The Chicago Blackhawks have drafted 17 defensemen in the last five NHL Entry Drafts. Of those 17 defensemen, two have been selected in the first round (Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin), three in the second round (Alex Vlasic, Ian Mitchell, and Chad Krys), and 12 in rounds 3-7.
There is optimism in the Blackhawks' organization and fan base that at least a handful of these defensemen can one day don the Indianhead sweater and become important pieces of the Blackhawks. With Adam Boqvist here to stay and prospect Ian Mitchell seemingly already slotted into next season's lineup, there are a few prospects who may not get enough attention. One of those prospects is the 2017 seventh-round pick, Josh Ess.
Ess, who was the 215th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, is currently in his senior season at the University of Wisconsin. Though his point production doesn't necessarily scream NHLer, his poise with the puck makes him stand out among other prospects.
In his first three seasons with the Badgers, Ess logged a total of 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 105 games. Early on in the 2020-21 campaign, Ess has registered a goal and an assist in eight games played. At this point in his career, it's not likely that he will miraculously become an offensively-productive player, but that doesn't mean he can't still be effective.
Poise With the Puck
The most obvious positive of Ess's game is his composure and poise with the puck. He is never in a hurry and slows the game down, therefore allowing himself to make the right play the majority of the time.
In the clip below, Ess starts with a defensive zone faceoff. He lines up on the wall and when his team wins the face-off, he makes his way behind the net to support his defensive partner. Ess locates the center before getting possession of the puck, moves his feet, and makes a simple and effective breakout pass.
The next clip exemplifies Ess's ability to stay calm while in possession of the puck. Off a neutral zone face-off, Ess receives a pass from his partner and once again has his head up and locates an open teammate. What he does so well on this play is using his feet to open a passing line. With an opposing player in front of him, Ess crosses over once toward the boards, allowing himself time and space to make a pass. Though the play results in a turnover, it was the correct play and another example of Ess's ability to stay calm and make the right play.
In the next example, Ess retrieves a dump-in and makes a breakout pass. Notice how he turns his head on his way back to the puck to identify forecheckers and where his teammates are. Instead of rushing, Ess calmly turns and faces the ice. He stickhandles around a forechecker and makes a simple breakout pass to the wing. It would have been very easy for Ess to wrap the puck around the boards as soon as he maintained possession, but instead he took his time and made a good first pass.
Active in the Offensive Zone
As well as his ability to calmly find an open teammate, Ess also has a knack for staying active in the offensive zone. In the clip below, Ess is playing the left point. He keeps his feet constantly moving, never standing flat-footed. This is important for two reasons. One, he is able to find open areas in the ice in case he gets a pass. Two, it allows Ess to maintain a good gap when the opposing team does break out. Ess calmly takes the puck off the half-wall, moves his feet to bring an opposing player with him, and leaves the puck for an open teammate. It is a simple play done very well.
As stated above, Ess keeping his feet moving while at the blue line in the offensive zone enables him to keep a good gap. In this next clip, Ess ventures down near the hash marks while the puck is in the opposite corner. He identifies the opposing winger and maintains a great gap, not allowing the player to receive a pass which eventually forces a dump in. Ess then is in good position to retrieve the puck with his partner leading to an easy breakout.
Though it may seem like an inconsequential play, the next clip is a perfect example of Ess's sound defensive ability. Just like when he has the puck, Ess stays calm defensively and forces the attacking player to make the first move. In this clip, Ess pinches in the offensive zone before retreating to defend against two players coming down on him in the neutral zone. He keeps an active stick and stays directly in the middle of the opposing players, eventually leading to a pass at the blue line and his team going back the other way.
The following clip is defense personified. Ess comes off the bench and quickly closes the gap between him and the play. The puck comes to an opposing player and Ess recognizes his team has numbers. Before letting the opposing player dump the puck in, Ess steps up at the blue line. Because his team is outnumbering the opponent, it results in a turnover and an easy breakout (if his teammate doesn't fall while leaving the zone).
Composure Turning into Carelessness
Composure with the puck can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes instead of making a play right away, a player holds on to the puck too long, eventually leading to a turnover. In this next clip, that is exactly what happens to Ess. He supports his partner well behind the net, receives the puck, and could easily get his feet moving to make a simple breakout pass to the winger. But instead, he tries to buy himself more time. He passes the puck to himself off the back of the net. The opposing player easily reads this and it almost results in a goal against.
The final clip is everything Ess can bring to a lineup. Off a center ice face-off, Ess receives the puck and gets his feet moving right away. He locates a teammate cross-ice and makes a perfect tape-to-tape pass. Once in the offensive zone, Ess gets the puck at the point. He looks to make a move but loses the puck and it bounces outside of the zone. Instead of panicking, Ess calmly retreats into his zone with the puck, bringing an opposing player with him, before making a regroup pass with his partner. Mistakes happen in hockey all the time, it's what you do when they happen that makes the difference. Ess has shown that when mistakes inevitably happen, he has the hockey sense and poise to make up for them.
The Future for Ess
Ess will most likely play the remainder of his senior season with Wisconsin before turning pro. With a plethora of defensive prospects in the Blackhawks pipeline, it is going to be difficult for Ess to find a spot in the lineup. To become an NHL-caliber defenseman, Ess will have to prove that he can play with the speed and pace needed. A sixth or seventh defenseman in the NHL is probably his ceiling, but Ess definitely has the skill set for a successful minor-league career.