a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Saturday, 2 April 2011

04/02/11 5.4 Draft Primer Part Five: The Decision

I've put up a fair amount of data and case samples here to try to show that drafting a center would be best for the Oilers' future. If you're with me on that, you know that the one thing left to decide on is what center to take. Over the last month or so I've flip-flopped back and forth from Couturier to Nugent-Hopkins, and I've even seriously considered Strome and Huberdeau, though I think Huberbeau will end up as a left winger in the NHL. What I think won’t matter on draft day, but here is the breakdown of my final decision:

The winner is...

Sean Couturier!

This decision is based on who I think will be the best pick for the Oilers; not necessarily who I think that they will select, and not necessarily who I think will be the best player taken. Gabriel Landeskog may end up as the best player of the bunch, but I didn’t seriously consider him because he doesn’t really address a team need for the Oilers. Then again, a player taken in the fourth round may end up as the best of the whole draft class, and there is no clear #1, which is why I’m picking based on need.

I grant you that the CHL playoffs are far from over and both Couturier's Voltigeurs and Nugent-Hopkins’ Rebels swept their first round series', but I still think I've got enough now to make my final decision. Why, in my mind, does Couturier beat out Nugent-Hopkins? There are several reasons:

Faceoffs: I've heard nothing but solid figures when it comes to Couturier's faceoff numbers, with him sometimes winning as much as 60% of his draws. It's likely that he won't immediately be as effective in the NHL in that regard because the quality of competition will be much higher, but he certainly has the pedigree to be a good player in the dot. If I'm the Oilers, I acknowledge the fact that my number one center has got to be extremely proficient on draws, especially because of the relative weakness of the team in that area. If this draft pick is going to be used to upgrade the team, Couturier can help the dismal performance on faceoffs.

Conversely, while I can't say that Nugent-Hopkins is obviously inferior in the dot, I think that implication is there, if only because Couturier is so good. More importantly, though, is this: Nugent-Hopkins gets the majority of his points on the powerplay, and that’s when he is most dangerous. He plays the point for Red Deer on the powerplay, which means that he doesn't take a lot of the offensive zone draws to start the powerplay. Put another way, if he didn't have someone to win a draw on the powerplay and get him the puck so he can work his magic, he probably wouldn't be quite as effective of a player. It’s not that a person can’t learn to win draws – just look at Sidney Crosby – but now is the time to really hone that skill.

Points: On the surface of it Nugent-Hopkins looks like a more dangerous offensive threat than Couturier, going 31-75-106 this year while Couturier went 36-60-96. However, Couturier played 11 fewer games than Nugent-Hopkins did. In terms of points per game, Couturier's number is better at 1.66 ppg, while Nugent-Hopkins scored at 1.54 ppg. Had Couturier played the same 69 games that Nugent-Hopkins did, he would have been on pace for 114 points. Therefore, Couturier is just as, if not more dangerous offensively than the highly touted RNH. Allowances must be made for Nugent-Hopkins though, because the WHL is a better league than the QMJHL, but there has apparently been improvement in the latter league in recent years. In addition, last season Couturier was the first 17 year old to lead the QMJHL in scoring since Sidney Crosby. He’s not Crosby, but that’s still quite impressive.

Jonathan Willis wrote an interesting piece back in February warning against Nugent-Hopkins, which can be found here:


It's interesting to see just how much of Nugent-Hopkins' offense comes on the powerplay, and how much less he scores at even strength. As I said before, if Nugent-Hopkins isn't taking (and winning) the majority of the powerplay draws, he won't be able to help the Oilers' powerplay as much as someone who can.

Edit: Nugent-Hopkins scored 54% of his total offence on the powerplay this year, at 10-48-58 with the man advantage. 34% of Couturier's offence came on the powerplay, at 9-24-33, and yet Couturier still scored more points per game than RNH.

World Juniors: Sean Couturier was the only undrafted player who suited up for Canada at the World Junior Championships this year. Many, including myself, were not overwhelmed by his play. He was certainly no Taylor Hall, who had 12 points in his 6 WJC games. However, he had somewhat limited ice time, playing on the third line. With Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen ahead of him on Canada's depth chart at center, Couturier was never going to play a fantastically prominent role on the team. This does not mean that Couturier projects to be a third line center. You simply can't argue with the ability and experience of Schenn and Johansen, and to play Couturier ahead of them would not make sense. However, for Couturier to even make the team was an impressive nod of confidence in his skill.

Nugent-Hopkins did not make the team, which doesn't mean that he won't be a good player, but it speaks to his readiness and it also gives an indication of which center team Canada would rather have. If Schenn had not returned for another WJC, it's possible that Nugent-Hopkins would have made the team, but if he did I believe that he would have played behind Couturier.

Size: I've said before in a previous post that I think Nugent-Hopkins could play in the NHL next year. I watched most of the Edmonton-Red Deer playoff series, and I went to the final game on Thursday, and I didn't see much evidence that RNH was being physically dominated by larger players. Granted, the NHL is a whole other animal, but if another year of Junior is intended to teach him how not to get punished physically, I think it would be largely needless. Having said that, many people - including Ray Ferarro, who has known RNH since he was very young - believe that he needs another year of seasoning in the WHL to get fully prepared for the big show.

I don't think there's much debate that Sean Couturier is ready to play in the NHL now. At 6'4", 191 lbs, he's built like a man at 18, and his skills are probably ready to be refined in the best league in the world. At the end of the day, Couturier is always going to be physically larger than Nugent-Hopkins. If the Oilers want the player they draft to make some immediate impact, Couturier might be it, though as I said I think that in a pinch RNH could play in 2011-12.

Speed: The last time I saw Sean Couturier play was back at the World Juniors in Buffalo, so my memory on his skating is a little weak. If scouts are questioning his skating, they must see something. However, I’ve also heard good things about his skating and acceleration, which leads me to believe that his skating is at least good enough to allow him to play in the NHL. (Probably no Alexandre Giroux Syndrome.)

I watched Red Deer's opening round series closely, and to be honest I wasn't blown away by Nugent-Hopkins' skating. Then again, I wasn't especially blown away by his play most of the time, and yet he still controlled the game and put up big points. In terms of skating, Nugent-Hopkins probably has the edge over his Quebec League counterpart.

Having said that, skating is one thing that can be improved with proper coaching and practice if a player is committed enough. Jarret Stoll is a fine example of that.

Plus/Minus: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins finished the season as a +30. Sean Couturier finished as a +55. Many people say that the plus/minus stat is overblown in terms of importance, but that's a fairly significant differential at almost double by Couturier. +55 was the best total on the Voltigeurs, while RNH's +30 was third best on his team. Only Jonathan Huberdeau had a better plus/minus in the entire Quebec League than Couturier at +59, though given the same amount of games played, Couturier would have been on pace to outscore him. Moreover, for what it’s worth, Huberdeau was playing on the best overall team in the league, while the Voltigeurs were fourth-best. Nugent-Hopkins’ Red Deer Rebels were second-best in the WHL. In four playoff games each so far, Nugent-Hopkins is a +2, while Couturier is a +9.

I have to believe that these numbers indicate a stronger all-around game from Couturier over Nugent-Hopkins, at least for the time being. As I have said previously, Nugent-Hopkins' two-way play didn't astound me from what little I've seen. He's an offensive dynamo, especially on the powerplay, but he's less useful at even strength. Not that he isn't a threat 5x5, because he is, but Couturier seems to be more so.

This stat in particular helps me to quantify which player is more of the total package, and a #1 center must be committed and effective at both ends of the ice. At the very least, the plus/minus illustrates how much of the two players’ offense is generated at even strength, since powerplay goals do not count in plus/minus. If Nugent-Hopkins scored more points at even strength his plus would be higher.

Overall impression: Naturally, the trick to scouting is to project which player is going to be the best five-to-ten years from now, not necessarily which one is the best today. My goal in this draft primer is not to suggest that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Adam Larsson are going to be bad players, because I believe that both will likely be good. In fact, five-to-ten years from now, Larsson may prove to be the best player taken from this group, but I’ve already explained why I don’t favor him as a pick by the Oilers. I also think that Nugent-Hopkins will be a quality NHL player, though when he makes the big time I'm not 100% convinced that it will be as a center. I'm not a scout, and I've only seen him play a handful of times, but I think there's a chance that he may be moved to the wing at some point. I may end up being totally off on that, but even if he does move to the wing, there's nothing wrong with that. He'll still be a good player, just not the player that the Oilers need.

Even if Nugent-Hopkins does remain a center throughout his career, I think Sean Couturier could be a better one overall. He's solid on draws, his plus/minus suggests that he understands the two-way play required to be successful as a centerman, and right now he is still the most dangerous offensive threat in the draft when it comes to points per game. That includes Huberdeau and Strome. If I'm building a team, I want my number one center to be proficient in all areas, and I believe that Couturier is. Questions about his foot speed remain, but throughout his hockey career he's shown a willingness to refine his skills, and skating will be no different if he wants to make an impact at the next level. The question marks about Couturier involve his skating, but when it comes to Nugent-Hopkins the most glaring questions are about how he scores his points, and just how that will translate to the NHL. This is a fundamental that cannot be ignored, regardless of the obvious skill of the player.

It should be noted that Couturier battled mononucleosis this year, and still managed to perform at a very high level. It's possible that some of the knocks that have come against him down the stretch could be attributed to that. He possesses a rare mix of size and skill, and for me his faceoff ability makes him especially attractive. He’s the total package, and I think he’s the best fit for Edmonton.
None of these top players have the kind of game-breaking, jaw-dropping star power of a Taylor Hall or Steven Stamkos. Watching Nugent-Hopkins play is interesting because he’s methodical, he doesn’t seem to showboat all that much, and you don’t notice him until he’s done something impressive. Just like everyone else, I’ve seen Couturier and Larsson play, but living in Western Canada I haven’t seen either one as much as RNH. For me, none of them has wowed me with sheer talent enough to warrant a first overall ranking, and that seems to be true for scouts too. Hence the debate. But when I really broke it down, I decided that if I had to make a decision for the Oilers my pick would be Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs.

I hope the Oilers don’t let his slipping draft status deter them from taking him. Then again, men whose livelihoods depend on guessing right are going to be making this decision. Stu McGregor has given Oiler fans a lot of faith over the past three drafts, so if the Oilers pick a different player I will assume that that was the right pick until proven otherwise. For now, for me, Couturier is it.

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