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Top 25 Under 25: The case for Riley Stotts

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Thoughts on Stotts, or why I believe in Riley, highly.

Prince Albert Raiders v Calgary Hitmen Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

At the draft this summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs took Riley Stotts in the third round at 83rd overall. For this year’s Top 25 Under 25, he missed out on making the rankings. I, however, think he’s worthy of being included and ranked him at 20th. I believe there are circumstances, and maybe a lack of knowledge, that might lead to people not knowing what to think of him, so I’m here to talk about why we should at least be semi-excited.

First, a caveat: all of the voters among the masthead have their own method that they used to make their rankings, what factors to weigh more, and so on. Personally, I like to balance how likely I think a player is to make the NHL and how valuable I think he might be if/when he gets there. In this case, “value” means a bunch of things all at once, and one of them is positional importance. I might have guys in the same tier, but within a tier I generally establish the rankings in descending order from: centers, defense, wingers. Goalies aren’t included in general because what the fuck do I know about goalie prospects? If there is a conceptual tie in my brain, I use the nebulous concept of “upside” as the tie breaker.

Caveat out of the way, let’s talk about Stotts.

Riley Stotts EP Stats

Season Team League GP G A TP PIM
Season Team League GP G A TP PIM
2008-2009 Winnipeg Jr. Jets Brick Invitational 5 1 1 2 2
2013-2014 Winnipeg Monarchs Bntm AAA Div 2 WBAAA2 30 43 33 76 26
Winnipeg Monarchs Bantam AAA WBAAA 1 0 0 0 0
2014-2015 Winnipeg Monarchs Bantam AAA WBAAA 29 39 29 68 40
Winnipeg Monarchs City Mdgt WCML 1 1 2 3 0
2015-2016 Team Manitoba WCCC-16 5 1 3 4 4
Winnipeg Wild Midget AAA MMHL 38 31 27 58 24
2016-2017 Swift Current Broncos WHL 52 9 7 16 12
Canada Red U17 WHC-17 2 2 1 3 0
2017-2018 Swift Current Broncos WHL 22 2 1 3 12
Calgary Hitmen WHL 47 17 24 41 34
2018-2019 Calgary Hitmen WHL - - - - -

Stotts’ Season In Context

Stotts was a pretty highly regarded prospect coming into the WHL, having been taken 10th overall in the WHL draft. He had two problems starting the year: first, he had the misfortune of being drafted onto a pretty stacked team, and reportedly never got much of a role beyond being an “energy” guy and was used mostly as a winger. Second, he was reportedly still recovering from a freak foot injury in his rookie year where someone stepped on his unprotected foot/toes with an unguarded skate. It caused him to miss 20 games.

Finally, after just over 20 games into last season, his chance came when he was traded to the Calgary Hitmen. He was immediately moved permanently to center and given a big role at even strength and on their powerplay. He finished the year with a breakout season.

That breakout included 17 goals and 41 points in 47 games played. Over a full WHL season, that would come to over 60 points and put him second on the team at 0.87 points per game. The leader, Jakob Stukel, was three years older than Stotts and only had 64 points in 71 games — or 0.90 PPG. So it was not a matter of Stotts being carried by obviously superior teammates.

In fact, there is evidence that Stotts made his older teammates better when he was on the ice. Jake Kryski, an undrafted winger who is two years older than Stotts, had an identical 41 points in 47 games with Stotts after the trade, when his career best season before this was 46 points in 71 games. Kryski’s goals and points per game went up from 0.63 before Stotts became his center, to 0.87 with Stotts.

With introductions and basic stats out of the way, let’s look at him a bit closer from the perspective of people who saw him the most.

Interview with the Calgary Hitmen Beat Writer

I had a chance to talk with Tyler Lowey (@tlowey9 on Twitter), who just finished his first year as the Calgary Hitmen beat writer for dubnetwork.ca, about what he saw in Riley Stotts after being traded to Calgary. Fun fact: Lowey grew up a Leafs fan. GO LEAFS!

We talked about what the situation was like in Calgary last year when Stotts was traded from Swift Current and how he fit in:

They were a borderline playoff team the year before and they got whacked pretty good by Regina in the first round. Coming in there was a lot of changes on and off the ice, and the Hitmen… they didn’t get off to a great start — September and October weren’t great for them.

They traded Matteo Gennaro, their captain at the time, and Beck Malenstyn, an alternate captain. Malenstyn was a Washington Capitals draft pick, Gennaro was a Jets draft pick, but never signed, and he attended a couple of NHL camps. So they traded Gennaro and Malenstyn to the Swift Current Broncos for a package of players and prospects, one of them being Riley Stotts.

Trade deadline comes and they trade Jake Bean, their last really big trade chip, and they get a haul for him. They didn’t make the playoffs, they got a really great draft pick out of this year, they lost out in the lottery and got bumped back one spot but they still ended up with a great pick.

The thing that interested me was that the first game in Calgary, they moved him [Stotts] over to center and even though he played center in the past — growing up and in bantam — but he wasn’t playing much center in Swift Current. He did a little bit, but not as much as he did in Calgary. He was great in the faceoff, though that’s probably still an area he still needs to improve on. He was usable and workable at the faceoff position, and really took off… power play guy, penalty shot guy, killed penalties and all-around player.

I asked him more about who Riley Stotts’ linemates were for the year:

That alternated a lot through the year. There were a couple of injuries up front, and they had the big trades that happened. They brought in a couple of 17 and 18 year olds, so they really kept cycling them through. For the most part it was always Kryski and Stotts, and they were great together. It was no surprise that Kryski had a career year — and obviously Stotts had a career year by a mile. Stotts’ skating is just… you know he’s a great shooter, a great stick handler, a great playmaker.

I asked about Stotts’ various skills, such as what he thought his most standout skill was:

I think he really sees the ice well, I mean the way him and Kryski — Kryski was kind of passed over by a couple of different teams over his career, and he was able to turn Kryski into a great player. The ability to see the ice with the older guys, he’s really an offensive threat. The only thing he’s really missing is a slapshot but he’s great in the offensive end.

How good a skater Stotts is:

He’s great at getting the puck down low, turning up the halfwall with his head up, keeping his feet moving and finding an open guy, or making a pass that sets up the next pass. He wasn’t the fastest guy on the team, Jakob Stukel definitely was on the team last year. Then you think of guys like Tristan Nielsen or Carson Focht that were pretty fast. He’s right up there with that next tier of guys that’s for sure.

It’s tough to say, he was 17 years old playing for a team that wasn’t very good. A lot of times when any playoff team came in they made the Hitmen look pretty bad at every area of the ice, so it’s tough to say… but I would say he’s an above average skater though, yes. He’s fairly solid. He’s kind of slippery with the puck. He’s got — I think you asked earlier about his edges — he’s pretty good on his edges.

His shot:

I think his wrist shot or snap shot or whatever you want to call it, it’s one of his better weapons. He was great at finding open holes, I’ve seen him score goals from tough angles, down… not quite on the goal line, but maybe the bottom of the faceoff circle and put it up top. I’ve seen him come on a breakaway and beat the goalie clean. He’s got a really good shot.

His passing and playmaking:

He’s really good at playmaking and shooting. That’s why I said he’s an offensive weapon, his playmaking is… maybe slightly better than his shot, but they’re both great. They both go hand in hand. He’s not scared to shoot it or pass it up as a shot for a better shot.

His two-way, defensive play:

I’d say he’s not scared to play in his own end. How good he is in his own end, I can’t say for sure because this Hitmen team they were playing with, at times, one 16 year old and three 17 year olds on the back end. As the center, you’re supposed to be more defensively responsible than other players up front. So he had to help out a lot, and I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s not a great defensive player.

What I took from the interview was that Stotts does not necessarily have any standout skills, except perhaps his playmaking ability. However, he is above average in almost every aspect of his game and seems to have both a great work ethic and the smarts to make the most of who he is as a player. If you think that sounds like Babcock’s platonic ideal of a hockey player, I thought so too! It’s as if Stotts is Zach Hyman’s long lost cousin that plays center.

He was good enough to make his linemates better despite being on a very, very bad team in one of the worst divisions in the entire CHL. Take this next stat for what it’s worth, but he was one of only two players on the entire roster to finish the season with a plus-rating (+2).

Scouting Reports

From Future Considerations’ 2018 Draft Guide (can’t link, had to buy it):

Suddenly, he was working the halfwall on the power play, and looking good doing it. He has a nice nose for the net. Not an elite skater or a dynamic attacker – sometimes there’s a tendency to rush plays or push for something that’s not there – Stotts nevertheless can pass and move the puck, even at speed. Good hands even if, for now, they’re a little under-rated. He competes hard in all three zones and, despite being relatively undersized, he toils fearlessly along the boards and on the backcheck. With a stubborn physical game, his two-way play is excellent.

From Ryan Pike at thehockeywriters.com:

He ended up 8th among first-year WHL draft eligible players in even strength primary points and 10th in primary points per game. Stotts was a very productive player. In a lot of ways, Stotts is an ideal “middleweight” player. He’s not a big player but he’s not small, nor does he get pushed around a lot. He’s mobile, but he’s not a speedster. He’s good with the puck, but he doesn’t usually dazzle with stick-handling – though he is capable of maneuvering past defenders. You could argue that he doesn’t have a single elite-level attribute, and you’d probably be right, but Stotts’ game is more than the sum of its parts. He works extremely hard, is rarely out of position, and frequently makes his teammates better whether by making a smart defensive play to close off a passing lane or taking the time to wait for holes in defensive coverage to find a teammate. His game has no glaring holes in it, and it’s elevated by his ability to play with pace without losing his attention to detail.

A quote from his coach, Dallas Ferguson, via Future Considerations:

“First of all, when he first got here, you see the skill level,” Ferguson said. “You see the things he can do with the puck and the skating ability. He’s a pretty slick player.

“He’s a centerman that covers a lot of ice and he’s pretty aware on the ice. He’s growing his whole game, not just with the puck and being able to create offense, but also being responsible away from the puck and developing in that area.”

Stotts’ Video Highlights

You can see evidence of everything said above in some of his highlights. Here he manages to blow by his defender to score an OT goal:

Here he shows off a bit of creativity to pull of a crazy 360-through-the-defender’s-legs move to the inside to get a great chance (Tyler Lowey mentioned this play specifically as the most memorable play by Stotts last year, with this quote: “all of us in the press box were just like “what is happening, I’ve never seen that!”)

One thing that Stotts seems to be good at is edgework, which he uses in a few highlights to cut back inside on a defender:

And here you can see a pretty nice shot:

So what we seem to have here is a guy who doesn’t have any single part of his game that stands out and may not be that flashy, but is an all-round solid player with perhaps some upside still to be reached. Reminds me of the things said about two other Leaf picks: Rasmus Sandin, and Adam Brooks.

Brooks, as we may remember, was drafted as an overager only after having a crazy 120 point season. But the year before that, his second draft eligible season, he put up 62 points in 64 games and led the team in scoring. The year before THAT, his first draft eligible season, he only had 11 points in 60 games.

I’m not saying Stotts is going to have a huge breakout next year, but I am reminded about the types of things written about Brooks after we drafted him: smaller, not the fastest or the most skilled with the best shot, but a smart two-way player who makes the most of the all-around abilities that he does have.

Of course Brooks is an example of why I’m ranking Stotts where I did (20th), because I think as a center he still hints at some upside and room to grow thanks to solid (but not spectacular) abilities across the board, but has yet to show that he can take that next step that Brooks did.

Riley Stotts vs Semyon Der-Arguchintsev

Let’s get something out of the way: I don’t think Stotts and SDA are comparable as players beyond being centers the Leafs drafted in the third round this year. I am using SDA more as a measuring point to say why I think Stotts should also be included in the top 25.

The other reason why I am somewhat high on Stotts, at least to include him in my top 25, is when I compare him to the Leafs’ other third round pick: Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (or SDA from now on). SDA is another center who was picked only 7 spots before Stotts, and from what I’ve seen is considered to be the real ‘sexy’ pick by the Leafs because of his perceived upside for a third round pick.

SDA is nine months younger than Stotts, and in fact was the youngest eligible player for the draft. He is also a bit shorter and lighter, and played on a similar type of team that Stotts did — not carried by any real stars, just a mix of okay guys and overagers (like former Leaf pick, Nikita Korostelev). Where Stotts lack any single standout skill, SDA has a reputation for his puck handling and passing.

Here is how their two seasons stacked up, with Stotts’ season limited to when he was traded and given more of a chance to excel:

So Stotts produced more goals, points and shots than SDA. The shots rate is what really stands out to me, again remembering that it seems like Stotts was the one carrying his line. All of this is not to say that I think Stotts is better than SDA, or more likely to turn out to be a better pick. In fact, I still have SDA ranked higher at 18 because he is almost a full year younger and has standout skills that I think are important to future success.

The reason why I am comparing the two is because I think if you are going to consider SDA worthy to be in your own T25U25 rankings — and all but one of the masthead voters did — then I think you should also consider Stotts. However, only two people have Stotts in their top 25, and that is myself and Katya.

The other guys I considered in the 20 to 25 range were all guys who are good AHLers with a faint hope of becoming depth NHLers. It’s like Kevin said in the comments recently: you can take several guys to place, exclude, or re-arrange the order of the 20 to 25 range and not be unhappy with any of it.

Personally, I like Stotts’ upside enough to want to rank him. Even if he has a lower chance of ever making the NHL, I don’t really see any value in potential depth NHLers when the Leafs get them by in bulk every offseason. Plus, if he breaks out even bigger next year and becomes ANYTHING you can believe I’m going to be as smug about it like Fulemin is about Zach Hyman.