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Corson Ceulemans is bringing his top-10 NHL draft potential to the Badgers hockey team
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Corson Ceulemans is bringing his top-10 NHL draft potential to the Badgers hockey team

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Corson Ceulemans was a highly sought defenseman in both the college and major junior levels when he committed to the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team as a 14-year-old in 2018.

The last 2½ years largely have reinforced how others view Ceulemans while getting him closer to two important distinctions.

He’s on path to continue an unprecedented streak of Badgers players selected in the first round of the NHL draft. And he just got done watching the World Junior Championship with the hope that he’ll be a part of the tournament when it returns to his home province next year.

Unfortunately for Ceulemans, the highest graded player in UW’s nine-member signing class for next season, watching has been too much of the story lately. His junior team, the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, doesn’t have a date set for its next game as Canadian leagues navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

It won’t be known whether the layoff will cost Ceulemans draft positioning until late July. It shouldn’t, one talent evaluator said.

“If people had the opportunity to watch Brooks and watch Corson play, I think it’ll become very clear. That’s how good he is,” said Craig Button, director of scouting for Canadian broadcaster TSN. “I have no doubt he’s a top-10 player — none whatsoever in my mind — in the draft. And I don’t care if he plays another game. I’ve had the benefit of watching him play for a number of years, and I think he’s that good.”

Ceulemans was tabbed a first-round prospect in NHL Central Scouting’s first look at the 2021 draft class. More detailed rankings from the service come later in the season; other groups have him ranked from the mid-teens to the mid-30s.

The way he thinks about the game puts Ceulemans in the top tier, Button said. So do his skating, passing, puck skills and competitive level.

Button is fond of one anecdote that describes how the defenseman has grown up as an advanced player.

After Ceulemans finished his midget season with Edmonton’s Okanagan Hockey Academy in the spring of 2019, he was being considered as an addition to Brooks’ lineup — a 15-year-old as a top-four defenseman for a team that was chasing league and national titles.

Brooks coach Ryan Papaioannou approached his leadership corps to ask about bringing aboard Ceulemans, knowing it would mean an experienced player would lose his spot in the lineup late in the season. The players gave the thumbs-up and Ceulemans joined in time to win both the AJHL and national Junior A titles.

“He didn’t go to a top program, to a team at that age and fiddle around,” Button said. “He was counted upon to be a contributor on a championship team. And he just fit in perfectly. The older players on that team, the leaders, they understood what he was as a person. That tells you a lot about Corson, too.”

Offseason gains

Ceulemans played a full season in Brooks in 2019-20, then used the pandemic quarantine to work on his body. He said he was in the gym five days a week for two hours at a time in the offseason in addition to stints on the ice.

He thought he was more in control of the way he was playing in 10 exhibition games and two regular-season contests before the AJHL paused.

“Just being more mature within my game,” Ceulemans said. “It just comes from all the stuff that happened in the summer. Getting bigger, faster, stronger, being able to slow the play down on the ice and just see everything.”

Being an offensive defenseman for Brooks now draws comparisons to Cale Makar, the former Bandits player who won the 2019 Hobey Baker Award at UMass and the 2020 Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

Makar went No. 4 overall to Colorado in the 2017 draft and played two seasons of college before moving to the NHL. Quinn Hughes was the No. 7 pick by Vancouver in 2018 and played two years at Michigan before going pro and finishing second behind Makar in Calder Trophy voting last season.

Button said two years in college is a pattern that should fit Ceulemans.

“That’s what Wisconsin will do for Corson: continue to develop and get ready,” he said.

The next first-rounder

If Ceulemans hears his name on the first day of the draft in July, it’ll be four consecutive years that a UW player or incoming freshman has been picked in the first round. The program’s previous best was two straight years — Kyle Turris, Ryan McDonagh and Brendan Smith in 2007 and Jake Gardiner in 2008.

First-round potential was why North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and a bunch of Western Hockey League teams were among those interested in Ceulemans in 2018.

Members of the Badgers coaching staff made comparisons to a current UW player and a former UW defenseman in discussing Ceulemans.

Associate head coach Mark Osiecki drew a connection to Justin Schultz, who’s about to enter his ninth NHL season on the back of an offensive lean to his game and strong skating skills.

“He sees the game that way,” Osiecki said about Ceulemans. “He thinks it a little bit more offensively than defensively. Although he certainly does not shy away from the defensive side of things and his offense doesn’t hinder him at all.”

Alberta connection

UW coach Tony Granato said Ceulemans is a little like Badgers sophomore center Dylan Holloway, a fellow Albertan, in having an advanced process of thinking about the game and a physical maturity beyond what’s expected from a 17-year-old.

Both also committed as midget-age players at a time before NCAA rules prevented oral offers being made to those who haven’t reached 11th grade.

“He’s been fun to watch because he’s a kid that we were able to get a couple years before he was going to arrive on campus, so you could follow the growth and development,” Granato said about Ceulemans. “And every time you watch him, you’re like, wow. The strides he makes and his development, his growth, his maturity as a player is really incredible.”

Ceulemans already is projected to follow Holloway from the AJHL to the Badgers and into the first round of the draft. He hopes there’s at least one more common avenue left.

Holloway played for Canada at the World Juniors, which finished Tuesday with the U.S. defeating the hosts for the championship. Ceulemans should be in the mix for a spot on the blue line in the next two years. The 2021-22 event is scheduled to be back in Alberta; the championship is in Edmonton, about a half-hour drive from his family’s home in Beaumont.

“It’s obviously in the back of my mind all the time,” Ceulemans said. “But I think I’m just taking it step by step and keeping to the process of going to Wisconsin and getting better there and just seeing what happens from there. Hopefully it all plays out.”

Button thinks there’s a place on the roster waiting for Ceulemans.

“If there’s seven better defensemen than Corson Ceulemans in Canada, please just tell me where they are,” he said. “I’m happy to go watch them play.”

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