Player Development of Top 10 Picks

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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.

Top 10 Picks And Their Player Development

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, six players were deemed not NHL-ready after one additional season outside of the NHL following the draft. Those players were Ryan Johansen, Gilbert Brule, Nick Ritchie, Brett Connolly, Nino Niederreiter, and Colin Wilson. In this piece, Last Word will look at Johansen, Brule, and Ritchie. 

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Player Development of Ryan Johansen

Johansen, drafted fourth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010, has had a fairly successful NHL career. It all started with his DY-1 season in the BCHL for the Penticton Vees. He scored just five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 47 games. That point total was good for a point per game pace of 0.362, ranking 38th out of the 40 aforementioned forwards, in DY-1 production. That’s despite playing in a very weak league relative to other players. 

In his DY season, Johansen joined the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, scoring 25 goals and 44 assists for 69 points in 71 games. That was good for 0.972 points per game, ranking 34th out of the 40 forwards in DY production. Clearly, to this point, Johansen did not look like a usual top-10 pick. It wasn’t until his second WHL season, and DY+1 year, to show that value. He scored 40 goals and 52 assists for 92 points in 63 games with Portland. That led to a 1.46 point per game pace, ranking 14th out of the remaining 30 forwards not yet in the NHL in their DY+1 production. The Blue Jackets would welcome Johansen to the NHL squad the very next year. 

How was Johansen used?

In his first NHL season, Johansen played 67 games. He scored nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points. He averaged just 12:44 time on ice per contest. When it came to analytics, his even-strength performance was solid, recording a 3.5 EVO and 1.1 EVD. Overall, not just limited to even-strength, Johansen had a 0.5 WAR and a 3.1 GAR. Solid numbers as a rookie, Johansen was primed for a bigger role and a potential break-out sophomore campaign. That never came to be. 

In his second NHL season, Johansen split between the NHL and AHL evenly, playing 40 games in both leagues. In the AHL, Johansen posted 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points. When he made the jump to the NHL, he averaged 16:05 time on ice per game, scoring five goals and seven assists for 12 points. Unfortunately, Johansen’s analytics fell off hard, with only his EVO being above replacement level (0.5). His EVD dropped to -0.6, his WAR went down to -0.1, and his GAR dropped to a poor -0.3. Quite the drop, despite the promising rookie year, which can be attributed to a lack of confidence in him, displayed by the demotion to the AHL. Will he bounce back in year three?

Johansen Breaks Out

After a tumultuous second season, Johansen would stick full-time with the Blue Jackets in the NHL, playing in all 82 games for the squad. In the process, he recorded 33 goals and 30 assists for 63 points, while averaging 17:39 time on ice per game. His analytics, as expected, took a significant jump up. He recorded a 5.4 EVO, 0.7 EVD, 1.9 WAR and 9.8 GAR; all really good numbers. This third season would truly kick-start a solid career, culminating in a contract worth $8,000,000 per season. 

After his third season in the league, Johansen would see just one and a half seasons with Columbus before being dealt in a blockbuster trade to the Nashville Predators. In his final 120 games with the Blue Jackets, Johansen recorded 32 goals and 65 assists for 97 points. He finished his fifth season with 42 games as a Predator, scoring eight goals and 26 assists for 34 points. In the following five seasons, which takes us to the present-day, Johansen has scored 64 goals and 173 assists for 237 points in 357 games. 

Player Development of Gilbert Brule

Brule was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2005 NHL draft at sixth overall. Brule first made a splash in his DY-1 season, scoring 25 goals and 35 assists for 60 points in 67 games as a WHL rookie for the Vancouver Giants. That was good for a point-per-game pace of 0.896, ranking 23rd out of the 40 aforementioned forwards in DY-1 production. He would take a step forward in his DY season, scoring 39 goals and 48 assists for 87 points in 70 games with the Giants. That was good for 1.243 points per game, ranking 24th among those 40 forwards in DY production. 

Playing an additional year in the juniors with the Giants, Brule would score 23 goals and 15 assists for 38 points in 27 games. The reason for such a small sample of games played is because he actually was given an opportunity at the NHL level to start the year but suffered an injury and was sent back to the CHL. Despite the injury, he was able to return and ultimately produced at a 1.407 point per game pace. That pace ranked 15th out of the remaining 30 forwards not yet in the NHL for DY+1 production. 

How was Brule used?

Brule, after a very short stint in the NHL in his DY+1 season, was able to come into his first full NHL season with some experience. In 78 games with the Blue Jackets, Brule recorded nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points. He did that while averaging 10:39 time on ice per game. Unfortunately, analytics won’t paint a great picture towards his underlying numbers as they were not being recorded all the way back in his rookie season in 2006-07. However, it is fair to assume they would not have been great, looking at his point totals. Despite that, he finished 13th in Calder Trophy voting. 

In his second season, Brule would see a short AHL stint of 16 games where he recorded five goals and five assists for 10 points. In the NHL, he played 61 games, recording just one goal and eight assists for nine points, while averaging 9:54 time on ice. With analytics now being tracked, Brule’s game could be broken down further, and it was not very good. His even-strength numbers were below replacement-level, with a -0.9 EVO and -0.4 EVD. Even more telling, however, was his WAR and GAR stats, scoring at -0.3 and -1.6, respectively. Taking a step back in point production and having poor analytics is not a good look for Brule. But in all likelihood, the Blue Jackets gave him a very limited role in his first two seasons, which certainly didn’t help his cause. 

Brule Leaves Columbus, Struggles Continue

After a fairly disastrous second season, the nightmare only continued for Brule. He was limited to just 11 NHL contests in his third pro season, on a new team, the Edmonton Oilers. He scored just two goals and three points, averaging a measly 9:52 time on ice per game. Playing an additional 39 AHL games, Brule scored 13 goals and 11 assists for 24 points, a solid point total for a still-young player searching for some confidence. 

Unfortunately for Brule, he would be affected by injuries throughout his career. He went on to play 142 more NHL games, scoring 29 goals and 31 assists for 60 points. Over the last seven seasons, he’s played in 278 KHL games over six different teams. He scored 72 goals and 87 assists for 159 points in that span. The injuries combined with the poor player development from both the Blue Jackets and Oilers ultimately led to the downfall of the once-promising Brule. 

Player Development of Nick Ritchie

Ritchie was drafted 10th overall by the Anaheim Ducks back in the 2014 NHL entry draft. The 6’3” and 236-pound winger played for the Peterborough Petes in his DY-1 season, scoring 18 goals and 17 assists for 35 points in 41 games played. That was good for a point-per-game pace of 0.854, ranking 24th out of those 40 forwards in DY-1 production. In his DY, again with the Petes, Ritchie recorded 39 goals and 35 assists for 74 points in 61 games played. That solid statline was good for a 1.213 point per game pace, ranking 25th out of those same 40 forwards in DY production. 

With his production ranking in the bottom half of other forwards taken between fourth and 10th overall in the aforementioned span, he would return to the Petes for another year. He would play 25 games there before being traded to the Soo Greyhounds. Combined, he played 48 games between the two teams, recording 29 goals and 33 assists for 62 points. That’s good for 1.292 points per game, ranking 19th out of the aforementioned 30 forwards in DY+1 production. 

How Was Ritchie Used?

In his first season as a pro, Ritchie would split games between the NHL and AHL. In his 38 AHL games, he scored an impressive 16 goals and 14 assists for 30 points. Meanwhile, in his 33 NHL games, he recorded just two goals and four points, all while averaging 11:46 of time on ice. His analytics weren’t exactly good, but they showed a player who could at the least be reliable defensively. He posted a 1.2 EVD while being below-replacement level on offence, recording a -2.5 EVO. Ritchie’s poor offensive performances scored him a poor -0.5 WAR and -2.6 GAR. 

In his second season, Ritchie would see himself become a full-time NHLer. He played in 77 games, scoring 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points while averaging 12:59 of ice time per game. Analytically, he took a big step forward in his development, finishing above replacement-level in all four advanced stats looked at. His EVO was positive, at 1.7, and his EVD remained solid at 2.0. Because of his improvement offensively, his WAR and GAR both saw a jump, scoring 0.4 and 2.0 in those categories, respectively. 

Will Ritchie Break-Out in Year Three?

With the noticeably large improvement from year one to two, both with raw stats and analytics, Ritchie seemed primed for a breakout. However, in the 76 games he played, he averaged just 13:11 of ice time. That small role culminated in just 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points, a small step down from the season prior. Not only that, but the team changed the way he was deployed, as his game focused on offence. Don’t believe that? His analytics tell the whole story. 

For a player who recorded a combined 3.2 EVD over his first two seasons, to fall to a -1.7 score in that area is pretty drastic. He went from one of the better defensive forwards within the first three years of a player’s career, to being below replacement-level over the course of one season. Additionally, he would score a 1.7 EVO, despite being a player who was below replacement-level as a rookie and still finding his footing in that department. In all, his WAR (-0.3) and GAR (-1.5) both finished below replacement level. Just not the season he was hoping for. 

Ritchie has remained in the NHL and has since played for the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Following his first three seasons in Anaheim, he has played 171 games across four seasons, counting 2021-22 so far. In that span, he’s recorded 33 goals and 45 assists for 78 points. 

Where Are They Now?

Johansen and Ritchie are both in the NHL, playing for the Predators and Maple Leafs, respectively. Meanwhile, Brule plays men’s hockey in Poland. 

For Johansen, his player development did not go particularly smoothly. For one, he struggled relative to most other top-10 selections in terms of production before making the jump to the NHL. Then, after making the NHL, he played well in his rookie season, only to be demoted to the AHL and struggle in a small sample of NHL games in his second season. Ultimately, the player pushed through.

It helped that the Blue Jackets brought in a new head coach for Johansen’s second season. That coach helped him to grow past his rough second season and into his third. His fourth season would be his best season to date, recording a career-best 71 points. However, only twice in his career did he average over 19 minutes a game, which included that 71-point campaign. That other season, he scored 64 points, his second-best point total. 

Nick Ritchie’s Player Development

Ritchie never truly got back the hype he developed being a 10th overall selection. He ranked mostly middle-of-the-pack in terms of junior league production before becoming an NHLer. Then, once he made it, he was handed a very sheltered role for his first two campaigns. Those two years, he had a defensively-focused deployment, where he found success. However, in year three, he was given a small raise in ice time, with a focus on production. It did not work. His struggles continued, and he has since played primarily third-line minutes (14:19 per game). It’s unknown, but safe to assume, Ritchie’s player development was poor due to the Ducks. Had he been deployed better, and hadn’t had to change his playing style, who knows where he’d be today. 

Gilbert Brule’s Unfortunate Fall From Grace

Brule had a modest start to his NHL career, despite producing at about the same rate as Ritchie in juniors. Unfortunately, his second season was pretty terrible. He was given less than 10 minutes to play, on average, per game. Playing that little, regardless of the talent you possess, is not enough to prove what you can become at the NHL level. He was scratched by Gerard Gallant a few times before he was replaced by Ken Hitchcock late in the year. Even then, he only played fourth-line minutes. 

Brule’s Player Development Hit By Injuries

But injuries were the unfortunate tale to Brule’s once-promising career. In his DY+1 season, he started the season with the NHL club but suffered a fractured sternum. He returned, played a few more games, then suffered a broken leg. In his third NHL season, now a part of the Oilers, he got hurt in an AHL game. He was caught in a knee-on-knee by Adam McQuaid, sidelining him for some time.

In his fourth season, he was in the midst of a break-out before suffering from the flu. That knocked him out for a combined 11 games. Then, he suffered a high-ankle sprain in that same season. In his fifth season, with a new contract, Brule dealt with a stomach virus. That was followed by an abdominal injury and a concussion, all happening one after the other. His sixth season saw him dealt, but he was never cleared to play due to concussions. That, ultimately, sent him back to Edmonton. That said, it’s difficult to put the blame on anyone. His player development was sidetracked due to injuries more than poor deployment. 

*EVO: Even-Strength Offence Goals Above Replacement

*EVD: Even-Strength Defence 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