The Toronto Maple Leafs have 46 prospects and players under 25. This creates a pair of conflicting desires: We want them all to succeed, to be good, to be “hits”. We also want our analysis to be good, to be truthful, to be realistic, and to be right more often than it’s wrong.
We all really do want every prospect to be great. No one hates anyone or wants anyone to fail. But that doesn’t mean all prospect analysis isn’t biased because everyone is influenced by a host of biases in oh so many ways. One big hurdle to us achieving perfection is that we aren’t equally informed on each player or each of us on the players overall.
The Fame and Familiarity Factor
Look at anyone’s T25 list, lop the NHL players off the top, and examine just the the prospects. You’ll find the higher draft picks nearer the top and the lower picks near the bottom. Which is predictable and correct most of the time. But analysis of other sports (particularly the sunk cost study of the NBA draft) shows that players taken higher in the draft get a longer look by teams. They play more games and make more money even if they don’t really deserve it.
We’re not immune to that effect either, but how much our rankings are influenced by an actual bias to overrate by draft position and how much is simply fame is harder to say. The higher the draft pick, the more people know about them. The more information there is, the better the external analysis is, and the easier it is to find. There’s not going to be just some points on Elite Prospects and not much else for the guy you took in the first round.
This is a double-edged sword, however, because sometimes high draft picks carry their pre-draft scouting reports around for years. It’s interesting to read the old ones that persist on Elite Prospects, particularly for players who are now in their mid-twenties. Sometimes that guy never did magically develop a 200 foot game, and sometimes he didn’t get stronger, but other times, you can’t reconcile the description with the man the prospect became.
A prospect prognostication is, in some way, trying to divine the disparity that will exist between the reality of the future man and the scouting report now. The more detailed the scouting is now, the easier it is to figure out what needs to change and to form some kind of opinion on how possible that is.
We’re Not Normal
Every member of the masthead who voted on the T25 has a story like this, but I was making a quick table of the Marlies roster as it is now, and without looking it up, I could name who was on an AHL deal and who was on an NHL deal. That’s not normal. Many fairly hard-core Leafs fans don’t even know what the difference is in one sort of contract and another.
Most of us could have named nearly all of the list of 46 prospects prior to voting, with only Ryan [McGregor] and Ryan [O’Connell] tripping us up. That’s really not normal. Most Leafs fans really can’t tell you all the players drafted this June.
This works to counter the fame and familiarity factor, but it might also induce us to skitch some of those obscure late-round picks up too high.
When I see fans say with total conviction that Pontus Holmberg is going to be great or Vladislav Kara is a bust, what a horrible pick, I always ask myself how the hell anyone could ever know that at this point. And yet, I have some kind of vague sort of opinion on them both. How the hell could I ever know? That’s a very good question. The answer is: It’s mostly guessing.
One of the aspects of the group fiction we all participate in — that one man makes the draft pick choices for the Leafs — relies on the absurdist idea that one person has enough information on 100s of players to make those choices. That man is always a GM or AGM of the team, and has, you know, a job he does all year. But, wow, he should be fired for picking that one guy that one time.
The truth is, of course, that the Leafs have a massive scouting department, growing ever bigger in interesting ways this summer. The department has a fairly standard bureaucratic chain of command you could easily make a flow chart for that feeds up to the top, to the man who stands up on draft day and announces the picks.
And it’s not like this man is at the draft alone. There’s a big table full of people, and they have phones and laptops. There might be a whole hotel conference room somewhere full of people with computers for all we know. I feel safe in assuming there’s a lot of reports written all year long, and collation of opinions and long lists get made that get narrowed down to short lists or tiers of players of approximately equal value in later rounds. And even then, they’re guessing at how each man will differ from the boy.
We don’t have a staff of a dozen or two scouts.
If we’re guessing now, the future lists will be even harder to make as the whole nature of the prospect pool will change.
Bad Teams and Good Teams
If you watch a perpetually bad to mediocre team for a long time, you can grow accustomed to the idea that there’s always jobs going in the NHL. How many players do the Vancouver Canucks or the Arizona Coyotes swap around every summer? We might be able to say which of them does that better, but neither of them ever seem to stop.
You can realistically expect a team like that to have multiple players graduating into the NHL roster from the development pipeline every year. It looks like a conveyor belt, and it’s easy to grow to see it as the norm.
The Washington Capitals had one player on an ELC when they won the cup. There were also two or three older rookies or near rookies in depth roles. They don’t have a conveyor belt, there are few jobs open, and they have had very few high first-round picks since the day they drafted Alex Ovechkin in 2004. They blew it on a couple they did have, which happens to all teams.
We’re grappling now with a prospect pool that you can’t merely describe as deep or shallow. I don’t think the 2016 T25 list is going to be repeated for quality in a very long time, but the current list has a lot of maybes on it, more than some other lists, and the temptation to call that deep is strong. But the thing most of them may be is a depth NHLer, just like those under 25 guys that managed to crack the Capitals lineup by being cheap and a little better than replacement level.
If you look at the drop in quality of first-round picks from Auston Matthews to Timothy Liljegren to Rasmus Sandin, it’s inevitable that the stars will become rarer. It takes a lot of luck and very good scouting to make hay with picks over 20th overall.
The next thing to happen, and it already has begun, is a lot of Leafs picks are going to disappear in trade for players. Deadline acquisitions and offseason deals to get the right mix of high-end talent on the team will cost assets.
The trade that just happened to move Jeff Skinner to Buffalo (sobs quietly) involved two picks as the main compensation that add up in value to approximately what the Leafs first-round pick next summer is likely to be worth (with Cliff Pu and another late round pick added onto that). The equation is going to become one year (or six weeks) of a player like Skinner vs a 20 per cent or worse chance at some sort of NHL player in three or four years.
Just when you start trading picks, you start running out of players to move out to get more. But when you do have a decent pick, don’t draft Karl Alzner fourth overall or trade Filip Forsberg like the Caps did. And yet, here they are still hoisting the cup, so even epic mistakes aren’t always fatal, and maybe management shouldn’t be made overly risk averse by fear of losing their jobs over individual blunders.
The effect of all of this is that the prospect pool changes. The Leafs are very, very good at finding free agents to add to the mix, and over the modern era of the NHL, free agents are hits more often than anyone drafted outside the first round, so the picks matter less than maybe we think they do.
What we will have is fewer and fewer young prospects as picks are traded, and fewer and fewer really good prospects as the picks added from trades are late-rounders. We’ll have a lot more maybes. You can compensate for this reality by believing harder in marginal prospects, but it won’t actually make them better.
It’s hard to resist, though. Because you start comparing the prospect pool to each other, and you overvalue your top end by never looking at them in the larger context. I think Leafs fans are already doing this with the vast array of maybe prospects.
The number of players who enter the NHL every year, those who stick around and play a hundred games in two or three years, is very small. There aren’t 25 future success stories in this prospect pool.
The Big Dropoff
In past T25 lists, there is often a spot at which the gap between quality of players widens up, and then the subsequent players gradually become more and more similar until there is a large tier that includes the last few ranked prospects and a bunch of unranked prospects who are all about equal.
We seem to have two drops this year, which we’ll get into when the whole list has been revealed. But that ties in with how we should expect the list to change in the future.
More Players, Fewer Prospects
The thing the Capitals have not done well is renewing their team with younger talent. Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos better like each other, because the rest of their team is a bunch of old men. No one else in the Capitals dressing room talks endlessly of Fortnite and strange music the old men have never heard of.
The state of the Leafs right now is ideal. The more of that T25 list that are NHL players making significant impacts, the better. But it won’t last. Even Mitch Marner will get old, get a mortgage, and quite likely produce little Marners. At some point, most of the Leafs dressing room will be talking about whose kid spits up the grossest stuff instead of competing over video game prowess.
As the roster gets harder to crack, the prospect pool changes in density, and the draft picks get sketchier, the T25 list will also gradually grow more towards prospects and not players. Three NHLers will age off the list next summer. Six of the current NHL roster players on the list are 22 or older, but only three are 21 or younger.
The Leafs brass will need to work to mitigate the ageing of the team, but luck of the draft isn’t predictable. There are teams that are better at it than Washington: Tampa, Boston, San Jose. However, Pittsburgh is almost as bad as the Capitals, and Los Angeles has been worse. There are ways beyond luck to not end up with a gang of guys in their thirties as the core of your team, but it’s hard.
Your Heart will be Sold for a Roll of the Dice
It hasn’t happened yet, unless you count Rinat Valiev or Kerby Rychel as top prospects, but at some point soon, the Leafs are going to trade away someone who we have real hopes for. They’ll sell our baby boy for six weeks or more of a man we may well have hated a few minutes before. If we’re lucky, we’ll grow to love him quickly.
The question we’ll be asking when making T25 lists will not just be, “Will this prospect contribute to the Leafs?” but also, “Can we sell him for something good?”
Kevin Papetti noted once that the best prospect Leafs fans are willing to fantasy trade is a clue to how they view the team and the prospect pool. It used to be Kapanen, right now it’s Bracco, but it isn’t Liljegren. Not yet.
When the day comes when we’re jaded and cynical and willing to trade the guy who just got taken with the first round pick five minutes before, we’ll be different people, and the Leafs will be a different team.
And you thought “there will be pain” only meant the games the Leafs lost to tank for Auston. Change is inevitable, and we’ll see it in the prospect pool before we see it in the team. The pool will get deep and shallow at the same time: deep in volume of maybe players, but shallow in their total eventual contribution.
I think we already can see that coming over the horizon.