Let's start this off by getting right to the point.
Adam Brooks scored a lot this season.
He led the WHL in points, with a 38G-82A-120P statline in 72 GP. This isn't to be simplistic, because there's a lot more to say about Adam Brooks than that pretty string of numbers. But just for a second, look at what Adam Brooks achieved.
Adam Brooks did this as an overager. He turned 20 in May, and was drafted by the Leafs in June, having gone through the draft twice before and being passed on. That makes it easier to discount his numbers, and Brooks himself, as a guy riding an age advantage to dominate a lesser league. This article is about why you shouldn't do that.
Brooks is a 5'10", rather slight, left-shooting centreman born out of Winnipeg. Our own Scott Wheeler attests that he was viewed as skilled as a teenager, and he was drafted relatively high in the WHL's Bantam draft. And then...well...things didn't go so hot.
In his would-have-been draft year, Brooks put up 4G-7A-11P in 60 games for the Regina Pats. This is not a dazzling statline, to say the least, albeit one extenuated by Brooks being a third-line centre who didn't get powerplay time. But his anemic production meant he was passed over. Even if a scout had liked the look of him at the time, it's hard to sell your front office on a small forward who can't score. So Brooks got ignored. Fast forward a year.
Brooks got better in a hurry. In point-production, nearly six times better, enough to lead the Pats. This is the kind of progression that gets you excited if you've drafted a player: he has a big spike in development, jumping to the front of the class. No one would have expected Brooks to get drafted after the draft year he had; his D + 1 was more interesting. At the same time, going just shy of a point-per-game as a 19-year-old isn't enough to turn heads in the super-competitive NHL draft, and being a smaller guy and an overager stacks the deck against you as a candidate. So Brooks got ignored again.
Brooks got tired of being ignored, and ran his league over. He somehow improved by more than fifty points again, surging to the top of the WHL table. Brooks' growth was almost all in passing; he scored at almost the same rate himself, but his teammates benefited mightily from the new and improved Brooks. This finally forced NHL teams to take notice of him. And so, at 92nd overall, he fell to us.
Brooks is touted for his vision and passing, as you might expect given all those assists; he's the kind of guy you can run an offence through. He's a strong skater, and he's got oodles of skill, but despite that he doesn't shirk his defensive duties. He's active and aware in every zone. What's not to like?
There's an archetype of hockey growth, which is that players get a little better each year; their development makes a pretty line graph ascending upward at 45 degrees, and after stopping to draft them at the age-18 line on the graph, they keep right on ascending. While this is oversimplified, a lot of players follow something similar to this path. But not all of them: players are human beings, with hundreds of unique covariates that affect their play. Some players are going to develop irregularly, and teams can be hesitant to adjust their opinions for those players. In the case of a passed-over player like Brooks, several factors may be at play: teams being anchored by their initial idea of him, teams fearing being a sucker who pays for an outlier year, and teams fearing something unfamiliar.
So Brooks suffered for his uneven line. He went from underperforming, to performing much better, to winning a scoring trophy. His growth has been exponential, not linear. These kinds of spikes don't gibe with our idea of hockey growth, and they make us think that something fishy's going on.
But to put it differently: how excited would we be if one of our 2015 fourth-rounders blew up his junior league with point-and-a-half-per-game offence? Very. In fact, we are that excited, because one did: Dmytro Timashov.
Timashov is five months younger than Brooks, and they're (funnily enough) the same height. He put up a lovely 85 points in 57 games in the QMJHL, and we're over the moon about it--as we should be. If we'd picked Brooks when we picked Timashov, we might well view him differently.
To take another example: let's look at forwards from the Canadian Hockey Leagues (OHL, WHL, and QMJHL.) Take the forwards drafted in the first and second rounds those years. Excluding those who went to the AHL/NHL, Brooks is 3rd in points per game of nine, ranking ahead of higher profile players like Josh Ho-Sang and John Quenneville. In even-strength points per game, Brooks was 8th among 2014 draft-eligible players this year. Even with league adjustments, that's impressive as hell.
And by the way, the player who's ranked 9th? Christian Dvorak, whom Bleacher Report just ranked the 33rd-best hockey prospect in the world. Brooks is damn good right now. The fact that his growth started later shouldn't detract from the fact that it's now caught up with--and may even have zoomed ahead of--his peers.
Further, there is some evidence that overagers are underrated. Zac Urback argues here that, according to his DEV tool, NHL teams routinely undervalue overagers, being reluctant to use a mid-round draft pick on a player they could have had at any point in the previous draft. The top overager in 2016, according to DEV? Adam Brooks.
So let's look at Brooks' growth on his own terms. In his D+1 year, where he led the Pats, the team had lesser people to play with him, pending the growth of Sam Steel and his phenomenal name. But Brooks' capacity to improve is what stands out: he went from a fringe producer to the top one on his team in the course of a year. The fact that he got that much better suggests that his gangbusters 2015-16 was not an outlier, but the next step for a player who shows an impressive capacity to grow his game. As Mike Babcock succinctly put it, "We think he's going in the right direction."
Brooks In Action
This clip (with some preamble as Brooks is awarded the WHL Player of the Year Trophy; ho hum) shows Brooks clowning on fools. While every player looks good in his highlights, Brooks seems to own the offensive zone at every turn. The guy knows where to stand, and where to pass.
Our own glorious leader and Future Considerations offer the pre-draft scouting report on Brooks:
Brooks is a smaller forward who took huge strides forward as a ‘96 this year. He has great offensive smarts, and the hands and vision to exploit opportunities. He gets to the right spots in the offensive zone for shooting opportunities as well as to take the pressure off his teammates by making himself available for a pass. He’s not a shy guy, but more of a calm, calculated offensive force. Brooks is blessed with high-end vision and the ability to to put pucks through small lanes. He uses his quick feet in tandem with his quick hands to explode through the tight lanes and generate separation to make a play. He will go into the gritty traffic areas, but is by no means a rough, physical player. Brooks is not a guy who just gives effort in the offensive zone either -- he has developed his defensive awareness over the past couple of seasons. He is a player we have liked in the last two years, despite him struggling to stay in Regina’s top nine. But after being given a top-line role, he has really picked up his scoring. He was the WHL’s leading scorer and he plays a relentless two-way game. If he was a little bit bigger, we would have no doubts about him going inside the top three rounds, but for now, he is a later project guy.
The Leafs made him their later project, and we're glad they did. You should be too.
What The Future Holds
Brooks is an an interesting spot heading into this season. He's already 20, meaning he could only return to the WHL as an overage player ("overage" in this context is distinct from the idea of being "overage" in the NHL draft, which Brooks was as a player who was previously eligible to be drafted.) CHL teams have only three spots available to overage players, though Regina will undoubtedly be happy to take Brooks back if that's what he and the Leafs decide.
Otherwise, Brooks will join the ranks of the Marlies, where he'll take a number and fight for ice-time and attention among all the other skilled, undersized scorers. When a player is among the best in his league, our natural expectation as fans is that he'll take a step up in level of competition (see Mitch Marner, 2016.) Of course, this doesn't always happen (see Mitch Marner, 2015.) But we're hoping it does, and that Brooks continues his progression as a pro.
The only real reasons not to be excited over Brooks are his size and his late development. The NHL is now a league where 5'10" players are very capable of success, and Brooks' development--when you get past his undrafted status--has been extremely encouraging. Brooks is a great fourth-round pick for the Leafs, and a player to watch going forward--because if he keeps growing like he has, he's definitely not getting shut out of the T25 next summer. (And we'll claim clairvoyance when that happens.)