A young analytics expert once told me that if NHL teams simply drafted players in order of where they finished in scoring in the Canadian Hockey League, they would have an infinitely better record of success than the hundreds of scouts who comb arenas around the world looking for talent.
I’ve never put the theory to the test, but when you look at what Alex DeBrincat has accomplished at the NHL level in just a little over a season, it’s one that at least has an enormous amount of merit in this case. At the very least, you have to wonder what all the scouts were looking at when they allowed 38 picks to go by before the Chicago Blackhawks took him in 2016.
Only five players from that draft – Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk and Clayton Keller – have scored more points in the NHL than DeBrincat has and all of them have played more games. He averaged a goal per game through his first seven games this season, which puts him in a tie for third in that category. And this comes after an impressive rookie season in which he scored 28 goals and 52 points to finish sixth among first-year players in points and third in goals. His 11 points in eight games puts him first in that group this season.
The thing that makes all of this so perplexing is that not only did DeBrincat score 51 goals and 101 points in his draft year, the NHL had already established itself as a league where small, skilled players could excel. There were concerns about DeBrincat’s skating, but clearly where he was underestimated was in the department of Hockey IQ. This kid’s on-ice intelligence is off the charts. But NHL scouts weren’t the only ones who got it wrong, since DeBrincat wasn’t even drafted in the Ontario League and signed with the Erie Otters as a free agent.
As far as draft-eligible players for that 2016 draft, only two had more points in the CHL than DeBrincat that season. Tkachuk had 107 points before going fourth overall to Calgary, while Vitaly Abramov (65th to Columbus) had 106.
THE PLOT THICKENS
So when the Toronto Maple Leafs averaged almost five goals a game through their first seven games, apparently William Nylander was getting terrible advice and was losing more leverage by the day. Now that the juggernaut Leafs have scored just one goal in their past two games, suddenly the Leafs need Nylander more than he needs them.
My guess is the Leafs didn’t view the Nylander situation any different when they filled the net with 33 goals through their first seven than they do now that they’re having trouble finding the back of it. What we have here is an old-fashioned stare-down by two sides that are patient and have perspective. It’s abundantly clear Nylander was not going to be swayed by watching the Leafs have so much success without him. It’s also equally clear the Leafs are not going to be rushed into a panic signing because they’ve gone a little dry over the past couple of games.
There is still about five weeks before this situation reaches a breaking point. That’s an eternity in contract negotiations. As one rival GM said the Leafs are not just negotiating with Nylander here. They’re also setting the table for the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner negotiations. I would beg to differ. The key player in this is Marner. Matthews is going to want north of the $11 million annual average salary the Leafs gave John Tavares this summer and he’s going to get it. Marner is currently behind only Matthews among Maple Leaf forwards in points per game. If he stays healthy and keeps up this pace, he’ll have at least 100 points this season. If the Leafs were to give Nylander $8 million a season, what would that make Marner worth?
This situation is going to play itself out regardless of all the white noise that surrounds it. Nylander will either have to reduce his asking price and accept a bridge deal or the Leafs will have to accept they’ll have to live without him, either this season because he’ll have sat out the season or permanently because they will have traded him.
IN PRAISE OF CHARLES WANG
There was undoubtedly more bad than good in Charles Wang’s tenure as owner of the New York Islanders. During the time he was majority owner of the team, the Islanders missed the playoffs as often as they qualified for them and won only one playoff round. He hired the team’s former goaltender as its GM after clashing with Neil Smith and remained steadfastly loyal to Garth Snow while the once-proud franchise foundered. He also admitted during his ownership that if he had a do-over, he likely wouldn’t buy the franchise again.
But the fact of the matter is there’s a very good chance the Islanders don’t exist and don’t have a bright future with a new home at Belmont Park without Wang’s efforts. Not only did he buy the team and save it from years of neglect and financial peril, for the better part of a decade, Wang fought for a new home for the Islanders and incurred losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars while his team played in an outdated building. When given the chance to minimize those losses, he moved the team to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a move that stung at the time, but kept the team in the area until a better solution could be reached. The Islanders will probably play all their home games at the refurbished Nassau County Coliseum as early as next season while they wait for their new arena to be ready in 2021. Wang’s attempts to establish a $3.8 billion development called the Lighthouse Project and to borrow taxpayer money to renovate the Coliseum fell flat, but in a number of ways created the path to the Islanders new home.
Wang died of cancer at the age of 74 on Sunday. For a guy who had watched only one hockey game before buying the team, he made an indelible mark on both the Islanders and the NHL.