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Draft: is a quality fullback ALWAYS worth more than a winger?
Credit: Capture d'écran / Screenshot
Someone must have put a curse on Juraj Slafkovsky!

After having to endure one of the most unfortunate sports articles of the past year in the Journal de Québec, where Jean-Nicolas Blanchet established that he was one of the four worst first-round picks of the last 50 years AFTER 50 career games (!!! ) , here it is: according to 6 (!!!) NHL scouts and executives surveyed by Corey Pronman, Slaf is THE WORST first-round pick of the last ten years.

Everyone’s been talking about it ever since: Max Truman, Mathias Brunet and JiC Lajoie.

An astonishing statement!

Let’s talk about Mathias Brunet’s idea, which startled me in his piece on Pronman.

Admitting himself between the lines that there would be room for debate in this famous ranking, we still understand that Brunet would always rank Owen Power ahead of Slafkovsky.

Brunet’s justification is that ” the quality fullback will always be worth more than the winger.”

Although he uses the word “always” here, I don’t know if Brunet himself would dare erect this as a great universal principle… or trade Slaf for Power. You’d have to ask him!

After all, he was part of the minority (ofwhich I was also a member) that ranked winger Slafkovsky first in its cohort several weeks before the aforementioned 2022 draft.

That said, while he clearly wouldn’t have picked Simon Nemec or David Jiricek ahead of Slafkovsky in 2022, and no one is going to confuse Owen Power with either of the latter two, his “rule of thumb” of the superior value of “quality backs” applies very poorly in many cases.

We joke a bit, but ask Philadelphia Flyers fans the following question: Cam York or Cole Caufield?

Then, at #13 in 2020, do you think the Hurricanes hesitated long and hard between Seth Jarvis and, say, Kaiden Guhle (#16), whom I ranked respectively at #8 and #12 in our in-house mock-draft that year?

Also in 2020, Jake Sanderson (5th) and Jamie Drysdale (6th) were seen as super-safe, high-quality defensemen. Should the Kings and Wings have drafted them instead of Quinton Byfield (2nd and developing more as a winger) and Lucas Raymond (4th)?

Would this have been the rule the Canucks sadly applied in 2016 when they selected the very consensual “quality back” Olli Juolevi at #5 just ahead of Matthew Tkachuk (#6)?

To do over, in the name of the rule, Mikko Rantanen (10th) or Ivan Provorov (7th) with the Flyers in 2015?

Two final examples with more vintage Slafkovsky “comparables”: Jason Ward Eric Brewer (5th), Paul Mara (7th), Nick Boyton (9th), Brad Ference (10th) before Marian Hossa in 1997?

And, why not, Daryl Sydor (7th) before Jaromir Jagr (5th) in 1990!

A rule too narrow: the examples of Reinbacher and Slafkovsky

I’m not sure whether Brunet’s rule of thumb was influenced by the upcoming “deep defensive” draft or by the Habs’ decision to select David Reinbacher in place of Michkov, Leonard and Benson last year.

But even in the Reinbacher case, I don’t think the Habs simply said to themselves “the quality back is always worth more than the winger”.

Instead, they seem to have based themselves on a much broader guideline, namely the optimal search for the “best player available according to organizational needs “.

This would mean targeting the optimal player by combining these two axes: the player’s talent/package AND organizational needs/team vision.

With the exception of generational players and impossible-to-miss super-stars, there would be no strict “absolute best player available” rule.

This idea of drafting the “absolute best” is pure myth anyway, as explained here. Plato’s world of pure and absolute ideas doesn’t exist! It’s a pure abstraction!

After the real superstars , who would make your grandmother’s knitting eyes pop despite her cataracts, who’s THE best between excellent “player x” and excellent “player y”?

In a pinch, maybe a scout can believe in and defend the idea of the best player in the absolute. But management’s final decisions are generally made within a specific context and a more global vision, as Ken Hughes testified again this week (listen from 1:10):

So, by 2023, the Habs were probably thinking something more along the lines of “Reinbacher is the best right-handed defenseman available and his package (including personality, intelligence, work ethic, etc.) fits our medium- to long-term vision and needs much better than any of the other 5th-tier options.”

Assuming, just for fun and to keep it simple, that we value talent/package 60% and the club’s vision and organizational needs 40%, a decision like last year’s could translate roughly like this for Excel spreadsheet enthusiasts!

Maybe they’ll be wrong, maybe Michkov will become a pleasant “little Mozart” to be around, but for them, according to their parameters, the “best” was Reinbacher. Both in terms of talent/package and needs. And they said so explicitly.

Last year, taking into account the Montreal market, the size of their forwards, the lack of talent on the wing and Slafkovsky’s unique package, they felt it was better to go with a power forward dripping with confidence a la Matthew Tkachuk and Co. than with a slightly improved copy of Adam Larsson (Simon Nemec).

So there’s no fixed rule about which position is more important than another, and no absolute best player rule. We look for the optimal solution for the organization, and that seems to be the philosophy of most NHL teams. That’s also how mock drafts are often drawn up: by putting ourselves in the context of the different managers.

Sometimes the optimal choice is the winger, sometimes it’s the defenseman, other times it’s the center; it all depends on the talent available AND what we’re looking for!


And since you can’t have one without the other…

Another myth to repudiate that always follows on from the other and that we never stop hearing everywhere: “Fish for the best, no matter the position, we’ll make up for our shortcomings later by exchanging our surplus!”

Well, sometimes it works just fine.

But, as Kent Hughes recently pointed out in his review, you never know who will be available and whether you’ll get exactly what the other club is looking for. Not to mention that, more often than not, if a player is available, it’s because he’s far from perfect!

Situations like that of the Hawks, willing to let go a 21-year-old center like Kirby Dach to be sure of solid tanking, or that of Cutter Gauthier, who put the Flyers in a tricky situation that the Ducks took advantage of, don’t happen very often.

By the way, the Ducks’ surplus on the right side of defense couldn’t have been that big: they’d already be looking for a right-handed defenseman!

In short, if we ignore these exceptions, telling ourselves that we’ll solve our problems later through trades, we often end up more or less robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is not optimal.

The ideal situation is to arrive at a point where you have no obvious organizational needs, and to provide as much as possible for your own needs by drafting intelligently, being far-sighted and perceptive, or by giving up surplus draft picks to acquire safer values (Newhook).

In other words, ideally, you need to add resources without giving them away.

This puts you in a position of real strength. We build. You don’t just change the scenery by making it a little better.

At the time of writing, considering the “post-Reinbacher” context and the fact that there’s no “Makar” in sight next June, if the Habs want to build intelligently with their 5th or 6th pick, the optimal option is more likely to be a forward.

The U18 tournament is just around the corner, giving us a chance to compare Iginla, Eiserman and Connelly, all of whom are likely to be available when the Tricolore takes the floor…

We’ll be back in time!

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