged as a physical, big-bodied defenseman and has spent the last five years playing with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. As one of the older players on the team, he played a pretty big role as one of their shutdown defensemen and those who watched him had nothing to say about his defensive play. I'm hoping that they aren't pointing to his +31 rating as evidence of that because even though it may look good, it's probably the result of him playing on a strong Plymouth team last year. Either way, Levi's had a solid career in juniors and should make the jump to the pros next season, now we just wait to see if he ends up in Charlotte or Estero.
Levi was considered a "project" when the Hurricanes drafted him because he had a lot of raw talent, but not that impressive of a track record in 80 OHL games. He had great size for a kid his age, though and many scouts considered him "tough to play against" because of his willingness to make use of his big frame to punish opposing forwards. He also racked up a lot of penalty minutes from fights and other scraps. Levi's basically the type of player who fans of tight-checking, physical hockey would love to have on their team and a player that most coaches always seem to like.
The intangibles that Levi brings to the table are great and nice to have, but with defensive defensemen being so common at every level, a player like Levi has to be exceptional at playing in his own end or add other dimensions to his game. Levi is a very good skater for a player his size, but he hasn't been the most effective offensive player despite a great 2011-12 playoff campaign. However, his defensive play is something about his game that really makes him stand out. His big 6'4", 210 lbs. frame is a reason why he's been so successful in juniors, as it's easier for him to overpower younger, smaller forwards. This was especially true last year with him being an overager.
Levi's either heading to the AHL or ECHL next year, so he'll likely get some experience playing against older competition and I'm sure this will give Carolina fans a better idea of his game. He has actually gotten bigger over the last few years, weighing 210 lbs. at the Canes development camp a couple weeks ago and he is also a couple inches taller than he was when he was drafted. Next to Brody Sutter, Levi was the strongest looking player at camp and really owned opposing forwards in the one-on-one drills. Combine that with his above average skating and you have yourself a player that has to the tools to be a solid defenseman.
None of this should be a surprise, though because anyone who has followed Levi knows that his size and physical play are the strengths of his game and the reason why the Hurricanes drafted him. He just needs to be able to put it together and develop a consistent enough game at the professional level. Whether or not he can do that remains to be seen because he has only played junior hockey for his entire career. He was invited to the Charlotte Checkers training camp last year, but didn't make the team and played for Plymouth as an overager. Not the worst thing in the world because he wasn't going to get ice-time in Charlotte thanks to the lockout flooding the roster, but Levi's going to be in a similar situation in a few months because there is only so many spots to go around on Charlotte's blue-line.
Currently, the Checkers have 11 defensemen under contract, which will probably go down after the Hurricanes training camp, but Levi's going to have to really standout to make the final cut. The Hurricanes signed a couple of veteran AHL defensemen in Mark Flood & Matt Correntte to help shore up their depth on defense, which will help but it's going to be tough for Levi to make the roster unless he has a great showing in training camp. Levi's no stranger to challenges, so I think he will do whatever it takes to make the team, but making the jump from juniors to the pros isn't as easy as it seems.
After the jump, we'll look at how Levi's junior career went and what we can expect from him in the next few years.
Judging Levi's progress by goals and points is misleading because he is a shutdown defenseman. His job is to prevent shots, play tough against opposing forwards and keep the puck out his own zone. Any goals and points he produces on top of that are gravy. Unfortunately, the OHL's stats don't offer that much to judge a player's defensive or territorial play, so boxcar stats are the only thing we have right now. According to those who have watched Levi play, he has been one of Plymouth's top shutdown guys for the last couple of years and is usually among their leaders in time on ice. That's to be expected given his age and the type of player he is, so it would be nice to get a closer look at his on-ice performance since highlight packages only show you limited parts of his game. That being said, Levi's boxcar numbers aren't bad for a defensive defenseman, but I wouldn't expect him to do much offensively at the next level unless he's moved to forward, which I've heard some consider.
What we were looking for here are defensemen who played over 200 games or 4+ seasons in the OHL who scored at a similar career point-per-game rate. For Levi that would be around .30-.40 PPG. That leaves you with a lot of possibilities for him. He could either toll away in the minors or semi-pros for the rest of his career or have a decent NHL career as a bottom-pairing defenseman or special teams guy. However, something to keep in mind here is that all of the guys on this list who did make the NHL had to spend a few years in the minors before doing so. Some of them were there for as long as seven years before making the leap.
With Levi being fresh out of junior, I think it was a given that he was going to need some fine tuning in the AHL but how long he will stay there remains to be seen. He could be a career AHL-er or he could find his niche in the NHL after a few years. Lord knows the Hurricanes have been looking for someone with size and Levi will at least be able to give them that. It's now just a matter of how long he is away from being ready for the NHL.
Personally, I think Levi's development is in about the same place as it was last year, so his ranking hasn't changed much.