It's not easy getting noticed in an NHL Draft when you're 5-7. It's especially hard to get first round attention. The average NHL player in 2016 is 6-1. In 2015, just three players under 5-10 were invited to the annual scouting combine. Just nine per cent of the roughly 350 players ranked by NHL Central Scouting this year were listed at under 5-10. Among the more than 500 players invited to the combine in the last five years, only 19 were under 5-10.
That's why Erie Otters winger Alex DeBrincat has had to force people to pay attention. You can't ignore back-to-back 50-goal seasons before the age of 18 in the best junior hockey league in North America. You don't ignore a CHL Rookie of the Year. After posting 51 goals and 104 points in 64 games riding shotgun (for part of the season) with Connor McDavid as a rookie, DeBrincat responded with 51 more goals and 101 points in four fewer games this season.
But despite his high-end scoring ability, there are real concerns about DeBrincat. I have often said that we know players can be world class offensive options at 5-9 -- the Johnny Gaudreau's of the game tell us that much -- but we are still unsure of just how effective a scorer can be at 5-7. In DeBrincat's case, he isn't helped by the elite skating that often propels diminutive players into starring roles at the NHL level.
Mats Zuccarello, David Deharnais, Brian Gionta and Cam Atkinson have all become legitimate NHL players at 5-7, though. Passed over in two OHL drafts, DeBrincat has proven himself to be capable of being considered in the same light as each of the aforementioned smallest players in the NHL. He might even have a higher ceiling.
And his performance with McDavid was no fluke. DeBrincat's 79 primary points ranked him first among all draft-eligible scorers, ahead of Matthew Tkachuk, Adam Mascherin (already profiled here), Alex Nylander and others. In fact, it was good enough for seventh in the OHL (behind only names such as Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak and ahead of top NHL prospects like Travis Konecny).
And while DeBrincat struggled at the World Juniors in a year where draft-eligibles were the story, his performance there is the norm for draft-year forwards not the exception.
Stylistically, DeBrincat's game also lends itself well to translating at the next level. Despite his size, he isn't a perimeter player like many of his peers. DeBrincat is at his best when he's using his size, or lack thereof, to get into the slot and finish off plays. He led all draft-eligible players in shots on goal, finishing third overall in the OHL with 269.
Off the puck, he's a physical, engaged presence who doesn't shy away from being involved in the play before or after the whistle -- the latter can work to his detriment, though he definitely scaled back this year and took fewer penalties as a result. On the puck, he's among the most gifted players in the class and can do virtually anything with it on his stick (can shoot from his toe, heel and backhand in-stride or stationary).
And while he doesn't often beat defenders cleanly with his speed or change in pace, he is by no means a weak skater. The Otters have been known to slow the pace down (Strome and Leafs prospect Travis Dermott certainly do) but DeBrincat can make plays when he's under pressure.
In tight, his ability with the puck is near unmatched and he can finish plays off with one touch or with a quick move to elevate the puck.
On the powerplay, he has played both wings and the point effectively (his shot is a real threat to score) and he can manage the half wall or be a cross-crease trigger man.
Though he may need strong linemates to stick as an effective secondary scorer at the next level, he's versatile enough that he might just be able to make it work -- though he will likely never be the engine on a line.
Down the stretch, after battling injuries midway through the season, DeBrincat played some of his best hockey. He closed out the regular season and the start of the playoffs with 28 points in 13 games for an astonishing 2.15 points per game in the month of March.
Ranked 27th by Future Considerations, if DeBrincat is available in the late first round he's a risk worth taking. And a risk that is unlike any other in this class.
Enigma (noun): someone or something that is difficult to understand or explain. - Merriam Webster Dictionary
And the Leafs' pool of prospects is full of enigmas. The franchise has proven itself to be pro-weird, for risk, in favour of skill.
In their first full draft under Mark Hunter and co., they selected a scrawny wizard, a safe Canadian defender on a stacked team, a cocky and tiny highly skilled American on a stacked team, a Frankenstein defensemen one year removed from local rep hockey, a Latvian, a yet-to-crack the SHL skinny defenseman, a diminutive Swede who only knew how to pass, a towering over-ager who played for their then-new assistant coach, and a Russian import who couldn't skate but boy could he hit.
Very quickly, the Leafs have become an enigma. What's one more?