Olen Zellweger is an incredibly mobile defenceman who has seen his draft stock rise sharply since the beginning of the season. He is reminiscent of Quinn Hughes and Samuel Girard, being the prototypical modern day defenceman who can play an incredible defensive game but is aggressive offensively. We caught up with the defender earlier this month to talk about his hockey. Given his incredible breakout season with the Everett Silvertips, Zellweger is a good bet to go in the early rounds, possibly as high as the middle of the first. Let’s break it down.
Who is Olen Zellweger?
The fourth youngest player in TWC’s consolidated draft rankings, Zellweger was born just five days before the cutoff for this year’s draft. This makes him both younger but also a little smaller than some of the other guys on the ice as he is still growing into his game. Standing 5’10” and weighing in just north of 170 pounds, Zellweger does not let his size define him, often playing bigger than he looks. A left-shot defenceman, he is comfortable on both sides of the ice, and plays a strong, reliable two-way game.
Olen Zellweger’s on-ice production
Zellwegar is an interesting player. He was once touted for his strong defensive game but absolutely exploded on offense this season. Take a look at his numbers below.
|2018–19||D-2||CSSHL U18||OHA Edmonton Prep||35||8||19||27|
The WHL is a tough league, and especially a tough league to score in relative to other junior leagues. In his first season, Zellweger struggled to put points on net, but was absolutely a force to be reconed with on the defensive end. However, he found his offence putting up 13 points in just 11 games this past season. Desipite having a shortened season, he was one of just eight defencemen in the league over a point-per-game, finishing fourth in that regard. He was also fourth among defencemen in points in the US Division of the Dub this year, despite only playing in 13 games.
Zellweger then followed that up with a goal and seven assists in seven games for Team Canada at the World U18 Championships. He tied for the tournament lead in points among defencemen, which says a lot in a best-on-best tournament.
Not every prospect heading into the NHL draft peaks at 16 years old. some, like Ryan Francis and Andrew Mangiapane, take an extra year or two to really reach their potential. What was it about this season that facilitated Zellweger’s breakout?
Olen Zellweger’s strengths
The best thing that Zellweger brings to the ice is his skating, which has been described by scouts as flawless. He is arguably the best skater in the entire draft, with a low centre of gravity and the ability to turn on a dime. He has great acceleration, and when he reaches top speed, he can absolutely fly. Watch this incredibly play where he starts slightly out of position from his pinch, but uses his feet to get back into the play:
Like exceptional modern day defencemen, Zellweger has the ability to walk the blue line, changing the angle of the play and forcing the defense to readjust constantly. On the back end, he is a very strong backwards skater, employing crossovers to keep his speed up when defending the rush. Zellweger also has great gap control and vision that allows him to see plays developing and adapt faster than most at his age.
On offense, Zellweger has great vision and can make sharp crisp passes that others may not see. While his short passes are excellent, he can also hit players breaking out quickly on a breakaway. When breaking out of the zone, Zellweger is great at moving the play through the neutral zone and into the attack. He also can keep his feet moving to avoid checks from attackers on the forecheck. But what is more, he isn’t the type of player to try and force the play—when he doesn’t see an opening he likes, he is not afraid to turn back and restart. Take a look at this breakout by Zellweger from his rookie year:
He starts by isolating his man then stripping him of the puck. He then uses his incredible skating to evade one forechecker, turning behind the net, then when he sees another coming his way on the breakout, he turns back before making a play up ice. You cannot teach this level of hockey IQ or maturity. He is just naturally smart and responsible with the puck.
When in the offensive zone, Zellweger has a really strong wrist shot that can beat goalies clean from anywhere on the ice. Despite being a smaller player, his shot is very hard and incredibly accurate. He also uses his feet to change the angle of his shot. He also has a really good hard slapshot from the point and can keep it low for a tip as well. Check out this clip of his first of the season for Everett:
Notice how he takes the pass in stride then just keeps his feet moving before he takes the shot. This forces the goalie to guess as to when and where he will take the shot, which is much tougher to do than against a stationary shooter. On top of that, the fact that Zellweger can rifle a shot from that distance and beat the goalie clean points to the power of his shot and his upper body strength relative to his draft class.
Olen Zellweger’s areas of improvement
Zellweger knows exactly where he needs to improve:
While he has done an admirable job at the WHL level against guys bigger and stronger than him, Zellweger needs to keep working in the gym to get bigger and stronger. This will help him both along the boards in the cycle, but moreso right in front of his own net to clear space for his goalie to see.
As is a problem with most young defencemen, Zellweger needs to continue working on his defensive game, especially in tracking his man through the zone. This is something that will come with time, as he has the instincts and skating skills to get better at this.
Fit with the Flames
While the Flames have a number of left-handed defencemen in their system, Zellweger gives them probably the most well-rounded defencemen who can truly do it all. Between Juuso Valimaki, Rasmus Andersson, Connor Mackey, Jeremie Poirier, Yan Kuznetsov, and more, none are as dynamic offensively while also being as stalwart defensively as Zellweger projects to be. In short, the Flames have a lot of very good players, but could always use an elite defenceman.
He is not the biggest guy on the ice, but this has never been an issue for him. A number of scouts think that this may limit him to a second pairing role simply because he won’t be big enough to defend larger guys, but I disagree. He has done a great job defending players larger and stronger than him through his NHL career, and provided he is able to build up more muscle and continue to use his feet to his advantage, there is no reason to suggest that he could not be a top pairing defenceman at the NHL level.
He will need at least a couple more full seasons at the WHL level, and likely some more time at the AHL level before being NHL ready, but should he reach his ceiling, he projects higher than most defensemen in the Flames’ system. That is incredibly hard to pass up for any team.
On top of that, the Flames are targetting Dustin Wolf to be their goalie of the future, and reuniting him with Zellweger would be an easy way to build out from the back. With a new netminder, it is always hard to get into a rhythm with defencemen, but having one who knows how the goalie likes to play will make it an easier transition from Jacob Markstrom to Wolf in net.
Zellweger is an analytics darling, with some projecting him to go as high as the middle of the first round. However, given his size and age, he more likely falls into the second round. If he is available when the Flames select at 45, he would be a phenomenal selection. Zellweger could be the type of player that will be a consensus first-round selection in a redraft in five years, that taking him in the second round will look like a work of genius by Brad Treliving if available.
Yes his size is a concern, but the upside that he brings in all areas of his game, including his phenomenal skating, makes him a risk worth taking for the Flames in the second round
Projection: Top four defenceman and reliable power play quarterback
Previously: William Eklund, Dylan Guenther, Cole Sillinger, Jesper Wallstedt, Kent Johnson, Simon Robertsson, Fabian Lysell, Aatu Räty, Carson Lambos, Simon Edvinsson, Chaz Lucius, Mason McTavish, Brennan Othmann, Corson Ceulemans, Francesco Pinelli, Oskar Olausson, Xavier Bourgault, Zachary L’Heureux, Matthew Coronato, Zachary Bolduc, Logan Stankoven, Sebastian Cossa, Nikita Chibrikov, Fyodor Svechkov, Daniil Chayka, Isak Rosen Sasha Pastujov, Trevor Wong
Featured image created with Venngage.