Carson Lambos is one of many players in the 2021 NHL Draft class who could go first overall. But he’s far from earned the consensus. With so much talent from players like Owen Power, Brandt Clarke, and Matty Beniers, there’s no real favourite this year. And Lambos hasn’t really helped his case much. He managed to sign a deal in Finland, allowing him to get some playing time in despite the WHL not playing yet. But Lambos’ time in Finland hasn’t been golden.
Lots of scouts are pointing out flaws in the defenceman, and rightfully so. He’s stuttered in a couple of games, looking caught off-guard and nervous. It’s a surprising change of pace from the normal player in Lambos. A player who thrives in high-tempo hockey where he quarterbacks play. These struggles certainly aren’t taking up a majority of his play. He’s still shined in Finland with seven points in eight games. However, they’re notable nonetheless. In fact, they’ve been enough to force Lambos out of some scouts’ Top 10.
That’s significant, but Lambos’ issues in Finland are hardly worth the concern. In fact, his progression through his draft year is looking a lot like a former top-defensive prospect. That former prospect’s name would be Alex Pietrangelo.
Carson Lambos is Looking a Lot Like Alex Pietrangelo
It’s important to note before we dive in that no, I don’t mean Lambos is on pace to be a Norris-calibre, elite defenceman. He might scrape that ceiling if he sees an unexpected boom after, say, his D+3 (like Pietrangelo did). But as of now, Lambos is simply tracking as a future top-pairing player. This article will speak on the 2007-08 version of Alex Pietrangelo who shared that ceiling, not the franchise-talent that is the 2020-21 version.
Stylistically, They’re the Same
I’ve been drawing comparisons between Lambos and Pietrangelo since the 2019-20 season. Lambos is a 6’1″, 201 lb (185 cm, 91 kg), only two inches (five cm) and two pounds (one kilo) smaller than Pietrangelo in his draft year. Lambos is a smooth-skater who has flexed terrific two-way ability. While he doesn’t absolutely dominate in any one regard, he’s proven he’s reliable. At least reliable enough in every end. His shot is smooth, with good release and poise, even if it’s not the strongest. Despite his size, Lambos isn’t physical. At least not in the common way people think of physicality. But he manages to use his stature to great effect by simply knowing how to put his body between the puck and his opponent. This leads to great ability with puck-shielding and net-front battles.
That’s really the root of Lambos’ game. He doesn’t thrive anywhere. His skating, shot, and passing are all nice but not jaw-dropping. But he takes a modest skillset and transforms it completely thanks to the best hockey IQ in the entire draft class. Lambos’ awareness is top-notch and can make opponents look silly. His fundamentals are beautifully flushed-out and put him in a position to thrive every shift. He knows where to place himself, when to take risks, and how to open lanes in the opposing defence.
It’s a trait that would be easy to ramble on about for a few thousand words. It’s that impressive and it is exactly what allows him to be so reliable as a two-way talent. He quarterbacks his team up the ice and commands control of the offensive end. A lot of prospects are described as their team’s “spark plug”. Well, Lambos is the ignition. He is the life of his team, on the back of great IQ, great transition play, and fancy offence.
That’s Just Pietrangelo
But everything just said could, and did, describe Pietrangelo’s draft year. Pietrangelo was big but had smooth-skating despite it. His ability to spark transition out of the defensive zone was remarkable. He so-often was the one carrying the puck out, calling the shots for his team as they pushed into the offensive zone.
Once in the zone, Pietrangelo’s smarts are what really took over. His skating allowed him to find positions to thrive, and his passing was mighty-fine, but it was his knowledge of how to split up the opposition that really stuck out. His shot was solid but could use some oomph. Still, his quarterbacking abilities stood out right away.
But through it all, he wasn’t nearly as physical as he should’ve been. He used his strength in smart ways but wasn’t too much of a fan of throwing the body around. Still, his size was a great perk to a very confident, leadership-oriented skillset.
Here are the thoughts of NHL Director of Central Scouting (at the time), E.J. McGuire on Pietrangelo:
Alex is very poised out there on the ice. A tall player, who is still growing in to his body, Alex brings a keen ability to know when to pass the puck out of the zone, when to carry the puck out of the zone and he’s unflustered in the face of a hard forecheck… [he] probably needs to get a little more assertive [though]. There are times that he plays with that calm, cool and collective attitude and scouts might often question his assertiveness. But believe me that is there and he certainly doesn’t play with any kind of fear for what is coming at him.
That quote describes Lambos to a T. For all intents-and-purposes, the two’s draft years are nearly identical stylistically-speaking.
So, What’s It Matter?
The significance in the two’s styles comes into play when you dive into Pietrangelo’s draft year. He started off the 2007-08 season in hot contention with Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian, with all three fighting for the “second overall” bid behind the consensus-first overall Steven Stamkos. Central Scouting Service’s ranked Pietrangelo fourth in their preliminary rankings but scouts were in a heavy debate about who the true best among the group was.
But the middle of Pietrangelo’s draft year was… rocky. He looked rattled and was making poor decisions consistently. While his star-power still shined through, there were noticeable errors plaguing his play. It was concerning. Not enough to shatter his draft stock but he did drop to fifth-overall in the Central Scouting Service’s mid-season rankings.
McKeen’s Hockey highlighted these issues in abbreviated notes from a January 26 of 2008:
[Pietrangelo’s] overall athleticism is impressive, as he is so coordinated for a player his size .. he can stop and go and curl away from pressure .. he marries his skating with his puck rushing skills and is a threat every time he leaves the zone .. defensively he can lose focus .. he does not appear to have a good handle at times when opponents run picks .. was tested against a strong Sault Ste. Marie team and struggled considerably .. he made countless poor decisions and ended up a minus-two for the night .. was easily pushed aside by some of their bigger, stronger players and coughed up the puck on numerous occasions .. his hockey sense came into some serious contention after this game
And Guess What?
So Pietrangelo struggled with decision making under pressure. He looked alright but needed to really iron things out if he wanted to keep his high stock.
Well… that is the exact spot Lambos is in right now. He’s faltering in the face of pressure, something he didn’t do much at all in the 2019-20 season (and since he didn’t start playing until mid-season, that’s our closest comparable). Lambos looks… alright, but there are issues that leave him hit-or-miss on a game-to-game basis. The confidence in his abilities is still ever-present but he needs to turn things around if he wants to keep his stock.
In the End
But Pietrangelo managed to turn things around. Here are the International Scouting Service’s notes from the 2008 CHL Top Prospect Game in March of that year:
[Pietrangelo is] Effective moving the puck out of the D zone quickly. Appeared calm with the puck when under pressure – showed good puck skills. Did a nice job of driving puck wide then moving it to open man. Made a great play sliding back to break up 2 vs 1 preventing pass and what likely have been a very good scoring chance against… Moves the puck up the ice with quick first pass or if open ice is available he as the skills to carry it up ice. A good skater, he shows an ability to use quick bursts of speed to beat defenders. At times when entering the offensive zone he may hold onto the puck to long and run out of options to make a play. When opportunity for shot on goal presents itself, he takes advantage of good shot to get the puck at the net.
While issues were still apparent, he had ironed out the doubt enough to keep his fifth-overall placement in the Central Scouting Service’s Final Rankings for the 2008 Draft. Doubt still remained but many were content with his reliable, two-way play and trusted him to flush out his game ahead of the NHL.
But he wasn’t getting the “elite” title from anyone. Not yet. APPLE, the best publicly-available prospect-projection tool, projected that Pietrangelo would turn into a very solid two-way player, placing his ceiling at a top-four, to a top-pairing, player. Nobody saw him as a future top-five defenceman in the league, even if that’s where he ended up today.
It’s important to note that Pietrangelo did have a very serious injury bug at the very end of the season, and some upper-body bugs throughout the season, but they weren’t the source of his mid-season issues.
So Don’t Worry
This is exactly where Lambos is headed. He’s followed up atrocious games with dominant ones, showing he has the potential to bounce back. He’ll be fine once he finds his consistency and is poised to head straight towards the top-pairing ceiling that many have him slotted for.
Lambos shares an amazing two-way ability that top-end defencemen like Jared Spurgeon, Roman Josi, and Pietrangelo all flex. And if the identical Pietrangelo is any indication, there’s absolutely no need to worry about Lambos’ slight mid-season struggle; especially given the state of the hockey world right now.