In his post-season comments, Kyle Dubas mentioned that he’d done the exit interviews with the Marlies players on NHL contracts and made sure they all understood there were jobs to be fought for in the next training camp. On its face, this is a normal sort of remark we get every year from the GM who wants his prospects to work hard over the summer and come to camp ready to compete. This season, there might be some reality to the available roster spots part.
Say “run it back” three times in the mirror and Brandon Pridham appears shaking his head sadly. There will be regular roster players on the Maple Leafs who are traded or not re-signed. There will be a very small number of open positions on the roster for anyone whose cap hit is below $1 million. There will be more spots available to recall players with tasty low cap hits below the emergency exception amount who are also waiver exempt.
It’s entirely possible to run down the list of prospects and have opinions right now in late May about who can and cannot win the great Maple Leafs Training Camp Tournament for that one fourth line job and maybe the seventh defender. But here at PPP we carefully schedule our arguing about prospects, and no tantalizing comments from a GM who would likely rather no one wrote about the salary cap ever again is going to derail us from that schedule.
Three other people, who don’t seem to understand how important our offseason structure is, did write up their opinions on the prospects, and at last I can learn how it’s done.
Article one is a feature on Sportsnet by Jason Bukala, a scout. Article two is Kevin McGran at the Star. Article three is Chris Johnston at the Star offshoot (I refuse to use the word vertical) Northstar Bets.
Step one in writing about prospects absolutely is to start with a photo of Nick Robertson. That’s wise because, outside of the weird-ass world of this blog (and a couple more hotbeds of weirditude like MLHS or TLN), no one knows who the hell any of the other prospects are. They barely know anything about Robertson other than he hit the NHL briefly this year and did not leave a mark.
This is a problem for writing about the Leafs. Their lack of first round draft picks in general and the lower quality of the ones they have had recently have made it difficult to have casual (normal) fans aware of the prospect pool. But none of these articles start off with Robertson, so that’s the first lesson: You can’t strain credulity too far, just because people have heard of him, you can’t pretend he’s impressed lately.
All three articles set the scene with Dubas’s comments and then profile a list of players. Bukala is taking a broader look at the prospects, and his article doesn’t directly answer the question implicit in Dubas’s comments: Who will make the team this coming season?
He also relies heavily on screenshots or pictures of text that make the article difficult to read, and in my opinion, go a step too far in using sites like HockeyDB and CapFriendly to inform an article. Cuts down on the typing, though.
Bukala starts with a guy who, as of now, won’t be in the running for the Leafs next year. He names Matt Knies the Leafs number one prospect, and I’ll give away some T25 opinions now and say that I agree with that. No question in my mind.
Bukala also believes hard in Ryan Tverberg’s shooting %, and is fairly pessimistic about almost everyone else, which is always the place to start with prospects — the pessimism, not falling for a shooting %. If you go in thinking they’re all dreamy, you’ve got a lot of correcting to do.
It becomes clear when Pontus Holmberg is down at the bottom of his list with this paragraph attached, that Bukala is largely using points-based analysis and time on the Marlies for some of the older players rather than the more scouting-based approach he takes with more recent picks:
Pontus Holmberg (FWD)
He bounced around this year between Vaxjo in the SHL (Sweden), the Swedish Olympic team, and the Marlies. His element is offence, but he’s more of a playmaker than a shooter. Pontus has a bit of an unusual stride. His first three steps out of the gate are sound, but he doesn’t have a long push in open ice so he’s more quick than fast. It will be interesting to see how his game translates to North America at the highest level. He scored four points in the six games he played with the Marlies this season.
Forecast: 4th Line Forward
And yet, for all of that, I agree with his forecast, and here’s the second step in writing about prospects: You gotta have a firm opinion. You can’t be wishy-washy, you have to decide. Be bold! Take a stance! And to hell with the reality that you’re usually talking about guys in junior leagues years away from the NHL, and all you know are their points and how they look on a few highlight videos. Don’t waffle, though. If you aren’t sure, make sure you sound sure.
All of which is why I rarely read prospect reports on a site like Sportsnet where the point is to reduce a complex and very interesting topic (to me) down to a cheap guessing game. All the context that I love about prospect talk is missing here. Understanding the teams and the leagues they play in, delving into development and age of players, and what skills will take a player who is a top-six, first-unit power-play guy in one league to the fourth line of the NHL.
Anyhow, this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say Pontus Holmberg’s element is offence. He’d also be very near, if not at, the top of my list of guys who really might make the NHL this year.
Overall Bukala’s article is different from the usual SN fare. It’s more information dense, and covers a lot of players most fans likely have never heard of. Most people will read his blurb on Tverberg unquestioningly. But I wonder how the article reads to people for whom these names are all new. It’s worth your time, no matter where you are on the weird scale, mostly because while he’s playing the guessing game, he’s pretty damn good at it.
McGran’s article runs you down the Marlies roster and ignores everyone else, so it’s a more direct and straightforward take on Dubas’s story suggestion. This is in the Star, a newspaper with a broader readership than Sportsnet, and its focus is broad and shallow. Those of us on the very weird end of the spectrum of prospect watchers will not get anything out of this because it’s not for us.
Step — whatever I’m on now — in writing about prospects is to understand what your audience doesn’t know. This is short, like newspaper articles are, and gives you a sketch of the names you need to know on the opening day of training camp. Ms Normal Fan can feel a vague sense of familiarity with a guy named Pontus next September if she reads this now.
When you write a thing like this, you have to include Curtis Douglas because then you get to say how tall he is, which is interesting — he’s as much of an outlier in hockey as Mike Koster (none of these article talk about Mike). But if you’re interested in Douglas, check out the scout quoted in article three. They will tell you why he keeps getting played on the Marlies when most of the Marlies fans have decided they hate him. Bukala doesn’t mention Douglas and Alex Steeves is the only undrafted player he covers, the biggest flaw in his approach given the number of free agents the Leafs have on hand.
Article three is from Northstar Bets, where it’s all about the betting and the odds and the gambling, and they’re selling you the betting with the journalism. It’s backwards world, and not just in the colour scheme. It’s also where the good stuff is to be found on this topic. Alas.
Johnston starts out with the same Dubas quote and draws on the popular view of Tampa as the team that does it right with prospects. Step whatever+1 in writing about prospects is to go with a truism a lot of people believe without treating it critically. Your point is that you and the reader are in the know if you know about Ross Colton. The intended audience for this article is bettors with a more nuanced understanding of the NHL and the Leafs than the general Star reader.
Johnston proves he’s the man to go to for a more complete understanding of the game by starting off with a surprising choice in Denis Malgin. If I were to write my own article, that’s where I’d begin before I moved onto Holmberg. Malgin’s rights are still owned by the Leafs, a fact not understood by many who only take screenshots off of CapFriendly or don’t know what the reserve list is. Johnston speaks to a bigger segment of the weird spectrum just by even mentioning this option.
He also grasps something fundamental about what Dubas had to say. Dubas wasn’t talking about Mikhail Abramov or Roni Hirvonen. He was talking about guys who can grind out some minutes right now, meet Sheldon Keefe’s blank stare on the bench and likely get sent down the next day where they have to actually get better on the Marlies, not depressed.
If I can digress for a second into what I would really write about all this, the Tampa example is one of prospects who aren’t tossed aside quite so quickly. There’s two classes of Leafs players — those who get to make mistakes and those who don’t. This is old-school coaching, and it’s got a lot of validity to it, but the list of cast-off Leafs depth who can hold down a job on a worse team is a list of players who would totally be fine in a fourth line role on a team that didn’t have to have Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza on it for fairly specious and sentimental reasons even when they aren’t performing. You won’t see that kind of critical engagement with the Tampa truism though, because why would you? That’s too deep in the weeds for bettors who want to feel smarter, not have their core beliefs challenged.
Johnston recognizes the skills that will get players on the Leafs: PK, shot-blocking, forechecking, and he’s realistic about what level of offensive skill will be enough. He’s not going to tell you Joey Duszak is a lock because he gets AHL points. His article is the best at telling you who to watch out for if you already know who all these guys are — or want to sound like you do at the bar on Saturday night.
There’s only one step in how to write an article on prospects, and that’s to know your audience. That’s why we spend a month and a half in the hottest part of summer writing 30 or so articles on these guys. It’s your fault, not mine.
Place your bets, though:
Who is going to win the training camp war for the lowliest job on the Leafs?