Every year, players projected to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft fall. This is a nice little benefit to being one of the worst teams in the league: not only do you get a high pick in the first round, but you kind of get a second first round pick, just by virtue of picking twice in, say, the top 35.
Alex DeBrincat isn’t going to be a top six pick. We’re not here to talk about the possibility of the Flames taking him with their first pick of this draft. He is projected to be taken some time late in the first round, and by all accounts, he – with his back-to-back 51 goal and 100+ point seasons in the OHL – absolutely should be a first rounder.
But he’s also 5’7 and 160 lbs. And when it comes to hockey, big guys have to prove they can’t play – smaller guys have to prove they can.
DeBrincat is a small player with a dynamic skill set. He is a pure sniper, scoring over 50 goals in two straight years in the OHL. He is very undersized, but can be very nasty to play against and shies away from no one. He had to deal with injuries at the 2016 World Junior Championship, but that did not hamper his production when he returned to the OHL. He skates well and is very effective around the net. He is hard to contain for such a small player, and has great chemistry with anyone he plays with. A decade player in the OHL.
The Michigan native has done a pretty good job silencing critics who at first said he was too small for both the U.S. National Team Development Program (he was cut from the U17 squad) and the OHL (was passed over in two OHL Priority Selections). Today, DeBrincat is the Canadian Hockey League’s most prolific goal scorer, and there is nothing anyone can point towards to successfully argue that. Blessed with the softest yet quickest set of hands of any 2016 draft eligible, he continues to find ways to make up for the difference in size by identifying the correct time to shift gears and elude coverage. His release is devastatingly rapid, and can even wire off a shot if the pass is behind him or in his skates. DeBrincat may be small by hockey standards, but he’s a tenacious battler who will get into those tough areas around the cage, as well as throw a hit without deviating from his primary objective of scoring goals. He thinks the game at a very high level, and is the last guy you would catch taking a shift off.
This is something I mentioned as a strength; the fact that he does the majority of his work near the crease. At the OHL level, he’s able to out smart and out hustle defenders. At the NHL level, there are 6’4 defenders who can skate as well as he does. Will he be able to have that same sort of success? He might be forced to adapt his game a little bit (say the way a guy like Jeff Skinner has). But, I do most definitely like him as a player and I do believe strongly in his offensive potential at the next level.
At some point, you have to stop believing that DeBrincat has “lucked out” with his linemates and accept that there’s a reason coaches always stick him with top guys. The 5-foot-7 sniper has played with Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome and Auston Matthews and it’s because he can find space, wire the puck and thrive with elite players – not everyone can.
DeBrincat has now played two full seasons with the Erie Otters in the OHL, and he’s thrived. As a rookie, he scored 51 goals and 53 assists for 104 points over 68 games: a 1.5 point per game pace that saw him not only be named the 2014-15 CHL season’s top rookie scorer, but also the top rookie player, period. He was sixth in overall OHL scoring.
No steps were taken back in 2015-16, either, as he once again scored 51 goals, and added 50 assists to his name for 101 points over 60 games: going up to a 1.7 point per game pace. He was still seventh in overall OHL scoring, even with the additional games missed.
But wait – let’s recall Kennedy’s scouting report. As a rookie, DeBrincat was third in Otters scoring, behind Dylan Strome and Connor McDavid; as a sophomore, he was second, again behind Strome as McDavid graduated. And while scouts say DeBrincat isn’t simply feeding off his linemates, it’s still a legitimate concern. So, what do the numbers say?
Remember even strength primary points? They help eliminate noise in a prospect’s scoring at the junior level. If DeBrincat is truly a passenger, then chances are he’s going to be picking up his fair share of secondary assists and powerplay points to pad those lofty totals he’s put up.
Except that would appear to not be the case. Via Prospect Stats, of DeBrincat’s 101 points this past season, 53 of them – just over half – were ESPP (.883 per game). He tied with Travis Konecny for fourth overall in the OHL, and had the most ESPP of any draft-eligible player not just in the OHL, but in the entire CHL (he did tie with Pierre-Luc Dubois in terms of raw ESPP, but per game, he was a little better).
He also had the highest ESPP of any player on the Otters, beating out Strome by two points. Strome, however, did play four fewer games than DeBrincat; his ESPP per game was third in the OHL at .911.
So the numbers confirm what the scouts are saying: DeBrincat isn’t the beneficiary of talented linemates. He’s talented himself, and capable of carrying his own weight when it comes to upholding his lofty point totals. If he was five inches taller, we wouldn’t be talking about him as a darkhorse at all.
Fit with the Flames
Yeah, okay, so DeBrincat is little. He’s listed as 5’7 and 160 lbs.; Johnny Gaudreau was listed as 5’6 and 137 lbs. when he was first drafted. And with Andrew Mangiapane en route to his first professional season, really, just how many small players can the Flames draft, even if they’re high scorers?
DeBrincat doesn’t fill the need for size – although considering his truculence, is that as great a concern? If he’s fearless and even relishes in physical battles, is his size that great a factor? This is yet another smaller kid who’s had to prove time and time again he can not just play, but thrive, at higher levels. Sure, he’s a risk to make the NHL – every player is – but it’s hard not to believe in someone like DeBrincat.
One of Jay Feaster’s better quotes was something along the lines of how he got no calls of interest on the big Greg Nemisz, but people wanted to talk to him about the little and offensively talented Gaudreau. If too many small players becomes an issue for the Flames, then they can always trade from that position of strength. But is there such a problem as too many high-scoring players?
Oh, and by the way: he plays right wing. High-scoring wingers are exactly what the Flames need, so yeah, there’s a fit for him.
If DeBrincat somehow drops to 35th overall you draft him. Plain and simple. This isn’t even a question. He’s one of the top scoring talents in the entire CHL, size and linemates be damned.
That should see him be taken before the Flames’ second pick, easily – but just in case.