I'm pessimistic about prospects and it pisses people off. This is not my apology; this is how I see things.
Skepticism is reasonable
I think skepticism about the future of draft picks and prospects outside the NHL is warranted by the failure rates both of draft picks and undrafted free agent signings.
The "bust rate" or the chance that a draft pick never makes the NHL is very high, and once you get out of the first round, the rate goes up to more likely than not this guy doesn't make the NHL.
Free agents, guys like Calle Rosén and Trevor Moore, Miro Aaltonen and Tyler Bozak, are harder to gauge. They aren't tracked as well as draft picks. But the number of names you can come up with who, like Bozak, made significant contributions is really small. Overall, however, there are more undrafted players in the NHL than late round draft picks, so it's a good idea to keep trying out players, giving them contracts, and waving goodbye when they can't climb out of the AHL.
There are more and more undrafted players showing up all the time. The Kings just signed a former SHL star defender who had a good KHL year in Oscar Fantenberg. Will he play in the NHL? Maybe. But he's no more a sure thing than Andreas Borgman is.
Last year Chicago tried the best goalie in the SHL in Lars Johnasson, and now he's going to the KHL after one unremarkable year in the AHL. Sergey Kalinin, signed out of the KHL, is going back there after a year and a half in New Jersey and a few weeks on the Marlies. The famous Mantas Armalis, who the Leafs looked at and the Sharks signed, played okay in the AHL and is not likely to get a new contract outside Europe this year.
The Sharks also signed Marcus Sorensen, another top SHL player, who managed one goal in 19 NHL games, and spent most of his season in the AHL. He's back for another year of trying, and he might make it, yet. He'd been drafted and never signed like Aaltonen, so he was that sort of free agent.
Most of these guys come, barely make an impact, and leave again. The hits, like Derek Ryan who recently signed on for a second year with the Hurricanes, are rare, but there are enough of them accumulating in the NHL to top the number of drafted players from each round after the second, which is as much about draft bust rate as free agent success rate.
Guessing which high-end player in a non-NHL league will make the jump is hard. Even gauging KHL to NHL transitions is very difficult, and they come the closest in level of play. Everyone was absolutely certain that Alex Radulov or Artemi Panarin would be impact players. But go a notch lower on talent, and can you be so certain? The KHL is still the league where Max Talbot, Petri Kontiola and Brandon Kozun make a hell of a top line on a good team.
This difficulty persists with the AHL. Do you think Seth Griffith just needs to be given a chance and he'll be in the Buffalo Sabres lineup opening day? Will Frank Corrado make the Penguins? Why is Byron Froese a goal scoring machine in the AHL, but a barely acceptable fourth line centre in the NHL?
You cannot just know who is going to make the jump. You can say now that Kasperi Kapanen was a sure thing. Everyone who said that then can claim now they have the ability to guess these things. It helps your image as a prognosticator if you don't track the ones you're wrong about, by the way.
But should the Leafs have assumed that Kapanen was going to make the jump last year? Should they have planned for him to arrive and have made a space in advance? Or is their process of making a player take a roster spot, to "arrive ready and be good right away" a good one because it's built on skepticism? Skepticism allows for the unexpected failures and doesn’t stop the unexpected successes from breaking through.
This is actually where skepticism gives way to pessimism. I'm not merely skeptical of the future potential of the prospects, I am pessimistic. I assume the probabilities will play out in the most likely way. Most drafted players won't make it. Most prospects won't improve enough to crack the NHL.
And that is what a team assumes, too. Or they had better. Teams that assume that guy they drafted is great, so great they'll keep telling you he's great even when it's clear he's not, end up like the Vancouver Canucks. They have a Jake Virtanen sized hole in their lineup it has taken them years to realize they need to fill.
If he continues to develop
Over and over in our T25U25 profiles, in stories about draft picks, in just ordinary conversation, this is the phrase that keeps coming up. If he improves, if he takes the next step, if he develops. It all adds up to: If he gets better, he'll deserve the ranking I'm giving him now.
Maybe we should look again at that ageing curve we’ve been discussing lately, only let's look at the beginning of it, not the end that fills us with existential angst and makes us fear players over 30.
As I've said before, aging curves are not destiny. Most, like that one, are average year over year changes based on some criteria. They all look largely alike. The criteria can be games played, points, etc. but the general shape of the curve is usually consistent. But many data points go into an average. Individual lines can take many shapes, but they won't stray dramatically far from the average most of the time.
Let's look at the first few years of the NHL career of a player. First, remember that the curve is, by default, made up only of those players good enough to be in the NHL at a young age. The rise is rapid and dramatic from 19 to 22. And then it's not.
The curve shows the second year of a pair of years, and it describes the change from the prior year to that year, so age 22 shows the improvement from age 21. In the NHL even the change from 21 to 22 is not extreme and is matched by the single year drop around age 30. And at 22 to 23, which is an age when a lot of players are rookies, the difference is negligible.
So when we say, "If he takes the next step," how often is that a big and unlikely "if"?
The AHL is not the NHL, and if someone wanted to graph some aging data on AHL players, that would be delightful; the AHL is a wide open field for data analysis. The NHL is also not a European men's league, either, but this is a strong clue that expecting a prospect in their twenties to show big growth is likely unreasonable most of the time.
Kapanen, who is now 21, is at that stage. He's likely going to get better, but he is not likely going to jump up to equal the players a tier above him in quality. It's time to stop expecting big changes there.
For some of the Leafs other prospects, expecting development at all might be completely out of line. Josh Leivo at 24 is what he is. Miro Aaltonen might be as well. But for an undrafted free agent signing at age 21+, how do you know what to expect?
Not all players start out on a junior team in Canada or a top club in Russia with the best coaches and quality equipment. Not every hockey player gets the training and coaching to match their innate abilities at the same stage of childhood. So you absolutely can get "late bloomers", but expecting it from every late round pick or free agent means believing in potential, often in the absence of any evidence that you should.
Lou Lamoriello likes to say that potential is a word he hates, as it means nothing. Potential is just things you haven't done yet. “Call me when you manage to do them,” seems to be the unspoken punchline. Potential is for optimists.
Optimism is about believing in the sure things. Pessimism is about being ready for as many what ifs as are possible, good and bad. If you want to believe that Dermott is great and Nielsen is the next Shea Weber and Freddie Gauthier will be the Leafs 4C as soon as that leg heals up, which for sure will be before the season, then go ahead. But the team was wise to fill up on depth at defence and get a fourth line centre.
Meanwhile, I'm going to assume that Gauthier at 22 is not going to improve much, even if he gets NHL ice time. Dermott and Nielsen are both 20, and should take a big step this year. If they don't, it's a lot less likely to come next year, but there is no reason to expect Nielsen to close the skill gap between himself and Dermott.
If you have to say, "If he continues to improve, he can make it," then he better be young enough for that to be likely. Otherwise your optimism is misplaced, and it's time for the pessimist to take over. Because all the probabilities say he likely won't make it. And then it’s time for the AHL fans to take over, because he might be a player they really enjoy watching for years to come.