2019 NHL Entry Draft Prospect Profile: Raphael Lavoie

Raphael Lavoie is the perennial “big kid with size and skill” because GMs will always try to recreate the next Eric Lindros. He’s not. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t talented.

Name: Raphael Lavoie

Team: Halifax Mooseheads  (QMJHL)

Position: Center/Right Wing

Stats: 62 games played, 32 goals, 41 assists, 73 points, 31 PIMs, +36 plus/minus rating

NHL Central Scouting ranking: 20th (North American Skaters)

Comparable NHL player: Anders Lee

The more I delve into draft analysis, the harder it becomes, and the more I begin to sympathize with the “bad” picks. It doesn’t mean I’d pass on having a Mathew Barzal, if given the chance. It just means it’s easy to see why a team like Boston, who also passed on Barzal — three times no less — would also be the team who swiped David Pastrnak in 2014. That was the same year they picked up Ryan Donato, who turned into a crucial piece in their bid to pry Charlie Coyle from Minnesota at the 2018-19 trade deadline, and Danton Heinen in the fourth round: a 23-year-old winger who scored 47 points his rookie year. (A year later they also took the draft’s best defenseman despite picking 14th).

The team that didn’t pass on Mathew Barzal? The New York Islanders, the same Islanders who took Michael Dal Colle over names like William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dylan Larkin, and Pastrnak the year before. This isn’t to make excuses for teams that make poor picks. It’s to emphasize that hindsight, unlike drafting, is an exact science. And that’s what brings us to the hulking 6-foot-4 winger, Raphael Lavoie.

Ever seen him? Watch this coast-to-coast sorcery:

Or this stick-handling wizardry:

Or this cycle-alone thaumaturgy.

When Halifax entered the playoff picture this season, Lavoie scored 32 points in 23 playoff games to add to his resume of accolades. He had five goals in five games at the World Juniors, and three points in four games at the Memorial Cup. No wonder his head coach considers him one of the best prospects he’s ever coached.

Let’s talk about his skills. He’ll never beat Roope Hintz in a foot race, but he’s agile. He’s able to smoothly change pace during the play with a strong first step, and confident pivots — allowing him to avoid choppy stop-and-start movements in the defensive and offensive zones. His shot can threaten from multiple areas. Not only does he have a quick release, but he snaps it hard, creating rebounds to give his team second-chance opportunities. His ability to protect the puck in the corners makes him an absolute thoroughbred on the cycle, and Lavoie is always looking to take that extra stride to threaten from high danger areas.

Lavoie also got valuable experience on the penalty kill for the Mooseheads. Despite playing wing, he’s very good at tracking the puck. This is likely from his experience as a center. Wingers play inherently less defense. They’re key cogs in the counterpunch machine, existing to hound the puck for clear and present danger rather than future setups and transitions. But Lavoie does a great job of making proper defensive reads. He doesn’t always wait for the puck to pop back to him, instead actively looking to poke check and pressure in all three zones which can prevent positional cluttering, and make zone entries easier.

“So we’re talking about a 6-foot-4, 200-pound winger who can play more than one position, and provides a two-way element with a toolbox of near-elite skills? He sounds perfect!

Not so fast.

Every year, there’s always some big, bodied forward who gets extra marks for size and strength. Which is fine. If you can be skilled, that’s great. If you can be skilled and big, that’s even better. But there’s a circular logic to this scouting trope that’s never sat well with me: if size is an asset against smaller peers, then why isn’t the size advantage manifested in proportion to production? Shouldn’t we see extra production to go along with extra size?

This might seem like nothing more than a philosophical delay-of-game on my part, except that Lavoie’s production was nothing special. He was 25th in QMJHL scoring. That was only a slight improvement from last season, where he ranked 34th in the QMJHL. He was also 10 days shy of being eligible for the 2018 draft, meaning this is his third year in junior hockey. If we turned the clock back to when Dallas took Ty Dellandrea, how many fans would have preferred a forward who wasn’t even a PPG player in the Q (where there’s always at least 30 of them)?

That’s the rub for scouts. It’s not just a numbers issue. It’s an on-ice issue too. Lavoie is a  strict north-south forward. He approaches the play head-on. While scouts and talking heads love to boast about a player’s ability to go “hard into the corners,” the rest of the ice is no less important. That’s where Lavoie struggles. He’s willing to take low-danger shots when superior options exist. While he’s great in his own lane, he does very little to improve the other lanes. He doesn’t open up offense for teammates at the point, through the neutral zone as the play transitions, or within the offensive zone at the opposing wing. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in his tracking data.

Consistency is a loaded term. And that’s where making the right pick becomes murky. Lavoie has not been consistent throughout his career. His skills jump out at you, but his production does not. Is that because he’s not applying his skill consistently, or because he is, and who he is leads to inconsistent results? We think of potential as linear, and having inevitability, but that’s just an illusion. The idea that physical traits are not adaptable, but mental traits are is a raw heuristic as opposed to a meaningful distinction about how talents evolve. Strengths follow players through their evolution just as much as their flaws. The best prospects don’t round their games out so much as learn to consistently apply their talents more than their limitations within the thresher of NHL competition.

That’s the dilemma for scouts — who believe his effort is not always there — looking at Lavoie. A player’s development path won’t always follow the same pattern, but there is a pattern. In the same way veterans tend to decline the older they get, prospects tend to improve the younger they are. Is Lavoie the outlier? He has scored 52 goals in his last 85 games. His underlying shot data is whispering all the right things. If he is, he’s making a solid case.