"I’ve come a long way," but EJ Emery still wants more in draft year
United States National Team Development Program defenceman and 2024 NHL Draft prospect EJ Emery grew up in Surrey, British Columbia, a part of the hockey world with no shortage of options for developing hockey players.
For Emery, though, the decision was easy: He wanted to play for the program, almost 4000 kilometres away in Plymouth, Michigan.
“The U.S. National Development Program is the reason why I’m in the States now," Emery told EP Rinkside. “I looked at all of my options. I just thought it was a no-brainer to go to the program.”
So far, so good. Emery started his draft year well, putting in solid work at the USHL Fall Classic. He's kept things up since then too, developing at a strong pace, as many blueliners do over the course of their first year of draft eligibility.
“I kept working on getting my defence sharper. I’ve been closing on plays a lot faster that’s what happened [at the 5 Nations] in Finland,” Emery said. “I thought my reads were a lot better. I feel like I’ve been getting better each game. I’ve been improving every game. I’m improving since the start of the season. There were a few kinks to work out, and I feel I’m getting those out.”
As one of the younger players in the upcoming 2024 NHL Draft, there's a lot of runway in front of Emery too; more time to hone his craft and improve as he tries to elevate his game and seize on his upside.
“Yes, being a little bit younger gives me a couple of years to gain experience. I can mature into my body a little more. I guess in a way it’s a little bit easier to get better,” Emery responded.
Here is what an NHL scout told me about Emery.
“He’s the best prospect on their backend. He can be a Derek Forbort type. He’s puck capable, but there isn’t pro-offense in his game. He’s big, long, mobile and athletic. He defends well. If he buys into being a tough physical defender, eat pucks, and kill penalties kind of guy he’s going to play in NHL and for a long time.”
Emery is an effective passer. Even though he’s not an offensive defenseman by trade, the ability to move the puck is a vitally important skill in the contemporary NHL. And he has a great knack for seeing when he can set up a scoring chance. His vision is something that will set him apart from others who have a similar skill set.
“I wouldn’t say this has come along easy. Last year it was a little bit of a struggle at times working on that, but overall, I put in continuous work on that over the summer. Looking at options and making the right plays,” Emery said.
“Puck possession was a big part of my summer and my training recently. It took a little bit of work to be able to see options. Just looking in different areas to see where I can make those seam passes. It came with a little bit of work.”
Physicality can really help a defenceman carve out a role in the NHL. Emery will be one of those players, and he embraces that aspect of the game.
“The physical part of my game has always been there. I’ve played lacrosse and football, and that’s a big part of those parts of those sports," Emery said. “I’ve always loved the physical part of hockey. I just try to be as physical as possible. I go out there to compete and kind of go to war against the opposing players.”
Emery played Canadian football, so that requires a different skill set compared to the American game. As a defenceman, you have to make quick reads, and a running back does the same thing.
“I would say it was a mix of both. It was a lot less of punting into the endzone, but it was three downs, Emery explained. “I was a running back and safety. Also, I played a little bit of wide receiver. I was best as a running back. I was super quick and enjoyed scoring those touchdowns. I ran a few people over with the ball. I kind of loved that. As a running back, you only have a small area to make a read. Hit a hole and stuff like that, so it is similar.”
We are in an era where teams like when defencemen pinch and add to the offence. Not all players can do that, and Emery isn’t going to be expected to do that unless we see some changes in his game. Which is possible.
“I think that’s still coming. It’s been getting better. Compared to where my puck possession was last year, I’ve come a long way. It’s going to come by continuously working on it,” Emery forecasted.
Based on where his development is. I can see Emery being a bottom-of-the-first-round player. We ranked him No. 25 on our debut ranking for this year's draft, in line with that projection. Teams will give him more time to develop based on his age and that might be what he needs to further round out his game.
“My defensive side of my game is really a strong suit. I just have to catch up on the offensive side of it a bit and continue to grow on the defensive side.”
It’s still early in the draft year, but scouting interest in Emery is picking up and that’s always good news.
“Yes. I am having a few talks here and there,” Emery said. “I try not to worry about it too much. Playing through this season it’s best not to think about it. I kind of focus on the end goal, which is winning the U18 Worlds and focusing on the team.
The Univeristy of North Dakota is known for developing NHL defencemen. The Ottawa Senators Jake Sanderson is a great example. Young players know that, and Emery made a smart decision.
“I think a big part was how comfortable they made me and my mom and dad feel,” Emery emphasized. “They have a history of developing great d-men. I had good talks with Sanderson asking him about the program. He had a lot of good things to say about it and that was a no-brainer. I’m trying to be the best defenceman I can, and this place has developed a lot of them.”
Emery’s goals are razor-sharp.
“My biggest goal and focus is the U18 Worlds. I’d love to come out of it with a gold medal. I have personal goals of trying to be a great defenceman. Being a good lockdown, shutdown guy."
Expect Emery’s stock to continue to rise throughout the season.