One interesting wrinkle to talking about prospects in a draft is how to separate a player’s raw point production and other basic, boxcar stats from their “eye test” scouting or manually tracked microstats. We all know of prospects who score a ton in junior, but never make it in the NHL. Only rarely is it due to an unfair lack of opportunity, most often they’re just never good enough to distinguish themselves from the mass of AHL/NHL tweeners.
Or, put another way, points in junior does not automatically equate to future NHL ability. That’s one of the big flaws in NHLe (or similar) models. It is usually a case of a guy having enough skill to get by against junior competition, but those skills aren’t good enough or don’t develop enough in ways that are most needed. Skating is the most obvious one, but size/strength is another. Or maybe it was just a shooting percentage bender in their draft year while being carried by more talented teammates.
Of course, the inverse is also true. There are guys who don’t have eye popping numbers in their draft year who can still turn into impact NHLers — occasionally, even a star. This is especially true for defensemen, for whom point production only hints at their skills in one smaller area of their responsibility.
Of course, you don’t necessarily want to take a defensemen who shows no offensive ability either. But when it comes to a 17 year old in junior, having non-eye popping points for a defensemen in their draft year is not the most important thing to worry about. Especially if we’re talking about a guy who may be a second or third rounder.
So let’s talk about Isaiah George.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 194 lbs
Birth date: February 15th, 2004
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 69th
- Will Scouch: 60th
- Scott Wheeler: Honourable mention, outside of top 100
- Elite Prospects: 38th
- Dobber Prospects: 57th
- Smaht Scouting: 59th
I’ll preface this with a statement. One of the big wrinkles of the pandemic is how it affected the development of numerous prospects. Many lost a lot of games, practices and workouts at team facilities during a very crucial period of their development. And the OHL was affected more than anywhere else, as they were the only major league in the hockey world to not play a single game in the 2020/21 season. That makes it harder to gauge prospects from the OHL last year and even this year. That’s one of the reasons why I am only including two OHL prospects in my profiles.
Isaiah George is the first. He was taken in the fourth round of the OHL Draft by the London Knights. At the time, he was already a bigger player at 6’0” and 175 lbs. He was coming off a season shortened by the pandemic, where he had 11 points in 29 games. He didn’t play between March 2020 to September 2021.
Isaiah George takes advantage of a mistake around the net by Corbin Votary and gives the Toronto Marlboros a 2-1 lead. Great game so far with time winding down. #2020OHLDraft pic.twitter.com/KnM7GrgaZw— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisTHN) April 5, 2019
As an OHL “rookie” this year, he played on the top pair for the Knights, who won their division in the OHL and finished 6th overall in the league. They also gave up the sixth fewest goals overall, and George was a big reason why. Offensively he had okay, not great offensive production with 23 points in 67 games. But only two of those were on the powerplay, where he wasn’t used as much. On the other hand, he had a lot of secondary assists, but I’ll touch on that a bit later on.
Today, he is listed as 6’1” and 196 lbs. He is already a physically advanced and fit athlete. At the NHL combine, he finished in the top 10 for four of the fitness tests. That forms a large part of where his projected value comes from.
THE GOOD: SKATING, DEFENSE & OFFENSIVE POTENTIAL
When watching George, the first thing that stands out is his skating. He gets rave reviews of his skating by just about every scout I’ve seen opine on it. He is everything you want in a good skater: he has a high top speed, he is explosive in his first few steps, and he has great agility and maneuverability in all directions. As a defenseman, that gives him huge potential both offensively and defensively.
We’ll start with the defense. With George’s skating he can keep up with anyone. With even just decent reads, he can stick with a puck carrier all over the ice. He’ll then close on the puck carrier and either body or stick check him (sometimes both) to cause a turnover. This is true both in his own end to break up cycles, as well as defending transitions as the other team tries to get the puck across the blueline.
Here’s a good clip to show an example of it in action. George is #4 in green. He follows a forward trying to carry the puck to the blueline and reset the cycle by dumping it back in the corner. George sticks with him, cuts him off at the blueline so he can’t turn the corner and keep carrying it around, and just effortlessly shoves the puck carrier off balance so it clears the zone. He makes the whole play look easy.
While scouts differ on how they project his offense, and therefore his complete upside, most will agree he is a top defensive defenseman prospect. In Elite Prospects’ draft guide, they surveyed their scouts to list the top prospects in this year’s draft in specific categories. George was listed in the top 5 among all this year’s draft eligible by at least one of the Elite Prospect scouts for the following categories:
- Four-way skating
- Straight-line skating
- Neutral zone defender
- Transition defenceman
- Defensive defenceman
This is borne out in his tracking data:
George is in the conversation for best defensive defenseman anywhere on the ice. He is exceptional at shutting down transitions, and is almost as good defending in the defensive zone as well. He achieves through a solid mix of skating, positional play, physical play without chasing hits or being dirty, stickwork, and instinctive reads.
When it comes to defense, you can see how good George already is and can project that pretty safely (relative to other prospects) into the future. His offense is a different question, and much less certain.
On the one hand, George flashes skills that seem like they could be a good foundation to have an at least competent offensive defenseman. He may not ever quarterback a powerplay or lead his team in points by a defenseman, but he shouldn’t be totally helpless either. His skating will help a lot, especially his maneuverability to evade checkers when he has the puck. It can help him drive offensive transitions just from carrying the puck out of his own end.
You can see him handling the puck in the example below. He is again #4 in green. He assists a teammate to create a turnover, and finds himself with the puck in the corner facing three opponents trying to cut him off and block his passing lanes. He makes a feint, a quick cutback, and some slick puck handling to evade the first two, and has an easy outlet pass to get it past the third.
Got another fun Isaiah George defensive clip to check out. Does an excellent job of limiting space for opponents, grabbing possession and using his stick-handling to get away from the forecheck and get the puck in the hands of his forwards.#2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/Zbq5nkbhYa— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) June 7, 2022
And you can see in his offensive microstats in the chart above that he has a good offensive rating overall. Nothing seems exceptional, but it isn’t a major weakness in his game right now either. He has a good wrist shot that he can use when he pinches in or joins the rush, but doesn’t seem like a big weapon from the point. He can make some nice passes from the blueline or to push the puck up the ice, but his accuracy is shaky enough at times to keep it from being considered high-end. His best offensive skill seems like it is how he handles the puck, as he can pull off some feints and dekes, and he is strong at protecting the puck.
THE FLAWS: OFFENSIVE INCONSISTENCY
There are two issues that are holding back his offense as of now, and it is what hurts his rankings.
First is that he seems pretty passive at times. He doesn’t show nearly the same level of consistent confidence and aggression with the puck as he does defensively. Where he shines the most is when his defense helps him turn to offense, where he causes a turnover and steals the puck and he can start transitioning the puck up the ice.
If I were to put a finger on it, I’d say he doesn’t make the best reads without the puck that can have an offensive impact. He is not the most dynamic at making himself an option with the puck, he doesn’t use give and go’s when he has the puck, he won’t pinch deeper into the offensive zone or join the rush very often. He will do all of these... sometimes, but not consistently enough.
This is part of the reason why I think he didn’t have many points. His offense seems effective in the times he finds himself in offensive situations, which helps him drive okay looking offensive metrics. But because he doesn’t aggressively seek out ways to involve himself offensively, he loses out on a lot of opportunities to have a bigger impact.
As a result, his overall projection is less clear. That’s why he’s ranked outside of the first round across the board.
George is pretty consistently ranked as a late second rounder. Bob McKenzie’s final rankings just came out and George has fallen from the 50’s down to 69th (nice). That’s in Toronto’s range for their third round pick. While teams do like defensive defensemen, a late second rounder/third rounder seems to be where all of the other players with that kind of profile are being set. The tiers of prospects ranked in this range is large enough that it does put him in striking distance as a third round pick. So while he might be taken in the middle of the second round, things will get increasingly chaotic after the first round is over.
The reason why I like George as either a third round pick for Toronto, or as an option as a later second rounder if they acquire one in a trade, is because I believe there could be more there offensively. I always like a defenseman who is a) a brilliant skater, and b) has a good foundation already to work with. He has the tools to be a pretty safe bet to wind up being a third pairing defenseman who can kill penalties and hold his own at even strength.
Even if he doesn’t have a lot of points, he has enough skill to push play in the right direction. That to me is more important than scoring points for a defenseman. That said, it would be nice to have more of both and I think he could. This is where I come back to the amount of development time he missed because of the pandemic. This is his OHL rookie season, and he immediately played a top role for a top OHL team. The more experience he gets, the more practice and video sessions he goes through, the more he can gain confidence offensively.
A team like the Leafs can help him recognize when to activate more often, how to use things like give and go’s to stay involved with the play. He doesn’t have to just pass or dump it and fade away from the play. And if he does develop his offensive skills and gains more confidence to use them consistently, he could wind up being a bit of a steal in the second/third round.
Would you draft Isaiah George in the third round?
This poll is closed
Yes, that’s a good foundation with some upside for the spot.
Maybe, it depends on who else is available.
No, they should aim for higher than a safe third pairing defensive defenseman