Drake Batherson’s Breakout Season is Coming

After dominating the AHL for a second straight season, Drake Batherson is ready for the next level. Let’s take a look at other impact NHL players who have graduated from the AHL and see how Batherson compares.

The Why

There are two reasons we’re here today.

Call it intrigue, call it interest, call it having way too much time between Ottawa Senators hockey games, but I wanted to take a deep dive into Drake Batherson’s production at the AHL level and see how it might compare to some of today’s best AHL graduated NHL wingers. This is the first reason.

The second reason, and the primary driver behind this mini project, is that Corey Pronman released his latest rankings for NHL systems and their young players (22 and under) last week (paywall). In his ranking, Pronman has the Ottawa Senators sitting pretty with a bronze medal. This shouldn’t surprise many, as the Senators added two top five picks earlier this month while having one of the best AHL teams this past season that was driven almost exclusively by players like Josh Norris, Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson - all of whom fit the 22 and under criteria in Pronman’s rankings. But what surprised me was Pronman’s order. Not because I don’t think Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle should hold down the top two spots, but because Batherson was listed fifth, with Josh Norris and Alex Formenton between him and the second place Stützle. I’m not here to question Pronman’s rankings, I’m sure there are valid reasons for how his top five is ordered, but it sparked the question for me.

What do the Senators have in Drake Batherson?

The Criteria

For this exercise, I am looking at Batherson’s AHL production and comparing it to wingers who have spent time in the AHL and are now impact players in the NHL.

To start, I dove into NHL Fantasy rankings lists for both left and right wingers. I wanted to look at players who have not only made their respective NHL clubs but who are top players for them. The reason for looking at both left and right wingers is there are too many players that get flipped from left to right, regardless of handedness, and I didn’t want to omit someone like Jake Guentzel or Mike Hoffman just because their true position is in flux.

My next step was to select the players who participated in an AHL season where they played a minimum of 30 games. For this exercise, we need a half decent sample size. Going above 30 games to, say, 40 games would remove someone like William Nylander, despite the fact he played two AHL seasons - they just happened to be 37 and 38 games respectively.

When it came to selecting players, outside of meeting the games played criteria in the AHL, I also opted to select players who have had some kind of sustained success in the NHL. This doesn’t mean I only picked the stars. Yes, we have players like Mark Stone and Mikko Rantanen here but we also have Alex Tuch and JT Miller - who are good-to-great NHL players, but I wouldn’t necessarily give them the “star” label. The reason to include both is that the transition from AHL to NHL production isn’t an exact science. The perfect example is looking at how both Hoffman and Guentzel outproduced players like Stone and Rantanen while in the AHL but I think many would agree that if you had to pick two players to start a franchise with today, you’re probably picking Stone and Rantanen.

I also decided to include players with multiple AHL seasons as separate data points. This means you’ll see two Bathersons, two Nylanders and two Hoffmans. I’ve noted in the visuals below which season is which and also noted each player's development timeline beside their name. DY+2, for example, means the season in question is two years removed from their draft year.

The Caveats

With any exercise like this come the caveats - the things to think about while digesting this information, and there are many of them so please accept my apologies in advance.

First, each of the examined players have their own unique development path. Some came through the NCAA, others Europe, many through one of Canada’s Major Junior leagues. For some of these players, like Tuch, this means they were older when they first entered the AHL. For others, like Nylander, they were just 18. Age, here, isn’t quite as important as development time. While Nylander was a teenager when he had his first season with the Toronto Marlies, he was also coming out of the SHL, playing against men in a professional league. There are so many factors to consider when it comes to the development curve of a player that we can’t perfectly compare a Nylander to a Tuch to a Batherson. This is just an effort to try.

Second, there is a long list of the NHL’s top wingers who can’t be included in this exercise for one simple reason: they didn’t play enough or at all in the AHL. Because they are simply so good, we can’t take the compiled information and compare it to the likes of David Pastrnak, Mitch Marner or Alex Ovechkin because, you guessed it, they hopped right to the show.

Third, this information does not take a player’s style into account. For example, the reason Batherson is an effective hockey player may be very different from what makes Tuch or Stone effective. Just because, spoiler alert, Batherson’s AHL numbers are comparable to Stone’s, doesn’t mean that Batherson is going to be an all world two way player like Stone. We’re purely looking at offensive production for these wingers. In this sense, we may be comparing apples to oranges or power forwards to snipers.

Finally, somewhere out there exists a number of hockey players who have produced at a level comparable to those we’re investigating today who didn’t become impactful NHL players. So, while we take a look at how Batherson compares to some of today’s top NHL wingers, remember there is a chance, however big or small, that Batherson doesn’t end up being the player many think he can be.

The Data

AHL Even Strength & Total Primary Points Production

Kicking things off with the data that tells us how a player fared at even strength and in producing primary points. As mentioned in my piece highlighting Vitaly Abramov’s excellent season in Belleville, I’m a big believer that primary points and even strength production are the best high level indicators of a player’s offensive capabilities. The reason being is relatively simple. For even strength production, it’s easier to produce when you outnumber your opponents. Also, a player spends the majority of their ice time at even strength. That being said, it’s also important to note a player’s total primary point production, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, let’s take a look at even strength primary points as a function of games played.

If you’re like me, the first thing you’re going to look for is where each of Batherson’s seasons rank. You can see that Batherson’s most reason season has him sitting just behind Guentzel while his rookie season is sitting a few spots back.

Attempting to go one step further, Batherson’s ability to create offense at even strength in his rookie year was better than Nylander’s rookie year and comparable to Nylander’s sophomore season. Again, there is an age difference, but this is really encouraging to see. Nylander joined the elusive 30-goal club this past season and has 0.72 points per game in his NHL career, despite having a really disappointing campaign in 2018-19.

You can also look at the top two spots and feel the excitement of what Batherson can produce. At the same development year, Batherson’s 0.73 EV P1/GP sits just behind Guentzel’s 0.85. While Guentzel has had the opportunity to play on a high scoring Penguins team, his career 0.82 points per game at the NHL level is nothing but impressive.

Moving to total primary points, including primary points compiled on the powerplay, Batherson’s two AHL seasons remain very impressive on paper.

Let’s take a moment to admire Guentzel one more time. It may have felt like he came out of nowhere for Pittsburgh but anyone who was watching him in the AHL would have known he was coming in hot.

Including powerplay production, Batherson’s two AHL seasons remain close to the top of the list, once again closely comparing to, or being better than, Nylander. The interesting thing that caught my eye here is Batherson’s consistency and slight improvement in this metric. What we’re looking at here is a player who put up back to back seasons where his primary points per game compare very nicely to that of Rantanen.

All-in-all, we’re looking at two seasons by Batherson that compare closely to players who have been major contributors in deep playoff runs, compiling 40 goal and 80 point campaigns. In fact, if you look at every person profiled in this data set, Tuch and Miller are the only two players who do not have at least one 30 goal year under their belt - Miller falls just short with 27 goals this past year, in a shortened season. This should be really encouraging when considering Batherson’s ceiling with the Senators.

AHL Powerplay Production

After reviewing total primary point production, let’s isolate how each player performed on the powerplay.

Similar to even strength production, one of Batherson’s seasons appears right near the top of this list. Interestingly, it’s his rookie season! If I were to make an educated guess, you can likely attribute a better rookie powerplay season to the fact there were fewer skilled players for Batherson to share the wealth with in his rookie year. Outside of his linemates in Logan Brown and Nick Paul, the BSens didn’t have nearly the offensive firepower relative to this past season. That being said, there isn’t a stark difference between his two campaigns. In his rookie year, Batherson managed 0.27 primary points per game on the powerplay compared to 0.20 in his sophomore campaign.

I am not convinced this tells us as much about Batherson’s ability to translate his offensive prowess to the next level as even strength production - after all, it’s easier to produce when you outnumber your opponent. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to see Batherson’s production is once again comparable to these impact NHL wingers.

The Conclusion

The aforementioned list of NHL wingers are an impressive group. From 30+ goal scorers to Stanley Cup Champions, from bonafide first liners to scoring third liners, you have a group of players who honed their skills for at least one season in the AHL before developing into players their respective teams value.

In doing a brief comparison, in the seasons where players like Stone and Forsberg got their start, playing in a quarter or less of their respective teams games as Batherson did this past season, they fared similarly to Batherson. By putting up just under half a point per game on a basement dwelling team through 21 games in 2019-20, Batherson teased Sens fans with what he might be able to accomplish with proper linemates and ice time.

So where does that leave us?

We can’t be certain whether or not Batherson will gain the first line status of players like Stone, Rantanen and Forsberg but what we can say is he definitely has a chance. I’d argue, a good one. The names we’ve examined today all have at least one - many multiple - 50 point season under their belts. I think we can set that as the floor for Batherson at this point. Every single level he’s played at, since he was drafted, he has dominated. The NHL is the highest level he can achieve so it will be the hardest for him to continue his steep development arc. But if there’s anyone who can, it’s the guy who was drafted in the fourth round in 2017 only to score at a goal per game rate in the following World Junior tournament.

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