As a fantasy hockey GM, the easy thing to do when evaluating prospects is take your cue from NHL teams. They spend a lot of time and money scouting players, so one can safely assume that the higher a player was drafted, the better he is, right? Wrong.
That's why if I had a choice between John Carlson and Alex Pietrangelo, I wouldn't rush to pick Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo was drafted fourth in 2008 and Carlson didn't get picked until 27th. Case closed for some judges of fantasy talent.
But let's look a little deeper. As talented a prospect as Pietrangelo is, I'd rather have Carlson. But on the day the two were drafted, I thought the Blues made an excellent pick.
The harsh reality of the NHL draft is that teams have to evaluate players – for the most part – at 17 years of age when they are not done developing. Major junior players often make their biggest strides in development as 18 year olds. The players who become the best NHLers continue developing early into their 20s until they reach their peak in the 24-to-32 year-old range. Those are the prime years and being able to accurately project what a player will do in that range is what makes drafting teenagers so difficult.
No one can claim to be an expert on evaluating prospects because you're dealing with human beings. There are a lot of variables. Even with the access to scouting reports and face-to-face interviews, there is stuff about a player that can escape the notice of an NHL team.
At best, projecting how a prospect will develop is a mystery in which you try to notice patterns and uncover clues.
But one area that NHL teams have more control over is development. The NHL team makes important decisions about what league the player will play and if they'll be released for international tournaments. Except in rare circumstances, drafting a player is like a carpenter cutting down a tree in the forest. A lot of time and effort goes into making a nice, useful piece of furniture. But if you don't do it properly, or with the proper amount of patience, you'll end up with one ugly footstool.
Developing players after they are picked is where the drafting game is won or lost. Some can step into the NHL right away and be productive, but those players are rare. Usually, they are supremely talented or physically mature players that can already compete with NHLers.
Take a look at the two defencemen taken right before Pietrangelo: Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian. Both were excellent picks and are already enjoying success in the NHL as sophomores. Pietrangelo, meanwhile is adrift in the Sargasso Sea of prospects because he is often a healthy scratch and isn't getting enough playing time to develop properly. The Sargasso Sea is an area in the Atlantic Ocean where the winds are mild and the currents are weak. It's full of seaweed, too. In olden days, sailing ships tended to avoid going there. Needless to say, NHL teams should avoid letting their prospects go there.
When Doughty and Bogosian made the NHL, I wasn't too surprised. Both were physically ready for the NHL. Doughty, being a late birthday, was a year older than the other two, and Bogosian is as strong as an ox.
Despite their early arrival, I still thought Pietrangelo had more offensive upside, but I'm beginning to worry. As a tall, lanky player, Pietrangelo, needed more time developed physically before playing in the NHL. His upside could be greater because he's still getting stronger, faster – as well as getting smarter — as he gains playing experience.
Pietrangelo is ranked No. 7 on Dobber's Top 30 defence prospects, behind Carlson who is No. 3 and behind another 2008 draftee, Michael Del Zotto. That's not because the Blues didn't make a good pick. It's because they're not handling Pietrangelo properly and they're cutting into what a prospect needs most to develop – playing time. He played only 45 games last year, and even though he missed six games to a head injury, he should have played more. A full season in junior, instead of half, would have been better.
Carlson benefited from being a USHL grad and graduated from the USHL to the OHL and can play in the AHL this season. The Blues have had only two choices for Pietrangelo – NHL or OHL – but other teams have successfully dealt with that limitation. The way to do it, if the player is not ready, is let them return to junior even if they've already reached a high level of performance there. Four years in the OHL doesn't appear to be hurting John Tavares too much this year.
This year, the lack of playing time for Pietrangelo is reaching silly proportions. In the Blues first 33 games, Pietrangelo has been a healthy scratch 24 times. He has played one game for them since Nov. 8. Fortunately for him, the Blues have released him for the world junior tournament where he will suit up for Canada. Given his lack of playing time so far this season, it will be tough for Pietrangelo to play as well as his talent should dictate. Hopefully, he'll improve on his performance from last year.
I wouldn't give up on Pietrangelo yet. When you think of the opportunity he will get with a talented young team like St. Louis, he'd be on my wish list. The Blues have Erik Johnson and Carlo Colaiacovo on the blueline at the NHL level and have taken to playing Alex Steen at the point. In the AHL, only Jonas Junlund provides competition. If Pietrangelo reaches his potential, he'll play on the top unit with Johnson for years.
In the 2009 DobberHockey Fantasy Prospects Guide, Pietrangelo's upside is listed as 65 points with a 45 per cent chance of hitting it. I'd say that the upside is still realistic, but the chances of him reaching it have dipped a bit and the wait for him to get there will be a year or two longer. I can't see Pietrangelo making much of an impact at the NHL in 2010-11. He should be in the AHL playing his game. Expect him in 2011-12, with modest contributions for the first couple of years.