Sitting in the Vancouver airport, it feels very bittersweet to reflect on this past weekend.
I’m absolutely exhausted, as a couple of months of intense draft writing reached a crescendo on the weekend of the event itself, with three final days chock full of interviews, behind-the-scenes conversations, thousands of words of writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent staring at my phone and laptop.
It also feels a little surreal, spending the year preparing for the draft, only to have it all go by in a blurry rush over the span of 48 hours. Heck, some of these prospects I’ve been watching and scouting for well more than a year.
It’s always a challenge to analyze anything draft-related in the immediate aftermath, primarily because it’s impossible to really, truly know how teams did until 5-10 years down the road.
That being said, though, I do have plenty of instant thoughts and opinions, and have taken the time to write out a few about the Dallas Stars and how this weekend went for them. For more specific details about the picks that the Stars made, please feel free to check out my articles from Friday and Saturday.
Thomas Harley instantly becomes the Stars’ top prospect
With all due respect to both Denis Gurianov and Ty Dellandrea, I think that Thomas Harley instantly jumps right to the top spot in the Stars’ prospect pool.
That might sound a bit odd, given that Harley was chosen 18th overall while Gurianov and Dellandrea were 12th and 13th, respectively, in their draft years. However, the 2019 class was a top-heavy one, and when I try to project just how good all three of these players will be when they’re fully developed, Harley comes out on top.
He’s no Miro Heiskanen (and, if you ask me, no defensemen in this year’s draft class are on Heiskanen’s level), but Harley is most likely also going to be an integral, difference-making member of the Stars’ blueline one day.
Dallas punts on filling some prospect needs
As I wrote on both Friday and Saturday, the Stars went for who they believe were the best players available with the four picks that they had.
On one hand, this is a very good thing. As Jim Nill has said multiple times in the past, the Stars aim to come out of every draft with at least three prospects who turn into NHL talent. With only four total picks to work with this year, there’s certainly a rational argument to be made for going for who you believe to be the best players available, regardless of position or playing style.
On the flip side, however, sooner or later you have to address specific needs. Having too much of one thing and not enough of another is not a recipe for success in the NHL, at least historically speaking. You’d be hard-pressed to find many (if any) NHL teams who have won the Stanley Cup with glaring weaknesses.
A few weeks ago, in my Dallas Stars draft preview, I wrote about a few areas of need in the team’s prospect pool, most notably finesse forwards and right-shot defensemen.
What did Dallas come away with from this year’s draft? Three left-shot defensemen and yet another power forward.
Now, it’s not like the Stars are completely, utterly barren in those areas of weakness. For finesse forwards, Ty Dellandrea is very underrated in his playmaking ability, while Riley Damiani and Jacob Peterson both took big steps forward in 2018-19. For right-shot defensemen, Joe Cecconi is a steady presence on the back end, while Jakob Stenqvist is one of the most under-the-radar prospects in the system.
Still, though, there are question marks about the Stars’ future. Who will replace Tyler Seguin one day as the team’s number one center? Who will replace John Klingberg as a top-pair defenseman who shoots right-handed? The existing options aren’t exactly locks.
These are questions that weren’t really answered this past weekend, but will have to be one day, whether through the draft or through a trade. And in an NHL with a tight salary cap, such as the one we’re going to see in 2018-19, filling a need through the draft is still a more reliable method than filling a need through trade.
Be open-minded about players you haven’t seen before
I watched a lot of junior hockey this season.
And when I say a lot, I mean a lot.
Beyond many chilly trips to the Saddledome in my home city of Calgary to watch WHL hockey, I tried my best to keep tabs on as many prospects as possibly by watching games on TV and online that took place all over the world. Whether it was junior games in North America and Europe, or international tournaments ranging from the Hlinka Gretzky Cup to the World Junior A Challenge to the IIHF U18s, I watched more hours of hockey than I can count.
And yet, despite all this, I knew heading into the draft that I missed guys.
Lots of them.
After all, I have a day job and a family life, and nowhere near enough money to make trips to far-flung locales such as Södertälje or Turku to watch teenagers slap a puck around.
So, despite my best efforts, I knew that there were going to be many, many prospects who got picked in this draft who I’d never heard of before, let alone watched enough of to form strong opinions on.
When the picks started getting announced in rapid succession on Day 2 of the draft I sat and watched the big board filling up in front of me, waiting for the first name to pop up that was completely unknown to me.
That came in the 4th round, 104th overall, when the Columbus Blue Jackets selected a prospect named Eric Hjorth. Considering he played a grant total of 10 games this past season, nine of which came in the lower levels of Swedish junior hockey, I wasn’t surprised that I’d never heard of him.
One of the golden rules of the scouting community is to be truthful in your assessments and your opinions. If you’ve never watched a guy play, you need to be honest and upfront about that.
Applying that golden rule to the picks that the Stars made this year, I’m two-for-four. I watched enough of Harley to confidently opine that the Stars did a fantastic job by snagging him at 18th overall, and I watched enough of Nick Porco to think that the Stars probably made a good pick by getting him at 142nd overall (I had him 88th on my personal Top 101 rankings).
Would Samuel Sjölund or Ben Brinkman have been my top choices for who the Stars chose with those respective picks? No, to be bluntly honest. There were other players who I watched this past year that I liked a lot in those ranges.
However, because I didn’t watch enough of Sjölund or Brinkman to form strong opinions on them, I’m not going to confidently say that the Stars got it wrong or got it right with those picks, especially considering there are other regional scouts who saw both prospects and also came away with good impressions.
Five years down the road, maybe the Stars will look like geniuses on these picks. Or maybe the guys who I identified and wrote about will all end up as better prospects, and I can put a feather in my cap for getting that right. The important lesson here, though, is that it’s impossible to say for sure at this point in time.
Remember: once upon a time Jamie Benn and John Klingberg were unknown quantities as 5th-round picks. Then again, so were Matej Paulovic and Miro Karjalainen.
Now, that’s not to say that one should go in the exact opposite direction, throw their hands in the air and say “well, nobody knows anything! It’s all just a crapshoot!” Scouting is still an art, and the 200 or so prospects who get selected every year are, by and large, better than the thousands of other players who don’t.
There were a handful of picks made this year by various teams that I flat-out didn’t like, because I had watched those players enough to form what I would consider a confident opinion about them. My opinions on these prospects may turn out to be wrong, but I come to them as honestly as I possibly can.
But for guys that I didn’t watch enough? I’m going do my best to take a wait-and-see approach, because anything else wouldn’t be fair. I would encourage everyone else to do the same.