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June 15, 2011
From Daigle To Datsyuk
Why The Top Teams Should Pass On Landeskog

by Corey Pronman

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Like anyone who forms their own independent ranking, I do so based on information I have regarding the players, using my own personal evaluation system and criteria that I deem valuable. When doing so I believe what I'm doing is correct, otherwise I wouldn't publish it as my own opinion. But I also know the uncertainty of information and projecting players leaves so much room for one to be wrong between what the player is today and what the player will become tomorrow. I would almost never state in a draft or any prospect ranking that I am 100% certain of anything. However, if I ever were to get to close to absolute certainty when it came to prospect projections, the following statement would be it:

Any lottery team that uses a top five pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft on Gabriel Landeskog will be making a mistake of significant magnitude.

In a generation, a given franchise will only get so many times to pick in the top five. Unfortunately over the past 10 years or so for Colorado, Edmonton, the Islanders and Florida, the trip hasn't been an isolated visit but hasn't happened with high frequency either.

Per Iain Fyffe, these top picks of the draft on average give a relatively high Peak GVT:

Draft Pick	Projected Peak GVT
1		18.4
2		14.4
3		11.5
4		9.4
5		7.8
6		6.7
7		5.9
8		5.3
9		4.8
10		4.5

The first few picks are where the players with the highest upside usually lie. Teams get a very good chance to get a player who will provide a couple of wins above replacement per season, but after that, the value of picks takes a steep decline and the marginal value steadily decreases through the rest of the draft. This draft, like most drafts follows that trend. I obviously can't prove anything, but based on my evaluations I would classify Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a stand above the rest #1 prospect, Couturier, Strome and Huberdeau as significantly above-average prospects related to the class. Larsson, Murphy and Zibanejad are the next tier but not as high-end in terms of likely projected peak production. After those top 6-7 talents, I'd say it's accurate that the steady decline in marginal talent value takes place. That's how draft class population talent works and while not perfectly exact on an individual basis, that's how it usually works out on a larger scale.

The reason I have those names that high is very simplistic, yet not. It's because I think they will be the most valuable players talent-wise in that specific order taking into account developmental risks and specific market values. It's because I think they will deliver on a high, projectable upside that in the current market place is scarce and valuable. When you draft that high, that's what you have to get: upside, talent, star players. That's what you need out of those top five picks—to acquire a player you hope will be a cornerstone of your franchise and to be able to provide tremendous value by producing at a high level and ideally under a somewhat cheap contract.

That brings us back to the case of Gabriel Landeskog. Based on my ranking of him as the 13th-best prospect in the 2011 class and this column, some may get the perception that I think he's a bad player, but I don't. And based on evaluation talks I've had with scouts, my talent evaluation on his tools has been more or less in line, but in terms of how valuable the next person thinks he is, that's where my opinion tends to differ. While I think that he is the most NHL-ready prospect in the class and will be great at his role in the league, I ultimately don't see lottery-type value in that role.

There are three terrible mistakes you can make at the top of the draft that can end up biting you in five years:

1. Draft a safe, projectable player instead of a high-upside/potential star player
2. Place a high emphasis on intangibles in your evaluation process
3. Look at premature physical development as a significant plus instead of what it actually is: premature

Let's look at each of these in detail, which seem to be key pieces in the Landeskog in the top five campaign:

Mistake 1: Draft a safe, projectable player instead of a high-upside/potential star player

This is my number one rule of what not to do with a top five pick unless you want to set your franchise back. Upside is not by any stretch of the imagination easy to find. Teams pay hand over fist and give out ludicrous high dollar, long-term deals in the free agent market to get this valuable resource. Per Iain Fyffe's projections, only the top three talents per draft average a peak GVT of 11.5 or higher; last season, 74 players produced over 11.5 GVT, so you're basically talking about the top 2.5 producers per each of the 30 teams. These aren't just the first line or top pairing players, they are the league's top tier of talent. A team's best shot to get this type of talent—without giving out a heart-wrenching contract—is at the very top of the draft.

So on the other hand, getting a very ready but low-upside prospect is pretty useless in today's NHL under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement unless you are set to make a run in the immediate future. New Jersey would be the closest to this statement as they seemed to get hurt by unlucky percentages this year and look primed for a bounceback next season. Even so, I wouldn't advise it especially when you can get a high-upside player in the top four.

Per the CBA:

"any Player who either has seven (7) Accrued Seasons or is 27 years of age or older as of June 30 of the end of the League Year, shall, if his most recent SPC has expired, with such expiry occurring either as of June 30 of the applicable League Year or June 30 of any prior League Year, become an Unrestricted Free Agent."

That means that if a player comes in his age 19 season—as Landeskog would next season—it would essentially cause that team to lose two cheap years of his prime as he would become a UFA by the end of his age 25 season. Between any of the other lottery teams other than the Devils I don't foresee any of them making a run this following season and maybe the next so it makes the NHL-readiness of Landeskog almost null aside from the fact he'll be there, be getting NHL experience (which has value just hard to quantify) and contributing on what will likely be a bad team. As long as a prospect is ready by his age-21 season, there is no significant loss in his number of pre-UFA years. On a bottom-feeding NHL team, being "NHL ready" is not that valuable—I can still hear the screams of some Oilers fans last preseason, clamoring to keep their top prospects out of the league and save the ELC years on what they knew was going to be a poor squad.

Regarding Gabriel Landeskog's upside and whether or not he fits into that safe/projectable player mold, I currently would project with a fair amount of certainty that his offensive role in the NHL will be a below-average first-line to above-average second-line player who contributes well in his own end. That's valuable! But to an extent…

So this isn't exactly trashing Gabriel and say he wasn't a first rounder. Being a top-half first-rounder usually means that I think he's a pretty good player and I do. But that upside isn't exactly something that's desirable enough in my opinion to get into a top five, especially when I think the top four forwards I have ranked all could be above-average first-line players with perfect world projections of All-Star players.

Most people I've talked to about Landeskog to try and get exterior opinions come at me with these types of offensive projections in regards to Landeskog's absolute ceiling:

"20 goal scorer, 50-60 points"

"30 goals, 70 points"

"25 goals, 55-60 points"

They all usually revolve around that barometer. Iain Fyffe projected Landeskog to have a Peak GVT of 6.7, which is roughly what Ryan Smyth—a 23 goal and 47 point producer—had this year. He also compared his pre-NHL production to that of Andrew Brunette, who in his NHL career had a handful of mid-20 goal and mid-60 point seasons and once got to 27 goals and 83 points. If Landeskog becomes Andrew Brunette regarding offensive production (over his career, not in those isolated good seasons) with good defensive contribution, that's a fine player, but it's still not worth a top five pick.

The end of the day GVT output of a player who scores 25 goals, gets 60 points (at his peak, not average season) and plays good defense does not in any way outweigh the tremendous Goals Versus Salary value accessible to getting an All-Star talent in the draft. As I showed a little while back, the GVS of a forward who produces at a 6.7 GVT production point (which is theoretically where we'll put Landeskog per Fyffe's projections) is about 3.5 GVS. Going to that previously mentioned 11.5 GVT mark for top three talents, the GVS point for a forward is around 7.5. So with a 72% increase in production we got a 114% increase in value. That is why a high-upside player is so valuable, and that's why you don't play it safe at the top of the draft and go for the best available talents you can find. Because even if the less talented player is a safer pick to play and do what you think he will, upside with risk pays off far more than the safest top five pick ever will.

Mistake 2: Place a high emphasis on intangibles in your evaluation process

Being part of Hockey Prospectus and thus being in an analytical environment, I am slightly biased in my opinion here, but due to how critical this part of Landeskog's evaluation is and why so many tout him, there are things that have to be said.

I don't like emphasizing things you can't see and things you can't value. As someone who regularly writes scouting reports this may seem hypocritical, but there are distinct differences. When watching players you can see their traits and their qualities and can see the impact they have on controlling possession and ultimately winning hockey games. This is why in the intangible world, I place emphasis on work ethic displayed on the ice. It has a clear and distinguishable value towards the results of the game and while it cannot be quantified, it can be observed. While from an analytical perspective that's useless, from a scouting perspective it's useful. A player's off-ice habits and conditioning also have a direct and visible effect on his shift-to-shift production.

When it comes to those other intangible qualities though, that's where I tend to draw back—the ones that we can't see making a difference on the ice on a shift-to-shift basis, but are apparently there and have a significant impact are what I'm referring to. That means stuff like leadership, character, being the captain, talking well, being a good teammate, etc.

These are things that one person can argue are valuable, and I can argue aren't really, and then we'll go around in circles barking out our points without evidence because it's all subjective. I'm not naive enough to think intangibles don't have a distinct effect—anyone who has been around sports or even for that matter any group of people trying to accomplish a tough goal—know it has some impact, but it's the magnitude that I significantly differ on. At the end of the day, I can point to countless instances of on-ice work ethic making a positive contribution to that team's respective possession numbers and I have yet to see that same argument for any of the other major intangibles frequently discussed.

Intangibles—or a better word, "make-up"—matters in a player. Being a professional athlete is hard and you need to be a certain type of person to make it, but intangibles are nowhere even close to the same planet of importance as talent. Talent is scarce, talent drives results, and intangibles supplement the talent to let it do its job and not the other way around. Gabriel Landeskog is a great on-ice worker and I attribute real value to that, but he's also had a lot of his perceived value built by the "other intangibles". I've never bought the argument that they are significant, and likely never will without better evidence.

Mistake 3: Look at premature physical development as a significant plus instead of what it actually is: premature

Just about anytime I talk to an NHL source about any prospect, about 99% of the time they say something along the lines of:

"He needs to get stronger."

"He needs a good summer to put on muscle."

"He needs to put on some weight."

Physical development is usually one of the last things to come to even the best young players and it's usually what keeps players who aren't top-tier talents out of the NHL at ages 19-21. However when evaluating talent, one needs to make a distinct difference between what is a player's projected physical game value today and what it will be in five years.

I've seen too many times where a player at 18 or 19 physically develops early and thus looks like a significantly better player relative to his draft class, only in a few years to watch more talented players in his draft class catch up physically and surpass the aforementioned player's output. The draft is about projection, and taking into account the first point I made above, the fact that a player is physically NHL-ready doesn't really do much on a poor team especially when you consider that in a few years a player like Sean Couturier could likely provide equivalent physical game value to Landeskog once he fills out.

While looking at weight isn't a telltale indicator of physical game contribution or muscle mass, when you take players around the height mean, one standard deviation in terms of weight tends to be just around 10 pounds. So in the 6'0" range, nearly 70% of the players are between 190-210 lbs. and 95% are between 180-220 lbs. That's not taking into account positions, but it's just to show that players at a given height are usually small and lacking in muscle mass when they're very young and tend to average out as they get older. This isn't perfectly exact and a player's genetics/body type and just how much work they put into their body cause variance in the results, but from a population standpoint this tends to be true.

Taking this back to Landeskog, he is a player who has filled out at an early age and when you watched him in the OHL, his physical dominance was apparent. However, when players like Couturier and Zibanejad grow and follow the usual physical development routes of most young players, Landeskog's physical game contributions won't likely be that much better than that of those two, if at all. This is an important factor because a fair portion of Landeskog's value comes from his physical game.

Wrapping this all up, I need to state again that I do not think that Gabriel Landeskog is a bad player. I ranked him 13th and I think an offensive production of a below-average first-line player to an above-average second-line player is perfectly fair, is definitely valuable, and while it may not be exactly on the industry consensus, it isn't that far off. Landeskog excels and is pro average to above-average in many areas, but really doesn't have a plus tool in any critical possession area. He will likely do fine in the possession game in his own end with a desirable defensive game, but likely won't be high-end in offensively, while producing at a significant level.

He is the most NHL-ready prospect next season, but for a lottery team that isn't generally valuable.

He will score and produce, but it's hard to project his quantifiable value as high-end.

He has intangible value with great on-ice work ethic that impacts and aids his production, but I'm skeptical about putting even mildly significant value in any other intangible area he has.

He has a plus physical game, but there are several other more skilled top prospects in this draft class who I can project to be plus in that area down the road even though they aren't now.

At the end of the day, a top five pick is a scarce and extremely valuable resource that can be a major influence to turning around a franchise. Using it on anything but the best of talents and the prospects who you think will provide the highest output down the line is a near waste of said asset. Gabriel Landeskog is a great prospect, but he does not fit into those guidelines, so he's not an elite prospect. I highly advise any team picking at the top of the draft to use their selection elsewhere.

Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Corey by clicking here or click here to see Corey's other articles.

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Conn Smythe Watch (06/14)
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Premium Article From Daigle To Datsyuk (06/02)
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Premium Article From Daigle To Datsyuk (06/24)
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