We’re now two weeks into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to introduce a new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Earlier this week we gave our thoughts on potential playoff formats the league could use coming out of the pause. Today, we’ll talk about how draft prospects are impacted by the sudden conclusion of their junior and college seasons.
Q: Which kind of draft prospect is impacted the most by the shortened scouting season—high-, mid- or late-round?
Brian La Rose:
By now, teams have a pretty good idea of the players that are going to be at or near the top of their draft lists. There could be some movement up or down but most players ranked in the first round on a list at this point are still probably going to be ranked in the first round when final lists are set.
The stretch run and playoffs can certainly help a mid-ranked player move up (or down) but it shouldn’t affect their stock in terms of being drafted. It would take a significant injury or a dreadful late performance to knock a player from being ranked mid-round midseason to the do not draft list.
That can’t be said for the late-round prospects. Oftentimes, a big showing in the playoffs or the Under-18’s can make that lasting impression that gets them onto the late flier list. Conversely, the lower-ranked player that played well at the start of the season but struggles in such an event can fall off the list entirely. The movement in the rankings is much more drastic.
There is a considerable gap between first-rounders and those taken after. There is a small difference between second and third-rounders relative to those who go later. But once you hit the back end of the draft, the gap is minimal and it doesn’t take much to rise or fall in those rankings. That’s why they’re the most impacted by the early ends to their respective seasons.
For the most part, high-round picks have already been established. Teams and scouts are already well aware of the top-caliber players and where they will go in the first couple of rounds. While there is always some shuffling up and down those first few rounds, most of those players have been scouted quite a bit (perhaps minus a handful of Russian prospects, but isn’t that always the case?)
It’s the later picks that are likely to be affected the most. With no playoffs coming at the junior and collegiate levels as well as overseas, many of those often-missed prospects won’t get a chance to shine at the final level and show that they should be taken earlier. Plenty of prospects establish themselves near the end of the season as they develop in their own team’s systems or get to step up and prove themselves when injuries creep up. These late-season tournaments as well as the IIHF canceling the IIHF U18 World Championships will eliminate key scouting opportunities that will have a major effect on the mid to late rounds.
Unlike the other top pro sports leagues, the NHL is unique in that all rookie contracts are more or less created equal. The entry-level system creates a narrow salary window in which each draft pick is able to negotiate his contract, while also allowing time before signing to create leverage for a greater base salary or performance bonuses within that range, as opposed to negotiating based solely on draft position.
This is all to say that the most important thing for an NHL prospect is just getting drafted, not where you are drafted. For this reason, the “late-round” prospects are absolutely the group most impacted by the Coronavirus-shortened season, as they are not locked in to be selected at all. Top prospects who can safely assume that they will be picked in the first four or five rounds have that security because there is a consensus that they are a strong NHL prospect. That consensus can only be built by multiple viewings by multiple scouts over the course of the season. A shortened season still leaves most teams with more than enough information to make a decision on those top- and middle-tier prospects. Those late-round prospects often do not have the luxury of multiple viewings by scouts. High school, prep school, Junior-A and European junior league games do not offer the same value to scouts as attending CHL, USHL, or European pro games, where there are multiple draft prospects to watch. As such, postseason play and other spring tournaments offer the best opportunities for scouts and the best chance for a late-round prospect to be seen and make an impact on a team, improving his draft odds. Many of those players will not get that opportunity this year and some lower-caliber players from bigger leagues may get the nod based on teams’ number of viewings alone.
Once a player is passed over in their first year of eligibility, earning a selection only gets tougher. So it is those fringe, late-round prospects who may have lost their chance to impress the maximum number of teams possible who will be most affected by the shortened recruiting season.
There’s no doubt that the players at the fringe of any ranking may end up missing a chance to impress an NHL team enough to earn a selection, but I would argue that it doesn’t really change their situation all that much by going undrafted. Every year teams decide not to hand out NHL contracts to their sixth- and seventh-round picks from prior drafts, letting them become free agents or bringing them in on minor league deals instead. The situation for a seventh-round pick isn’t all that fundamentally different from one that slips by—they’re still going to have to put in a lot of hard work to prove they are worthy of an NHL contract slot.
No, I believe it is actually those first-round talents that could be affected the most, in both positive and negative manners.
Last year, just a few weeks before the draft, Peyton Krebs suffered a torn Achilles in an offseason workout. Krebs had been in line for a potential top-10 selection, ranked that high by several outlets including by TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who polls NHL scouts from around the league. Instead, after his injury, Krebs dropped to the Vegas Golden Knights at 17th. If you compare his entry-level deal to that of, say, Victor Soderstrom, who went 11th, you’ll notice that Krebs has a substantially lower number of available performance bonuses—some $750K over the three years.
For an example the other way, one can point at Mortiz Seider’s performance for Germany at the IIHF World Championship in May of 2019 as a potential reason why he ended up being the sixth player off the board in June. NHL.com correspondent Aaron Vickers wrote exactly that last year when he spoke to players like Leon Draisaitl who was so impressed with the 18-year old’s play. Seider landed more than $2.5MM in potential performance bonuses for going so high, twice as much as Krebs and certainly more than he would have at his #16 ranking in the same TSN scouting poll.