Corson Ceulemans: 2021 NHL Draft Prospect Profile; A Defenseman with Big Upside and Big Question Marks

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Who is Corson Ceulemans?

Corson Ceulemans is a defenseman coming out of the Junior-A Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), where he has spent the past two seasons playing for the Brooks Bandits. Ceulemans is listed at 6’-2” and 201 pounds, giving him good size and, having just turned 18 in May, is on the younger side of this year’s draft class. The reason Ceulemans played in the AJHL this season and not the WHL (where he was selected in their bantam draft) is because he plans to head to the NCAA next season to play for the Wisconsin Badgers. Ceulemans has also played a substantial role for Team Canada in international competition, including at this year’s U18 World Junior Championships, where he was part of Canada’s gold medal team, producing a strong 8 points (1g, 7a) in 6 games. His career stats from Elite Prospects are below.

Corson Ceulemans career stats
EliteProspects.com

Ceulemans has big talent along the blue line, albeit in a slightly raw package. One thing that appears constantly in his profiles is the comparison to Cale Makar, who broke the mold by being a very high draft selection coming out of the AJHL and made good on his draft position by becoming an instant star when he arrived from college a couple seasons later. It is tough to separate how much of that comparison is just making the easy connection between high-scoring AJHL defensemen from the Brooks Bandits and what portion represents a sober style and talent-level comparison, but there are many mentions of the 2019-20 Calder Trophy winner in profiles on Ceulemans either way.

Digging into the profiles on Ceulemans, the thing that becomes apparent is that he has a series of potentially elite tools in his game but they don’t always fit together in just the right way. He has a dangerous shot with a quick release when he gets it through and he can be highly skilled creating plays in transition. He is a highly aggressive player and seems to always be trying to push play forward, to the point that it can get him in trouble at times. He has good size and can play a strong physical game but reports also mention a lot of instances of being out of place or overcommitting and getting beat. Most mention how Ceulemans can move very well on his skates and that his skating is particularly strong going forward in transition. When you put it all together, Ceulemans is a player with tremendous upside, but he’s also probably one of the riskier bets among likely first rounders, a fact only exacerbated by the highly-truncated 2020-21 season.

Where is Corson Ceulemans Ranked?

Corson Ceulemans is a bit of a divisive prospect among those in the ranking business, and the assessments cover a wide range of draft positions from #11 all the way back to #55. The explanation here seems to come down to the fact that he has the tools and major high-end potential but also some significant question marks in his game. The combination of being an AJHL product and only playing 8 games this season adds further uncertainty, but the consensus seems to give him pretty solid odds of being selected in the back half of the first round.

What Others Say About Corson Ceulemans

There is a lot of praise out there on Ceulemans and most seem to give him really high potential to make an NHL impact someday. That praise very often is accompanied by some “yes, but” statements, though, and while the Makar comparisons abound, Ceulemans was not nearly that level of dominant in his time in the AJHL. I think this blub from Steve Kournianos in his rankings at the Draft Analyst does a pretty solid job at summing the broader pros and cons for Ceulemans as a draft pick:

A plus skater with a hard shot who also plays physical, Ceulemans has all the tools to be one of the best defensemen to come out of this draft class. Marrying all his positives into shift-to-shift consistency has been a battle, however, and even a decent offensive showing at the under-18 world championship also revealed positional issues on the defensive side.

The caveat here should be that Kournianos, based on where he placed him in his rankings, has one of the lower opinions on Ceuleman, but it still sums up the factors at play here well. Where an evaluator lands on Ceulemans pretty much comes down to how high they rate his skills and talent versus the inconsistencies in his game. Even Kournianos, who put him at 51st in his final rankings, thinks Ceuleman has the upside to eventually be one of the best defenders in the draft.

Let’s go next to a really well done profile by Sam McGilligan at Smaht Scouting. We’ll start on skating, which McGilligan lists as Ceuleman’s best asset. This bit on his transition game gets into how he uses that skating to his advantage:

Where his skating shines the most is during his transitional game, Ceulemans’ bread and butter. He’s capable of recovering the puck in the defensive zone, beating the first layer of the forecheck and facilitating a rush by using either his passing or his puck carrying abilities. He skates with his head up, scanning through traffic for optimal routes and changing his lateral direction with crossovers to confuse the defense. He understands give and go situations, the small windows that are created by passing back and forth with your teammates to cause the opposition pause and break down defensive structures.

As is often the case on Ceulemans, though, that praise comes with this qualifier:

The problem is that while Ceulemans exhibits these traits, I’m not convinced he’s shown he can do them with consistency. Sometimes he can recover the puck behind his net with the awareness that there is a forechecker behind him and he’ll account for that by making a move with his feet, his stick or his body in order to maintain puck control so that he’s ready to start a breakout the other way. Other times I see the first layer of forecheckers catch him off guard and he turns the puck over, as if he had no idea that there was a player behind him and he thought he had more room to work with.

For Ceulemans, its all about the tools. In flashes, he looks like he could be a menace, but there is a constant wish for him to be what he is in those moments on a more consistent basis. To wit, here’s a comment from the Smaht Scouting profile on his offense:

Ceulemans has shown he possesses many of the tools you want to see from offensive minded defenseman in the NHL but, again, he’s haunted by inconsistency.

And defense:

Defensively, Ceulemans continues to be a perplexing enigma. The general theme of “the tools are there and sometimes they work really nicely buuuuttttt” persists.

There is a lot of good, deeper analysis behind those statements, so I highly recommend reading McGilligan’s profile, but the above comments capture the theme and why Ceulemans seems to be a very difficult player to project.

Not everyone is quite as frustrated with the inconsistency in Ceulemans’ game with this profile from Ben Kerr at Last Word on Sports being just as high on the upside and a lot more muted with the caveats. Skating is again pointed out as a big strength:

Ceulemans combines his good size with excellent skating ability. He has a very good first step and a long and powerful stride. This gives him excellent acceleration and top-end speed. Ceulemans is good in both directions. This allows him to cover a lot of ice and is the basis of his two-way game. Ceulemans can rush up the ice or pinch at the blue line and still get back defensively. Ceulemans also has very good agility and edgework.

And on Ceulemans’ abilities as a playmaker:

Ceulemans is an excellent playmaker. He can carry the puck through the neutral zone and creates effective zone entries. On the rush, he has excellent vision and passing skills, head-manning the puck quickly and creating offence with speed. He can avoid attackers on the forecheck and move the puck up the ice. Ceulemans uses his playmaking skills to create offensive chances for teammates.

Kerr summarizes his profile with the statement on Ceulemans having all of the tools to become a top-four defender, a statement that I think most agree with. He mentions Ceulemans’ defensive game needing cleaning up and wanting to see him perform on offense at a higher level in the NCAA. One nice thing about the NCAA route for a guy like Ceulemans is that it is a good venue to test out his toolkit against stronger competition while also ironing out some of his bigger question marks.

Finally, we’ll go to this profile from Dayton Reimer at The Hockey Writers, where the Makar comparisons are probed a little more deeply:

It’s hard not to see the similarities between the two players. Both Ceulemans and Makar play a fast, offense-first style that emphasizes puck handling and out-thinking their opponents. Ceulemans also helped the Bandits claim their fifth league title in 2018-19, scoring two goals in the playoffs and adding an assist in the Junior A Doyle Cup Tournament.

But:

Ceulemans isn’t as sound defensively as his counterpart, and his struggles have been magnified by the fact that the AJHL is not known as a great development league, further deepening the divide between the two. He also can be too aggressive on the offense, and though his vision is top-notch, his decision-making isn’t always the best, and it can create turnovers.

Reimer follows up that point though by saying that while perhaps he isn’t Makar, that doesn’t mean he’s not talented in his own right. Makar is one of the best defenders in the league right now. A vanishingly small number of players can legitimately claim to be on his level, so the comparison is almost a bit unfair. Reimer rounds out his assessment with this praise of Ceulemans’ game.

Although his defensive game isn’t strong, his offensive awareness is excellent. He is the best when he is carrying the puck, able to drive the play and deliver quick, crisp passes in order to create scoring opportunities. That skillset makes him a top power-play quarterback. He also has a physical side to his game and can provide pressure on opponents to force them off the puck.

A Little Video

First, here’s a highlight video put together by Gratts Hockey showing off the best of Ceulemans’ season, which by my count pretty much includes all of the points from his short AJHL season.

Then, here is a shift-by-shift of one of his games put together by the Devils in the Details podcast. This game seems to show off everything you’ll read about Ceulemans, most prominently (at least to me), a real ability to be a dynamic force in transition but also a real lack of a plan at times, leading to him getting caught too deep as a play turns the other way. It’s easy to see why people are so enticed by his game but also concerned about his tendencies.

An Opinion of Sorts

Corson Ceulemans is a prospect archetype that you will run into often in the late first and into the second round. He is an upside play for whichever team takes him because the bust potential feels a little bit elevated compared to his counterparts in this general range. The Makar comparisons feel a little forced to me because Makar was demolishing the AJHL in his draft season in a way that it doesn’t seem like Ceulemans did this year, at least not on any consistent basis based on the reports. Then again, Ceulemans got to play a whopping eight games in the AJHL this season, so a couple off nights could easily sway opinions substantially. And, for what it’s worth, even in the small samples, the scoresheet production seems to be there.

Still, while I’m all for teams taking a big swing on guys with upside, I’m not positive that Ceulemans will be at the top of my list if/when the Devils are picking at the end of round one. Every prospect beyond the top ten is typically going to have their warts, but the amount of “buts” in his profiles is a bit concerning to me. He seems like a project and, while he might be a project with a big payoff, my sense is that there will be guys with fewer question marks and similar talent available in the late first. Really, this is where the pandemic-shortened seasons make things much more difficult to project and, especially given the AJHL competition, you’d like to have seen more of Ceulemans’ game this season to make a decision.

Your Take

What are your thoughts on Corson Ceulemans? Do you like the upside of his game? What do you think of the Makar comparisons? Are you concerned by the consistency issues in the AJHL? Would he be a player you’d like the Devils to take a swing on in the back of round one? Comment with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.

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