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In Praise Of Prospects Who Don’t Make It

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I have experience with this.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

This week I gave up on Adam Brooks. It’s not that I don’t think he’s got anything to offer as a person or as a hockey player, it’s not that I don’t think he can continue his professional career once a vaccine chases off the first Horseman of the Apocalypse. It’s that I have two brains for every prospect, and the fun one finally lost.

The fun brain says that Adam Brooks, a slightly undersized centre, is one of the players I’ve liked rooting for since he was drafted in 2016. That draft, you may recall, was conducted under the auspices of Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter, but Brooks always felt to me like a Kyle Dubas pick. He was and is a little small, he wasn’t and isn’t that fast, and he was 20 and is 24. But after a deeply underwhelming draft-eligible season and a modestly whelming season after that, Brooks went out as a 19-year-old and scored a goddamn avalanche of points as a playmaker in the WHL. He scored so many points that it was enough to make his third time through the draft a charm, and the Leafs took him in the fourth round of a year where they got one franchise player and a fistful of duds. The odds were against him, we all knew, but that was the year where overagers were deemed a Market Inefficiency by some very smart people; maybe they still are, though I’ve heard it less.

I rooted for him ever after. Brooks is a smart forward who works his ass off and does what his coaches ask him to do. He’s a gifted playmaker. He’s worked through some tough injuries, including concussions, and surged back for a respectable seven-game tryout in the NHL where he put up three assists. And...

The rational brain has to point out: Brooks is 24, and the Leafs just signed about a dozen guys for five jobs in their bottom six. There are plenty of outcomes for that competition between aging big names, middling depth NHLers, and phenom Nick Robertson. But most of them don’t include Adam Brooks being in the NHL, and with the AHL in total flux this year it’s hard to say where he’ll be going. And if I’d never heard of him and all I did was scout the statline and the birthdate, I’d say a forward who won’t have made it as an NHL regular by 25 and isn’t shredding another league probably isn’t going to make the jump.

Futures

We do our Top 25 rankings once a year, typically, but because we live in a year where everything’s fucky, we’re doing an updated edition this winter to accommodate the new draft. As always, there are some established names (you’ll never guess who’s still #1), some rising NHLers, some new hot prospects, and then a whole lot of faint hopes. Any experience with doing this for long teaches you that the vast majority of these players don’t make it. All of these players were at some lower level the best player on the team, and almost all of them put together a highlight reel that makes them look like one of the best players in the world for two to five minutes. After every single draft, you see a flurry of these clips around Twitter as Toronto and other fanbases convince themselves this draft has been full of absolute steals. (Look up the aftermath of the Leafs’ 2017 picks, which has thus far produced one third-pair D, if you want to laugh and/or cry.)

In light of that knowledge, doing a prospect ranking can sometimes feel like the Grinch who’s stealing Christmas, constantly reminding everyone that no, that player probably won’t be an NHLer and every other organization has four players just like him. Sometimes this is fun when people go totally bananas—I fondly remember the deranged comment chain where someone got mad at me for suggesting AHL defenceman Andrew Nielsen wouldn’t be the next Shea Weber—but a lot of the time it means being a bit of a downer. People do come to us for analysis, after all. (Okay, they come to read Katya for analysis. Not so much me. You get the point.)

I don’t want us to stop doing that and turn into some starry-eyed blog where everything the Leafs do is an act of genius. The mean, median and mode outcome for players picked in rounds 2-7 is “did not play significant NHL games.” Losing sight of that is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Fan Brain

But as I reluctantly put Adam Brooks down with the probably-nots in his last year of eligibility for this list, I had a bit of a sunrise-sunset moment. I’ve been doing this ranking since 2016, and I voted to put Brooks on the list every single time. That’s not to say I’ve watched many AHL games in that period (I have a day job) but I’ve followed his career with interest, I’ve gotten my hopes up or let them down, and I’ve kept my fingers crossed for him to make it. It’s no fault of his own if he isn’t going to wind up with a big career in the top league, and hey, never say never. He’s worked at it, had his personal triumphs, and given glimpses of a pretty good player, NHL or no.

Sports, unless you’re some asshole who just switched their allegiance from the Golden State Warriors to the Lakers, involve a lot more losing than winning. Any Leafs fan under 55 or so has learned that over and over. What we watch sports for is a weird mix of community, catharsis, and hope. There’s a balance between insisting this will be the year every year and win probability-induced anhedonia. Somewhere in that mix you get the rise and plateau of prospects like Adam Brooks.

And that can be worth it. You follow a third- or fourth-rounder with the knowledge the odds are against him, and you can ride the underdog story. You can appreciate his talent and flaws, and consider the if-he-just-can-improve-x conditionals that might let him overcome it. Every now and then one of them will really do it, and you’ll get your Connor Brown or your Andreas Johnsson pick. If you follow hockey closely enough to care about prospects, and hey, we’re all here, that’s worth it in an of itself.

Even if they don’t, if the AHL or the KHL is as far as it goes, you can respect everything they put in to get there and enjoy the ride. Sports usually end in sadness anyway, after all, and a faint-hope prospect who merely ends up in the second-best league in the world has shown a hell of a lot of guts to do it.

So if you follow along our rankings or think them through yourself: make a pet pick. Don’t go wild about it and pencil him in on the first line for the Leafs, just appreciate him. Keep an eye on his potential. When Semyon Der-Arguchintsev or Topi Niemela or whoever else bucks the odds, you’ll have been in on the ground floor, you sage hockey-knower you. Even if they don’t, they gave it a shot.

And there’s still a little chance for Adam Brooks. He had three points in seven games last year. Just saying.