Analysis: Thomas Harley is Probably NHL Ready, But Development is Complicated

Thomas Harley has all the tools to crack the Dallas Stars roster. Will it matter in a Cup Year? And can Dallas do something to help him develop?

It’s a rare thing for the Dallas community; to be in agreement. Despite the lack of broad media attention to the Dallas Stars, if we define passion by its negativity, then Dallas is the second most ‘passionate’ fanbase in all of American sports. And nowhere has that passion been a more defining feature of this sports battleground than the draft. The Stars have swung and hit big beyond the first round, but they’ve swung and missed big within the first round. Through all the butterfly effect rage about Would Have and Could Have, Dallas fans can at least agree on this: Thomas Harley was a good pick then, and is a good prospect now.

Picked at 18th overall in the 2019 NHL draft, Harley went from .85 points per game his draft year to .96 points per game his post-draft year. The world changed soon after. Harley was quarantined five times, and told Lindsey Kramer from that his schedule turned into a groundhog day of food, video games, and Netflix. Sure, that sounds fun, but for world class athletes built on not collecting chip dust on a pair of sweat pants — also probably not ideal.

Or maybe it was. Despite all the setbacks and false starts, Harley’s progression hasn’t stopped. He played a single game in last year’s playoffs, and then conducted an impressive AHL campaign in a shortened season, scoring 25 points in 38 games, starting the year with Joseph Cecconi until settling into a rhythm with Ben Gleason. Over a full 76-game season, that would translate to fifty points. A lot of good rookie defencemen in the AHL have scored at that rate over the years: Vince Dunn, Matt Grzelcyk, Evan Bouchard, and Devon Toews just to name a few. Corey Pronman has Harley ranked #55 in his ‘Best Under 23’ series. Scott Wheeler has him ranked #35 on his list of best prospects ready to make the jump.

What’s better is that the points are not just a reflection of his growing performance, but his growing confidence. By all accounts, he’s ready to take his cape and cowl to the next level. “I will absolutely be disappointed if I’m there (Cedar Park) again this year. I spent last year there and I thought it was great for me but I want that next challenge.”

Those were his words to The Athletic.

And those are fighting words for anyone standing in his way. Although to be honest, who’s really standing in his way? Dallas technically has all six spots accounted for between Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Ryan Suter, Esa Lindell, Jani Hakanpaa, and Andrej Sekera. Recent signings like Andreas Borgman and Alexander Petrovic project to be AHL filler. Even someone like Joel Hanley, who has proven to be quietly effective even in the biggest moments, is largely considered an afterthought, having been sidelined for quietly ineffective veterans like Roman Polak. A single injury could pave the way for Harley, or someone like Sekera or Hakanpaa either failing to make a significant enough impact to be mainstays or not giving Dallas the offense they’ll probably need at some point.

So again, there aren’t many obstacles beyond himself. Unfortunately, there’s that whole “NHL ready” thing. I’ll have plenty to say about that later, but for now, when people talk about prospects being NHL ready they’re really talking about two different things: 1) the player being talented enough to succeed within themselves and make a positive impact at the NHL level and 2) the player’s ability to be compliant within a professional system and make a positive impact at the NHL level.

Tale of the Tape: From A (Harley’s strengths) to Z (Harley’s weaknesses)

Hockey Prospecting has a fun tool comparing prospects along their development curve with NHL equivalency scores. Building the ideal equivalency model for projecting a prospect’s production at the NHL level is its own very extensive topic, but for now, it’s a useful and fun guide.

I don’t like player comparables because every player is so different; even when you turn to identical twins like the Sedins, you’ll still find specific differences. Nonetheless, using Hockey Prospecting’s equivalency tool, we see some stark similarities between Harley and P.K. Subban in their post-draft years (D1 and D2).

Nobody should get their hopes up and expect the next prime P.K. Subban, but, at minimum, Harley projects to be an impact player.

What makes Harley especially interesting is that he projects to be a Rorschach Test for how Rick Bowness and the organization view effective defense in the modern NHL. What does it mean to be “good in your own zone?” Is that a question strictly about what you do in the defensive zone, or about what you do across all three zones and how that fluidity affects the defensive zone?  We routinely think of defenceman as shutdown types versus puck movers, but we’re well past that dichotomy, and Harley especially is anything but easy-to-define.

In terms of weaknesses, it’s true that Harley struggles with the net front presence. Despite his 6’ 3” frame, he doesn’t play like a big man. He’ll lose puck battles down low in the defensive zone. His neutral zone defense can be a mixed bag too. Like many talented, smooth skating, big defenders, Harley is much more comfortable as a forward skater. Because of that, he struggles between being overly aggressive and overly passive. This is something even good defenders can struggle with. Jack Han wrote about this phenomenon with Seth Jones. As for Harley himself, David St-Louis put together a quick video package of his defensive game back in 2019 with his strengths and flaws on display.

As a nice contrast between Harley’s draft year and his AHL campaign this year, Matthew DeFranks also put together a nice shift reel for Harley.

It’s easy to be fixated on mistakes in the defensive zone. Everyone always screams “context” when a blogger posts a fancy chart; why don’t they scream “context” when breaking down the eye test? I mention that because Harley will make mistakes defensively. You’d like to see him exercise more shoulder-checking in the defensive zone to identify passing lanes and release points. But his tunnel vision is, I would argue, directly linked to his strengths (which we’ll get to shortly). Going back to context, is Harley making these mistakes because he’s “bad defensively” or because his instinct is to be proactive rather than reactive? That’s an important distinction.

That’s not to say Harley doesn’t need work or that Dallas should simply live with his flaws. But there’s a thin line between asking a player to fix their mistakes, and asking them to fix what they’ll never be truly comfortable with. I’d argue that Harley has the latter problem. He doesn’t have foundational issues in my view. He’s just a player who is more comfortable with it than without it. I was much more critical of Esa Lindell before he broke into the league, who I thought did have foundational issues but would still contribute in a major way. Having flaws and hurting the team are not mutually inclusive.

In terms of strengths, let’s talk about them because there are many. Puck movers are not all the same, which is what kills me when people talk about Harley’s potential emergence as the thing that justifies ‘letting Klingberg walk.’ Whatever your thoughts are of Klingberg, it’d be foolish to see Klingberg as expendable just because someone else in the system makes his skillset ‘redundant.’ In fact, since I’m well passed the word limit I intended, let’s just smash that argument right here. Klingberg is all about moving the puck through the neutral zone in a variety of ways, and then creatively taking control in the offensive zone in a variety of ways. He’s sneaky that way, drawing attention to himself, isolating forecheckers, and creating odd-man situations for his teammates or himself with subtle shifts, pivots, and passes. Harley takes a simpler approach, attacking all three zones one way: by leveraging his agility and speed to control the pace of play. Like two prizefighters who can end a fight with a five knuckle meat soother, you can be just as efficient on the inside (Klingberg) as the outside (Harley) — think Roberto Duran (inside) and Larry Holmes (outside).

It’s a less complicated approach, but that doesn’t mean it yields less returns. Just the same, Klingberg’s approach doesn’t always work out for him. Harley thrives in open ice, accelerating through the neutral to create rush chances and rush opportunities for others. Harley prefers to be the pilot in transition, while acting as active passenger in the offensive zone. He’s much more of a traditional puck rusher than a traditional puck mover. His tracking data, courtesy of Mitch Brown’s CHL microstats, his draft year corroborated much of this.

Harley’s offense thus far has been built on the ripple effect his transition game has. While he doesn’t have a big slap shot or an elite wrister, he’s comfortable being a quick-strike distributor, although it’s worth noting that he was top five among AHL defenders in shots taken on net, suggesting he could end up being a triple threat (skating, passing, shooting) with the right dedication and development.

Harley plays a pure possession game. That means he’ll take that extra step, that longer hold, extra pass, or extra dangle to keep possession and maintain pressure. These can be coaching No No’s, especially in a system that wants as few mistakes as possible, which raises questions about what his game will look like once he’s in the NHL. Wheeler had a really interesting quote (emphasis mine) in his profile of Harley this year, and it’s really worth highlighting.

“Harley’s going to be another fascinating exercise in player evaluation and deployment because whether or not Harley ever gets to be the best version of himself will likely depend greatly on coaching and just how fast the game can catch up to guys who play like him...

...But I want to see him looking at taking risks to take over games in a system that gives him a longer leash than that. Because I think in that setting he can be a truly unique kind of player. We’ll see whether he’s ever allowed to be.”

I have no doubt that Harley can play in the NHL this season and succeed within the system. For one, being 6’ 3” is an advantage. Coaches and teams love size. Size is easy to spot. Efficiencies, however, are less easy to spot. That’s why players like Vince Dunn, Mike Reilly, and Matt Grzelcyk have to pull teeth before teams realize that sheltering their talents is sometimes worse than sheltering their minutes.

If Harley gets that proverbial cup of medium roast, I have no doubt that he’ll get to “play through his mistakes” but that’s irrelevant to actively developing players. Veterans and stars routinely make mistakes and are never in danger of being benched. Prospects that teams have heavily invested in should be no different; especially when they’re being benched over players that offer even less efficiency with zero long-term prospects. What interests me is whether or not Harley will be allowed to play toward his peculiarities and toward the things that allow him to make a specific impact — helping the team generate more rush opportunities, which Dallas was awful at last year — instead of playing away from them just to give the team a broad boost i.e. helping the team suppress chances in a defensive system.

Winning versus development and lessons from the Jesperi Kotkaniemi drama in Montreal

I know this is the wrong time to go on a tangent, but you’re already here. Winning versus development. It’s the classic dilemma for non-professional teams sheltering the NHL’s most prized prospects. Jack Han had this discussion about individual needs versus team needs with Huskies U16AAA coach Andrew Fritsch. “Do I hammer a system where their skillset is, or do I try to build on their skillset and hope winning comes with that?” Fritsch asked, as the two discussed what it takes to develop players within systems.

If you’re interested in what makes Brayden Point so special, what makes pass receptions essential to an offensive scheme, and general hockey nerdery, their discussion is well worth your time. Eventually, Fritsch hesitantly settles on an answer to his own question. “You don’t necessarily always have to work on the system to work on the system.”

That’s not a small thing, especially for someone like Harley. Defense is inherently trickier to analyze, which is why continuous development, rather than Develop Then Perform, is so crucial for players like Harley. This discussion is a universal one, and that’s why you’ll find coaches at the NHL level, and college level, arguing over the teaching of habits over systems. Development, after all, can’t simply stop at the arbitrary moment a player trades in an AHL jersey for an NHL one.

Some teams understand development, know it never stops, and go so far as to hire figure skaters to help their prized prospects even once they’ve transitioned into the NHL. Other teams stick their prospects into a paper bag and let them ripen.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi all but threw Montreal under the bus regarding his development. Whatever you think of his ‘attitude’, he was right in my view. Montreal stuck him in the NHL as a teenager despite having a profile that suggested instant NHL matriculation wasn’t recommended, and like Alex Galchenyuk, Subban, and Mikhail Sergachev — gave up on him as soon as the going got tough; or in Sergachev’s case, as soon as Montreal “needed to compete.” It’s no surprise that Carolina, one of the NHL’s better scouting teams, were the ones who decided that Kotkaniemi has more to offer.

Montreal’s situation is unique, but hardly an anomaly. According to Arpon Basu, Joel Bouchard, Montreal’s AHL coach, clashed with the NHL team’s management over playing veterans instead of prospects. It’s insane to me that this could happen, but it does, and not always to prospects in systems known for ‘bad development.’

Consider defenceman Mike Reilly. From a distance, Reilly is just a vanilla puck mover who is good in transition, but struggles 1-on-1. He is, however, well above average at retrieving the puck in his own zone, exiting swiftly, and can flow through the neutral to generate attempts off the rush. When he was in Minnesota, their conservative style didn’t suit him, and he was just another also-ran. In Ottawa, with the help of D.J. Smith, he got sheltered but steady minutes, found his game, and now makes $3M a year in Boston because it turns out — in the right system, a system that allowed him to take control of his strengths rather than be asked to control his weaknesses, he could control play at a high level. At minimum, Harley is every bit the player Reilly is.

But getting back to Kotkaniemi, it’s an interesting reversal of how certain teams can feed the farce of “NHL ready” as if being on an NHL roster is a certificate of being the superior option on the depth chart. Kotkaniemi succeeded within his NHL system, while Reilly did not. However, Reilly developed in the NHL whereas Kotkaniemi did not. There’s a sobering lesson here and it’s that being NHL-ready is really about compliance, not maximizing potential. That doesn’t mean prospects are never at fault, or that compliance and potential can’t coexist. But it begs the more interesting question about any prospect on the cusp: will the team help the player develop conservative habits that fit within a uniform strategy, or will they help develop idiosyncrasies that fit within their individual aptitude?

The Verdict

I know that’s a long squirrel. Prospects are often hampered by the musical chairs of veteran players being handed jobs they’re no longer equipped for. And when prospects do make the cut, they’re torn between maximizing their compliance within the system and maximizing the development of their talents.

Getting Harley to be compliant is the easy part. Leveraging his strengths more frequently at the NHL level is the hard part. Because Harley doesn’t play like a big man, there will be growing pains. But the extent of those growing pains will depend on what Dallas can live with. Harley is a first-rate puck carrier who can take over any given shift with speed and momentum. If the goal is to possess the puck, control the game, and score more than your opponent, why is being responsible in the defensive end more valuable than being responsible in the neutral or offensive zone?

Because that’s Harley’s game; his game is built on making the most of a given play rather than taking the safest route. That doesn’t fit into Dallas’ current style, but maybe Harley will be too good for it to matter. The other thing holding Harley back is that Dallas is making a Cup Run, although I consider this a red herring. If one prospect’s struggle to assimilate is the difference between winning games or not on a team with potential to win it all, maybe that team was never gonna win much to begin with?

Shameless plug: in my debut piece for D Magazine, I made myself clear about Dallas’ upcoming season. I don’t think general manager Jim Nill has put enough assets in the Stanley Cup window pot to make a serious run. Nor do I think he addressed Dallas’ prolonged issues of anemic scoring by bringing in bottom sixers who can’t score, and Ryan Suter. I do think Dallas will be a good team, though. I know I just said one prospect won’t be the difference. But I’m only talking about a prospect’s struggles. What’s it worth to a team when that player’s strengths are maximized? Given Jason Robertson’s impact in the top six versus his impact in the bottom six, I’d argue a lot. If Dallas can develop an individual like Harley into a legitimate threat, that’s money in the bank they’ll need if they want to develop as a group into consistent contenders.