By Sean Patrick Ryan, aka The OilKnight
~ ~ ~
I’ve spoken in great length over the years about a system that I use to evaluate prospects eligible for the NHL draft. Admittedly, it has been revised many times as the pro game changes and the “ideal” prospect’s measurables vary from year to year. What I’ve never done is dedicate an entire article to the subject. So, I’ve decided to take the time and give you the reader, insight into how I evaluate prospects, and attempt to illustrate what makes me different from so many of the “online” scouts you may be familiar with. I’m not exactly re-inventing the wheel here. But, I do feel the quality of scouting has been diminished (especially on Twitter) by so many enthusiasts, due to a lack of basic fundamentals & historical research. Name dropping with a 45 second clip seems to be the new fad on social media, where everyone has an opinion and anyone can be an “expert” on the subject after watching a couple highlights. Hence, this article.
For this exercise, I focused primarily on the Canadian Hockey League as a whole as it is what I am most familiar with. However, I’m confident the information I have provided holds true for any league. There are certain things I have always looked for in prospects, and things that give me pause in my viewings. Too often, these online “experts” paint best case scenarios for every single prospect which just isn’t realistic. I’m not saying they should be negative by any means, but if there isn’t even a bit of critical analysis, meaning no indication of weaknesses or areas where the prospect needs to improve on, then it’s incomplete analysis. Anyone can glorify highlights – prove to me you’ve seen that player play more than a single period and are capable of critical thinking.
So after several months of self-reflection, I’m come to the realization that there are 7 key components to my system that I continuously gravitate towards when I do my scouting. Again, this system isn’t perfect and isn’t for everyone – but this is my perspective when evaluating NHL draft eligibles.
~ ~ ~
1. Ignore the Consensus
Those who know me well, know I am a bit of a contrarian by nature. I like to challenge the general consensus and form my own opinions. Now, that’s not to say I do it just to be different (maybe a little). I honestly feel I look at scouting thru a different lense than many based on the system I’ve instilled and traits I value. If I end up being wrong, then so be it. But, I have strong opinions and usually stick to my guns because I know what I am talking about. Nowadays, everyone and their brother wants to be recognized as a draft expert so a lot of shortcuts are taken and echo chambers are formed. Many are affiliated with a few large groups on social media too, so I pride myself on being independent and not easily influenced.
Quite honestly, I almost completely ignore “draft enthusiasts” draft lists during the year unless I’m looking for sheer entertainment. How some of these internet folks pawn themselves off as experts on every single player from every single league (ie. they live in Brooklyn with their Mom but are an OHL expert) literally makes me laugh out loud. Plenty of pretenders out there so beware. There’s a reason why NHL teams employ “Regional” scouts. Even paid professional “draft analysts” can’t possibly properly assess everyone from every league.
The consensus is boring, lazy and really lacks that critical thinking quality I like in my reports. Too many people piggyback off each other and it shows. I like to be original and will continue to do so regardless of what everyone else thinks.
~ ~ ~
2. Don’t strive for best case scenario with every prospect. Accept the fact that some will underwhelm or bust out completely.
In other words, do some research and keep it real. This one is tough for many draft amateurs online. They all want to talk about the good things they see in a prospect and completely dismiss the obvious and glaring weaknesses. “Sure, he isn’t a great skater, has a shaky 200 foot game and a questionable work ethic, but he scored 100 points in Junior!!!” Potential and ceiling are all that seem to matter to some. Well, history tells us that no matter which draft year you choose – you will find at least a few busts and plenty of underachievers even in the Top 15 of any draft year (for many of the reasons I outline later). That’s the 15 best of the 210+ players (Top 7%) and yet it’s still no sure thing who will actually justify their draft rankings several years later.
Some prospects, despite their faboulous puck skills or size/speed combination, are going to underwhelm as pros. It’s a fact. So I accept it and look for reasons WHY that might occur ahead of time. Some still struggle and cannot comprehend how a guy like Lucas Raymond (for example) COULD possibly bust, when there are have been plenty of prospects just like him in the past who have done just that. Magnus Paajarvi the next Peter Forsberg? All it takes is even just a little bit of research, and you can find players who were as highly productive and touted as the ones today and never made it. Be open-minded.
~ ~ ~
3. Use historical data to put their production into context.
Before evaluating NHL translatable skills and red flags, it is important to rank a prospect’s production based on the league they’re in. That gives you context in terms of how they rank versus their peers – both past and present. From there, you can rank them in tiers using historical data to help you determine their ceiling. Here is a great model I have been using for years and am constantly updating (age not factored in). The left column is every single NHL player in the last 10 years who has hit 84 points or more in an NHL season – and their respective draft year pts/game in Junior. Only those drafted out of the Canadian Hockey League are listed here.
From this example, you can clearly identify the tiers and what distinguishes the elite players in the NHL from the rest – they had elite production in Junior. The rest of the left column comprises of NHL stars and Superstars who averaged between 1.13 & 2.25 pts/game in the CHL their draft year and 84 or more points in an NHL season. It’s a bit of a large gap but if nothing else, it proves that production in Junior does matter to some degree when projecting a Prospect’s ceiling as a pro. Brad Marchand is the lone exception in the last 10 years with a 0.97 pts/game average in Junior.
The far right column is a list of other recent Top 5 picks over the last 10 years for comparison. You’ll notice there are several examples of busts or underachievers who had similar production to the Stars and Superstars in the bottom two tiers. However, many of those prospects failed to live up to their draft status and achieve similar offensive success to those in the left column (at least to date). That’s why emphasizing Junior production is important, but can be a disastrous mistake if that is the only thing you really rely on in your evaluations. This goes for every league in the world.
Remember, Junior production is great in terms of identifying elite qualities and projecting a ceiling. But, it can also be misleading if you don’t factor in how their game TRANSLATES to the NHL and any red flags that are also prevalent. You don’t get to take those Junior points with you to the pros – the counter resets to zero. A general rule of thumb I use (assuming certain tiers for production are met):
“I typically don’t care HOW MANY points a player gets in Junior, I care HOW they got them.”
~ ~ ~
4. Identify NHL translatable skills, and distinguish between a Junior and Pro style game.
I’ve talked a lot about NHL translatable skills and red flags in the past, and how I like to incorporate them into my overall rankings. Combing thru old scouting reports online, there were several things that constantly came up that the players who didn’t succeed – all had in common. I refer to these as red flags. Subsequently, if you look at all the great players in the NHL they all have a few things in common – elite traits. That’s the bar I use in terms of NHL translatable skills. Now, some very good prospects have overcome some glaring weaknesses and still became bonafide NHL‘ers. Others, still are good pro players despite the red flags (mainly consistency). But overall, the majority rules over the few exceptions and the draft history supports that.
What do all the elite players in the NHL have in common? They’re faster, smarter, more skilled and work harder than the rest. That’s what makes them the best. So, when scouting prospects it’s natural to look for those traits in young 17 year olds. No one trait is better than the rest and the more of these a prospect possesses – the better. The NHL translatable skills I value the most are as follows:
- Elite hockey brain (aka hockey sense or hockey IQ – Great awareness, anticipation, process game quickly under pressure, make good decisions)
- Terrific skating (speed, acceleration, agility, edgework, backpedal)
- Highly compete level (great work ethic or “motor”, consistently play with determination, relentless pursuit of puck, constantly working hard to get better on and off the ice)
- Elite shot/release and/or elite playmaking ability (Whether it’s a blistering shot, dynamite release or outstanding puck skills, most if not all the star players in the NHL possess at least one of these high end qualities).
Defence (in addition to above):
- Elite Puck moving / puck rushing (breakouts, zone exits, joining the attack)
- Two-way ability (providing offence without sacrificing too much defensively, shut down defensively with ability to provide some offence)
As far as distinguishing between a Junior and Pro style game goes, there absolutely is a difference. NHL defenders are bigger, faster and smarter than in Junior. All the fancy, high risk plays some forward prospects get away with as 17 year olds, comes back to bite them in the pros if they don’t clean up their game. Just ask Nail Yakupov.
Same thing for offensive defencemen who love to cheat for offence, sacrifice defence, and get away with it in Junior. They can become defensive liabilities as pros and ultimately exit the league early. Just ask Ryan Murphy (29 goals, 79 points in his draft year) about that.
Which means adaptability is also an important ingredient to success.
“If a high scoring prospect in Junior can’t make it as a consistent Top 6 offensive player in the NHL, does he have the tools to adapt?”
The ones capable of adjusting their game to a more pro style can still carve out a role in the NHL (Ryan Strome, Jonathan Drouin, Radek Faksa). While others are strictly Top 6 or bust (Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Kerby Rychel). Determining a prospect’s full list of NHL translatable skills (not just production) helps with this exercise.
~ ~ ~
5. Look for Red Flags and don’t underestimate their significance.
Go back over all the NHL draft busts over the years and see if you can pinpoint exactly what some of their weaknesses were that ultimately determined their underwhelming career. I guarantee you they had at least a couple of these red flags in their game in Junior that were never properly addressed and negatively impacted them in the NHL. Question is, did any draft pundits even bother to bring those up at the time? It’s important to do so, otherwise it is incomplete analysis. ______________________________________________________________________________
- Lack of puck skills (raw talent that never developed, one-dimensional “power forwards”, stay at home defencemen)
- Poor hockey sense/low hockey IQ (decision making, awareness, turnovers)
- Inconsistent or poor compete level (sub par work ethic on and off the ice, from game to game or shift to shift, gives up too easily, lazy.)
- Lack of quality skating/speed (inability to keep up to NHL pace)
- Poor 200-foot game (reliability, play away from puck, defensive liability).
How many successful NHL‘ers do you know are poor skating, defensive liabilities with limited puck skills and an inconsistent work ethic? All it takes is one or two of these and it could be enough why a prospect doesn’t make it. So why are they so often swept under the rug or dismissed completely?
Here is a scouting report from a few years back on a player who went Top 5 in the NHL draft. See if you can guess who it is:
That player was Sam Bennett. Now, if you read just that report you would think he’d be a guaranteed star in the NHL by now, but that hasn’t been the case. After 5 NHL seasons, Bennett is a bottom 6 forward who’s averaged about 28 points a season. Considering he was taken right after Leon Draisaitl (who is coming off back to back 100 pt seasons), it is safe to say more was expected of Bennett at least at this point of his career.
Now to be fair, this wasn’t the only glowing report on the 4th overall pick. After all, he was a consensus Top 5 NHL pick so most people had nothing but great things to say about him (I worked nights that season so my hockey viewing was limited). But nowhere in this report or several others that I read, were there any mention of any potential red flags. Did draft evaluators over-project his NHL translatable skills, or did they struggle with determining the difference between a Junior and Pro style game? Did they dismiss any red flags they might have seen because of his Junior production? Or did they simply not look hard enough? Either way, my point is that potential red flags do matter and should be part of the evaluation process – otherwise, it is incomplete analysis.
A couple other good examples of high draft picks who’s obvious Red flags were downplayed or overlooked in favour of Junior Production: Nail Yakupov (low hockey IQ, poor 200 ft game), Robbie Schremp (poor 200 ft game, work ethic, skater), Magnus Paajarvi (inconsistency, 200 ft game), Griffin Reinhart (footspeed, puck skills). Sorry Oilers fans. 😬
~ ~ ~
6. Incorporate other variables like size, age, usage, ice time, quality of teammates, quality of play.
The last main part of the formula attempts to factor in context into the equation. Let’s face it, not every league is the same and every team these kids play for are different. Some who put up a lot of points are too big for their league, while others are told they are too small to make it as pros. Some are given all the offensive looks and opportunities, while others are asked to shoulder key defensive responsibilities as well.
So a lot of this is just guesswork. I try to treat every situation different and look for potential reasons why some people might be sleeping on certain prospects, and while others are overrated. Context is a big part here.
Good team vs. Bad team
A good example of context is when comparing a high scoring player on a Top team, versus a top player on a bad team. In 2010-11, Ryan Strome put up 106 points on a 45-17-0-6 Niagara team, while Mark Scheifele scored 75 points on a 15-49-0-4 Barrie Colts team. Which was more impressive?
Strome at the time was seen as a dynamic player with the puck, but had his warts away from it. He struggled fighting through checks and his work ethic was spotty at times (red flags). Scheifele, was seen as more of a reliable, 2 way forward with a great work ethic and who fought through checks (NHL translatable skills). Who do you think was drafted first? Strome went 5th overall and Scheifele – 7th overall. Who would go first in a re-draft today?
Now this isn’t meant to beat up on Strome. I actually quite like him as an NHL player and he seems like a high character kid. He did a lot to adjust his game and be an impact player in the league. I wish Edmonton didn’t trade him away. But this is a good example of how teams overlooked red flags, relied too much on production, and overvalued the good TEAM he played for.
A couple other instances in the Top 15 where I think NHL GM’s got it wrong:
(3rd) Jonathan Drouin – 105 points for (58-6-0-4) Halifax Mooseheads
(6th) Sean Monahan – 78 points for the (16-46-0-6) Ottawa 67’s.
(5th) Barrett Hayton – 60 points for (55-7-0-6) Soo Greyhounds
(12th) Ty Dellandrea – 59 points for (20-43-0-5) Flint Firebirds
The last comparison is still to be determined as far as the outcome but you get the idea – not every situation is the same so try not to get swayed by the record of the team the prospect plays for. Hayton did play a 3rd line role a lot for the Soo that year for the record, which leads me to my next point.
This is a big one for me because I feel like this one is quite often overlooked by those who don’t follow each team’s situations closely enough (how could you possibly for every single team in every single league?) A good example from the 2017 draft:
Gabriel Vilardi (11th overall) was selected ahead of Robert Thomas (20th) because Vilardi was bigger (6’3″, 200), had more production (61 pts in 49 games) and was viewed as having the higher offensive ceiling. Now while the book is still out on Vilardi (he’s had injuries), I tried to emphatically point out that people were underestimating Thomas due to his usage & NHL translatable skills. I was so adamant about it that it was my first official article for this site titled: Why Robert Thomas is my favourite prospect in this year’s draft.
While Vilardi was the #1C in Windsor and getting all the prime offensive looks, Thomas was the #3C in London for at least half the season. He was taking all the defensive zone faceoffs and was their top penalty killer. It wasn’t until London was struggling and they acquired Mitchell Stephens, that Thomas was promoted to the Top line – a spot he never relinquished.
After that, Thomas went on to win an OHL Championship a year later for Hamilton (he was traded for 16 yr old Connor McMichael) where he was MVP, and has won a Stanley Cup with St. Louis as an integral part of their Championship run. He is a terrific young player in the NHL already, with plenty of upside. But, he went 20th overall I believe, partly because his usage (especially in the 1st half of the season) wasn’t factored in thus his final numbers (66 points in 66 games) were seen as somewhat underwhelming. In a re-draft today, he’s probably a Top 5 pick.
The last variable I want to touch on is size. There are more prospects who bust or complete underwhelm as 1st and 2nd round picks due to their “good size” than anything else. Subsequently, if you look back over the last 10 years and look at all the prospects who went in later rounds and still managed to find success in the NHL, the majority of them didn’t have “ideal size”. That makes this trait the most overrated concept in hockey scouting for me.
Gone are the days when having a 6’5″, 220 lb stay at home defenceman was seen as a luxury. Those guys are pylons now in today’s NHL. Sound positioning, stick placement and gap control trumps the physicality big d-men used to bring. And the 6’3″, 200 lb, one-dimensional power forwards who just crash and bang in goals are a dying breed too. Today’s NHL‘er needs to keep up in the skating department, and display the necessary work ethic to compete with the best in the world. Otherwise, all that drooling over their size/skill combination and “potential ceiling” will be nothing but a dream.
Recent examples of players drafted higher than they probably should have been because of their “good size & strength”: ______________________________________________________________________________
Samuel Morin (6’6″, 200), Logan Brown (6’6″, 220), Logan Stanley (6’7″, 242), Dylan McIlrath (6’5″, 225), Michael Dal Colle (6’3″, 200), Nick Ritchie (6’2″, 200), Haydn Fleury (6’3″, 200) and so on and so on……
Meanwhile, there are so many examples of “undersized” players who were drafted probably later than they should have:
Brad Marchand, Johnny Gaudreau, Vincent Trocheck, Alex DeBrincat, Brayden Point, Jonathan Marchessault, Brendan Gallagher, Conor Garland, Samuel Girard. They were all underrated because of their lack of “ideal size & strength”. What evaluators couldn’t measure – the size of their will and determination ON TOP of their skill, is what made them true NHL’ers.
So size for me is OVERRATED. Strength matters a bit (regardless of size) but that can be developed through proper training. Compete level & work ethic are easily more important. Those are the players I would be targeting in later rounds. Kids with skill – and the will, regardless of size.
Ceiling / Potential
This isn’t an official thing I really look for but more of a sum of several other variables like usage, ice time, quality of teammates and quality of league. Everyone likes prospects with perceived “upside” and potential. How a person defines that is what I’d be concerned with.
The problem with projecting a player’s high ceiling is there is a chance they might never hit it. So, if a team drafts a player who is a bit raw but has a “massive ceiling” or “high potential” they are gambling more on skill development than current skill proficiency. There’s certainly risk involved that the prospect never puts it altogether and falls short of lofty expectations. How many years is it going to take for their hands or brains to catch up to other already developed prospects? I’ve seen so many examples of kids labelled as “raw potential” and “huge upside” that never amounted to anything as pros.
Projecting a ceiling is assuming weaknesses will clear up and the prospect will achieve their maximum potential. “Once he improves his skating”, or “once he becomes a better 200 foot player” he’ll surely be a star. No guarantees that happens and in fact, quite often those assumptions never come to fruition. In Junior, if a kid doesn’t work hard defensively, or from shift to shift game to game, what makes you think he’s going to do when he gets to the pros? He’ll have financial security at that point so won’t have to work as hard to get there.
It’s hard to teach a lazy player to work hard. Just like it’s hard to teach an inconsistent player to be more consistent. If a player is “raw” it means they’re not good enough yet in those areas and there is a chance they might never get there. So while “potential ceiling” or “upside” are intriguing, I’d be careful in how they are defined.
~ ~ ~
7. Trust your Gut
Look, I have a system I swear by and it works. It’s not perfect, but it’s done me well over the years. People online can argue all they want about my rankings, or how I come about them. They can fight to the death over their favourite prospect and sub-tweet me all night long. Doesn’t sway me in the slightest as I trust my instincts. I like smart, quick, skilled players who have strong work ethics and play a reliable 200 ft game. Robert Thomas, Ty Dellandrea, Philip Tomasino, Noah Dobson, Jamie Drysdale are some of my favourite prospects in the last 5 years.
Subsequently, I’m not a huge fan of poor skaters with questionable work ethics who play a more Junior style game. Gabriel Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Ryan Merkley, and Jérémie Poirier are a few that come to mind. That’s just how it is.
Scouting is subjective anyways, so different opinions should be well received but that isn’t always the case. Just remember: ______________________________________________________________________________
“An opinion doesn’t need to be a popular one in order to be valid. Especially when it comes to hockey.”
It’s nothing personal, I honestly want all these kids to succeed. I’m simply critiquing their profession and projecting how they might perform as professionals. The reality is, many won’t live up to their draft hype as history has shown and I blame the evaluators almost as much as I blame the actual prospects. So I trust my gut and do my best to provide as accurate assessments as possible – both positive and negative. Call them educated guesses if you will.
The truth is, I’m still an unpaid amateur but I enjoy scouting very much and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. I certainly don’t just throw darts at a board and make stuff up, there is a method to my madness. I don’t take myself too seriously and I know for a fact I’ll be dead wrong on some which is the beauty of scouting – it is subjective. But, I thought it would be nice to provide some insight into how I go about doing my evaluations, and perhaps others could share their own experiences. Hope you enjoyed it.
~ ~ ~
The OilKnight System:
- Ignore the consensus
- Don’t strive for best case scenario with every prospect. Accept the fact that some will underwhelm or bust out completely.
- Use historical data to put their production into context.
- Identify NHL translatable skills, and distinguish between a Junior and Pro style game.
- Look for Red Flags and don’t underestimate their significance.
- Incorporate other variables like size, age, usage, ice time, quality of teammates, quality of league.
- Trust your gut.
To comment, please do so via Twitter @TheOilKnight