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Winter Top 25 Under 25: You know who is 4th and 5th

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It’s an epic battle that ended in a near tie. No, not that pair of players, the other pair.

Arizona Coyotes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Our Maple Leafs Top 25 ranking has been lacking in suspense at the top end for some time. Everyone knows who the top three are going to be, and while there is always a varying amount of disagreement in who is second and who is third, no official vote has dropped either William Nylander or Mitch Marner down to fourth. The occasional voter has, and there’s a very tiny constituency of community voters who are true believers in Mitch Marner over Auston Matthews for for the top spot, but both of those opinions are far out of the mainstream.

Next year, William Nylander graduates to old man status, and the question becomes a lot more complex in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Which is good. A lot of teams have no suspense at all on their T25 lists because all their prospects would be competing for 20th on ours. What’s exciting about our winter vs summer T25 this year is how much better the winter list is.

Top Prospects

On our summer list, below the usual pair who are actually or nearly tied at second and third every time, were a pair of prospects who were also nearly tied. Rasmus Sandin had an average ranking of 4.58 and Nick Robertson was at 4.83. Compare them to the Marlander juggernaut at 2/3 who had 2.42 and 2.58, and you can see the big, clear drop. And yet the drop from Robertson to the next name (do you remember who was sixth?) was also large, going to 5.58.

These two, only one of whom had played a little NHL at the time, were the undisputed contestants to be the new challenger to Mitch Marner next year. They aren’t as obvious a pair as the two wingers above them but Robertson, a left wing, and Sandin a left (maybe right?) defender are indisputably Dubas draft picks.

As we learned yesterday, there’s a new number six with an average ranking of 5.9 this year. We are more sure that Rodion Amirov isn’t about to step up below Marlander than we were in the summer about that list’s number six. Well, many people are. I’m not. In my ranking, Amirov is right in there, and my prediction right now is we’ll all be laughing at that sixth place ranking for him someday. Like maybe some day in about seven or eight months. And when we all assemble to vote again in less than a year, this Robertson vs Sandin thing is unlikely to get any easier by mixing in another name for everyone to ponder along with whatever this season brings in gameplay.

Votes

This winter, the average ranking for four and five was 4.6 and 4.8, not the tightest gap on the list, but the tightest in the top 10 (so far). Everyone voted Sandin at either fourth or fifth. Only four voters had him fourth, and five had him fifth, so a majority of the voters had someone else in fourth place.

Everyone voted Robertson fourth, fifth or sixth. Four people voted him fourth, three at fifth and two people put him sixth. One of them was me, so I’m guilty. In other words. I helped give Robertson just a tiny little bit less of a ranking than Sandin and decided the final order.

Winter T25: 4 & 5

Player Nicholas Robertson Rasmus Sandin
Player Nicholas Robertson Rasmus Sandin
Summer 2020 Rank 5 4
Birth Date September 11, 2001 March 7, 2000
Nationality USA Sweden
Position W LD
Species 6 5
Brigstew 5 4
Katya 6 4
Hardev 4 5
Fulemin 5 4
Kevin 4 5
Jared 4 5
Adam 5 4
Rahef 4 5
Weighted Rank 4.8 4.6
Lowest Rank 6 5
Highest Rank 4 4
Spread in Rank 2 1
Total Votes 9 9

I started out with my three, because they are a trio to me — Amirov, Robertson, Sandin. I always start out with youngest to oldest. I know there’s a school of thought on these rankings that young, just-drafted players have no track record, so you should rank them lower automatically, but I don’t hold with that. This list is not, for me, a measure of how sure I am that A will be better than B; it’s a measure of how likely I think A will be better than B.

I ignore contracts, positional need of the Leafs (this is why I won’t rank a goalie just because there isn’t a better one right now), and I ignore how many NHL games they’ve played fairly badly when they’re at the stage Robertson and Sandin are at. I don’t ignore age. Time is golden to a hockey prospect. The 21 days between Rodion Amirov and Nick Robertson are nothing (imagine the day they get a cake together at training camp?). The year and a half between them and Sandin is a meaningful gap. I fight with people who like to call every young player a “kid” until they’re 30, but roaring up on age 21 like Sandin is, is not the first flush of youth for a hockey prospect. Not an elite one.

Curves not Lines

There is a group of things in hockey that all describe similar curves. The short, sharp slope in draft pick value, followed by a shallower slope, and then the long flat tail. The short slope (up this time) in player growth by age, and then the shallower incline, a flat plateau, and finally a gradual tail off. The value of players in the NHL, defined however you like, has a small population at the top end with a rapid decline, a slower slope down in the middle and a long, long tail of replacement level players. The picture is the same over and over again. And we seem to be very bad at perceiving it, considering the practice we get looking at this same shape over and over.

Examples of NHL ageing curve and draft pick value

Age in hockey works like draft pick value, and if you pretend it’s a straight line (up or down), you’ll make mistakes about the second rounder and the 20 year olds in exactly the same way. The deeper in the draft and the older the prospect, the shallower the curve.

You want that sixth-rounder/late-bloomer you’re in love with to make the NHL. It can happen! It’s not impossible! Ignore how small the list of sixth-rounders/late-bloomers is who have ever made a meaningful contribution. Forget how how big the list is of players who get a chance and take a quick exit. Exaggerate the value of the very few who made it, and you know Pontus Holmberg might totally play more NHL games than Frederik Gauthier someday. Won’t that be wonderful? If that’s how you set your criteria, you can really enjoy the mushy middle prospects on our list.

Life is a lot harsher at the narrow end of the T25.

Just making it for a short tour of low-minute games is not success when you’re meant to be elite. Rasmus Sandin hasn’t “made it” yet. It’s more worrying he wasn’t better in the NHL than it’s reassuring that he was there. Expectations are higher, and the consolation of just being a replacement-level player doesn’t work in this territory.

When the stakes get higher than the Gauthier line, we seem to get more conservative with our guess, than we are with the vast group of young and not so young longshots.

I Was Really Very Wrong

A year and a half ago, in the summer of 2019, we were getting ready to rank Sandin sixth on the list between Alexander Kerfoot and Andreas Johnsson. Moving him above both Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren was a bold move relative to recent T25 voting patterns. In 2018, when he was just drafted, we had him at 12th. Below Andreas Borgman.

We keep getting it wrong with the elite players.

In the summer of 2019, in what seems like a century ago, Sandin had one pro season on the Marlies where he only played 44 games due to injury and the WJC. Don’t get your years mixed up. This wasn’t the WJC where Sandin was sparklingly good and was clearly the best player on Sweden’s team as well as a top three defender in the tournament. That was this year. It was 12 months ago that Sandin along with Robertson and Mikko Kokkonen were named to the 2020 WJC rosters. Sandin for the second time. They played their medal games in January of this blighted year.

When we were voting for Sandin in 2019, we were judging him off of his first, less exciting, WJC where he was good, but overshadowed by Erik Brannstrom, now with the Sens. We had a lot less certainty about him then. And he was at an age where the aging curve is very steep and takes you up, up, up in dramatic fashion. In hindsight, we should have trusted to the leap and cared about certainty of where he’d land a little less.

I’m trying to learn from my mistakes. Back in 2018, I ranked Rasmus Sandin below Andreas Borgman (second best defender in the first half of the Liiga season this year). I went with the certainty that Borgman was at least an NHL replacement-level defender over the mystery of Sandin’s youth.

This year I am giving both Amirov and Robertson credit for the leaps they haven’t taken yet. I’m trusting that their upward trajectory will be so fast, they’ll make us all feel tired and old. Robertson is so done with junior hockey, he’s not even going to the WJC, and Amirov is about to show us how ready he is to leave it behind.

But Am I Sure This Time?

We like to say that all young prospects are a crapshoot, so shrug. This is both right and wrong. The younger the player, the greater the range of potential outcomes. But that range isn’t identical for every young draft pick, and if you flatten out their potential futures into sameness and declare every late-round longshot the same level of longshot, you’re going to be wrong, but not by a lot, mind you. Try to imagine that gentle long tail of the draft pick value line. The differences are real, but very small.

But if you shrug off the elite players as unknowable mysteries, you end up doing dumb things like ranking Sandin below Borgman, and that’s wrong in a much bigger way.

For some more depth on draft pick values, the chances of a pick making the NHL, how many picks make the NHL, and a prediction from a very informed source on the 2020 draft, you can’t do any better than this:

The takeaway is that the chances of Rodion Amirov not coming at least close to the NHLer (like where Timothy Liljegren is right now) is smaller — much, much smaller — than Veeti Miettinen or Dmitry Ovchinnikov ever even seeing an NHL training camp. The chances of getting a Nick Robertson at pick 53 are a longer shot than Amirov’s chances of becoming a player of value, but no where near the long odds of those other two.

So why did I vote for Sandin ahead of these two, then? Certainty.

I looked at the three of them and this is what I thought: I can’t tell them apart. So I said, okay, what don’t I believe about their hype? Amirov isn’t quite a KHL top-sixer, but he can play third line already; Robertson’s NHL playoff games were actually very bad, and bouncing him instead of Kyle Clifford to play Andreas Johnsson was the correct move; Rasmus Sandin was one of the worst defenders in the NHL last year, and only looked good relative to Liljegren. That’s the bad news. The rest is all good.

Sandin could be a regular NHLer this year. He might get shoved out by Mikko Lehtonen’s power play skill, but that doesn’t make Sandin a lesser player. It makes the Leafs a team that made certain roster choices, and getting back to how I rank players, I don’t care about that. I never cared how many faceoffs Frederik Gauthier took in the NHL, either, only that it was the only reason he was there.

But I am more sure that Sandin is going to have a long NHL career than the other two. And I’m pretty sure about them. I’m using certainty, not as my first ranking tool like I clearly was doing when I ranked Andreas Borgman higher, but as the tiebreaker. Borgman, by the way, is likely to play in the NHL this coming season and could even get in more games than Sandin, but that doesn’t make him better.

When it came to Amirov and Robertson, I understand that Robertson has been scoring goals right here in Canada where it matters. He’s been lighting up junior hockey, and looks like a hot, hot prospect in the NHL. But I can’t see a scrap of light between him and Amirov. Not without parochialism or nationalism clouding the picture, so I flipped a mental coin.

But I consider all of them ranked at fourth, and all of them are in the running to gun for Mitch Marner next year. He better look out, the kids are coming for him, and a couple of them have one more big leap year in them.

Other Opinions

Nicholas Robertson

Brigstew: He’s a smaller guy who plays like Hyman, and looks like he’s trying to look as jacked as Nylander. He has no fear and plays like it, and he can score a lot of goals. He’s already too good for the OHL, and now we’re in that annoying place where he has to play in the NHL or go back to junior. He probably won’t make the NHL unless there’s some kind of taxi squad and the Leafs see more value in keeping him around the NHL roster. But if there’s no OHL they may want to let him continue training at their facilities to get stronger and refine his skills. I ranked him 5th, just behind Sandin, because as a smaller winger I’m still not sure how good he’ll be in the NHL despite his brief 4 game stint during the sort-of-playoffs vs Columbus.

Fulemin: I think he could play 3LW in the NHL now for a season and manage passably. I’m not sure he will, but he could. That’s just dandy for a kid who turned 19 in September, and I think he’ll be more than just managing at 3LW in a couple of years.

Jared: Now that we know his full on intent to make the NHL this year I expect him to make a solid push for the Leafs 2LW spot. He wont be there right off the hop, but he’s skilled and tenacious enough to do it. His only real competition for the spot is Mikheyev and he’s at least as good a hockey player as our new soup overlord.

Rasmus Sandin

Brigstew: He’s pretty much ready for the NHL, but also sort of blocked. He’s not likely to make the NHL to start the next season, and maybe spending some time in the AHL working closely with strength/conditioning/skills coaches wouldn’t be completely amiss. The question is what his likely peak value would be? Can he anchor a second pair? Could he do a bit better? Is it likely to be worse? I think he can be a good PP quarterback who is blocked by Rielly. I don’t know about being on the PK, but I think he can have good value at even strength too. We’re closer to seeing where his ceiling would be and it might not be as high as we initially dreamed when he was an 18 year old starting in the AHL, but the kid is still good and he’s still just 20 years old and already has a chunk of NHL games under his belt. I ranked him 4th because the potential for a defenseman is greater, to me, than that of two wingers in Robertson and Amirov, and he’s also closer to NHL certainty.

Jared:I really can’t say I enjoyed watching him in his limited NHL viewing last season, but that didn’t do much to knock him down my rankings. The potential and skill are still there.

Fun Stuff

Poll

Which player will come closest to Mitch Marner in votes next year?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Rasmus Sandin
    (136 votes)
  • 54%
    Nick Robertson
    (279 votes)
  • 18%
    Rodion Amirov
    (96 votes)
511 votes total Vote Now