An NHL Draft year can be a whirlwind thing for a player. Like with any other season in their hockey career, it’s filled with peaks and valleys. But it’s not exactly just “any other season”. Ask the player’s involved in this situation. It’s usually considered the biggest year of their career so far, something they’ve worked towards their entire hockey life. Things don’t get any easier for them when you consider the added pressure from media, asking them about “the big day next June”. They know scouts are watching them at each and every game. Even the words and images they spit out on Twitter or Instagram get analyzed.
It can be a big deal.
If I could offer any piece of advice for these player’s it would be to not worry too much about those peaks and valleys. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Be smart. Stick to your game and play to your strengths. Scouts and evaluators will find you and if you’re lucky, you’ll get your name called at the draft. Also know that the draft isn’t the be-all and end-all of your hockey career. It’s merely a stepping stone, albeit a nice one to strive for.
Things like this need to be remembered when analyzing the player’s available at the NHL Draft. Some players have bigger peaks and valleys than others. Some have hot starts. Some have slow starts. Some of these bumps in the road are team-related while others can simply be chalked up to bad luck or a lack of bounces on an individual level.
While it's important to remember that it's a marathon and not a sprint, these ups and downs are already apparent for a few of the big name 2015 NHL Draft prospects in the Western Hockey League.
Kelowna Rockets forward Nick Merkley has started as hot as anyone out west, almost as hot as anyone CHL-wide for that matter. His 25 points in 14 games are second best in the WHL to only Cole Ully of the Kamloops Blazers. His 21 assists lead the pack out west while his points-per-game mark of 1.79 does the same. While his team is considered by many to be the best one in the country, it’s clear that he’s a driving force behind parts of their success. He's picked up either a goal or an assist on over 34% of the Kelowna Rockets scoring plays this season. He also leads the WHL in powerplay assists with 12 in 14 games, a unit that’s currently leading the league with a success rate of just under 32%. He’s an energetic player, a silky yet powerful skater with elite-level hands and vision. He simply makes the player’s around him better. While some think his size (he’s listed at 5’10.5 and 187 pounds) will hold him back, you can bet he’s hoping this hot start and his relentless attacking style can help eliminate many of those concerns.
While everything has clicked early for Merkley and his Rockets, the same can’t really be said for Paul Bittner and his Portland Winterhawks.
Portland has stumbled out of the gate so far in 2014-15, currently sitting last in the US Division with a record of 5-10-0-2 through 17 games. Just as with the team, many of the club’s players aren’t posting the numbers fans have grown accustomed to seeing during their stretch of winning four consecutive conference titles. Paul Bittner is in that category. The 6’4 winger has put up only 9 points in his 15 games this year, including a very slow start of 3 goals and no assists in his first 9. He's only "contributed" to under 18% of the Winterhawks goals, basically half the number that Merkley has for Kelowna. While it’s obviously still very early in the season, his points-per-game numbers haven’t taken that next step that people hope to see from a player in the biggest year of his career so far. In his first two seasons Bittner went from .51 PPG to .77 PPG. Based on that progression one would expect Bittner should be able to elevate to near point-per-game levels in what is now his 3rd WHL season, regardless of strategic and stylistic changes under new head coach Jamie Kompon. He’s currently producing at a .60 PPG level. While Merkley is top two in the WHL in scoring, Bittner isn’t in the top 100.
But let’s not get too carried away. Peaks and valleys, and all of that stuff, right? And when it comes down to it at its most basic level, Bittner is still a projectable draft prospect. While his physical play is fairly inconsistent in my opinion, he’s got the tools to end up as a high draft pick. He’s a strong skater for a lanky kid who is as tall as he is. He shoots the puck hard, he thinks his way around the ice, he has displayed nice amounts of versatility in his game over the years and comes from a proven program in Portland. As most people can tell you, offensive production is only a part of the equation that needs to be weighed here.
So, how can a hot or slow start change a player’s value for the draft? That will be an interesting thing to watch as the year goes on and it appears we have two decent test subjects already in Merkley and Bittner.
Scouts are all about progression. They want to see each player at designated points of the year, using the linear timeline as a grading tool. Which parts of the player’s game have gotten better since I watched him last? Which areas of his development have stagnated? Why have these changes happened? And arguably most importantly, will these positive or negative changes in their game continue based on all the things I know about this player? It’s a constant game of arranging and re-arranging lists as the year goes on, analyzing data and ultimately watching as much hockey as possible to get a wide scope of the big picture.
Looking back at Merkley and Bittner, where do these players stand right now as far as a “baseline test”? The below image show’s where these two players were ranked in a variety of NHL Draft publications early in this hockey season before the hot start for Merkley and the cool one for Bittner.
Keep in mind that “My Rank” features WHL players only as those are the only players I watch live and can therefore feel comfortable ranking. Also note that McKenzie’s list was only 15-deep, with 4 “honourable mentions”.
While these two players couldn’t be more different in both size and style of game, I hope they have the similar outlooks on their draft year. Just take it for what it is. Play your game, play to your strengths while continually pushing yourself to get better. In the end where and when you get drafted is only a number. It doesn’t determine the player you can become, hot start or not.