A few months ago a great divide opened up in the Defending Big D comment sections, sparking many fierce battles.
Two clear, self-defined sides emerged: #TeamTank and #TeamPlayoffs.
With the Stars struggling mightily at the time and on the outside of the playoff picture, debates raged about how the Stars should go about their business for the remainder of the year. Should they tank, trading away veteran assets to increase their chances of drafting elite young prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, or should they try to weather the storm and forge ahead to the playoffs?
It was an entirely understandable issue to want to address, and despite differing opinions on what course of action to take, everyone on both sides agreed about one crucial thing: finishing 9th or 10th in a conference really, really sucks. With no playoffs and no high draft pick there's little to celebrate, and it's a situation that the Stars have been in a lot over the last few years.
Now, with 54 games played but no trades to speak of, it's clear that the Stars chose to stay on their current path and pursue a playoff spot.
It's a dangerous game, however. The Stars currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, three points behind the 8th place Vancouver Canucks and with two very good teams also standing in their way. Playoffs are still a possibility, but it's a long, arduous uphill climb ahead.
This is exactly what we all didn't want to happen, right? With no high draft pick and a strong possibility that Dallas misses the playoffs, is another disastrous, less-than-ideal end to the season coming up?
Well, not necessarily.
Despite how the situation seems right now, things are actually a lot better once you take a closer look, especially when it comes to the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Let's take some time here to unpack things and see what we can find.
The Importance Of Draft Ranking "Tiers"
This isn't exactly a common idea that gets explored by scouts and those in the hockey media that closely follow the draft, but it's one that does get tossed around a bit and is one that I've personally been taking into high consideration when it comes to researching and writing about NHL entry drafts.
It's a pretty simple concept: beyond just simply ranking players by number and by round, you also rank them by "tier." This adds a helpful extra layer of analysis when it comes to researching the draft.
It's not difficult to see why this is important. There's obviously a difference between a player drafted 1st overall and one drafted 30th overall, even though both are "1st round draft picks." But how close are players in between? Is the 7th overall pick in a particular draft just as good as the 6th overall pick? Is there a huge drop-off from the guy taken 13th to the player selected 14th? It can fluctuate quite a lot from year to year.
To help illustrate this idea, let's look at the 2013 and 2014 Entry Drafts. The argument could be made that the highest tier in the 2013 draft consisted of nine players (Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Darnell Nurse, Rasmus Ristolianen, and Valeri Nichushkin), while the highest tier in the 2014 draft consisted of only six players (Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl, Sam Bennett, Michael Dal Colle and William Nylander).
Now, this is obviously a subjective thought exercise, but you start to see where the idea is coming from. Even though Nichushkin and Nick Ritchie were both drafted 10th overall in their respective years, there's no question that Nichushkin is a higher "tier" of prospect than Ritchie is. You could also make the same argument about the 7th overall picks, Nurse over Haydn Fleury, as well as others throughout the 1st rounds.
The Tiers Of The 2015 Draft
Now, how does this relate specifically to the Stars and the upcoming 2015 NHL Entry Draft?
If Dallas happens to miss the playoffs this year they'll have incredibly low odds of winning the draft lottery, but they won't necessarily be in a bad position when it comes to the draft. In fact, they will very likely fall within the boundaries of the second tier and still be in a position to draft a great prospect.
The following two tables illustrate the top two tiers of this year's draft. These placements are my own opinion, but are heavily influenced by various rankings from around the league, including (but not limited to) NHL Central Scouting, International Scouting Services, and TSN.
According to the general consensus among scouts, these twelve players seem to be the best of the best for this year's draft class.
McDavid and Eichel are the two standouts from this class, as everyone and their grandmother knows by this point, but there are four other outstanding prospects behind them with Hanifin, Marner, Strome and Werenski. Any team that drafts these four players will be adding a surefire future impact player to their NHL organizations.
The general consensus for players in the second tier seems to be that they are a step below those in the first tier, but are nonetheless still impressive. These six players are all very highly regarded and are considered to have very high NHL potential. Each one has been regularly ranked anywhere as high as 6th or 7th and as low as 11th or 12th, depending on where you look. Some of these players (notably Crouse) even get occasionally ranked in the top five in some places, so the divide between the two tiers might not be so big.
What about the third tier? Players like Nick Merkley, Kyle Connor, and Travis Konecny, for example, are all good prospects as well, but have a few more question marks about their game that keep them a little lower.
What Does This All Mean For The Stars?
Right now Dallas is sitting 20th in the league.
Looking at that standing from a draft perspective, they would likely have the 11th overall pick. When you consider the 11th pick in the context of the aforementioned tier system it doesn't look bad whatsoever.
Let's say, hypothetically, that Oliver Kylington gets selected 7th overall and that the Stars take Ivan Provorov 11th overall. Is there a huge drop in talent between the two players? Not really, according to the scouts, even though it seems like there would be a big drop because they are separated by five draft spots. The Stars would still be getting what could be considered a Top 10 talent.
Now, there's a tricky bit of wiggle room here. What if the Stars finish 13th or 14th, just outside the top tier? If that happens you have to hope that one of the second tier players falls down the draft board a little, or that a player like Merkley or Konecny turns out to be better than expected. But, that's a what-if bridge that the Stars don't need to cross just yet.
There's still a good chunk of hockey left in the season, so there's a good chance that the Stars could move a spot or two up or down the overall league standings. The playoffs are still the clear goal for the team, but even if things don't end up that way Stars fans will still be able to take some solace knowing that they'll probably still be able to get a very good player in the draft.