The Jets took a gamble with the 18th pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, selecting Logan Stanley – a 6’7, left-shooting defender from the Ontario Hockey League. The pick was somewhat controversial, given Stanley’s pedestrian offensive totals (17 points in 64 games), and the fact that the Jets traded picks 22 and 36 in order to get him (along with pick 79). But before we even examine the player in detail, let’s first acknowledge that assessing NHL organizations just days after the NHL Entry Draft is somewhat futile – since most hockey players don’t reach their peak until their mid-20’s, you can’t fully evaluate the performance of scouts and GM’s until 5-7 years after draft day.
That said, we need to do an initial assessment of the player. Anytime you’re trying to evaluate a young prospect, you do three things – examine statistics, watch them play, and investigate their character / personality. Lacking any insider knowledge, we’re not going to delve into “character”, so let’s start with statistics.
Historical Data Suggests Stanley Has Limited Offensive Upside
Trying to predict an 18-year-old’s future NHL career starts with choosing similar players to compare them to. At 6’7, the most distinctive thing about Stanley is clearly his size, so my method was to filter past draft data for:
-Defenders 6’5 or taller
-In the past 25 years (1992 to the present)
-1st round picks only
The players were then arranged them by how successful they were/have been in their NHL careers (or how promising they are as young players/prospects):
*Heights referenced from Hockey DB (with the exception of Alex Plante)
Searching for a Stanley Comparable
As you can see, there are a few terrific players in this sample. Chris Pronger is a Hall of Famer, and was a dominant player for many years in the league. Victor Hedman is one of the best defenders in the NHL today, and Dougie Hamilton is a talented young player who still has tremendous potential. Beyond that, there are a few top-4 guys on this list – Braydon Coburn, Tyler Myers, Mike Rathje, and perhaps Erik Gudbranson. But which of them – if any – had a similar profile to Stanley at age 18?
The two best players on this list – Pronger and Hedman – were both can’t-miss prospects on draft day, who went 2nd overall. They were seen as having the whole package – a compelling blend of size, skating, skill, smarts, etc., and the stats to back it up. (While Pronger’s pre-draft OHL stats may look more impressive, Hedman’s pre-draft season was played in Sweden’s top professional league). Meanwhile, the next-most promising player – Dougie Hamilton – clearly has the third-best pre-draft stats, with 58 points in 67 games as a 17-year-old. None of these three players are comparables for Logan Stanley, whose 17 points reflect a skill level that would optimistically be described as “in-progess”, or more realistically described as “limited”.
If we continue inferring upside from statistics, and we’re being realistic, then Stanley’s best-case scenarios are probably Braydon Coburn and Tyler Myers. Both of these players put up just 19 points in their pre-draft season, so they might be reasonable comparables in terms of offensive ability. That said, there are some interesting points to note:
Coburn was on every scout’s radar long before the 2003 NHL Entry Draft – he was the 1st overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft in 2000, and was named WHL rookie of the year in 2001-2002 with 37 points in 68 games as a 16-year-old. His pre-draft season the following year – where he dipped to 19 points – was actually seen as a huge disappointment, as coming into the year, he was ranked far higher than the 8th slot, where he was picked by Atlanta.
Myers’ story is basically the opposite of Coburn’s – his first two WHL seasons were pedestrian offensively, but the Buffalo Sabres – seeing a towering defenceman who could skate – took a chance on the 6’8 rearguard. He developed tremendously the following year, posting 42 points in 58 games in the regular season, followed by 20 points in 22 playoff games. He then made the NHL as a 19-year-old, was given a steady, veteran defence partner (Henrik Tallinder), posted 48 points as a rookie, and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
Of the two, Stanley’s development plane thus far would look more like Tyler Myers’. Many scouts familiar with Stanley called him the most improved player in the OHL this past season. His rookie season in ’14’-’15 saw him tally no goals and 4 assists in 59 games, along with a -25 rating, but this season, those totals jumped to 5 goals and 17 points with a +7 rating. However, if we’re being objective about his stats, we must allow that this statistical improvement (especially plus minus) is partially attributable to his team’s improvement – in ’14-’15, Windsor allowed 305 goals and scored just 223, whereas this season, they scored 253 and allowed just 200 – an improvement of 135 goals! Furthermore, the only way that this comparison holds is if Stanley goes on to dominate the OHL the way that Myers did the year following his draft. And if I’m a betting man, I’m not optimistic that Stanley’s offensive game is just around the corner – in the final 2 months of the OHL season, Stanley played 18 games, and added just 2 assists. He then had 1 goal in 7 games in the OHL playoffs, and 1 assist in 7 games in the Under-18 World Championships; that’s a total of 1 goal and 3 assists in the last 32 games of 2016. Expecting him to be Tyler Myers is probably asking too much as well.
Our next group down takes us to Mike Rathje, Erik Gudbranson, and Bryan Allen. Although none of these players contributed much offensively at the NHL level, each of them had proven more offensively than Stanley has thus far. Gudbranson had 23 points in 41 games in his draft year, which would pro-rate to almost 38 had he played 67 games as Stanley did. Rathje and Allen also outpaced him offensively at the same age, and given that they were all top-5 picks, who were billed as “two-way defencemen” on draft day, a lot more was expected. In terms of style on draft day, Gudbranson was by far the best skater of the group, while Rathje was the most cerebral, and Allen was the most bruising, and unspectacular. Ultimately, it’s hard to find a comparison in this group – Gudbranson was certainly a better prospect days after the draft than Stanley is today and Rathje was drafted oh so long ago; perhaps a better skating version of Bryan Allen is the most accurate comparison here.
Another interesting player worth discussing is Jared Cowen. Cowen’s draft story reads a lot like Coburn’s – a 1st overall pick in the 2006 WHL Draft, and one whose stock fell a lot coming into his NHL draft year in 2009. He ended up being selected 9th by Ottawa, and drew the inevitable Chara comparisons with his size and pedigree. His lack of mobility and puck skills have hampered his NHL career thus far, and he was recently bought out of a 4 year, $3.1M contract. In terms of style, Stanley is probably a better skater than Cowen at the same age, but in terms of skill, Cowen’s 21 points in 48 games pro-rate to 29 points in 67 games, which suggests that Cowen’s offensive game may have been more developed at the same age.
We’ve taken a look at 9 players on this list already – here’s a rundown on the rest:
There are two up-and-coming prospects on this list – Nikita Zadorov, and Samuel Morin. Zadorov is far more offensively inclined, with a booming shot and soft hands for a big man; Morin is 6’7 and mean, but is fairly limited offensively. Of the two, Stanley more closely resembles Morin.
Jamie Oleksiak, Jarred Tinordi, and Dylan McIlrath are all the same age – 24 – and all have had trouble adjusting to the NHL. Each of them was drafted in view of their limitations – skating and puck skills are in short supply from this group, but their teams hoped to get a steadying defensive presence. Thus far, none of them have been able to establish themselves in the NHL, despite multiple opportunities. It would be surprising if any becomes more than a 3rd pairing defender in the NHL. Stanley is probably a better skater than all of these players, but skill-wise, it’s hard to say that he’s any better today than they were at the time of their selection.
Anton Babchuk, Mathieu Biron, Nikos Tselios, and Jeff Schultz are all notable since they were all big men that actually had a bit of offensive upside when they were drafted. But this group didn’t find much success. Schultz fared the best, playing over 400 games, and turning in one seemingly impressive season in Washington, where he posted 23 points and a +50 rating in 2009-2010. (It later became clear that those numbers were a product of his surroundings – Schultz’ d-partner was Mike Green, then the NHL’s most electrifying offensive defenceman). Of the 4, Babchuk is the only one who was able to post significant offence in the NHL. Stanley is less capable offensively than any in this group were on draft day.
11 other players remain – Branislav Mezei had the most successful career of that group, with 240 unspectacular games played. Many of the others were drafted as bruisers – Valabik, Focht, and Finley in particular – at a time when the game was a bit slower, and physical play was more prized than it is today. Setting this low a bar is probably unfair to Stanley, as most of these players were not only tall, but quite heavy, and weren’t able to move their feet the way Stanley can.
Herein Lies the Concern
When P.K Subban was drafted in 2007, scouts knew he was blessed with offensive talent, but they weren’t sure if he could figure out the defensive game. Interestingly, they said similar things about Ryan Ellis in 2009 (is he really too small?), Shea Theodore in 2011 (now a rising prospect with Anaheim), Michael Del Zotto in 2008 (he’s had a pretty decent career), and Bobby Sanguinetti in 2006 (who never did make it). However, being drafted as an offensive defenceman gives you a few options:
1. Bring your offence to the show, as long as you can play some defence.
2. Become competent on both sides of the puck.
3. Offensive game doesn’t translate, adapt and hone your defensive game.
There have countless examples of #3 over time – while they don’t fall into our current sample, players like Karl Alzner, Willie Mitchell, Barret Jackman, Scott Hannan, Chris Phillips, Jason Smith, etc., were all somewhat capable offensive players in junior, who were used regularly on the powerplay, but later became defensive specialists in the NHL.
(As a side note, if you go the other direction, Tyler Myers is the only player in this sample whose offence at the NHL level far exceeded what he showed in his draft year. One interesting thing about Myers that needs to be explained – he actually started out as a forward prior to his time in the WHL. Perhaps the reason his offence took a while to kick in was because he first had to adapt to playing defence at the junior hockey level, and once he got comfortable, the hands kicked in.)
Here’s the rub: just as prospects with high skill levels don’t always produce offence at the next level, prospects with strong “defensive ability” don’t always translate that to the next level either. (Former Team Canada World Junior d-men like Ryan Parent, Scott Harrington, and Keith Aulie fall into this group). If a player starts out as an offensive defenceman, and that doesn’t work out, they might be able to adapt and become a strong defensive player, but if they start out relying on their defensive game, and that doesn’t pan out, what’s the organization left with? From our sample, we have 11 picks that were essentially thrown away on draft day, most of whom had very low offensive upside to start with.
I’ve taken the liberty of showing the three players drafted right after each of the 29 in our sample. Even among teams who got decent, or even good defencemen, there has to be a whole lot of regret there – most notably, that teams didn’t take Karlsson over Myers, Carter over Coburn, Domi over Morin, and Johansen over Gudbranson. (On a side note, the Washington Capitals selected Mike Green two picks after they took Jeff Schultz. Sweet irony). I’m sure the teams who took Cowen, Oleksiak, Tinordi, and McIlrath would all prefer to go back in time as well. (Ryan Ellis, J.T Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Cam Fowler could all help a team a lot).
Lastly, extrapolating from the vast majority of players in this sample, we know that we’re not likely to ever get much offence from a player like Stanley. We’re probably looking at a defender who takes a regular shift at even strength and the first shift on the penalty kill. If he performs this role effectively, we’ll call him a “shut-down” defenceman, he’ll play 18-20 minutes a game, and we’ll say that he plays in the “top-4”; if he doesn’t do it quite as well, he’ll be a “third-pairing”, who plays 14-18 minutes per game, (or even less if he’s a depth guy). And if he isn’t a top-4 guy – and make no mistake, most of the players in this sample are not – the criticism will go beyond whether or not a better player was available shortly thereafter. Worse, the criticism will be “why did you draft someone with the 18th pick, and wait 5 years to develop a third-pairing guy, when they’re available every single year in free agency on the cheap!” Try finding a consistent 25-goal scorer as a free agent – if there are any available at all, most teams in the league will be bidding on them, and they’ll fetch a pretty penny. Fairly recent contracts include Mike Cammalleri 5 years, $5M per year, Thomas Vanek – 3 years, $6.5M per year, Matt Moulson – 4 years, $5M per, etc. (Stanley’s career will be forever linked to Kieffer Bellows – a potential 25-goal scorer). By contrast, a third-pairing defenceman is available every year in free agency, usually for a price tag of $1.5M per year (or less), and a low commitment of just 1 or 2 years. (The average salary in the NHL is over $2.5M per year).
Bottom-line: if Stanley becomes a top-4, minute munching defenceman who can separate attackers from the puck effectively and be a beast on the pk, this pick will look alright. Anything less, and the Jets made a big mistake here.
Now With All That Said, He Looks Pretty Good On Video
If you’re going to trust someone’s opinion on prospects, you could do a lot worse than trusting Craig Button. Button values skill and hockey sense, and isn’t afraid to go against the grain when it comes to prospect rankings. When everyone had Jake Virtanen ranked in the top-10 at the 2014 draft, Button had him ranked 43rd! (He thought Virtanen was a good junior player who would top out as a third liner at the NHL level – a slightly better version of Jack Skille…). Similarly, Button had Pavel Zacha – last year’s 6th overall pick – ranked 24th in his final rankings! This year, Button’s final rankings had Stanley 30th. While that isn’t a glowing review, if Button thought Stanley had no upside, he wouldn’t hesitate to bury him like he did eventual 1st round picks Riley Tufte (45th), Lucas Johansen (50th), Sam Steel (56th).
Button’s comments in this video are interesting. He talks about the immense improvement that Stanley made in the course of 21 months – it’s the story of a big, gangly kid who’s in the midst of regaining his coordination after a huge growth spurt, and trying to improve his hands, his skating, and generally get comfortable in his body. When I watch video of Stanley, I’m immediately struck by how well he moves for a big man. His skating isn’t awkward or plodding like most of the players that size – the clip where he carries the puck from behind his net, all the way up the ice, is something that you rarely see from a 6’7 defender. He also seems to have fairly good puck skills, including good passing ability – there are a few clips of him snapping a long, crisp outlet pass; again, his hands look better than you tend to see from players of that size. When he has the puck at the point, he shows the composure to walk the line, keeping his head up for a play, rather than firing the puck blindly into a crowd as many under-confident, defensive defencemen sometimes do. And naturally, the physical game is there, but it’s nice to see that he doesn’t always rely on his strength, but is also adept at using his stick to break up plays.
In all these things, Stanley is unlike many of the players he was compared to in the sample of 28 presented earlier. Many of those defencemen were slow and plodding, depending on size and strength alone to separate players from the puck, with often comes with a penchant for taking unnecessary penalties, and a limited ability to contribute to the transition game. Even from brief viewings, Stanley looks better than his stats might suggest.
I’m confident that Stanley does have upside – the question is how much. Victor Hedman he is not, but is he a larger, more physical version of Braydon Coburn? Is he a smoother skating, faster version of Hal Gill? At this point, it’s very hard to say. However, much will become clear based on how he develops in the next 2-3 years. If he starts to produce offence at the junior level, and becomes more comfortable and confident with the puck on his stick, then he has a chance to be a significant, top-4 defender in the NHL. But if his stats don’t take a major leap – if they stay in Nelson Nogier territory – then this pick quickly falls into bust territory.