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Meltzer: Consensus isn't always right

A more in-depth look at how internal draft rankings differ from team to team

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Even among the very best in the pro hockey business, scouting teenage prospects is an inexact science. While there are rare can't miss "generational" players that come along once in a blue moon in the NHL Draft - such as Mario Lemieux in 1984, Eric Lindros in 1991, Sidney Crosby in 2005 or Connor McDavid in 2015 - there are much more often certain leaps of faith to be taken.  

For example, Player A may be higher rated by some scouts because he is more physically mature than Player B at age 18 and is more dominant in junior, collegiate or European hockey. As such, Player A may be closer to being projected as a pro than the second. Five or six years down the line, however, Player B's overall game may have significantly surpassed Player A and they may now even be comparable in size and strength.

Additionally, no matter how astute and widely respected a panel of scouts or an individual hockey person may be in their influence in the creation of widely available and highly publicized ratings - including the NHL's Central Scouting bureau, The Hockey News or former NHL general manager Craig Button's "Craig's List" - each NHL team internally does its own rankings. No two lists are identical and, in fact, there is often wide variance even near the top.

In the case of the 2017 NHL Draft, there is widespread pundit consensus on who to the top two picks should be (Brandon Wheat Kings center Nolan Patrick and Halifax Mooseheads center Nico Hischier). Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, speaking to the media on Friday about his own drafting philosophy and stressing that he was not hinting anything as to whom the Flyers will take with the second overall pick of the Draft or completely ruling out the possibility of trading down a bit, said that the organization will continue to rely solely on its own internal rankings and not on outside rankings. 

"Look at past drafts. Ever see the re-drafts, like five years later?" Hextall asked rhetorically.  

"You [sometimes] got a guy that was maybe 20th that should've gone second. You got to be really careful going by public opinion. You have to pick what you think is the best player even though it might not be popular at the time. I'm not hinting at anything there. I'm just hinting saying that if you feel strongly about a player being rated better, maybe he's fifth and he should be rated third… you feel better about taking him, then take him."

For example, back in 1991, The Hockey News and other public opinion-shaping outlets ranked Swedish prospect Peter Forsberg in the range of a low first-round pick. THN ranked Forsberg 25th overall, one spot behind Mike Pomichter. The publication described Forsberg as a solid second rounder who could sneak into the first round." A quoted NHL scout said, 

"I'd compare him to Tomas Steen in terms of style, though I don't think he'll be as good as Steen."

The Flyers felt differently, taking Forsberg with the sixth overall pick; far ahead of any of his published rankings. The knee-jerk response to the pick was that the Flyers had "gone off the board". Instead, the player turned out to have a Hall of Fame career with the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche, Flyers and Nashville Predators.

In 1998, the Flyers had Quebec League forward (then a center but a future left wing in the NHL) Simon Gagne ranked in their pre-Draft top six. As it turned out, Gagne was still on the board when the Flyers' turn came up with the 22nd overall. In 2006, the Flyers were able to pounce on Claude Giroux (then a right winger, later a center).

If teams had historical re-dos on the Draft, each and every Draft would turn out quite differently. Raymond Bourque would have been taken ahead of first overall pick Rob Ramage in 1979, for example, or Jaromir Jagr (fifth overall in 1990) would have gone ahead of countryman Petr Nedved (second overall, and enjoying a solid career in his own right).

While no scouting department is infallible, the reason they work all season on developing their own rankings is because neither pre-Draft statistics alone nor others' ratings are necessarily reliable in the long-term. At its root, NHL Draft preparations are closer to a doing a long-term projection what a re-Draft might look like someday and then hoping that players develop in the long term and stay healthy.

Hextall also noted on Friday that making strategic adjustments on the fly is just as necessary during the Draft and during a hockey game. 

"You have to see how the picks fall," Hextall said. "Going in, there's no way to know."

For example, in 2015, the Flyers moved up in the first round when they saw an opportunity to select gifted Ontario Hockey League forward Travis Konecny. 

Last year, as the first round unfolded, the Flyers sensed an opportunity to move back a few spots and still being able to select their internally ranked best available player, Russian forward German Rubtsov, while picking an extra asset (the 2016 second-round pick used on the selection of Quebec League forward Pascal Laberge).

A consensus among the polls of who could and should go where was just one of Hextall's point in Friday's annual pre-draft press conference. For the other list of topics discussed, see Top Takeaways by clicking here

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