Mason Millman was the third defenseman taken by the Flyers in the 2019 NHL draft.
The first was Cam York, the 14th overall selection who had scored 65 points, a U.S. national team development program single-season record for a blueliner.
The second was Ronnie Attard, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder coming off a 30-goal season in the USHL (yes, 30 goals as a defenseman).
Naturally, for fans and followers, Millman sort of became the tailpiece of the class. He didn't come to the Flyers with juicy statistics. Fittingly, Millman was an upside pick, just like in his OHL draft.
The Saginaw Spirit are seeing the beauty of identifying potential and watching it fruit into a player. The Flyers could enjoy the same story with Millman, who is starting to look like one of the club's biggest sleepers in its entire prospect system.
"The way that they draft now and the way the game is going, they’re very smart in their selections," Saginaw general manager Dave Drinkill said about the Flyers in an April phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia, "and drafting a guy like Mason is going to make them look very smart.”
Possibly even smarter after the 2020-21 OHL season. That's when Millman will have the chance to really raise the bar.
“We expect him, and I think he expects himself, to be one of the top defensemen in the league, and I don’t mean that in a cocky way," Drinkill said. "He’s not a cocky individual at all, he’s just very confident in his ability, and the opportunity he’s going to get with us and the amount his game has grown, it’s going to continue to grow. We expect him to take a huge role and be one of the top D in the league, and that means offensively and in the two-way style of playing against other teams’ top players. I really believe he can be one of the best defensemen in the OHL, if not the CHL.
"We’re not biased toward him, I think other teams around our league look at him as one of the top D-men in our league and his age group, as well, so that’s very unanimous around the league that they feel that way about Mason.”
The Spirit took Millman in the seventh round of the 15-round 2017 OHL draft. At the junior hockey level, projection is paramount in the evaluation of draft prospects. Drinkill watched Millman play for the London Jr. Knights midget AAA program. He watched a 15-year-old at the early stages of development with underlying upside.
"What we saw in Mason was a very raw, slender, smooth-skating defenseman who we thought had a lot of offensive potential and a lot of potential in his game in general," Drinkill said. "We thought if we could get him in the right spot in the draft, get him into our system and develop him properly, there was big upside.
"I always like to draft players — I tell my scouts this, as well — to look for players with high ceilings. Sometimes at the minor midget level, when you’re drafting players to the OHL, the players that pop out at you, the most dynamic ones are guys that are more physically mature than others ones, or have already kind of met their potential at a young age. For us, we have to look past that and find players that have a lot more room for growth, and Mason had a ton of that and it’s all definitely worked out that way.”
Millman, who turns 19 years old in July, is a long, 6-foot-1, 180-pound blueliner that glides up the ice and is turning into a problem for OHL opponents. Alain Vigneault and the Flyers love them some skilled puck movers with size. Millman is of that ilk, a "prototypical new-age defenseman," as Drinkill called him.
His ability to transport pucks either with his feet or with his head and brain, they’re elite at our level. And I’m betting that if he keeps developing and gets into the Flyers’ system, he’s going to keep becoming an elite defenseman that way.
He’s so smooth on the ice, he can separate himself from attacking guys on the forecheck so effortlessly, uses the net to shield himself and then two strides, he’s gone — giving himself room to either skate with it or make an outlet to a guy in stride. He almost looks like he’s floating out there and he’s only getting quicker as he gets stronger.
He has the frame to add a lot more muscle and lean muscle mass to his body where it’s going to make him quicker and stronger and even better in that area. He’s going to need that to get to the next level and be successful at the next level. But he’s such a smooth skater and he gets up the ice so easily in our league.
Just about three weeks into the 2019-20 campaign, Millman had a minus-12 rating. When the season was all said and done, Millman was a plus-31 (fifth best among OHL defensemen) with 44 points (13 goals, 31 assists) in 58 games for the 41-16-5 Spirit.
"So he definitely turned his game completely around," Drinkill said. "He provided a lot of offense for us, but he’s also a really good penalty killer, he’s got a great stick, he’s really learned to battle and be smart on the ice about winning battles, puck position and then when to have possession and when to move it. He’s just becoming an all-around leader and a great, great player for our organization.
“I think his confidence grew, he took a greater role with us. He’s just such a great kid and a great person, as well."
There's just no slowing down @Mason_Millman 😳💨— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) December 29, 2019
The @NHLFlyers prospect flips the puck up high with an incredible burst of speed and finds the back of the net to give @SpiritHockey the lead ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/kBpBhb1ZFC
When the Flyers drafted Millman last summer, he was coming off a 25-point season in 66 games with Saginaw.
"A defenseman two of our Ontario guys felt strongly about, that he has upside," Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr said then.
Drinkill knows Millman is still growing.
"I think when he adds strength, the rest of it will continue to come and grow in his game," he said. "You do find that sometimes kids put on too much weight at one time and it kind of hurts the rest of their game. With Mase, he kind of gradually got stronger, he’s becoming more of a man even looking at him, his face is kind of becoming more mature and so is his body, as well, it’s making his shot better, his passes are crisper and harder, he’s starting to get that hockey player build with a strong core and legs.
"You can see the big jump he made from last year to this year. I’m looking forward to seeing him come back into camp next year being a 19-year-old in our league, being one of the older players on our team now and kind of in a leadership role, but also being depended on to play 24, 25 minutes a night and in every situation. Obviously we’re going to rely on him heavily for offense from the back end, but his skating ability allows him to be on the ice against other teams’ elite players, elite talent to try to shut them down in a shutdown role, as well."
The more you can do on the back end, the better. Millman's style of play is trending in the direction of how the NHL game is trending.
"You’ve got to be able to skate and you’ve got to be able to make plays," Drinkill said. "He never wants to dump the puck out or chip the puck off the glass when there’s another option to be made. In fairness to him, he always takes the other option, whether it’s a smart play or regroup or hitting a guy to the middle or a chip to an area is the worst-case scenario.
"He’s not that old-school defenseman that just wants to get the puck out and make the safe play. He makes the smart play and that’s the way the game is going. I think Philadelphia saw that and I think they’re going to be very impressed as they get him into their pro system and continue to work with him.
"I think they’ve got a good one."
Not bad for their fourth-round pick and third defenseman in the 2019 draft.
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