NHL player development seems to always result in more questions than answers. How likely is it for a top pick to pan out? What makes a player a “steal”? Last Word On Hockey will be starting a new series on how to properly develop prospects from all different spots throughout the draft. This week’s piece involves top-10 picks and how they were used early in their careers. What makes a player a “steal”? Last Word On Hockey’s latest series takes a look at how to properly develop prospects from all different spots throughout the draft.
Note: All advanced statistic abbreviations are defined at the bottom of the article.
NHL Player Development of Top 10 Picks
In the span of 2005 through 2015, there were 40 total selections made between fourth overall and tenth overall on forwards playing in North America. Of those 40 selections, two players were deemed just shy of NHL-readiness, even after an additional year in juniors. Those players were James Sheppard and Peter Mueller.
NHL Player Development of James Sheppard
James Sheppard was drafted ninth overall in the 2006 NHL draft by the Minnesota Wild. In his DY-1 season, Sheppard played with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL. He scored 14 goals and 31 assists for 45 points that season in 65 games. That’s a per game rate of 0.692, ranking 30th among the aforementioned 40 North American forwards in their DY-1 seasons. In his draft year, Sheppard took a step forward, recording 30 goals and 54 assists for 84 points in 66 games. That’s a per game rate of 1.273 points, ranking 21st of those 40 forwards in draft-year production.
After being drafted, Sheppard would return to the Screaming Eagles, wearing the “C” as captain of the team. In his DY+1 season, he scored 33 goals and 63 assists for 96 points in 56 games. Sheppard’s points per game rate that year was 1.714, ranking seventh. That ranking is out of 27 forwards who had a DY+1 season in juniors. After continued growth, Sheppard was given an NHL role.
How Sheppard Was Utilized
In his rookie season, Sheppard would play 78 NHL games. He would score four goals and 15 assists for 19 points, all while averaging 10:37 time on ice per game. When it comes to advanced analytics, Sheppard would record a -0.3 EVO* and 3.1 EVD*. Ultimately, Sheppard did not look good offensively for the Wild, but played strong in his own end. As for his WAR* Sheppard recorded a score of 0.4, while his GAR* was up at 2.4. So, despite his offense at five on five being below replacement level, Sheppard was still a positive player as a rookie.
In his second season, Sheppard would play a full 82-game NHL season. His ice time increased to an average of 15:11 per game. That led to him scoring five goals and 19 assists for 24 points. Analytically, his offense significantly improved. His EVO grew to a solid 1.3 score. His EVD stayed strong, though it did drop a bit to 2.0. However, his improved offense gave him attractive WAR (1.4) and GAR (7.5) scores, showing promise as a two-way forward.
Poor Deployment Leads To Decline
In year three, the Wild would, for whatever reason, take away Sheppard’s ice time despite a strong performance in year two. He would play 64 games, averaging 11:59 time on ice per game. In a very sheltered role, he would score just two goals and four assists for six points. Sheppard remained a positive offensive player (0.8 EVO) and overall player (0.3 WAR, 1.7 GAR). But his strength, defensive zone play, took a big dip into the negatives, recording a -1.2 EVD.
The drop in ice time was poor player development from Minnesota. Previous player development pieces revealed that reeling back ice time rarely, if ever, proves effective. They should have stuck with Sheppard in his difficult year three and kept their faith in him. Instead, he would leave the organization. He played just two games over the next two seasons before getting a chance with the Sharks and Rangers. Those NHL pit-stops were unsuccessful, and he left to play in Europe.
NHL Player Development of Peter Mueller
Peter Mueller was drafted eighth overall by the then-Phoenix Coyotes in the 2006 NHL entry draft. In his DY-1 season, Mueller played for the USNTDP squad in the USHL. He played 43 games with 27 goals and 27 assists for 54 points, for a points per game rate of 1.256. That ranked sixth among those 40 forwards in DY-1 production, albeit in a generally weaker league than most. In his DY, he decided to transition to the WHL with the Everett Silvertips. He played 52 games with them, scoring 26 goals and 32 assists for 58 points, good for a 1.115 points per game pace. That rate ranked 30th among 40 forwards in DY production. Because of his somewhat poor transition to the WHL, the Coyotes gave him an additional year in juniors.
In his DY+1 season, Mueller would again play for the Silvertips, drawing into 51 games. He would score 21 goals and 57 assists for 78 points, for a points per game pace of 1.529. That rate ranked 12th out of 30 forwards who played an additional year in juniors. After that improvement, he would get a chance to play in the NHL the following season.
How Mueller Was Utilized
In his first season in the NHL, Mueller would play 81 games, averaging a solid 17:16 time on ice per game. In that strong role, Mueller would record 22 goals and 32 assists for 54 points, finishing in the top-five of Calder nominees. Analytically, Mueller record a strong 4.7 EVO, but struggled defensively with a -4.0 EVD. As for his overall impact, Mueller recorded a strong 1.0 WAR and 5.7 GAR. Overall, he had a very strong rookie season.
Following up his rookie year, Mueller drew into 72 games, but would see his ice time drop in year two. Now averaging 16:05 ice time per game, Mueller put up 13 goals and 23 assists for 36 points. This steep drop in raw production had a direct affect on his advanced stats. His EVO dropped to 3.6, but he saw his EVD improve a lot to a -1.3 score. His WAR (0.3) and GAR (1.7) also dropped. Wayne Gretzky was his head coach for his first two seasons. It felt strange to watch Mueller’s ice time drop despite his solid rookie season.
Coaching Change, Trade Hurts Player Development
As for his third NHL season, he would see 69 games, with 54 in Phoenix and 15 with the Colorado Avalanche. With Phoenix, he averaged just 12:55 time on ice per game, and with Colorado his ice time skyrocketed to 17:50 per game. He recorded a combined 13 goals and 24 assists for 37 points, slightly surpassing his year two total in less games. In addition, Mueller recorded a decline in EVO to 2.8, while his EVD continued to improve, now at -0.6. His WAR and GAR went up slightly, to 0.6 and 3.1, respectively.
Unfortunately, concussions would derail Mueller’s career. Had it not been for his injuries, Colorado may have been able to revive his career. He recorded 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points in the 47 games he played with the Avalanche over three seasons. He would play the final season of his NHL career with the Florida Panthers. After that, he would travel to Europe, where has played across three leagues, with an AHL stint in between. He’s currently an assistant captain for the Czech Extraliga’s HC Kometa Brno at 33 years old.
The Results of NHL Player Development
Sheppard, as explained earlier, was poorly utilized in year three. Despite a strong and promising year two, the Wild did not reward him, and he struggled because of it. However, an unfortunate ATV accident led to a serious knee injury, and he played just four games between 2010 and 2012. He would play in the 2012-13 season, splitting between the NHL and AHL. Sheppard would play two more seasons between the San Jose Sharks and New York Rangers, with modest production in third line minutes. After his stint with the Rangers, he left for the NLA for two seasons, scoring 41 points in 71 games. This was followed by four seasons in the DEL, recording a total of 134 points in 185 games. The player development of Sheppard wasn’t good, but the injuries were the bigger problem.
Injuries also derailed Mueller’s career. It certainly didn’t help that his time in Phoenix was tumultuous. After a great rookie season, he lost trust in head coach Wayne Gretzky from year one into year two. In year three, new head coach Dave Tippett also did not have faith in the young forward, leading to him requesting a trade. Had it not been for concussions, Colorado very well could’ve saved his career and turned him into a strong second liner.
*EVO: Even-Strength Offense Goals Above Replacement
*EVD: Even-Strength Defense Goals Above Replacement
*WAR: Wins Above Replacement
*GAR: Goals Above Replacement
Junior league stats via Elite Prospects, NHL stats via Hockey Reference, NHL analytics via Evolving Hockey
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images