January 04 2015: Sebastian Aho (2) and Lucas Wallmark (23) of Sweden celebrates a goal during Russia's 4-1 victory over Sweden at the IIHF World Junior Championship at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.
NHL Prospects

Draft-day analytics: Using statistics to find underrated prospects

John Crouch/Icon Sportswire

The NHL season is officially over, with the Pittsburgh Penguins defeating the San Jose Sharks in six games to take home the Stanley Cup. With only two teams still playing this season, the rest of the league had already moved their attention forward, to the 2016 NHL Draft.

The salary cap has made the NHL Draft the most important roster building tool in an NHL GM’s arsenal, and unearthing hidden talent in the later rounds is the perfect way to stack a roster.

Most NHL teams, however, have failed to adequately select late round players via the Entry Draft over the past decade or so. Josh Weissbock (who now works for the Florida Panthers) was able to out-draft 19 of the 30 NHL front offices using a simple computer algorithm.

NHL teams spend millions of dollars on scouting a year, but get a terrible return on that investment.

The best way to judge a draft-eligible prospect is by their points-per-game, and, to a lesser extent, size. Players who produce a high rate of points in junior leagues are more likely to become regular NHL contributors; this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Taller players also have an increased chance of NHL success, as well, especially if they can rack up points. Big guys who can’t score aren’t likely to crack an NHL roster, but big guys who dominate the opposition and constantly get their names on the scoresheet have a fairly good chance of becoming a legitimate NHL star.

Headed into this year’s draft, there are several players who may be overlooked by conventional scouts, but have shown flashes of potential greatness. They may not be highly ranked by NHL Central Scouting, but their production and ages in junior leagues indicate that they may have fairly high chances of becoming NHL regulars. Here’s a look at some of those players.

LW – Alex DeBrincat – Erie Otters

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In his OHL rookie season, Alex DeBrincat put up 104 points in 68 games while playing on Connor McDavid’s wing. The talented, young forward benefitted greatly from playing alongside a generational talent in McDavid, but his status as a legitimate prospect wouldn’t be cemented until he proved he could produce on his own.

He did just that this season, racking up 101 points in 60 games. DeBrincat’s propensity for scoring is what really makes him a excellent prospect, as his goals per game ranked first among all draft eligible CHL skaters. His ability to rack up primary points as well (secondary assists are largely random and not a reliable measure of talent) puts him in elite company — only Pierre Luc-Dubois of the QMJHL had a higher primary points per game rate.

DeBrincat also racked up the majority of his points at 5-on-5. His primary points per game rate of 0.88 was the highest among draft eligible CHL skaters, and was tied for 9th among all CHL skaters; DeBrincat even out-paced notable high-end prospects such as Toronto’s Mitch Marner, and Arizona’s Christian Dvorak.

The only knock on DeBrincat is his size. He clocks in at a mere 5’7″, and only weighs 165 pounds. Though the diminutive forward will struggle against bigger, stronger defenders, he’s shown elite potential, and could end up being one of the best forwards taken in the draft.

D – Jake Bean – Calgary Hitmen

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Jake Bean wasn’t drafted into the WHL, but played his way onto the Calgary Hitmen, and has risen up draft rankings as the season as gone on. Standing at 6’1″ and weighing 176 pounds, Bean isn’t lacking when it comes to size, and his point production has turned heads across the league.

Looking at draft eligible CHL defenseman, only the QMJHL’s Samuel Girard averaged more points per game than Bean. Girard stands at 5’9″, so there are concerns about his height, unlike Bean who has size and the point production to go along with it.

His even strength point production wasn’t exactly impressive, and it’s clear that most of Bean’s points came on the power play. Still, Bean managed to lead all WHL defensemen in even strength primary points per game, and there’s no denying that he’s an excellent prospect.

He might be the fourth or fifth defenseman taken in the draft, but there’s a possibility that Bean continues his upward trend in development, and ends up being better than some players taken ahead of him.

D – Sebastian Aho – Skellefteå AIK

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Sebastian Aho has been a draft eligible skater since the 2014 NHL Draft, but teams have skipped over him twice because of his size. The Swedish blue liner is only 5’10”, and doesn’t exactly have a ton of muscle, weighing 176 pounds.

Still, he’s played in Sweden’s top league, against grown men, for the past three seasons. This year, he put up 16 points in 39 games, which translates to about 20 points in the NHL; not exactly elite totals, but definitely respectable, especially when you consider that Aho is still only 20 years old.

He’ll likely never play on a team’s top pairing, but he has the potential to crack an NHL lineup, and possibly contribute in a top-four role. There’s a strong chance that he’ll be passed over at the 2016 Draft for the third year in a row.

If you’re an NHL team picking in the sixth or seventh round, and Aho is still available, it’s worth the risk to take a late round flyer on the Swedish defenseman. The chances of finding an NHL player at that point in the draft are slim to none, and Aho’s chances are certainly going to be higher than that.

 

 

Draft-day analytics: Using statistics to find underrated prospects
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