Further rethinking the way we talk about prospects

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There’s been lots of talk about rethinking the way we talk about prospects on TLN lately. Steve got the conversation started with his article and video on the prospect pyramid, and Jeff made a rebuttal that pointed out some of the weaknesses of the idea. I personally side more with Steve than Jeff, and think that the discourse surrounding draft prospects is incredibly arbitrary.

This can be applied to more than just prospect rankings within an organization. The other big, and much more common way that we talk about ranking prospects, is through the draft.

Every draft list without fail, until a given publication releases their full rankings, is a top 30 of that publication’s favorite draft prospects in a given year. The idea is that there are/were 30 teams in the league, so doing a top 30 represents the consensus first-rounders of a given draft.

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It looks like some NHL teams even adhere to this practice. In 2013, the Philadelphia Flyers accidentally leaked the top portion of their draft board in a behind-the-scenes video (which now appears to be offline). You can’t see the video anymore, but as you can see from the forum post, the Flyers’ board was essentially just one long list, with no way to discern quality of prospect other than how high someone was ranked.

Now, here’s an example of doing it right (or at least better). The Dallas Cowboys accidentally leaked their draft board this year, and as you can see in the table below, they actually make at least some distinction in prospect tier, separating players by the round they think the player is worth going in.

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Granted, I still think this can be improved upon. For example, tiers might exist within a given round (i.e., you might think the player first overall on your draft board is in a class of their own). I also think there are ways you can further conceptualize tiers, or categorize players in different ways. For example, putting players you think have high upside and a high probability of reaching their upside in one category, putting players you think have high upside but a low probability of reaching their upside in another category, and so on. This is something I might look at in a later post.

I should also mention I know that some teams already do this, at least to the same extent as the Dallas Cowboys. Others, through (like the 2013 Flyers) appear to be behind the curve. This is just another small way in which teams can seemingly improve what they’re doing.

And I think maybe more importantly, because the reach is far greater, draft publications should start doing the same. Doing top 30s make little sense and only mislead people. The suggestion that they make is that between 30 and 31 exists a gigantic gap. This isn’t practical or effective, and only makes hockey fans, and the conversations that we have, stupider.

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  • Gary Empey

    Man or Man lists, tiers blah blah blah. Sometimes I wonder if the writers in general are creative enough to insight real conversation.

    Lets start with the Dallas Cowboys (DC) cheat sheet. This is a list (not tiers) rankings for a draft. The question the writers should be asking is, how did DC rank the players? Maybe they used a scale (1 to 10) and scored all the prospects based on tools.

    Maybe the writers should ask, I wonder how my top 20 list compares to the actual Maple Leafs vision of their top prospects. Chances are it’s not even close.

    Maybe the writers should acknowledge they ranked their top 20 without doing proper due-diligence in evaluating the prospects.

    Maybe if the writers aren’t creative enough, they can solicit their audience and ask for the categories to score for the ranking (IQ, Skating Position, Sandpaper, Size etc)

    My point of view is after the top 4 Leafs prospects, the rest of the rankings are a mess. The rankings should be based on the total package not just skill. The rankings should also be based on team needs present and future. If the writers did this they would find players not ranked in their 20 make it and players that are a dime a dozen in the Leaf prospect pool don’t make it.

    • Gary Empey

      A prime example or your point is last years’s list:

      Byron Froese – Jeff Veillette

      “Byron Froese didn’t make it on our list at the start of the year, nor was he an honourable mention.”

      Yet he went on to pass everyone and hold down an NHL job.


      TLN Top 20 Leafs Prospects Midterm Rankings: The Final List

      #20 – Nikita Korostelev

      To say the first half to Korostelev’s 2015-16 season has been disappointing is an understatement. Despite returning to a fairly strong Sarnia team that features New Jersey Devils top prospect Pavel Zacha and 2016 top prospect Jakob Chychrun, Korostelev has been unable to even keep pace with his previous season’s numbers – he has just 26 points in 36 games. – Justin Fisher

      #19 – Frederik Gauthier

      If Frederik Gauthier ever etches out a career in the NHL for himself, it’ll likely be as a fourth-line center. However, we as a staff feel at least reasonably confident that he can fulfill that upside, so he’s able to still squeak onto our list of the top 20 prospects in the Maple Leafs organization. – Shawn Reis

      #18 – JJ Piccinich

      Piccinnich’s OHL career got off to a rocky start as he had to work his way back into the lineup after a preseason injury. Once he got going, Piccinich wasted little time adapting his playing style to the OHL game. With 21 goals and 45 points in 36 games, Piccinich sits fourth on the team in scoring and is doing so while playing a secondary role behind the top line of Marner, Dvorak and Tkachuk. – Tom Hunter

      #17 – Jesper Lindgren

      Lindgren spent most of his draft season piling up points as a 17-year old on a powerhouse MODO J20 team. This year, Lindgren is out of the junior leagues and plying his trade against men. Spending most of the season so far with MODO in the SHL, scoring three points in 24 games, Lindgren was recently loaned out to his hometown IF Bjorkloven in order to get him more ice time. That might sound like a demotion, but it’s likely best for his development; MODO is a veteran-heavy squad and Lindgren averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time per game, making him a sixth or seventh defender at best. With Bjorkloven, Lindgren has already scored two points in four games. – Justin Fisher

      #16 – Stuart Percy

      Percy has played the majority of games for the Marlies this season and has seen a slight uptick in his production (0.44 points-per-game through 30 appearances), so that’s definitely a positive. But for me it seems the Leafs sort of hit the reset button here on Percy when they drafted Dermott this past summer, and the former has taken a dip on our list until he can establish his game again and generate some excitement to get him back up there with the younger guys who’ve become much more of a focus recently. – Ryan Fancey

      #15 – Rinat Valiev

      Most of Valiev’s offence creation comes from his strong skating ability and puck dispersal skills, though it wouldn’t hurt him to shoot more; he’s currently at a relatively sustainable 9.7% shooting percentage, but averaging less than a shot per game. He also is second on the team to [Andrew] Campbell in plus/minus; the two are usually paired with the teams higher-scoring lines at even strength to be available in the event of a turnover. – Jeff Veillette

      #14 – Martins Dzierkals

      Dzierkals is an interesting case, as it’s clear he can generate offence – he put up 68 points in 23 games in 2014-15 – but again, not at a level really comparable to most other top prospects, as he was playing in a Latvian junior league. It’s clear he’s got some talent and has been putting up respectable numbers for a third-round pick following his draft year, but he still likely needs more time under the North American microscope before it’s really clear what his future may be with the Leafs’ organization. – Adam Laskaris

      #13 – Andrew Nielsen

      Last season the numbers for Andrew Nielsen painted him as your traditional stay at home defender, who was willing to drop the gloves, and he picked up the handful of points, but really not enough to take notice.
      This season, thanks to his booming point shot, Andrew Nielsen is the top scoring defenseman in the WHL, and has 46 points in his first 42 games (though 23 of those points are secondary assists) […] The fact that he Nielsen possesses a smart and physical game make him an interesting prospect and could make him somewhat of a Dion Phaneuf light (not a bad thing, remember you’re not paying him $7M). – Jon Steitzer

      #12 – Nikita Soshnikov

      Soshnikov has been playing for the Marlies this season and has been all sorts of impressive. A quick look at his numbers may not impress – 17 points in 32 games is decent, but not great – but Soshnikov has been playing in almost an entirely 4th line role alongside Fredrik Gauthier and Rich Clune. In doing so, the skilled and tenacious Russian has given up potential points to instantly shed any worries about him being a small Euro-type player. In fact, Soshnikov thrives on the forecheck and is already a borderline NHL-elite level puck protector. – Bobby Cappuccino

      #11 – Brendan Leipsic

      When speaking with the Habs fans that are unfortunately ever-present in my life, they realize that Carey Price is who the team relies on but they are quick to point to Brendan Gallagher and his injury this year as a secondary reason why the team is struggling. Gallagher is the type of player Leaf fans should be hoping Leipsic will turn out to be. A secondary scoring option that is beloved by his own fans but hated everywhere else. After putting up big penalty minutes in junior, Leipsic has learned to play a much more controlled game in the AHL that will go a long way in allowing him to focus on the offensive side of the game. – Tom Hunter

      #10 – Scott Harrington

      This year, Harrington impressed in just about every training camp appearance he made, leading to him making the Leafs roster to start the season. While he wasn’t dressed every single night, he did manage to get himself in fifteen games. In that stretch, he spent most of his time playing a draw-back shutdown game with Roman Polak which saw the two start most of their shifts in the offensive zone; not so much to try and score but to help the more adept forwards keep the puck from too far across the ice. Harrington’s positive relative possession numbers represent success in this regard. – Jeff Veillette

      #9 – Garret Sparks

      It may be that there’s just been a small sample size at the NHL level, but something is to be said for a goaltender that can hold his head and ride the hot hand when given a high-stakes opportunity – and from his league debut shutout to the final game before his injury, Sparks proved that the Leafs have a young goaltender in the system who may have the capability of holding his own in the show a year or two down the row. For a team that’s struggled to find consistent goaltending in recent years, that’s something Toronto has to be happy about… – Cat Silverman

      #8 – Connor Brown

      Some of us are concerned that an ankle injury hurts Brown’s stock since he’s not known for his superb skating in the first place. That said, he’s got a strong offensive game and still figures to be one of Toronto’s top young forwards. Brown will return to game action shortly (he’s already practicing), and if he finishes the season strong, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him earning an NHL roster spot as early as next season. – Justin Fisher

      #7 – Jeremy Bracco

      On a very talented Kitchener team, Bracco has put up 11 goals, 36 points in 26 games, good enough to be 34th in league scoring despite having played fewer games than any of the players ahead of him. The way the Rangers are built it’s reasonable to expect that Bracco is in for a deep playoff run and possible Memorial Cup appearance, so his decision to transition to the OHL has served him well. – Jon Steitzer

      #6 – Travis Dermott

      Already seen as a good decision-maker who can defend efficiently, at least for his age, the focus on Dermott this season was how he’d handle being the go-to guy on Erie’s blue-line and whether his production could take a step forward. While we usually talk about the departure of McDavid in terms of the effect on his linemates specifically, the team as a whole obviously lost a ton of firepower there. – Ryan Fancey

      #5 – Dmytro Timashov

      He’s flashy, explosive, and does things with the puck on his stick that people expect from a top-5 pick like Mitch Marner. Timashov is showing that he has elite playmaking skills and the ability to create dangerous offense every shift, though he’ll have to put on some muscle and work on his awareness without the puck on his stick to succeed at the next level. – Tom Hunter

      #4 – Andreas Johnson

      Andreas Johnson adds a high-end, shoot-first winger to the Leafs system that seems to be primarily stocked with playmakers. [He’s] a player who knows how to use his speed and shows it off on a regular basis on the bigger ice surfaces in Europe […] The majority of the questions around Andreas Johnson seem to be the common ones for players who come over from leagues overseas. Will his game translate? And can he put up points in a league that doesn’t consider Spencer Abbott to be a star player? – Jon Steitzer

      #3 – Kasperi Kapanen

      Overall, Kapanen’s AHL production has been a little disappointing (10 points in 18 games), but he’s one of the league’s youngest players and not everybody can be William Nylander. Illness and injury were tough roadblocks for him and as the season progresses, he should improve. There are moments where you can see why he was a first-round draft pick and why the Leafs went after him; he has a terrifyingly good release and his straight line skating ability is very strong. It might take him a bit more time to develop than the others, but there’s no reason that Kapanen couldn’t play in an NHL top-six in a few years. – Jeff Veillette

      #2 – Mitch Marner

      As insane as it was for Marner to put up 126 points in 63 games in the OHL last season (2.00 points per game), he’s finding a way to top those totals this year – he’s got 61 points in 28 games, good for a 2.17 point-per-game pace. Yeah, Marner is playing in the OHL, but let’s not lose sight of how exceptional and rare it is for anybody to put up the sort of numbers that Marner is. – Shawn Reis

      #1 – William Nylander

      What Nylander has accomplished in the AHL is incredible, leading the league in scoring for most of the year as a 19-year old in a league dominated by players in their mid-twenties. Had Nylander come up in the Canadian junior leagues he wouldn’t even be allowed to compete at the level he is today, a testament to how advanced a prospect he is. In 27 games so far this season, Nylander has amassed 14 goals and 34 points, tying him for third in AHL scoring. Remember, though, that Nylander left the Marlies in mid-December to represent Sweden at the World Juniors while leading the league in scoring. A month later, he’s only two points shy of the lead. – Justin Fisher

      • Gary Empey

        My thought process when ranking the players was to see who is part of the team core. I came up with 4 players, like everyone else. Then I started looking at positions G, D, C and W. After that, I was looking for the glue/sandpaper/character guys to create the balance on the team. I put some of these guys ahead of talented skill players because the Leafs in my opinion need them more. Other things I looked at was size and stats. Here is my list.

        Auston Mathews
        Mitch Marner
        Nakita Zaitzev
        William Nylander
        Carl Gundstrom
        Kaspari Kapanen
        Nikita Soshnikov
        Connar Carrak
        Connor Brown
        Yegor Korshkov
        JD Greenway
        Andrew Nielson
        Vladimir Bobylev
        Zach Hyman
        Jeremy Bracco
        Dymtro Timachov
        Adam Brooks
        Andres Johnson
        Tobois Lindburg
        Rinat Valiev

        Now I understand my rankings are not perfect, but I feel it would reflect a better management view on team needs.

    • Gary Empey

      So the question is when we rate prospects, what are we actually rating them for?

      Are we speculating how big a star they could become if they continue to develop?

      Do we ignore the possibility some of our prospects will end up solid journeymen in the NHL?

      Do we take into consideration the likely job openings in the Leafs organization?

      Even though we have a coach who insists on defense first, are we completely undervaluing players who play a strong defensive game?.

      If you have trouble stopping other team from scoring can you still succeed in the NHL?

  • Harte of a Lion

    Whichever method each individual prefers there needs to be a side chart with those players who have rocketed up the standings. Someone like Nytro Timashov who made huge strides the past 12 months moving up 10 spots, or even a Dermott who wasn’t listed in 2015 but sits at #9 this year, a 12 place jump.

    This “tier” or whatever you decide to call it will reflect those players who have either maintained their high end development curve or have exceeded it.

    We should take notice of any player who moves up 5 spots. Moving up 10 or more spots from the previous year based on individual performance and not including players who graduate from the list, are noteworthy and deserve their own tier/sub-tier or a cooler full of beer.


    • Gary Empey

      One player everyone seems to be writing off early, is Frederik Gauthier. He played his first season in the AHL as a 20 year old, fourth line center.

      I noticed as soon as Babcock and Lamoriello returned from the Worlds in Russia they went straight to the Marlies playoff games.

      Marlies were down 3 games to 0 to Hershy

      Frederik Gauthier was immediately put right back in the lineup.

      Keefe had been sitting out Gauthier in favour of more offensive minded forwards. Often double shifting them. Marlies were getting blown out.

      Marlies started suppressing goals with “the goat” in the lineup.

      Marlies won their next game allowing no goals, then lost the one after by one goal, ending the series.

      I believe the Leafs have been grooming Gauthier to play fourth line center ever since watching his performance in the Memorial Cup.

      Just my minority opinion…

      Re – Travis Dermott… You could see him playing beside Polak this year. Though most likely on the Marlies.

      • Trevor5555

        Actually Freddy the Goat and The Loov Machine are two guys I really want to see get their shot with the Leafs.

        Gauthier actually plays a position (Centre) the Leafs lack depth at. If the Leafs were able to move some contracts (Laich, Holland and Bozak) I could see Gauthier getting his shot. However, the consensus is he’s a forth line centre and therefore the perception is not much upside. I do like his size but the other tools are average at best. Currently in my books Bozak and Holland are better then him.

        I really like Victor Loov. The guy has great character and man he’s funny. I like his physicality and boy can he hit. The perception he’s a 5/6 pairing. He’s a left shot, which could hold him back unless the Leafs move some contracts.

        The problem with Gauthier and Loov is every year that passes is one foot out the door.

        • Gary Empey

          Re- Bozak and Holland are better then him.

          Bozak for sure. Holland not so good on faceoffs.

          Gauthier can win the draws and plays a much better all around defensive game.

          As Mac observes above: “He seemed to be in the right places all the time”

          To me this is indicative of a player with high defensive IQ.

  • For what it’s worth, my rankings tend to combine maximum upside with prior results that indicate a capability of reaching it.

    A top talent shouldn’t be punished in a ranking because their team has a lot of top talents. After all, a trade or even a strong camp could give that player in a position of abundance the opportunity to succeed that they never look back from.

    Track record is important too; that’s one of the reasons why my skill-laden list had Kapanen so low. The eyes say he has the traits to become a stud. But with no dominant seasons to his name since he was 14, I remain a little hesitant for now.

    The Froese example shouldn’t really work as a counter to voting for skill. I used a very similar method last year and was the only person to rank Froese in their top 20; specifically because he looked much improved once played in an offensive role. If anything, I thought his deployment this year was a step back in the wrong direction for his own personal growth, but was the only way he was going to stick on the roster.

    • Trevor5555

      Yeah I agree Kapanen has sick handles. Two things I notice about him in limited viewing. First he looks scared/intimidated. Hopefully if he gets stronger and finds his confidence, this might sort out his game. The shyness of his game I think effected the second thing about him “hockey sense/IQ”. He seemed lost out there, however every once in awhile I would see his talent/skill come out.

      The problem with the Leafs prior to the draft was most of their talented prospects were under 6’0″ weaklings. Confucius say: “this is not going to work”. There is no chance the Leafs could or will ice all these prospects at the same time, present or future. We all heard Leafs Nation and Leaf Management mention “we’re getting pushed around”. When Kadri is doing most of your fighting your team has a problem. This was addressed in the 2016 draft, when the Leafs went big.

      Now think about this for a moment. The Leafs drafted sandpaper/size/character guys over some really talented offensive players like Benson, Asplund, DeBrincat etc. To me this would indicate the value of Carl Gundstrom, Yegor Korshkov, Vladimir Bobylev is greater than pure skill as far as the Leafs are concerned. Grundstrom and Bobylev I feel will be Leafs one day, just because I like the total package offense,sandpaper and character.

      This is why when ranking players there has to be criteria and scoring so your ranking by total package not just skill.

    • Gary Empey

      I remember last year you did write some nice articles in praise of Byron Froese. What we all missed though, was his ability to win faceoffs, would get him an NHL job, and how important Babcock feels that is.

      I think it was Babcock who recently said: “possession begins from the faceoff”

        • Gary Empey

          I agree faceoff stats are not that easy to come by. Though I know every team keeps track of them and coaches plan the game strategy on who is their best faceoff man in each zone, including right and left side.

          I think I will do an internet search to see if there is an easy place to find them.

          Babcock is so on top of these stats he has already stated Nylander will take the right side faceoffs when playing wing for Matthews.

          • Gary Empey

            Yeah Babcock’s attention to detail and strategy is what makes him the best coach in the league. Because he has more centers on team Canada, each line has a L/R strong center to take draws. Every bit helps.

            By the way in regards Gauthier. I hope he gets his shot. Like I said I actually like him but presently he’s behind Holland, no matter how you and I feel about it. I seen some good things in his play but as I said perception is everything, hopefully there’s an opening for him soon.

  • Trevor5555

    I really dont agree that draft lists have any effect on how we see prospects nor does it imply specific tiers of talent. When writing these articles and lists people are just drawing attention to players they think are the best in a given year. You have to cut the list off somewhere and 30 happens to be the end of the 1st round so its a good place to cut it off.

    Managers, analysts, journalists and fans are well aware that their are a range of players every year at similar skill levels and a few who are well ahead of their peers. The inherent subjectivity of scouting and talent projections makes for interesting discussions as there are a wide range of factors that teams value in players.

    The nature of sport means we will never have consensus picks beyond 2-3 players a year. There are hundreds of promising prospects across dozens of leagues and it will be interesting to see how in depth the public stats and scouting info becomes as technology improves as the fans appetite for info about their favorite teams and players seems to grow every year.

    How transparent will these internal evaluations become considering how competitive the business of hockey is?

    How well informed does a fan have to be and could we see premium insider information services sold to fans to improve the experiance? Or maybe the NHL and TV Networks aid analysts in bringing more info to the fans to enrich the experiance?

    The information age could revolutionize how we watch sports and discuss our favorite teams in the future.

  • Gary Empey

    I thought Gauthier was quite good with the Leafs. He seemed to be in the right places all the time. Could be that his game works better at the NHL level since players do the “right thing” more.

  • Trevor5555

    The Leafs have done a good job of drafting prospects that give the team good balance. Outside of goaltending, the Leafs have numerous players to fit every role on a good team and have lots of size, speed, physicality, skill and both offensive creativity and defensive abilities.

    Up front guys like Brown, Johnson, Timashov and Bracco and Brooks have lots of speed and skill. Guys like Grundstrom, Korshkov, Gauthier and Hyman are quick, gritty and strong defensive players. Guys like Nielsen, Dermott, Lindgren and Greenway are mobile puck moving d-men. Whereas Mattinen, Loov, Valiev and Middleton are big, strong, physical and defensively gifted/focused defenders. They even have some guys who can drop the gloves if needed to respond to intimidation tactics.

    The balance extends to the NHL roster as there is a great mix of speed, skill, toughness and dedication to defending well both individually and as a group. There is a good mix of vetrans to help the prospects learn the subtle details of the pro game.

    Our scouting department and player development department look like one of the best in the NHL and it wont be long before the Leafs/Marlies are challenging for Calder and Stanley Cups.

    I predict a Calder Cup in 1-2 years and a trip to a Stanley Cup Final within 5 years. The talent is already in house, Babcock & Co. just have to refine it.

    They are finding good players through trades and free agency as well(Andersen, Zaitsev, Soshnikov, Kapanen, Rychel and Lindberg) showing the talent of our managment team and pro scouts as well. Top to bottom this is the strongest the Leafs organization has been in my life and im 30. Dougie Gilmour was captain the last time Toronto was this strong and respected in the league.