Discussing the 2018 NHL Draft

We talk about how we evaluate prospects, draft strategy, and more!

It’s draft day! An exciting time of year for any hockey fan, but doubly so for the Senators this year. Yes, we have two first-round picks to look forward to, but there’s the possibility of chaos in every direction. Excitement and nervousness are two sides of the same coin, I guess.

We’ve profiled 31 different players this year, touching on both players who we personally liked, and some picks who seemed up the Senators alley. In light of that, we thought it’d be good to put together a discussion of some pertinent talking points around prospect evaluation, the 2018 Draft, and how the Senators currently fit in to all of this.

How we evaluate prospects

Looking at forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders

AM: We’ve talked a bit about this in the introduction to our draft profiles — a new feature this year — and it’s because we think that it’s important. Scouting, analysis, and player evaluation is a tricky, complex thing and because it’s primarily done through human judgment, it’s prone to cognitive biases. I’m never ever going to claim that I’m objective, so I think that making our process known to you, the reader, in manners like this help you get inside our head a little bit and understand our biases. Acknowledging it is the first step to understanding.

I’m not going to re-hash the how here, but think that it’s important to note that I’m generally in favour of taking a forward high than I am for a defenceman. Players like Rasmus Dahlin are an exception to the rule, but I believe this because I don’t know if our current metrics and the ways that our eyes process information make us very good at evaluating defencemen. We’ve now gotten to the point of zone entry, exit, and passing databases for the NHL, which help break down the nuances of the transition and defensive game, but we’re nowhere close to doing that on a systemic level — at least publicly — for prospects. Where points and shot rates could be solid metrics to look at a forward’s offensive contribution, I’m not sure we can say the same for defencemen, although I use it because it’s what we have. I’m really looking forward to looking back on this draft in a couple of years, given that half of the first round could conceivably be defencemen. Which pieces of current information ends up predicting the most successful pick?

P.S. I’m a “draft a goalie in a later round, if at all, type of guy.” There are way too many inefficiencies in scouting goaltenders and a number of wonderful options that could be signed as undrafted free agents to bolster your prospect pool.

CC: Although prospect data is far behind where we have to evaluate NHL players, I think it’s still important to acknowledge that there are huge strides being made in that area, which has been especially noticeable in the last year. Prospect-Stats.com has become more widespread in the past year with their on-ice goal stats and estimated time on ice, plus they also recently release their expected goals model. Mitch Brown undertook a massive tracking project this season for zone entries and passing, and most recently Evan Oppenheimer introduced his ‘betweenness scores’ metric for prospects. Of course, this isn’t available for all leagues, which in the end makes it difficult when compiling a rankings list, although it’s a lot more information than we’ve had in previous years.

This is where video becomes extremely crucial, although it comes with its caveats. While the highlight reels can give a good, general feel about a prospect’s playing style (like the ones we’ve been linking in our profiles), they don’t do a great job of painting the full picture. For example, watching a highlight reel of Ryan Merkley would make you think he’s a surefire top five pick from his dazzling offence. But because his defensive lapses don’t make the video cut, or any of his recoveries from missed chances, it definitely creates some bling spots. I put more effort in this year to watch full games (which became easier especially with the Sens playing poorly), and combining that with stats, it allows for more complete profiling.

AM: Ultimately, I think the process you’re describing is what many teams are, or should be, doing now. Utilizing all of the available information -- quantitative and qualitative -- to make what they believe is the best decision. What’s interesting is how different teams weigh certain information. Is 5-on-5 primary point production 20%, strength of team (however that’s determined) 20%, size 10%, interview 10%, etc.? That’s where we see differences in teams’ lists, and how certain players can be in one team’s top-15 and another team’s second round. What we talked about in the introduction to our pieces is kind of like our weighting system.

Size: does it matter?

AM: I’ll always remember the work of friend-of-the-site Josh Weissbock and Cam Lawrence over at Canucks Army. Josh and Cam published a model looking at the chances of a particular prospect being “successful” at the NHL level, and were snatched up by the Florida Panthers soon after. Their work, in addition to pieces like this from Corey Sznajder, have shown that size does influence whether a player becomes an NHLer. Why? Well, partly because it’s a trait that NHL talent evaluators select for. What’s become more apparent, especially with the rise of Jonathan Marchessault and Alex DeBrincat, is that there are smaller, young players who could probably succeed like the big guys if they were given the same opportunity. Defining success not in terms of NHL games played, but in terms of impact.

As an analyst evaluating prospects, I definitely take a look at a prospect’s height and weight, and if I see something on the extremes -- small or big -- I note it as something to look for in the video to see how the player is navigating their bodily challenges. A small, slight player could easily be one who’s knocked off the puck easily and won’t ever be able to translate their game into the NHL against stronger opposition. They could also have developed ways to counteract this “deficit” and/or have strength in different ways. Sens fans, think Jean-Gabriel Pageau. While we’ve seen teams become more lax on their size requirements for forwards, they still seem to persist for defencemen and goaltenders. Defencemen like Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon — known for his defensive prowess and not offensive ability but listed at 5-foot-9 — are as rare as rare can be.

CC: Hard to disagree with anything there. One thing that I believe is important to watch for in video is how a prospect is able to use their body to physically get through their opponents. The QMJHL I feel can be ‘cheated’ a lot easier, since the run-and-gun game doesn’t require as much physical imposition and is generally given more space to make things happen. A player that comes to mind is Francis Perron, a QMJHL MVP who has since struggled since making the pro transition to the AHL. Of course, there are other factors for his struggle (poor deployment and more recently injuries), although being a light player he never got quite used to being forced into finding space for himself. Compare him to someone like Filip Chlapik who has found more success since he can use his body more effectively. Size definitely helps with this type of thing, although there are definitely still tall players who have trouble using their body effectively.

While we usually refer to the ‘size trap’ as overvaluing tall players (while definitely exists amongst GMs), the opposite is definitely still possible, where we generalize giants as being slow and ineffective. While we definitely have reason to be nervous as Sens fans considering they’ve been plagued with Jared Cowen and Ben Harpur, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t tall guys available who can skate and be effective. Logan Brown, Anthony Mantha and Serron Noel are guys that immediately come to mind.

AM: Definitely. Perron’s an interesting case study, and we know head scout Trent Mann loves picking from the QMJHL. Perron’s a quality playmaker, and thrived with the quick pace and lesser physicality of the Q, but has struggled in the AHL where the style of game is very different. Rather than size, I’d like for teams to look at strength more — both in terms of what players have now, but also what their potential could be given their genetics, current body mass, and what their training plan was before versus what it could be given proper support. Chlapik and Gagné, two QMJHLers who have transitioned better than Perron so far despite lesser production, are both bigger than Perron in terms of raw height and weight, but they also appear a lot stronger. Martin St. Louis, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Daniel Briere, Jonathan Marchessault are all undersized players who have ended up finding some degree of NHL success; to me, in addition to their skill, they have tremendous lower body strength. I wonder if there’s something there.

CC: This is what makes the draft combine so interesting. It’s hard to deduce much information from it when it comes to ranking prospects compared to seeing them on the ice, since the tasks are so unrelated  to what you’ll see in the game. I hope I’m not breaking a sacred rule by saying this, but I like how Kyle Dubas approaches it, as a way to be able to figure out the development path of potential picks. The information you deduce may not affect whether or not you choose them in the draft, although it gives you insight into figuring out how you can make that prospect even better. A very strong player with minimal on-ice skills won’t survive in today’s NHL, whereas a weaker player with fantastic on-ice skills has a much better chance of helping your team.

Draft strategy

When should a team draft the best player available (BPA) versus drafting for need?

AM: My tentative musing on this is that you almost always select the best player available, regardless of position. Do the Ottawa Senators have depth and quality at left defence? Absolutely, with Thomas Chabot, Christian Wolanin, Max Lajoie and others holding down the fort. But if Quinn Hughes is the best player, do you take him anyway and now have the opportunity to parlay your luxurious depth in a trade? Yup! When I would draft for need is if you truly think there’s a tie. If Hughes and Boqvist keep switching places on your rankings. Well, then I may be more inclined to go with the right-shot Boqvist given the lack of depth at this position.

CC: I agree that it’s best to choose the best player available in the early rounds. However, once you get into rounds 3-7, where the expected value of a player is basically the same for the rest of the draft, I have much less issue going a bit off the board if you think there’s a leak in the prospect pipeline. If a team is short on centremen, this might be where they consider trying to fill that spot up. Pipeline depth is important (which is why I’m also an advocate on trading down with later picks), so taking chances where they’re needed can lead to both eventually filling those gaps, and avoiding gaps opening up in the future. [break] Also, a difference needs to be made between looking at roster gaps and prospect pool gaps. Once you get to filling holes in the later rounds, there’s a great chance the main roster is going to be significantly different by the time those prospects are ready. GMs should always be thinking three steps ahead… it’s their job.

AM: I agree. The Sens have talked about in the past how the opinions of a specific area scout becomes a lot more important in the later rounds because there likely isn’t that much separating certain players — there are more ties. I’d have some central tenets around philosophy, such as selecting players who only have top-six or top-four potential than the safer picks, but otherwise I’m fine if the team selects a goalie or a right-shot defenceman in the sixth round if they feel like it’s close because of a specific need.

What do the Sens need?

CC: The centre position seems pretty well filled, especially with the rise of Drake Batherson. Wingers might be a bit more of a need, although I think where the pool falls short is with right-shot defencemen. It was a struggle in Belleville last season to provide a lineup with perfect handedness, having to shift over at least one lefty. After Christian Jaros, the depth really trails off quickly.

AM: I think we’ve talked about the right-shot thing so much this past year that it’s probably going to get on the nerve of many readers. I’m not sure I agree on the centre position musing, particularly because guys like Colin White (RW), Filip Chlapik (LW), and Drake Batherson have all lined up as wingers at the NHL and in international competition. In the case of White and Chlapik, some of this was due to having those positions (inexplicably) filled at the NHL level last season, so this year will be interesting to see where the coaching staff has them lined up. But, as always, the pro of drafting a centre is that you can always shift them over to the wing. That’s a lot harder to do with a winger.

Possibility of trading up or down?

AM: At #4, the Sens seem to be at the start of the draft’s third tier (Dahlin, Svechnikov/Zadina) that extends for about six picks. As Ottawa is a re-tooling team without a second or third round pick this year (sigh), they could easily fall back a few spots, get a player they like, and add another high pick to their repertoire. I’d say the same thing for #22, with not much differentiating the latter third of the first round from a majority of the second round. Often exchanging late first-round picks for two seconds — a reverse Matt Puempel in 2011 — or asking a team to trade, let’s say, #28 and a late second or a package of picks, can quickly add depth to your organization.

CC: Agreed on all fronts here. The Rangers (28 + 39), Red Wings (30 + 33 + 36) and Canadiens (35 + 38) all seem like teams that have the assets to make that kind of swap for the 22nd pick. I’m skeptical it happens, though, since the Sens’ track record of trading down is, well, non-existent. Seeing as the Sens have moved up in all but one draft since Dorion took over, I think it’s much more likely we see a trade up. Although, being bare of late round picks makes that a much more difficult feat.

AM: Those teams are great choices, especially with the Rangers, Wings, and Habs all in a rebuilding/re-tooling mode and may be looking for the pedigree of another “first round pick”. I think we’re much more likely to see the Sens acquire more picks through the trading of established roster players than we see through a trade down, although I’d seriously consider it.

How do you evaluate prospects? Do you think size matters? Where do you see holes in the Sens’ system? Do you want the team to trade up or trade down? Let us know in the comments!

Finally, this marks the end of our 2018 NHL Draft preview. Thank you for reading and discussing with us. Any feedback would be extremely helpful in shaping our process for the future, and you can feel free to pass that on via the comments section or by Twitter. You can find us at @carteciel (Ary) or @CudmoreColin (Colin).

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