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Top 25 Under 25, #18: Ben Harpur

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The player with the second-most NHL games only makes it to 18

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

#18. Ben Harpur (Reader rank: 15, Last year: 7)

Ben Harpur has 52 NHL regular season games played and 9 NHL playoff games, which are both good enough for second on this list. After paying his dues with 129 AHL games and four ECHL games, he received a two-year, one-way contract with a $725k cap hit. All of these sound like positives, but both readers and writers on this site were in agreement that he’s not a top-10 young player on this team. It seems that the organization’s perception of Harpur is different from the fans’.

In his NHL career, Harpur has two assists and is a -21 in 52 games. To be fair, a) +/- is a garbage stat, and b) Harpur was even in 11 games before last year, when he played a lot of games on an awful team. In terms of both shot 5v5 shot attempts (CF%) and 5v5 unblocked shot attempts (FF%) (all stats via Natural Stat Trick), he has been a liability for the team throughout his career. He managed to bring his relative CF% up from -5.62% in 2015-16 to -4.34% in 2016-17 to -3.64% in the most recent season (-7.08% to -8.27% to -5.47% for FF%), which does show some improvement, but also shows that he was a drag even on a terrible team last year. He somehow managed to stand out as bad on a team that was already playing poorly.

Harpur’s most common partner over the past season was Cody Ceci, with the two putting up a 40.6 CF% when used together, meaning teams took three-fifth of the shot attempts when they were on the ice. Both saw those percentages rise a lot when separated (to 49.5% for Harpur, 45.7% for Ceci). Among the 16 skaters to play at least 50 minutes with Harpur, only Pageau, Smith, and Ryan put up better numbers with him than without. It looks like good players (Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson) can drag him to respectability, while things fall apart if he’s not with good players.

In Harpur’s scouting report, there’s a phrase that shows up a lot: “for a big guy”. He skates well, for a big guy. He has good hands, for a big guy. Being 6’ 6” and over 200 lbs probably helped him get drafted in the 4th round (108th overall) in 2013. Being big compensated for the fact that there weren’t any major strengths to his game, and his scoring numbers were really low. The year after getting drafted, his Guelph Storm team won the OHL and went to the Memorial Cup, which definitely didn’t hurt his reputation. Since joining the Sens, he’s never been the best defenceman in Binghamton or Belleville, but has repeatedly got NHL chances. He had a couple good games in the 2017 playoff run, but also several bad games before he got scratched. In the end, the memory of those couple games plus his size seem to be what’s earned him a two-year extension. The team let Fredrik Claesson walk because they decided the liked Harpur more, even though Claesson actually signed for slightly less than Harpur with the Rangers. In my mind, there’s no question which is the better defenceman.

This isn’t to say this kind of move is terrible. Depth is important. Slotting in Harpur as a 7th defenceman isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that I’m worried the organization sees him as more. Pierre Dorion felt like he needed to lock up Harpur for a couple years at a bargain rate to keep him. Guy Boucher has had some troubling quotes on Ben Harpur:

“In terms of what he does with the puck, he’s an NHLer.” (March 9, 2018)

“They [Ceci and Harpur] have the look of a shutdown pair.” (February 15, 2018)

It seems like if Boucher and Dorion were to compile their own T25U25 list, Harpur might be in the top five (and Ceci might be first!). That’s what worries me more - not low contracts to undeserving depth defencemen, but a organization-wide inability to recognize talent or lack thereof until it’s far too late.