Sunday, March 2, 2008

Making of the Top 20 list

It’s that time of year again, Hockey’s Future’s semi-annual re-ranking of the Top 20 prospects for each NHL team. The trade deadline has passed, and the rookies that have played all year like Enstrom have put in 65 games (HF's cutoff). The Thrashers rank and accompanying article will be out in a few days.

A few notes about it. The rank is based mostly on potential -- who will end up the best player. It’s not a depth chart, meaning who is the most likely to make the team next year. Some of the players are several years off.

Anyone who says they disagree with the list can count me in too. On any given day, I’d probably make a different list. Why? Because there are so many factors that go into potential -- skill level/upside, age, drive to succeed, injuries –- and they often compete with each other.

Some of these factors are more important than people think in determining future success, like age and drive. The younger the prospect, the more likely he is to make big improvements to his game. An older player is not likely to improve as much. A prospect who hasn’t made it by age 24 is very unlikely to, which is why players generally aren’t considered prospects by HF after the season of their 24th birthday.

The longer I have followed prospects, the more that the inner drive to succeed shows itself as the determining factor in whether a guy makes it to the NHL. Getting to know the player and how he's seen by coaches and teammates are instrumental here. At base level, a guy needs to demonstrate that he’s not a complete fruit loop. Not all meet even that hurdle, much less higher ones like being a true team player.

There are also some factors that people look at too much, like scoring at the junior level. Junior scoring only says that the player is able to rack up points against 16 to 20-year-olds. It says nothing about whether he has the talent it takes to make the NHL, because a lot of sins like poor skating and poor defense can be hidden in junior stats. The same goes for college stats and minor-league stats, though to a lesser degree since the players are more mature physically. Still, there are a lot of guys who can put up points in the AHL and not the NHL. You have to look at how they are scoring the points and if that style of game is going to transfer. Scoring at the junior level is a necessary but not sufficient indicator of success in the NHL.

Why do players from time to time take a plunge on the list? Typically it happens when issues of character are brought to my attention – the player isn’t a team guy, or maybe he doesn’t work hard in practice. It’s rare that someone with bad character makes the NHL, because it’s so incredibly difficult to get there and the weak at heart don’t make it.

This brings up the newest Thrashers prospect, Angelo Esposito. Since the Thrashers traded for him, I’ve heard virtually all negative things about him, including that the Penguins were actively shopping him. The fall he would have taken on the Pittsburgh list will now be reflected on the Thrashers one instead.

I started ordering the list about two months ago. I passed it around to some people who are familiar with the players and got feedback. That circle includes the full HF staff – writers who see the WHL, OHL, etc. And I keep my ear to the ground all year long for information that will help in putting the list together. I watch games on TV, and I go on road trips.

Do I ask the Thrashers how they rank the players? No, and I wouldn’t use a list they gave me if offered. There is no incentive for a team to reveal their hand about their true assessment of their players. They would want to keep the hype of unsigned players down so as not to raise their asking price. And they can hype up those who they want to move. Jimmy Sharrow was high on the Hockey News ranking (who do ask teams for lists), long after he could have credibly been thought by the team to have such potential. And then he was traded last summer. Coincidence?

A meaningful list is an independent list. This is an independent ranking based on input from many directions.

Now, I need to get back to writing the accompanying article.


Anonymous said...

When do you expect to have the "Publishing of the Top 20 list"?

Holly Gunning said...

Tonight. I have the info jotted down under each guy that I plan to include, just a matter of smoothing it out and checking a few facts at this point.