2020 NHL Draft: Shots Fired
Anyone who hasn’t read my stuff or listened to my podcast will believe me when I say that this piece was started on July 3rd. I have the proof on the page I’m currently typing on (every time I make adjustments it records the date and time), but there is no chance that after the Tampa Bay Lightning just won the Cup minus Steven Stamkos that people will believe that this has been my opinion for a long time now and that I was in the process of writing a piece like this. So believe what you want, I can’t waste time arguing with anyone who calls me a liar. I know I’m not, I know the inspiration to write this was seeing scouts and “scouts”…drool over all the kids with big shots in this draft class.
This really doesn’t have to go under the 2020 draft heading, it can be used for any of them. But as I’m going hard doing my final list for the 2020 draft, and simultaneously doing my 2021 rankings as well, I’m reminded a ton of something that bothers me with how others view and grade prospects. It bothers me because I flat out do not get how so many people get caught up in it, and it’s a players shot. This draft in particular is loaded with guys who have a big shot, and all I’m hearing about with a lot of these kids is how great their shot is. Last year this was all I heard about with Cole Caufield is look at his shot. To say this logic is flawed…is a MASSIVE understatement.
So I thought I would dig into it a little deeper. There is nothing analytical about this piece. As much as I wish I could be a numbers guy, and as much as I like looking at them, I’m not the guy to talk them. What I did here is basically took a look back at what I had written and others had written over the last decade with these players. Snipers, shoot first, big shot, the type of player that frankly I’ve always found to be very overrated in the NHL. Those type of players might get overrated in the NHL, but from what I saw after taking a deeper dive into things, these players should have teams running as far away from them as they possibly can in the 1st round of the draft.
I’ll go through the last decade of guys like that in the 1st round, but before I begin, please don’t forget to:
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Brett Connolly – “Had he not been hurt most of this season, he would have been right there with Hall and Seguin fighting to be the top pick.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that is essentially what was said at the time. Funny thing is, I’m a huge fan of Brett Connolly these days. But the reason I am is that he added to his game after appearing to be a bust. It took him a long time to figure it all out. And even though he did, he still has never been a guy who you’d want to spend the 6th overall pick in a draft on.
Matt Puempel – He was the best example I could find. Truthfully, and maybe not surprisingly given how that draft ended up being much better than people believed at the time, there weren’t many pure wingers taken in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. But Puempel was, and scouts who liked him really loved his shot despite concerns about his skating, playmaking, and play away from the puck. Puempel has 11 goals, 16 points in 87 career NHL games.
Nail Yakupov – I can’t stick my chest out and claim that “I called this”. I wish I could because I had major concerns about Yakupov. I hated what I saw at the 2012 WJC, it was an awful draft year where guys who may have contended for the top pick like Alex Galchenyuk and Morgan Rielly ended up missing most of the season, and it was almost as if Yakupov remained the top pick through that season by default. I CAN admit that on the day of the draft when rumours were all over the place that the Oilers were going to take Ryan Murray 1st overall, I was excited as I felt he would make the Oilers better than Yakupov would. But they didn’t, and while drafting Murray wouldn’t have made a BIG difference, it would have been better. Yak had no vision, awful foot speed, and lacked the hockey IQ needed to play the game he wanted to play. On top of this, the word was that he never wanted to work on his weaknesses, only his strengths.
Anthony Mantha – The big issue that people had with Mantha in his draft year (if I recalled correctly) is that he was so big, but so soft. He had a lot of Dany Heatley comps going into that draft, and if you’re getting a Dany Heatley comp, you must have a pretty good shot. Mantha has worked out fine. He hasn’t exceeded expectations, but he’s met them. The thing with Mantha is he’s a terrific skater and a big kid as well, so there was a lot to work with in terms of development. If Mantha were in this draft, I wonder how much different he’d be viewed? At the time, the knock was that he was soft, not that he was a one-dimensional player. He wouldn’t be considered soft today though given how much the game has changed since 2013 when the Kings were in the midst of their run and the Bruins had just gone to their second final in three seasons. That size, that speed, and a big shot…I believe scouts would have him 4th, right behind the big trio.
Michael Dal Colle – Not the pure sniper type that others listed here were considered to be. But Dal Colle still had that reputation of being a big shot/sniper type winger. He appears to be scraping together a career after spending the better part of the last four seasons in the AHL. But for the 5th overall pick in the draft (the consensus 5th overall pick), he has been a major disappointment to this point.
Denis Gurianov – It wasn’t JUST the shot with Gurianov. People loved his size, and loved his skating. But the big thing people loved was his shot. He finally emerged this season after struggling to find his way in North America for a few seasons. Jury is still out I’d say, but given how good that draft was and that Gurianov still doesn’t look like he brings much else to the table other than speed and a shot, not sure he was worth a top 12 pick.
Brock Boeser – I’ll likely be accused of fabricating things here to help my narrative, but I honestly didn’t hear much about Boeser’s shot. I heard about how he’s a scorer, but Boeser to me was closer to what James Van Riemsdyk is where he had terrific hands and while he was a goal scorer, he was doing it in multiple ways. In fact, this is what I had for a write-up on Boeser in 2015, the first season I did a top prospects list.
“He scores. He’ll get his nose dirty to score in front of the net (as pictured), he can score off the rush, he can score off the wall on the PP, he’s just a scorer.”
But even if the narrative was/is that he’s a sniper, while he’s panned out, who was the first player we’ve heard about possibly being dangled as soon as the new CBA was done? Boeser. Since his rookie season, his game has flatlined.
Patrik Laine – He was getting Ovechkin comparisons entering the draft. But the other thing to point out here is that Laine…while he’s no bust…he’s a bit of a disappointment. Not overly, but there is a reason that the Jets have been looking to move him the last few off-seasons. He’s capable of being the top winger in the game given his size and skating ability. But the truth is that most nights he floats and just looks to score and do nothing else.
Kieffer Bellows – I was never too high on Kieffer Bellows, and to this point I’m not sure there is much of a player here. His AHL numbers haven’t looked too good, he did have two goals and an assist in 8 games with the Isles this season, so not bad for your first 8 games in the show. But he’s the type of player who is unlikely to ever be a checker. If he’s not filling the stat sheet, he’s not doing much else for your team. Not at all to say he should be written off though. I would have said the same thing about Brett Connolly around 2016. Lots of time for Bellows to figure it out.
Owen Tippett – This was where it all started for me. 2017 draft is when I basically transitioned from doing my own prospect list once a year just to accompany my mock draft to taking it much more seriously. And when I did, I found myself asking why people loved Owen Tippett so much? He’s actually progressed ok. And as I’m going to say a lot here, it isn’t as if I was suggesting he shouldn’t be a 1st round pick. I ranked him 17th (in my 4th tier), but others had him in their top 10 all season and never really budged off that. This is what I wrote going into the 2017 draft.
“I just don’t understand the love in for Tippett, and am starting to see more scouts see it this way. Don’t in anyway confuse that for me not liking him, but I prefer mutli dimensional players and he in no way projects to be that. He’s a lot like Kieffer Bellows in last year’s draft, who lots of scouts seemingly loved more than NHL teams did. Speed, top two shot with Eeli Tolvanen in the draft, and decent size. For the right team, I think he’d be a great addition. But I’ve made this point the last few years and I’ll make it again. Snipers are a luxury, not a necessity. Teams picking high in the draft are building a house and they need to make sure they have the foundation poured and a roof on over their heads before they start building the kick ass man cave.”
Eeli Tolvanen – I brought up Corey Pronnman’s name A LOT when I was looking at Tolvanen, because he loved him (I believe he had him 4th in his rankings) and I just didn’t get it (I had him 23rd, 5th tier). In fairness to Pronnman though, he wrote a piece earlier this year talking about his mistakes he’s made over the years when he’s scouted players, and that wins BIG points with me. I’m not afraid to tell anyone when I was wrong, and I wish more people doing this had thick enough skin to be the same way. Anyway, I didn’t see it with Tolvanen. I liked him as a 1st round pick, but wasn’t getting carried away. I was stunned he fell all the way to 30th though! Here’s what I said at the time:
“A winger who if he isn’t scoring, isn’t contributing anything, I am by no means suggesting he can’t play or produce in the NHL, I just see a player of this ilk as an easy piece to acquire. A pure sniper with a tremendous shot, it’s a sexy type of player. But something that I try to consider in a draft is a players stock value. Tolvanen could easily end up having better career point totals than some, maybe even a lot of the forwards I have ahead of him. A 5’10, one dimensional winger isn’t exactly a tough find in the NHL. You can find this type of player for cheap in free agency, and they’re always available at the trade deadline. Centres, defencemen, wingers with size, these guys are difficult to find. So while the bust rate might be lower on a guy like Tolvanen, the impact they actually have on a team is limited and should things go South they have virtually zero trade value. At least when considering a player like Tippett, he has decent size and great speed to go with that big shot. Something else I’ve read on Tolvanen is that he didn’t interview well at the combine.”
Oliver Wahlstrom – The “big shot” crowd broke me on Wahlstrom in 2018 and I’ve looked like a fool since. I stood my ground on him for a long time. This kid had a ton of skill, but what he brings to the table doesn’t translate. But I snapped doing my final rankings that season and ranked him 7th. There was a difference with Wahlstrom. He wasn’t just a shot, he’s a VERY talented kid. But people adored his shot and believed he could become a tremendous sniper. It’s FAR from over for Wahlstrom, so don’t get this too twisted. I’m not writing any of these kids off. But so far, Wahlstrom hasn’t been the prospect most believed he was pre-draft.
Cole Caufield – Which brings me to the latest in this series, and the one I’ve taken the most flack for. Why have I taken the most flack for it? Because I believe people can’t park their fandom at the door when watching this kid play. You fall in love with how fun he is to watch. He’s tiny, he works his ass off, he’s fearless, and that shot is mesmerizing. So it felt like it became this game last season of “who can rank him the highest”. But when I looked at him I made a decision to put the scout cap on. The size was probably the last issue I had with Caufield. The speed for a kid that size was probably the first issue I had though. Then I found the assist totals to be alarming. I’ve never seen a kid drafted with that kind of lopsided ratio of goals to assists who made the NHL. Also, his play away from the puck left a lot to be desired for me. So I had him 16th in my rankings. Again, 16th isn’t 116th, but it may as well be to some. “Try hard not to offend, try harder to not be offended.”
So, what is the common thread here? It’s not that none of them have panned out. But what I have found is that Brock Boeser is the only guy who has truly met his potential. Laine is very close and I’d never suggest that he’s even a disappointment of a pick, but he hasn’t met his potential. Also, it isn’t fair to judge guys like Tippett, Tolvanen, Wahlstrom or Caufield at this point. Hell, Caufield hasn’t even played a game in pro hockey yet! So we’ll see with those four. But there is a very consistent theme here with most of these players that they are getting drastically overrated in their draft years.
Which brings us to this draft. This upcoming draft is the KING of the “big shot” prospect.
All of these kids are getting a lot of love heading into this draft, mainly because they can shoot the puck. Buyer beware. Especially on Alexander Holtz. There is a LOT to dislike in that kid’s game in terms of how translatable it is. His skating is ok but needs work, his puck management needs work, he plays on the perimeter far too much, and he’s pretty bad away from the puck. I read somewhere that he “loves to score goals”. I think these days when we as hockey fans hear or read that, we think (consciously or sub-consciously) “that’s like Ovechkin!” But we maybe forget with so many of these players that Ovechkin was (still is) a 6’2, 220lbs power forward who can fly. That’s not Alexander Holtz. Holtz is a kid with a terrific shot, but he doesn’t really bring anything else to the table. So I’m not sure the ceiling is what people believe it is, and the floor is pretty low.
As I often say with all these types of players though, it completely depends on the landing spot. Last season, had the Oilers taken Cole Caufield 8th, I would have liked the pick because they have the type of centres a player like that needs to thrive. If Holtz were to be drafted by let’s say the Oilers (not because it’s my team, but some of the other teams who are set down the middle don’t have 1st rounders), I think he’d be a home run. If a team like Anaheim, Minnesota, or Nashville takes him though, I’m not sure how he’ll do because none of those teams have that stud centre who he can live off of.
Every year these types of players get big love in the draft, but the juice is so rarely worth the squeeze. I’ve said it a million times before, give me playmakers all day. Playmakers can play with other playmakers, shooters can’t play with other shooters. Playmakers can learn to become snipers, but snipers can’t learn how to become playmakers. Teams don’t need snipers to win as we just saw with the Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost their big sniper and really didn’t skip a beat. As I said in my write-up on Owen Tippett from 2017, it’s a luxury. I’d love a Ferrari, but to live on the Canadian prairies, I need a truck. That Ferrari won’t help me much in the middle of winter driving down a gravel road. It isn’t to say that you can’t draft these types of players. You absolutely can. But you better have the rest of your needs taken care of, or else it better be at a point of the draft where the value is just too good to pass up. Because as I just laid out, most of these types of players aren’t worth where they’re being drafted.
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