Sixteen games left in the season and we can say with 99% confidence that the Flames will not be making the post-season dance. A horrendous season has nearly come and gone. Many would have guessed the Flames would have fallen back this year after the miracle season of 2014-15 but would we have guessed they would be fighting it out with Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Buffalo for last overall… probably not. It’s not all bad… it’s mostly bad… but at least it appears we’re going to get a top five pick out of the deal.
I have some thoughts on the 2016 top five forwards. Join me on a look at the numbers.
Your consensus top five, as of the mid-term rankings a few months ago, are:
- Auston Matthews – 6’2” 195 pound two-way skilled center from Scottsdale, Arizona who’s been the consensus #1 for the 2016 draft for about two years now
- Patrik Laine – 6’3” 200 pound Finnish RW that dazzled at the most recent WJC tournament, winning gold for his country
- Jesse Puljujarvi – 6’3” 200 pound Finnish RW that also put on a great performance at the most recent WJC tournament
- Matthew Tkachuk – 6’1” 190 pound American-born son of NHL Legend, Keith Tkachuk, currently destroying the OHL, playing on a ridiculous line with Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak
- Alexander Nylander – 6’0” 172 pound Swedish/Canadian son of former NHLer Michael Nylander and brother of Toronto Maple Leafs stud prospect, William Nylander
Matthews: Instead of going the typical NCAA route of American players, Matthews decided to blaze his own trail and head to the Swiss-A league to play out his draft year, presumably to earn a little cheddar. No top five eligible pick has ever done this and few NHLers have played in the Swiss-A league at a young age and jumped right to the NHL so getting a gauge on his NHLE is damn near impossible, but an equivalency of a cohort of 20 players who played more than 20 games in the Swiss-A league at the age of 27 or younger and played in the NHL right after gives us a translation of 0.61 which gives us an estimated NHLE of 65! Not to mention, as a 17-year-old, he beat Patrick Kane’s USHL single-season scoring record and registered an NHLE of 44. It appears Matthews is going to be an absolute monster immediately. Like McDavid, Kane, Crosby elite monster. If the Flames get first… pick him first… definitely.
Tkachuk: Matthew Tkachuk has a very stellar NHLE of 48 playing in the OHL (conversion of 0.3 – cohort based on OHL players of the past 10 years that entered the NHL at age 20 or younger). His NHLE is incredible but there is concern that his linemates, Marner and Dvorak, are propping him up slightly or even quite drastically, like Kane did for Gagner in 2007 with the very same Knights. However, Tkachuk had a NHLE of 30 in the USHL as a 17-year-old last year, which is very, very good for the USHL and for a 17-year-old. For perspective, Gaudreau’s was 24 in the same league and he was about four months older than Tkachuk by the time the season ended. I think Tkachuk will be more than fine. Gagner and Yakupov are the only relative busts (still each played over 200 games to date nonetheless) in the past 11 years that I can find of players that registered an NHLE of 45 or more in their draft year. He’d be going second overall in my world.
Laine: Laine’s NHLE drops off slightly to 30 (conversion of 0.5 – cohort based on SM-Liiga players from the past 15 years that entered the NHLE at age 25 or younger). Still a fine NHLE but slightly lower than the average top five forward pick but a huge RW with raving endorsements… I would pick him third.
Nylander: Nylander has a NHLE of 34. A perfectly fine equivalency and one that very much points to a player having a long successful, point producing career in the NHL. He’s probably not ready yet but I’d go fourth overall.
Puljujarvi: Puljujarvi is where things get interesting. He will likely go #2 or #3, based on everything out there. He will likely jump right into the NHL after being drafted and here’s the problem. His NHLE is 23 which is the second lowest of a top five drafted forward in at least the past 26 years (Blake Wheeler was a high school player and technically had the lowest NHLE, although NHLEs for high school players are tough to come by as nobody makes that jump; J. Staal, Malkin and Yashin were also close). Who cares? Let’s look at more recent data to find out why this matters.
Above is a look at the draft-year NHLE of first round draftees from 2004 to 2014. As well, I’ve included the number of players in each group to jump right into the NHL after being drafted.
In the past 11 years only six players have jumped directly into the NHL after being drafted with an NHLE less than 30. Four first rounders (Jordan Staal, Alexander Burmistrov, David Perron and Mikkel Boedker) and two second rounders (Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly).
Of those six that have jumped right into the league without a 30+ NHLE, only Bergeron and O’Reilly have turned into what I would deem a true impact scorer (registering 0.6 PPG or more over the course of his career). The other four have essentially been middle of the road scorers (30 to 45 points per year). A third overall pick that scores like Mikael Backlund or Jordan Staal. Even if he’s a fantastic two-way talent (like Staal and Backlund), would we, as Flames fans, be pleased with that or would we always feel a little shorted for a top three pick?
The other thought is he amounts to a very, very good, productive player but he’s not ready for the NHL for the 2016-17 season.
Puljujarvi’s numbers immediately suggest he’s not ready. He could go back and dominate the SM-Liiga league (with a 30+, 40+ NHLE or 50+ NHLE) in his draft +1 or draft +2 year (and given the data above you’re hoping to high heavens he does that) and all of a sudden we’re talking about a player that ticks all the boxes. But this means he’s a few years away and assumes that he takes that next step. Fellow top five picks Ovechkin and Malkin certainly dominated when they went back and broke into the NHL a few years later as no-brainer studs but they weren’t ready for the NHL right out of the gate (both had draft year NHLEs in the 20s when they were drafted first and second in 2004). They needed to go back. I think this is where Puljujarvi falls.
What about his WJC performance? What can history tell us there? I don’t put much stock in a six to seven game tournament but let’s entertain the notion. Puljujarvi had an incredible 17 points in seven games in 2016 which led the tournament, so let’s talk about it. Calculating a rough NHLE of WJC to NHL over the past 10 years gives us a translation of 0.33. That boosts Puljujarvi’s NHLE up dramatically to 65. But, again, one seven game tournament. As well most players that play in the tournament don’t play the NHL right after being drafted at 18 or 19 and often don’t play in the NHL right after playing in the tournament. The ones that do are the McDavids, Tavares, Matthews types.
A player like Jordan Staal is a good player. Defensively responsible and can chip in some goals. But if I’m the Flames and could be set to take the highest drafted player in club history… do I want to draft a player that resembles Staal from an NHLE standpoint? Do I want to bring him right into the NHL at which point he’s likely not ready and never really hits his potential and is a 40-50 point player in his prime? I would hope for a little more with the highest pick the Flames have ever had.
If the Flames end up with that third pick, Tkachuk would probably be the player I would pick (as Laine will likely be gone). He’s big, extremely skilled, can probably play right now, and there’s little chance he’s a “bust”: especially because he already has two 30+ NHLEs under his belt, one without Dvorak and Marner. If Puljujarvi is the unanimous player to pick at three I’d be prepared for him to be sent back to blossom in the Finnish League for at least one or two more years. Tough to swallow for a team desperate for a top flight RW right now but, to me, it’s the right choice.