The Prospect Tease
August 11, 2017, 1:15 PM ET [35 Comments]
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Just 5 summers ago, the Blackhawks #2 ranked prospect—in what was at that time supposedly a top 10 NHL talent pipeline—was defenseman Adam Clendening. Another top 5 Hawk prospect at that time was LW Jeremy Morin.
Since then, Clendening has played in 81 NHL games with 4 teams, compiling 22 points. Morin has played in 70 NHL games since with 2 teams and compiled 19 points.
10 years ago, the Hawks’ top 10 prospects—which included the likes of Toews, Kane, and Byfuglien—also included Cam Barker, Evan Brophey, Danny Richmond, and Jack Skille.
Skille and Barker were top 10 NHL draft selections, as was 2008 pick Kyle Beach.
Many of these players put up huge junior numbers. Some, like Kane, became NHL successes. Some, like Beach, didn’t.
The truth is, huge production in junior or college hockey pretty much can’t be counted on as a clear or direct indicator of future NHL success.
An old friend of mine, who himself played in the OHL and later in the pro minors, later was the GM of an OHL club, and finally an agent for a handful of former Hawk prospects about 10-15 years ago. Of one of those prospects—who was highly touted—he said:
“He gets away with things in junior that he can’t in the NHL. So I don’t know how good he’s going to be at the next level. He doesn’t have the speed to do the same things he’s doing now. There’s such a big difference between junior and the NHL.”
As it turned out, the prospect in question ended up being a fairly productive NHL player for several seasons. But the point stands. Some make that leap, some don’t.
For every Kane, there’s a Rob Schremp. Or an Alexandre Daigle. Or a Beach. A Morin. Or an Akim Aliu.
I had another friend who was once invited to Red Wings pro camp. It didn’t last long.
“The guys at that level are so fast and it’s so physical. I was a great player at the lower levels. But I couldn’t handle it.”
Comparing top tier NCAA hockey to the pros, former Hawk Jim Cummins once said:
“Guys in college skate around like they’re ten feet tall with those full cages. You can’t do that up here.”
Yet, every year as summer inches toward fall, bloggers and fans get bored and itchy and start creating lists of prospect rankings—typically based on reputation and numbers at the lower levels of hockey alone.
I know, I used to do the same thing—even “professionally” as a writer for the now defunct hockeysfuture.com.
What I’ve learned—and why I now tend to pump the brakes on prospect rankings and projections—is this:
1) Speed is a big differentiator
Straight line speed is not the sole determinant of who succeeds in the NHL and who doesn’t. But the road to NHL success is littered with guys like Beach, Morin, and Barker who could dominate at the lower levels (in Morin’s lone OHL season, as a 19 year old, he racked up 83 points in 58 games) but lacked the speed necessary to translate their games to the NHL level.
And, if anything—due to rules changes, and resulting officiating and coaching trends in the NHL, speed is an even more important aspect of the game today than it was even just five years ago.
I had a reader “lecture” me on the “elite” nature of the OHL a couple of weeks ago. His point being that I shouldn’t discount “outstanding” production in that league. I had to explain to the reader that over 90% of the players in the OHL are 16-19 years old and never play pro hockey—because they lack either the speed, size, talent or combinations thereof to reach the next level. And logically, there are “high end” prospects who can compile big numbers against those players, because of some unique skill like stickhandling or shooting—but can’t duplicate it at the next level due to a deficit of speed, size, or willingness versus pro players.
That isn’t to say that a player with average skating can’t make it and succeed in today’s NHL. But that player better have some highly commendable skills in other areas—as well as a lot of humility and work ethic—to overcome a lack of speed.
2) Size is not critical, but willingness absolutely is
Hawk fans don’t have to go too far back to the glory days when Teuvo Teravainen was going to be the next Patrick Kane—or some facsimile thereof. The jury is still sort of out on TT as an NHL player. And in terms of sheer talent, the more extreme expectations on him were probably a bit overblown and unfair. He does, however, have skill, that much has never been in question.
The issue with Teravainen has been (and by some accounts still is) an aversion to the weight room and to contact on the ice—which has limited him as a player in the NHL.
But for every TT, there’s a Theo Fleury or a Marty St. Louis, or a Kane. Smaller guys who are fairly fearless—and have other NHL attributes (like hands, a shot and especially speed) in abundance.
3) It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Most NHL players are drafted at age 17. That is, those who are drafted.
The average age for an NHL debut is about 21. That’s four years where a lot can happen, good or bad.
Some guys come out of nowhere, like the undrafted Ed Belfour, or a sixth round pick like Steve Larmer, or Byfuglien who was taken in the 8th round.
Many guys taken higher, as pointed out ad nauseum, never really develop or fail to meet projections.
Sometimes, it merely takes some players longer than others to meet expectations. The Blackhawks’ own Richard Panik bounced through three NHL organizations before settling in and flourishing last year on Jonathan Toews’ right wing.
Important to note also, Panik’s junior numbers were never what you’d call “exceptional”—yet today he is a productive top 6 winger in the NHL, primarily because of an NHL-level size/speed combination—and willingness.
It’s with all this in mind that we can look forward to this year’s pro camp, and questions that are yet to be answered.
Is last year’s camp phenom, undrafted QMJHL winger Alex Fortin, the real thing or just a one-year flash in the pan? A couple of highly intriguing traits Fortin showed last year—above average speed (as compared to pro competition) and the ability to make and finish plays at top speed. Yet Fortin lacks the big junior pedigree, barely a point per game player. So another stellar camp—or one where he comes back to earth—will go a long way in determining whether Fortin is one of those “out of nowhere guys” or not.
The recently-concluded prospect camp was supposed to be “The Camp of (Alex) Debrincat.” It wasn’t. OHL scoring champ DeBrincat had some moments—especially in camp scrimmages versus other prospects, but he struggled in one on one drills (especially against bigger players) and at times looked slow or disinterested.
Or will another camp invitee step up, like Fortin did last year, and grab the spotlight?
The point is, all the hype and projections and rankings aside, we won’t really know until they lace the skates up and play. As pros. Or at least with and against pros. And even then, the story itself will likely deviate from the scripted expectations.
All I have for now,
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