Want to draft the next Jake Guentzel?
When the October-born Guentzel was picked 77th in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft, not many would’ve predicted the smallish winger would become a 40-goal scorer.
Of course, the San Jose Sharks would love to unearth their own Guentzel — their last 40-goal scorer was Joe Pavelski with 41 in 2013-14.
Recent research suggests there are a couple ways that the Sharks can improve their chances at discovering their next late-round gem.
First, look for players with later birthdays. Next, look for a certain type of scouting profile.
Why the focus on birthdays?
I’m not the first person to say this, but NHL teams overdraft players born during the first quarter of the calendar year (January through March). Older players are overrepresented in draft selections despite the fact their younger counterparts tend to have longer careers and outproduce them once in the NHL.
“Born at the Wrong Time” from Robert O. Deaner, Aaron Lowen, and Stephen Cobley analyzes a number of cohorts of drafted skaters. In one sample of 1,436 skaters drafted after the 101th pick, they found:
- 37.7% of skaters were born in the first quarter
- 29.2% in the second quarter
- 21.2% in the third quarter
- 12% in the fourth quarter
That’s a lot of skaters concentrated in January through March.
That’s in stark contrast to which skaters are actually making the most impact.
To evaluate impact, we’ll use Evolving Hockey’s wins above replacement metric, as well as Patrick Bacon’s Pareto Principle version of assigning credit for NHL productivity. Essentially, Bacon found that about 19% of the league’s skaters are responsible for 80% of the wins above replacement (according to his own model) delivered in a given season.
By looking at the prime-age (23-27) performance of players since 2007, we can see which players drafted outside the second round became top-19% players. Of these skaters:
- 12.5% were born in the first quarter of the year
- 29.2% of players were born in each of the second, third, and fourth quarters
So it would appear that far too many first-quarter born players are drafted in later rounds relative to how many outperform their draft slot.
Byron Bader and Chace McCallum have also pointed out this phenomenon recently:
January-born forwards are by far the most likely to be drafted into the NHL. However, proportionally, they generate the 2nd fewest stars of any birth month. pic.twitter.com/asGm0TWrgx
— Byron Bader (@ByronMBader) July 8, 2021
The application for the San Jose Sharks is clear: Director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. and the rest of the front office brass should prioritize players born in April or later in the middle and late draft rounds.
(San Jose Hockey Now Note: I realize I’m comparing picks after the third round from the paper and picks after the second round in my sample size. The ratio of later-born impactful players remains very similar when excluding the third round.)
What Did NHL Teams Miss?
Next, let’s talk about the importance of scouting profiles when uncovering a late-round gem.
Some of the names on the list of under-drafted but highly-productive NHL’ers are eyebrow-raising. Brayden Point and Mark Stone need no introduction. Like Point, Guentzel, Jaccob Slavin, and Oliver Bjorkstrand have already cleared the Pareto Principle threshold for positive impact and are yet to play their age-27 seasons. Of that group, only Point was born in the first quarter of the calendar year.
So what was special about their scouting profiles?
Point seems like your classic passed-over-because-he-was-too-small star. Listed at 5-foot-9 during his draft year, he’s grown an inch but has remained slight. Hockey Reference has the center at 166 pounds. But his draft-year scouting reports tell us what’s right about Point:
- “Showing speed and excellent puck control”
- “Very intelligent and has an ability to make accurate instinctual reads in all three zones”
- “He makes smart passes and has impressive vision”
Scouts describe both Point’s intelligence and skill-set with superlatives. Combine those descriptions with his 1.26 point-per-game scoring rate in the WHL and you’ve got the makings of a prospect who never should’ve made it through 78 selections.
An April-born forward, Bjorkstrand scored nearly one point per game during his WHL draft season. One scouting report shows a similarly shifty, skilled, and undersized player:
- “Excellent” one-timer and release
- “Outstanding stickhandling”
- “An underrated playmaker with very good vision and passing skills”
- “No lack of intensity”
Guentzel has had the great pleasure of playing alongside either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin for his entire career. He was also born in October and scored 1.2 points per game during his USHL draft season. At this point, invoking his scouting reports will feel repetitive:
- McKeen’s: “Undersized playmaker is a skilled and intelligent forward” with “high IQ and terrific intuition.”
- Lines.com: “Diminutive centre who has a high hockey IQ and feel for the play” who has been an “offensive threat at each level, due to his tremendous laterally [sic] quickness, and edging.”
Late-round star forwards tend to be undersized, intelligent, and have at least one high-end or superior skill.
How about defensemen?
Scouting reports for blueliners also show similarities to one another. Jaccob Slavin, for example, was born in May (second quarter). He scored fairly well (0.5 points/game) his draft season in the USHL and was lauded for his mobility, among other things:
- McKeen’s: “a creative puckmover with good gap control” with “subtle, yet highly skilled hands.”
- Dobber Prospects: Slavin has “offensive skill” and “great vision.”
Colton Parayko didn’t score very well while playing junior hockey, even for a defenseman. He was, however, born in May and described by McKeen’s as:
- “Nimble on his feet”
- “Adept at altering lanes with his stickhandling”
- “Explosive startup burst and excellent diagonal crossover speed”
Victor Mete hasn’t yet turned 23. But his wins above replacement profile suggests he’s well on his way to being a top 19% player in his prime. The June-born blueliner scored 0.57 points/game his draft season in the OHL and has scouting reports full of praise, including:
- Lines.com: “Great poise, decisions, feet, skill-set, and offensive capabilities” and “is a terrific puck mover in the offensive zone and the power play. Excellent with his decisions with the puck on the PP. Might be THE best offense [sic] man in the class.”
- McKeen’s: “Undersized creative rearguard with an all-compass skating ability” and “excelling with puck control at the top of the offensive zone.”
The late-round defensemen that make it can skate like hell and make things happen on offense.
Who Could Be 2021 Draft Late-Round Gem?
So who should the San Jose Sharks be targeting late in the Draft?
Hockey analyst and contributor to the Athletic Detroit, Prashanth Iyer, found that Bob McKenzie’s final draft rankings accurately predict the actual draft order.
— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) June 22, 2020
Though it’s unclear if this relationship persists after pick 31 (now 32), we’ll use McKenzie’s mid-term rankings as an approximation for how the league values this draft class.
One player who stands out — so much so that he may be out of range come July 23 — is Olen Zellweger. The defenseman was born just five days shy of the 2022 draft cutoff date. He didn’t score much last year but paced above one point per game during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. Scouting reports ooze of the descriptions we’re looking for:
- Lines.com: “Diminutive highly mobile finesse offenseman” who is “a fast and confident stickhandler with good distribution skills” with excellent feet and good vision.
- Elite Prospects: “Mobility’s the biggest selling point, leveraging explosiveness to choke out attacks in the neutral zone, join the rush.”
- Future Considerations draft guide: “Mobile and explosive in all four directions,” “efficient at freezing opponents,” and an “adept puck distributor.”
- McKeen’s: “He thinks the game at a rapid pace and is unflappable in the teeth of a heavy forecheck.”
Is Zellweger the next Jared Spurgeon? Why not?
Ville Koivunen boasts a June birthday and a third-round grade from NHL scouts. At 6-foot-0, he doesn’t meet the undersized requirement for forwards, but he may just have enough else going for him to make up for it. Just six Finnish junior forwards in recent history have scored more than he did during their draft years. According to scouts, Koivunen:
- McKeen’s: “Highly intelligent player” with “superb offensive vision.” He “shows excellent puck manipulation.”
- Future Considerations draft guide: “Creative playmaker that has a nose for the open ice” and “shows great vision.”
- Lines.com: “Shifty and clever stickhandler,” who has “good vision, passing ability, and [is] excellent on the power play.”
Koivunen is big enough and high enough on amateur scouts’ lists that he may creep into the second round. Even if he falls, he’s the type of player whose tools allow him to excel at any level.
Jackson Blake is young. Born in August, it’s a wonder he was able to score like he did on a stacked Chicago Steel USHL team. The forward is slight at 5-foot-10 and 148 pounds and seems like just the type of player that the San Jose Sharks should covet in the back half of the draft. Scouting reports explain why this relatively young player has ascended to the levels he has:
- Future Considerations draft guide: “A highly-skilled and crafty playmaking winger” who “combines elite puck skills and a quick mind that processes the play well.”
- HockeyProspect.com: “Lacking size and strength but certainly skilled and smart.”
- Lines.com: “Crafty centre-right wing who is a playmaker with good, not elite speed, vision, and zone entry-aiding abilities” with a “high-end motor” and a strong hockey IQ.
It’s not a surprise January-born players get drafted in bunches while summer skaters toil in anonymity. Whether consciously or not, coaches tend to put older players who look and are more mature into more favorable situations. Take Blake’s high scoring rate given his ice time and creativity and run with them.
Ty Voit didn’t play in 2020-21, isn’t listed by Bob McKenzie’s scouts, and was born in June. He’s the ideal sleeper pick because every single scout is relying on old video of him playing. 2019-20’s scoring rate in the OHL wasn’t anything special — 0.57 points per game — but it was nothing to sneeze at, either. Scouting reports explain why teams shouldn’t be afraid to take a swing on him.
- Elite Prospects: “His game is full of creative, unexpected offensive patterns.”
- Lines.com: “Diminutive centre-forward who has four-direction quickness, good vision, and high playmaking skills.”
- Future Considerations draft guide: “The perfect tools to be highly effective through transition and an offensive catalyst whenever he’s on the ice” with “excellent creativity.”
Like the established NHL players before him, Voit is creative and possesses tools that are a cut above those of his peers.
Ryan Ufko is, of course, fairly short. At 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10, he meets the smaller-player-unfairly-passed-over criteria. He was born in May, scored fairly well in the USHL, and has some of the traits that successful late-round defender gems possess:
- Lines.com: “Excellent mobility who plays a very smart high paced game” who also “seems to be a few seconds ahead of the play with his read.”
- McKeen’s: Ufko has “plus ability to read defenses,” “helping [him] find sudden diagonal passing lanes that result in instant scoring chances.”
- Future Considerations draft guide: “He displays some great senses and is highly capable at shutting down the rush with an excellent gap, good contact, and a sharp pokecheck.”
- HockeyProspect.com’s Black Book: “He has shown to have a great ability to pass the puck and make strong, accurate moves, passes, and clears while in control of the play.”
Ufko’s scouting reports aren’t as exciting as those of the other players on this list. Still, in scout’s viewings, we see a player who skates like late-round gems do, understands the game well, and helps create for his teammates.
These aren’t the only players worth drafting after the first couple of rounds in the draft. But they exemplify the type of players that the San Jose Sharks should be looking for. Often undersized, young for their age group, scoring relatively well, and with elite skills and/or intelligence. This profile consistently gets overlooked yet goes on to produce well over its draft slot.
The goal of any Draft is to find the next Jake Guentzel or Jaccob Slavin. Identifying late birthdays and “exciting” prospect profiles may offer a blueprint for discovering future late-round gems.
Sheng’s Travel Fund
Help fund Sheng's travel! Every dollar goes to the cost of getting to and from Sharks road games.