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Top 25 Draft Prospects of 2020: Good teams, tough choices

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The place you most want to be picking in the first round has the hardest decisions.

Vancouver Canucks v Toronto Maple Leafs
You don’t need a top 10 pick to find gold in the draft.
Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Today marks the end of this mock mock draft exercise. The point of all of this for me was to put myself in the shoes of the GMs and see what it’s like to make these choices. I’m not here to tell you which prospect is better than the others, but trying to pick one out of two, three, five, then 10 or more as you move down the draft order is not an easy task.

Imagine the work that goes into deciding who to take in the second round? And it just gets worse. And of course, you’re judged on how these players turn out, no matter what happens. Injured? Still your fault. Never leaves Russia? Absolutely your fault. Hits his ceiling early? You shoulda known!

Executives and scouts get fired based on how a few prospects turn out. And teams’ fortunes rest on one or two picks in later rounds panning out quickly. It all seems unfair.

But then, anyone who remembers the Leafs drafting record for years feels no sympathy. Every year at this time, we set out to write things about the draft, and we discover new horrors, revisit old traumas, and say the name Biggs in that tone of despair. It’s extra funny this year that Tampa is taking Luke Schenn to the Stanley Cup Final considering how much effort the Leafs expended to take him for his size and character.

Everyone would like to believe that you can tell what kind of man a teenager will be. And sometimes I wonder if the people deciding these things even remember being seventeen. In these mock drafts, I’ve talked mostly about biases related to physical size or hockey skills or types of playing styles. But there’s other biases, like the part where we don’t know exactly why the ranking for Quinton Byfield is moving around even if we absolutely know part of the reason is race. Or when a kid who doesn’t have the perfect family life gets passed over by GMs who think their suburban childhood is necessary for an NHLer. Or when Russians or Swedes are assumed to have a certain personality or when Canadians are alleged to be better than Americans.

There’s differences of degree of harm in those ways of thinking, but they all share some characteristics in common, like the idea they you can tell who someone is by looking at them. When that gets applied to a teenager, well let’s just say I’m never going to be surprised at how often undrafted players become excellent hockey players now that I pay too much attention to the draft.

Another thing that’s really clear when trying to make complex decisions over and over again from the point of view of an imaginary version of a hockey executive is that a mental model of weighted factors is a really tough thing to create once, far less over and ove. Most research shows that a simple heuristic will do better at making these sorts of choices than people will. No one likes that answer, and in hockey using a computer to do the calculations of how you weight this that or the other thing is considered heresy or untrustworthy innovation. If you want to become unpopular, make a simple heuristic and test how it does on past drafts.

Bob McKenzie, whose list does a good job of forecasting what GMs will do and particularly in the early part of the first round, does the entire thing by hand on paper. His list is absolutely a weighted model, the way he has described doing it on his podcast. It’s just done without a computer to automate the boring bits, and he imposes his own assumptions on top of the scouts lists he starts with.

Weighing up the relative importance of organizational needs, future value of players, the need to win games now, and then also figure out which prospect is better than the rest — all of that is difficult. It’s not a surprise that teams make mistakes, fall back on manliness as their heuristic to measure teenage boys with, or seek out axioms to live by — no matter how rigid or foolish they are. The surprises should be the teams that do well.

The story so far:

The last few places up for grabs come from the part of the draft where a lot starts to happen. It’s way better to have pick 32 than it is 31, because you have all night to decide who to pick. It’s often just as useful to have pick 29 as it is 25 or pick 25 over pick 22. Trading to get a specific player is common in this section of the draft.

But this exercise has no trades, so I need to pretend to be the Rangers, still drunk on drafting Lafreniere and I have to pick someone. The Rangers have had some mixed results at the top of the draft before this year, and they’ve missed on some forwards they thought were hits. They’ve done a really excellent job of mitigating that with trades, and the signing of Adam Fox beats out drafting a defenceman this year for value.

But this is the part of the draft where there are defencemen again to consider. Justin Barron from the Q and William Wallinder from MODO in Sweden are ranked 25 and 27 by McKenzie, and given the history of people picking the next best defender even if they shouldn’t, I think they’ll creep up rather than fall.

Also lurking is Tyson Foerster, a player with a lot of points for someone ranked 29th. He’s said to be a shooter and not much else. And the temptation to decide you can teach the “much else” and reap the rewards of the shots is high. It’s also not necessarily wrong. He might well go higher than his ranking of 29.

Brandon Brisson is an interesting case. It’s not his fault his father is one of the most powerful hockey agents in the business. But that connection might mean he’s ranked a bit too high at 30. I fully expect the Los Angeles Kings to draft him in the second round if they get the chance.

I’m letting the Rangers reach a little for Justin Barron, and that brings the Flyers to the fore to pick someone.

The Flyers have to be deeply disappointed at their inability to take out the Islanders in the playoffs after having such a good regular season. They also have an injury-plagued second overall in Nolan Patrick when they were likely expecting to have a budding star in Nolan Patrick. I think Connor Zary will look good to them if he’s available.

Colorado picks next, and they had a good playoffs, have a good prospect pool, and just need to keep the machine going now that they’ve come out of the years of bad drafting and player management. They do scout much more heavily in the NCAA and the WHL, and so I think they would have gone for Zary if the Flyers had left him available. But with him gone, and with their understanding of what Gabriel Landeskog brings to their team, I’m having them take Jake Neighbours from the WHL.

Neighbours is reported to be a puck-possession, power winger, and no one knows better than the Avs how necessary that is.

Washington just hired Peter Laviolette, a man who has coached very different teams to the stale and ageing Capitals. His voice in the management team is going to be interesting, because losing the offensive zing is what got him fired from his last job. I think the Capitals will look for a goal scorer, and Foerster might be a guy they won’t shy away from. But I’ve left them a more conservative choice of Jacob Perreault, ranked at 21 by McKenzie. Ridly Grieg at 24 is sitting there too.

This will be the sort of decision they will have to make. The chances several players will be ranked higher than 25 are still available are much higher than that the Leafs will have multiple choices ranked higher than 15. And to reach deeper, teams will need to really believe in a player to keep passing the guys who are falling.

To finish this off, the Capitals take Perreault, and that ends the top 25 selections in this mock draft. Most of McKenzie’s top 25 have been taken, and no one has reached too far yet, which is about what we should expect to see in the real draft.

The PPP mock mock draft list

  1. New York Rangers - Alexis Lafreniere
  2. Los Angeles Kings - Tim Stutzle
  3. Ottawa Senators - Quinton Byfield
  4. Detroit Red Wings - Cole Perfetti
  5. Ottawa Senators - Jamie Drysdale
  6. Anaheim Ducks - Lucas Raymond
  7. New Jersey Devils - Yaroslav Askarov
  8. Buffalo Sabres - Jake Sanderson
  9. Minnesota Wild - Anton Lundell
  10. Winnipeg Jets - Jack Quinn
  11. Nashville Predators - Alexander Holtz
  12. Florida Panthers - Kaiden Guhle
  13. Carolina Hurricanes - Marco Rossi
  14. Edmonton Oilers - Seth Jarvis
  15. Toronto Maple Leafs - Braden Schneider
  16. Montréal Canadiens - Hendrix Lapierre
  17. Chicago Blackhawks - Dawson Mercer
  18. New Jersey Devils - Rodion Amirov
  19. Calgary Flames - Lukas Reichel
  20. New Jersey Devils - Mavrik Bourque
  21. Columbus Blue Jackets - Dylan Holloway
  22. New York Rangers - Justin Barron
  23. Philadelphia Flyers - Connor Zary
  24. Colorado Avalanche - Jake Neighbours
  25. Washington Capitals - Jacob Perreault