There were two themes to this year’s Top 25 Under 25 list of unranked players. One was mysterious Russian forwards most of us have never seen play, and the other was mysterious NCAA defenders most of us have never seen play. With the forwards, you can at least look at points, but points and defencemen are an uneasy mix.
I won’t (quite) go so far as to say that points are pointless, but the attention given to scoring by prospects so far outweighs the value of it, that if you totally ignore it, you might be better off. The trouble is, no one here obsessively watches video of every Maple Leafs draft pick to have any sort of meaningful eye-test on them. If there even is such a thing. In some cases, this is actually impossible to do even if you were willing.
For every defenceman not at least playing a prominent role in the AHL on this list — so most of them — no one has a good answer to: But can they defend? That’s exactly how you end up with sudden surprises or sudden disappointments when you finally get a look at a defenceman in his own end. Even ones you just acquired in trade. Even allowing for how poorly goalies are understood in general, I believe defenceman are less well understood by everyone, most notably scouts.
All of these barriers to good analysis are compounded by the fact that the usage for defenceman has changed fairly dramatically in a very short time in the NHL. There’s also more than one way to contribute valuable minutes as a blueliner. There is as a forward too, but for some reason the defensive position has become a bit one-dimensional in lore — the kind of lore that used plus/minus to judge players with, and we’re only just catching up.
Nothing better illustrates the changing face of NHL defenders than the 2015 draft where Travis Dermott was taken at 34th overall and that infamous argument starter Andrew Nielsen was taken 31 spots later. At the time, a big boomer of a shot from a guy who could man-handle smaller teenage forwards was the classic scouting report for a future NHLer, and Dermott was considered the risky pick.
Five years later, we’re suffering through the transition of Cody Ceci from overrated player to whatever his future will become. And yet, so many people are willing to believe in Rasmus Ristolainen, the once but not future archetype of a great defender.
Nothing better illustrates the range of defender types that an NHL team needs than setting Morgan Rielly beside Jake Muzzin. And then line up Rielly and Tyson Barrie for a lesson in “type isn’t everything”. And after all of that, are we any the wiser about defence prospects? Nope. But let’s try to make sense of the future potential of these two very young defence prospects.
Who are these guys?
Born exactly a month apart in 2001 and taken 58 spaces apart in the 2019 draft, they are as alike as a Finn and an American from Minnesota can be. They both fit the Dermott profile, and aren’t really here for their individual shooting, although Koster scored a lot of goals in high school.
Koster was a fifth rounder, and Loponen a seventh, which puts them on a even level for probability of future success, and also makes that probability really small. Koster at 5’9” would be a rare NHL defender, even in today’s new world.
This season, Koster played in the USHL and Loponen, seemingly at the behest of the Leafs, played in the OHL. Neither played at the WJC, but Loponen has done some U18 and U17 national team tournaments for Finland.
Someone voted for them
Loponen got two votes and Koster four, and I’m responsible for one each.
Why did I vote for them?
Wouldn’t it be handy if I could tell you things about their passing or skating or all of that good stuff? It would, and it’s likely that exists out there as public opinion on the internet, but most of it will be from their pre-draft scouting. These guys are 19, and who they are now should already be much different, now they’re in different leagues, to who they were then.
We could fall back on points, but we’d be essentially saying: look, he plays the top pair and power play, or: look, there’s someone better on his team that plays the top pair and power play. What does that even mean? This is exactly why this guessing about prospects is tough, and relies on a few cheats.
Draft order, age, fame, points — all of those things go into our opinions on players, and for me, I’ve always taken a very firm stand that the T25 is an exercise, not in guessing who can eventually play 100 NHL games, but in who is better than whom right now, based on some mix of current value and the range of their future potential outcome. But I also reject outright the idea of ceiling and floor.
A digression on ceiling and floor
Here’s what I think the popular ceiling and floor concepts really mean: It’s a pair of binary questions which gives four player types. Does the guy have sick hands and is he gritty?
Sick Hands + Gritty = Ceiling: a Tkachuk or Shea Weber, Floor: same as ceiling
Just Sick Hands = Ceiling: Alex Debrincat or Morgan Rielly, Floor: Mark Arcobello or TJ Brennan
Just Gritty = Ceiling: Patric Hornqvist or Jake Muzzin, Floor: Mason Marchment or Andreas Borgman
Neither = Ceiling: Frederik Gauthier or Martin Marincin, Floor: Jeremy Bracco or Stu Percy
Ceiling and floor is a shorthand for is he a top line type of player or can he make the NHL as a fourth liner and the reality is, backed up by analysis or just findable by a little time spent on Elite Prospects looking of player histories: NHL fourth liners were top-line types when they were young.
All of this leaves out the really tough to evaluate players who can, for lack of a better term, “play hockey”, but aren’t really excellent at any offensive or defensive skill in the specific. The king of this player type might be Zach Hyman. Pontus Holmberg is a mini-Zach. But if it’s easy to make mistakes about someone like Hyman who did score a lot in the NCAA, it’s hard to find the defenceman who is just good at hockey. He’s out there. He drives play, makes good outlet passes, supports the offence and defends well enough to make him a complete player, but he isn’t going to wow you at any particular thing.
Back on track
“So why did I vote for these guys,” you’re now yelling in frustration. Age. If there had been more prospects on this list who were under 20, these two would have got pushed off my ranking. I shoved down some 22 and 23 year olds that other people have hopes for, and I put these two guys very low on my ranking. I’ve gone wrong doing that before. I rated Engvall’s chances to do something useful in the NHL too low, but it’s the safer way to guess.
Four people voted for Koster, and two for Loponen, and no one had either higher than 22. At least one person voted for Koster who has actually watched him pre-draft, so I’ll link to Kevin Papetti’s thoughts on the draft choices of the Leafs:
I’m sure there’s plenty of Leafs fans who don’t like taking 5’9″ players, but he can play and that’s all I really care about. While I haven’t seen him play all that much, I have loved what I have seen.
Which is what I think we have in both of these defenders, now that Loponen has played a good OHL season. He can play hockey, they both can.
Are we going to look back and laugh someday for not ranking these two? Chances are the answer to that is no. That’s why the people who did vote for them ranked them in the not likely zone of 20-25. But they both have four years to get to Joey Duszak’s age, and so far he’s been very good in the ECHL, which so rarely gets you anywhere, it’s more of a minus than a plus to say that about someone.
No one can see the ceiling or the floor for these two teenage defenders, the whole picture is way too hazy. Their greatest accomplishment so far is just being drafted. And the more I think about it, the more I’d say everyone should have ranked them in a dead heat with the fourth- and fifth-round draft picks. These two just have names.
In a sense, the case for Koster and Loponen is that the Leafs prospect pool is so shallow, you can see to the bottom. If that’s starting to get depressing for you, go look at the St. Louis Blues reserve list.