Let me tell you a story about a Finnish prospect who entered his draft season in the conversation for first overall. He was a center prospect, had a later birthday making him one of the older prospects in the draft, and had already played a chunk of the previous season in the Liiga — Finland’s pro league.
But in his draft year he struggled. He only produced 6 points in 35 games, and was even bumped down to the U20 junior level for a period to get his head on straight. He was left off of Finland’s World Junior roster, and after being in the early conversation for first overall his draft rankings slipped, and slipped, and on draft day he fell all the way to 52nd overall — well below even where his final rankings had him.
I just told you the story of Aatu Räty, who went through this just last season. I bring him up because there are some very obvious parallels with what Brad Lambert has been going through this year.
Lambert has become one of the most polarizing prospects in this year’s draft. Some still rave about his obvious talents and abilities, and insist he is still worth a top 5 pick. Others point to the many red flags in his game, point production, and movement among multiple teams in recent years as a sign that he is a very risky pick.
The truth is likely somewhere in between.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 179 lbs
Birth date: December 19th, 2003
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 11th
- Will Scouch: 2nd
- Scott Wheeler: 8th
- Elite Prospects: 10th
- Dobber Prospects: 28th
- Smaht Scouting: 5th
Like Räty, Lambert entered this season in the conversation for first overall. If not that, at least a top 5 pick. He is a Finnish prospect, a center, and he played the entire previous season in the Liiga. Like Räty, he also struggled this year. He had a combined 4 goals and 6 assists in 49 games, which was all worse than his previous season. He was traded/loaned to a new team halfway through the season, but that change of scenery did not help him.
When that trade happened, there were grumblings from some part of scouting circles that didn’t like how Lambert kept changing teams. He started his Finnish junior career with the Pelicans. Then he switched to HIFK for one year when he played his first full U20 season, and got his first taste in the Liiga. But the next year he played for JYP in the Liiga, and started there again this season. The team he was traded to was the Pelicans, his original team, hoping the familiarity with the program would help get him going. And, well, it didn’t.
As a result, Lambert’s rankings have been slipping. At the start of the season, Bob McKenzie’s rankings had him 3rd overall. In his mid-season rankings in January, Lambert had fallen to 11th. In those mid-season rankings, Bob did relay that scouts still liked his offensive skills, but also added “He’s hoping a recent mid-season transfer from JYP to the Pelicans will pay dividends for him in the second half of the season.”
Well, that didn’t happen. And while Lambert did look great at the World Juniors for Finland, rather than being left off the roster completely like Räty, it was only 2 games before the tournament was cancelled due to a COVID outbreak. Lambert was sent down to the U20 juniors like Räty was, but only for one game.
So what we have a bizarre case of a prospect who, by all accounts, gets rave reviews for his obvious skill. But there has been a growing concern about why that skill hasn’t translated to production, and why he keeps jumping teams. Is he all flash and no substance? Are there issues with his decision making? Has he already stagnated or even peaked in his development? Or is this more like the Räty situation, who bounced back this year and was excellent in the Liiga at close to a point per game?
THE GOOD: ELITE MECHANICAL FOUNDATION
The most important part of Brad Lambert’s game as a prospect and forecasted NHL player, is that his mechanics are about as good as you will see. He is an elite skater and puck handler, and is a wizard at carrying the puck through all three zones. That gives him elite potential as a transition specialist, with exciting offensive upside.
The Elite Prospects team, voiced by David St. Louis, talk about that in this video breakdown. We’ll get to the issues in his game that they cover in the next section.
Watching those highlights, you can see that he has a whole lot of potential. He can cut through defenses, he can make spectacular plays with the puck, and he’ll wind up on some highlight reels in his career. He can skate like the wind, make a sudden cut and put the puck through his own legs to make a defender look silly, and wire a good wrist shot past the goalie. He can force teams to make mistakes with the puck using his speed, and you can see opposing defenses panic when he picks up the puck with space.
So, that again begs the question, why didn’t he produce more points? Surely with that kind of skating and skill, he could basically fluke his way to more than 10 points this season.
As it turns out, he probably should have. According to some tracking data of the Liiga, Lambert’s expected goals and expected primary assists at 5v5 than another top Finnish prospect, Joakim Kemell. Kemell will likely be taken in the top 10, and he just had 23 points in 39 Liiga games — well ahead of Lambert’s 10 points in 10 more games. Would you expect any reasonable prospect to have a 3% shooting percentage for his career? Because that’s what Lambert sat at all season. The previous season, as a 16/17 year old in the Liiga, he had a 7% shooting percentage. Clearly, there was at least some bad luck involved.
Another thing to consider with Lambert is how he was used. By all accounts, JYP was not a powerhouse team in the Liiga. JYP finished third last in the league, with the fourth fewest goals scored. The Pelicans finished 9th, with the fifth fewest goals scored.
Here’s what Will Scouch has to say about how his usage and teammates may have affected his production:
He’s one of the fastest and most skilled players in this draft, with remarkable close quarters skill to get through defenders, and uses his speed to win retrievals often. He needs fast, effective finishing talent to offset his high-pace profile, but with both JYP and Pelicans, I’ve seen anything but that. Pelicans is a slow, plodding team with Lambert on the ice that rarely utilizes him in open space up the middle. With JYP, he was a prime transition target, but once he’d get in the offensive zone, he’d often find himself alone or working with unlikely pass reception targets. He doesn’t do himself a ton of favours as an individually talented player right now in terms of production, but I’ve watched this player a ton over the last two seasons, was ready to question him coming into this season, but strongly believe there’s a tremendous amount of value to be unlocked.
If you want a sign of the issues with the Pelicans, some of it at least is systemic. Their pro and junior teams have decided that breaking out with all five of the players on the ice in a horizontal line like this makes sense...
Spoiler: what usually happens is they don’t have many good passing options, and if they try it only takes one or two defenders to jump up and block/intercept/deflect it, stalling the breakout. Or, when that happens, the Pelicans player is forced to just dump it out past the defenders and they waste the possession. It was maddening to watch happen, and this wasn’t a one-off thing. Don’t believe me? Here’s another screenshot of them doing it again!
Now I want to make one thing clear. I don’t think his points matter all that much, except if you think that the reason why he produced so little is because of an issue in his game. Ilya Mikheyev had speed for days and got tons of breakaways from it, but his lack of finishing at times still left us frustrated.
There are two points (pun intended) I want to drive home about this. First, that I don’t think we should be over worried about Lambert’s points totals this season. Second, that I think he may be imperfect as a prospect and maybe not worth a top 5 or maybe not even top 10 pick, but he’d be worth a pick if he is available when the Leafs pick. I have time for an elite skating, elite puck handling, and elite transition-driving center. I am happy to take him and work hard on developing the other parts of his game. Maybe the chances of him being an elite NHL center are lower now than they were entering this season, but with a late first round puck that’s not what you should realistically expect. Lambert could be the Leafs’ 2C or top 6 winger of the future, and you can surround him with fast and skilled linemates that provide more finish (pun intended) to the chances Lambert helps create.
Brad Lambert's ears must've been burning because he nabbed a goal and an assist this morning.— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) March 11, 2022
Little chip, chase, wheel and snipe.
Not bad. pic.twitter.com/5akLw5ZQyR
THE FLAWS: DECISION MAKING, OFF-PUCK PLAY
Now let’s get to the issues that some scouts have raised about Lambert’s game. Lambert is a very polarizing prospect this year, so not all scouts agree with how serious these flaws are. But most will acknowledge that Lambert’s struggles this year weren’t just all down to bad luck or having bad players around him.
As is typical with a lot of offensive prospects, Lambert’s play without the puck is inconsistent at best. You do not see the same intensity in his skating and movement on defense like you do on offense, not with the same frequency. You also don’t necessarily see him use it offensively when he doesn’t have the puck either. It would nice to see him use his mobility to get himself open in the offensive end, or draw defenders away from dangerous parts of the ice to open up a chance for a teammate. And he will... sometimes.
The other issue is one that Elite Prospects directly touched on in the video. While he does have a lot of talent with the puck, he does not always make the best decisions with it. He can make very skilled plays with a high degree of difficulty, but that doesn’t always mean it is the most effective play. Sometimes a simple pass is the best option. Especially if you use it to set up a give and go, which is another way he can use his speed to his advantage. Get the defenders moving, or potentially looking away from him, and let your teammate give it back to you with more space that your skating created. He may also just not have a high enough finishing ability to capitalize on scoring chances, like a Kemell can.
There is also a question of if he can really stick at center. When he was traded to the Pelicans, they moved him to the wing. When he played for Finland in the Four Nations tournament — a friendly exhibition among four European countries — he was also used on the wing. I see Lambert being a bit like Nylander, where his skills with the puck and on transition make him ideal as a center, but the other areas of his game are not as ideal for a center.
Do I think those flaws are real? Yes. Do I also think they are probably overstated by some, and that there is still a very valuable prospect there? 100% yes.
Brad Lambert should not be available when the Leafs pick. Even if he never winds up figuring out the rest of his game, the foundation of skills he already has would make him a valuable top 6 forward in my books. And if the Leafs help him improve his decision making so he better learns how to best use his skills, he could be a truly impact player in the NHL.
The only reason why I am including Lambert as a potential pick for the Leafs is because there are some rumblings that he might actually fall that far, as a bit of a repeat with what happened to Aatu Räty last year. Lambert may not fall that far, but it will be very interesting to see where he winds up in Bob McKenzie’s final rankings.
That will not come out until closer to the draft, unfortunately. So I cannot say how realistic him falling to Toronto will be at this time. But I can tell you that NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings had Lambert 10th among European skaters, which would make him a late first round pick in their eyes. Dobber Prospects has him 28th. Craig Button of TSN has him 35th.
What I think will happen is that teams with only one first round pick in the first half of the draft will all pass him. They won’t want the risk that those red flags aren’t real and wind up making a waste of a very important draft pick. But there are three teams who have two first round picks before the Leafs have their first:
- Columbus Blue Jackets: 6th and 12th.
- Buffalo Sabres: 9th and 16th.
- Anaheim Ducks: 10th and 21st.
I can see a team with two picks being more willing to gamble on Lambert figuring things out with their second pick. I can also see some teams who pick just before Toronto who are in similar situations as the Leafs being willing to take the gamble as well. Minnesota or Pittsburgh seem like candidates as teams who generally draft very well, regardless of the picks they have.
So while I lay the odds low that Lambert will be gone by the time Toronto’s first pick comes up, I don’t think it’s impossible anymore. And if he does fall that far, I would be absolutely ecstatic if the Leafs took him.
Would you take Lambert if he fell to the Leafs?
Before the previous team could even leave the stage.
I do think it’s worth the risk
Only if there was no one else I liked available
No, there’s too much risk and I’d rather take someone else or trade down