2018 NHL Draft Prospect Series: Volume 2
By: Connor Jung
The NHL Draft is the proverbial exhale of the NHL season -- the time of year where the media, players, managers, and scouts congregate to celebrate a hard-fought season. The NHL Draft has come under a lot of scrutiny as of late, because of the market inefficiencies it presents. Teams vow to rebuild through the draft, but often fail to turn high picks into legitimate NHL talent that serve as building blocks for a winning franchise. This is because the expected value of a pick radically declines the further you pick down the draft order. This creates a tremendous pressure to get value at your pick but also gives you a measurable benchmark for how well you’re drafting. As the league has become more heavily dependent on young players to bring energy, speed and also cost-effective entry-level contracts, more and more attention is paid to the players picked and the draft picks themselves (James Mirtle has done some work on player height trends especially in defencemen). The draft is one of the most exciting aspects of the game for me because it gives fans a glimpse into ‘what could be’, frees cap-ridden teams up for blockbuster/franchise shifting trades and allows me to answer the question: what makes a good hockey player?
Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Assat - C - Ranked: 17th (ISS))
The player I’ll be profiling today is Assat center, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a heady 6-foot-2 playmaker with good instincts on both sides of the puck, and a sneaky release that can fool pro level goaltenders. The trend towards smaller, quicker and faster players, in my opinion, has just been a proxy for skill. If you can find skill in larger players then we're back to the “you can’t teach size” argument. If two players have similar skill-level/intelligence, I'll tend to favour the bigger player. Kotkaniemi is having an impressive offensive season in the Finish Pro league.
He ranks tied for 6th All-time in points by a U-18 player in the top Finnish division. He’s scoring at similar rates (0.51 PPG) to Jesse Puljujarvi (0.56), Joel Armia (0.60), Tuomo Ruutu (0.47), Teuvo Teravainen (0.45) and Sebastian Aho (0.41) in their draft years. The only players, at the same age, to score more than Kotkaniemi are Aleksander Barkov, Mikael Granlund, Patrik Laine, Artturi Lehkonen, Jari Torkki and Joel Armia. That is some good company.
The SM-Liiga is the same league where these young Finnish NHL stars were producing in their Draft, Draft + 1 years. Following the footsteps of other rangy Finnish players, Kotkaniemi is unique in the sense that he isn’t as fast as Puuljujarvi, or as skilled as Laine or as methodical as Barkov. However, Kotkaniemi is a strong skater for his size, shoots well especially in tight to his body and thinks like a 200-foot pro center. His anticipation to break plays up in his defensive zone in order to initiate the offence is a common occurrence in the viewings I’ve seen. His low center of gravity gives me hope that his speed/agility will only improve as he continues to grow into his frame, as he posses very good body awareness and control, which allows him to drive zone entries and control cycles.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is currently ranked:
10th on Hockeyprospects.com
17th on ISS
17th on Future Considerations
21st on McKeen
9th on NHL Central Scouting (EU Skaters)
These independent rankings point at Jesperi Kotkaniemi being a mid-first round pick. Based on Kotkaniemi’s comparables, it wouldn’t be out of the question to give him top 10 considerations. Historically, you could argue that the players who scored similar to Kotkaniemi in Liiga would be top 10 picks in a redraft -- both Teravainen and Aho are top 5 in scoring for their draft year.
David Gustafsson (HV71 - C - Ranked: 23rd EU Skaters)
The 1st round gets all the attention from fans, media and rightfully so because these are the players that are most talked about and have the best chance at becoming impact NHL players. However, teams find the most value from later round picks because outside of the top 10, the probability of a random player drafted 15-200 becoming an NHL regular is a lot closer and finding value in rounds 2-7 is how team separate from their contemporaries to build a winning team.
One player I think that is being overlooked is 17-year-old Swedish center David Gustafsson who plays for HV71 in the SHL. His 12 points (6G 6A) in 42 games leads the SHL in scoring for first-year draft-eligible forwards by a wide margin. He is playing center at the highest level in Sweden, meaning he has a maturity that coaches trust, which bodes well for his deployment and development moving forward.
While NHL prospect research has mostly focused on North American hockey because of its proximity and readily accessible data, work into European leagues continues to develop. Not only is Gustafsson 13th all-time time U18 SHL PPG, historically, he has also played significantly more than the majority of U18 SHL players. While scoring will always remain the dominant target/repeatable feature we wish to predict, Games Played (GP) is a strong predictor in future success at the next level. The reason being, if a player is playing ahead of their peer group, they are exemplifying exceptional qualities. In part, these skills may not be captured by traditional counting stats or limited by data availability, that coaches can catch. Each case is different, and the reason one player plays in the SHL over another U18 player varies from organization and circumstance. In the case for Gustafsson, his separating skill that allowed him to play in the highest men’s league division was his responsibility and hockey-sense. While his knock is his overall offensive arsenal, he’s scoring at elite level for a prospect at his age in the SHL. It is not out of the question he continues to develop his offensive game while receiving favourable deployment due to his defensive acumen.
Drafting young men aged 17-20 is difficult because you need to project what players they will be 4-5 years down the road. The uncertainty surrounding draft picks creates a good amount of variability in draft results, and the reason we see so many teams miss on picks. All of this ties back to getting value at your pick position, and further emphasizes finding a player who projects well. Player habits, behaviours and details within the game will highlight what analytics enforces. It’s important to note that all this new information about prospects and the development of players is incredibly valuable, and making sense of all this information will only improve decision making.