Interview With a Draft Expert

Though you may be distracted by the Cup Final going on right now the NHL Entry Draft is on the horizon. On June 24th the Leafs will pick 25th and either 29th or 30th before picking again at 39. This gives them 3 out of 14 picks at the end of the first / start of the second round and I know Leafs fans are getting excited about grabbing some prospects.

To that end I convinced Puck Prospectus‘ Corey Pronman to answer some of my questions about the draft so we could gain some insight from the writer of this year’s Top 100 Draft Prospects.

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Q: The Leafs draft 25th and 29/30th. What do you think is going to be available then that fits what the Leafs need (big #1C, same as every other team)?

Well I should state before answering, that the Leafs draft on a strict Best Player Available philosophy so I doubt their draft day decisions will be affected by need, not to mention their recent acquisition of Joe Colborne. To answer your question there won’t be a big number once you enter the late 20’s as players like that tend to not escape the lottery. In an ideal world if Alexander Khokhlachev falls to the late 20’s I think he has the potential to be a top-line center, but is a small guy. Victor Rask is a player I think should be available who also has that kind of potential (keyword there), as he was a projected lottery pick coming into the season, but fell off and will likely be available for Toronto in the late 20’s. However for him to be that kind of producer you’ll need a ton to go right and you’re looking for significant development spurts needed in several areas, but his raw talent has that kind of upside.

Extra note: While I’m not an advocate of drafting for need, I’m not against it to a degree, but more so about using your system as the driver for said decision as opposed to the NHL squad. Looking through the Leafs organization from the top team and more importantly through the pipelines I think up front they have a decent bunch of solid young guys, but on the backend they need more reinforcing. They have a couple of good shutdown guys, but I’m failing to see that top-pairing puck-mover (which is due to the fact I see Gardiner with a 2nd pairing ceiling).

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Q: In a deep draft do you think moving assets to trade up makes sense or a team should maximize the number of chances they have to pull a gem out of the draft?

After a certain select number of players go off the board at the top of the draft, I on average advocate trading down, especially in a deep draft. At a certain point in the top half of the first round the talent level usually takes a significant dip and by somewhere in the mid to late first through the second round the talent level of the prospects aren’t usually that far apart. If there is a guy on your board very high who is still available that you project to have significant projectable upside then yes try to move up, but most of the time I’d say take as many players as you can. 

Q: What makes this a deep draft? Is it that there’s no high end talent and so most picks are equivalent or is it that there’s so much talent some of it has to go late. Put another way; compare this draft to previous draft.

The draft is deep based on the fact that once you get out of the first and into the second and maybe even into the top of the third there are numerous prospects there who you can look at and think, "Hey he has a chance to be a 2nd liner or 2nd pairing type or project cautiously a notch below." I think there is high-end talent, Nugent-Hopkins is in my opinion a prospect with an elite ceiling while Couturier, Strome, Huberdeau and Murphy have the talent to potentially be all-stars in a perfect world/nothing goes wrong developmentally projection. The knock on the top of the draft is there no standout amongst the crowd prospect, but there is certainly upside.

Comparing this class to the last few years it certainly isn’t up to the same standards, but then again I’ve had NHL executives tell me the 2010 class was one of the deepest in a long time and the 2009 was one of the best in top-end talent.  With the strong state of USA Hockey/USNTDP and how well the European Junior programs are churning out talent, drafts going forward are likely going to continue to be strong and deep.

Q: Last season the Leafs let prospect Joel Champagne walk. Champagne’s a player who scored a lot in the Q but had footspeed issues that led many people to conclude he wasn’t fast enough for the NHL. As a draft expert is it a reasonable assumption that footspeed matters more in the NHL than the CHL and that a lot of "busts" don’t have it?

That’s a somewhat correct statement, but I could point to several factors that certain prospects didn’t have that kept them out of the league. In order to play in the NHL you need to be able to skate, but you also need to be able to move the puck, have a pro strength level and handle high-end physicality, process the game quickly, play both ways and play hard. If you can’t do any of these things, you usually have to be very, very good at some of the others.

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It’s a matter of balance, not all prospects are going to be good at everything as each player is composed differently, but there are minimum standards and average standards for each trait in the NHL and how you do at the critical things, on top of all the aspects that make up a player, and what level each of those qualities reach will define if you make it and ultimately how successful you are.

Q: What are the three most important things I should be looking at when evaluating draft eligible players besides strength of competition?

That’s not even in my top three to be honest. I understand sometimes people who don’t know that much about the players are attracted to their statistics, but performance and performance-altering factors like quality of competition are some of the last things I look at.

The most important thing for a player to be able to do to win hockey games is to produce in the possession game as much as possible as Vic Ferrari has shown multiple times.

Now when looking at prospects you obviously don’t have access to possession-based data, nor would it likely be reliable in all cases due to some league qualities. That’s why you scout for possession skill which is a subjective matter. I tend to emphasize controlling the puck, moving it efficiently and effectively, and smart players who process the game quick as the kind of players who control possession the best. This isn’t perfectly proportional, isn’t an absolute statement as everything plays into possession but I think those traits do so on a higher scale and depending what position and type of player you’re looking at it varies. Some successful teams in the NHL build and draft by these possession principles and while not using those exact qualities as the determinants to the T, it’s more or less the same.

The possession skills are by and away the most important I look for, but obviously there are other components skill-wise that make up a player, not to mention make-up. If you want to evaluate a player objectively league quality/quality of competition is definitely a good place to start, but also look at Goal:Assist ratio, team strength and what I usually do is just dig to find info about usage. How much ice time is a player getting, how much defensive zone starts is he getting, who’s he playing with and against etc.

Q: For bragging rights: which player drafted 10th or later in 2011 is going to make a Calder run and surprise everyone?

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Mark McNeill, a center prospect from Prince Albert in the WHL.

If you appreciated the interview and want more draft insight follow @coreypronman on Twitter.

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