The big day passed a few weeks ago now, meaning that it’s time to turn our attention to the next date emphatically quintuple-circled on our calendars: the 2019 edition of the NHL Entry Draft (the Ivan Hlinka, start of the season, and World Juniors only merit two, three, and four circles, respectively). One of the most interesting early storylines for the 2019 draft is the strength of the group of players that project to be drafted out of the USNTDP. As of now, a group of about six players from the American development program have legitimate opportunity to hear the name called in the first round of the draft that is just under a year away; a group that includes Jack Hughes, Matthew Boldy, Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte, and Cam York.
No firm ranking of these players has been worked out; currently, all that can be agreed on is that Hughes is #1. In this post, we’ll be taking a statistical approach to ordering the USDP draft-eligibles.
For this project, we’ll be using Age Adjusted PPG. This metric reduces the effect that differing ages within the draft class may have on the production of these prospects, putting them on a level playing field for accurate analysis.
Jack Hughes: This metric demonstrates just how good Hughes is compared to his peers. 2.42 PPG is incredible, and a step up of about . 6 PPG from the next best player. Hughes has outperformed Auston Matthews at the same age, and projects to be by far the best player to come out of not only the USDP, but the entire draft. The American was even more impressive after a December call-up to the U18 team, where he was easily the best player despite being a year younger than most of his teammates. His 68 points in 36 games equates to 1.88 PPG, a dominant pace.
This kind of combination of speed, hands, and playmaking ability is almost unheard of. Hughes is a future star, and the kind of player you build your team around.
Cole Caufield: Unless Caufield starts getting a lot more credit as more draft rankings come out, he’ll be one of the most underrated draft-eligibles entering his draft season. Caufield had more points for the U17s this year than Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel did in their respective D-1 seasons. At just just 5’6″ and 156 lbs, he’s tiny, but he packs a major scoring punch.
His ability to produce at this level at his size signals major skill, but unfortunately for him, he’ll be cast off as undeserving of a look based on his size by some. Caufield’s teammate, Matthew Boldy, has managed to crack at least one top 10 so far, despite the fact that he was significantly outscored by the smaller forward. If Caufield was 6 feet, I wholeheartedly believe that he would be a consensus top 10 draft-eligible at this time.
Once called “Alex DeBrincat with speed” by an NHL scout, Caufield is an elusive talent with excellent hands, a great shot, and fantastic instincts that make up an above-average hockey IQ. He makes smart plays, can see things developing, and puts himself in the right spots to score.
Matthew Boldy: Because Hughes and Caufield earned call-ups to the U18 team mid-season, Boldy managed to break the all-time points record for the U17 team despite being the third highest scorer on his team. Although not entirely deserved, that’s still quite the accomplishment, essentially meaning that Boldy was the top producing player that spent his entire season with the club and wasn’t struck by significant injury ever. The footnotes somewhat diminish the accomplishment, but Boldy still managed to put points on the board at an elite level.
A playmaker, Boldy makes smart decisions and can open up passing lanes. His hockey IQ stands out, and he’s creative with the puck. His first step allows him to win races to the puck, and he’s an all-around quick player, both in terms of actually movement as well as decision making.
Alex Turcotte: Turcotte plays a power game from the middle of the ice, using his speed and balance to attack the net. He’s not as big as your prototypical power forward, so one wonders if his game will be sustainable as he faces bigger and stronger competition if he doesn’t continue to grow. Beyond his skating, Turcotte lacks elite skill, but his abilities are still good enough to make a large impact at his current level. There are a few questions surrounding Turcotte:
- Will his size catch up to him? His speed won’t be enough to beat NHL defenders on its own.
- If it does, does he have the skill to adapt and play a different style of game?
The answer to the first question is unknown, but I would lean towards no for the second. I’m not sure that he has the high-end skill to make things happen from the outside at a similar level as what he does now. Turcotte has a lot to prove in his draft season.
Trevor Zegras: In terms of raw skill, Zegras would have Turcotte beat, but Turcotte had significantly better results for the U17s last season. Unlike Turcotte, Zegras has high-end skill to accompany his excellent skating, and his stickhandling and speed can cause problems for defenders, and he puts his teammates in good positions to score. Like Turcotte, Zegras will have to prove things in his draft season. However, while Turcotte will be trying to show that he has the skill, Zegras will want to display that he can produce at the same high level as the other top USDP forwards.
After Zegras, there is a sizeable drop-off. The players after that divot are those with extremely questionable NHL futures. While Beecher, Weight, and Caulfied could potentially end up being drafted and having decent careers, the rest would probably need a miracle to even sniff the NHL.
There’s a significant drop off from Cam York, the least producing player of the top tier, to the next best player, Marshall Warren. The defensive group is distinctly separated into two groups by a gap of 0.16 PPG. Within the top tier, consisting of Thrun, Helleson, and York, each player is neatly seperated by 0.02 PPG. In the bottom tier, the largest gap is a small 0.09 points per game.
Henry Thrun: Thrun is often heralded as a player who doesn’t have much offence to his game, but the statistics tell a different story. Statistically, Thrun was the top defenceman for the U17s, beating both Helleson and York. Granted, Thrun doesn’t have the offensive flair that makes him stand out in the attacking zone, but he makes smart moves that advance the play. His steady play won’t get him noticed, but he’s still capable of a major offensive impact, albeit discreet.
Drew Helleson: At this time, industry consensus probably considers Helleson the best defenceman from this group, and he very well may be. The difference of 0.02 PPG between him and Thrun is insignificant, and he plays a more noticeable game than Thrun. The mobile defenceman skates well and makes hard, accurate passes. His aggressive, offensive game can get him in trouble at times, but he moves the puck up ice quickly and can create for his team.
Cam York: Cam York appears to have the offensive tools to be a big-role offensive contributor, and he has the stats to back it up. Like Helleson, his adjusted PPG was basically indistinguishable from Thrun’s. A mobile, puck-moving defenceman, York excels at escaping pressure and makes high-quality breakout passes. His poise and patience is advanced, and he’s not afraid to wait for the play to develop. His decision-making and all-around hockey IQ stands out, and hems often one of the smarter players on the ice.
The Not So Good:
Marshall Warren: There’s a sizeable step downwards from York to Warren stats-wise, and it would appear that their skill levels reflect that gap as well. Warren shines in his own zone, where his game is developed, but that prowess doesn’t translate to the offensive end. When attacking, Warren typically fails to make any major contributions. His hard shot from the point can be a good weapon, and he can at times be effective joining the rush, but his offensive tool kit is lacking compared to some of the others.
Alex Vlasic: Vlasic’s size (6’5) can be exciting, but he doesn’t offer much offensively. He projects as a stay-at-home defender that can use his strength and reach to keep the puck out of the middle of the ice, but doesn’t contribute much offensively. His skating could hold him back.
Case McCarthy: Another defenceman without much in the way of an offensive toolkit, McCarthy is proficient defensively, taking away lanes and positioning himself well, but offers very little on the other side of the puck. He skates well, but doesn’t use that speed to rush the puck. His skating really could be quite an offensive asset, but he doesn’t have the attacking mind-set to make it so.
What can we get from this?
This method of evaluating players is particularly useful this early in the 2019 draft process. Few rankings have been released so far, and those that have are murky. This way, we have a clear view of which prospects have had the best results so far.
There are a few interesting things that came out of this, especially on the defensive side. The vast majority of the top USNTDP prospects this year are forwards; all five USDP prospects that would likely go in the first round if the draft was today are attackers. I’ve seen a few defencemen ranked in the first round of early rankings: Drew Helleson, Cam York, and Marshall Warren.
Our results show that while an argument for Helleson and York in the top 31 can be made, the same doesn’t hold true for Warren, whose production says more “B-level” than blue chip. We also uncovered Henry Thrun, the top producing USDP blue liner, who I haven’t yet seen in a single ranking. Via this metric, if any USDP blue liner deserves to go top 31, it’s Thrun, rather than bigger names like Helleson, York, and Warren.
Up front, we’ve identified Cole Caufield, another player who hasn’t cracked everyone’s top 31, as extremely underrated. I think that this also shows the five forwards that deserve to go first round: Hughes, Caufield, Boldy, Turcotte, and Zegras, while also demonstrating the 0.43 PPG gap between them and the next best player, John Beecher.
The USNDTP has an unusually strong group of draft-eligibles this year. In the next segment of this series, we’ll examine the WHL class, another uncharacteristically strong group, via the same method.