Name: Corson Ceulemans
Team: Brooks Bandits (AJHL)
Stats: 8 games played, 4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points, 8 PIMs (AJHL)
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 14th (North American skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Jakob Chychrun / Mikhail Sergachev
When it comes to scouting and evaluating prospects it is always important to factor in a player’s environment. Is a specific prospect playing for a perennial powerhouse, or for a constant basement-dweller? Does their team’s strategy slant heavily in one direction, either offensively or defensively? Are they in a good situation where they are allowed to play to their strengths, or are they stuck in a role that doesn’t suit them?
For the 2021 NHL Entry Draft one of the most interesting prospects, with regards to these sorts of questions, is defenseman Corson Ceulemans of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Brooks Bandits.
If the Brooks Bandits name sounds familiar, then it’s most likely because you remember them as the organization that Cale Makar was drafted out of, before he began terrorizing the NCAA and now the NHL as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. While Makar is undoubtedly a unicorn, one of the most purely talented players in the entire sport, the Brooks organization deserves a certain amount of credit for how they developed Makar and how they helped unlock his full offensive potential.
“We have always been an offensive-minded team, especially with our defensemen, so it was a natural fit with Cale,” Bandits head coach and general manager Ryan Papaioannou once said about Makar. Makar was already pretty promising before joining Brooks, but he wasn’t one of those generational young talents that some other NHL superstars were in their early teens, where fans would go out of their way to watch live games and media coverage came early. He was only an 8th-round pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, and Brooks still had to help develop him after he decided to join their organization.
To say that the Bandits are “offensive-minded” would be like saying that Connor McDavid is a good skater or that Steph Curry is good at shooting 3-pointers — something of an understatement. Here is how Brooks recently ranked in the AJHL in terms of goals scored:
- 2015-16: 1st
- 2016-17: 1st
- 2017-18: 3rd
- 2018-19: 1st (by a difference of 80 goals!)
- 2019-20: 1st/
Papaioannou has been leading the organization for more than 10 years, while the team’s assistant coach and skills coach have both been there for more than five. This is a franchise that has developed and embraced an identity of fast, high-scoring hockey, and with multiple AJHL titles and a pair of national Junior A championships within the recent past it’s easy to see why they have leaned so much into it. When locals go to watch a Brooks Bandits game, they know what to expect.
All of this brings us back to Ceulemans.
While Ceulemans isn’t anywhere near Makar’s level, the two do share some similarities beyond their time with Brooks: both are right-shot defensemen who skate well, handle the puck well, and think the offensive side of the game well. But while Makar has a huge advantage in terms of skating and puck skill and creativity, Ceulemans is bigger and stronger and has a physical element to his game. The 18-year-old defender has the skill to rush the puck deep into the offensive zone or undress an opposing defender at the attack blueline, and he also has enough bite to blow someone up with a big hit or clear the crease in front of his goalie.
Ceulemans has been advanced for his age for a while now. He joined Brooks late in the 2018-19 season as a 15-year-old and pretty much immediately earned a Top 4 role, which he held down as his team conquered the AJHL and then won a national title, knocking off clubs filled with 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds. He kept that momentum going into his 16-year-old season in 2019-20, including playing for Hockey Canada both at the IIHF U17s and against more older competition than him at the World Junior A Challenge.
The COVID-19 pandemic took a big chunk out of Ceuleman’s draft season, but he did manage to get eight games of action in the AJHL (scoring 11 points and leading his club in average ice time by a country mile) before again representing Canada internationally, this time under the bright spotlight of the IIHF U18s.
And there, at the U18s, something interesting happened.
With other talented puck-movers in the fray (such as Brandt Clarke and Olen Zellweger), Ceulemans was tasked with playing more of a defensive role — more penalty killing time than powerplay time, and a much shorter leash for carrying the puck all by himself in transition. The results, however, were still very impressive. Canada won the gold medal in the tournament with Ceulemans playing a key role, and he still managed to pick up eight points in six games in the process.
That U18 tournament was a really important stretch of games for Ceulemans in the eyes of scouts. The biggest knocks that have followed him around are his hockey sense and his defensive play, though I have personally always been a little skeptical of those criticisms.
While Ceulemans is far from perfect defending without the puck because of issues with positioning and awareness, and even though there are times where he will turn the puck over because he’s trying to do too much with it, I always wondered how much of that is him inherently, and how much of it is how Brooks plays and how they ask him to play. If a 17-year-old defenseman is the lynchpin of your transition game, and your team is incredibly focused and reliant on its transitions, then how can you not expect turnovers sometimes?
But when the coaching staff for Hockey Canada asked Ceulemans to play a simpler game, to dial things back a bit and minimize mistakes, he did an admirable job. Seeing that other side of him really highlighted just how versatile and moldable his overall game really is.
When just looking at the raw tools alone it’s hard to not get excited about the Regina, Saskatchewan native. It’s just incredibly rare to see defenders with his mix of size, athleticism, mobility, puck skill, pacing and competitiveness, not to mention the added bonus of him being a right-handed shot. You don’t draft a prospect just because of who he is right now and what he can do right now — you draft him based off of who and what you project him to be in the future, especially after your development staff have had years to work with him.
The potential ceiling with Ceulemans is sky-high, and for that reason NHL teams shouldn’t wait too long to call his name on the first night of draft weekend.